I attended the first meeting of a guitar class today, Beginning Guitar. I knew from the description of Intermediate Guitar that that is really where my skill level is at, but everything I know is self-taught. I thought it would be a good idea to end my life-long, half-assed approach to the instrument and learn to do it right, and from the beginning.
I learned to play guitar when I was in high school because I had to. No, not because my parents forced me to take lessons and practice—that was the fate of the trombone and clarinet players who ended up in the marching band. I had to learn for social survival. Every kid who was cool in my high school played guitar. I watched other people play, I borrowed fake books from the library, and I listened to my records and tried to duplicate what I heard. When James Taylor or Neil Young or Cat Stevens appeared on television, I watched their hands. When other friends were playing something I didn’t know yet, I’d say “Hey, show me how you do that.” Consequently, my finger-picking techniques are all over the place, from proper hand position to those bastardized two- and three-finger picking positions that other self-taught players improvised for themselves.
My gold mine, music-wise, was my high-school boyfriend. Jimmy was a natural, a virtuoso. He picked up a guitar for the first time when he was 15, and twenty minutes later, he was playing Mason Williams’s “Classical Gas.” Whenever there was a song I wanted to learn, even if he had never heard it before, he would listen to it one time, fool around for ten minutes or so, and then say, “Okay, here’s how it goes.”
Jimmy wanted to be a rock star, one of the introspective singer-songwriters that so captured the ethos of my generation. I had no such aspirations. I mostly played in private and around campfires. I played just for the joy of discovering what could come out of my hands, inspired by Ruth Gordon’s line in “Harold and Maude” that everyone should be able to play an instrument. Jimmy, meanwhile, played with several local bands and was half of several singer-songwriter duos.
After high school when I was living with Jimmy, he had paired up with a guy named Steve, a cool, slightly older jazz guitarist. One afternoon during their practice session, Jimmy left me alone with Steve while he went out for a package of new strings. Steve said, “Hey, until Jimmy gets back, why don’t you jam with me? I want to see what you can do.” “Steve, I don’t play at the level you guys do,” I said. “I only fool around.” He said, “It’s people who think they’re just fooling around who know how to do all the surprising stuff.” So we played for a while. He told me what I was doing right and should keep on doing.
But to this day, I don’t really know what is “right.” I branched out over time and got a banjo, a dulcimer, a mandolin, and a twelve-string dreadnaught, all of which I still mostly play in private. I taught myself dozens and dozens of chords, alternate tunings, and how to read tablatures, but I never learned how to read music or play scales. I’ve never learned how to strum. No “Pinball Wizard” will anyone hear from me.
So I signed up for the class I attended today, hoping to unlearn some bad habits and to adopt some proper techniques. I’m sure I will get some proper guidance from my instructor, but after just the first day I have already gotten some improper guidance as well. First tip: For people with tender fingertips, take off your acoustic strings and replace them with electric-guitar strings. Only don’t tell the people at the music store that this is your intent, as they will tell you how WRONG that is.
So even “proper” music teachers have learned along the way by just fooling around. Somehow I still don’t feel like I’m doing it right. I feel like I’m back in high school again, asking the cool kid with the guitar, “hey, show me how you do that.”