Read Time 4 Minutes
“So, my big brother was playing guitar and I figured I’d try it too.” –Stevie Ray Vaughan
It always starts innocently enough, right?
I bet you can still remember the first time you ever picked up a guitar. Where were you? Remember puzzling out those first few chords? That first song you learned? Remember how your tender little fingertips throbbed?
Every guitarist begins with a few basic chords and string-bitten fingers. Nobody’s excused from these entry-level basics, no matter how legendary they may later become.
It’s an encouraging thing to remember that even Stevie Ray Vaughn had to learn his basic CAGED chords early on. Keep putting one foot in front of the other. Your heroes did.
“Influence… people think about it as someone you like but influence is also what you’re revolted by. In fact, often it’s what you’re running away from.” –Marc Ribot
Speaking of influences, Marc Ribot’s eclectic guitar work reflects pieces of: noise music, surf guitar, Latin rhythms, punk, blues, traditional Jewish music, metal, on and on. Not all these influences reveal themselves in the same project, of course, but taken as a whole his discography is iridescent.
What’s harder to detect in any musician’s discography are the gigs he turned down, the recordings he deleted, the ideas he rejected or drastically revised.
Sometimes you’re not exactly clear on what kind of music you want to make—you only know what you don’t want it to sound like. That’s a great start. Entire genres of music have emerged from one musician shaking his head and saying “I don’t want to do this the way everybody else has done it.”
What you don’t play is just as creative as what you do.
“I always wanted a guitar. I always wanted to be a cowboy singer because I also listened to Hank Williams, and he would always sing these neat romantic songs.” –Dick Dale
I love this quote because it shows you that you never know where the instrument will take you. Apparently Dick Dale originally wanted to be a country singer/songwriter like Hank Williams. Who knew?
Instead, Dick Dale became a surf guitar pioneer—and because his gigs attracted such huge crowds, he also shaped the history of the electric guitar by adopting the first 100-watt amplifier.
I bet there are a few players reading this right now who cut their teeth on punk and never expected to end up playing jazz. Or vice versa. Life’s funny that way. You never know where the guitar will take you.
“Besides being a guitar player, I’m a big fan of the guitar. I love that damn instrument.” –Steve Vai
Sometimes when I’m feeling down, I like to take a little trip in my own head and imagine that Steve Vai sleeps in a guitar-shaped bed. On the guitar-shaped bed is a plush guitar-shaped pillow. All four walls of the bedroom are hand painted with crooked 4×12 cabinets.
Exhausted after a long day of practicing guitar, Steve Vai brushes his teeth with his JEM toothbrush, lays his weary head on his guitar-shaped pillow in his guitar-shaped bed, and smiles wistfully as he slips into a dream about all the arpeggios he’ll practice tomorrow.
The fact that anybody can be that excited about any one thing on this planet makes me very, very happy.
“Listening is the key to everything good in music.” –Pat Metheny
Right on, Metheny. The sharper your ears, the better.
Artists learn how to look at the world and capture what they see in drawings and paintings; musicians learn to hear melodies and accurately play them on their own instrument.
Of course, duplicating existing melodies isn’t the only reason to listen. With a sharp enough ear, a guitarist can also play whatever she hears in her own head.
And finally, lots of focused listening helps form your essential character as a guitarist. Somewhere inside of you, you retain memories of every chord progression, every strain of melody you’ve ever heard. When the bandleader points at you and you’ve got 32 bars to play a solo, what you play is a unique melting pot of all the songs and sounds you love, filtered and distilled through your own personality.
Listening is learning, so learn to listen well.
“Your lines should sing and you should sing your lines.” –Ted Greene
This ties in nicely with the previous quote about listening. Ted Greene, the master guitar teacher and author, urged his students to sing everything they played on the guitar.
This really helps imprint the sounds in your mind, not just your fingers, and it also increases your sense of connection with your instrument. By syncing your voice to the notes you play, you’re developing rapport with the guitar. Gradually you’re memorizing the fretboard and making it part of yourself.
You’re also encouraging yourself to use the guitar as expressively as you use your own voice. And that’s the goal, isn’t it? Expression.
“I find that musically, looking back, I have learned much more from those relationships, people I have bumped into that I have admired, that’s the way I feel musically I have learned most in life.” –John Williams
We’re not just influenced by other guitarists. Every crazy road trip, every funeral, every friend–it all comes out in your playing somehow.
Life experience gives your music depth, feeling, and meaning. Who are you? Where are you from? Who do you love? What’s your day job? What do you value in life?
Whether you know it or not, every time you pick up your instrument, you’re telling us all about yourself.
So by all means practice hard. And by all means enjoy your life. Take that long vacation or that weekend drive. Meet new people. Travel in foreign lands. Read life-changing books. Listen to musty old shellac records of music you’ve never heard before.
Then strap in, tune up, and tell us all about it.