Welcome to the Woodshed. In my new column, I’m writing about my journey as a guitar student. That’s right—I said student. I’m 36 years old and only started playing four years ago. Late last year, I was challenged to post a new guitar video every day for 90 days.

Consider this my love letter/hate mail to the process of learning an instrument as an adult. As I share my stories, I’ll also be sharing tips and tricks, things that are working for me, things I’m stuck on, musicians who are inspiring me, and songs I’m listening to and/or learning. Finally, I’d love to hear from you, too.

Come say hi at @jtdawsonmusic

March 20, 2014

I was being “that girl.” I was traversing the concourse at LAX with my earbuds blaring American Authors then-brand new album Oh, What a Life. Travel-weary and a little delirious from a whirlwind weekend in L.A., I was dancing my way to the gate, and not gracefully. I tripped over nothing and hit the ground hard.

Not wanting to look up and make eye contact with any potential witnesses, I stared at the floor and became acutely aware of the music in my ears. The song, “Best Day of My Life,” had been playing non-stop on the radio all weekend. You know the one—it’s a monstrously catchy feel-good pop song and not much else. But in that moment, it was all-consuming. Right there, on the ground in front of an airport Starbucks, I had an epiphany. I was hearing chord changes and strumming patterns in a way I never had before, and it dawned on me. I could play this song. Easily, even.

I texted my husband.

“Flight is on time. See you in a few hours. When I get home, there’s a song I need to learn on guitar.”

“Cool. Um, you don’t play guitar.”

Oh right, that.

It hadn’t been for lack of trying. Okay, I hadn’t tried very hard. My dad had attempted to teach me some chords when I was a kid, but I was quickly discouraged. Later as a teenager, I talked my boyfriend into giving me a guitar lesson, which ended up being a terrible idea for all the reasons you can imagine. As the years went on, I even received a couple guitars as gifts and had them on display in my home throughout my young adult life. Anyone who came over would ask, “Oh! Do you play?”

“I pretend to.”

The thing is, I so badly wanted to be able to, but I was convinced I couldn’t. Worse yet, I had accepted the fact I would likely never try again. I told myself my hands were too small and I wasn’t born with the right kind of talent. I mean, why force something nature had decided wasn’t mine to have? I ended up selling both guitars because the conversation around them had become too painful.

That’s why that moment in LAX was so weird, besides the obvious weirdness of a grown woman sitting on the floor in the middle of a busy airport. All my previous baggage about guitar—that it was something other people could do, but that I couldn’t—evaporated. It didn’t even come to mind. Right then, for reasons I will never understand, I knew with 100 percent certainty I would go to a guitar shop as soon as I got home and buy a new one.

So why am I telling you all this? Because as music lovers, I’m betting many of you play instruments, or if you don’t, you wish you did. My passion for guitar came from being a fan first, from listening to David Gilmour, Jeff Beck, Lincoln Brewster, Brent Mason, Bonnie Raitt, Jimmy Page, the Edge, Alex Lifeson, and so many others who have always made it seem like pure magic.

I want to be in on the illusion.

Each month, I’ll be sharing the things that have been helpful to me along the way. If you’ve just started playing, I hope I can be a voice of encouragement. For anyone hitting a plateau or suffering from a loss of passion, I hope this is a place where you find some tips and tricks for practicing and staying motivated. And if you’re like I was—wishing you could play, but convinced you would never be able to—I’ve never wanted you to be more wrong. Let my experience be an example that you can do it as long as you’re willing to try.

I know learning an instrument (or any new skill) as an adult is an uphill battle. It’s hard to make time for anything that isn’t work or family, and even if you are able to carve out chunks of free time here and there, you have to contend with the fact that at some point you probably lost your tolerance for being bad at stuff. Rarely do adults jump at the chance to be beginners.

I didn’t want to be a beginner, either. But in that moment of realization, the pain of not knowing how to play at all overwhelmed my fear of playing badly. I knew myself well enough to realize that if I didn’t immediately jump in with both feet, I would talk myself out of it. I had to start. Somewhere. Anywhere. And soon.

Practice, Practice, Practice

The most important piece of guitar advice I’ve received came on that first day I got back from L.A. As promised, I went to the closest music store, which at the time was Arkansas MusicWorks in Bentonville. A fellow customer was noodling away on a Telecaster. As I was holding the pink Squier Strat I eventually bought, he said, “Play me something!”

I stared blankly. “I can’t even remember the two chords I thought I knew.”

“Go home and practice then! Practice, practice, practice. Most people don’t, and that’s why most people either suck or give up. Don’t be most people.”

He was right. That’s it. That’s the secret.

But there is such a thing as good practice. I’ll be diving into the psychology of focus and goal setting another time. For now, practicing some is better than practicing none. It’s not about the total amount of time spent, but the consistency of it—especially at the beginning. 10-15 minutes every day is better than a one-hour binge, followed by six days off.

So practice whenever you can. If you’re spending 30 minutes in front of the TV, pick up your guitar and practice placing your fingers in chord shapes while watching. Find songs you like and learn their chords. Start slowly and work your way up to playing with the tracks. Be OK with only hitting 10 percent of the chords at first. Recognize that you’re not going to sound good right away, but know you will get better if you keep practicing. You can’t not.

If you really want to challenge yourself, film your practice time. I have been doing that since the beginning, and while those first videos felt so embarrassing, I’ve learned a ton from watching myself. Plus, if I’m frustrated with something that’s tripping me up now, I go back to a video from a year ago, or even a few months ago, and recognize the progress I’ve made. I have to see it to believe it sometimes. I’m glad I have proof.

Finally, trust the process. If you truly are practicing, you will not be stuck forever. Getting stuck does not mean you lack talent or should quit. It means you need to spend more time on it. When I’ve hit roadblocks, I’ve had to get real honest with myself about how hard I’m working. Turns out, I have a tendency to back away and practice less when I’m struggling because I hate sounding bad. If I’m serious about improving (and I am), that’s exactly when I need to lean in and practice more.

This Month

Student challenge: Set aside 10 minutes (or more if you have it) of each day and practice. Go ahead and enjoy the thrill of being a beginner, because if you commit to this, it won’t last long!

Inspiring guitar player: Daniel Donato (find him on Instagram at @thedanieldonato). I love the way he constructs licks and pieces together familiar ideas in unfamiliar ways. His passion is contagious.

Tunes I’m working on: Adding an electric vibe to the acoustic recording of Alanis Morissette’s “Right Through You” and a rock-inspired version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” for my dad’s upcoming retirement ceremony.


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