How not to learn guitar

When I was 13 I asked my parents if I could learn guitar. I was a big fan of James Taylor, Simon and Garfunkel and Cat Stevens. I had bought sheet music for these three artists and I had ambitions to be able to play guitar like my pop heroes.

[The photo is of me aged 19. No photos of my early teenage guitar days are available]

Looking back at that time, I can see how I followed the completely wrong path.

First of all, I should have lobbied to get a steel string guitar, not the nylon stringed guitar. Look at the guitar in Cat Steven’s photo below- it is not a (“classical”) nylon guitar.

The second problem was that I was taught the wrong way. I had lessons where the teacher taught me to pick out melodies like Puff the Magic dragon. Not the most suitable song for a young teenage boy to be learning!

I learnt a few basic chords (C, F, G, D, Am, Em) in the “root” position and could strum these chords. I was never taught any fingerpicking patterns or how these chords related to each other and the underlying scale.

A few years ago I bought a few self-teach books on fingerpicking guitar with CDs and these were more effective than my early teenage lessons.

The third problem was that I couldn’t sing, so it was pointless learning accompaniments to songs when I wasn’t going to perform them. In hindsight I should have been clear about my learning goals and what I wanted to achieve.

I do remember learning Cat Steven’s song Father and Son and I played it as duet with the teacher. He would have played the melody and I played a chord accompaniment. You can see  see Cat Stevens playing an Ovation steel stringed guitar on this Youtube video.

To add further humiliation, one of my classmates saw me bringing a guitar to school and I told him I was having lessons. He made a deorgatory comment saying that was something I should be able to teach myself. Seeing the self-teaching books, I realised that with the appropriate reference materials it is possible to teach yourself guitar.

I soon lost interest in the guitar and it was returned since we had rented the instrument for a year to see how I liked it. Maybe if I had an inexpensive electric guitar and practice amplifier then I would ahve chosen a different path.

University Days

When I was 18 I borrowed an electric guitar and Hawaiian guitar from my uncle in Victoria. I didn’t have an amplifier and I improvised an amplifier from an old hi-fi amplifier and speaker. The sound was atrocious!

I bought a book on learning Lead Guitar thinking I was going to magically learn to play like Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page. Playing these “riffs” wasn’t hard, but I had no idea how to use them. These two guitars were returned a couple of years later and my interest in guitar vanished.

I got together with 3 school friends – Grant (piano), Jamie (drums), Craig (guitar) and we had a “garage band” although it would be better named a “Living Room” band which is where this photo was taken.

Jamie told me about a friend who had an Ibanez bass guitar for sale for $10.  It was cheap because it didn’t work! I bought the instrument and was able to repair it by soldering a wire which had broken loose.  I preferred playing bass guitar and enjoyed playing the various “grooves” in a song.   The only problem with being a bass player is that you need a band, and since our “lounge-room” band split up, the bass guitar now sits in a corner of my home office.

I had one last attempt at self-taught guitar when in 1999 a colleague (mcuh younger than me!) was selling an Epiphone electric guitar for $100. I bought it, and another colleague donated an unwanted practice amplifier. I bought new guitar strings and started work on the self-teaching of finger-picking style. I made some progress, but somehow I wasn’t able to sustain the enthusiasm.

I was also trying to learn the piano by myself, and eventually I made the decision to focus on piano playing and not the guitar.

What went wrong?

Thinking back to the start of my guitar playing I wondered what went wrong, and why I didn’t achieve my goal of being a competent guitar player.

1. Unclear goal.   I wanted to achieve a goal of “play guitar”. What sort of guitar? Classical, Folk, Singer/Songwriter, Rhythm Guitar, Lead guitar?

2. Inappropriate equipment.  Once the musical goal is clear, then a suitable instrument should be purchased. In my case, I am sure an inexpensive electric guitar and amplifier would have been appropriate.

3. Lack of musical knowledge.  I was missing some fundamental Music Theory and basic  playing patterns. Now that I have studied a lot of music theory I realise you don’t need a lot of theory to choose appropriate chords and chord progressions for a song.

Here is a vastly simplified explanation of the principle of harmonising the major scale, but I recommend you read a book on music theory such as the Complete Idiots Guide to Music Theory.

  1. A scale consists of 7 notes, with each note having an associated “triad” of 3 notes. For example, C major has the notes C, D, E, F, G, A, B then finishing on C.
  2. Each note of the scale has an associated chord (three notes forming a triad), but the 3 most important chords in a major scale are those built on C (the 1st note of the scale), F (the 4th note) and G (built on the fifth scale).
  3. There are 2 secondary chords built on E (the 3rd note -E minor), and A (the 6th note – A minor). These last two chords are minor because of the interval between the first two notes, so the chords will be Em and Am.
  4. Forming the chords for a particular key. For C major, the chords to know are C, F and G (often with an added 7th interval to make G7)  as well as Em and Am. You can buy guitar chord charts with this information.
  5. Now that you know the chords for the key of a song you can strum the chords or play individual strings to form fingerpicking patterns.

4. Movable Scale Patterns.

Once you learn to play the notes of a scale on the guitar you can move the fingering up or down to play in the different key but keeping the same pattern. This means you can learn a pattern for playing melodic fragments or riffs, then transpose to different keys.

5. Barre Chords are where you hold your finger across the entire fretboard and make a chord shape. You use your finger like a “Capo” to play in different keys but using the same chord shapes.

The future?

I am content to listen to others play guitar in a variety of styles and let other people learn the guitar. My favourite guitarists are:

Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin), Steve Howe (Yes), Jimi Hendrix, Cat Stevens, James Taylor, Paul Simon, Leo Kottke, Ry Cooder, William Ackerman, Michael Hedges, Tommy Emmanuel and the up and coming Sandra Bae!

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4 thoughts on “How not to learn guitar”

  1. Hi Charles. I enjoyed your story of trying to learn the guitar. I learned piano as a kid but never felt I understood the theory behind it. I’ve often thought a deeper understanding of chord progressions would be beneficial. I learned classical piano from nuns. Very limiting. A few years ago I did a jazz piano class in Melbourne with Steve Sedergreen. It was fantastic. Good luck with your piano studies.

  2. Pretty nice post. I simply stumbled upon your weblog and wished to say that I have truly loved browsing your blog posts. After all I’ll be subscribing on your feed and Im hoping you write once more soon!

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