How I learn a new subject: guitars

My wife challenged me to tell my readers how I learned about guitars. The learning process itself was active, joyful, surprising and educational. I will share my personal approach – not tools tested by hundreds of students.

What your students really want to know

Yesterday I and my wife had one of our strange dialogues
“You publish courses and books and talk a lot but you never tell them what they really want to know!”
“Hey, what? I am telling them what they need. Why on earth would they need the stuff that I learn now?”
“You learned about guitars for the last couple of months. By now you know more than your kids that live guitars. Maybe even more than their teacher! Tell your students how!”
“Challenge accepted. I will do my best”

Start with background

A year ago I knew nothing about guitars, except the fact that I bought a couple for my kids following some online recommendations and do not like the result. I always start from the background: what I bring to the table and what can I realistically achieve. Since I have an extensive scientific background all the theory and the equipment should be easy for me, but since I am not agile and have no prior musical education trying to play will delay me by a couple of years. All I wanted was very simple: the best guitars and guidance my kids could get without spending a ridiculous amount of money.

Next, I evaluated my resources. I read fast, so I can scan web articles for information. Especially when I am waiting for something (meeting to start, code to compile, kids to prepare bags). If I need to buy a guitar to test something I can spare a few hundreds of dollars. When I drive to work I can listen to music on my mobile device. That does not sound like a lot, but it is a lot for me.

Get initial information

When approaching a totally new subject I want to know the common classifications used. When I started I knew that there are classical and electric guitars. There are also bass guitars, but soon I understood it is a different subject which I learned at the same time using similar resources. So I went to the local music store once again and examined the guitars in the store. All of them. About 400 guitars within 2 hours. The salesman is my kids’ music teacher so I did not feel bad trying things. After the visit, I got the next layer of classification. The guitars are characterized by their players and their choice of music: the jazz guitars are semihollow or hollow with beefy strings, the flamenco guitars have very specific spruce tops, the shredders use light guitars with low action, and the rock guitarists use solidbody guitars with great sustain.

Understand the terminology and the feel

It took me several months of reading simply to understand the terminology in English. I read in chunks of 5 or 10 minutes between other things. The guitar anatomy was very easy to grasp. The musical terminology was and is very complex. I still do not fully understand the music theory but will talk about it later. What I especially enjoyed: the way people describe the tone of guitar as beefy or punchy, bright and clear, or mellow and warm. Once I started to understand these terms, I started listening to music, trying to get various tones and to define them.

People do not just love guitars because they allow them to make music. The relationship is very deep. The makers of the guitar treat it as an art object: it needs to look sexy, the playability should be great, the sound should be superb and distinctive, it should be promoted by some great artists and then there is some black magic nobody can explain. There is a strong emotional relationship between a guitar and its owner. It is almost alive as a pet. Guitar owners love to observe it, touch it, make it do tricks. We love to learn its perks and hold it near our bodies when we rest. The guitar should be regularly taken care of, and when it plays we feel its rotation with our stomach. This feels much warmer and more personal than say a piano.

History and experience

To my horror, I found out that my kids play quite well but know very little about the history of music. I love classical music, but it does not excite me like jazz or rock, and I have a special fondness for progressive rock since I was a teenager. My kids knew very little about it. They played accords and solos, but they did not understand the cultural background of the masterpieces, the way guitar music is connected to our lives. The first thing I did, was letting my kids hear great music: Beatles, Queen, Pink Floyd, and the stuff chosen by the Rolling Stone editors. For some pieces, I started to read their history and the cultural impact so I could tell my kids the relevant stories.

At the same time, I read the history of the legendary guitar builders, the names and stories behind the brands and guitars in the music shop. I personally feel a very deep appreciation to Leo Fender, the man who invented the best guitars ever and yet he never learned to play guitars decently. Probably the biggest hit with my kids was the story of the name “telecaster”.

Active learning is very important for a great learning experience. Sharing the stuff I learned with my kids provided me with the motivation to learn more and allowed me to focus on the stuff I did not quite understand.

Throwing away the garbage

Now I knew enough to undertake my own “make this guitar great” project. I did not like the guitars my boys had, and now I understood why. Their Stratocaster was noisy, their bass guitar lacked puck and personality, their acoustic guitar was too wide and it’s metal strings were not flexible enough. Everything I did following my kids and their teachers was wrong. I had to start again.

The upgrade path is very different between guitars. The Fender designs are modular and everything can be upgraded step by step. Acoustic guitars do not like to be modified and if you are not happy with what you have it is easy to buy something else. In other guitars, the situation is somewhere in the middle: you can replace some parts and see what happens.

Before I could build my perfect guitars, I had to understand what makes guitars bad. So I bought another guitar: a beautiful red Chinese guitar with cool features and reviews, but a very low price tag. Now I started to see the results of poor construction. The action could not be set and some frets were buzzing. The pickups were covered in golden plates, but their sound was sole-less. The neck was uncomfortable and its lacker stuck to sweaty fingers. The guitar was semi-hollow but the body did not resonate. And the guitar needed to be tuned every 20 minutes.

My perfect guitars

I bought a couple of guitars for 300USD each and started experimented. For my experiments, I have chosen brands known for great construction, but mediocre electronics and wood, as electronics is easy to change and similar tonewoods have a very similar sound. Different kinds of maple have the same sound but very different costs.

First I changed the strings to the strings that did not get rusty under sweaty fingers (e.g. nanocoated Elixir brand). Then I focused on the element that contributes to the tone of the electric guitar the most: pickups. These transducers are not terribly expensive, their construction is black magic, and they are translating the motion of the strings into electronic signals. I researched the subject thoroughly, and put on my guitars some of the best transducer tech known to man with some electronics to switch it well into the domain of custom and private stock guitars. I did not go crazy with this. The pickups I bought were around 100USD each, I stayed away from Fishman Fluence (their sound is too clean for me) or neodymium cores (they are unforgiving to bad players). The kid’s guitar teacher recommended a technician, so I did not install the electronics myself. While the technician was very experienced (30 years of work with musical instruments), some of the stuff I bought was new to him like these switches.

After the upgrade process, I had guitars better than everything in the music shop, but I was not happy with the sound.

Amplifiers and cables

While I had great guitars, they still sounded lousy. It does not take long with google to understand that I need an amplifier. I bought some strong solid-state amp, and also some small cheap tube amps that I used as preamplifiers. Quality tube amplifiers can be very expensive, but using miniature tube amps as preamplifiers for solid-state amplification system is a great tradeoff, 300USD each.

The tube amplifiers puzzled me. It took me a long time before I decided to buy them. I heard a lot about their qualities for years, yet I did not understand what their story is. It took me some time to recall that transistors work well in a certain dynamic range between the cutoff and saturation. The tubes work great not just in this range, but also below cutoff and above the saturation. The resulting sound is very rich and its dynamic range is superb. This is not something you can hear on youtube: you really need quality equipment to reproduce the sound. As engineers, we usually tend to stick to binary switching or linear amplification, nut if we step out of our comfort zone the universe becomes wild and rich.

I also needed to replace the cables. This is something I did not want to do. Eventually, I understood that even the length of the cable influences the sound through impedance and capacitance. How? On youtube there are stories about the equipment used by famous musicians, and how they need to bring their 50 ft cables to recording studios simply to reproduce the sound.

Pedals and the quest for the perfect sound

I will not go into that story here, as it can take another 2000 words… Maybe some other time.

Entering musical theory

As you can see, the equipment is a very hands-on activity. I buy read about stuff, then I buy it, read about what I bought, reread reviews, buy upgrades, read why some upgrades succeed and some fail, buy better upgrades and so on. I could not generate a similar engineering routine with musical theory.

The theory is something kids learn after playing for a couple of years. They hear the sounds and now they want to understand how they were built. For me, the process was very different. I needed to understand what my children SHOULD learn, and then how to motivate everybody involved.

While the guitar teacher could play anything on my equipment and it sounded amazing, my kids did not produce the proper sound. I needed to understand why.

Guitar is different

It took me some time to understand that guitars, pianos, and drums have different musical theories. My kid came from conservatorium happy with his theory class, and he even won some national championship, yet it did not feel right. He could easily construct and analyze accords on his piano, yet when he took a guitar he did not understand his accords. He could not improvise and knew nothing about scales and chord progressions. This is not good. Each time he would forget a note he would stop and start from scratch. If an accord did not sound right, that would bother him but he could do very little.

Every online site about electric guitars has some diagrams of accords, and immediately afterward starts pentatonic scales. I told the teacher that I want my son to improvise and I want him to learn pentatonic scales. The teacher reluctantly agreed.

Guitar teachers want your kids to have fun

Why on earth are guitar teachers so reluctant to teach kids proper theory and proper technique? Because guitars are cool and students who come to play guitar are cool. You cannot make a proper violin sound without studying for a year. To play piano you need to master the notation. With guitar you start playing songs from the second lesson. Even the guitar legends are predominantly self-taught. The guitar is not associated with classical music, jazz or rock. It can do everything. There is no one proper guitar notation or technique. There are many, and it takes years to master some of them (tabs, chords, notes and so on).

When a boy can play a song like his peers, and instead focuses on theory and technique, he might get discouraged. No guitar teacher wants that. They want to have fun. Their musical DNA is to be the cool kids, free and expressive.

A new contract

I approached my son’s guitar teacher and we had an interesting dialog:
“Why all you teach my kids are these songs?”
“They love them, and I promise they will play beautifully”
“I want them to achieve much more”
“Interesting. What do you mean?”
“I want them to use a guitar as a metaphor for learning science, marketing, and contemporary” history!”
“Sounds great! Please teach them. I will teach them to play guitar :)”
“Let us agree to help each other…”

Weekly walks

At this point, I focused on my first boy, as the other kids simply wanted to play songs and have fun. We started to walk for 40 min once or twice every week, discussing subjects from various disciplines and how they can be expressed through guitars.

It was very easy to discuss electronics using the simple chain of a guitar and its amplifiers as an example. Regarding marketing, the connection was even better: why some companies succeed, while others fail? Why so many brands came to fame in 50s and only PRS in the last couple of decades? How production differs between USA, Japan, Korea, China, and Indonesia?

Some things I remembered. Other things I had to learn further myself.


While I noticed that my kids played increasingly better with their teacher, they did not sound so great when practicing. I started to notice that they use correct ergonomics with the teacher, while they used less correct ergonomics when practicing. Moreover, they tried to play faster so that the deficiencies of their ergonomics will be less noticeable.

There is a known trick. If you want to do something perfectly, do it slowly. I showed my kids how BBKing played guitar and asked them to do the same. Each note uncovered all the mistakes they made. They spent several sessions with their teachers acquiring the right technique, and I learned the proper technique by quizzing them. Oh, and I paid some pocket money to my eldest so he taught me the proper way to play.

Know-what vs know-how

Yesterday I had a teaching session with my second son and I taught him to play bass guitar better, correcting various mistakes. It does not mean I can play the guitar. I understand what contributes to the guitar itself, to the tone of the music and to the playing technique. I can probably teach certain things.

There is a great difference between “know-what” and “know-how”. I cannot build a guitar, but I can probably design a damn good guitar. I can talk a lot about a certain tone, but I do not have the muscle memory to reproduce it.

It is probably easy to learn more, better and faster than I did, but I invested very little into the process. I was working my two jobs, doing all my house chores and enjoying all the things I enjoy while acquiring new knowledge virtually effortlessly.

Get 4 Free Sample Chapters of the Key To Study Book

Get access to advanced training, and a selection of free apps to train your reading speed and visual memory

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.