Thursday, April 2, 2015

How I learned the guitar

Before I begin, let me preface this. I am a self-taught guitarist so the following instructions may not be for everyone, particularly if you heard me play.
Like any kid there was the comedy music about trains and beanstalks and silly creatures presented to us, but nothing impressive. Even the routine trips to the symphony or the Gaelic tattoos embedded into my preparation for learning music, but I was not aware of the influence. 

In school us kids were given (although someone paid for them) little black plastic recorders and a brown book of music. This was the first attempt to actually show our young minds how to play music. We learned how to place our fingers to make a chord and follow the instructions of the teacher with a ruler keeping the time. A bunch of kids blowing notes in a ceramic classroom makes quite a noise.
Some of my friends went on to proper classes with real orchestra instruments with teachers learning how to follow dots on paper, but I couldn’t find an instrument I liked. I think I wanted to be a drummer because those were the guys in the symphony who had the neat parts. My parents got me toy drums and bongos. That didn’t do it.
At the time, big band music was fading into folk music. This ‘new’ music started to be played on the radio and television. My brother bought records by the Kingston Trio, so I thought that music was cool because he was my older brother. There were still bongos left over from the beat poetry period, but the guitar and banjo were the instrument to desire.
Not knowing how to sight read sheet music, I reverted to chords. We had an Autoharp that showed the chords in the little brown music book; so I started strumming it with the few Appalachian songs and religious hymns that were now being played as popular folk music. 

At the same time during our yearly vacations to my grandmother’s house, I would bang on her upright piano outside the kitchen. I’m sure one of the musical family members showed me some finger positions and I just picked up the rest. I would play the chords over and over and over again figuring out melodies and progressions and major and minor, but not very well. Still this gave me background for learning the guitar.
The first music from the radio that caught my ear was “16 Tons” performed by Tennessee Ernie Ford. My mother liked his bass voice so she stopped and sang along whenever it played. Another hit was “Big Bad John” done by Jimmy Dean. This would be my bass influence.
So I picked up the Autoharp and found a chord that could match what I heard on the radio. Most of what I learned was by ear.
I would walk to the neighborhood music store that sold pianos and had a few guitars in a backroom. Pianos were big in the 50s as a sign of status while guitars were relegated to pawn shops for country western music. I finally found something I could afford and brought it home.
I had purchased a 4-string ukulele in the form of a banjo.
Now I had to learn how to play it. I got a Hal Leonard guitar lesson book and sat in the bedroom and tried to mimic the finger positions. As I got the chords right, I would change them faster and faster until I could keep up with the record.
While the little banjo made a noise, it wasn’t a guitar.
Limited funds required me settling on a purchase of a baritone ukulele. It looked like a guitar, but smaller and still with 4-nylon strings. I could play along with my cousins who had real guitars, but couldn’t get the sound to match.
My father stepped in and from a friend got me a 6-string arch top ‘real’ guitar. Thought it had terrible action and wasn’t matching the cool guitars on television, it was a ‘real’ guitar and I carried it around for over a year banging away on whatever I could pick up from more chord lesson books and techniques copied from friends. I was finally changing chords with the time of the records, even though the sound was not as good as I imagined.
Then all of a sudden rock and roll happened and the acoustic guitar was replaced by electric. I started joining bands and learning more than I ever could from books. I still wasn’t very good at playing 6-strings so I was designated to play bass. That was easy. Back to 4-strings was familiar and comfortable.
I learned how to tune a guitar without using a pitch pipe or a piano. I learned how to finger pick. I learned how to make a barre cord. I learned how to play open string tuning. I learned how to play slide. I learned a lot of techniques by watching and practice.
I tried to keep up with all the musical changes from folk to folk-rock to rock to R&B to psychedelic to heavy metal and back again. At the same time wasting my money on different guitars trying to keep up with the ever-changing sound.
So my advice is listen and learn. If you have the passion, you will connect with an instrument. If your dream is to become famous, remember there is always someone much better than you just around the corner.
I’ve enjoyed the instrument of the guitar and all of its varieties. Even with limited ability, it has always been there as a true friend. Thanks for the company.

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