Zen and the Art of Guitar Playing

Originally I wrote up a version of the following for my high school students who constantly asked me about learning to play guitar.



I usually tell people that I didn't start playing guitar until 1993, but that isn't entirely true. The first guitar I had was a bass which I got for xmas in 1990.  I learned how to play a few bass lines, but I never really did much with it (what can you do with a bass after all?).  Eventually I bought a cheap classical guitar which I could only play up to the fifth fret of.  Above that the intonation was off.  It sounded terrible unless you were good at finger-picking or you played very slowly with a pick.  It taught me how to handle a guitar gently rather than trying to be a "rock star" the way a lot of kids start out.

A year or so later I finally picked up an electric guitar at a "salvage" place, basically a step below a flea market.  For the next year or so I played it through the bass amplifier (the only amp I had!) with no effects (not even distortion).  The guitar hurt my fingers a lot.  This was largely due to the fact that I had exceptionally thick strings on it at one point.  In spite of the fact that it was a smaller scale guitar, I somehow ended up with size 11 strings.  What did I know about string sizes?!  For some reasons I kept playing it anyway.  In spite of the hardship and the lack of any of the conventional advantages of an electric, this junk guitar really allowed me to do things that I hadn't done before musically, just not very efficiently.

When I got to college I started playing a friend's acoustic. I found it was easier than my electric, so I eventually bought a new acoustic guitar of my own.  This gave me still more musical freedom, though not as much as an electric might.  I decided to get a *real* electric guitar, and finally did a few months later: a Fender Stratocaster.

I recall one afternoon, not too long after I bought the Strat, my dad heard me playing.  I was doing all sorts of tricks, running scales, bending strings, and all the things I was never able to do on any instrument before that.  He asked me how I learned to play that quickly.  I explained that I had always known, I had simply never been able to play like that before.  I suppose that if I had gotten a Fender Strat the xmas before I would have been able to play like that all along. Then again, maybe I had to be held back to learn the basics before I could just take off down the fretboard.  I guess that perspective helped explain how I learned things all along.

In the movie "The Karate Kid," Ralph Macchio plays a young boy eager to learn martial arts.  He wants to learn to throw punches, but his teacher tells him he will only show him after he completes a series of chores for him.  Most people who grew up around the time the movie was released can tell you immediately what "Wax on, Wax off" means.  By concentrating intensively on very elemental movements, the student was able to assemble a vocabulary of pieces he would use later on at higher levels of competence.

Similarly, I never would have appreciated the role of the bass in a song or what the root notes were if I hadn't played bass guitar first.  I was so eager to solo that I probably would never would have learned to gently play basic open chords or fingerpick if I wouldn't have owned that cheap nylon string guitar that wouldn't let me make music above the fifth fret.  It is possible that even playing on my first piece-of-junk electric guitar gave me some proficiency at playing proper string bends.  I know I can trace learning scales across the entire neck to having gotten a decent acoustic guitar.

Thinking back now, that's a metaphor for a lot of things in our lives.  We always need to be held back a bit.  You need to know how to pack your chute before you jump out of the plane.  I never saw so many people drop out of school as I did my freshman year in college.  Why?  I guess they were just handed too much freedom all at once.  They never learned how to put together a good plan before they set off playing.

I know a lot of the time you spend preparing yourself to go into the world feels unnecessary, but it isn't. It is far better to live your life over-prepared than to screw up and never have those options available to you down the road because you weren't ready when an opportunity presented itself.







Copyright Alexplorer.
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