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On Learning to Play Guitar

Harvey Reid has played and taught guitar for 40 years, was a former national Fingerpicking Guitar Champion, and has released 32 highly-acclaimed solo recordings of original, traditional, and contemporary acoustic music. In 1980 he wrote the first college textbook for folk guitar. He now lives in Southern Maine and is working on a very ambitious series of guitar books that are available from Amazon.com and other online retailers and from this web site..

A number of new articles devoted to beginning guitar are now posted here.

If you decide you want to play guitar, there are a surprising number of strange obstacles in your way. I hear from a lot of people who say "I am going to get guitar lessons for my kid" without realizing what a thorny and complex thing it is. Piano or fiddle lessons are kind of routine. Untold numbers of people are blaming themselves for not getting going or losing interest in their guitar lessons, when what they were being taught was not at all appropriate for what they wanted or needed. It's hard to believe that there are absolutely no rules, regulations or anything. Anybody can call themselves a guitar teacher, and they can teach anything they want. They might read music and try to teach you to read music, and they might not. They might sing and they might not. It's all over the map. And yet guitar is the most common instrument, and chances are there is someone within a mile of you who could teach everything you need to learn, if you could only locate them.

I am writing this in hopes that someone will read it and be able to better circumvent these obstacles, and perhaps better find their own place in the world of music more quickly and pleasantly. I have never seen anything in print that tried to describe how confusing the "I want to learn guitar" problem really is. Anybody can learn to bang out a few chords and have a good time playing some recreational guitar playing some sort of music that interests them. As a lifelong musician, I am quite surprised and downright annoyed by how much of the web sites and books and videos out there about how to learn to play guitar are just plain bogus, and fueled by some combination of ignorance, greed, or fantasy. It would be hard for you the beginner to say "This seems bogus..." but I know better and I will say it for you. There are almost no voices I hear telling it like it really is, which is about how real people have always managed and still do learn to play guitar and enrich their lives without "formal training" of any kind. So please take a few minutes and read this, then go and try to find a book or a teacher or whatever you decide you ought to do. Think of learning guitar as the old-fashioned apprentice system, and don't get into the "school" or "lessons" mindset. You may need a guitar teacher just to help you sort through the various web siotes and YouTube videos to determine which ones are well done and worth watching. There is a staggering amount of bad, poorly presented and downright wrong information out there, and no police force whatoever to punish wrongdoers.


Finding an appropriate instrument may or may not be a simple matter. Your neighbor might have an extra guitar that is just what you need, and maybe not. There are acoustic guitars with steel and nylon strings, flat and arched tops, and different width necks and scale lengths. There are electric guitars, and hybrid acoustic/electrics, resonator guitars and 12-strings, and they almost all come in a dizzying variety of body shapes, sizes, woods, and scale lengths. They are made by all sorts of companies and independent builders, and cost from $50 to $25,000. Used guitars are often a good deal (see my essay on buying a guitar), and even new guitars often need work to make them properly playable. The first step is making sure you have a playable instrument, that is appropriate for the kind of music you want to play, and that alone is not simple. There are some very nice guitars to be had for a few hundred dollars, however, and it is a better time to buy a good quality, inexpensive instrument than it ever has been. Sometimes people will lend you or give you an instrument because it is not a very good one, which is why it is available, and it may hold you back as much as help you. Find someone who knows such things, and make sure your instrument is right for you before you plunge into it. A local Mom & Pop music store where the employees are all musicians is often a great place to get good advice and find a proper instrument.


Probably the most important issue is whether or not you want to sing. If you want to use the guitar to help you sing songs you already know and like, you are well-positioned to have some success. If you do not envision yourself singing at all, or have no idea of what songs you would like to sing, you may have serious problems getting launched. Instrumental guitar is hard, and time-consuming, and most people find that the time required to gain enough proficiency to allow you to enjoy yourself is simply not worth the effort. The people who are "destined" to be great players are already banging on the guitar, and not scratching their heads reading essays and wondering how to begin. If you are not sure you want to be a serious instrumental guitarist, you probably don't. Sing some Bob Dylan or John Prine songs instead and have some beer or soda and pizza and enjoy life instead of closing the door on everyone and and practicing 3 hours a day, which rarely leads to other pleasures. I don't want to insult any of you who are fidgety loners, who really enjoy learning to play serious guitar, since that's what I did. It's just that after a lot of years of seeing people try to play guitar, I know the odds. It's really fun to play un-serious guitar, and I strongly urge anyone who thinks they want to play guitar to not sweat the issues of "doing it right" and instead focus on enriching your life with the ancient pleasure of playing songs you like. It can be incredibly fun to bang away clumsily and not-too-proficiently on a song you enjoy, and in my world view that sort of thing is much more needed and welcome than someone playing perfect scales and arpeggios in a practice room somewhere in preparation for perhaps someday playing some real music.


If you decide you want guitar lessons, you face a lawless jungle. There is no established "right" way to learn guitar, though the two basic approaches are the academic and the non-academic. Various people have developed "methods" for guitar, which try to boil it all down to a step-by-step system, that can be effective for certain types of music and certain types of students. It is very hard to do an organized, professional version of a non-academic approach, and that usually means working with a private teacher. Schools have never really been involved in guitar education, though many colleges and even some high schools do have limited guitar programs. These are usually classical or jazz guitar, based on sight-reading, and oriented toward ensembles that involve the most possible students. If the art of solo guitar interests you most, this might not be a good direction. It is of course a legitimate thing to do, and a valid approach to the instrument, but it is only one of many, and not always the best road for the recreational player. For example, if you are interested in playing guitar in altered tunings, which a huge number of today's players do, you can't use a sight-reading approach to this, because sight-reading is all based on standard tuning. Very little of the music today's guitar players play is written down anyway, so sight-reading is of limited value. There is no right answer as to whether or not a guitar student should learn about different tunings, and if so, when to do this in also unclear. You could do it from day 1, or you could never do it in 50 years, and neither would be more correct.

It is absolutely essential that the student understand that there is no official, right way to play or learn guitar, and they have to be involved in the entire process, and their motivations, interests and aptitudes must dictate the direction the learning process goes in.

Music is one of those subjects that straddles the fence between a folk art and an academic discipline. It's probably safe to say that the vast majority of people you will see or hear play music today learned to do it as a folk art, from their friends and by teaching themselves, which is the way traditions of music have been passed along for centuries. It seems like a vague approach, when compared to the structured, Lesson 1, Lesson 2 Lesson 3 ... academic approach to guitar. Think of the folk process as being a holistic approach, where you assimilate the knowledge from books, people, recordings, radio, concerts, etc. simply by immersing yourself in it. Who takes formal lessons to ride a bike or a skateboard, or to make a good sandwich?

The academic guitar approach is a difficult one, and not very satisfying, unless you are very focused, disciplined, and destined to become a concert guitarist. Scales, etudes and exercises are hard and tedious, and many a person who just wanted to bang on some chords and sing songs has lost interest in the instrument by being placed in an academic guitar situation. It's my belief that students should have a firm foundation in enjoying themselves and expressing themselves with their guitars before they embark on any rigorous study of the instrument. There are many in the academic guitar world who feel oppositely; that a person should have a firm foundation in scales, arpeggios and exercises before they begin to play music. I would like to arm-wrestle these people over this issue. It's my belief that heart-felt, however-amateurish music is always good, and there is little need for someone who plays scales and arpeggios even if they do it very well. If you start by playing music, you are more likely to end up playing useful music than if you start out by doing musical exercises.

There are an unknown number of private teachers in any area, who have unknown beliefs and training, and virtually all music stores offer instruction, generally by hiring independent teachers to work in their teaching studios for a percentage of the money charged. This is unregulated, and there is almost no consistency from one town or store to another in what is taught and how it is taught. Teachers move to town and start teaching and leave again, and have all sorts of backgrounds and skills. There is also a growing industry of guitar books, videos, and web sites, that all purport to teach guitar, and range from excellent programs taught by skilled teachers to bizarre schemes made up and marketed by crackpots. There are no laws, no licenses, no standards, no standardized tests, and no overseeing groups or organizations, and you are pretty much on your own to sift through it all, and the only people who will guide you are the people trying to sell you something. Don't be surprised if a book or video does not do what you hoped it would. Almost nothing you will find in a music store's teaching materials was created by anyone with any training or credentials in music education. And people with training in music education tend to know very little about troubadour-style music education, and build their programs around sight-reading.If you think about it, sight-reading enables you to play passable versions of things you don't really know. Most musicians you see perform are playing music they know well, and part of the reason you want to listen to them is that they are emnotionally and spiritually involved in the music. I don't believe that it is possible to sight-read music and deliver a profound musical performance without committing the music to memory.


Music learning is further complicated by copyright and intellectual property issues. You can make a recording of any piece of published music, and your only obligation is to pay a royalty to the copyright owner based on number of copies sold. You cannot make a video or print a book, however, without written permission of the copyright owner, and they rarely grant it, or charge a lot of money for it. Even arrangements of traditional songs get copyrighted, and the only books you can find are sometime full of old folk songs that are not related to the way any known person sang or recorded them. Back when elementary schools all had music teachers who sang these old songs with the classes, everyone at least knew the same songs, and people could play and learn them if they were in a book. Now, very few schools have such music programs, and there is precious little common ground for teaching young people to play folk songs anymore.

As if this is not complicated enough, you find that large companies who own the rights to large numbers of songs will either publish their own songbooks, or license the rights to a book publisher, and you will find collections and anthologies of music, that claim to be from a certain era or of a certain type of music. What they often are is merely a collection of things that are owned or licensed by by that company, that do not represent a real cross-section of what is out there, or what people might want to play. Even though there is a list of 50 or 100 songs (The Gambler, American Pie, Brown-Eyed Girl, Friend of the Devil, Mr. Bojangles, etc.) that every guitar player will be asked to play in their life, there is no book you can buy that simply has the words and chords or arrangements for them. You might think there would be such a book. Everyone would buy it, but it does not exist, and cannot legally exist.

Very few songbooks actually show the correct guitar chords for songs you want to play, and are often written in piano keys, and have arrangements that are not the way it was recorded or played by the artist that made the song famous. This can trip you up if you don't know about it, and a Bob Dylan songbook might have a song written in the key of Eb that he actually played in D or G. It's mysterious and unfair that such books are all over the place.


Add to this the fact that there is no right way to play the guitar, and you have even more choices. Do you want to play in a band? Play solo? Play instrumental music? Write songs? No one has ever decided whether it is more right to play with a pick or with your fingers, or with fingerpicks, or with artificial nails, and they are all valid ways to play. There are quite a few choices in string thicknesses that will affect how you sound and how hard it is to play the guitar.

So what do you do?

Personally, I think it is vital to have a model-- someone whose music and sound you want to emulate, as a good place to begin. Listening to recordings and imprinting with the sound you like is a very good place to start, though so little of the great guitar music of the world has ever made it to the mainstream airwaves. Exploring record stores, radio programs that play alternative music, and the Internet might turn up some names and sounds that might change your life and your musical direction. It would not hurt you to just listen to hundreds of recordings, and do whatever you can to expose yourself to the kinds of music that are out there before you do anything else. Learning about the music that is out there might be the most important thing of all. If you have never heard the music that moves you, how can you be moved by the music? You can spend your whole life trying to hear all the great guitar players, and you will never hear them all or even know their names. Yet it is very likely that there are musicians somewhere who are playing guitar music just the way you want to hear it, and you have to find them somehow.

If you have a direction in mind, this will help you decide what kind of instrument you need, and what approach to use. If you want to sing and write songs, you can do that without knowing anything about reading guitar music, and it won't necessarily hurt you. If you want to play in a blues band, you have a very different set of needs and a different course of instruction to follow. Finding someone in your community who plays the kind of music you are interested in can be a huge help, and possibly the best way to go about learning. See and hear it done is in my mind a better thing that simply looking at it in a book. Learning how to express yourself is what it's all about, and you can learn that from watching it done, and it is something that no book could ever teach you. Rhythm is the heart of all music, and is also best learned from recordings and performances and by playing socially with others, not from books.

So Friend Who Wishes to Play Guitar, please sift through all this mess, and find the music in you that wants to come out. If you are drawn to the guitar, there is a reason, and you yourself have to take an active role in deciding how you will learn. You must teach yourself, and your teachers must be guides and resources and not authoritarian figures, and you must always, even as a beginner, play music that means something to you. If it does not, you must speak up and find some music that does mean something and play that, whatever it is. The world always has room for someone who plays music that means something to them, however clumsily they may do it, and the world does not need any more music that is not a real expression of the person playing it. It only seems like you play guitar with your hands. You really play it with your heart, your mind, your soul and your body, all working together in harmony.

©2009-2016 by Harvey Reid

PO Box 815 York Maine 03909  USA
phone (207) 363-1886

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