Confessions Of A Hopeless Guitarist: Learning to fly
It’s never too late to pick the guitar back up and try to get better.
Image: Inti St. Clair / Getty Images
For every Guthrie Govan in the world, there are thousands upon thousands of us who can say they play the guitar, but in reality have been rehashing the same few chords and licks they learned years ago without ever really learning. But it doesn’t have to be that way – it’s never too late to pick the guitar back up and try to get better. Welcome then, to the Confessions Of A Hopeless Guitarist.
It’s time to learn how to play the guitar. Properly. This is something I’ve told myself before, of course, many times over the last 20 years of messing around with the instrument, desperately seeking out any short-cut that never really works and bashing my way through my 10-song campfire chords repertoire (badly) when no one is listening. But this time I mean it, and I’m going to start from scratch.
A little background: I’ve listened to and loved guitar music my whole life and I’ve owned a guitar of one shape or another for two decades now, but I still can’t play the damned thing. Sure, I’ve forced a few friends that can play to show me “an easy way to play Smells Like Teen Spirit” (yes, that was a specific request), and a basic grasp of tab has allowed me to wrestle a few other riffs out of my instrument. If you walked past – on a good day – while I was running through Kasey Chambers’ This Flower, well, I’ve done that so many times now I might even be competent enough at it for you to think in that moment that I could play. But I can’t, I really can’t.
Back at the start of the first UK lockdown – which, unbelievably, is a whole year ago now – I thought an opportunity to finally put this to rest had presented itself, so I signed up to Fender Play’s perfectly pitched three-month free trial offer. My heavily-pregnant-at-the-time wife expressed an interest in learning too, and over the course of those three months we made the time in our housebound evenings to have a little fun with the instrument and make a little progress. So much so that we signed ourselves up for the next 12 months… and then baby number two arrived and brought things to a shuddering halt.
But those three months lit a fire in me that hasn’t quite gone out, and seven months later cracks are appearing in our evenings again that could be given over to guitar practice. Sometimes I’m not too tired to contemplate the idea either. So it’s time to get back to it.
What is my motivation, and why do I think it will work out this time? Well, I want to play and understand music for my own enjoyment, but I’ve wanted to do that all my adult life and it has never been enough to motivate me past those moments where the thought, ‘it’s quite hard, actually, whereas going to the pub is easy’ takes over. Well, now going to the pub is hard, and the desire to be able to pass on an understanding and enjoyment of music and music making to two children is way more motivating than some nebulous idea of ‘being able to play guitar’…
I take those children to a local baby and toddler music class (well, I do when I can, it’s online at the moment) and as we play about with beat and rhythm using the Kodaly method (much more of that to come!) I realise I’m so lacking in basic musical knowledge that I’m learning too! This is my music theory level: pre-school.
So this is where I’m at: I don’t just want to be able to play guitar blind, I want to understand what I’m doing with the thing. Probably the only line from any school report I can remember came from my music teacher: “He is not a musical boy, but he tries.” To give him the benefit of the doubt, I think it was supposed to be a recognition of some effort on my part, but all it really did was convince me to stop trying. What was the point if I could never be musical anyway? Well now I’m older, by far, and I’ve learned that “being musical” might come naturally to some people, but to most it is something they have worked hard at. Perhaps that’s what my teacher was trying to encourage, in a cack-handed way, and perhaps now I can finally put that theory to the test.
So here’s to stopping messing around, stopping looking for excuses, and to starting to dedicate what little time and brain-power I have to something that will bring pleasure to my life and hopefully give me a vocabulary with which I can send our children on their own musical journey. And if you’re just developing your relationship with this most tactile of instruments, I’d love for you to come with me. Let’s do this.
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