I am interested in your attitudes about learning the guitar. Different attitudes play a major role in the approaches people take to learning the guitar. So that’s important to me because I spend a lot of time trying to help people learn the guitar. In Thomas Hart Benton’s great Midwestern-impressionist painting “The Music Lesson” a little barefoot country girl is watching intently as a young man in a straw hat and overalls shows her something on a flattop guitar. You should look it up. The painting captures many things about the process of learning the guitar: for one, they’re both serious about it, giving it their undivided attention. The kid has laid aside a toy, and the man has apparently stopped what he was doing in the fields, and this moment of the guitar engrosses them both. The tune he plays is probably a simple country tune. The sheer beauty of the moment reminds you that this scene is more than just something that happened that day; something special is going on, and the artist intentionally invites you to think about what that is.
In workshops I try to capture that kind of moment for people. I believe in the importance of it; I was that little kid myself once and I remember how guitar music grabbed me, caught my attention, and ultimately changed my life. I’ll always be grateful to the Late Ernie Caudill for being like the guy in the painting, patiently explaining the mysteries. And by god, if you’re in one of my workshops I want explain those mysteries to you too, I want you to be wracked by guitar music and have it change everything for you, just like it did for me.
And for some people this is all very annoying: I’ve had to realize, not everyone who studies the guitar and attends a workshop wants a heavy dose of philosophy. Not everybody goes all metaphysical and wants his/her life to be warped around by the guitar. So I may get up on my high horse in a workshop and rant about how learning the guitar can be a life changing experience, but it’s a case of that line from Blake’s poem Dover Beach, “And many believed, and many doubted.” Or to quote the late Red Allen, “Some sells and some don’t.”
Yes, I have had workshop folks tell me our two hours with the guitar was one of the best experiences of their lives, and others will say, “Aw Dan, I just wanted a few little tricks and runs.” Well, fair enough, it’s my job to respect both of those extremes and everything else in between. Your attitude toward the guitar is something you bring to the game, it will have a big effect on how you learn to play, and my job (including here in Flatpicking Guitar) is to meet you halfway and give you some help.
Maybe you’re a player who doesn’t aspire to become a great soloist or a blazing lead player. For example, some of the world’s most satisfying music comes from one singer, self-accompanied on one guitar. If that’s what you aspire to, beautiful; here’s my 15 bucks for your CD, I want to hear it. A simple, perfect accompaniment to a song can be one of the highest aspirations of the guitar: I have a record of Burl Ives from the early fifties playing folk songs solo to a great auditorium in London, England. Burl Ives’ playing was the definition of simple, but what he played was so perfect for the song, he could bring down a great house with the power of it. Other great solo singer/accompanists I have heard would include Scotsman Dick Gaughan, the Irish singer Paul Brady , and in this country, the quietly insidious perfections of the guitar of Chuck Pyle.
So here’s some help on learning the guitar, whatever your attitude about it may be. First, whether you just want to accompany some vocals, (no, no, not “just;” that’s important too), or you want to chase the whole flatpicking spectrum, it will help if you assess what your attitude actually is. Many of us just start playing and drift along without considering the possibilities and planning for them. Whatever you decide you want to do, it’s a good idea to get deliberate and intentional about it. If you want to be a hot flatpicker in a band or solidly back up your vocals, or some combination of these extremes, I can help you do that. But I can’t help you much if you haven’t decided that you want to move ahead and where. Now of course, it’s not like we know everything about the future or about ourselves; it’s not easy in your life or mine to chart a perfect path forward and stick to it without fail. But having no idea of where you want to go is a perfect strategy for getting, I’m sorry to say, nowhere. So please take some clues from successful guitarists and students, and see how their attitudes help them move ahead.
Attitudes and Habits of Successful Guitarists:
- They constantly look for ways to improve. A little (gentle) self-evaluation alerts us to places to improve. Everything gets this scrutiny. Even the things we’ve done for many years, maybe especially those things, get a going over, get changed for the better, polished, improved.
- They listen to music critically. All capable guitarists develop a “benchmark” of what sounds good and try to get there themselves; and not just guitar music, but music.
- They listen to what they play. This is turning up among student players a lot: people are struggling to get their fingers in the right place, but forgetting to listen to themselves and compare what they hear to their benchmark.
- They enjoy finding things out for themselves. Virtually every good thing was discovered by somebody who was curious. All serious players have this quality and enjoy discovering things about the guitar.
- They are getting ready to perform for some audience. It may be in a living room or a hospital or church or open mike or gig, but playing for somebody and trying to make it good is, most certainly, the best “practice.”
- They have a plan. I’m an advocate of a “one year from today” plan, but even a looser one than that will help, and write it down somewhere.
- They teach themselves. You do, I do, all God’s children gotta’ teach themselves. Teachers, conservatories, books, none of these can teach you. They help you discover the information, then you teach yourself by assimilating it.
So it’s OK for you to have your own personal aspirations for the guitar and what you would like to achieve. But whatever they are, great or small, they can all involve the above, they can all be played well. Look, my friends, there’s an awful lot of junk in the world, a lot of not very good music, badly played, out of tune, no dynamics, mechanical sounding, no effort, no discrimination, unsophisticated, wretched stuff that is unworthy of the guitar, not because it’s simple, but because it’s bad. A little discipline, careful listening, regular improvement and a sense of what’s possible, and your guitar is ready to produce something beautiful to change and enrich your life.
But there I go again.