September, and a new school year brings a new raft of students picking up the guitar for the first time. Now, at the risk of sounding like a curmudgeonly old git – you young 'uns, don't know yer born, in my day electric guitars were powered by steam – let me just say this:
You've never had it so good.
The fact is, even a cheap Chinese Strat knock-off from Argos is at least going to a) work, b) stay roughly in tune for 15-30 minutes, c) not have an action so high it cuts your fingers to ribbons just trying to get a note out of the damn thing. If you've been smart and got your guitar from the local music shop, chances are you've got something even better. Precision computer controlled manufacturing techniques may lack the magic of a handcrafted Gibson, but they do at least ensure consistency and good quality control. The days of warped fretboards, actions so high you could park a bus under the strings and tuning less stable than a North Korean dictator are mercifully a thing (largely) of the past.
It's the same with amps – even the humblest practice amp carries an overdrive, probably a reverb unit and enough EQ that a halfway decent set of tones can be coaxed from it. Once again, if you've been smart and got your package from a music shop, they'll probably have sold you something made by Marshall, Line 6, Fender or Vox – these amps have incredible fucntionality, often including modelling software to emulate tones recorded on classic rock songs as well as modulation and delay effects and mp3 player inputs to allow you to jam along to your favourite tracks to your heart's content.
By comparison, my first amp (a “Piggy” - no, seriously, that was the brand name) had no distortion, no reverb, and sounded like an empty shoebox. The first decent sounding amp I got was a secondhand Sessionette 75, which sounded glorious when it could actually be coaxed into working. And jamming to mp3s? We used cassettes. Think about that. Oh, the nineties...
Anyway, the point of all this wistful nostalgia – when it comes to learning guitar, you the student have more options than ever. Books, magazines, CDs (yes, ok, we had them to), YouTube, UltimateGuitar.com, Guitar Pro.. there are no end of tabs to be downloaded off the internet. And much of it is free. So why, then, would you shell out your hard earned money for that most antiquated of devies – a teacher?
The answer is simple. A teacher – a good one, anyway – takes you through things from first principles, so that each step builds logically on what has gone before. Some questions that a student has cannot be answered immediately without ensuring that student has the bedrock of knowledge to understand the answer. An example – a student asked me if Sweet Child O' Mine was in G or D. Technically, it's in D Mixolydian – but telling him that would have done nothing except demonstrate that I know a big word. Before I can give him the answer to his question, there are many steps that need to be taken for that answer to make sense. He needs to understand what a mode is, what specifically `the Mixolydian mode is and that it is in fact the same as G major but seen from a different point. Without these “in between” steps, the answer makes no sense – it just demonstrates me teacher, me clever, you student, you foolish, which is absolutely not the point of a lesson in any way. If the student leaves frustrated and more in the dark than when he or she arrived, the teacher has failed.
The problem that the DIY student faces is that most articles he or she will encounter – be they in magazines, books, online etc – tend to assume a basic level of knowledge which is not always there, and trying to decipher and make sense of this information without a framework to understand it in is incredibly difficult and frustrating. It's akin to trying to learn a language just from a phrasebook. It's no wonder I have many students who come to me having learned solely from internet tabs, who have then plateaud out and are unable to make progress because they didn't understand what they were doing in the first place. That's when I have to break it all down and rebuild their understanding and technique so they can keep progressing and reach their goals.
I know these problems and I understand them all too well because I was exactly that student, teaching myself from the odd book and early issue of Total Guitar magazine – and arriving it music college with a patchwork, disconnected understanding of what I was doing. It took my guitar teacher (the mighty Brian Thomson, Leicester's Yoda of the guitar) pulling everything apart and going from the ground up for me to have my Eureka! Moments and realise ohhh, riiiiiiighhhtt.... that's how it all fits together.
And the great thing is, it's way more simple than you think it's going to be. Forget the silly jargon, the ridiculous overblown Greek and Italian words we've appropriated to make ourselves look clever, and let your teacher take you through from first principles, because when you understand the framework the darkness evaporates and it's all just so damn obvious.
So, teacher vs DIY – yes, a teacher is more expensive than a magazine. But a teacher – a good one - ensures understanding. And with that understanding, the student has the tools to go and achieve anything they want. The basic tenets of my program – and the Zero Point series of books – are ensuring that my students (regardless of style interest) have the chops and understanding to hear a song, identify the chord pattern and play it in any key, all over the fretboard, and improvise an appropriate solo or lead part. With this understanding, pretty much anything becomes attainable. A student doesn't come to me to learn a song. They come to me to learn how to learn any song for themselves.