Thursday, January 02, 2014

Learning guitar, two years later.


It's been an amazing couple of years.

I say this without hyperbole, learning guitar has been the best thing I've done for myself in decades.   Not only have I learned to play a cool instrument,  the process has forced me to develop new ways of listening to music; both in developing an ear for pitch and understanding the way music is constructed.   I've also discovered that the discipline of practicing with a metronome has very similar effects to what I've experienced with meditation.  The repetitive click-click-click and the concentration on small hand movements has been wonderful for stress relief and developing focus.  Finally, leaning to play guitar has also expanded my circle of friends to include some wonderful new folks.

Guitars have always excited me.  When I was a teen I wanted to be Jimmy Page or Neil Young.  I was just too afraid to actually try.  Sure, I had other excuses too but it really boils down to fear.  I was afraid it would be too hard, I was afraid I would suck, I was afraid I was starting too late.  Can you believe that a sixteen year old kid would think it's too late to learn guitar?  Well, those fears didn't fade.  In subsequent years I'd watch someone play or I'd get to hold a friends guitar and the desire to learn the instrument would start to take hold, but the fear inevitably would creep in and I'd do nothing about it.

I'd love to tell you how I overcame the fear and went out and bought a guitar, but that's not what happened.  Like a lot of adventures, this one didn't start out with a plan.  My first guitar was lent to me by my sister after I made an off-hand comment.   Sure, once I had it in my hands, the love was near instantaneous, but I needed that push.   It wasn't a great guitar.  It was a bit out of sorts (poorly setup, in guitar parlance) so it was a difficult to play, but it was good enough and I stayed with it.

Finding your first guitar is a tricky thing for most everyone who doesn't have one thrust at them.  Here's my advice.  Don't buy the really cheap stuff.  Sure, it's tough spending money on something that realistically could end up collecting dust in the corner, but don't set yourself up for failure.  In the $300-$400 range you can get a decent guitar, be it acoustic or electric.

The gear I have is not bottom-of-the-barrel but I think most people would categorizes it as fairly entry-level stuff.  Here's the rundown.

My acoustic guitar is a Seagull Entourage Mini Jumbo that sells for around $379 + $100 for the case.  My electric is an Agile 3210, a Korean import you can get mail order from Rondo Music for $659 with case.  My amp is a Yamaha THR10 that generally sells for $299.  Add in straps, guitar stands, cables, picks, capo, tuners for another $200.  Together that's $1637.   You don't need all of this to start but if you want both an acoustic and an electric and you want stuff that will last, this is the ballpark cost.   

Beware, though that once you get into this hobby, if you don't have willpower, it can drain your wallet quickly   Guitarists refer to this as GAS: Guitar, Acquisition Syndrome.  It's easy to find guitars costing well over $2000.  Nice acoustics made from fancy woods can go for double or triple that.  Tube amplifiers are expensive too.  Pedals are a little cheaper individually, but once you build a whole board, you're easily over a thousand there too.  There's an oft repeated joke that goes something like, "My one fear is that after I'm dead my wife will sell my guitars for what I told her I paid for them".  So far, I've been good and resisted most urges.  I keep reminding myself that fancy equipment wont make me a better guitar player.   

One of the best piece of advice I heard when I was first starting out was this: "play for a year and you'll play for life."   The good news is that it doesn't actually take a full year for you to be able to play something on the guitar.   The secret to really sticking with guitar is realizing that you never stop learning to play.  It's rinse and repeat.  Every month you practice and expand your know-how.  I was blown away when I found out my incredibly talented guitar teacher has a guitar teacher.  But that's how it goes.  There's always something you can't do and can work on. After two years I can do so much more than I could at the beginning, but it's no where near where I want to be.

Another best piece of advice I received was "get a teacher".  Besides being great sources of motivation and encouragement they do the one thing that the on-line resources for learning guitar can't, they provide feedback.  In fact I think guitar teacher is the wrong name.  They are more guitar mentors.  They help you navigate the process of learning guitar more than teach you guitar.  Like a mentor, they also find you opportunities and make introductions.  My teacher has set up parties for her students to perform at and she has introduced me to people I can jam with, not just other students either, these are seriously talented amateur and professional musicians I've got to play with.  These are things you can't get on-line.   (My awesome teacher is Liz Lawrence of Root Note Studio, Lowell MA).

One of the surprising aspects of learning guitar was all the side benefits.  I've found I really exercise my brain in ways that help me in all aspects of life.  Both emotionally and intellectually. I get the emotional satisfaction of learning a new skill and the confidence that comes with it.  There's also great camaraderie with the musicians I've met.  Everyone I've met is supportive, friendly and willing to share their know-how.   They are just great people and being a part of the whole scene feels good.

At the intellectual level I use parts of my brain I've never used before. My biggest challenge with learning to play has been 'ear training'.  My brain has a difficult time processing and putting a name to a pitch.  I'm not tone deaf.  I can hear the differences, I just struggle trying to identify the specific tone.  For example, I can hear that a minor 3rd is different than a major 2nd but when hearing both intervals I can't always say which one is which.  Developing this skill feels like I'm opening up areas of my brain that have never been used.

But it also simpler than that.  The concentration required to master a difficult song, the memorization of various musical scales, and relationship of various other musical elements just does my 50 year old brain a lot of good.  The end benefit is improved creativity and focus both for more music study and at work.

So if anyone out there is thinking about learning guitar feels that they can't do it, or feels they're too old, or has any other excuse that keeping them from following a dream to learn to play music, let my experience serve as motivation.  It's never too late and you may surprise yourself and find a new passion.

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