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The Rockologist Learns To Play Guitar

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For as long as I've been both writing and obsessing about music, I suppose it is about time that I learned how to actually play it. So this year, I've decided to finally put my money — or in this case, my pen — where my mouth is, and learn how to play the damned guitar.

Not that this decision came about as the result of a mere whim. Oh no. Fate played a very significant hand here. It actually began about three months ago when I won Jimi Hendrix's guitar — well, sort of anyway.

As part of my day job working in sales for a local music distributor, I spend a lot of time on the road travelling all over the states of Washington and Oregon to call on my accounts. As you might imagine, this takes me to some very interesting places — particularly when it comes to grabbing a quick bite to eat on the run.

During one such stop a few months back, I was at a lunch spot when I noticed a display for something called "Hendrix Coffee." Yes, you heard me right…"Hendrix Coffee." There were all these different blends, that came in bright purple packages with Jimi's mug plastered on them, and clever names like "Voodoo Child" and of course, "Hey Joe."

Next to the coffee, was this beautiful black Fender Squire Stratocaster and a box where you could enter to win it. Which I did, while waiting for my French Dip sandwich (I passed on the coffee).

The thing is, I never expected to actually win the damn thing.

But low and behold — and to my absolute surprise — a few months later I get a call from Jimi's brother Leon (at first I thought it was a prank), telling me I had won. Leon, incidentally, is the apparent CEO of the Hendrix coffee company, and he also plays in a band himself. In addition to the guitar, a Marshall practice amp (nice!), and some of the coffee, my prize package included an autographed copy of Leon's CD Keeper Of the Flame.

Now, I haven't actually listened to Leon's CD yet — and with song titles like "Jimi And Me," "Voodoo River," and "Purple Flame," I'm not sure I even want to. Between the coffee and the "original" sounding song titles, it's actually kind of easy to start suspecting at least a hint of exploitation there. Being a fan of Hendrix since my childhood — I actually saw him in concert twice while he was alive, once in Hawaii, and once at Seattle's Sicks Stadium just a few months before he died — there was also an ever-so-slight element of creepiness about all of this.

Still, in fairness, Leon probably didn't suspect his winner was a guy who moonlights as a music writer on the internet when the guitar (also autographed by Leon), and the rest of the booty was handed over. Anyway, the call was not mine to make at this particular time. All I knew was that I was now the owner of a beautiful new guitar. The question now, was what to actually do with it.

The thing is, as long as I've obsessed about music I've never actually learned how to play. As an armchair critic, I like to think that I can play the role just about as well as anybody. My nerdish obsessiveness with records dates back to childhood, which also means that I've absorbed a considerable amount of knowledge about such things over the years. I've soaked it up like a proverbial sponge. I can quote you things like album titles, labels, and producers right off the top of my head like clockwork.

But I can't play a lick.

As the drummer in my band back in junior high school, I was so bad they actually fired me, and then they made me the singer. The truth is, I really wasn't much better at singing. But with my long hair and pre-beer gut teenager's frame, at least I more or less had "the look." More importantly, I was enough of a natural ham back then, that I had no problem making an ass out of myself as a frontman doing bad imitations of all of Mick Jagger's best moves.

That was then.

So what's an aging Rockologist to do with this kick-ass Fender Squire Strat I've just acquired? Letting it just sit in my living room trophy-style gathering dust and cigarette smoke was simply not an option. On the other hand, it's a little late in the game to try learning something as potentially cumbersome as music theory.

Nope. What was called for here was an instant crash course. I wanted to be Jimi Hendrix right freaking now, dammit!

Besides, if Steven "Stumbletown" Adams, a quiet unassuming sort of guy that I went to high school with — who never once displayed a hint of musical talent in all the years I spent going to high school keg parties with him — can put out his own, surprisingly quite good sounding CD (stay tuned for the review), I figured I had as good a shot as anybody. By the way, thanks for the inspiration Steven.

So I turned to the only place I really could. I went out and purchased Guitar For Dummies.

While Jon Chappell's "for dummies" instructional course in guitar doesn't promise you'll be ready for that open slot in Pearl Jam or the Stones anytime soon, it does more or less guarantee you'll at least learn the basics. The DVD version claims to deliver this in 75 minutes. The book takes a bit longer, but is written in the sort of easy to follow language that even a musically challenged guy like me is supposed to be able to grasp.

I purchased both.

So being the sort of instant gratification whore that I am, I pulled up a chair, strapped on my ax (man, it feels cool to say that), and plugged in the DVD first. The good news here is that the easy stuff is, in fact, pretty easy to learn. Once Chappell gets past the no-brainer stuff like how to hold your guitar, and the differences between an acoustic and an electric guitar (hey, I am a music writer right?), I'm absolutely itching to get to the good parts. Like when do we get to play "Stairway to Heaven"?

Of course before we get there, we have to learn how to play actual chords. And as soon as you can say E Chord, damned if I'm not playing my first song, even if it is "Frere Jacques." So far, so good. Changing chords (from a D to an A) for that time honored punk-rock classic "Skip To My Lou" proves a bit tougher (my fingers are starting to hurt for one thing). But so far this whole learning guitar thing is proving to be a piece of cake.

So, just when I'm starting to think that this may not be so tough after all, Chappell pulls out the first obstacle. One that on that first, initial try has me starting to rethink this whole learning how to play the guitar thing.

Now, I've been around seasoned guitar players most of my life. I've sang with them as part of a band, and I've interviewed them as a music journalist for pete's sake. But not a one of them ever told me that learning to play an F chord was such a bitch. Honestly, you've got to be some kind of freaking contortionist to master this thing — the way you have to curl your ring finger around that last string.

By the time the lessons on the DVD have progressed to playing "Michael Row Your Boat Ashore," a song that has five chords (which unfortunately include the dreaded F), Chappell is going a bit too fast for me. The innocuous folk ballad might as well as be some punk rock shit played at Ramones speed. And suddenly I have a new appreciation for how guys like Jimmy Page were able to do this shit night after night, even while stoned out of their minds at times on all matter of pharmaceuticals.

The point at which I almost threw in the towel — at least for this particular night — came when Chappell got to the various styles of things like the bass string downstroke, and finger picking. Which kinda sucks because this was also the point where you start to learn cool songs like "Sloop John B" (did I mention that this instructor has a particular thing for songs related to the sea?).

Unfortunately, this didn't matter because I was still stuck back there trying to wrap my baby finger around that damned F chord. Even with the luxury of the pause button on the DVD, I just wasn't ever able to get past that appropriately named "F". And speaking of my fingers, did I mention that they hurt like hell at about this point? I think I know what the Beatles meant now with that whole "I've got blisters on my fingers" thing at the end of "Helter Skelter."

So the good news is I learned to play my first few songs on the gee-tar, even if they were only things like "Frere Jacques" and "Skip To My Lou." Unfortunately, there would be no "Smoke On The Water" or "Stairway to Heaven" on this night. So I'm an impatient bastard — what can I say?

But I'm not giving up. No, sir.

My new master plan, which commences — well, whenever — is to come at this again using the book, rather than the DVD. The way I figure it, that way I can take all of the time I want mastering the dreaded F chord, before moving on to "Sloop John B" and the complexities of finger-picking and the like.

Come hell or high water, I will do this. Can you say "helllllllo, New York?" Madison Square Garden, here I come.

Hey, if "Stumbletown" can do it…

Wish me luck.

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, Ultimate Classic Rock, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
  • JC Mosquito

    Ach – Glen – put the book away – get someone to show you how to play the real classics – Louie Louie, Gloria, Jumpin’ Jack Flash, etc., and the rest will fall into place.

    And Hey Joe – really.

  • Good luck! I took lessons for a very brief period and learned what you learned – mainly that playing guitar is hard at first.

    Sadly I moved away from my instructor and haven’t taken any more lessons. Someday though, someday.

    Keep at it Glen. And yeah, get you a real instructor, if you can afford it.

  • Thanx guys. Yeah, that F chord is sure one mother bitch! Like I said though, I aint about to give up now. I think I like Skeeter’s suggestion best of just learning the Johnny B. Goode basic chords and letting it mushroom from there. Hey if it worked for the Ramones…


  • i’d give glen free lessons, except for the fact that he lives a gazillion miles away from me.

  • duane

    Glen, I think a guy who goes by the name Rockologist owes it to himself to learn to play at least one instrument. Electric guitar is a good choice.

    A few things you might find useful:

    Buy the best guitar you can afford. Buy a few. Guitars each have their own personality. Even two seemingly identical Strats will play and sound slightly different. A second-rate instrument makes playing less fun. As a rockologist, you already know what the best makes are.

    Acknowledge that you will suck for the first two years.

    It won’t hurt your fingers after a few weeks of playing. You will grow new fingertips.

    Grabbing an F chord takes about two weeks to master. If it takes three weeks, no problem. If it takes one week, go for it.

    The chords you learn to play children’s songs are the same ones rock stars use, except that they often use barre chords, which are easier.

    Don’t think that any song is beneath you. You can always learn something new. Play everything you can, John Denver, the Carpenters, Porcupine Tree, the Beach Boys, Christmas songs, Ravel’s Bolero — everything will teach you.

    Play along with recorded music. Don’t stop when you mess up. Just get back on track and go. Do this over and over until you can play along from beginning to end. It helps develop your sense of timing.

    Most rock classics, such as Smoke on the Water, are trivial to learn on guitar. Songs without blaring Marshall stacks, such as Steely Dan songs, are often much harder.

    That being said, there’s more to it than strumming the chords. You might learn the chords to Foxy Lady, but it’s another matter entirely to play them like Hendrix. That comes with experience.

    When you want to start playing guitar solos, learn blues first. You will start to see the notes on the fretboard as a geometrical pattern. The pattern moves — a blues scale in C is the same as a blues scale in A, except moved up three frets (with a few ifs, ands, or buts, of course). Then learn a few 7-note scales — major, minor, Dorian, and Mixolydian will leave you in good shape for rock music.

    And the most important piece of advice I could offer is…

    Practice at least 5 hours per week, if possible. Even the masters practice. If you work at it for a year, then quit for a month, you will lose ground. Andre Segovia said about practice (I’m quoting as closely as memory permits), “If I skip three days of practice, you will notice. If I skip two days, my wife notices. If I skip one day, I notice.”

    In my experience, I have seen many people give up almost immediately when they realize that it’s not as easy as it looks. They assume that they don’t have the aptitude to play, based on the fact that in week 2, it takes them 10 seconds to make a Gmaj7 chord, and they hear themselves strumming over the deadened strings because they don’t quite have it. The attitude is important. You will suck for awhile — work at it for a couple of years, and lights will start coming on.

  • I’m not sure I like the sound of sucking for two years (I’m not getting any younger, ya’ know?), but thanks for the advice Duane.

    And Sir Mark, I’d fly ya’ to Seattle for those lessons if I could afford it…unfortunately it wont happen, not on my salary anyway. Think we could get BC to spring for it? We could call it “research”…yeah, thats it.


  • JC Mosquito

    Oh – and cheat. Just ’cause the book sez so, it doesn’t always work that way. Some books advise you to keep your thumb along the back of the neck – fugedaboudit. I use my thumb to play barre chords.

  • yeah, i agree. screw that “proper” technique crap. whatever feels comfortable is the “right” way.

  • Dan

    I can’t argue with the tips provided here, except maybe the thumb technique. I think it’s kind of important to not get off to bad habits early.

    If I were a beginning guitarist, and knew what I know now, I think I would suggest a good guitar, but the main consideration for a newbie would be that the strings are close to the neck. On top of that I would get super thin strings. It’s mind blowing to the starter how much pressure is needed to push down to get a clean chord.

    You probably should buy a cheap digital tuner so you can always be in standard tuning.

    I’d start out learning rock power chords in the E and A bar configurations. But mainly concentrating on the top 3 strings where you only need to hold down the 2 strings that make up the 1’st and 5th notes with your index finger and ring finger respectively.

    With this in hand, you can pretty quickly pick up AC DC type songs or similar.

    The important thing, I think, is to quickly build up a repitore of stuff you won’t mind reapeating over and over, so that you get some entertainment value out of it right away. Skip to my lou wouldn’t do it for me. You have to enjoy the stuff you’re playing in order to be driven onward.

    Good luck.

  • except maybe the thumb technique. I think it’s kind of important to not get off to bad habits early.

    don’t know that this is necessarily a bad habit. i mean, i don’t do that for bar chords, but i DO use the thumb to play bass notes in jazz…it’s really handy with dom. 7 chords because it frees up your pinky and ring fingers to extend the chord.

    got that glen? 😉

  • Dan

    Didn’t mean to pooh pooh your thumb technique Mark. You must be on to something I’m not familiar with. Sorry. I was thinking of how some beginners books use the thumb to play an open G chord. Though it’s not a hard habit to break.

  • JC Mosquito

    No – thumb for barre chords. Index finger plays the high E & B – the rest play the other three notes in the configuration, major, minor, sus4, whatever.

    Perhaps a bad habit for a beginnner – but it got me through 4 1/2 sets a night in the bars.

  • Glen–

    I learned how to play the guitar in my late 20s, and what I found incredibly useful and gratifying was learning the dozen (or so) open chords: C, D, E, G, A and Am, Dm and Em, as well as A7, D7, E7 and G7.

    Once you’ve got them down–even roughly–you can play hundreds of songs, including just about any blues; hell, with just those chords you can play “Crossroads” in the keys of A, D or G, and who doesn’t feel like a badass with a hellhound on his trail?

    “Louie Louie” is just A, D and Em.

    “Reason to Believe” by Bruce Springsteen is just G, C and D. Same with “Open All Night” and “Johnny 99.”

    U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”? Same three chords.

    (These may be different keys than on record, of course.)

    And so on and so forth.

    Finally, until you master that wicked F chord, you can kinda cheat at it by playing an Fmaj7 chord: play a regular C chord, but then move your middle and ring fingers down one string each. It sounds like a richer, fuller F chord and won’t always work, but is often close enough when you’re starting.

    Oh, and C and Fmaj7 are just about the only two chords in Modern English’s “I Melt With You,” other than the bridge (which is Em, G and Am).

    Have fun.

  • Hey, I’m on a parallel trip right now. I can play to an intermediate level, but have never played in a band, so I’m pushing that in 2008.

    If there’s one thing I’ve learned about music it’s that it pays to learn things the right way, then once you know the framework, ignore it and play things the way that feels or sounds right to you.

    The most important thing is getting the sound you want out of the amp. The next most important thing is not hurting yourself doing it!

    If you’re talking electric then there will be some times when you absolutely should hook your thumb over, eg to give something to pull against when bending, or sometimes playing the ‘over’ chords like G/D (I think it’s denoted that way round) where it’s easiest to fret the low E string on the 3rd fret with your thumb then playing the D open chord as usual.

    If you want proof, look at 99% of rock guitarists and see how often their thumb creeps over.

    Personally, when strumming my acoustic I find it easiest to mute the low E if necessary by hooking my thumb over and touching the string rather than using my index fingertip as most people seem to. But then I have big hands 🙂

  • Awesome, Glen! In no time you’ll be even better than this Santana guy.

  • And suddenly I have a new appreciation for how guys like Jimmy Page were able to do this shit night after night, even while stoned out of their minds at times on all matter of pharmaceuticals.

    Man, you’re not kidding about that one. I mean, I’m fairly well-versed in piano, but doing anything more sophisticated than smashing my hands on it in time when I’m chemically altered? Yeah right. It’s incredible how those guys have mastered it to the point where it’s just second nature. It’s like they don’t even have to think about what they’re doing. I’d love to be able to play guitar like that…right now I’ve got E and A down, but anything more challenging than that frustrates the hell out of me. I wish you much luck in this endeavor.