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First Steps: Starting the Process of Learning to Play Guitar

By Chad Crawford

PMI Blues Guitar Instructor

So you have gathered enough steam off the inspiration you find in all your favorite guitar players to at least start looking into the possibility of giving this a shot. Now what ?

Know what you are getting into!

The first and most important step is to make a firm decision as to whether to do this or not. Playing a musical instrument can be VERY rewarding and you SHOULD go for it! The satisfaction of playing makes it well worth the effort to learn. It will involve a great deal of work, and some expense. It can be frustrating at times and even boring at times while learning various techniques. A half-hearted approach is a set-up for a handicap in the area where it is most important to succeed – mental attitude. You MUST make up your mind at the outset to do what it takes to reach your goals.

There is a common misunderstanding regarding “natural talent”. Some people are naturally endowed with musical ability and so music comes easy to them, and if you feel you are not one of these people then you may feel that you can never play an instrument well. Musically gifted people may not have to work as hard as others to progress as musicians, but they still do have to work at it. The overwhelming majority of accomplished musicians do not have exceptional natural talent, did not find it easy, and will affirm that success comes through three simple steps: practice, practice, and practice. The truth is, if you do the work, then you can expect to get the results. How any one stacks up in natural ability in reference to any other player is irrelevant. What is important is how do we stack up against what we were playing last week, last month, six months ago, etc. If there is any one single indicator of eventual success as a musician, it is found in this one simple concept: persistence.

The next decision is what kind of guitar do I need, where do I get it, and how much should I spend? Well, this depends on your goals as a musician. It would be wise to speak with musicians who know something of these things, since it is a complex subject. Roughly speaking, guitars fall into three categories: classical, acoustic or "box" guitar, and electric. For classical style music, the choice is clear ... a classical style guitar. If you wish to play rhythm guitar in a church, or folk songs around the campfire, then acoustic is the way to go (I use the term acoustic loosely, since classical guitar is also acoustic. Acoustic has metal strings, classical has three nylon strings and three metal strings). To play anything that resembles rock you will need an electric guitar. I recommend an electric guitar to all beginners other than classical style students, since electric has more pliable strings and is therefore much easier to play. If you already have a teacher picked out, consult with them. Otherwise, as a general rule of thumb I would say one can’t go wrong for their first guitar with about any entry level product by Ibanez, Fender, or Gibson/Epiphone. It is possible to acquire a decent guitar second hand for somewhere around the $100 range. It is not needful for a beginner to worry over picking the “right” guitar. Just get a decent one to get started – a reputable name brand with working electronics, intact hardware, and a straight neck. (You can tell if the neck is warped by playing individual notes along the fretboard. If you get a lot of buzzing, or the notes sound identical when you play two adjacent frets, you may have a warped neck and should avoid this guitar.) Later you will develop preferences and will be in a better position to decide what you really want. Then you can invest the big money without wasting it. Take good care of the entry-level guitar and you can sell it later.

Teacher or No Teacher?

From this point, there are two basic routes you can take toward getting that stringed piece of carved wood to belt out the wonderful sounds you want to make. (1) teach yourself. (2) enlist the aid of an instructor.

Before making this important decision, it is wise to consider some things. It is not going to be easy. The pros make it look easy. When you observe accomplished musicians expressing themselves it may appear that the feeling is just flowing out of them and through the instrument effortlessly, and it may occur to you that this is just natural for them. Appearances can be deceiving. In reality it does not come natural to most musicians, even very advanced ones. When you see anyone with a high level of fluency working musical magic on an instrument, you can be sure they have put in thousands of hours and dollars to achieve that level of proficiency. It takes relentless work, and commitment. The guitar in particular is a difficult instrument to learn to play well. Persistence is the key.

Now, do not be scared off by this, because not everyone who plays an instrument is necessarily a master, and it is not necessary to be a master to make some pretty great music. It depends on your goals. If you want to play some sing along songs with your family and friends, or maybe play rhythm guitar in church or something along these lines, you will not have to spend nearly as much time in developing your skills as a pro. If you have a handful of popular songs you want to be able to play for your own enjoyment, then you need not endure the level of sacrifice and commitment the advanced professional players must submit to. However, it is still going to be something that entails some work and difficulty. In the initial stages of learning to play guitar, many aspiring guitarists will give up way too soon thinking they have no “talent”. This is often due to comparing themselves to professional musicians who have spent a couple of decades or more developing their skills. It is important to be aware in advance of what you can expect in terms of how long it takes and how challenging it is, so that you do not get discouraged and give up when you meet a seemingly impassable barrier in your playing. This is an illusion that has derailed many aspiring guitarists. The most important aspect of it all is to NOT GIVE UP!

OK, so now that you have some insight into what to expect, let’s get back to whether to teach yourself or find an instructor. You may have met some self-taught players who had impressive skills. This is the easier approach, at least in the short term. The goal with this approach is to get the results while avoiding the expense and inconvenience of dealing with a paid instructor. There are many self-taught musicians out there who can play well. However, one must understand that the term “self-taught” does not mean “I figured it all out by myself.” What it means is that the self-taught musician will use a variety of approaches to gathering information on various aspects of playing, and then developing physical technique skills through practice. The various methods might include purchasing instructional method books, song transcriptions, getting tips from other players, and reading articles on the Internet. (If you are considering this approach and have been influenced to any degree by having met some “self-taught” players, here is a dirty little secret to consider: unfortunately, some musicians will claim to be self taught “naturals” when in fact they are highly trained and practice for hours per day.)

The self-taught method has some obvious limitations, and some that are not so obvious. The obvious ones are things like how do you know what information you really need, where to get it, and in what order to learn it? Are you holding the guitar in the way that most aids playing efficiency? What is the best kind of pick to use? Are you using the most efficient fingering positions and similar physical techniques? Some drawbacks are less obvious to a beginner. It is going to take you ten times as long to reach your goals, if you ever reach them at all. The advice you are getting from other amateur players or from the Internet may be wrong. You may be developing playing habits, as most untrained beginners do, with needless tension that you are unaware of, and which will cripple you when you attempt to play at higher speeds later, when it will be very difficult to undo the bad habits (ask me how I know!). You will not have the built in accountability to practice that comes with meeting regularly with an instructor. You may waste a lot of time learning things that do not move you closer to your goals. This is very important. Learning guitar is a long-term process and none of us can afford to lose valuable time.

Therefore, I strongly recommend that you enlist the services of a competent instructor. The benefits are numerous, but I can sum it up in one concept: you will reach your goals much faster. If you really want to learn to play well in the shortest time possible then there is no question as to whether you need an instructor. The only question is how do you identify a good instructor? This will be difficult for someone who has no musical background, and it is possible you may have to go through several instructors before you find a good one, since some of these qualities may be hard to identify in advance. You definitely want an instructor who is focused on your goals. Your instructor should be fluent in the style of music you aspire to play. He should be organized, patient, and capable of explaining abstract concepts effectively. Look for someone who enjoys playing AND teaching. This is a short version of a long list, but these are core traits and will help you spot someone who has a good overall teaching ability.

To recap: Make a firm commitment up front. Get a decent first guitar. Find a good instructor (clicking HERE to schedule a no cost, no obligation interview with the author would be a good choice!). Don’t give up. If you do these things you will succeed. Best wishes in your endeavors.

Copyright 2008 J. Chad Crawford

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