Learning Guitar the Hard Way
I have been trying to learn guitar since I was around 15 year old. Back around 1990-ish, my father bought me a Kay hollow body electric from a friend of his. I bought some new strings and strung it upside down because I am left handed and then picked up a copy of Guitar World magazine.
I would sit in my room alone and learn riffs out of that magazine and imagine being on a stage playing thrash metal. It was what I was into at the time, but that is another story.
Some regrets that I have from that time in my life:
- I never learned to play a song all the way through. I would hyper focus on getting a riff perfect. I would play until I messed up then stop and start over again.
- I never thought to convince my friends, who were all doing the same thing I was, to start a band and suggesting some of us picking up different instruments. I had a handful of people that I knew that all were trying to learn how to play guitar. None of us were really around musical people who knew what they were doing.
We all had our own guitar hero who we day dreamed about being one day and no real plan to get there. All it would have taken was one of us to say, "Hey why don't you buy a bass, you buy a simple drum kit and let's start writing our own songs." If only we had discovered punk at that time and it's DIY ethos.
- I was too cool to join band. No, not a band, band at school. You know that place where young musicians learn all the fundamentals of music, have infinite time to practice and give public performances? All for free-ish?
Yeah, that was a mistake. Here today I publically admit being cool was more important to me in high school than learning to actually create music.
The fondest memories I have of playing guitar back then was joining friends on stage at school talent shows. I managed to piece together the main riffs from some Metalica songs that flowed nicely together and my friend played solos over them.
I then joined some other friends on stage to play the guitar riffs used in Fuck Shop by 2 Live Crew while they "rapped" about one of our teachers that we thought was good looking. Of course they changed the hook to say "School Shop" so none of the faculty would catch on but the entire school had that album and recognized it immediately.
I still day dream about how good that felt. I commonly tell people that I hate to practice I want to skip right to being on stage with a band playing songs. This memory is what drives that sentiment.
I ended up going through a couple pawn shop electric guitars and buying a nice Marshall amp by the time I hit college. Never knowing how to play an entire song or simply jamming regularly with other people.
I ended up selling it all to keep a car that I needed for a dead end job.
Jump to a few years later, I moved to Washington state in the middle of the 90s when the grunge scene was in full swing. A friend at work gave me a beat up acoustic for doing some web design work. I fiddle with it but mostly let it sit because the body was seperating and it didn't sound all that great. I was focused on making money and learning how to program.
Later I started a job near Olympia, Washington around the turn of the millennium. I had a little extra cash and some free time. So I picked up a left handed Fender bass at a pawn shop. Maybe bass would be easier to pick up, I thought. Once again I bought a magazine or maybe a book of songs and noodled.
The place where I was working had a set of managers that had mostly all gone to school together and played in bands together. They were a bit older than I was, but they wanted to put a band together and needed a bass player. So of course, I told them I had a bass and would love to play with them.
They invited me over one weekend. I plugged in and had no idea what I was doing. One of them pointed out that they were playing in the key of G and I should follow the I, IV, V. I just stared at him confused. It embarrased me so badly, I sold the bass and focused on my budding web development career.
Jump to around 2011 and I found a lefty Gibson Les Paul Standard on Amazon for a good price. I added it to my wishlist and started talking about it obsessively to my wife, Julia. She of course took the hint and bought it for me.
This time, I told myself, was going to be different. I was going to practice every day until I learned the guitar. Of course, I didn't know how to practice really or what to practice. So, all I accomplished was annoying Julia by twanging on it while we watched TV. She eventually got irritated with me and asked me to stop. So in the case it went.
Next, I decided I was going to do it right this time and signed up to take lessons from Jon Balsey here in Olympia. I looked him up and he was in a band that regularly played music in Portland. It was really important to me that I take lessons from someone who was actually doing what I wanted to be able to do.
Lessons started great. We clicked well. But I would simply not make time to practice. I used work and life as an excuse to not pick up the guitar and work on the the things that Jon showed me. Of course, that embarrassment from early was whispering in my ear. Telling me that I am waisting his time that I will never be any good. I eventually quit, not because I couldn't pay or because Jon was a bad teacher, but because I was worried I was waisting his time.
Later, I was working with a pretty accomplished musician named Carl Dexter. I told him about my desire to learn to play and that my motivation was playing with other people. He suggested that I come over to his studio and in exchange for teaching him how to program, he would teach me to play and do it by playing with me.
Once again, it started great. I figured out how to play parts of Twist of Cain by Danzig and we would jam on that song with him on drums while I played what I knew of it. He once asked me what was an other song I would like to learn, and I said Got the Time by Anthrax. He honestly said he didn't know if he could play something that fast. We were not clicking on music choice and once again that voice started whispering in my ear, "You are wasting his time. You are not good enough. You are too old."
I ended up getting a new job and ghosting Carl. Not because he was mean or not helpful, but because I lacked faith in myself, felt foolish and worst of all was wasiting his time. He even made a valiant effort to reach out to me multiple times, but I used the excuse of work and life to push him away. That was really stupid of me.
In the last couple years, COVID pushed everyone to working from home. I had a pretty great job that paid well. My company got bought out by another and I had some bonus cash. So I used it to buy some dream guitars I have always wanted. I had the Gibson and I added a Fender Stratocaster and Taylor 314ce acoustic.
My wife and mother-in-law (who lived with us by that time) were a bit perplexed. Why was I buying these fancy guitars if I never actually played them. I had resigned myself to the idea that just owning them, hanging them on my wall and being able to look at them any time I wanted was enough.
Just being able to touch that dream I had at 15 deep in my soul was going to be enough to hang my hat on. I'll never reach that inspiration that I felt the first time I heard Slash play Sweet Child, the first time I heard Metallica's One or the crusing opening riff of Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit. It is just not going to happen.
About that time, I got an invite to the Rocksmith+ beta. I accepted it and started messing around with the game and having fun with it. So, when the full game released I suscribed for a year.
I started playing it regularly. The game really does a nice job of simulating that feeling of playing in a band with other people. Something clicked for me. I started doing the lessons and exercises while also learning to play songs all the way through. HOLY FUCK that felt good. And I wasn't wasting anyones time.
My software engineer's mind kicked in and I started tracking my progress month to month in a spreadsheet. I set goals for myself. I gave myself permission to fuck up and be bad. All the skills I learned in a 25 year career doing software development, I started to apply to learning how to play.
I stuck with it and five months in I decided to add lessons to what I am doing again. I reached out to a couple instructors that offered zoom lessons and setup lessons with Rick Klaras out of Portland for much the same reasons I selected Jon back in the day.
You might ask, why not contact Carl or Jon? Well you see that little voice in my head was still there. I needed to find someone I didn't know personally that I could ghost if I failed or died of embarrasment. I could not let these guys who tried to help me down yet again.
I picked up a copy of Desi Serna's Fretboard Theory book. This time I want to actually understand the insturment and the theory of music behind it. I am currently struggling to learn the natural notes on the 5th and 6th strings, so that I can play them backwards and forwards and find them easily. It might take me weeks to accomplish this feat. But that is ok, I have time and have learned a little patience. I'll get there.
The first lesson was a little rocky. I could not get my audio to cooperate so that Rick could hear me play. It was clear he was irked and started just plugging away to get through the lesson time. That little voice is in my head already, "I am wasting his time. He thinks I am some fucking boomer dipshit. He is not really into teaching me."
But I am going to stick with it for the month. I have goals that I can achieve on my own. An instructor is an augmentation of that effort not the effort. Rick and I will either click or we wont. The way I am looking at it right now is there are other instructors, maybe I need to find the right one. But I want to give this a chance and see where it goes.
In the end, I am not quitting this time. This is the thing that is for me, all my own. I am not doing this for someone else, to make someone else happy. I can push myself to play and learn. I can rock out in Rocksmith+ and day dream about being on a stage. I can learn Ableton and start recording my own things.
I really don't give a fuck about wasiting other peoples time anymore. I have wasted enough of my own. This is who I am, insecurities and all. I am going to play this guitar every day if possible just to shut that voice in my head up. Whatever comes in the future, I am going to have my hands on the fretboard.