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Column | Music Historicity: How to play the guitar
Music Historicity

Column | Music Historicity: How to play the guitar

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Take it from a guitar teacher, learning how to play the guitar is not easy.

But, depending on your inner ambition to succeed in music, it's something you can accomplish the same as applying yourself, studying and learning a subject in school.

For several years, your humble narrator was the guitar teacher at The Music Box, a now-defunct Carbondale music store on South Illinois Avenue that was located in the current storefront of Sound Core Music.

During that period, from about 1979 through 1981, I taught 50 or 60 different students. A couple of them were already accomplished guitarists who came to me in order to validate their abilities or learn advanced music theory such as "modes," or certain scales like Dorian, Lydian, Phrygian, Mixolydian.

Several of my students were complete and total beginners who knew nothing about the instrument or music theory. They had received a guitar as a Christmas or birthday present and were testing the waters, so to speak, to see if music was something that would maintain its appeal to them.

But most of the students were a step or two beyond beginners. They already had a basic understanding of the guitar and even a "Level One Mel Bay" instructional book. These ambitious, eager strummers mainly desired the ability to play one certain song while learning just a dash of music theory on the side.

If you're someone who wants to learn the guitar, I hope you're not aspiring to be the type of musician portrayed on the 1990s sitcom "Friends" by the character Phoebe Buffay. She was one of the six "Friends," and a coffeehouse singer-guitarist who wrote such songs as the memorable "Smelly Cat." Phoebe referred to certain guitar chord formations with names like Turkey Leg, Bear Claw and Iceberg.

Let's begin with your inner drive to play guitar. You first must clearly hear in your mind the song you want to play or the one that will define being accomplished on the instrument. It must be a tune you know so well that you instantly can tell if you're playing it incorrectly.

For me, I clearly remember that song. I owned a vinyl record album of the band Yes, which was their 1971 release titled "Fragile," the one with their radio hit "Roundabout." The album also contained a classical guitar piece titled "Mood For a Day," which I made my own personal yardstick for determining whether I had become a good guitarist. It took about three years, but I stuck with it and finally learned the song, with no sheet music or teacher.

If you can envision playing the one certain song that's in your mind, you're halfway to success.

Next, you should try to determine the balance of learning chord formations, individual notes and music theory. Let's say you already learned all you cared to know about music theory in grade school, and right now you'd like to focus on chord names and the mechanics of learning a song.

Before we go any further, keep in mind that sitting on your back porch and playing a song for your friends is a little more complicated than you might think. You must know the song structure, with verses, the chorus, a bridge and maybe a solo section. You must know the mechanics of strumming the strings with your right hand.

The other equally important element is the singing of the song lyrics. First, you must memorize the poetry and not be reading it from a page. You also must vocalize the melody line of those words, which can be extremely difficult for some, staying on-pitch and inflecting the lyrics in a convincing manner that truly conveys the meaning of the song to your listener.

There's an intangible element about singing, too, and that's the nature of your voice and whether it's pleasant to hear. Some musicians contend that their voice sounds "like a broken record," which is why they stick to playing an instrument and not singing at all. Others might have had formal choir training earlier in life, and they know how to sing from their vocal diaphragm and with pleasant tonality. It's not easy to teach, and relates to simply having vocal talent or not.

With all these elements having to be kept in mind at once — chords, strumming, lyrics, vocalizing — it's easy to give up.

My advice is for you to use a book, YouTube, a music store guitar teacher or a combination of all three to reach your goal. Also, pick up your guitar — your friend — once every day, for no matter how long or short a time.

If you ever play music for a child, you can see the instant wonderment of the song taking that young mind to some other magical place. It's surprising, but that's what happens, in my experience.

If you truly have that inner drive to play your instrument and impart that certain song from your mind to another person, the rewards are as rich as the validation any artist receives. Applause is always nice, but the rewards also are realized in money earned from ticket sales to a concert, a record album you've marketed and sold or simply cash tips that people throw into your guitar case — which are the best, if you ask me!

Gary Gibula is an SIU alum, musician, writer, editor, and friend of Robbie Stokes, the regular author of Music Historicity. He is filling in while Stokes is on a break.

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