The first step in playing the guitar is the determination and verification that you are naturally predisposed to the instrument. This sounds more complicated than it actually is. Accomplished guitar players will tell you that they knew within hours or days that the guitar was the right choice for them. All musical instruments have their own unique charms and mystique as well as musical and physical advantages and disadvantages. A person can practice a trumpet for ten years, finally giving up after coming to the sober conclusion that he is not able to play the instrument with any modicum of proficiency. This doesn't necessarily mean that he is devoid of musical talent. Maybe he couldn't get the embouchure thing happening or he just wasn't hearing the instrument. A lot of times the roadblock to achievement is a simply an issue of incompatibility. That same person might very well switch to another instrument and have great success. This has happened to numerous musicians thoughout history. In my heart of hearts I believe I would probably be better off as a piano player than a guitar player as I just think I hear the piano better. But there was no piano in the house when i was growing up, only an electric guitar. So I got stuck playing the guitar. It could have been worse. I could have become a kazoo player. Today I have the luxury of having a piano in the house and I try to practice it as much as I can, in hopes that someday I might be able to play it proficiently.
Question: How can I tell that the guitar is right for me?
Answer: Just look at it.
The first determination/incarnation of compatibility is the psycho-visual response of the mind as it sees itself embodied in the the aura and mystique of one of the oldest instruments in human history. The experiment is easy enough to demonstrate. Take a guitar and put it in the corner of a room. Then every time you walk into the room make a mental note of which object in the room you gaze upon first. If it is the guitar, it means the guitar is your primary focus: a very good thing. This test says something about the order of importance every object in the room has within the realm of your consciousness. If the guitar wins out, you have to take it to the next level.
The second determination of compatibility lies within the field of psycho acoustics. All instruments have their own unique physicality, range, and sonority. Although the range of the guitar and tenor saxophone are fairly compatible, if a guitar player plays a Bb on his instrument it's unlikely that it will be mistaken as a Bb being played on tenor. There are a couple of reasons for this: the tenor is a wind instrument; the guitar a stringed instrument, and in addition to the fundamental tone, both produce very distinct sets of overtones that determine the overall tambre of the respective instruments. This fundamental tone along with it's array of overtones which we call harmonics, can in certain circumstances set up a correlating set of vibrations or overtones in the middle ear of the individual that is playing the instrument. These sympathetic vibrations are then processed by the brain manifesting themselves as sonic impulses that manipulate our emotional state in a deeply affecting way. The experience leaves the beholder with a feeling of wonderment and excitement, only wanting to hear more, learn more, and experience more.
The guitar has 6 strings that vibrate in open position at various frequencies. Pluck all strings individually one after another. If you show a compatibility with the instrument, one or more of these strings will vibrate and resonate setting up a corresponding vibration deep within your ear thus effecting the mind/body/spirit system. I refer to this phenomena as aural cause and effect or A.C.E. The most common strings to induce an excitation in the ear are the lower pitched fourth, fifth and sixth strings(D, A, and E) although many people claim to have induced internal tympanic vibrations caused by the first and third strings (E and G), and in rare instances,the second string (B).
After you've come to the realization that you are one with the guitar, the next step deals with understanding exactly what the guitar is and what you are supposed to do with it. At face value the guitar is nothing more than a piece of wood with 6 strings attached to it and when plucked it produces a variety of tones. Many people get enjoyment out of just seeing what kind of sounds they can get out of the guitar, aided many times by electrification and especially by using various effects such as reverb, distortion, delay etc, and that's all well and good. But of course, the guitar is much more than a toy for one's amusement. It is a musical instrument- and a very old one at that. And when the guitar gets placed in this context, it is recognized as a fairly difficult instrument to learn. Although the guitar is a stringed instrument akin to the violin, viola, cello and double bass, it has a major distinction: unlike it's aforementioned brethren, it is a fretted instrument. This sets it apart from the rest, and one has to wonder if it is this attribute that has traditionally kept it out of the concert arena. Nevertheless, the fact that it is fretted makes it a fairly tempered instrument suitable to chordal playing; something not well suited to other non-fretted stringed instruments. In addition to it's harmonic abilities, it is very much a lead instrument properly suited for melodic undertakings.
Since the guitar is a musical instrument, we can therefore conclude that the person playing it is a musician. And If we go a step further, musicians undertaking the instrument can be broken down into three categories: third, second, and first generation or "source." These designations are only really known by the individual musician and is determined by his own abilities and limitations. A brief overview of the these three classifications is in order, born out of real-life observations I have made as a musician over the course of thirty years.
For the third-source musician, learning the guitar usually means lots and lots of practice. If you are not in a position to put in the time, you'll likely get very little out of the instrument or what you do get out of it won't sustain you over the long haul. This is because the music being learned is being transmitted from a far via transcriptions and recordings from third parties, etc., and not from the original source. And like a signal that has been copied by an analog recorder, the second generation copy will not have the same fidelity as the first; the third will have even less fidelity than the second, and so on. The purity of the music is in question here, and the only thing that can be done is to try to embellish it or dress it up with well established melodic hooks and harmonic devices. If you are in this category, you should know a good amount of theory, because you are going to find yourself relying on it, much as you do a road map to get from point A to point B. A good knowledge of stuff like intervals, chord/scale relationships, modes, etc. will have the added benefit of at least allowing you to teach if the playing aspect is not working for you.
The second-source musician is closer to the source than he ever realizes, often being able to almost reach out and touch it. Sometimes these musicians are actually first-source musicians that don't know it yet. At any rate, healthy doses of both theory and practice will elevate the second-source musician in incremental stages over a period of time. This time period varies from individual to individual. Some people scrape along for a very long time with modest improvement, and all of a sudden it's like they get hit with a lighting bolt from above and the next thing you know they are on fire. I've personallly seen this happen to a number of wonderful musicians. Probably the majority of players are in the second-source category, and are capable of becoming excellent musicians.
The phrase first-source musician is exactly what it implies. This is the person who has eliminated the middle man and has gone directly to the source, which for obscure reasons seems to be an elusive entity to all but the chosen few. The first-source musician operates on another plane entirely- he is a person that believes that Maslow's heirarchy of needs chart is ass-backwards. It is self-actualization that is first and foremost in the mind of the true musical artist- the first-source musician. This musician isn't concerned with being the best technically, or even harmonically. What he strives for is to be able to put his unique DNA on whatever he plays. Practice is a means of acquiring just enough skill to say what ever that person has to say musically. Interestingly, first-source musicians usually play very well regardless of how much actual theory they know. They've discovered the true musical source, and that's enough for them. Their quest is one of being engaged in the moment and letting the music flow from within their soul, through their hands, and finally onto the instrument they are playing. If you are in this category, please read no further. You already know what to do.
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©1996-2011 Andrew Cheshire