teaching

people often ask me why it is that i don’t teach.

well…maybe not often, but enough that the question recurs on a somewhat perpetual basis.

truth is, i’ve tried it, in isolated instances, in the past…but a couple of things have always derailed me.  one, and probably foremost, is my inability to be consistent with students – in terms of committing to a weekly regimen.  there’s just too much other stuff going on in my life, and i honestly can’t remember a time when that hasn’t been the case.  if you’re going to take on something like learning an instrument, you deserve a teacher whos’ going to be available to you…and that just ain’t me.  sorry.

the second thing, though…and for me, probably the thing that far outweighs the first thing…is that – for whatever skills or talents i might posess – i have acquired far too many bad habits and personal shortcuts and quirks and anomalies over the years to be able to guide someone down the “proper” path.

now, before you start, i fully realize that there often isn’t a generally accepted “right way” or “wrong way” to play an instrument…especially in this day and age when you’ve got guys playing guitars with bows or laying them on their laps, a la jeff healey – in fact, it’s probably truer now than ever that there really isn’t an accepted “correct” way to play the guitar.

but, still…

my mental block, here, is my nearly complete self-taught status, and the means by which i went about learning to play.  nowadays, kids have tools available to them that i couldn’t have possibly imagined when i was my sons’ age.  kids can download tablature over the internet, or they can download a program like PowerTab that will load the tablature into a midi file and play it back for them so they can hear it, in the proper tempo and rhythm, played back for them on their PC so they can learn it off the page and by ear at the same time.  there are devices like the line6 guitar port that turns your computer into an arsenal of vintage amps and effects…but, hey – let’s not stop there…let’s add a component called guitarport online that, for the measely price of less than ten bucks a month, allows you to download lessons and tablature from top players…and – get this – you can download the actual backing tracks from some of the anthems of the classic rock era and play along with them!

seriously.  no shit.

you can buy a guitarport, plug it into the USB port on your computer, and download noel redding and mitch mitchell’s original backing tracks from “the wind cries mary” and close your eyes and pretend to be hendrix.

if you’d told me that you’d someday be able to do that when i was thirteen years old…well, i’d have thought that you bought your weed from the wrong kids at school.

i’m realizing, as i spout all this off, that there’s probably not much need for a guitar teacher if you’re even marginally motivated…and, chances are, if you’re motivated enough to dive into that world without your water wings on, then you’re probably going to outgrow me pretty damn quickly.

as i’m sure you’ve pieced together by now, i’m almost completely self-taught.  when i tell you i grew up with nothing, i’m not really exaggerating.  i had no real source of knowledge around me, save for the television and a few other folks who played very rudimentarily at best.  it wasn’t until i was well into my teens and starting to find my way into bands by virtue of having taught myself drums that i was exposed to other players who had anything resembling a clue about how to play guitar…and that that point, i wasn’t that enamoured with it.  i was a drummer, and happily so.   but, at some point, having heard the music i had heard growing up, my curiosity crept up on it and i started paying attention.

i watch my son, who picks it up for a few minutes at a time and puts it down, and the difference between the two of us is as plain as the nose on your face.  if i’d been surrounded by half the things he takes for granted at his age, i’d have walked around all day long giggling uncontrollably to myself.

but, my path was different..is different.  essentially, all the knowledge that i’ve accumulated over time has been the result of my aptitude for sponging information, either via observation, asking casual questions, or digging through books, magazine articles, or the internet.  i took my first ever actual music lesson less than a year ago from my buddy bruce “wally” heffner, who sold me a gaggle of books, DVDs, and instructional material – and i haven’t been back since.  i’ve barely scratched the surface of what he’d given me in that first lesson, and i wonder how it is that anyone ever goes back for number two if he provides so much material up front.

wally was to be my sensei, my guide down what i felt was the final frontier for me…pedal steel guitar.  and yet, i’ve been playing this thing in front of people since last november, somehow.

which probably best illustrates the trait that has been both my curse and my savior.

i dive into things and figure out how to establish a voice on them and work out the mechanics and such…and sometimes the results are passable, and sometimes the habits that i establish in search of the results forge a ceiling that keep me from going past a certain point.

in the case of pedal steel (and to a parallel extent, dobro and lap steel), i have a near-fatal aversion to the use of fingerpicks.

this goes all the way back to the beginning…to my initial forays into guitar when i was a teenager.  i won’t go down the whole “we were so poor we couldn’t afford picks” road, but when i was learning guitar, there often weren’t any laying around.  plus – and probably, more importantly – most of the stuff i wanted to learn was played fingerstyle, anyway.  so i completely avoided picks for the bulk of my formative years.  it wasn’t until much, much later, when i started playing guitar in bands and doing solos, that i eventually relented and started using picks – just here and there at first, and then with more regularity as it became more comfortable.

but, generally speaking, if i pick up a guitar at home, i seldom reach for a pick.

now, though, this has created a situation where i feel like i’m wearing a kryptonite condom on my right hand if i put fingerpicks on, because there’s this huge disconnect between my fingers and the strings, and it’s taking a lot…no, a LOT – of effort to try to get accustomed to using them.  i’ve played lap steel for fifteen years without them, dobro for nearly as long…but with pedal steel, there are techniques that are simply impossible to do without them.  playing harmonics with the right hand, specifically, just won’t happen without that thumbpick to accentuate the note.  your thumb, by itself, ain’t gonna cut it.

and, frankly, i’ve gone about as far as i’m gonna go with this family of instruments without biting the bullet and slipping those bad boys on and starting to get used to having them between my fingers and the strings.  if i’m going to get past the point that i’m at now – which is to say, if i’m going to learn anything that’s outside my current realm of knowledge and take this to the next level – i’m gonna have to strap those puppies on and get busy, here.

or, i can continue to do what i’ve done…which is to try and be a trooper and get through a song or two and then whip ’em off in frustration and get back to work.

i’ll let you know how that works out.

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