On Playing Guitar

Brian and Bryan Jam

Photo courtesy of Alan Levine

As a sort of follow-up to my last post, I wanted to share some responses I had for a few questions one of the TALONS asked me as part of his own In-Depth Study Research.

1. How long have you been playing the guitar?

About thirteen years… I think.

2.At what age did you first start playing?

I first borrowed a friend’s guitar in the spring of 2003, I guess. So I would have been 22, or thereabouts.

3. Do you believe learning to play the guitar has benefited your life socially / physically / mentally?

Absolutely socially and mentally.

There are probably physical benefits – better hand-eye coordination or dexterity with my fingers and such – though I don’t know if these are beneficial other than in playing guitar.

As for socially, I’ve made a lot of great friends and shared a lot of interesting experiences with people I wouldn’t have found myself connected to if not for having been what can be called in some ways a musician. Beyond personalities, or senses of humour, or our unique interests, upbringings, or even the music we like, I’ve always found people who play music – whatever kind of music it is – easy to talk to, hang out with, and – naturally – play music with. I’ve played music with strangers on the street in Cuba, Croatia, and France, talked for hours about favourite guitars with friends of my parents, and spent weekends improvising with people I’d just met without so much as a word having to be spoken.

Even when I was just starting out, I’ve found that once you have enough skill to participate in communal music-making (even if it’s just plucking the same note or strumming the same chord along with a few friends), you have been allowed into some other plane of conversation with people – a conversation without words, but also a conversation without distinct points of view. In a verbal conversation, one person talks, then another, then the other again, and in doing so their unique perspectives are shared; but in music, the two ‘perspectives’ are essential components of the other, if that makes sense? My guitar solo cannot exist without the underlying chords, whose pacing and volume are reacting moment-by-moment to the energy, tones and volume of the solo. And that’s just with two people: as drums, or bass, or vocals or other instruments are added to the fray, this sense of a collective voice only becomes richer.

I think this sense of communication I’m trying to describe benefits both the social and the mental, though, because these experiences not only forge deep connections with the folks I’ve shared them with, but also have opened my mind to what it means to listen, and interact, and communicate with other people. Once you’ve experienced these sorts of things – an epic jam session, or a memorable performance, or just creating something out of nothing, even by yourself with your guitar – it is impossible to go back to having ‘un-experienced’ them; each leaves you fundamentally changed, however minimally, and changes the course you might take going into the future. I’ve left a lot of different sessions of playing with people thinking, “Why don’t I do *that* more?” And I always rededicate myself to finding more places and people to play with – it never stops.

4. What are some of the skills developed from playing guitar?

Listening is a big one, whether it’s to the people you’re playing with, or even songs you’re hearing for the first time or the millionth. It’s fun when you start to realize what’s going on ‘inside’ some of your favourite songs, and why it is you like them – a chord change, perhaps, or the way the lyrics fall across the rhythm of the song; and similarly, sometimes songs you thought were catchy fall apart when you learn how to play them, which can be disappointing, but leads you to other, more interesting music hopefully.

Beyond listening, I am also able to hear better, which is actually different than listening. I can hear subtle differences between notes and chords, can tell when things are out of tune – and even which string it is, generally – which I couldn’t do back when I began. I’m also able to distinguish what singers are saying now that I know how to breathe and sing and strum as the same time, and how the different instruments are interacting in ensembles.

5. How do these skills/benefits benefit/apply to your everyday life?

I think quite a few of these skills transfer over to everyday life, both in tangible, specific ways: I know a lot about different songs, how they are put together, and the people that made them, for instance, which finds its way into a lot of my work at school (and not just in guitar class); and my relationship with language has changed I think, as well, and I unconsciously try to make things more musical, direct, or poetic when I write or speak, perhaps.

But I think the benefit of playing music that most broadly transfers over into ‘real’ life is the sensibility that goes along with many different aspects of music. In looking over my answer to your third question, I like to think that this constructive sense of conversation or working with others influences every aspect of my life and relation to other people: everything one does with other people is an opportunity to build something – a conversation, a relationship, a professional project, or piece of art. And so because I know that these types of interactions are possible, I find myself approaching almost everything I do with the same sense of experimentation and expression.

6. Any other habits/effects that came from guitar?

The guitar is a dangerous tool for relaxation and procrastination, so not all of the habits and effects it yields are necessarily positive! I’m sure there are plenty of things I could or should have done some days than play guitar for half an hour (or three hours), and that’s not always the best thing to do. But I am glad every day that I stuck out those first few months (or years, if you ask my roommates or family members who heard me back then), until guitar became the thing I wanted to do when I got home from school or work. Once it became The Thing I wanted to do to unwind, or have fun, or challenge myself, I don’t think I could have ever gone back to being someone who doesn’t play guitar.

Hopefully you find the same soon enough.