One Way Of Learning To Playmusic Is For
your parents to buy you an instrument, find
you a teacher, and tell you, “Learn.” You go
take a lesson, the teacher assigns homework,
and mom or dad sees to it that you put in
your hour every day, without paying any particular
attention to what you’re practicing.
If you’re not really interested in the instrument,
you put in your time, go back to the
teacher unprepared, the teacher tells you to
practice your lesson for another week, takes
the money, and figures, “What the hell?” I’m
not putting all teachers into this category—
there are many competent people who are
teaching for reasons other than making a
But another way of learning to play is to
want to. Find a good teacher, and, as a starter,
here are a few things to remember:
• To try is very important.
• Listen to your teacher. Respect him or
her along with the super players—the pro’s—
because they became super players only after
many years of hard work.
• Be patient.
• Learn one thing at a time.
• Don’t worry about playing fast—this
comes with practice. Start very slow, and
gradually increase the tempo to as fast as
you can play, remembering to keep everything
clean and even. I repeat—clean and even.
There are many ways of fingering and picking—
this is where a teacher who is
experienced can lead the student down the
correct road. The way you practice your fingering
and picking is crucial at the beginning.
So many players find themselves trapped at
a dead-end later on because of the way they
practiced in the initial stages of learning.
What I do is hand the student a guitar—
in tune—and let him familiarize himself with
the sound. Then, I lower a string several
tones, and ask him to tune it as he originally
heard it. It’s important for a teacher to know
how good an ear the student has been blessed
with, and to notice his sense of rhythm,
reflexes and coordination, and his attitude.
Just to want to play is not enough—a serious
student must also have all the things
just mentioned. The teacher must remember
that the student is new to the game. We
old-timers have been around for a long spell,
and have not only watched and studied with
others, but have discovered the pitfalls
involved, and we know what lies ahead.
At the beginning, I prefer an acoustic box
with a decent, playable action, and a medium
pick. I start the student with all downstrokes
until he gets the basics. I point out the dos
and don’ts gradually. Don’t move too fast. I
like to mention to the student that he can’t
write a letter until he learns the ABCs.
After advancing to the electric guitar, play
with the amplifier facing you. You can really
fool yourself into thinking you’re playing clean
when you’re not listening to a speaker pointed directly at you. You should hear yourself as
an audience will hear you, and, believe me,
clean playing counts. Long, fast runs aren’t
going to impress anyone if the only reason
you’re playing them is to play a long, fast run.
Make every note count. Say something.
I’ve taught quite a few people in my lifetime,
and I sure learned to teach the player
what not to do. I really hand-tailored them,
because I realized each student is different.
It’s very difficult, but the teacher must
adjust to each student. If student and
teacher click, this means the teacher really
knows where it’s at. He teaches the basic
rudiments, slow and clean. He keeps the
student’s hopes high. He exposes him to
the best musicians. If possible, I take the
student to watch the very best—in person—
and also get tapes or records of these people.
And you can bet that these players we go
to see did the same thing—they listened to
those they admired, and they learned something
Sometimes, a student will say he would
like to play like “so-and-so,” who may not
be the best musician in the band, but the
student unconsciously chooses him,
because he seems within the student’s
reach as a goal. Also, once in a while, a student
figures he’s got it all after only a
Another serious problem is when the
teacher assigns a certain piece of music with
proper fingering and picking, and the student
practices incorrectly for a week, in spite
of a God-given rhythm and a good ear. This
is where patience on the teacher’s part is
important. He must realize that it takes many
hours of practice, as well, and he must also
make certain he gets the message across to
Once, a student and I were listening to
a fine musician, and the student said, “Let’s
go. I can’t learn anything from him.” Maybe
he couldn’t, but I did. I learned a mess of
things—some what to do, and some what
not to do. The student’s antenna must be
kept raised. What good is a receiver without
an antenna? He must be kept interested
in what the player is saying, and the more
different types of music the student digs,
I was very fortunate to teach students
who all had excellent ears, a good sense of
rhythm, and the desire and will to learn the
methods I suggested. I also got great satisfaction
from teaching my sons to play. I’m
proud to say that they’re not only good musicians,
but also excellent audio engineers,
and they are winning awards for the sound
they are achieving on phonograph records.
While I’m on the subject of my sons, I’ve
got to tell this story: My number-one son
was in the Army, and he called me one night
from Georgia. “Father,” he asked, “where is
C on the guitar?” I said, “All over,” and hung
up. We still get a laugh over that call.
To sum it up, I again stress clean playing
and patience. Some people learn faster than
others, so don’t try to exceed your capabilities.
Play what you can play easily, and the
speed and technique will come by itself. A
really serious player won’t have to be told
to practice. He has got to realize that it’s the
only road toward perfection. But don’t strive
for absolute perfection. It’s not to be had, and
it will only set you up for a berth in a mental
You will find that the more deeply
involved you get with the instrument, the
more things you will find that you want to
learn. I don’t think you can ever stop learning.
Don’t stay on one road—there are
many exciting things happening in other
branches of music than the particular type
you may start with. Reading is very important
if you want to become a versatile
player, and it will open many new roads to
you. Also, the more successful you become,
the less time you will have for practicing,
but you can still learn from what’s going
on around you.
Never stop listening to other players. If,
at the beginning, you base your playing on
someone else’s style, there’s nothing wrong
with that, but don’t stay there. Don’t be a
carbon copy. Try to extract the better things
and incorporate them into your own style—
always learning, always adding to your
In closing, I raise my beer in a toast: “Good
luck, and many happy years of playing.”
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