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 Erika Meyer

How I Learned To Play Guitar

How I Learned To Play Guitar
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By Erika Meyer

I grew up in a rural area outside a logging town in northwestern California, and I wanted to play guitar ever since I could remember. I did have a sense of how great it might feel to perform and sing, but I had no idea how long, convoluted, and confusing the path could be.

I am pretty sure my original inspiration to play guitar came from hanging out at hippie barbeques which usually featured homemade music, a few folks picking or strumming and everyone singing folk songs. Inspired by Pete Seger and the mid-century folk revival, my dad had bought a banjo and learned a couple songs (‘This Land Is Your Land’ and ‘Skip To My Lou’ to be exact). One of my earliest memories was of my dad picking both of those songs his banjo on the porch with a few of his friends. I was amazed. I was hooked.

At that young age, I don’t think I knew the difference between a guitar and a banjo. But I got hung up on guitars. I was soon pouring through the Sears catalog and coveting the brightly-finished guitars on the musical instrument pages.

1975 Sears Catalog - guitars

Then, Christmas of 1976, Santa brought me my first guitar, a Sears classical guitar. I was eight years old, and it was one of the best Christmas presents ever! I can remember my first explorations in pushing the strings down and making sounds.

Christmas Day 1976

I was unaware, in my awe of adults playing folk songs, that they would push me into a different world altogether, a world in which only some would ultimately be deemed worthy to publicly perform music: those who were ‘musically talented’. And that talent was determined by one’s ability to imitate, precisely, music written by others.

My mom, a classical music fan, signed me up for lessons, because that’s how it was done. So unfortunately, I learned to read music right away. I plucked out the introductory songs in the Mel Bay classical guitar book, but quickly grew frustrated. I quit after ‘Ode To Joy’, the last song in that book. I now believe that the act of reading music engaged the wrong part of my brain. The lessons confused me, because though I enjoyed making progress, I didn’t see myself heading to that place of performing folk songs on the back porch, and I was completely unaware that there might be multiple valid approaches to an instrument. I just knew that what I was experiencing was not what I had envisioned.

Nonetheless, I played off and on into my teens. The next teacher had the good sense to drop the classical stuff and back off the music reading (it seems he may have had to convince my mother about the validity of this approach) and teach me about chords and associated music theory. At age 12 I got a good quality steel-stringed acoustic Takemine. Subsequent teachers showed me some 70s pop, ‘moderate rock’, and the Dorian mode. My acoustic guitar strings kept buzzing because a guitar store owner, afraid the steel stings would hurt my girly fingers (wrong! everyone gets callouses, even girls), or that my hands were too weak to finger the chords (also wrong) had set the string action much too low. I thought the inescapable buzzing was yet another sign of my lack of talent.

(continues overleaf)

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23 Responses to How I Learned To Play Guitar

  1. istomponurrockanthem July 26, 2011 at 3:28 pm

    Great article

  2. Darragh July 26, 2011 at 4:09 pm

    Love this, thanks Erika.

  3. Sadie July 26, 2011 at 5:36 pm

    Too bloody right!! 🙂
    perfectly written erika and in my view sums up exactly why there aren’t more girls/women in rock.
    My experience has been almost precisely what you have written.
    Rock on!! X

  4. Princess Stomper July 26, 2011 at 6:19 pm

    “Don’t let anyone make you believe otherwise.”

    Abso-fucking-lutely. 🙂

  5. Culturazi July 26, 2011 at 9:12 pm

    Great story, thanks, and congrats on overcoming such overwhelming odds.

  6. chuck July 26, 2011 at 10:07 pm

    I still cant play for shit after all these years, but I just dug out the old beast for a quick bash… thanx for the tale…

  7. hannah golightly July 26, 2011 at 11:09 pm

    I want you to write a book! I so enjoyed reading this. It’s funny, I was born in a different era to you, both my parents were teachers like yours and I had the same hang ups about singing as you had about guitar playing. I also felt exactly the same about classical music training. In rejecting it, I found my talent. I created my talent. Talent is bullshit. The ability to picture yourself doing something is far more important to ability to do something in real life. If more stories like ours are told and more women play music in public on their own terms, then it will be easier for other women to picture themselves doing it. I’d also like to blow the myth of talent right out of the water. It’s a bunch of rubbish. It’s a concept that kept my dream of being a singer out of reach. I had no idea that I could learn singing. I was a fool. I bought into the reality I was presented with, designed by the ‘talented’ and perpetuated by the lazy and envious to justify their specialness and their lack of balls to get out of their comfort zones and learn respectively. I came to realise that sheet music and rock music are enemies. ha ha… pretty much. Or sheet music and me anyway. When we teach our children to talk, we do not sit them down with a book of the written word at the same time. We allow them to make sounds and encourage these sounds and low and behold, language is adopted and communication is possible. It’s the same with music. I don’t know whose interest the current mode of learning it is in… but it seems to be more preventative than productive. Teaching a person scales before songs is like teaching a child the alphabet before sentences. What are they gonna do with that?
    Anyway, thanks for sharing. I am currently teaching my bassist how to play bass. I have never played bass in my life and have picked one up approx four times. But she is making steady progress as I am teaching her to listen to her bass and not to be afraid of it or of breaking imaginary rules when looking for a note. I am teaching her how to own her bass and how to find her own way on it. She loves playing it. As a ‘teacher’ I can feel proud that I’ve maintained her enthusiasm and helped her through the frustrating tricky bits. I’d like to teach guitar to people for some extra cash, but my methods are not conventional so I don’t know if I can be so bold as to charge cash for them. Maybe that there is a problem to address…

  8. hannah golightly July 26, 2011 at 11:14 pm

    I have a feeling that this piece is capable of getting a few secret dreams out of the closet. Thank you!

  9. Joan July 27, 2011 at 12:14 am

    An inspired and inspiring story, one that resonates loudly for me.

  10. Daniel July 27, 2011 at 1:19 am

    Thank you for the inspiring piece!

  11. Brigette July 27, 2011 at 2:27 am

    *Swoon

  12. Scott Creney July 27, 2011 at 2:36 am

    Thank you for writing this. So great.

  13. Billy July 27, 2011 at 12:42 pm

    This story is really inspiring and beautiful, and I’m not even a girl! 😉 Thanks for sharing. I’m sorry that you had so many idiotic guys telling you what you could or couldn’t do. I can’t help but feel that if you’d grown up in my circle of friends, nobody would have said those sort of sexist things about/to you. All the fellas I know would have thought it was awesome that a girl could play, and would have encouraged her, and would have freely admitted that she “could play”.

    Best of luck in the future!

  14. Yokaishinigami July 27, 2011 at 5:00 pm

    great article. I find that one of the biggest turn off’s to pursuing music is the overwhelming negativity towards newer or “less talented” players. There will always be haters, but just ignore them (listen for constructive criticism though) and play your heart out. play for you, yourself and you.

  15. Everett True July 27, 2011 at 5:13 pm

    There’s a ton of commentary about Erika’s article over on Meta Filter.

  16. hannah golightly July 27, 2011 at 11:43 pm

    The key thing to glean from this piece seems to be giving yourself/taking “Permission To Suck”. That gets rid of the fear of trying/learning/experimenting. Only then can we put our energy into playing and only by playing can we get good at doing so. Loved all the out pouring of personal stories on the link. It’s good to feel solidarity in an awkward experience.

    Write a book!!!!!!!!

  17. hannah golightly July 28, 2011 at 8:10 am

    Go for it Erica. I’m serious. I’ll buy a copy. There’s a lot of people who commented here and through the link who would clearly love to read it too.

    Not that I’m an Ian Brown fan or anything, but I once heard that he said to be a good songwriter you have to say the thing that is uncomfortable. It may well be a unanimous ingredient. I think whatever you create should be true to yourself and always be personal. That is the thing that we hear in someone’s voice that connects with our own spirit and feels easy to relate to. Sometimes the hardest thing in this world to be is yourself. But whenever we are, it’s worth it.

  18. hannah golightly July 28, 2011 at 8:11 am

    Intimacy. Maybe that’s what I love about it. Intimacy is special. Both in music and also in your piece.

  19. Lucy Cage August 1, 2011 at 2:52 am

    Thank you, Erika! Wonderful piece, congratulations for sticking with it. I understand your heartache at not being where you wanted to be: when I took my daughter for her first music lesson (she learnt to play bass with a wonderful teacher who taught by getting the kids to play together – no sheet music, no scales, just passion and practice and making noise – so she & her friends get to skip the misery of this particular experience) I started crying from the sudden, urgent missing of amps and leads and music-making; even the airless, dark smell of the studio made me sad. I’m so glad I have music back in my life, and glad for you that you do too.

  20. Wallace Wylie August 1, 2011 at 3:30 am

    I know the main thrust of this essay is about how frustrating/demoralising it is to be a woman in the male dominated world of music, but as a 35 year old who is constantly wrestling with doubts about my ability to write songs I found it pretty inspiring from that angle too.

  21. Lucy Cage August 1, 2011 at 9:37 am

    Yeah, I’ve heard about Rock’n’Roll Camp for Girls: it sounds brilliant. That’s the same sort of ethos behind the studios I mentioned: it’s all about the joy.

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