First Steps: 10 Greats Share How They Began Playing Guitar
Any guitarist knows that learning is an adventure filled with discovery, excitement, and – if the player is serious – a heady mix of dedication and joy. The ways in which beginning players set out on that path are infinite, but it’s always instructive to examine the experiences of those who’ve gone before. Below, we’ve gathered together in-depth quotes from 10 guitar greats, each of whom addresses the issue of learning to play. Feel free to share your own thoughts in the comments section.
Vivian Campbell, 2011
I had a crush on a girl when I was 13. Her mother played guitar, and she showed me the lick for “Day Tripper.” That was the first riff I learned. Mostly I learned by sitting down with albums and working out the songs. That started with Rory Gallagher’s Live! In Europe. The next album I pulled apart in that way was Thin Lizzy’s Jailbreak. I’m entirely self-taught. The guitarists who influenced me most were blues-based players, so it was more about phrasing than about the technical aspects of the instrument. I do believe it’s more important to have your own voice than it is to have great technique. You could cite Bob Dylan as an example, in a different way. No one would ever say Bob Dylan is a great singer, technically, but when you hear him you sure as hell know who it is.
Steve Lukather, 2011
I was six when I saw The Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” It was really a spiritual experience. I knew then that that’s what I was going to do. My parents thought it was cute, so they bought me an acoustic guitar and a copy of Meet The Beatles. I desperately wanted to be George Harrison. I’m sure I set the needle on “I Saw Her Standing There” a thousand times. One day I’m sitting there, and suddenly everything made sense. The guitar looked different and felt different. I started playing all the first position chords, with no one having taught me. And I could hear things and play them without anyone showing me. Later, when I was about 14, I dove headlong into music study — orchestration, arranging, guitar lessons, piano lessons, improvisation lessons at Dick Grove School of Music and so on.
Gary Clark Jr., 2015
We were on Christmas break — out of school. The day I went back to school, I went to the library and checked out two books. One was titled “How to Play Guitar,” and the other, “Basic Guitar.” I studied the chord charts, learned the simple G, E, A, B chords — got familiar with placing my fingers in the right position, going for it until it didn’t hurt any more. And then I started figuring out leads by watching other players. A lot of it came from watching “Austin City Limits,” which came on TV every Saturday night. That’s how it started. I also listened the Jackson 5 and other soul records, plus jazz records that my Dad listened to, and stuff on the radio.
Lindsey Buckingham, 2011
My brother started bringing home rock and roll records. Hearing Elvis Presley for the first time affected me profoundly. I got a chord book, and really wasn’t thinking of the guitar as anything other than something with which to learn songs. It was about learning songs, and singing songs – getting close to the songs on that level. I spent a lot of time in my brother’s room, listening to his 45s. I’m sure my parents were wondering about me spending so much time alone. It was something I was very pro-active about, something I took upon myself without any encouragement. There was no one in our household who was musically inclined. I was just lucky enough to have an older brother who was focused on rock and roll, and who was bringing home great stuff on 45s. Without that, I probably never would have gotten into music.
Joe Walsh, 2012
My influence was rock and roll from about 1955 to about 1962 – all that doo-wop and stuff. That’s what I grew up on. I memorized it, and learned it all and learned all the chords. Eventually I got in a band and we played cover songs. It’s essential to play in front of people. Gradually I started changing things in other people’s songs. When it came time to play a lead guitar part, I wouldn’t necessarily play the part on the record. I would play something I liked better. Over time, as you’re sitting around practicing – spending time with your instrument – you begin to come up with your own ideas. The two things that are important are: first, to sit and figure out other people’s parts, including listening to the old blues players, and get a bank of knowledge in your head to draw from; and second, you have to get out and play in front of people. That’s a big part of being a musician. Lots of kids rehearse in their parents’ garage and become legends in that environment. But they never play for anybody.
Richie Sambora, 2012
I approached it a bit backwards. I would put on something like the Live Johnny Winter And album – which has lots of fast lead solos – and try to move my fingers as fast as I thought Johnny Winter was playing. I didn’t know which notes I was playing, I was just trying to get the same type of phrasing going. I did that for a long time, with lots of different albums, and it created a particular kind of muscle memory in my hands. By the time I tried to actually put notes to what I was doing, I was already pretty good. It helped that I was such an avid music listener. I bought a new album every week or two, and really studied them. It also helped that I had played the accordion and the sax and trumpet in the school band. Those instruments came easily to me, so when I started playing guitar, I already knew my ear for music was very acute.
Randy Bachman, 2001
I first noticed guitar when I saw Elvis on television. My cousins played guitar, but it was all country-western music – Johnny Cash, Ray Price … things like that. When I saw Elvis, it was so exciting. Hearing Scotty Moore … I wanted to play that kind of guitar. My cousins were going away on a fishing trip, so I asked them to lend me their guitar while they were gone, and to show me three chords. When they came back, I had taken those three chords, and I was able to play any song I heard on the radio. Because of my playing violin – because you slide up the neck when you’re playing those second and third positions – I just took an E-chord on the guitar and slid it up the neck, and made an F and an F# and a G. When my cousins came back I could already play better than they could, after just four or five days.
Tom Morello, 2011
I didn’t start playing until I was 17. At that time a friend gave me the best advice as far as music goes. He said, “Practice at least one hour a day, every day, no matter what.” I took that to heart and my playing improved. I went from two hours to four hours a day until eventually I was practicing eight hours a day. That means if you’re on vacation with the family in Ireland, for example, you stop at a bus station and play for 45 minutes to get toward your allotted practice time. I did that in an obsessive-compulsive way that I don’t recommend — it precludes a social life. But I fell head over heels for the instrument. Practicing eight hours a day will get you technical ability, but there’s a big difference between being a musician and being an artist. I soon became very accomplished technically. I could play some amazing solos, but the real breakthrough came when I started using the toggle switch to emulate a DJ’s scratching. This was in the very early days of Rage Against the Machine. At that point I went away from practicing scales for four hours a day to concentrating on the parts of my playing that were unique or accidental, and trying to craft those into music and songs. That’s when I found my voice on the instrument.
Joe Bonamassa, 2011
I first held a guitar when I was three years old, and started playing when I was four. I started out playing classical guitar but that involved too much discipline. I couldn’t be bothered with that aspect of it. The blues, on the other hand, is a blank canvas. There aren’t any rules. You can interpret it in any way you want. That really appealed to me, and it still does. I started out trying to emulate my heroes. My influences, early on, were people like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Rory Gallagher, and Paul Kossoff. It was great to stumble upon all these great British blues players who had been influenced by American artists.
Robby Krieger, 2014
I plunked around on the guitar when I was maybe 14 or 15, but I didn’t get serious about it till I was 16. Some of my friends had guitars and I liked the feel of it. I had a piano at my house, which I also liked, but I never got serious about that. And I played trumpet. But every time I would see my friends I would gravitate toward their guitars. When I first started playing I was really into flamenco. My Dad had some flamenco records, which I loved. My buddy Bill Wolf and I took lessons together, and that was the first kind of music I learned to play on guitar. From there I went into folk music, other stuff you could play on that kind of guitar.