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Riffing on riffing
July 26, 2011 3:09 AM   Subscribe

"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." How I Learned To Play Guitar
posted by mippy (48 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite

 
I wonder if she might've reached some of these conclusions earlier in life if she'd had the good fortune of discovering the Shaggs. Good on 'er, anyway.
posted by zoinks at 3:38 AM on July 26, 2011


Good story. The big thing for me was the lack of practicing.
posted by awfurby at 3:38 AM on July 26, 2011 [4 favorites]


As a parent, I can't wrap around my mind around the mother's attitude. She was a teacher to boot, ffs!
posted by hat_eater at 3:46 AM on July 26, 2011


As a parent, I can't wrap around my mind around the mother's attitude. She was a teacher to boot, ffs!

It's very common in music education. Compare art education which these days encourages creativity and the students own ideas to music which is very focused on inducting students into the classical system. Unless you are staggeringly fortunate enough to go to a 'jazz' or 'rock' school. hah.
posted by Not Supplied at 3:52 AM on July 26, 2011


But she was not a music teacher. Yet she seemed to be opposed to the idea of education for the fun of it. It's like "don't bother to learn to dance unless you're going to be the next Baryshnikov". Sad.
posted by hat_eater at 3:57 AM on July 26, 2011


This really resonates with me, for two reasons. When computers came into our school, in the mid 80s, I was the only girl who really enjoyed them and programmed in Basic for fun. By the time I was in final year though, I had trouble getting time on the 4 (count them) computers in the maths room for the 300 kid school because the grade 8/9 boys got there first and wouldn't shift for me. I showed them though, I got myself a degree in multimedia graduating about two years ago with a near perfect GPA.

The other thing, parents not helping you follow your dream. My mother said, often, she didn't care what career choice I made so long as I was happy, but I shouldn't follow my dreams with an art or graphic design degree because I wasn't good enough (ha! old lady, my diagrams and images have been published in 7 academic texts now, take that). My daughter's art talents (with the distractions of the computer age) were not as developed as mine by the time she finished high school, but with a hidden fear for her future and potential, I encouraged her to follow her dreams and take a degree in Fine Arts. She's halfway through her degree, majoring in painting, her skills and talent have blossomed and she acquired in 2 years what took me 20 by myself, and in fact, she has exceeded my ability well and truly. I am enormously proud of her, and glad for her, and she is totally immersed in her art.

If you ever have a kid, and they have a dream, help them to go for it, they will never be satisfied otherwise.
posted by b33j at 4:09 AM on July 26, 2011 [10 favorites]


I always liked to paint and draw. My parents didn't discourage me from pursuing art education - my art teacher did. He was a painter himself, with works exhibited abroad. When he said that with my talent I end up decorating shop windows, I gave up.
If it was now, I would probably become a graphic designer. In the 1980s in Poland there was no such a career path.
But I still like to draw! :)
posted by hat_eater at 4:21 AM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


"I'll end up" - sorry, I was typing too fast.
posted by hat_eater at 4:23 AM on July 26, 2011


Wow. Thanks so much for posting this. I completely identify. I don't come from a musical family and I couldn't figure this stuff out either. I longed to be in a band, and when I finally was I was far too self-concious to actually play instruments (singing was fine - that's what girls did as far as I could tell). I wish, wish, wish I 'd found like-minded gals at school - when all the boys were unselfconciously developing the technical chops required to wield their guitars as adults, I was reluctantly sawing away at a violin. It seemed less...obtrusive.

And the lack of peers or role models is unbelievably limiting. I wasn't interested in making pop or classical or folk music, and I had no idea that women did anything else. I worshipped Frank Zappa as a teen but did so in isolation. It never occurred to me to try to play along. There may well have been great female guitarists out there but the likes of Sister Rosetta Tharp or Lita Ford might have been other dimensional beings for the unlikeliness of me ever coming across them before the internet arrived.

Still, I wrote my songs and played my four chords and sang to myself. Now I know better, and I'm getting better, but I still struggle to think of myself as actually, I dont know, musical?
posted by freya_lamb at 4:23 AM on July 26, 2011 [4 favorites]


"But I still like to draw!"

Who cares about drawing when you can eat hats!
posted by greenhornet at 4:24 AM on July 26, 2011


I like her pluck.
posted by caddis at 4:25 AM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


Long ago I promised myself that I would never inwardly or outwardly make fun of another who was brave enough to perform, no matter how bad they sounded. This was because I realized I could never know the journey it took for this person to get to the moment at hand, to be vulnerable in front of another (and maybe not a friend, but a critic-because we all are one right?). But also because I'm a musician and I know how good it feels to play for others and with others and I shouldn't discourage anyone from knowing it too.

And it can be really hard for me to follow this rule because I tend towards being a sarcastic asshole, so I'm grateful that you posted this because it made me think about all of this again.
posted by greasy_skillet at 4:28 AM on July 26, 2011 [11 favorites]


In my experience, discrimination against women in rock is still pervasive, both on the surface and underneath, even today, even in a town like Portland, Oregon

Amy Ray (of Indigo Girls) singing her song Lucystoners. Lyrics.
janny wenner janny wenner
rolling stone's most fearless leader
gave the boys what they deserve
but with the girls he lost his nerve
posted by hippybear at 4:30 AM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


This hit a chord for me (sorry). My mother was a music teacher and encouraged me to have music lessons, but was just as happy when I quit them and started to fuddle around on my own. She bought me an electric piano which I later swapped for an electric guitar.

If you want to encourage musical creativity in kids I think the sweet spot is to learn just enough musical theory that you can read music and understand the basics of rhythm and chords, and then strike out on your own. I think among non-musicians there is often an overdone respect for classical tuition and the whole Mel Bay kind of learning-by-imitation approach.

The main thing is to have as many different kinds of instrument around as you can manage, even if YOU can't play them. We have drums, bass, guitars, piano and a pump organ, plus percussion and a PA and it's amazing to watch the kids (even the 2 year old) wander over and start playing something that sounds quite pleasant. Having a bunch of instruments means that skills learned on one transfer to another.

My 11yr old is a pretty good drummer -- I just taught him the absolute basics and he picked the rest up by ear and from playing Rock Band -- and he's feeling his way on guitar, but apart from teaching him the basic chords I've left him alone, mostly because when I hear him playing it sounds so DIFFERENT from me and I don't want to screw that up.

There's definitely an element of Shaggs about the whole thing -- their biggest problem was that their father had this preconception of what music should sound like that was completely off the wall, and he forced them to play it. If he'd left them alone to just play what they heard on the radio I'm sure they would have worked out just fine.
posted by unSane at 4:36 AM on July 26, 2011 [3 favorites]


Some of this chimes with my experience at art school, and as a 'musician'; the race isn't always to the quick, or the slick. Some the most 'talented' students I knew flunked or went nowhere after graduation, it was the dogged, intelligent ones who now have flourishing careers. In fact, 'talent' can be both a pernicious myth and actual talent a handicap. Talent will not manifest itself without hard work, and also, if as a child you find skills come easy to you, and are told that you are talented into the bargain, there's a good chance that you'll simply crumble when faced with real challenges.
posted by houlihan at 4:49 AM on July 26, 2011 [6 favorites]


Something I've learned and carried from multiple writing classes and groups: constructive criticism means criticizing what has been done, not what hasn't. corollary: avoid criticizing someone's work for what you wish they did, but didn't.
posted by wobh at 4:50 AM on July 26, 2011 [7 favorites]


Inspiring and motivating essay, could really relate. Thanks for posting it mippy.
posted by nickyskye at 6:16 AM on July 26, 2011


Seriously glad this had a happy end. Sometimes I hate (male) guitarists. They do introduce themselves to each other by saying "I'm better than you" though, to be fair.

I occasionally say this in threads like these, so I'll say it again. The idea that music "is best left to professionals" stems from canned music being the status quo. Live music as home entertainment is almost dead or in niche culture only. So when most people think "Music" they think of a 100% polished to perfection sound from a mechanical reproduction. They lack the cultural techniques to appreciate anything else unless it's played by someone 'talented' who plays something that conforms to the norms they're used to. Think people dissing home cooked food because they never ate anything but ready meals. Punk took on that sad state of affairs with its DIY ethic. There's the influences this lady quoted. I feel digital recording has brought another round of DIY.

I had to, and still have to find my own self-esteem and way to play, similar to this lady, even without the added difficulty of the fucking music as men's club it is difficult enough. Thanks for posting this. More power to the lady who wrote this.
posted by yoHighness at 6:24 AM on July 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


This was a great read. As a 34 year old who has tried to learn guitar a half dozen times, it gives me hope. I've taken group lessons, learned to read music, learned a lot of music theory, but my guitar playing has never progressed beyond plucking out a few songs very horribly. Maybe I need to revisit it with a new approach.
posted by I am the Walrus at 6:31 AM on July 26, 2011


Why is it that so many teachers want to suck all of the joy out of learning?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 6:42 AM on July 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


b33j - I had a similar thing with photography. My grandfather saw photography as 'throwing good money after bad' as you had to pay to develop your film, which might be why when I asked my mother for a camera for Christmas she said 'Why, just to take pictures of your friends?' When I got a cheap compact, my dad told me off for 'wasting the film' on taking pictures I liked and refused to pay to get it developed. When I was older, I asked my mum for a camera for Christmas and said I'd pay half the cost, but she bought me a cheap 110 film camera as I 'didn't need anything else'.

And my dad refused to ever let me use the digital camera, aged 17, as 'you'll probably break it.'

I'm now a pretty decent photographer but I wonder what would have happened if I'd found out I had a talent for it at an age where it was possible to study it to a higher level, maybe for a degree. It's weird, as my mum was usually supportive of what I wanted to do, but I guess to them it seemed like an expensive hobby. I wonder if kids are put off art for similar reasons - because they can't do still lifes, or don't want to./
posted by mippy at 6:43 AM on July 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


This read like an AskMe question. I wanted to reply that her relationship with her mother showed what was wrong, that she let he mother be the powerful one while she deferred.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:44 AM on July 26, 2011


I'm proud to say that my daughter attended the very first Girls Rock! DC summer camp, at 13. Funny enough, her problem has been that the strong, supportive female role models at the camp all want her to be a rocker, when she really wants to strum her ukulele (ukuleles, I should say--she just got a baritone). Her mom pushed her into violin early, and still sees the uke (and even guitar) as less serious, but, I tell you, nothing makes me happier than to sit on the couch and play uke duets with my 16-year-old.
posted by MrMoonPie at 6:56 AM on July 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


I took piano lessons for a few years from a teacher who was very much into the classical method, and it really didn't work for me. I never played or sight-read fluently, just sort of muddled through. It wasn't until I picked up the guitar--which I taught myself (mostly)--that I gained any sort of ease with the piano. I still don't play well, and I still don't sight-read, but I can bang out a rock accompaniment without too much trouble.

Which is not to say that a little bit of theory isn't immensely helpful (like unSane mentioned, above). Without it, you're sort of adrift (and probably won't have much fun at a jam session). But to say that virtuosity is the only avenue toward enjoyment of an instrument is silly, and the pervasive idea (among a certain set) that if you're not "great" you shouldn't bother is actively harmful.

(Although, admittedly, I would enjoy the banjo a lot more if I could play the thing worth a damn.)
posted by uncleozzy at 7:07 AM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


The idea that music "is best left to professionals" stems from canned music being the status quo. Live music as home entertainment is almost dead or in niche culture only.

Preach it. I'm a firm believer in participatory hobbies. Kudos to the author for overcoming that mindset and all the other obstacles to find her bliss as a musician.
posted by immlass at 7:08 AM on July 26, 2011


How to Play Guitar by Jad Fair
I taught myself to play guitar. It's incredibly easy when you understand the science of it. The skinny strings play the high sounds, and the fat strings play the low sounds. If you put your finger on the string farther out by the tuning end it makes a lower sound. If you want to play fast, move your hand fast and if you want to play slower move your hand slower. That's all there is to it. You can learn the names of notes and how to make chords that other people use, but that's pretty limiting. Even if you took a few years and learned all the chords you'd still have a limited number of options. If you ignore the chords your options are infinite and you can master guitar playing in one day.

Traditionally, guitars have a fat string on the top and they get skinnier and skinnier as they go down. But the thing to remember is it's your guitar and you can put whatever you want on it. I like to put six different sized strings on it because that gives the most variety, but my brother used to put all of the same thickness on so he wouldn't have so much to worry about. What ever string he hit had to be the right one because they were all the same.

Tuning the guitar is kind of a ridiculous notion. If you have to wind the tuning pegs to just a certain place, that implies that every other place would be wrong. But that's absurd. How could it be wrong? It's your guitar and you're the one playing it. It's completely up to you to decide how it should sound. In fact I don't tune by the sound at all. I wind the strings until they're all about the same tightness. I highly recommend electric guitars for a couple of reasons. First of all they don't depend on body resonating for the sound so it doesn't matter if you paint them. As also, if you put all the knobs on your amplifier on 10 you can get a much higher reaction to effort ratio with an electric guitar than you can with an acoustic. Just a tiny tap on the strings can rattle your windows, and when you slam the strings, with your amp on 10, you can strip the paint off the walls.

The first guitar I bought was a Silvertone. Later I bought a Fender Telecaster, but it really doesn't matter what kind you buy as long as the tuning pegs are on the end of the neck where they belong. A few years back someone came out with a guitar that tunes at the other end. I've never tried one. I guess they sound alright but they look ridiculous and I imagine you'd feel pretty foolish holding one. That would affect your playing. The idea isn't to feel foolish. The idea is to put a pick in one hand and a guitar in the other and with a tiny movement rule the world.
posted by hydrophonic at 7:32 AM on July 26, 2011 [14 favorites]


This really takes me back. My big sister had a Stella, and rarely let me touch it. She could play "Banua" off a Kingston Trio album. Then my little brother went to White Front (a precursor to Walmart in SoCal) and came home with a $19 guitar, which I also was given very limited access to.

Finally, my sister came home from Tijuana one time with a guitar she bought for $5 there. . .a classical model but with steel strings, all for me. I started playing and kept playing and my sister and brother quit, and instead started snarking my playing pretty hard. Just made me more determined to improve.

But I am still playing, lo all these decades later.
posted by Danf at 7:42 AM on July 26, 2011


I forced myself, but as I lifted my guitar out of the case, I was literally shaking and fighting tears. There was an unbelievable amount of repressed baggage and fear to play through every time I took another step forward, but the feeling of accomplishment that comes from taking each step kept driving me forward.

And that's especially why this woman is so awesome. Note that she also wrote that about starting to play again in her 30s as a mother so that's even more awesome: what a great example for her kid.

This essay depressed be because of all the shit she went through but also impressed me because of her tenacity and persistence and recognition of what music really means. FUCK YEAH.
posted by dubitable at 7:42 AM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


I will always admire those who can get out in front of an audience and play. I've been taking guitar lessons for longer than I can remember and I still can't do that. I probably never will. But I'm glad there are others who can.
posted by tommasz at 7:58 AM on July 26, 2011


"...I was completely unaware that there might be multiple valid approaches to an instrument."

This.

If I could go back in time and speak to my younger self, this is what I would say about /everything/.
posted by clvrmnky at 7:58 AM on July 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


My entire guitar-playing history has been chronicled on MetaChat, MetaFilter, and my blog.
posted by MrMoonPie at 8:04 AM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


This was a nice read... I had adolescent aspirations of being a Guitar God... but by college I was happy just to be in a band playing gigs around campus. After college my electric guitar sat in a closet for six years. Then one day I up and bought a banjo, and found out that I like playing solo tunes clawhammer style a lot better than playing guitar along with rock recordings.

I also found out that old-time musicians tend to be some of the friendliest around; You'll find plenty of egos and hangups in any genre of music, but for the most part I've found that old-time people just like to get together and play tunes, and what's better than that? I worked up the gumption to sit in on a couple of open sessions and realized that while I may not be a virtuoso, I don't suck either... and one night when I was the only person who showed up I played a solo set and lived to tell about it!

I constantly wonder what it would be like to be an aspiring Guitar God in the 21st century; so many potential parental obstacles (books, lessons, rides to friends' houses to jam, racks of expensive effects, other musicians, etc.) have been obviated by programs like GarageBand, computers with built-in mics, online tabs, youtube lesson clips, sites like Soundcloud and Kompoz for distribution and collaboration. I wish my 12-year old self had had access to GarageBand; I could never get my human junior-high bandmates to play anything other than 'Purple Haze' and 'Sunshine of your Love'.
posted by usonian at 8:15 AM on July 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


Long ago I promised myself that I would never inwardly or outwardly make fun of another who was brave enough to perform, no matter how bad they sounded.

I literally just made this promise to myself yesterday. I mean, it was the third or fourth time i my life that I've made that promise, but this time it will stick I swear.

unless the performer seems like a total d-bag, I mean really, who does he think he is?
posted by Think_Long at 8:21 AM on July 26, 2011


The big thing for me was the lack of practicing.

Yeah, there's a tldr of "how do you learn to play guitar? ... you play a lot of guitar (practice)" but the story resonated with me too, especially the self-esteem and confidence issues. The whole "talent" thing pisses me off.

The "best" guitarists (and drummers, singers, trumpetists ... and rappers, writers, painters, filmmakers ... ) I know are *always* the one who practice the most. Instruction can be helpful, but it's not as important as time and practice. Especially now, with lots of video instruction, tabs, reference books, etc. available online so you can learn at home.

Also, the women in bands thing, yeah.

There are any number of people who are absolutely flabbergasted that someone like him, who is known as a skilled musician, would have a band with me, would ‘let’ me play guitar and sing.

unfortunately, that attitude rings a bit true to me.

When he said that with my talent I end up decorating shop windows, I gave up.

I had a similar experience with a teacher: "You don't really want to be writer, right? You want to be a literature professor." (yeah, I see you, still writing hardware reviews for PC World ... ;)

Why is it that so many teachers want to suck all of the joy out of learning?

I think some artists who teach feel slighted because they don't support themselves with their own art, and some work out their own issues with their students. In *general* most of my teachers have been in the inspiring sort, but it's amazing how much effect one discouraging teacher can have.
posted by mrgrimm at 8:21 AM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


What? No practice?

Don't these people know it's the first hour of practice that's the easy part. It's hours two and three that get tough.
posted by yellowcandy at 8:40 AM on July 26, 2011


And the lack of peers or role models is unbelievably limiting. I wasn't interested in making pop or classical or folk music, and I had no idea that women did anything else. I worshipped Frank Zappa as a teen but did so in isolation.

As a small aside the percussionist Ruth Underwood was brilliant.

Another issue is that even highly-skilled women guitarists are not that famous. I'd be terribly glad if a few more girls have taken up drumming after Meg White's example.
posted by ersatz at 8:52 AM on July 26, 2011


Here's a fantastic compilation of post-punk music by women:
The Young Lady's Post Punk Handbook.
Unfortunately, the links to the actual files are long gone, but it's a fantastic track list of women-produced music in the early eighties... If only this author had known of the Raincoats!
posted by kaibutsu at 8:54 AM on July 26, 2011


I'm not a woman, but I was a chubby geeky kid who desperately wanted to rock, but never felt "cool" enough. Neither of my parents were particularly musical, but nor were they unsupportive generally speaking. It was mostly my insecurities holding me back. Also, I'm a lefty, which doesn't help. =)

I was pushing my late 20s before I picked up a guitar in any serious way. Now, I've been playing for three years, am 31, I've got a band, a basement full of awesome gear, and have actually played a handful of live shows to *seemingly* appreciative total strangers.


The takeaway? It's never too late to rock.
posted by stenseng at 9:08 AM on July 26, 2011


That guitar? She needs to put a bird on it!
posted by humboldt32 at 9:31 AM on July 26, 2011


Once men sang together round a table in chorus; now one man sings alone, for the absurd reason that he can sing better. If scientific civilization goes on...only one man will laugh, because he can laugh better than the rest. -- G.K. Chesterton
posted by straight at 9:38 AM on July 26, 2011 [7 favorites]


Another issue is that even highly-skilled women guitarists are not that famous.

Kaki King

Marnie Stern
posted by mrgrimm at 12:55 PM on July 26, 2011


I gave myself permission to ‘suck’. And with permission to suck comes the ability to rock, and to overcome all the fears and insecurities that had been holding me captive.

This is the most important part.

Beyond that, for me the key was to play in front of people. I couldn't do much with a guitar for years, but that changed a few months after I started playing out.
posted by Greenie at 1:03 PM on July 26, 2011


Sister Rosetta Tharpe
posted by Drab_Parts at 1:03 PM on July 26, 2011


This struck a chord (so to speak). A music teacher declared me tone deaf in 7th or 8th grade. I didn't learn to play an instrument until a year ago (at the age of 36) I bought ukulele and a couple of instruction books. Now I'm taking banjo classes. I learn slowly but I love playing (my wife and dog are suffering silently).
posted by Drab_Parts at 1:12 PM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


usonian: "I constantly wonder what it would be like to be an aspiring Guitar God in the 21st century; so many potential parental obstacles (books, lessons, rides to friends' houses to jam, racks of expensive effects, other musicians, etc.) have been obviated by programs like GarageBand, computers with built-in mics, online tabs, youtube lesson clips, sites like Soundcloud and Kompoz for distribution and collaboration. I wish my 12-year old self had had access to GarageBand;"

Sounds like someone needs to visit the Projects area and start a Mefi Band.
posted by I am the Walrus at 1:43 PM on July 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


Here's more of her music.

I know well some of where she's coming from. I too had the older brother who played piano and who was, thus, the musician in the family. As a child I really, really wanted to play something, anything really. Wasn't going to happen. Mike was the musician. As a young teen my friends and I were going to put a band together, and so I desperately wanted to play bass. I would walk down once or twice a week to the local music store and try to steal time on one of the basses they had there just to teach myself something, but I had no idea what I was doing and just annoyed the owner. And besides, I wasn't going to get one. Wasn't going to happen.

Then I moved to Bartlesville, OK, where I knew no one at all, when I was 15, and somehow in one of those first weekends there, it was arranged that I was spending the day with a guy named Jojo, who turned out to be about the coolest guy in town, in the ways that actually matter. He had a shitty Mexican acoustic and he taught me how to play Nada Surf's "Popular" on it, and then at some point in a fit of pique said, "hey, you wanna buy it? Five bucks?"

Well fuck yes, obviously. That guitar couldn't have come at a better time for me, when I had a summer of basically no time with friends and nothing to do in a town I didn't know, but tons of access to the internet (the Online Guitar Archive still existed back then, and taught me everything I knew for a long, long while) and I didn't need to worry about how I sounded to others because it was going to be a long time before anyone was listening anyway.

I don't know what it would have been like for me if I'd had a proper teacher, instead of just friendly faces occasionally showing me a chord or a scale. Probably depends on the teacher, I guess. But so much of the joy in that thing was in me figuring it out for myself.

God bless guitars.
posted by Navelgazer at 7:07 PM on July 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


Like anything else, you get better at music by doing it. Some people obsess over it to the exclusion of everything else. Those are the folks that get really good. If you want to get really good at playing the guitar, you've got to obsess over it. As in, cancel plans to go out. Maybe skip some classes or work because you stayed up late playing the same line 357 times until it was perfect.

Also, good at playing the guitar is not the same as good at making music and putting on a show, and vice versa. But what i said still holds. You have to do it. A lot.
posted by scelerat at 11:32 PM on July 26, 2011


Sounds like someone needs to visit the Projects area and start a Mefi Band.

I did actually start a MeFi music thread on that subject a while back, but the part of the Venn diagram where 'Plays old-time music' intersects 'Is interested in internet collaboration' is very small indeed.
posted by usonian at 5:28 AM on July 27, 2011


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