How I Learned To Play Guitar
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.
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.
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.