My experience with the guitar
When I was nineteen years old I decided I wanted to learn to play the guitar. I went out and picked up an acoustic guitar, and started playing around with it. I had played a few musical instruments as a kid, the piano, the recorder (I could play Take me out to the ballgame with the best of them), the glockenspiel and the autoharp, but didn’t really have any formal music training. I didn’t take any guitar lessons, and I couldn’t read sheet music, but I could sit down and listen to songs that I liked over and over again and attempt to replicate the sounds on my CD’s with the guitar. I started with some easy songs, and gradually worked my way up to slightly more complex sounds. I learned how to read tablature, where to put my fingers to play all the various chords, learned a couple of scales (mostly just blues scales) and a few chord progressions. I never took any lessons for this; I just played around with my guitar in my spare time. At some point I got good enough to where I could pick up new songs relatively quickly, but it still requires a lot of effort for me to think about where I should put my fingers, which chord comes next, etc…
Today I am a reasonable facsimile of a guitarist. However, if you listened to me play, you would not mistake me for a professional musician, even though I can, in principle, do everything on the guitar that a professional guitarist can do. So what separates me from, say, Jimi Hendrix? Musical talent, you may say. There may be something to that, but I think that view is a bit of a cop-out. I would have a hard time learning any task if, in the back of my mind, I was always thinking “I’ll never be as good as so-and-so.” It would be counter-productive for any kind of learning. A more practical approach to take, in my view, would be to ask “how can I be better than I am right now?” I don’t a priori know my ceiling as a guitarist until I have actually reached that ceiling. The best I can do is to improve my skills in increments, and over time view the aggregate results.
Even though I wouldn’t compare my guitar playing talent to Jimi Hendrix’s (I don’t have any idea how to quantify such a thing), I can use him as a model for improving my guitar playing ability. He was a really good guitar player, how did he get so good? Here I have to speculate a bit, but I can imagine roughly how it went. To start off, he probably started a lot younger than me. That’s strike number one against my prospects, but not insurmountable. The second, most important piece of information would be to know how much he practiced as he learned to play. Since I can’t even picture the guy in my head without a guitar near by, I would imagine he practiced a lot. He probably practiced almost every free moment that he had, every time there was a break in a conversation he strummed out a little tune. Every time he had an hour to kill sitting at home he would try to find interesting combinations of notes. Maybe he even took the guitar into the bathroom with him, or played when he was driving around, or strummed an uplifting tune after he tasted how good his mashed potatoes were, I don’t know. I may be exaggerating just how much he probably practiced, but the point is he had to have spent a lot of time practicing in order to become as good as he was.
The lesson, I suppose, is that if I want to be a better guitar player, I’d better practice… a lot. If I am really serious about improving to the level of one of the greatest guitarists of all time, I had better spend every waking moment practicing. Even if I want to be a passable guitarist, like someone playing at open mike night at a coffee shop, I had better practice. So why don’t I? I have the usual assortment of excuses: I work all the time, so I don’t have time to practice, I don’t want to bother the neighbors with the horrible sounds the guitar will make while I am still an amateur, I’m too tired, my fingers are bleeding, and so on.
But I suppose the real reason I don’t practice that much is that I just don’t want to. Don’t get me wrong, I would like to be a great guitarist, but I guess don’t want to be one enough to put in all the hours of work. Every one of the usual excuses can be overcome. I could very easily make time in my seemingly busy schedule for five minutes of guitar here, ten minutes there, and get all the guitar playing motions into my muscle memory. I really shouldn’t care what my neighbors think of these sounds; in fact they should be honored to be listening to a future rock and roll hall of famer in his formative years. I should drink a cup of coffee, and I should want to play until my fingers are bleeding. Maybe I won’t become the best guitarist ever, but I could certainly become better than I am now, and nobody knows how good I can possibly be… with enough practice.