7 Life Lessons From Learning Guitar

I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on my 20+ year journey of teaching myself guitar. I remember being four years old and watching Canadian icon, Mr. Dressup, go into his “backyard” set and play guitar and aspiring to be able to do that. To go from there to where I am today is pretty incredible, and I’ve realized that I’ve learned a lot more than guitar along the way.

1) Perseverance and resilience

I didn’t have a lot of patience and resilience before learning guitar – if something was challenging I had a tendency to give up easily. While playing roller hockey in the cul-de-sac as a kid, if the ball got stuck in the middle of the bush my brother would joke that I’d say it was  “lost forever”, because I would abandon the search after a few minutes (he’d then go find it within a few seconds.) Figuring out how to position your hands on the fretboard, plucking the right strings, and moving between chords are completely foreign movements when you start out. It can be challenging and frustrating, especially if you’re trying to emulate a professional musician who is likely on the upperbound of ability.

As with so many things in life, all that’s really needed is to just keep going. To persevere in the face of adversity, and allow it to make you stronger and better. Keep going and don’t let the inevitable challenges stop you from pursuing what you want.

2) The importance of enjoying the process

I think you truly have to enjoy the process of what you’re learning and take pride and motivation in the little wins that gradually amount to bigger ones. I laugh now when I pull out old tabs from 20 years ago that I deemed “too hard”, as I typically find them very easy. In recent years, I’ve had to go back and re-learn old tabs more accurately, because my fingers are so ingrained in the lazy short-cut way I initially learned due to my limited ability. You often don’t see how far you’ve come, because progression is a long journey. Enjoy the process of learning; persevere, and eventually you will gain mastery (or something closer to it, at least.) Learning guitar has taught me the importance of finding joy in the process and not necessarily in the outcomes themselves.

3) Do it for you

There are many people that are good at playing an instrument, but now don’t actively play (I see you “piano children”.) Playing guitar brings me joy whether I’m the only person to ever hear it. Make sure you are doing it for yourself and because you want to — not for other people or prospective accolades.

4) Break down complex tasks into bite-sized pieces

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve read a tab and thought “this is impossible – I’ll never get it.” But, you break it down, and slow it down, and day-by-day you get closer and closer to the desired end product. In three weeks, a once incredibly complex fingerpicking pattern is ingrained in your hands and you can execute it effortlessly. Something that was complex on the surface becomes simpler over time with practice, dedication, and commitment.

5) Put your own spin on things

The most unique ingredient in making music is you. Mastering sheet music is great, but I believe real musicality is in making something your own. (And, that means the mistakes, too.) Since I learned on the forgiving nylon strings of a classical guitar, I really enjoy fingerpicking and would certainly consider myself more adept at that than strumming. So, I really enjoy making fingerstyle versions of songs of strumming-based songs. Making a song your own (or making up your own song) is the most of fun all.

6) How to learn on your own

While I no doubt would learned faster with a teacher and be better than I currently am, I do take great pride that I taught myself guitar with the resources available on Internet. From learning how to read tabs, to watching and meticulously analzying Youtube videos, to practicing over and over – it is incredibly rewarding to know that you have it within you to learn a completely new skill all on your own. No classrooms or formal courses needed. Brain surgery is next! 

7) How to make a fast recovery

I’ve had the privilege of playing at a few weddings, and no performance was note-perfect. Playing guitar has taught me the ability to quickly recover from a mistake and keep going. Sometimes when I record a video of myself playing a song, I feel like I’ve made an obvious error, but when I listen back it’s hardly noticeable. Or, I learn where I make the mistake most often in practice, and repeat that section to iron out the kinks and minimize it moving forward. Mistakes and challenges happen – it’s about how you learn from them and move forward that matters most.

Learning guitar has been an incredibly rewarding process that has inadvertently equipped me with the skills and abilities to handle new challenges and environments. Here are 7 Tips for Starting Guitar (and Sticking With It) if you’re keen to join me in this fun pursuit!