This time, I’ve been thinking about how we learn and some of the challenges we face as students and teachers. Specifically, I have been trying to remember how I learned to play guitar. It’s been over 20 years and I have to admit that I do not fully remember all of the details, but something completely unrelated to guitar has brought up some powerful ideas and memories for me and I wanted to take the time to share them.
How it all started
I started playing guitar in March of 1994. I remember this specifically because this is when my older brother Bill went on a 3-month study program to Budapest. His parting words to me were “Stay out of my room and don’t touch my guitar.” I did not listen to him. The car pulled away from our house and I ran up there to start playing his guitar. I had been eyeing it for quite some time and now was my chance. For three months, I was up there as much as I could playing his guitar (an Ovation Celebrity). I had no real formal training; I didn’t have a teacher; I was just plucking away and trying to figure it out.
It gets really fuzzy from here as I don’t recall all of the details, but in the three months he was gone, I got OK enough at guitar to show him what I had learned without being scared of his reaction. It went pretty well and despite my disobeying him, he petitioned my folks to get me lessons.
A few years of all over the place
I took lessons from a local teacher for about 6 months. I didn’t enjoy it much because he pushed me into jazz pretty hard and I just didn’t want to do that (ironic now given my love for Jazz). I remember a bunch of occasions where I would straight up defy what he told me to do. I was constantly questioning his lessons and homework. So much of what was in front of me didn’t feel like the right thing for me. It was hard to put into words, but I knew that I wasn’t on the right track. I simply wasn’t having any fun. I changed teachers a few times and ultimately ended up teaching myself the guitar while a great music theory teacher at my high school taught me about music. I made the decision about how to apply it to the guitar, and my theory teacher, Mr. Mooney kept me busy. My first years as a guitar student were very unstructured and very all over the place, but I was able to get admitted to music school.
The one consistent memory I had about my life before I went to college is that music was fun. I absolutely loved playing the guitar. I’ve always loved making music, but this time, as unstructured as it was ended up being really important as I looked back on it.
For the first time since I started playing the guitar, I had a new hobby: playing pinball. As crazy as it sounds, pinball was the thing that got me to understand and remember the importance of how I learned to play the guitar. Because pinball is a hobby and not tied to anything but pleasure and fun, you get to make your own rules and your own structure. As I learned about the rules of competitive pinball, I started to have a bunch of epiphanies about guitar.
First, it was about having fun. You had your good games and your bad games, but the only thing that mattered to me was having fun. Pinball has never not been fun.
Secondly, I became aware of a bunch of techniques that advanced pinball players were using very early on. I was aware of the techniques, and I could clearly point them out if I watched someone play. Somehow, I knew that these techniques weren’t important to me yet since they were difficult and far too advanced for me. I made a mental note of things like drop catches and post passes, and kept doing what I enjoyed: playing pinball. Somewhere in the back of my head, I knew that I’d get there one day and learn those advanced techniques, but that day was not today.
And then it hit me. This is exactly how I learned to play the guitar. I played for fun. I became aware of a whole bunch of stuff that could make me a better player. I ignored a lot of that because I didn’t want to upset the balance of fun vs progress because I knew that I just wasn’t ready.
When I started to play guitar, it was fun. It was a hobby. I had no realistic notions about making a living playing music. I just wanted to have fun. I was aware early on about techniques like tapping, sweep picking and advanced chords, but somehow I knew and understood that I didn’t have to worry about those yet. Somehow I knew they’d still be there when I was ready for them. I kept it fun, always, and I found fun ways to learn and progress. And I made decisions about my own education that were critical to my success.
It’s OK to wait
In 1995, there were far fewer educational options available for guitarists. There was no YouTube yet and no notion of online lessons. You could buy a VHS tape of your guitar hero going an instructional video for about $50. Those videos couldn’t possibly be appropriate for everyone since they were just a guitar and a cameraman. Eric Johnson didn’t know who I was, or what I could do. But I clearly remember watching his instructional video and allowing the majority of it to just go completely over my head. I remember picking a few pieces out and learning them, but most of it was over my head. I had made decisions about my own education that I just wasn’t ready for everything yet. The thought of sitting front of Eric Johnson, taking a lesson, coming home and saying “Nah, I’m not doing that yet” seemed crazy! But as a 17-year-old kid, I was making those exact decisions.
Following your own voice
Today, there are more options than ever as a guitar student. TrueFire is an incredible resource, one that I would have killed to have when I started. But one thing that’s so important is that you have to be your own advocate for your education. You have to know when something is important and to make a note of it and come back later. You have to know when to learn something mentally and not beat yourself up about not being able to play it yet. You have to know when you’re simply not ready for something. You have to know how to keep having fun. It’s just so vital to play and not always be deeply entrenched in something new.
Changing how I teach
How does this related to teaching? One of the difficult things about teaching an instrument, especially to a beginner is that you’re an expert at it and you’re teaching someone who’s literally never touched a guitar before. You want to use the benefit of your experience as a teacher and player to give them the best start possible. You want your student to learn quickly and avoid the speed bumps that plague so many other students (including yourself). You simply want to get them to play guitar as quickly as possible, because what’s more fun than playing guitar?
And then it hit me that this dangerous territory as a teacher. The thing that kept me going as a student was a deep enjoyment of the guitar. If I had listened to my first guitar teacher at the onset of my lessons I would have gained a ton of skills. I would have come to college with a vast array of jazz chords. I would have been able to sight ready proficiently and I would have known a ton of jazz standards. These are all things I had to learn later on and I struggled with learning later on. These are all things I could have learned at the onset. But they were simple out of order for me.. I couldn’t invest in jazz chords at that time because I had no outlet for them. I could barely play barre chords and strum my favorite songs; my education was simply out of order for me to enjoy the guitar.
It’s so important to keep things in the right order. If you’re teaching guitar, you need to help your students as much as you can by presenting relevant information in the right order (and this changes from student to student). If you’re self-directing yourself in your guitar education, listen to your inner voice. It’s OK to guide yourself and say no to things that you’re not ready for or that doesn’t excite you.