The many fascinating aspects of learning to play the guitar

If you’ve been following me lately, you know that, after a lifetime of being a music-loving non-musician, I’ve started learning to play the guitar. As I continue on this journey, I’m more and more amazed about what an all-encompassing activity playing a musical instrument is.

Truly, anytime you see anyone playing an instrument really well, you are witnessing the fruits of much love, work, passion, and dedication. It’s just incredible that there are so many good musicians to enjoy, and so many who are willing to share their knowledge. Musicians are really great people.

Let’s break down the phrase “learning to play the guitar.” First of all, there are many kinds of guitars and similar stringed instruments like ukuleles, dulcimers, and banjos. Even keeping it strictly to guitars, there are six-strings, 12-strings, acoustic, electric, acoustic-electric, bass, classical, and guitars with various other string counts, shapes, sizes, and styles. So many choices for just one instrument!

Then there is the style of guitar music you want to learn. You name it and it’s out there: blues, rock, pop, folk, classical, traditional, flamenco, and on and on. The musical use of the guitar is limited only by one’s imagination and passion. It is hard to believe that one single musical instrument is so incredibly versatile.

Once you settle on a type of guitar and a type of music, you next have to consider how to study and learn. Again, there are so many choices it’s almost overwhelming: books, videos, YouTube, private lessons, group lessons, friends and family, church groups, or just listening and trying to emulate what you hear.

Many of the most famous guitarists had very little or no training, don’t know how to read music, and yet can play the frets off any guitar you hand them. The all-time greatest electric guitar player, Jimi Hendrix, was so poor growing up he started playing on a broomstick.

His version of “The Star Spangled Banner” as played at Woodstock still sets the gold standard for alternative versions of our national anthem all these years later. Not too bad. Maybe I should get a broomstick.

My first guitar instructor was not big on reading music or music theory. He was more about feel, repeating a few basic chords, and turning them into songs after a lot of practice.

My next teacher, a music-school graduate and professional musician, was all about music theory, reading music, and learning about all the technical aspects of guitar playing. He had a totally different outlook than my prior teacher.

Same as when you browse the countless learn-to-play-guitar YouTube videos — everyone has their own take, and it’s up to you to find someone you can relate to. So much involved in that one phrase, “learning to play the guitar.”

As far as actually playing the guitar goes, here again, there is so much to learn. One can be a rhythm guitarist, carrying the main melody of the song while others take the solos that we all love.

Of course you have “guitar heroes” like the gone-from-this-world-all-too-soon Eddie Van Halen, who made everyone want to quit their jobs and schooling to become lead guitarists who can “shred,” for better or worse.

You can concentrate on playing individual notes, picking out songs and hymns note for note. Or you can strum chords (technically three or more but sometimes only two notes at the same time) and maybe write songs and sing and play them to try to become the next Bob Dylan.

Of course classical guitar is a vastly different technique, and so is fingerpicking country-style, and bending/tapping notes like in heavy metal, and, and, and — you get the idea. You can study guitar your whole life, it seems, and still find more to learn.

Once you learn the basic mechanics of the guitar — to play all the notes and chords cleanly with good tone — you’d think you’re home free. Not! That’s when the whole “musical” aspect of it comes into play.

It’s one thing to play by yourself, but if you want to play with others, you have to be “in time” or “on the beat” at all times. You have to know when to “come in,” and when a simple nod of the head can mean to start or to stop or to take a break.

Music is really another language and, like any language, it has its often arcane rules. It helps very much to learn to “sight read” standard sheet music and “tab” (tablature, an alternative written musical notation) as well. Got all that?

As you can imagine by now, for any kind of guitar-playing, there is just so, so much practice involved to even do the basics well. Just getting your two hands to work together in a coordinated fashion is a challenge.

Heck, it even comes down to the individual fingers. When I was having trouble making a certain chord, my piano-teaching, organ-playing, choir-directing, lovely and talented-beyond-belief wife, Charlotte, said to me, “You tell that finger to just stay down there and not to move.”

Imagine that, now I’m talking to a single finger. Just when you thought you’ve seen and heard everything.

What it really boils down to is, if you want to play guitar or any musical instrument or even sing, you have to be dedicated, have a passion for it, and practice, practice, practice. The way we learn things is to repeat them over and over so we can develop “muscle memory” and then just do them without thinking about it.

I did this with touch typing, with motorcycle riding, and with various other skills. There is no shortcut, either. If you put in lots and lots of hard, consistent work, you’ll slowly get better and better over time. It really is as simple as that.

I’ve been telling people that every time I have a good practice session I get a tenth of a millimeter better. One millimeter is a tiny distance, about as wide as one of the letters in this sentence, and a tenth of that is that much smaller, but that’s truly how I feel.

The fact that I seem to be getting this tiny bit better over time is just enough motivation to keep me going. In fact, the other day my wife heard me practicing and said, “That sounds like music.”

Wow. For a beginning guitar player, that kind of compliment, coming from someone as accomplished as she is, is as good as it gets.

At a local music store, you had to fill out a form to get a free lesson. As I was depositing my entry, I couldn’t help but notice the completed form that was already on the top of the stack. On the line where it asked “What are your goals in learning to play music?” was this, scrawled in big, blocky, child-like letters: “MAKE ME A STAR!”

Forgetting about our celebrity-obsessed culture for a moment, if the person would have answered something like “to learn how to play to the best of my ability,” ironically, he or she may really someday become a “star.”

No one can make you become a star, or a good husband, teacher, mechanic, etc. You have to work, and work hard, to succeed at anything in life. One would think that was common knowledge. Guess not!

If you’ve been thinking about starting a musical instrument, an exercise program, learning another language, or whatever, I urge you to stop thinking about it and just get off the couch and do it. Now that I know learning music is something I can at least attempt, I only wish I’d gotten started 20 years ago. Sigh.

The best musicians started when they were kids. So don’t just think about it or wait for it to come. Reach out and grab it and do it! You can if you want to. Yes, you really can.

Music is a gift that transcends ages and cultures. To finally be learning to make it myself is truly a dream come true.