A Little Story
I want to tell you a little story. Be assured this is a true story because it's my story.
It will be in 3 parts. The point of Part 1 of this story is to illustrate the massive inefficiency of “self teaching” when it comes to learning to play the guitar - which is how I learned for the first ten years of my guitar playing. In today's world, this would include watching teaching videos on YouTube, swapping playing tips and techniques with your friends who are also “self-teaching,” learning songs from tab charts online, learning by ear – which is to say, learning by trial-and-error (your ear can be really good at telling you when you've already made a mistake) - and anything else that is the result of you picking and choosing what you are going to learn. I'm not saying not to do those things; if you are really interested in the guitar you will be doing all those things. But if that is your primary method for learning the guitar you are wasting massive amounts of valuable time.
I'm not going to count the fact that I started playing the ukelele when I was 3 or 4 years old and so I already had a concept of the fretboard when I got my first guitar at age 11. I could already play some things when I first picked up the guitar because of that.
Thus I stumbled onto the MIGHTY Minor Pentatonic Scale. Of course, I didn't know “Minor Pentatonic,” I just knew that sound and the geometrical pattern on the fretboard that corresponded to that sound. The summer between 7th and 8th grade I played my new electric guitar all day, every day – 8 to 10 hours a day sometimes. It wasn't any kind of structured or organized practice; I would play the songs I knew or was trying to learn. I would sit in the basement in front of a fan (no air-conditioning in those days) with a glass of ice water, my guitar and the radio, learning the songs off the radio. If the song was in heavy rotation I could sometimes figure it out in a few days. I remember learning “25 or 6 to 4” by Chicago and Hendrix's version of “All Along the Watchtower” that way. I would play along to my records for hours and picture myself onstage being cool. Yeah, I know, kinda pathetic; a pencil neck geek holed up in the basement practicing, fantasizing about being a guitar player. But hey, that's how it starts – kids pretending and playing at what they want to be.
When I got my first guitar – a Recco acoustic for $24.95 at Music Land – it came with a Mel Bay chord book. It was all first-position chords. This was a real finger-bleed guitar. I played it constantly. Even though the action was horrible and I would play until my fingers hurt so bad I'd have to stop, I taught myself those chords from that book. I got some of the fingerings backwards but I was functional. I could hear those chords in certain songs on the radio. I learned how to play those songs with greater or lesser degrees of accuracy by ear. I can remember learning “Mrs Robinson” by Simon and Garfunkel, “As Tears Go By” by the Rolling Stones, “House of the Rising Sun” by the Animals and “I'm Not Your Stepping Stone” by the Monkees, and so on.
When I was 13 I got my first electric guitar and amp. By now I was into Cream, Hendrix, and the like. I started trying to play lead. I would put the needle down on the record and then hunt-and-peck, hunt-and-peck, trying for hours and hours to find the right sound. That's learning by ear. What it really is is learning by trial-and-error. It was by this “method” that I figured out that all these guys were playing the same pattern of notes in their solos. Each one used different orders of the notes, and they each had a different sound to their guitar, amp and effects, but the content of what they played was from the same pattern.
Listen, listen, listen, hunt-and-peck, hunt-and-peck, hunt-and-peck. It was slow going and very frustrating. It wasn't coming to me as easy as everything else had. I didn't realize it immediately, it took a couple of years, but I had hit the wall.
When I was 21 years old I was in my 3rd year of a philosophy degree program specializing in Aristotle's Metaphysics. For reasons I won't go into here, I decided that I didn't want to teach Plato and Aristotle for the rest of my life, I wanted to take my guitar playing to a completely pro level. I had never stopped playing and working at it, I had been playing gigs all through college, but I hadn't actually had the realization that playing the guitar was how I wanted to make my living. It was at that point that I squarely faced the fact that I had no idea what I was doing when it came to playing the guitar and I was going to set myself up to compete with guys who did.
Actually, there are plenty of “pros” who don't know what they're doing, but never mind that.
All this was at the same time I was struggling to figure out the chords to the jazz songs I was attempting to learn. So I enrolled at the UMKC Conservatory of Music and started studying classical guitar with Douglas Neidt. I was there for 3 years; 1977 – 80. I got to an intermediate level of classical guitar playing. It wasn't really what I was interested in but when I started it was the only thing I could think of to do. Even though I wasn't interested in becoming a classical guitarist per se, what I took away from studying with Doug was invaluable – a method for acquiring good technique. Then in 1979 I began studying privately with John Elliott. He called it, “The Theory of Harmony.” That was the stuff! I could write a book about my years with John; you can read more about that story here.
Anyway, at my first lesson John says,
“Well, I've been hearing about you. Why don't you play me something, show me what you can do.”
So I played him this thing that I'd written. It had all kinds of altered 9th inversions in it – I didn't know what they were, I'd just worked it out by ear (trial-and-error). He said,
“That was pretty good, I've never heard that before. What was that?”
“Just something I wrote,” I said as my head swelled up to gargantuan proportions with delusions of grandeur!
“Ok, we'll start here,” he said.
I think we started with altered 9th chords - probably because that's what John heard me play. It didn't take long for my swollen head to get stuck with a pin and completely deflate. It was likely the very same lesson (the first) John says,
“I can see you have no idea what you're doing so we're going back to the beginning.”
“You're the teacher,” I said, “I'll do whatever you want.”
We didn't actually go back to the very beginning, he started me in root position seventh chords. I could already play everything he was making me do. Scale tone 7ths? I could play them. II-V-I's? I could play them (courtesy of Danny Embrey – read the link above). However, John was making me spell, out loud, every note in every chord, in every key, in every position. It was excruciating. At first, it took me forever. A chord progression I could play in 3 seconds took me a full minute to spell I had to think so hard. This went on for about a year – and we didn't do anything I couldn't already play.
Then one day John spelled a chord he wanted me to play. The instant I played it I realized that it was one of those George Benson chords I had been trying for three years to figure out and there it was! And I knew what it was! I knew how to use it. I understood it! I could do it in any and every key. EUREKA!
Then...I studied with John for 6 more years.
Now let's do some math. There will be some unrealistic assumptions that this math is based on. For one, we're going to assume that the general rate of progress that I was experiencing as the result of my self-teaching-by-ear remains constant. That is demonstrably not true – I had already hit a wall. The challenge posed by George Benson and jazz music in general had already slowed me considerably. We will also not factor in the years of ukelele playing as a child. We will not factor in the couple of years after I got my first guitar at age 11 and the first-position chords I learned from the Mel Bay book. We will start from age 13 – that's when I got my first electric guitar and got really obsessive about playing and learning. I was about 24 at the George Benson eureka moment with John. We had been going over things I could already play for about a year. So in 1 year, John took me through what it had previously taken me 10 years to do on my own – more like 20 years if you count the ukelele era. But we'll say 10 years to make the math easy. So, assuming my rate of progress as a self-taught musician would remain constant, what John took me through in the following 6 years would have taken me SIXTY YEARS to do on my own. SIXTY FREAKIN' YEARS! I still wouldn't be there – it's only been about 35 years.
I did it in six years. How? By having the right teacher and applying myself to what he taught me, not what I randomly picked up here and there by trial-and-error.
The amount of data when it comes to music is MASSIVE. There is over a thousand years of evolution behind it. There is NO WAY you can come close to learning it on your own with even 2 or 3 lifetimes. To acquire it through a process of what you are randomly exposed to due to life circumstances and then figure out by trial-and-error what you just happened to have heard...well, it's impossible to really crack the code that way, and even if you did, how would you know? You would never know what you didn't know.
That's why a teacher/mentor is important. Not just any teacher – a teacher that has a METHOD. A pedagogy (look it up). A system. A systematic approach that's logical and builds on itself – it trains you how to think and gives you the tools by which you can - if you put in the practice time - really play and know what you're doing. This is something that is the antithesis of the random, self-teaching, trial-and-error method that is THE most inefficient way to learn there is. And it is something that is not common in the tab-oriented-let's-learn-this-song-this-week random approach of most guitar teachers – especially those online YouTube guys. Now there are guys out there that have a method – but their method is an organized way to present what they themselves have learned randomly by trial-and-error. You don't want that. You want a systematic approach to acquiring a thousand years of historical musical development and you want it applied specifically to your instrument, in this case the guitar. You have to search for the guys who have a methodology and then stick with them through the whole system. There are many ways to get to the same place, my method (i.e. John's method) is not the only comprehensive way. However, if you teacher-hop, you're getting bits and pieces of different methods with no necessary unity. How do you know where the gaps are? You don't. Stick with one approach. If you have the right teacher, eventually you will hear, “This is about all I can give you theory-wise.” At that point you could try someone else, but if your previous guy was the right guy, you might learn the same thing in a different order, or a different way to think about the same thing. I pretty much got it all from John. The things I've learned since then are just different ways to think about the things I got from him, or are things I've learned based on what he taught me. And I'm still working out things he showed me 30-plus years ago.
The proof is in the pudding. All the knowledge – the “Theory of Harmony” - is just tools. Tools that make me a better guitar player than I would have ever become on my own. That's the motivation – to be the best musician I can be. Eric Clapton said, “It is good to be good.” I've made a living with the guitar, I've backed up or opened for many big names (highly over-rated BTW). Most importantly, I've maintained a good marriage and my wife and I have successfully raised 5 kids. And I supported it with the guitar. Without those 7 years with John...7 years of systematic, progressive and sequential acquisition of data and tools, sculpting the way that I think about and hear music, internalizing a thousand years of musical development, equipping me for the many musical challenges that would come my way in the ensuing years...without that I doubt it would have been possible for me to succeed in what measure I have.
Of course, it takes more than musical facility on an instrument to succeed in music as a business. There are many skill-sets involved in that. But in my case, it's the music and the guitar playing that drives everything else. And for the guitar playing skill-set, trying to do it on your own is vastly, and in most cases regrettably, sub-optimal.
Next: Part 2
By the time I was 15 years old I was no longer pretending. I was playing in a band that actually played gigs. Read about it here. School dances, coffeehouses, county fairs, block parties, and special events. That's when I discovered chicks dug it! I went from skinny pencil-neck geek to cool - in an instant - because I played in a band. I continued in this vein all through high school and on into college; playing in bands, always listening, learning, teaching myself by trial-and-error, i.e. by ear.
Then, one fateful day in 1976, I heard George Benson for the first time. George Benson was completely different than anything I had ever heard before. I bought every George Benson album I could find. Very shortly that led me to Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass, Barney Kessel and Pat Martino. During this time I also discovered John Abercrombie, John McLaughlin, Jim Hall, Herb Ellis, Al Dimeola, John Scofield, and many more. It was an exciting time of discovery for me. I started trying to figure out this music by the same “method” I had learned everything else up to that point.