In Defense of the "Self-Taught" Guitarist
Posted by Robinson Earle on Aug 12th 2020
If you want to avoid the gatekeepers, you’ll have to learn to make your way through the forest of sound alone. Thankfully, records hang like fruit from the trees, and there is a deep cave where you can examine the reflection of your instrument (just don’t venture too deep, like some sort of sonic narcissus). A small creek, brook, or stream is best for refining intonation, as it is a constantly moving target that you can spend a lifetime imitating.
Let the birds be your guides. Listen to how and when they sing. While practicing, make sure to occasionally leave enough space between notes to let them chime in advice.
Listen to the song of the cicadas rise and fall. Cautiously investigate the primordial drone within the beehive. Consider the microtonal shifts in the hoot of an owl.
One of the fundamental differences between over-schooled and self-taught musicians is their ears. Whereas the former learns to compartmentalize sounds, the latter treats each one like new discovery, and becomes bent on plunging their depths. Before I go any further, let me explain that I am not approaching this dichotomy with a hard-line distinction in mind. Someone could take lessons for years, and still be “self-taught”. Likewise, someone could never have had a one-on-one lesson and play very much “by the book”. The characteristic that I am emphasizing is an open, intuitive, gnostic relationship with sound; the ability to react to music on an emotional, nearly synesthesic level, without attempting to define it within any particular paradigm. When someone with ears like this makes music of their own, each tone is drawn directly from their unique aural life experience:
It is not an “Open A Major Chord”, it is a mounted cowboy sauntering through the lonesome prairie.
It is not a “G Sus4”, it is a shaft of light breaking through a cloud.
It is not a “Harmonic Minor Scale”, it is an exotic and serious prince.
It is best to approach chords and scales from many angles. Memorize their formal names so that you may communicate easily with other musicians in your particular cultural context, but also keep the initial, subjective impression that the sound conjured in your heart and mind. Capture and retain that which is completely and truly yours. It is your way of hearing, and with practice, can become your way of playing, too.
Just as children learn to speak before they read and write, so should aspiring musicians fully immerse themselves in the kinds of music that they like to hear. However daunting, learning to play by ear is one of the best exercises available to a guitarist. Just remember, there are only so many notes on the fretboard. Start with one note, then ask yourself, is the next note higher or lower? How much higher or lower? The rest is just time and temperature.
Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, and Django Reinhardt, three of the most dazzling pickers to ever sling six-strings, were all self-taught. Within each of these masters’ work lies the undeniable stamp of personhood. Their music was and is an immortal extension of their life force.
One of my favorite anecdotes on this subject comes from a drummer, and doesn’t even directly involve music. When Milford Graves wanted to learn traditional Kung-Fu in the 1970s, he was turned away for not being Chinese. Not easily dismayed, and principally interested in the mythical “mantis” techniques, Graves ordered a grip of praying mantises from an exotic pets shop. He studied the movements of the insects and developed his own martial art, known as “Yara”. In his words: “There was many times. . .when I was reading about this so called grandmaster, and he saw this and he saw that. I said ‘wow- I could do the same thing, man. I’ll just go out in nature ‘cause that’s were they got it from. . .’ So I went to the best teacher. I went to the praying mantis himself. . .it goes back to hanging out with nature.”
It would be impossible not to occasionally emulate others as we navigate the well-worn paths of the fretboard, but it’s essential to stay open to internal suggestions. This is why the practice of improvisation is so essential. As musicians, we are prophets of nowness, reaching minds through ears and insisting that they dwell in the present, rather than worrying about the future or obsessing over the past. Nothing roots you to the ground better than an act of spontaneous creation, and music is the ultimate abstract art-form. It is a raw vibration that aspires to harmonize with the universe. On a broad enough time-span, it is our minute contribution to the Big Bang.
I say all this as a guitar-teacher, myself, and one who has had the privilege of learning from true masters of the instrument. That said, the reason why I gravitated towards the guitar in the first place, and not any of the other instruments I tried (piano, saxophone), is because I was allowed to explore it on my own terms. The culture that surrounded it was less prescriptive. My guitar teachers asked me what I wanted to learn, rather than have me gnaw my way through a book of ants on a page. After striking out on my own, I learned mainly through osmosis, picking up any sounds that I admired. I have gone deep, but I still have so far left to go. Thankfully, the joy is also endless, and I am grateful to be able to keep practicing and listening. Perhaps it all boils down to that old parable. We all just need to be shown how to fish.