Sometimes people ask me what it takes to learn the guitar. Usually this question comes about because they’re curious about what equipment they might need, although my experience teaching guitar has shown that what students have on the inside is far more important than what guitar they play. The truth is that just about anybody is capable of learning to play the electric guitar. And yet so many people will start playing the guitar, only to have it gathering dust in their closet a few months later. Here are few of the things that my most succesful guitar students have had:
I’m not sure how many people there are out there who think and daydream about learning guitar, and yet never take any action. But having heard so many people tell me “oh, I would love to be able to play the guitar”, I would estimate that for every person who goes out and makes an effort to learn the instrument, there are 3 or 4 others who would really like to learn guitar but never get around to taking that first step. Now, this is just a guess on my part – it’s not like I’ve gone out and done a survey or anything. Still, there is something that seems to seperate all the doers from the dreamers when it comes time to book in a first lesson, buy some instructional material, or just pick the damn instrument up. This is initiative, and it’s the most important thing you need to learn the guitar. Without it, you’ll just never do anything about it.
The truth is that while you do need a guitar to play on, most people usually make too much of this stuff. I know that I certainly did when I was just starting. Which guitar you learn on doesn’t actually matter that much – so long as it’s playable and can hold tune reasonably well. If a friend or family is happy to lend you a guitar, then just use that. You can even start off your electric guitar playing on an acoustic if that’s what you have available. This is a comparitively minor ingredient, but it needs to be mentioned.
The best students of mine have been able to focus on learning to play the guitar. This means eliminating distractions – if only for 15 minutes at a time – to really concentrate on their playing, without the internet or their phone or TV or games consoles or their friends, family or housemates competing for their attention. They’ve also been able to make the most of the lesson time, by coming in, saying a quick hello, then quickly tuning their guitar to get right into playing.
Something to learn from
I first learned the guitar with private lessons from a professional guitar teacher. Other people have learned from books, instructional DVDs, tuition software or magazines. Even “self taught” guitarists draw their lessons from somewhere. Often that means working out and copying what they hear on their favourite albums, and looking up chords and tablature on the internet. The best way to learn is still with private lessons from a good teacher. However, this is an expensive way, and also can be the least convenient for people with busy or inflexible schedules. These days, there are plenty of free or inexpensive resources out there that will help you get where you want to go much faster.
This is the big one. Nobody learns the guitar without practicing. The best guitarists that I’ve had the pleasure to teach have practiced – not always obsessively, or at great length – but they practice regularly, and consistently. In fact, the writer Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, once quantified just how much practice a person needs to reach the top of their field: 10,000 hours. That’s more hours than in an entire year. So, if you have aspirations to be the next Jimmy Page or Jimi Hendrix, you might want to keep playing for 4 hours a day for the next decade. Of course, a great many of us – your author included – are quite happy not to be widely acclaimed virtuosos, and just to be good at the guitar. While this more modest goal might not require such an intense amount of time and effort, you still need to put practice time in to get there. The best practice is always consistent and regular – try to practice every day, even if you only have time for ten or fifteen minutes.
My best students enjoy playing guitar. It’s not just the image of playing guitar that they love, or being able to tell people that they’re guitarists. It’s the actual playing.
What do you not need?
A fat bank account
When you become a guitarist, there are suddenly so many people with something to sell you. Guitars, amplifiers, effects, accessories, tuition products, private lessons, guitar magazines.. there’s a lot out there that you could spend your money on, and even more people ready to tell you that their product is exactly what you need, and every day somebody somewhere is coming out with something new. But with so much guitar out there available for purchase, does that mean you need to be rich to become a great guitarist? Hardly. You do need an instrument, but it doesn’t need to be an expensive one. These days, a lot of base model “learner” guitars are great instruments in their own right. And as far as tuition goes, there is a lot of material available for free or for very little money on the internet.
I’ve heard students give all kinds of reasons why they “just weren’t cut out” to learn the guitar. Some say that they just don’t have the ear for it, they don’t have a “musical brain” or even that their fingers are the wrong size! The truth is, while some people do take to the instrument faster than others, the idea of natural talent or natural advantage is mostly a myth. Beyond the first few lessons it’s completely irrelevant. Sure, some of my students have gotten off to a quicker start than others. But you know what? It doesn’t really make much difference in the long run. The guys who go on to become good players are the ones who stick with instrument, who enjoy it, and who practice consistently. I think every guitar teacher can tell you stories about the guy who came in to his first lesson and picked everything up straight away, only to never get any better because he just never practiced in between lessons. I know I’ve also had students who have come in and been all thumbs on their first lesson, and with a tin ear besides, but made steady improvements until they became good and then great players. “Natural talent” just does not matter.