The Guitar. To Play or Not to Play.

So you're thinking of learning to play the guitar? Excellent choice. The guitar is one of the most amazing instruments ever created and has grown to be the most popular instrument in the western world in the last 50 years.

It is capable of producing an incredible variety of different sounds for such a small, portable instrument weighing less than 10 pounds. It has so many different moods and tones that it has found a niche in most every style of music there is ... Classical, Rock, Blues, Country, Folk, Jazz, Pop, Gospel and Alternative. Improvements in manufacturing in the past few decades have made it available to the masses in unprecedented numbers and we have taken to it with relish ... grinding out a lot of the the defining music of recent generations. Ask any kid what musical instrument he wants to play these days and the answer is the same. For many of us, our favorite musical heroes of all times all play the guitar.

But what exactly makes the guitar the instrument that it is? What are you going to have to address in order to learn how to play it? Can anybody learn to play guitar? Are there any age restrictions? What specific skills do you need? These are just some of the questions many of you have as you contemplate taking up the instrument. How long does it take to get good at it? What kind of progress can I expect? How long before I can be in a band with my friends? We'll attempt to answer those questions for you here.

Guitars come in all shapes and sizes ... acoustic, electric ... nylon string, steel string ... solid bod, hollow body ... single coil or humbuckers. Pick the one that your favorite artists play .... or have fun experimenting with all of them!

The guitar is a wonderful little 6 note polyphonic instrument that evolved out of earlier members of the lute family in the 17th and 18th centuries. The most popular versions have 6 strings though they are often seen with as few as 4 and as many as 12. The Bass Guitar generally plays an octave or more below the 6 string variety. Together they can cover a range of 5 octaves and form the main pitch architecture of many modern ensembles ... notably Rock, Blues, Country and Jazz bands.

The guitar has a fretted fingerboard making it possible to accurately articulate chords with as many as 6 simultaneous notes (one per string) in them. This was revolutionary technology for it's time and changed the landscape of music forever. Almost anybody could coax out wonderful sounds and harmonies with a little practice. For the masters of music, it could be like having a mini-orchestra in the palms of their hands. They could be built so inexpensively that even slaves and street poets could conceivably get their hands on one ... chipping away at the elitism that can so easily dominate culture. More people are involved with music today then at any point in history and technology once again drives innovation. The guitar has been there in the thick of it all along. With the advent of the electric guitar, and now, guitar synths, this plucky little powerhouse seems poised to lead us into the 21st century as well.

The guitar has also proven itself a powerful and passionate solo instrument. In Blues and Jazz, the masters speak to us of the whole range of human emotion through their improvised melodies. Modern singer/songwriters tell the enduring stories of our life and times ... songs of love and loss ... power and protest ... dreams and nightmares. It is impossible to look at the history of modern music and culture without seeing the guitarist ... Robert Johnson, Charlie Christian, Woodie Guthrie, Chuck Berry, BB King, Hank Williams, Chet Atkins, Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix, Black Sabbath, Nirvana, Dave Mathews ... just to name a few.

"Most players are on some level frustrated with their command of the instrument even if they aren't likely to admit it to you."

It seems every household has at least one aspiring picker in it. Guitars are everywhere and almost everyone takes a crack at it at some point. We all know at least 20 people who play (or claim to play) it. You might, however be surprised how few of those people are ever able to take it to the level that they had hoped when they first started. That's because, simple as it might be, it's still challenge to learn to play any musical instrument and there are many hurdles to overcome to just satisfy yourself let alone an audience. You have to understand what you're doing and be prepared to devote a significant amount of time to practice in order to achieve full expression.

Can you really teach yourself to play guitar? It's reputation for being easy to pick up can be misleading. Few people who claim to play guitar are really satisfied with their command of the instrument.

As we said, guitar is a polyphonic (many noted) instrument. It is capable of producing 6 simultaneous notes. A keyboard is also polyphonic ... capable of playing chords. A trumpet is a monophonic instrument (as are most wind instruments) and can only play one note at a time. It would take 6 trumpet players to do what you yourself can do with your guitar. That's why you usually see the monophonic instruments in larger groups (orchestra or brass band). The standard Rock band line-up of 2 guitars, bass (and maybe a keyboardist) can produce enough noise to drown out an entire Big Band ... (a fact not lost on commercial music producers of the 50s and 60's).

The downside is that the precise finger positioning and sheer physical strength of hand required to play this instrument can be challenging. The vast majority of folks who start off to play the guitar fail to achieve professional mastery of the instrument. Those guys down the street claim to play guitar but none of them could hold down a real gig in a working band. Even to satisfy yourself as a hobbyist requires more effort than most realize. We want to play guitar because we want to replicate that sound that our guitar heroes produce ... not stopping to realize that they're PROS who, in many cases, LIVE their art 24/7 for years. It's like thinkin' you're gonna' be Tiger Woods when you're only playing golf a couple of times a month. No matter what the whiz kid down the street says, nobody becomes a real player in much less than 3 to 5 years of relatively dedicated effort.

These days, kids as young as 5 want to play guitar. but most just don't have the motor control or attention span to progress. Get em' a mini guitar and let them have a go at it, but don't expect too much. Keyboards are often a better choice for kids in that age group.

Tired of not "getting it"?

Frustrated trying to learn to play guitar without understanding the fundamentals of music? Scotty's DVD guitar lessons can help.

The guitar can be a confusing instrument conceptually as well with the overlapping tuning of the strings. It doesn't have that apparent linearity that keyboards have. Folks can't visualize how the notes come together to form chords or melodies. Many are stuck learning songs by rote with song books or tablature ... never really understanding what they're doing. They find it near impossible to break loose and experience the more creative aspects of the art form ... composition, improvisation.

You really do need a plan. Most of us try to teach ourselves guitar because the perception is that it is an easy instrument to learn yourself ... but that's not always true. Again, the guy down the street never took any lessons ... but don't you want to play better than him? You need to be realistic. What do you want from your music? What kind of player do you want to be? A lot of new students say they never care about being in a band or anything ... but after awhile, you begin to see that in some ways, that's all it's about ... sharing the music with other people. You might have trouble maintaining your motivation and dedication if you don't get that outlet. Picture it. You might not be playing in 10 years if it's just you sitting there on the couch.

So if you're going to go with this, you're going to have to have some discipline. You're going to have to set aside some time to learn and practice. You'll need to be somewhat consistent. You're going to have to slop through some stuff that might be a little dry and boring. Remember, music is a language and there is always that "grunt work" aspect of learning it. Like any language, music has stuff like spelling, grammar and vocabulary and you're going to have significant memorization to do.

You would think that private lessons would be the best way to learn, but you need to make sure you find a good teacher. There are a lot of really bad guitar teachers out there ... and they can be so expensive and unreliable. So you try books or video lessons ... but they can be scattered and disorganized. It's hard to put "The Big Picture" together if you don't have a comprehensive, graduated method to follow.

The good news is music is not rocket science. Music is pretty much common sense and logical if you get it explained to you the right way. You can do this. With some dedication, you can produce some real art. There is no reason to suspect that you couldn't play at least as well as your favorite guitar heroes ... seriously ... I mean it. You just have to be realistic and practice smart. Get with a good plan and put in your time. The rewards are very real. Take it from me.

Music has been so good to me and my family. My Mom and brother Dave are both players. The friends I've made ... the times I've had ... the opportunity to dig down and express parts of myself that just wouldn't come out any other way? priceless. Heck! You might even get filthy rich doing it ... or at least make a few extra bucks playing a wedding with your buddies next weekend. Teaching is a good gig too ... if you have the patient personality for it. Music teachers are in demand now that school systems often don't provide meaningful music or art instruction anymore.

So I say go for it! Contact me anytime if you need advice. We're always glad to help. Best of luck with your music!

Scotty West, guitar teacher and creator of the Absolutely Understand Guitar Video Lesson Program