A young man named Brian Gatheru recently found me online and wanted to ask some questions about guitar for a school research project. The interview focused on my beginnings as a guitarist, the learning process, the timeline involved, and continuing education.
As I answered his questions, I had a nice little trip down memory lane to when I began and what my life – my “Six String Life“, as I like to call it – has been like since I decided to devote myself to this great instrument.
I’ve posted the questions and answers below for your reading pleasure. If you’ve got some playing experience, you may see yourself in some of my answers. If you’re relatively new to guitar studies, then maybe my answers will give you some perspective or even something to shoot for.
Hope you enjoy it and please leave a comment with your own story or reflection. Cheers!
Reflections on a Six String Life
1. How long have you been playing the guitar? How do you keep up with the skills you have? Do you still practice as you did when you started? If not, what made you change your method of practice?
ANSWER: I’ve been playing guitar for 38 years. When I started, I practiced for hours every day, but now there is no need for that and I don’t have that kind of time to spare. I teach guitar students 5-6 days per week and play/practice with my band almost every week, so that helps to maintain my skills. But beyond that, I still practice on my own at least a little bit every day, and sometimes a lot if I’m focused on learning something new.
2. How did this instrument occur to you as your preferred choice and at what age did you start practicing?
ANSWER: I went to Catholic school so I picked up the guitar at age 12 after seeing some of my friends play at church for our Friday morning Mass. It looked like fun, plus they got out of some classes to practice, so that was extra incentive! At the same time, my best friend in my neighborhood started to learn, so I joined him. We tried our hand at Beatles and Elvis songs from our moms’ record collections, then graduated to Kiss, Styx, Foreigner, etc. This was the late 70’s.
3. What are some of the challenges you encountered while learning to play?
ANSWER: I was so terrible at first that my friend had to teach me chords using only one or two fingers, since I couldn’t coordinate my fingers well enough to properly grip the chords. I got frustrated and gave up for a short period, then went back to it after a few months with more focus and patience. I slowly got better and after some diligent study, things started to progress more quickly. I soon became obsessed with learning the instrument.
4. If you were to play another instrument, what would you chose and how long do you think it would take you learn the instrument fluently? Do you play another instrument apart from the guitar? If so, how long did that take you to learn?
ANSWER: I also play drums, piano and a number of other stringed instruments (ukulele, mandolin, banjo, bass guitar). I’ve picked these up slowly over the years. If I had to start again, I’d probably be a drummer since I feel that my rhythm is quite good. But learning any new instrument is going to take about the same amount of time. To get to a high level, you’ve got to put in years of steady practice and study. You’ve got to live it.
5. What is the greatest achievement you have accomplished playing the guitar?
ANSWER: I don’t look at guitar in terms of “achievements”. It is a journey and I’m still on it, until the day I can’t play anymore. The achievement for me has been the dedication and discipline to continue to work at it, to continue to search for “my sound”, to continue to play what I enjoy and try to pass that on to my audiences and my students.
6. What do you hope to accomplish in the future as a guitarist and how long do you reckon it will take?
ANSWER: For the future, I hope to continue to teach private students and help them grow as musicians. I also want to perform in my band for as long as possible. Finally, I’m working on redesigning my website and want to offer quality instructional products to help other guitarists raise their guitar game.
7. How effective were YouTube videos in your learning process, if you watched any?
ANSWER: I learned guitar in the late 70’s and 80’s, so there was no YouTube for me then. I learned from books, records, other guitar-playing friends, and from playing in front of people at church, parties, etc. However I do sometimes use YouTube to help me learn songs for my band, whether I learn them by ear or consult someone else’s instructional video on how to play them. It helps me save time.
8. How many times a week did you practice? Did you attend classes?
ANSWER: In the early stages of my learning, I practiced guitar every day, often for multiple hours. There are no days off when you’re committed to learning your instrument. Plus I love playing. Even today, I’ve got the guitar in my hands every day, even if I’m not actively learning something new. I did take lessons for one summer when I was about 13, and then had a few lessons here and there over the years, but basically I’m self-taught.
9. How many hours were spent on practice? What method of practice did you apply?
ANSWER: In my teen years, it was multiple hours per day of practice. As an adult with a professional playing career, performances become part of your practice and you don’t need to spend quite so much time. But even with that said, I still practiced pretty much every day for at least an hour. Fast forward 25 years or so and I still practice every day. I use various practice methods, but over the years much of it has been information gathered from books and magazines, some instructional videos (on DVD, not necessarily YouTube), LOTS of jamming along with recordings, and then long hours with the instrument, exploring and discovering, learning by ear, transcribing solos, etc..
10. Who was the most influential person during your period of learning the instrument? Who did you lean on to provide information and tasks for practice?
ANSWER: I am almost completely self-taught, so I leaned on myself. But I got ideas from books and magazines. Guitar Player magazine was my guitar bible growing up and I learned so much from the articles, interviews, and lessons. After that, playing along with recordings is what really took me to the next level. I feel like Eric Clapton was my personal instructor.
11.What were some of the activities you did that made you continue learning? Did those activities make you a better guitarist?
ANSWER: Playing in church was a huge help for me when starting out. There were a couple more experienced players, so I got to watch them and learn. And it greatly improved my strumming and chords, basic performance skills, etc. Having a steady gig is probably the single best learning experience you can have, whether it’s in front of an actual audience or just a regular jam session with friends. Being responsible to someone – anyone – is the ticket to serious improvement in just about any skill.
12. What extra sources did you use while learning? Were they relevant?
ANSWER: I’ve always used recordings to learn by ear, but “slow down” software is a tremendous help for learning and transcribing solos. The ability to slow down the fast parts without changing the pitch is something that players would have loved back in the classic rock era. Instead, they had to slow down their turntables, which wasn’t ideal. Also, Internet tabs can sometimes be a big help. I say “sometimes” because, honestly, most of them are just not accurate. But once in a while you can find a gem transcribed by somebody who knows what they’re doing.
13. What motivates you to keep on practicing and learning?
ANSWER: The love of the instrument is what keeps me motivated to practice and learn. As I said, it’s a journey and even after 38 years of study, I’m still improving. If I had no students and no band, I’d still be practicing every day. Actually, it would free up a lot more time for practicing.
QUESTION: If someone asked you to sum up your “six string life” in one paragraph, what would you say? Leave me a comment below!