I started playing aged 11 (I’m 28). I started after listening to a Clapton/Cream compilation album that my father had. My father had an MIJ Squier Strat he wasn’t playing, so I claimed it for myself. I vividly remember going into the garage, climbing on a desk and reaching up to the top shelf to get it. The case, which was homemade and had very unreliable clasps swung wildly after I slid it off the shelf. I nearly dropped it.
My father, who is primarily a drummer and an acoustic singer/songwriter, taught me the basic chord shapes and a few simple riffs/leads. He didn’t feel he had the knowledge (or the temperament) to teach me after few months, so he arranged for me to take lessons with local guitar teacher named Declan Collins.
Declan is a virtuoso and and excellent teacher. I took lessons from him for many years. I feel very lucky to have had regular access to a teacher and player of his caliber.
For the first year or so, lessons mostly consisted of him teaching me relatively simple songs using open, barre and power chords, and simple riffs and leads. I was allowed to choose the songs, though I often trusted him to choose something of appropriate difficulty.
Then, I started listening to Cream and The Jimi Hendrix Experience more, and I discovered Led Zeppelin. For the next year or so, I learned a lot of material from those groups. It was more guitar-centric music than I had previously been learning, and the difficulty was reasonable for the level I had reached.
I made fast progress with this material, and eventually I wanted more of a challenge. One day, at a lesson, Declan asked what I’d like to learn. I said I wanted to learn something hard. He decided to teach me Zap by Eric Johnson.
I remember being absolutely transfixed when Declan pressed the play button on the cassette player and I heard Eric Johnson for the first time. The melody, the lead phrasing, the technique and the tone, I’d never heard anything like it.
I needed to be able to play like that, but I had nothing close to the level of technique to be able to do it. Eric Clapton was the reason I picked up the guitar in the first place, but Eric Johnson was the reason I’ve never been able to put it down.
Before this point, Declan had taught me technique as I’d needed it. He had stressed the importance of alternate picking technique. I knew about hammers and pull-offs, I could bend in tune, I knew some fingerstyle songs, etc.
I practiced the intro to Zap every day, in addition to whatever else we were covering in subsequent lessons. I’d ask technique questions based on the issues I was having with Zap.
Near my 15th birthday, the intro to Zap started to come together. I didn’t have it quite up to speed, but I was becoming more comfortable with the hybrid picking and I could play it smoothly. A few months later, when I should have been studying for upcoming state exams, I doubled my efforts and I was managing the recorded tempo.
Declan began introducing me to the music of other elite players. I learned more pieces by Eric Johnson, and pieces by Steve Morse and Paul Gilbert. I learned more about scales, chords and harmony.
Declan is essentially a strict alternate picker, and I followed his example. I was able to derive cross-picking and two-way pickslanting movements by thinking about picking geometrically and by closely studying Declan’s movements. He didn’t explain his movements, but there were instances where he’d mention the path or trajectory of particular pickstrokes.
Being able to sit near a player with virtuoso picking technique and watch his movements from multiple angles was enlightening. There really wasn’t much video of elite picking available at the time. Most instructional VHS tapes were out of print, and had not yet been re-released on DVD. The internet was slow and any videos I could find were of low quality. YouTube hadn’t taken off yet. When all of that video became available in the next few years, I was able to study it from an informed perspective.
When I was about 17 or 18, Declan recommended I try to get some more experience teaching myself and spend some time practicing with other musicians. I think this was important for my development.
This was an important experience for me. I learned pretty quickly how little all those pieces I’d learned and all the technique I had developed mattered to other people.
I remember trying out for bands and getting immediately rejected. When I got into cover bands, I’d learn the songs everybody else wanted to play, but the others wouldn’t learn the songs I wanted to play. I’d be prepared and get to rehearsals on time, but others weren’t. I’d often get cut for seemingly no reason at all, and then replaced by a band members guitar playing friend or brother, even though I knew I was the better player. After taking more initiative, and setting up bands myself, finding the other musicians and arranging practice times, I kept having the same problems, over and over. In one infuriating instance, I was part of an original band where I’d been told they didn’t think my style and input was the right fit, only to find out later that they continued to use music and lyrics I had written.
I thought I must have had some major personality flaw, or have some problem with my playing I never knew about, but that wasn’t it. I found out later from some of the other members of those groups (usually the bassists) that some groups found playing with me to be intimidating, or in other cases that the singers felt overshadowed by me.
Eventually I stopped trying. I basically quit playing the electric guitar for a few years, and focused on the acoustic instead. I tried singing, and took singing lessons, with the hope of being a solo performer, but I came to accept that I’d never have a great voice.
I learned the most important lesson I have ever learned about music; I do not want to be professional musician.
When I accepted that (I was about 20 at the time), I got back into the electric guitar again. I felt liberated, free to play the electric guitar the way I wanted to, without worrying about getting gigs. I arranged to take lessons with Declan again. This time around he was more a coach than a teacher, though I still learned from his insights. It kept me motivated to practice. It was valuable to have him critique and comment on my playing as I began to re-develop my electric style and vocabulary.
I continued to take “lessons” in this format for a few years, until I completed my Ph.D and had to move away for work.