So You Want to Play Guitar, huh?

Mar09

Let the lessons begin …

Whether you are really serious about becoming an accomplished professional, or just want to play for fun … if acoustic guitar techniques are what you’re after, this site can bring you some information that you may not be able to find anywhere else. I say that because I play in a style all my own … and also, because my focus has been on acoustic instruments — and only acoustic instruments — for more than 3 decades. I don’t mean to brag … I personally don’t consider myself much of a “guitarist” or “musician” — though I’ve received high praise from some of the best … it’s just that I don’t think much about the mechanics behind guitar techniques, or about the music theory behind the glory of a particular riff … I just like to play.

Basically put, I’m not one for imitating others. No big deal … I’m not putting the idea down … I just happen to prefer interpretation over impersonation. The only time I ever wanted to play a song EXACTLY the way I heard it, involved a song by Leslie West (Mountain) … it was in an open tuning … it was an instrumental … it was 1970 … and it was one of the most complicated pieces I’d ever heard. I don’t remember the name of the song, but it wouldn’t be hard to find — it’s the only acoustic instrumental to be found on any of Mountain’s albums, as far as I know. I kind of wanted to prove to myself that I could pull off the “musician” thing and play, note for note, exactly as Leslie did. And I did. It took me about 3 days. Bravo, Alan…

How I Started …

I started playing when I was 12 or 13, using a standard tuning … E.A.D.G.B.E — and my first 8 hours of playing involved me writing my first song, too. It was rather on the involuntary side, and I didn’t have a clue about what I was doing! I just strummed the top 3 strings (…G.B.E) while I placed my index finger on the 1st string/3rd fret … strum a little … then, the 2nd string/1st fret … strum a little … etc., etc. It was really quite silly, but nonetheless, I had a great time! And, I wrote a beautiful song about Janet Kinlin … titled “Four O’Clock Blues” — mostly ’cause it was 4 a.m., and we had just broken up.

Next thing I did was buy some song books — Bob Dylan … Joni Mitchell … and some obscure old Blues stuff, with songs by guys with funny names like Muddy Waters and Lead Belly — where I learned some really cool techniques, like “hammering on” and “pulling off.” But the reason I bought them was the “pictures” of chord fingerings that were placed above the lyrics — right where the chord changes occurred. That made a lot of sense to me. You’re familiar with those “pictures” right? … the ones that look like this:

Chords

When The Student Is Ready, The Teacher Will Appear

It’s funny how you always wind up talking to another musician who has the answers to the questions you’ve most recently been carrying around with you. I met a guy at Rutgers University once, who played like a god! A true “musicians’ musician.” He played his guitar in a wheelchair … and he was missing TWO fingers on his LEFT hand! … think about THAT and then just TRY to complain about the five you’re sporting! I could write a book (as the saying goes) about the musicians who’ve captivated me in such significant ways. But, I guess my point is, there are no obstacles but yourself … and your next “lesson” is *usually* staring you right in the face.

I had teachers of another sort, too … from some really cool TV shows on “educational TV” … Channel 13 in New Jersey (“the 7th channel” — we’re talkin’ 1966, ’67, ’68) … Pete Seeger had a show — I remember seeing a very young Dylan on that show, talking about playing and writing. Andres Segovia had a show too, or made appearances on a show, that taught classical guitar — I watched that one religiously! And lastly, I remember a girl who taped a show out at KCET, in Los Angeles — I think her name was Laura Weber — she had a sort of mischievous smile … and taught folk, rock, and blues guitar techniques. Man, I learned a lot from her!

If the idea of formal, structured lessons turns you off … as it does me … you can conduct your own concentrated search for the “bearers of information” that God will surely send your way. Whether it’s through a website, a television show, an instructional video, or best of all, a player who is more advanced than you are … your next step up the ladder of learning shouldn’t be too hard to find.

I met a most wonderful artist years ago … Ronnie Ostrow. Ronnie was very actively teaching fingerstyle guitar and performing his original songs in the New York/New Jersey area, with a rather large following. We were good friends and spent a lot of quality time together. One day he picked up his guitar and played the most amazing song I had *ever* heard him play … I mean, I was slayed! I said, “WHEN did you write that, Ronnie?!!” And he replied, “Just now…” with that very special ex-Trapist-Monk grin of his. And then he went on to make a very interesting statement … he said, “Alan, how would you like it if I decided to teach you absolutely everything I know about being an artist?” I said, “Man … I would cherish it!” And he immediately replied, “Okay, I want you to be here every Thursday at exactly 2 p.m. … and if you are ever even one minute late the whole deal is off. … NOW, how do you feel about it?” I said, “Like crap!” He put his guitar down with that same grin and said, “Let’s go get us a cup of coffee.” He sure knew how to make a point!

I Took Guitar Lessons … Once.

As far back as I can remember, I’ve always had a strong distaste for anything that portends to be “written in stone” … i.e. schools … organized religion … clubs, fraternities, and cults … rules and regulations, and those (especially) who think they have the right to impose such on others. In my world, there is no set way of doing anything. All things are possible with God … and all things are *not* possible with Mr. Schoolhead, Ms. Diploma.equals.success, and certainly not with Cap’t. I. M. Heretobustyerass! So … I’d rather hang with God. To me, that means finding your very own path through these woods we call Life. And even though it’s most popular, looks safer, is all lighted up, and cuts right through the woods, that big well-traveled highway also keeps you from knowing the woods at all. Usually, I get just close enough to see what’s happenin’ there, and head straight back towards the thicket! Does that make any sense to you? If it does … well … good luck. :o)

Very understanding of my nature, my dad knew I liked to carve my own way through things, and made sure I at least made the attempt of giving lessons a try -”If you don’t like it, that’s okay …” he said, “… but at least give it a shot, eh?” And so I did. I told my teacher I wanted to learn to play rhythm guitar, and he started teaching me to play something that sounded like “Mary Had A Little Lamb” — on the high E-string! Hello? Anyway, I tried to push this guy’s envelope and it ripped, so I told dad to save his hard-earned cash. He was cool. He was always cool.

My desire was so strong that you couldn’t stop me from learning if you tried! What else is there but desire? Can anyone teach you without it? Well, I’m assuming since you’re here, you’re of the same cut … and are here, looking for ways of learning some stuff on your own.

I have nothing against accredited schools or instruction, mind you … but, I certainly think it can get more attention than it deserves. A lot of musicians have been discouraged from playing at all by taking that route, and many others are playing with all the technical skill anyone could ever want, while boring people to death for want of some heart.

Amateur or Pro?

From Day One, I was playing six to eight hours a day … maybe more. It was all I thought about! In a year’s time, I began teaching stuff to the older guys who originally taught me some of the ropes. And after two years, I won 2nd Prize at the local 4-H Fair — a handmade classical Garcia guitar with a hardshell case — (1st Prize went to a folk-trio; a phatter Garcia). And it wasn’t long after that, I was playing original songs at open mic nights at local clubs and coffee houses. If you are going to become a pro player, that’s how you’ll know — you won’t have time for anything else. Period.

If, on the other hand, you find yourself picking away at it for an hour here, and an hour there, my guess is you won’t be going pro with your efforts. But hey! What’s wrong with that? At least you know you won’t be starving to death most of your life … or experiencing the great, unbelievably painful and unbearable levels of frustration that God has reserved solely for his beloved “artists.” You can live a normal, happy life and have lots of fun being in the spotlight at all the parties … and instead of developing work-a-day-willie ulcers, you can avoid such anxieties through the wonderfully healing experience of self expression.

Either way, if you want to be good, you’ll have to be persistent about it.

Where Do I Begin?

Right here. By doing just what you are doing.

But, first of all, learn how to tune your guitar will ya? :o) Most of the guitars I pick up that belong to “beginners” are so far out of tune, I’m sure they’ve made no progress. You certainly can not enjoy playing chords that aren’t chords!

Learn to know when the pitch is sharp or flat … take some time to twist a tuning peg around and listen to a note move to the flat or sharp zone so you become familiar with which is which. Do this by fretting the D (4th) string at the 5th fret and playing a G note, while you twist the G (3rd) string above proper pitch … then down to match the exact pitch … then below it … and back up again. Do this a million times.

Also, join some discussion groups … ask questions — there’s no such thing as a stupid question — you’ll be surprised to learn how eager other players are to help you. My favorites are Fingerstyle-L@yahoogroups.com and Acoustic_Guitar@yahoogroups.com … check them out – you’ll see me there.

Purchasing A Guitar…

My advice is: Forget what you think you know, and what you think you don’t know; make a written list of every music store within a 30-mile radius of your home; don’t bring any money with you; visit each and every guitar retailer you found; play everything you see that represents the kind of axe you want (probably 2-5 guitars per shop); center yourself as you play each one; notice how you feel … physically; notice how you feel … emotionally; LISTEN to the instrument! Is it happy? Is it gutsy? Does it have the “voice” you thought it would? If it doesn’t, then move on. Use your head … and use your heart. When you have finished taking your inventory, there will be one guitar that you just can’t get out of your head. That’s the one! Problem now is, you also know how much it’s gonna cost you. Don’t be fooled though – the last time I did it, I found my Washburn … and it was literally half the price I would’ve willingly paid for it! Stuff like that always happens to me. I think if you go out there LOOKING for a hidden treasure, you’re likely to find one.

Okay? Okay. Here’s lesson number one — It’s a very crucial part of your kick … I know – you just want to fly off with big, beautiful wings and have your way with the sky! Man! What else is there?! And you feel that way because you KNOW that sky is yours! But the funny part is, before you can be so free, you’ve got to wear some chains … in order to understand something of the weight and the laws of gravity. Tame the flesh … free the Spirit.

It is through discipline itself, that freedom is born …

The early basics — like, “learning to tune your guitar” … or, it’s evil twin, “learning to play in time” (don’t worry about the “evil twin” right now; that comes after you begin switching chords and playing progressions) — can require what seems to be an overwhelming amount of discipline! These excercises can become monumentally boring in a very short span of time! So rather than beat yourself into the ground, creating a negative experience out of what should be an enjoyable one, I suggest you pace yourself.

Break your sessions up into three or four 45-minute workouts a day … broken up by 30-minute (minimum) respites … do something else, and do it in a different place; go out for an hour or two and come back refreshed, and you’ll more than double your learning curve! You should become a proficient guitar tuner in a few days … displaying an intermediate ability in a few months … and as good as you’ll ever be in a year or so.

One final note: Learn to play one song at a time. Pick a song that is very,very important to you, and play it over and over again – until you’ve ironed out every kink you can find. I’d much rather hear someone who can only play one song, but make me go, “Wo!! Way to go!!!” … than to hear someone who knows a kazillion songs, and it’s like, “er, well, kinda, but not really! … thanks for wasting my time.” You know what I mean.

Remember that bit (above) about “Flesh & Spirit”? Well, it’s the flesh that requires the discipline … mostly so that “it” will perform it’s task without further supervision … THEN the spirit may fly! For example, I write a new song and in the first 48 hours I’m entrenched with it. I play it and sing it probably sixty to a hundred times a day – the first day or two, anyway. I’m getting to know how it moves … from the first measure to the last … memorizing … familiarizing … falling in love with it’s movements … moving it into my being, until I’m not thinking OF it … but FROM it. Then — when I know that song so well that I don’t need to be conscious of it’s movements anymore, I am suddenly able to find it’s “perfect performance” … effortlessly!

Now, that having been said, let’s see you get to work! __ ; – P __ I’ll see ya later.

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About Alan Horvath

Alan plays acoustic 6-string guitar, uses "open" tunings, and sings his songs with raw sincerity. He has recently added dulcimers, autoharp, and octave mandolin to his show, and via his site's "JAM!" link, Alan offers a host of cool resources and links for guitarists, dulcimerists, Autoharpists, and songwriters. Check out AlanHorvath.com.

Comments [1]

  1. Mike from India says:

    Thank you Alan for such wonderful information about Guitars.

    I am a also learning Guitar,; the worst thing to tell you is i dont know notations. and i cannot read tabs that are available online.
    but i know “which sound is coming from where” and thats the major thing, isnt it? but then you cannot write down what you played :o

    i would like to have a teacher who can tell me “o boy, tune this way” or ” you are doing that the incorrect way, hammer it like that”.
    i have a gibson’s acoustic. i wanted an electric one but i read on net that starting off with an acoustic is economical and wont waste the idea of guitaring. electric is not for noobs like me.

    in these two months of learning/starting off from scrap; i can now play “stairway to heaven”‘s first para :D that’s a joy for me. :) what do you say?

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