Where I grew up in a suburb of Dublin there used to be a little music shop, ‘Pat Dolans’, buried in the heart of the housing estate. It was less than a ten minute walk from my house. I used to love going in to look at all the guitars that I couldn’t possibly afford. The guys in there were always helpful and friendly and let me try some of the expensive guitars. I walked in one day as one of the staff was showing a guitar to a customer. It must have been a new model but I can’t remember what it was. His sales talk was what has stuck with me to this day; ‘Man, you hit this switch and it’s instant fucking Led Zeppelin.’ Wow, that’s how you sell a guitar I thought. Well he had me sold, the only drawback being that at 16 I had no money. When years later I was working in music shops selling guitars I always wondered about the wisdom of maybe trying to use his line, but I think if it was premeditated it wouldn’t ring true. I like to think that the pure enthusiasm he had for that guitar just happened to find it’s expression that way. There have been a few guitars I’ve tried over the years that felt amazing, inspiring, as soon as you’d sit down to play, but not that many. Considering I worked in 3 different stores over a period of about 14 years, I’ve tried a lot of guitars, some very expensive. So if you’re a guitarist and you find a guitar that you instantly bond with…buy it. Just be careful that you don’t end up thinking every guitar you touch is inspirational – this could become a costly exercise and possibly lead to GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome).
For adults I would say that it’s never too late to learn and to benefit from the many advantages of playing a musical instrument. An instrument like the guitar involves so many different aspects that it can be beneficial on so many levels, (improve coordination & discipline, reduce stress, creative expression) even more so if you are older. The myth is that it’s much easier to learn guitar when you are young. This is really too much of a generalisation, learning guitar is not easy regardless of age and an adult who is motivated to learn can learn as quickly as a child. The biggest hurdle for adults is time or more to the point – time to practice. It is impossible to improve at playing guitar without practice so it becomes essential to try to fit it in around your normal schedule. There have been various studies that suggest to master something (in our case playing an instrument) would take approx. 10,000 hours of practice which translates to about 3 hours of practice everyday for 10 years. Obviously if you start at an early age then this is achievable before you reach your twenties but also it’s worth remembering that these figures are if you want to be a master of the instrument, if you’re just looking to be able to play a few songs most students would reach that stage within a year. If you would like some further reading the book ‘Outliers’ by Malcolm Gladwell explores this 10,000 hour principle examining high achievers in different fields.
Too young to learn guitar?
If you have a child who is really interested in learning the guitar then age 8 is a good age to start. I have taught children as young as 6 but in my experience it is better to wait until they are a little older, although there are always exceptions. They will need a smaller instrument so a six year old would usually need a ½ size guitar, an eight year old possibly a 3/4 size, but obviously this all depends on how big/small the individual child is. Although the general belief is that children learn things quicker this is not always the case as playing the guitar can’t be learnt by absorbing facts it is a physical thing that needs work therefore interest, motivation and willingness to practice are very big factors in learning an instrument.
Interest is very important and forcing children to learn an instrument because we think it will be good for them is not necessarily the best course of action. Countless times I’ve been told by adults that they hated the lessons on piano/violin or whatever instrument they were forced to learn as children. So it is important for us to make sure the child has an interest first of all. Also if as a parent you have never played an instrument before it is important to realise the amount of work necessary to learn how to play the guitar – it is not easy and requires a great deal of effort. So there needs to time available to practice. Practice has to be done at least 4-5 times a week, if the child doesn’t practice then there is a self-fulfilling downward spiral; no practice leads to no progress which in turn feeds the idea that “I’m not good at this” which can harden into an attitude of “I won’t bother practicing”… and so on.
So this leads to motivation where as a parent you need to encourage your child to practice. Try to incorporate practice into the daily routine eg. always first thing when they arrive home from school or straight after dinner or before they watch tv/play xbox. When we start to see progress, that moment when you can recognise the tune you’re playing, then the willingness to practice will kick in, the realisation that “I can do this” will encourage them to want to practice of their own accord. It is up to parents and teachers to make sure that they reach that stage.
I was sitting outside a café in Dublin enjoying a coffee and the evening sunshine when two friends passed by, making their way to Tower Records where Neil Hannon was launching his album ‘The Duckworth Lewis Method’. After explaining where they were off to they proceeded along their way. About ten minutes later they reappeared with Neil Hannon in tow. For whatever reason his piano/keyboard hadn’t arrived at the gig, so he was a bit stuck. He’d already tried a certain music shop on Exchequer St. to see if he could borrow one for the duration of the gig. Allegedly he was pretty much told he would have to buy the instrument before he could leave the shop with it. Fair enough you might say, but what about supporting your fellow musicians in need? He’s obviously not some chancer, he’s released about 10 albums and while he’s not Bono he is reasonably well known – he did after all write the theme music for ‘Father Ted’. All in all it seems their attitude just wasn’t cricket. My two friends thought of me and dragged Neil around to tell me his tale of woe. I had years previously worked in Waltons music shop so I said I’d see what I could do. With that, myself and Neil went in search of a keyboard. The guys in Waltons very kindly gave us a loan of a really nice digital piano and myself and Mr. Hannon humped it back down the street to Tower Records. What I couldn’t get my head around was why the roadies were standing outside the venue having a fag while the artist was sweating it out lifting a fairly hefty bit of gear down the road. The gig was a success from what I saw of it but unfortunately I couldn’t stay for the full duration because I had to get back to work. I’m kind of glad in a way because I wasn’t being paid as a roadie to carry the thing back!! Anyway here’s a video from the gig featuring said piano.
Do I need a metronome? A metronome can be a great tool to help with your practice, it can help you to make sure you are playing ‘in time’ which is a very important part of playing music. But…be aware that if you are just starting to learn an instrument like guitar there is a lot of things to think about, (are my fingers in the right place, are all the strings sounding clearly, have I started strumming the chord from the right string etc. etc.) Adding the extra pressure of a metronome at this stage might actually be more confusing than anything else. So if you are a total novice I would suggest steering clear of metronomes for now. If on the other hand you are able to play all your basic chords and are able to move between them without too much difficulty and need to test yourself on the chord changes then a metronome will be of great benefit.
If you are at a stage in your playing where you are studying scales then a metronome is a must and will help you gauge your progress. Start off playing your scales in 1/4 notes (crochets) at 60bpm then try the same scale in 1/8th notes (quavers) at the same bpm then try 1/16th (semiquavers) again at 60bpm. If you can manage this without any errors (not just wrong notes, also fingering, tone, right-hand coordination) then increase the tempo to 70bpm and try the same process increasing the tempo until you find your limit – the point where errors start to happen. Now you should have an idea what you need to work on. Go back to a slower tempo and work on the element that needs attention (wrong notes, tone etc.) and next session try again until you can play at a higher tempo without errors.
Want to improve your playing – Buy a guitar stand. After your initial investment in your instrument I would suggest your next purchase should be a guitar stand. This will allow you to leave the instrument somewhere that is readily accessible so that you can pick it up when you have a spare moment and get some extra practice in. If your guitar is in its case, under the bed, upstairs in your bedroom and you’re in the kitchen but you have some time to spare, the hassle of going in search of your guitar might tempt you to just put it off until tomorrow. But if you can just pick it up, play a bit and put it back down somewhere handy then I hope it will encourage you to play a bit more. It should be said though that these extra little sessions shouldn’t count as your main practice, they should be used to help you work on something that needs some more time (maybe changing between two difficult chords or a tricky strumming pattern).
For more on this read my previous blog about how to practice
Do I need lessons? I want to learn guitar, there are lots of videos online do I really need to get lessons? I’d follow that with another question – Do you want to learn correctly? Yes there are lots of tutorials on the internet but a video can’t remind you to put your fingers in the right place or make sure if you’re holding the instrument properly and you can’t ask it any questions. Now you might say I’m biased (which I am) but this is coming from years of seeing students arrive for their first lesson not holding the instrument properly and generally falling into what we will call ‘bad habits’. Some of these students might have been playing for years and considered themselves beyond beginner level yet didn’t have the basics right. Bad habits as the name suggests are the opposite of good and usually require a lot of effort to correct. So better to learn correctly at the beginning, a good teacher is not going to let you away with ‘bad habits’. Another factor to consider here is motivation and having a weekly target (ie. your lesson) will help get you practicing so that you’re not wasting your precious time and hard-earned cash.
Don’t get me wrong the internet is a great resource for learning but you have to consider the credentials of whoever you’re taking advice from. Also, and I know this from having produced my own video tutorials, it’s very difficult to make a video that will answer all questions from every variety of student at every level. I suppose my main point is that the crucial stage of learning an instrument is the very beginning and a good start is half the battle.
My first Rock concert was way back in 1988 when I went to see Ozzy Osbourne playing in the Top Hat in Dublin (sadly this venue is long gone). The ticket was the princely sum of £8.50 (which is in the region of €45.00). I think it might have been Zakk Wyldes first tour with Ozzy and as far as I can remember Geezer Butler was playing bass. I think that was what really sold it for me, half of the classic Black Sabbath line-up on stage. As it was to be my first gig I decided to go out and get a leather jacket, you have to look the part! I had only finished my Leaving Cert in school so I wasn’t working, a strict budget was required. I trawled through the second hand rag shops in Dublin and eventually found a retro 70′s style straight leather jacket, big collars et al, for 50pence! The guy in the shop was distraught, there was no way that was the price, but I stood my ground. The tag said 50p and that’s all I was paying. I was over the moon – my mother was horrified. She has a mortal fear of second hand clothes (“God only knows who was wearing that before”). She scrubbed it and fitted a new lining into it before she’d let me wear it. The gig was amazing. As a first concert it was a serious induction into the world of Rock. Loud, lots of headbanging, the band played some classic Sabbath numbers too. Some guy dived from the balcony into the crowd below, which unfortunately for him parted and he hit the floor. It’s one thing diving from a stage but off the balcony? Well I guess the people in the crowd weren’t up for being flattened and he was stretchered off. I can still remember being up the front of the crowd watching Zakk playing guitar- absolutely amazing. Thankfully I didn’t emulate their hairstyles. (If only I still had long hair now though.)
How long should I practice? You should read the previous blog about practice too. The amount of time you have available will depend on your circumstance (working hours, homework etc.) so you need to decide on a goal for your practice each week and work towards that. (This week I’ll learn how to play an F chord properly or I’ll learn a new scale)
If you have just started learning and have never played an instrument before then about 20mins a day should be fine (if you’re an adult). If you have a young child starting to learn then 5-10mins daily should be ok to start with, the important thing being to encourage them to practice and develop a routine.
If you are at an intermediate stage and want to make some real progress well then at least an hour a day should do it.
If you’re studying classical guitar for example and your preparing for a grade 8 exam I’d say 2 hours a day minimum.
After some time practicing you will get a feel for how long you need to get all your work done and as you start progressing you will feel the need to practice more.
What’s the best way to practice? We’ve all heard ‘Practice makes perfect’. Well I’m going to amend that to careful practice makes perfect. You can change the adjective to diligent or focused or whatever you like but the point is that just playing an instrument for an hour a day might not give you the dividends you expected in your progress. Why? Well because you need to be working on the elements of your playing that need work and doing this in a focused fashion. Even though this might sound obvious a lot of students will admit to just playing what they can already play well and while this might be fun it will not help much in moving along your progress.
The important thing is to have some sort of structure to your practice.
Realistically work out how much time you will have available, let’s say 30mins, 4 days a week.*
Now we need to divide that 30mins so you get the most from it. At the start of your session you should be more focused so work on whatever this weeks goal is…so 10mins on that. Then if you have a new song/piece give that the next 10mins and the final 10mins can be spent playing something you already know how to play. If you’re at the stage where you are learning scales then ‘warm up’ with scales before you start into your practice.
This is not a strict timetable and should be flexible so if today you feel your weekly goal has been achieved you could spend extra time learning a new song – maybe something that includes your weekly goal.
For example your weekly goal might be to improve a technique like ‘hammer-ons’ or improve bending strings or learn a new scale etc. There’s a lot of possibilities…
*I’ve purposely set the practice time low as a lot of students will say they don’t have enough time but 30mins a day should be possible for everyone. There are 168 hours in a week!! Maybe this TED talk might help to give some inspiration.