Almost everybody wants to play the guitar, but very few people actually play guitar well. Why my kids play guitar and you should also try to play guitars? How to fight the urge to quit? How much to invest in this hobby? I will try to address all these questions. For more information read here, here and here.
Most musicians with time develop some love-hate relationships with their tools. I love a play called “double bass“, and I have seen it performed more than once. Professional musicians often venture between all kinds of crazy. Jimi Hendrix used to say “Sometimes you’ll want to give up the guitar, you’ll hate the guitar. But if you stick with it, you’re gonna be rewarded”.
What is so special about guitars and how to be rewarded without suffering and obsession?
Music for the productivity experts’ ears
Guitars are cool and people who play guitars are often even cooler, but this is not a good reason to play guitars.
Multiple studies show that guitar players perform highly in various memory tests, multitasking tests, and teamwork measurements. Why?
Simply to play the guitar it is appropriate to use two hands in a very coordinated fashion: one hand for picking and another for fretting. There will be no music if the hands do not coordinate. Electric guitar players need further to use their feet to activate pedals. Acoustic guitar players often find themselves singing along.
At the same time, the music itself appears in several synaesthetic ways. There is the sound of music that everybody hears, the feel of the guitar on the hands and the stomach, the visuals of the tabs and scales, and maybe some feel of the musical texture. It is a very full, satisfying and engaging activity.
The guitar is rich enough to be used solo, but that’s not the main format. The guitar players typically work in a team with other guitar players, drummers, bass players, singers, keyboard players and occasionally other musicians. Everything needs to be carefully timed and orchestrated, and there is no conductor or first violin to give cues.
Hard to learn? Not so much.
There is a definite learning curve for mastering the guitar, but it is not as steep as mastering a violin or a saxophone. The period of frustration is very short, and even the simplest sounds are beautiful very quickly. If the electric guitar does not sound very melodic, it can be used with a headset, making the life of the neighbors easier.
There are many sorts of guitars and kinds of playing. It takes many many years of focused practice to become very good at any playing style. Fortunately, crossing between various kinds of music is relatively easy, as guitars are pretty versatile and similar techniques can be used. All guitarists play pentatonic scales for a warm-up, and the same shapes of chords are used on all guitars.
The online guitar courses and private guitar tutors are ubiquitous. There are online tabs and chords for free that allow playing almost any song you fancy. Space is also not an issue. Guitars are beautiful, and they make any wall they hang on look better.
Guitar players suffer from gear acquisition syndrome. They can have 25 guitars and they sometimes spend a lot of money on these guitars. The discipline for the guitar player is not about playing more the same tunes, but about not spending more on new gadgets.
For 1000USD you will get a killer guitar and for another 1000USD you will get a killer amp. For 250USD you will get a playable beginner guitar and amp set. There is no real reason to spend 10000USD on equipment unless you either love the equipment and its modification or have 3 kids playing 3 different guitar styles.
Everything else deals with getting just the right sound. This is basically flawed, as great songs were recorded with very different and expensive tools. Even then, the touch of the player is more important than the tools used.
I understand the need for octave effects, delays and wah pedals, buying b-benders for country music, and I like Roland synths for enabling the more creative ideas. I can even understand why my son wants on his custom Gibson SG (Tokai actually) 3 humbuckers with triple shot switch on each to get just the right sound for each song.
There is no limit to the equipment people NEED. Dentists and lawyers need more equipment then professional musicians because professional musicians have discipline and focus on the music rather than shopping.
Theory and practice
Guitars offer the best combination of theory and practice. Every sort of player can find his own niche, but the best players use all the tools they can get.
There is a sense of cool spontaneuity in the guitar that is not available in other musical instruments. A guitar bag is small and the guitar can be played almost in any space and in any time. Especially acoustic guitar. Songs can be learned by listening and improvisation.
At the same time, there is a lot of theory in chord phrasing, chord progressions, musical scales and so on. My kids are among the very few people at school who always ask for theoretic justification along with actually practicing something. They get this understanding from their guitar teachers.
Yet, the best techniques are shared between players. These best-known methods are often called riffs and licks. The best way to learn them is by observing other players.
So a guitar player combines all sorts of learning: active and passive, theoretical and practical, alone or with a teacher or with peers. All these methods can later be applied to every other sort of learning.
Guitar players need to make a lot of decisions and understand the tradeoffs involved. There are so many guitars to choose from, different kinds of music and style of playing, musical environments and teammates. Every decision is both good and bad, and there is no way to progress without making decisions.
The guitar players I know are very cool and tolerant because they understand that the main difference between them and the other guy is a couple of decisions.
After learning to play for a year, my son came to me with an idea of an ultimate guitar. After 10 min of conversation, he understood that there is no such thing as good or bad without a specific context. Not something so easy to explain to a 10-years old boy.
Guitar players have music tracks for every mood. This can be very helpful because music is better than other things teenagers use. I prefer my kids expressing all the spectrum of emotion they need using their guitars. Maybe I will even join them.
Choosing the right song for the right mood is also very good for identifying the moods themselves, and sharing your feelings without being truly exposed.
There are more guitar heroes than any other sort of real-life role models. Each guitar hero comes with a different style and a story to match. Most of these stories are inspiring, but some are cautionary tales. There is a hero for each guitar player to relate with.
Personally I love Wes Montgomery who created his own way to play the guitar because he did not want to disturb his neighbors. My eldest son loves Brian May who created his guitar from rubbish and then played it for forty years sounding better than everybody else. My second some loves the Flea, who during a concert got injured and filled his bleeding finger with glue to complete the performance for his fans. There is a role model for every taste…
Goals and planning
Setting new songs to learn, finding the time to practice, juggling all the equipment and the activities with additional teammates. Guitar playing definitely boosts management skills.
Maybe a guitar is not the absolute tool for learning discipline. It is very expressive. A guitar player may be a drama queen, but a bass guitar player should always stay cool and really connect with his teammates. A bass guitar might be better for learning the value of perfect timing and teamwork. Many guitar players play bass guitar based on the specific gig and band.
Math and English skills
Constantly practicing songs might improve math and English skills. Math is related to the patterns that form chords and melody. English is the language used in the songs. Guitar players are also very good with metaphors as a way to explain the sound they need and its texture.
My eldest son started to teach me to play the guitar, but I am a bad student, as I do not have time to practice properly. I am very good at finding shortcuts. If I find something that works, I will build a course to teach it.
Tokai 65s is my son’s main guitar. This is a photo before the mods. Later we added Seymour Duncan humbuckers with triple shots, Roland synth access, and Korg keypad nano.