How I learned To Play The Guitar

Welcome to this edition of Fingerstyle Monthly.

When I was thinking about a topic for this month's newsletter, I asked myself "What is a reader looking for? Why does he visit What knowledge do I have that will benefit him?"

That's when I stumbled over the obvious. People visit the site to learn about playing fingerstyle guitar (duh!).

So I thought why not describe my own experience?

Even though I'm talking about myself, I think that you may see that our paths are similiar.

Okay, here we go.

I got my first guitar when I was 12 years old, some 40 odd years ago. My listening was mainly surf bands and British Invasion stuff ( The Ventures, Rolling Stones, etc...). I was also exposed to a lot of music from Broadway musicals and the Southern Baptist Church.

There were also several things that opened my eyes to fingerstyle guitar. The first was a Chet Atkins record that the family owned. Secondly was a Simon and Garfunkel record that I got as a gift.

The third fingerstyle influence was a recording of the song Wheels. It was used as intro music for a local radio program. I think it was Chet's recording.

It was my good fortune to begin taking guitar lessons from a man who was a classical guitar/Chet Atkins nut. The biggest benefit that I got from these lessons was an efficient right hand technique.

I didn't take lessons for very long from him. I was a kid who wanted to see quick results from my efforts. Since I wasn't able to immediately play at a virtuoso level, I quit.

Despite quitting lessons, my interest in the guitar remained very strong. I had a buddy that I would jam with, playing the popular music of the day. Santana, Cream etc...

I would also work on figuring out acoustic blues tunes, playing them fingerstyle. This was a slow and frustrating process.

As a young adult, I quit playing the guitar. I suffered from a common misconception. I thought that there was a magic secret to learning to play.

I thought that you either immediately got a grasp on it or you didn't have a chance.

I did begin playing bass guitar when I was in my late 20's. After having a bass for a few months I got hired to play in a country band. My first gig with them was a venue nicknamed The Bucket of Blood.

They didn't serve any drink in a glass container after the band started. Nice place!

After a couple of years of this I moved to Austin, Tx. Fame and fortune, here I come!

Long story short, I played in some bands, got fired from one, quit others and decided that I don't like playing in bands.

I sold my bass gear, bought a Guild Jumbo acoustic, and decided to learn how to really fingerpick.

I bought a couple of Stefan Grossman's books with cassete tapes and started learning tunes. I got to the point that I could play some of them fairly well.

Mid-nineties, we moved to Madsion, Wi. I began working at a guitar shop that specializes in acoustic guitars.
This did three things for me. First, it exposed me to some really great acoustic guitars.

Secondly, I met a lot of other players like me. People who loved the guitar but hadn't progresseded very far beyond what they learned in high school.

The other big eye opener was meeting trained musicians.

The store was originally near the University of Wisconsin. Music professors and their students would come in to pick up sheet music. In my conversations with them I discovered a whole new world of disciplined, progressive practice.

That's when a lightbulb went off.

Some players are good mimics. They're able to hear a recording and copy it.

Then there's all the rest of us.

We may not be able to quickly copy what we hear on a recording. But this doesn't mean that we don't have other abilities or that we can't improve our ear.

I decided that I needed to learn how music works. Then I could apply it to different genres of music.

It's kind of like reading. If you learn to read, you can read books on a wide range of subjects. You can also write books, you can create.

With this new philosophy in mind, I began to look around for information on music.

I found that there were a lot of "How-To" books on the market. All of the books seemed to fall into two catagories.

One type starts at the very beginning, "This Is A Guitar" type of stuff. The problem with this was, I was passed this point. I already knew songs that I'd memorized from the Grossman books.

My playing technique was pretty good, between early classical guitar lessons and practicing the Grossman songs.

My biggest problem was that I was playing from rote memory. I didn't understand what I was playing.

The other type of books assumed that you had an understanding of the basics of music and started at a fairly high level. A good example of this is George Van Eps' Harmonic Mechanisms For Guitar. High level stuff.

I decided to look into jazz instructional books, even though jazz wasn't my main interest. They seemed to offer the most organized approach on the subject.

So, I started buying jazz instructional books. A good many of these were pretty dense. I finally came across some of Jody Fishers books and found them to offer an approach that I could relate to.

As I began my study of scales, intervals, triads and chords I found that my ear was improving. It was easier to learn songs! It was also a whole lot easier to learn a wider range of music. No more fear when I saw a chord name like B minor 7 flat 5.

In a nutshell, that's how I got to where I am now.

I'll always be a student of the guitar. The difference with the approach that I now use is that my abilities increase far more rapidly.

Now, if you've read this far you're probably wondering "what does all of this have to do with me?

Simply this.

Many people learn how to play a little bit and don't progress from that point.

They may have played for 20 years but they're still playing what they learned in the first couple of years.

An approach like the one I've described above will help you learn to be a progressively better guitarist.


  • Learn how to practice

  • Work on developing technique, especially in your right hand

  • Learn music theory, including the basics of reading music

  • Learn songs.

I hope that my experiences will help you in your pursuit of learning to play fingerstyle guitar.

If you have any questions after reading this newsletter, feel free to contact me.

I'll see you next month!

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