Over the weekend I picked up Talking Guitars : A Masterclass with the Worlds Greats by David Mead. This book is, essentially, an aggregated set of interviews that David has done over the years working with two guitar magazines in the UK with some of the guitars greatest players. Every base is covered here from rock players (including Frank Zappa, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Eddie Van Halen, and Paul Gilbert), to blues players (Eric Clapton, Leslie West, Robert Cray, and John Lee Hooker), to jazz players (Pat Matheny, John Scofield, and Larry Carlton), to accoustic players (John Williams, Michael Chapman, Bob Brozman).
When you are learning anything, it is really interesting to get the point of view of those who have gotten to where you want to be. In many instances, you find when reading interviews like these that these players, whom you respect for all they have accomplished, were at one time in the same place you were, making you feel like your at least on the right track. For example, in an interview with Paul Gilbert, a guitarist widely respected for his technical abilities, he reveals that it took him “eight years before I could do anything related to fast picking”. This one revelation was completely mind blowing for me, considering his abilities as a guitarist just from a technical perspective today.
Another really interesting piece of the Paul Gilbert interview was when he was asked how much theory one should know. This was a particularly interesting question for me because I started guitar lessons back in November and summarily quit because all the teacher wanted me to learn was theory and couterpoint rules, which I didn’t understand yet. Pauls answer was really cool – so much so that I want to quote it here verbatim:
An analogy that I always make is that it is like taking an English course in school for learning to speak. Before you go to school you can talk, you learn from imitating your parents, watching TV and from example. You do this without even opening a book or learning to read, but by the time you are three years old, you’ve learned a lot of the basics of speech and you can communicate pretty well. From then on you start learning grammar and begin to fine tune what you’ve learned with a set of specific rules; you learn spelling, how to write, how to read, and so on. Applied to music, I think the order that you learn those things is very important: the ears come first, and then after a certain number of years you can start labelling the things you’ve learned. For instance, you learn that this series of notes that you’ve been playing is now called a major scale. Otherwise it makes so little sense, because you’re labelling something that you don’t know how to use yet, and it’s more confusing than anything.
For people who are just learning to play guitar, I think it would be really helpful to read books like this before you start. There is a whole mentality you have to have before even going in so that you understand what your expectations should be in order to not get discouraged. Learning an instrument like guitar can be very fun, but it can also tax your ego. Progress isn’t as quick as you think it is going to be — it isn’t as easy as it looks and it can get very discouraging. Reading this kind of stuff really puts things in perspective for you, especially when all of these magazine interviews have been aggregated in one place for you to take a nice big dose of.
I have to say, out of all of the interviews present in this book, the most enthralling was the first one in the book – Frank Zappa. Listening to Zappa talk about music is like listening to God talk about creation. One of the most interesting things about listening to someone like Frank Zappa talk about their craft is the realization that with all the rules that exist, the music isn’t all about the rules, and the best musicians break them. Take this piece from the Zappa interview:
There was a story about you finding something in a harmony book that conventional wisdom said should never be done and you tried it and liked what you heard …
It wasn’t a harmony textbook, it was a counterpoint book. It was on the first page and what it said was, ‘You may not write the following intervals’. The intervals were F and A, a major third, expanding to E and B, a fifth. It also said you could not write G and B, a major third, expanding to F and C, a fifth. So I played these things on the piano and said ‘Why? Why can’t we do this? This sounds great!
And so you closed the book?
Yeah, I mean, I figured that if on the first page they were telling me that I would have to be going against something my ear immediately liked, then why should I learn this stuff?
The two things I’ve quoted here are just two of a ton of different perspectives you get on the guitar and music in general from reading this book. In total, the book contains interviews with 48 guitarists. As I said earlier, if you are thinking about learning the guitar, or any musical instrument, grab this book before you grab the Mel Bay books. The perspectives of real players who have gone through the same things you are going through now will have a major effect on your perspective and approach to the instrument.
If there is one thing I got out of this book, it’s something my brother Ed has been trying to tell me for years. Music is not supposed to be a source of frustration or stress. It’s supposed to be fun. You do it because you love it, not because you are competing or trying to accomplish something. It’s all about making music and loving what you are doing. Its about being “in the moment”. It doesn’t really matter if you suck or not, its whether you are having fun doing what you are doing.
I think I’m finally starting to get it.