Beginning Guitar – Where to start?

I love when students walk in for a lesson who have never played guitar before. Usually, they have a mix of wonder, confusion, excitement and apprehension. Some of them have wanted to play guitar for a long time and some are transitioning over from another instrument. Whatever the case, learning the guitar can be a daunting task.

Unlike, the piano (and I chose piano because it is a chordal instrument), the guitar doesn’t immediately sound “good.” This is always the first thing that I go over in my lessons (and something that is continually revisited….even with advanced students). “Let’s get a good sound on that string”…..almost all students can discriminate between a good sound (clear, ringing) and a bad sound (muted, buzzing) on an open string. The next challenge is keeping that “good” sound when playing fretted notes and eventually chords. When you press any key on a piano, it’s going to sound “good” without any extra effort. On the guitar, finger placement and pressure are two of the main factors in initially getting a good sound. Students are often amazed at how tough it can be for this first step to occur.

The challenge is to guide students so that they quickly progress on their instrument without losing interest or giving up. Fortunately, as long as you are picking up the guitar outside of lessons, things move FAST. Then it is my job to guide students on the path that best suits their individual goals.

I have two vivid memories from when I first picked up a guitar. One of them was in elementary school and a friend brought in a guitar (probably for show and tell). He couldn’t play much, but he showed me how to slide my fingers along the strings and make the COOLEST sound. I was hooked. The second memory was from when I was allowed some alone time with an acoustic guitar a few years later. First order of business was to turn all of those knobs at the end of the guitar. I wasn’t concerned with how it sounded, but I was interested in how the instrument worked. For the record… it sounded terrible. But again, I was curious and wanted to know more. Fast forward 20 years and I am still curious and I still want to know more. The beauty of playing an instrument is that there is always more to learn and the journey never ends. Most people can get to a point where they feel accomplished on the guitar, but the real work comes in later…Derek Trucks said it best in an interview from earlier this year:

“You think you know it and understand it early on, but it is something you find over time. The more you play and the more situations you’re in, you’re fine-tuning it. You’re sanding it and making it finer. But then there’s what’s next. The first 80 to even 90 percent of getting really good as a player, it happens quick. That first chunk is something a lot of people get to as they get good. But it’s the later 10 percent and five percent…not that it ever stops going, but when you keep going you get into really tiny margins that separate good players from great players and great players from next-level players. That’s what you’re working on. It’s the super subtle things. People may not know them, but they do feel them.”

In the meantime, I’m going to keep working on that last 10%…