Getting started on guitar

If you want to play as a hobby or have ambitions to be a rock star or concert guitarist, you need to start somewhere.  In this article I hope to provide a few pointers to learning the guitar the right way.  Did I say “right way”? How can there be a wrong way?

When building a house, or anything that is going to last, you need to start with good foundations.  That does not mean that it should not be fun also.  Doing things in the right order is important when learning an instrument.  Many younger students come to me with a guitar that has been bought for them as a present.  The problem is that unlike a Playstation, guitars differ very widely.  Some may be fine in the hands of an experienced guitarist, but are completely unsuitable to learn on.

Which guitar should I buy then?  Firstly I would discourage students from starting out with an electric guitar.  Not because I am a killjoy, but simply because an electric guitar is a steel strung instrument.  The strings dig into your fingers when you are learning and novices will not have built up enough hard skin on the finger tips.  This may not sound like a big deal, but it is often cited as the main reason by early quitters.

My second reason for holding fire with the electric guitar is one of practicality.  You don’t simply plug the guitar into the mains!  You are going to need an amplifier to connect it to.  Before you start to play, you are going to have to connect all your kit together and afterwards store it somewhere.  Not a big deal, but then compare that to being able to simply pick up an acoustic guitar which you can play immediately and anywhere. 

My third reason is to do with technique.  Simply put, it is very easy to adopt a whole slew of bad and ultimately limiting habits on a narrow neck electric guitar, such as crab handed playing.  If you already have a good teacher, it is taken as read that this will not be an issue.

Instead I would recommend that students start out with a good quality nylon strung classical or Spanish guitar.  Having mastered the basics they will be much better prepared to get the best out of an electric guitar further down the road.  It is a bit like learning to drive in an automatic gear box car.  In the UK, if you pass your test in this type of vehicle, you are not allowed to drive a manual or (stick shift).  However, if you pass your test driving a manual, you will be able to drive an automatic also.

What age is the best to start playing?  In some countries such as Venezuela, students start as early as 4 years old.  I am not certain that I approve of this,  as I believe everyone is entitled to have a childhood.  My own view is that you can start to play at any age, provided you are mature enough to be able to hold the strings down and work at it.  It seems to me that it is easier to learn when you are younger, but if you really want to play, and you are on the wrong side of 40, no problem.  Which brings me to my next point.

What is the starting point of all change?  I hope your answer is desire, because if you don’t want it badly enough, it will not happen.  I am sorry to say that the guitar is not the easiest of instruments to learn.  If it is just a passing fancy and you want to strut about and look cool, that is fine, but I am telling you now that without a burning desire, you are not going to be able to progress!  Perhaps you should stick to playing air guitar or the Playstation Rock Star game, but don’t be surprised if those who have made the commitment and worked at it, the ones who can really play,  they are probably going to be laughing at you, not with you. 

I overheard a conversation that one of my students was having with his friend about guitar playing.  In answer to the obvious question “how much practice do you do”? His reply was, “I just keep on playing until I feel like throwing the guitar out of the window, and then I keep going and practise some more”.  Now, I don’t agree that you should have to suffer to that degree to become a good player, but I did feel that this kind of attitude showed a resolve to overcome the obstacles that he would inevitably come across whilst learning. 

OK,  I am off the soap box, but really a much easier instrument to get started with is the piano.  I would venture to say that it will do no harm to learn the piano first and later get to grips with the guitar.

If you are still reading this, you have already shown some commitment.  Give yourself a pat on the back, not too hard though.  Let’s move on. How do you measure desire?  At this point you are probably wondering where this is going, but the reality is that for a teacher there is nothing more frustrating than having to teach people that lack the commitment and discipline to go forward. 

These days I start by asking students what music they are listening to.  Who is your favourite guitarist and why?  Did I just hear you say that Eric Clapton is cool?  Wrong answer, Dude!  OK ,he can play a bit, but principally and in my own personal  view (please do not write in to me about this) he is primarily a singer song writer.  I love his music, but I don’t want to play guitar like him, although I would be delighted if I could sing.  That is my point. 

If you want to learn guitar and are serious about it, listen to some real guitarists.  If you like rock guitar, the solos of Dave Gilmour from Pink Floyd are unbeatable, but for me the best guitarists in the world tend to play with a Jazz inflection.  If you like Jazz, I recommend listening to early guitarists such as Charlie Christian and Django Rinehart as well as modern guitarists like John Pizarelli and Schofield.

If you don’t like Jazz, why not listen to some of the great Spanish guitarists such as John Williams and of course the great Andres Segovia.  What I am really saying, is listen to real guitarists,  get the inspiration, desire and commitment and then roll up your sleeves and get to work.  Of course you will also find a million great guitarists on Youtube, but more on that later.  I often hear people talking about what a great guitarist Jimi Hendrix was and I am inclined to agree to a point.  His talent, apart from the one which ended his career, was as an innovator.  He too was a singer songwriter that just happened to get away with playing the guitar (on occasions) with his teeth.  Please don’t do that by the way!

Ok, so you have a nylon strung guitar of good quality, don’t cheap out on this, as it is important that it sounds good once you can  play a few things.  You are listening to some great guitarists, so now what?

The best way is to find yourself a good teacher or guitar buddy.  One good path is to enrol with a Spanish guitar school who will teach you how to read music whilst you also learn good technique.  Even if you want to be a rock guitarist, the techniques you will learn with Spanish guitar will stand you in good stead.  The guitar is a positional instrument and Spanish guitar technique has evolved over a 100 years to formalize absolutely the best way to play a fretted instrument.

If you cannot afford guitar tuition, you can still start to learn from the miriad of resources now available through the internet.  I am sorry to say that much of the so called guitar lessons I hear offered on Youtube are of inferior quality.  I will post some links at the end of the article to those which I think may be worth looking at. You can also contact me if you know of resources which will help students just starting out.

My main concern with self tuition is that it is very easy to adopt bad technique which can hold you back later.  I am also a student of Karate, but I would never dream of trying to learn the techniques just off the internet.  Probably a good way to get yourself killed!  You need an authoritative figure to look at what you are doing and provide a guiding hand. 

My final point about guitar is that if you want to learn, you need to make it fun.  Many of the books available here in Spain are dry and boring, it is hard to see how anyone could maintain any enthusiasm for the instrument.  You need to get going quickly with something that sounds good to listen to, not too many scales!!!  A bit of encouragement from friends and family can go a long way.

This is a big subject, but I hope I have given you a few ideas about how to go about getting started on the guitar.  Of course much of this material is my own personal view. Ultimately there is no right or wrong way to learn.  Remember the most important thing is to have that burning desire.  If you don’t have that, don’t waste your time learning guitar…

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