For beginners, learning to play guitar is an adventure, a journey filled with discovery, excitement and experimentation. The ways in which a new player sets out on that path are infinite, but it’s always instructive to heed the experiences of those who’ve gone before. Below, five legendary players talk about how they first went about learning to play.
Vivian Campbell (Def Leppard)
The first song I learned was The Beatles’ “She Loves You.” That was a challenge for me, working out those chords. I didn’t know many people who played guitar, but whenever I ran into someone who I did play, I would ask them to show me a chord or a lick. 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 guitar 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 technical singer, but you sure as hell know it’s Bob Dylan when you hear him.
Richie Sambora (as told to M – Music & Musicians)
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.
For me, everything started with The Beatles. I was six when I saw them 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 that 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.
Joe Bonamassa (as told to M – Music & Musicians)
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 are no 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, of Free. It was great to stumble upon all those great British blues artists who had been influenced by American artists.
My first influence was rock and roll from about 1955 to about 1962 – doo-wop and stuff like that. 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. A good place to start is to learn how to play every Beatles song, on guitar. Then listen to Clapton and Beck and Page. Gradually I started changing things in other people’s songs. For instance, 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, and start writing your own stuff. All those things you spent time learning start to sink into your skin, and that knowledge becomes available to you to play things the way you want to play them. It takes a long time.