A 50-year-old Plays His First Guitar Solo

It’s never been enough for me, to just “teach guitar.” I don’t come from the “put your finger here” school of guitar teaching. I really try to give my students the tools to understand music and create their own, rather than working their “Sweet Child O’ Mine” intro (although I totally could show you how to do that). Many of my guitar students come to me with more specific goals, like learning lead guitar skills or music theory. My job as an instructor is to help people get closer to those goals, one lesson at a time. Sometimes, it’s like pulling teeth.

Today’s case study: Dave. Dave writes songs and has been doing so for over 30 years, on the same guitar. He has written at least a hundred songs or more, in many different genres. He has love songs, swing tunes, country ballads, church songs, children’s songs, even a kind of punk song. He has never played a gig in his life. I don’t think he’s ever stepped up to a microphone on a stage, period. He records songs at home on a digital multitrack, but that’s about it. He rarely plays his songs for anyone, though there may be hundreds of songs. He reports that he has always struggled with stage fright, fear of judgement, etc. He routinely puts himself down, especially for his clunky guitar playing and ocassionally monotonous baritone singing.

Now, Dave is actually quite a good songwriter. It’s remarkable what he’s done, considering his lack of method and his negativity towards himself. His passion and sense of calling has continually compelled him to keep writing, regardless of how little “progress” he has made over the years. He truly loves his songs, and talks about them ceaselessly. He believes them in a way that stands in stark contrast of his view of himself as artist.

Our lessons can be trying, as it’s a struggle for me to get him to play a song all the way through. He’ll spend so much time introducing the song, explaining what instrumentation he’s imagining, speculating what famous singer should do it, and why he’s not going to do a very good job anyway, that I have to remember to be very patient and keep encouraging him to just play the song. It’s not an exaggeration that he will spend more time introducing songs than playing them. When he does finally give a performance, Dave has some trouble finding all the correct chords and melodies,  gets stuck easily, and will often only make it partially through the song.
This routine is frustrating, because I’m a pretty good teacher and used to getting results. Week after week, we have the same basic discussion, and I admit that I have been beginning to lose heart a little bit. The worst thing is knowing that the songs themselves are good, but it’s like the songwriter has been contsipated with them and can only expel them with great pain. Sorry for the metaphor, but it’s apt.

Well, a couple of weeks ago, we were in our lesson, and my frustration bubbled to the surface. I gave him one of my famous “you actually have to practice” speeches, but I knew even mid-rant that mere speechifying wasn’t going to change anything for Dave. So I wrapped it up. Instead of continuing in the same somewhat negative vein the whole lesson, I called Dave’s attention to a set of dots that I had written on a sheet of guitar neck paper. “This is the A minor pentatonic scale, it’s one of the most important building blocks of lead guitar.” Dave tried it out. He played through the scale easily, more easily than expected. A couple times. I began to perk up as he played it ascending to the highest note and then descending down to the low A note without missing a beat. “You can use this scale to improvise a solo or other lead guitar parts.” Seeing that Dave was not sucking, I began playing a 12 bar blues underneath him. He quickly locked into my rhythm pattern, playing up and down the scale as if he’d done it before. As I went through the changes, Dave really started digging in to the scale, playing some notes harder than others and applying vibrato. He even attempted a little string bending. I actually began to think that perhaps he had learned this scale long ago and had just forgotten until the moment. Not only were the notes played correctly, but he played with a dollop of genuine blues attitude. After a couple times through the 12 bars, we ended (together!), after which we high fived.

Dave was blown away with what he’d just accomplished. “I’ve NEVER done that before, but it was like I knew where you were going! I shoulda learned that 30 years ago.”
It was so cool, hearing that, feeling his passion as he tapped into the blues for the first time. We both felt like we’d broken through a wall, and for Dave, that was a 35 year wall. The thing is, that wall could have been circumvented, climbed, or blasted. It could have happened 30 years ago, but it didn’t. In this case, I my role was to guide Dave around his wall without directly addressing it. I took him to a place where he didn’t have as many negative assumptions, where his neuroses hadn’t built such a powerful prison for him. As our lesson ended, I could see the wheels turning in his head, his thoughts began to shift. He used to think that he couldn’t ever play a lead, and he was right up until that moment when he bit off a piece of the blues and began to chew.

The best lesson I can give any musician? Just Play. It sometimes takes a lot of work to get there, but if you ever get to the point where if just for a moment, you really nail it, really plug into the source, really PLAY, you’ll be hooked forever. Hell, it’s not just about music, it’s about life, which is best lived in the moment. Dave got somewhere that day, and in the lessons since then, he’s playing more freely, getting through songs, singing better, and enjoying himself a lot more. Last week he played me the verse to a new song, could be his best yet.

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    photo of  Luke Leverett
    New Braunfels, Texas Phone: 830-708-5883