Guitar From the Ground Up

Guitar is wicked cool. You know it in your bones; I know you do. You’ve grown up watching MTV rock stars shimmy and gyrate in that post-Elvis mold. You’ve seen the old videos of Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix in their heydays coaxing lava from Stratocasters. You’ve seen Bob Dylan’s woody box of protest songs and Paul Simon’s elegant eloquence… or the quiet fire of the post-bopper Jim Hall… or the aural blitzkriegs of John McLaughlin… or the gentle fingerpicking of Michael Hedges…

Jimi Hendrix had a hard time understanding metaphor...

Jimi Hendrix had a hard time understanding metaphors...

There’s no escaping it, really… the guitar occupies a singular place in the popular consciousness of the twentieth century. Nearly everyone you’ve ever met either plays a little bit of guitar or knows someone who did, or does, or wants to. When compared to a piano, even an excellent instrument is ridiculously affordable. The guitar is light, portable, and offers access to a width of tones unavailable to any other instrument save the synthesizer- and even that is a gap which can be closed. It fits into a seemingly limitless number of popular musicks, makes wonderful accompaniment to the voice in all kinds of styles, and (thanks to the modern world: “Thanks, modern world!”) can be quiet enough to be inaudible or loud enough to hear a mile away. It’s great!

But it is one of the truest things I’ve ever heard that the guitar is the easiest instrument to start playing but the hardest to master. Anyone who has a little patience can pick up the most basic chords in a few weeks, but it can take years of careful study and practice to gain fluency in any particular genre. I’ll tell you this right now: that duality is a wonderful thing.

First things first: There is nothing wrong with learning the basics and never going any further. You can spend a few days and learn a half dozen chords, buy a capo, and practice a few strumming patterns and pretty much be able to play almost every pop song of the last half century. You can even write your own, there’s nothing to stop you! Countless happy amateurs while away their evenings singing songs with acoustic guitars or trying to copy a famous solo by ear, and even many professional artists are content with this level. Pop quiz… What’s wrong with that? Nothing, that’s what. Don’t assume that there is no value to somebody’s art because they don’t know much about what they are doing or have more interest in blues licks than Bach. Just don’t do it.

Second things second: There is nothing wrong with earnest study of the technical and theoretical aspects of the instrument or music in general. Contrary to a widely circulated mythology, music theory is NOT anathema to creativity. Self expression does not have to be compromised in the pursuit of greater understanding, and technical proficiency does not preclude individuality. Don’t assume that there is no value to somebody’s art because they know everything about what they are doing or have more interest in theory than catchy melodies. Just don’t do it!

The ideas that more knowledge breeds elitism or that amateurism is of no value are both just wrong, wrong, wrong. This is a false dichotomy born of insecurities on both sides, and any bright eyed student should take extra care to ignore it post haste. You can enjoy the Ramones and then listen to Berlioz, or write a three chord pop song and then follow that up with a twelve tone composition, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Things are what they are, and that’s it. Music is a river, wide and deep; cast your net wherever you want.

A note on theory…

Theory is not a set of rules, theory is not law. Theory is not just one thing. Theories seek to explain logically what we walking hairless apes do intuitively. Theories are guesses, some of them pretty good, and some of them way off base. Don’t be afraid of theory, it doesn’t want to take away your muse.

Ultimately, better understanding can only help, because you can always choose to ignore it. Theory doesn’t have to be complicated, and in fact it really isn’t. When somebody starts spouting off about “upper structure color tones” this or “quartal motion in the superlocrian mode” that, it can seem pretty overwhelming, but don’t be intimidated- they’re just words that describe musical sounds, that’s all they are. If you start from the beginning, these things build on themselves and make perfect sense. Besides, if you’re reading this then you’ve already mastered a subject far more complicated: Communicative English!


Yeah, we wish. I’m not going to lie to you, sometimes music can be really difficult or frustrating or infuriating, but it can also be beautiful and transcendent and meaningful. In the long run, it’s worth your time, trust me! And remember, you get what you give- and the more time you spend learning and growing as a musician or guitarist the more rewarding the whole experience will become. So what if your fingertips hurt for a month or two? At least you don’t play the upright bass! My God, you should see the blisters on those people…!

This guide makes no assumptions except that the reader has an interest in learning about the guitar and music and possesses a certain amount of natural curiosity. It helps (a LOT) if you like music and listen to it often (OFTEN)! I want more than anything to be instructive, clear, and concise. It can be difficult to effectively teach something that you’ve long ago internalized, but it is also an excellent exercise. It is my hope that this collection of essays will prove helpful and interesting to many different people, from stone cold beginners to seasoned musicians. Even if you already know how to play, I definitely recommend starting at the beginning. These lessons will build on one another, and hopefully they’ll be fun to read, too.

Eventually, we’ll get into the things that make styles different. We’ll get into complex harmonic devices. We’ll get into all kinds of mess… but to start with, we will cover only the basics and concentrate primarily on two things: getting you playing (soon!), and getting you to understand what you’re playing (soon!).

SO. Give it a try and see what happens. Best of luck and welcome to the club!


This is a most excellent post, and echoes something I have been preaching for many years.

Almost 10 years ago I created with the sole intent of helping both of the guitar communities you outline (a) Those who ‘just want to be good enough to play some songs”, and (b) the early learning but ‘serious’ guitar players who want to scale the heights.

The songs on my site are an eclectic mix of what I consider to be the best of guitar music from the 60’s right up to date, and as Jeff says, most of the ( over 1,700 ) songs feature only chords which will have been mastered in the first couple of months of learning.

Of course mine is just one of many sites out their with free resources for all levels of guitar players – main difference is that most require the knowledge of ‘tab’, whereas I’ve adopted a simplex approach, so that group (a) can just learn new songs to play and group (b) can get the basics of some songs they might want to add to their repertoire, even though they will spend some time working out intros, lead breaks etc. to play the song at their level.

Music is for everyone who wants it, at whatever level they wish to perform it. And rightly so!


Written By P.J. Murphy on December 15th, 2008 @ 8:48 am

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