Electric guitar as a folk instrument
So many guitarists focus on the sound produced by their instrument rather than the actual music executed by the player. The sound of pop music is important. But there's such a thing, I think, as an unhealthy obsession with sound. Or to cast it in more familiar terms: an obsession with form over content. Go into a music store and you'll hear all manner of players playing a few repetitive figures while twisting knobs to evoke strange strange sonic mutations.
I won't go so far as to single out sonic obsessions as either useless or harmless. To me it's very clear that pop music depends upon such sonic treatments; it's almost as clear that there are some musically-gifted players within the ranks of pop musicians.
Here's where the argument turns to the guitar as a "folk" instrument in the broadest sense: as an instrument of the people. A beginner can learn to bang out a few chords on a budget instrument within a matter of days, and can be taught (or can learn by ear) to mimic the essential changes of many pop songs. The musicianship really isn't an issue at this stage. The guitar is normally an accompaniment to the lyrics and sung melody of the song. No other instrument - as far as I know - provides the kind of immediate gratification that one can get from learning the basics of playing the guitar.
Mastery of the instrument is an entirely different matter. A remark made by a guitarist I met in my college days has stuck with me after almost 40 years: You can spend a lifetime trying to master the guitar. And that, I think, is where we get into matters of pedagogy and of recalcitrant students.
There's just so much to learn about playing this instrument. Is there a "best" place to start? Personally, I don't believe that there is. There's a Bhuddist proverb: "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear." As a teacher you can try to guide a student toward the next step in his or her development, but you're going to get the best results when the student is engaged through virtue of being ready to learn what you have to teach.
My mother's side of the family was made up largely of classically-trained musicians. I was surrounded by family members performing music and had every opportunity to take lessons - opportunities which I repeatedly declined. My mother, bless her soul, didn't force the issue. I'm sure that she would have preferred that I not make so much noise playing electric guitar, but that's what I was interested in and motivated to do. As a self-taught musician of that era, considering the relatively small amount effort that I put into actually learning the instrument, I did alright.
When I got back into playing the guitar after a twenty-year layoff I realized two things fairly quickly:
- There are a lot of technically superior guitarists out there now, thanks to the virtual explosion in all aspects of the music industry - including instruction and instructional materials - since I had stopped playing in the late 1970s.
- Playing the same folk, pop and blues/rock songs that I had grown up with (or songs in those genres, to be honest) wasn't going to provide sufficient musical motivation for me.
I saw two alternatives:
- Study classical guitar. I know my learning style. I'm independent and stubborn and enjoy learning the most when I can figure things out on my own. This seems not to be the way of classical music instruction.
- Try to learn something about jazz. I didn't arrive at this immediately, but rather after having spent a couple of years "chasing sounds" among the cornucopia of MI products that had sprung up like mushrooms during my twenty-year layoff. I gradually came to understand - mostly from looking for music lessons online - that the jazz guitarists had a lot more interesting things to say to me about the instrument than did folks teaching other genres of music. I was interested not so much in technique as I was in unlocking some of the mysteries of music itself, and the jazz guys seemed to me to have a leg up on this...
My younger brother has been studying classical guitar for years and plays beautifully. His playing amazes me with the depth of expressiveness and emotion that he brings to the music. But to him, it's all notes on the page. The last time I visited him (several years ago) he marvelled at some lame improvisation I had tossed off without much thought. From his viewpoint the ability to improvise is a gift, not something that can be learned. (I strongly disagree with that, BTW.) At the same time, I looked upon his sheet music as some weird heiroglyphs that I'd have to struggle to understand.
My quest has become to bridge some of the gaps in my understanding of music. I'm picking my subjects based upon what motivates me at the moment. Could I learn more, faster with a teacher? Maybe. Probably. But doing so would go against all of my instincts. My life has shown me many examples of the truth of that Bhuddist proverb about the teacher and the student: when I have gone as far as I can on my own, the "teacher" appears in the form of a book or an article or a chance meeting with a fellow pilgrim who just happens to know how to teach me about the next part of the puzzle that I'm trying to solve. For without the motivation and need to learn, the available learning resources mean nothing to me.
My outlook on education is difficult to reconcile with teaching as a profession. If you need to make a living as a teacher, you must think as a business person thinks. You need students to appear on a regular schedule so you can have a dependable income in order to be able to keep teaching. A good teacher will have plans and curricula that can be adapted to the needs of the students, and the ability to recognize when it's appropriate to lead the student and when it's necessary to let the student lead the way while you offer advice and insight.