I started playing guitar when I was 9 years-old, at Junior School
[Elementary School for those in the US]
learning basic chords during music class and
[a very small amount of]
classical guitar in individual lessons.
At age 11, though, I started playing Trumpet, and subsequently French Horn; after that, I never had a formal guitar lesson again. I never stopped learning though, teaching myself chords and lead over time – my teachers were the records I listened to, the players I respected.
The first book I had was by Mel Bay which got me grounded in chords
[and helped me grow my first calluses]
then I picked up the first position Blues Scale from another book, which I unfortunately can’t find to reference. Then it was the back pages of Guitarist magazine, and a book they brought out in the early-mid 80s of tab for famous solos and riffs
[which I still have downstairs somewhere, and which introduced me to Need Your Love So Bad, by Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac]
Even with those years of attention, and guitar was just one of MANY things i had to pay attention to, I always learned enough to get by, and never pursued learning for excellence, or even over-and-above necessary. I just wasn’t interested. My natural style was to experiment, take risks, improvise and know some of it would fall flat.
Most of my learning came from playing, listening and adapting, not from reading, thinking and repeating
[in my day job, I’ve come to know that my preferred learning style is that of a Pragmatic-Activist – learning by doing something real/that counts]
By the time I went to university, I had a reasonable grounding in both rhythm and lead work, had been playing in various bands on and off for about 8 years. I knew that the guitar, and song-writing, was very, very important to me. Indeed, in that first year of university, there was a very real chance of my dropping out just to be able to play more.
Then, two things happened which changed my path markedly.
The first, late in my first year of university, was the appearance of a patch of dry skin on the middle finger of my left hand. Misdiagnosed as an allergy
[possibly even to the nickel in guitar strings… Argh!]
and treated with various, and strengthening, courses of steroid creams and moisturizers, within a matter of months, my palms and finger-pads were covered with scaly psoriaritic calluses. Every morning when I woke up, I’d have to crack open the calluses by leaning on the bed frame; my fingers bled every day.Within another year, whole chunks of my outer skin were peeling off to reveal the dermis beneath.
This led to the second turning point. I couldn’t play guitar, so I began to write; finishing my first novel within a year.
My hands stayed that way for over 16 years, and I wrote several books.
Though I played all the time, hands cracked and bleeding every time I did, I never had the capacity to extend my capabilities through structured practice – it was all just play, listen, adapt. I knew I was a slow-hand, I knew that I could only play a limited amount of stuff, and I knew that changing that would mean significant pain. Stylistically, my playing, songwriting and recording adapted – I was an all-rounder more than I was a guitarist. It meant I could pick up any instrument and make a reasonable noise, but always had an inferiority complex about my playing
[which, I think, most artists have?]
Fast Forward to now, a decade after moving to the US – which is when, for several reasons, my hands cleared up
[for the interested, it had been a fungal infection originally, which was exacerbated by the steroids, and which left my hands sensitized to glycerin – the main ingredient in most sensitive-skin treatments, shower gels, moisturizers, shaving creams, etc – as soon as I made that connection and went back to plain soap, my 16 year affliction disappeared in a month!]
and I’ve been playing a LOT more guitar
but feeling less and less fulfilled when doing so
Having written over half-a-million words in fiction and fact, I have command of my art and voice when it comes to writing. More and more, though, while my ‘good enough’ guitar playing is, well, good enough, I’ve been feeling the need/want/wish to extend my practical knowledge a little, increasing my vocabulary as it were.
This came from an interesting observation
[well, interesting to me at least…]
while I was having fun improvising lead on less structured pieces, and my originals, when I was coming into more constrained/structured forms – blues, country, etc. – I was having trouble finding my groove – mostly I’d be playing too many notes, and too many of the wrong notes. And I realized that feeling had been ticking away for a LONG time – in my weaker moments, it made me feel like a fraud, an impostor, though in my stronger moments, I could see it as a function of my musical free spirit. All those crazy arpeggiated licks I’d found by trial-and-error just didn’t seem to fit – and, while I could hear that, I didn’t know why or what to do about it!
In passing, I was reading Guitarist and someone mentioned a desire to learn to solo ‘out of the box’ – which isn’t a reference to the hackneyed cliché about innovation, but instead a reference to the five standard positions of the Pentatonic scale on a guitar neck. I had this epiphany moment
I never learned to solo inside the box!
This started ticking away – as the best, most challenging thoughts often do. I knew that everything I played on lead guitar was a function of that first position Blues Scale and everything else I’d tried since that just seemed to work. But I also knew that my playing was mostly ‘1st-position-and-up’ the neck usually ending up on only the high E, B and G strings. So if I was playing a song in B minor, it was generally 7th fret and up, with the odd hit-and-hope further down the neck. When I began to look into theory, I found that I was already doing quite complex stuff (e.g.) using Myxolidian mode notes, without knowing they were from that scale or how they fit with the chords or Pentatonic scale. I was playing weird intervals but just because they were interesting.
None of which is good or bad, right or wrong – it’s just a sign of missing vocabulary – I’m like someone parachuted into a foreign country who has to learn the language live-time. Some words I know, some I haven’t come across.
Watching videos of guitarists I admired for a long time, I realized they were fundamentally playing differently to me
[which is why I often had a hard time playing along with their solos]
I’d got by for so long playing my way, that I’d grown lazy. Or maybe to be charitable, I didn’t know what I didn’t know and didn’t care to find out.
So, as I did surgery on my Les Paul to give me all the options an experienced player could want, I took a decision to take myself back to basics.
For the past week I’ve dived back into those fundamental five boxes of the Pentatonic
[believe me, I didn’t even know there were five positions until my decision to re-teach myself]
doing scale runs across and along the board, in multiple keys, as well as improvised solos over typical and a-typical loops.
It’s been fun so far – my left hand aches, particularly the little and ring finger meta-carpals where my hand broke in my 2001 motorbike accident
[forgot to mention that above, didn’t I?!!]
but it’s a good ache, because I’m getting the muscle memory going. I’m still choosing to pursue my natural/preferred style of learning – play, listen, adapt – but basing it upon at least a little reading and thinking first! I still don’t have a want to take lessons, though that may change, I guess. Filling in these gaps is a great process of discovery
Oh, so THAT’S why that works!
The joy of this instrument that I love is the learning/discovery never ends, and with it the opportunity for growth and contribution.
Here’s to making our ‘good enough’ just a little bit better every day!