Guitar Lessons, Great and Otherwise

This clip from the short-lived British sketch-com Snuff Box made me think about great guitar teachers — and not-so-great ones.

I was lucky — I had some truly memorable teachers, starting with my mom, who taught me her coffeehouse folk. When she decided I needed a more advanced instructor, she recruited Larry, a friend’s 16-year-old Who-fanatic son. (He grew up to become renowned classical guitarist Lawrence Ferrara.) Katherine Charleton (later Calkins) mutated me into an early music geek. And I got to take a few lessons from Ted Greene was I was 17 or so, though he wouldn’t take me as a weekly student. He’d listen to me play got a bit, then dispense pages and pages of chord progressions and melodic sequences, the material that wound up on his Solo Guitar Playing books. I paid Buckethead for a few lessons when he was 17, but it was mainly just to hang out and watch him do his amazing thing. My last great teacher was the sublime Martin Simpson — I finagled a couple of lessons from him when he lived 90 minutes from me in Santa Cruz.

How about you guys? Which teachers inspired you the most? What was the best advice you ever got from a teacher? The worst? Do you teach yourself? Does teaching affect the way you play? Like that.

15 comments to Guitar Lessons, Great and Otherwise

  • Jeff_H

    I took about 3 months of lessons when I was 12 – I was playing my sister’s Yamaha classical guitar. That guitar was a B!%(# to play, the fingerboard was scooped out from the low e to the high e – making it virtually impossible to play a bar chord. Anyway, the guy down at Guitar House in Tulsa insisted on teaching me classical style, since I had this classical guitar. I didn’t enjoy it one bit – and quit. However, I had a basis of HOW to fret and some basic chords.

    I finally talked my parents into buying me an electric guitar for my 15th birthday, and have been self-taught since then.

    To summarize – I’ve had two lousy teachers, but who ultimately taught me a lot.

  • Schrodingersgoldfish

    I am self-taught, in that I have never sat under an individual’s tutelage for more than a total of two hours. I have been blessed with a number of friends and acquaintances who have helped point me in the correct direction, but I find myself blazing my own trail through the steel-stringed jungle more often than not.

    I’ve certainly gotten my fair share of bad advice, too. Some friends don’t think you need to change your strings until they’re a nice, uniform brown, and some told me not to bother using my neck pickup; neck pickups suck, anyway.

  • Oinkus

    I had one actual lesson from a local guy that went away to Berklee , David Grantham great player all the way back in the mid 70s.Lesson was actually for a friend but I sat in and we picked out how to play most of the rhythm to Carry on My Wayward Son.He had real guitars and equipment and basically everything we didn’t have.(mostly just a clue)Several years later I used to see him play and beg them to do “Don’t Take Me Alive” On another weird note why do drummers always sing “Kid Charlemagne” ? Have learned a ton from other players , watching and listening.For the most part all the music theory and things I learned in school bands from 5th to 11th grade or so and it never translated well to the guitar.

  • Josh

    I play the cello, so things were probably different for me. Over the years, I’ve had three really great teachers. The first was Brent Wissick who taught me that it’s OK to wear your heart on your sleeve while you play. The second was Robert Marsh, who taught me how to think critically about how I play. After that, I went about 20 years without a lesson until David Finckel (from the Emerson String Quartet) decided to start putting little nuggets on the net ( ). These little videos, including one recorded in a bathroom at 32,000 feet, are all gems and force you to think hard about what makes a musical phrase great instead of just good.

  • Digital Larry

    My first exposure to chord symbols was the Bob Dylan songbook back in the 70’s. I took a couple bluegrass guitar lessons at Gryphon Stringed Instruments in Palo Alto after I’d been playing for a few years. The guy told me I was doing it all wrong. I threw in the towel on lessons pretty quickly and just kept going on my own. Lo and behold, I am not much of a bluegrass guitar player even after all these years.

    In the mid to late 80’s I worked at Ampex in Redwood City and one of my friends there had regular weekend blues jam parties at his place. It was a great scene with 5,000 guitar players, 4 drummers, 3 keyboard players, occasional harmonica/sax and 2 bass players. I got in the bass player line and learned a few key moves by watching the other guy.

    • joe

      The story about your “teacher,” and Josh’s comments about cello above, remind me that so many teachers completely miss one of the coolest points about guitar: that the unique richness of its traditions is precisely because of the lack of an orthodox pedagogy. (Sure, there is something like a standard classical guitar tradition the runs through Tárrega and Segovia, but that’s just a tiny facet of guitar in general.) Thanks god nobody was telling Django or Wes or Jimi that they were “doing it all wrong,” though, by conventional reckoning, they were.

      And while I’m ranting: Another story I’ve heard countless times from artists I’ve interviewed in all genres goes something like this: “I got in trouble when I was taking lessons, because my teacher realized I wasn’t actually reading the music, but playing it back from memory.” Argh! Great idea! Punish the students with above-average ears!

      It seems to me that a great teacher should a) only nix techniques that are likely to harm the student, b) make the student aware of the “normal” way of doing things, and explain in a non-judgmental way why it’s the norm, and c) keep an open mind about the student’s departures from the norm.

      • Digital Larry

        I recall his specific complaint was that I wasn’t using strict alternate picking. And even today I can’t tell you whether I am or not! I’d have to make a video and watch.

  • joe

    Alternate picking is a great technique, one worth studying. But Wes Montgomery never did it once in his life.

  • mwseniff

    The only teacher I’ve ever had that was useful was my pal Trefan Owen who basically teaches me anything I want to know about (and he has studied and played about anything you can imagine). Trefan is also the only player I have seen use a Boss OC-2 effectively (which he does in his jazz band) it sounds so musical it is unreal. He has a very down to earth approach that is really empowering. I teach him about guitar amps in trade.
    My folks bought me a guitar for being on the honor roll when I was ten though I hadn’t really had an interest in guitar yet (but I did sort of exhibit some musical aptitude apparently). I got 6 free lessons that came with an unplayable Stella acoustic in 1964 learning horribly boring songs from the Alfred Guitar book (I think it all cost $39.95 guitar and lessons which looking back on it was a real ripoff). I never had the same teacher for those 6 lessons but the last guy was sort of young and hip, he taught me Louie Louie and suggested I trade the acoustic for a lap steel I wish he had shown me slide on the Stella. My folks had a really tight budget back then (4 kids and a house they built on the family farm) so the lap steel was a no go. Too bad as it would really have worked for me, even back then I was drawn to all things slidey. Anyway that Stella really put me off guitar and other than fooling around with it on and off, I didn’t really play again till I was 22 or so. But after that I was instantly hooked and rued the fact that I stop playing years before.

  • Dan

    Here’s another good guitar teaching sketch. More than likely the only time this group has ever played together.

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