The son of a close friend has recently progressed from playing the ukulele to his first electric guitar, shortly after his 13th birthday. Hearing of how much he’s loving it, and seeing videos of his impressive playing, are heart-warming and take me back to when I first started playing guitar, at the exact same age. This got me thinking about the past 34 years. If I could go back in time, what advice would I offer to my 13-year-old self (and, in turn, what advice would I offer to my friend’s son)? I try not to live a life of regrets though there are things I certainly wish I’d done in my earlier years. These can be broken down into quite guitar-specific advice and more generic advice which many will hopefully be able to relate to.
- Play along with different styles and genres. Versatility is not only important when trying to become a more well-rounded player, but it maintains interest and will lead to you find brilliant players who you may not have stumbled across otherwise.
- Don’t worry if it takes time ‘getting it’ – it often does. You may pick this up quickly and become a brilliant player in a short space of time but if that doesn’t immediately happen, stick with it – it will come.
- Play with other musicians as soon as you can. It doesn’t matter if you don’t sound like the Foo Fighters on day one. In fact, it doesn’t matter if you sound like a choir of wailing cats. Playing with other musicians will undoubtedly make you a better guitarist. The benefits include increased confidence, increased musician ship, a better sense of timing, having the ability to bounce ideas off each other, having support and encouragement, and last but not least, making new friends. Don’t sit in your bedroom for the best part of 20-years before joining your first band…
- Write your own songs / melodies / chord progressions. Please, please, please – if you only take on one piece of my advice here, make it this one. Don’t be shy about it and certainly don’t be embarrassed. It doesn’t matter what you think of them once you’ve done this a few times – just get into the habit of coming up with tunes and lyrics. It will stand you in really good stead. Firstly, very few musicians ever became famous through playing other people’s songs – song-writing is key. But perhaps more importantly, especially if fame and fortune isn’t your goal, getting creative is amazing. Putting the finishing touches to that first song, sitting back, and thinking ‘that isn’t too bad – I’m really proud of that’, is a feeling like no other. Do that a dozen times over and you’ll love the instrument even more than you do now (and potentially have an album to release)!
- Don’t follow trends. Play / do whatever feels right to you. Don’t pigeon-hole yourself.
- Don’t fear what people think. Ever. People will have a mixture of feelings. Some won’t like what you’re doing; some will love it and support you all the way; some really won’t care either way (not necessarily in a bad way – it’s just that they’ll have other things on their minds and will be getting on with their lives). Embrace those who will support you and ignore those who won’t like what you’re doing – that’s more a reflection of them than you. Just keep going, especially if you love what you’re doing – that’s all that matters.
- Discipline is key. Try to practice every day, even if it’s only for 10-15 minutes. Hopefully, you’ll be loving it so much, this will seem like a pleasure rather than a chore, though that isn’t always the case. Playing guitar is like exercising (or any other hobby) – on the days when you don’t feel like doing it, you’ll almost always feel better when you do.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for advice. There will be people who love this as much as you and who will have been doing this for a lot longer. Usually, especially when they’re passionate about it, they’ll be very happy to help out a beginner.
- There’s no such thing as a stupid question. When it comes to guitars, the simple questions are often the most important. What do the tone controls do? Why are there different types of plectrum? What happens if I unplug my cable while my amp is still on? There really are no such things as stupid questions – only things we do and don’t know. If we don’t ask the questions, we’ll never know, so ask away and, again, don’t worry about what people might think of you.
- Battle through the bad days. Some days it will all go well, some days it won’t. There will be days when it may seem that everything is going wrong. From a guitar perspective, this could be playing the wrong chords, hitting the wrong note, dropping your pick, getting excessive feedback from your amp, having sore fingers, or many other minor issues. It happens, but so do the really good days. Don’t let the bad days put you off – we all have them.
- Dream big! Why shouldn’t you? The love of the instrument and playing is the main thing but why not dream of playing Wembley Stadium and having a number one single? Everyone has humble beginnings. The Beatles played church fetes when they first formed a band. Ed Sheeran busked on high streets. Everybody has to start somewhere. If being in the public eye doesn’t interest you, consider writing songs for others. Guy Chambers is relatively unknown to most people yet he co-wrote most of Robbie Willams’ songs and is a multi-millionaire. Diane Warren has written songs for the likes of Whitney Houston, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Beyonce, Elton John, Cher, Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, Enrique Iglesias, Aerosmith, Mariah Carey, Lady Gaga and many others, and has won Grammys, Emmys, and Golden Globes, yet most people have never heard of her. Max Martin has written or co-written Britney Spears’s ‘Baby One More Time’, the Backstreet Boys’ ‘I Want It That Way’, Katy Perry’s ‘I Kissed A Girl’, Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake It Off’, The Weeknd’s ‘Blinding Lights’ and many, many other hit songs, yet he could walk down most streets without people paying him a second glance. You don’t need to be headlining Glastonbury to make a career out of music.
- Enjoy it! The most important advice of all. If you’re loving what you’re doing, it will never seem like a chore.
Hopefully, this advice is applicable to different people in different scenarios, not just guitarists. I know it would have been invaluable to my 13-year-old self, though there is so much here that also remains relevant today.
As always, thanks for reading, stay safe and try to be kind to yourself and others.
Best wishes and take care.