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Guitar: The Problem-Solving Instrument.

Since the 1960s, the guitar has become one of the most affordable and widely available instruments. Being so mobile, it is perhaps the only instrument you might find simultaneously in a concert hall and around a campfire. Advancements in music technology have only furthered the mainstream appeal of the guitar across multiple genres. Due to its global popularity, the guitar has become a cultural icon and remains so today.

To most people, the guitar looks like a simple instrument to learn.

An average guitar has six strings and twenty-one frets comprising 132 notes. A beginner guitarist often sets to work learning some basic strumming patterns and chords to get them started. As most pop songs use a minimum of 3 chords, the guitar is a perfect instrument to start on. Unlike a violin or piano, learning how to play the guitar has the advantage of having a more gradual learning curve. For this reason, the guitar is a very forgiving instrument and relies on the player to recall shapes and patterns over music theory. So far, the guitar sounds like the perfect instrument to learn. It requires minimal technique to get started; There are plenty of practical learning shortcuts; The nature of the guitar doesn't force the player to have extensive music theory knowledge to play simple songs.

But therein lies the problem.

In contrast to the piano or violin, the guitar is still a very young instrument on the timeline of music history. Both the piano and violin have been formally recognised as 'respectable concert instruments' for centuries. In that time, there have been strict developments for what is considered the 'correct technique' on each respective instrument. The history of how technique has been taught created a foundation for acceptable practice today. Earlier iterations of the guitar have often been associated with informal social entertainment. Until pioneers such as Andre Segovia championed the guitar into the concert hall, the modern guitar was never formally recognised in the same light as concert instruments.

As a seasoned guitar teacher, I have taught students that range from all skill levels and abilities. Over the years, I have noticed that guitar players often fall into many of the same knowledge gaps when they're looking to improve. I think the answer is quite simple as to why this is the case.

I believe that the greatest strength of the guitar is also its greatest weakness. Simply put, there is no single, correct method for learning how to play the guitar. This might be the instrument's greatest strength as some of history's most reputable guitar players have been significant innovators in developing technique and sound production.

Eddie Van Halen, Jimi Hendrix and Charlie Christian are a handful of names that spring to mind. Each player has had a profound effect on what it means to play the guitar, whether through extended techniques such as tapping, pinched harmonics, or evolving the role of the guitar in a band. Figures like Van Halen, Hendrix and Christian are crucial for furthering the knowledge of the guitar and what is possible. Their developments in technique and performance helped establish many of the contemporary practices that we see in the guitar players of today. The guitar is an instrument that is inadvertently designed to make players question its application in all musical situations. It's an imperfect instrument that, in the right hands, flourishes through its inherent flaws.

Creation vs Generation of Sound.

All instruments are capable of creating sound and require some degree of generation to do so. 'Generation' is a verb with a slightly different meaning than 'to create', as it defines the relationship of production following a physical process. Remember this as it'll be important later on. The piano is widely acknowledged as the 'ultimate instrument' of the western music tradition. It transcends many essential difficulties that other western instruments struggle with (Polyphony, range, volume).

But it still has several limitations when addressing the 'generation of notes'. Here's an example scenario: If you were to sit down at an acoustic piano and press a key, you would trigger the hammers to pound the strings and sound out a note. Aside from the piano's mechanics of the hammers hitting the strings, there are not many ways that a piano can generate sound. There are only 3 options to manipulate the note; Through the sustain pedal, the dampening pedal and the 'sostenuto' (softening) pedal. This is the case with electric pianos also (not taking into account synthesizers). However, innovations like the ROLI Seaboard are starting to address this.

When looking at the guitar, it's necessary to summarise the fundamental 'problem' that the guitar puts forward. I should stress that 'problem' is a loose term that I'm using to exaggerate the instrument's boundaries. An example might be that 7 note chord voicings are impossible on a 6-stringed guitar. But loop/effects pedals, multi-tracking and, drones are boundary-defying solutions. The 'problem' is that the guitar has various limitations that are not easily conquered unless technical experiments are carried out. Much like the human voice, the guitar excels through its ability to create lots of different types of sound. The possibilities of 'generating sound' are innumerable and ever-expanding. Most stringed instruments require the player to carry out two contrasting functions to generate sound on either hand. The guitar can be tapped, plucked, hit, strummed, and picked, and there are many techniques to achieve those results. It is safe to assume that the guitar is the most technically diverse and versatile instrument, displaying the most varied relationship between the 'creation' and the 'generation of sound'.

All of this leads to a fundamental question.



Guitar Philosophy: What does it mean to be a guitar player today?

Modern guitar players have access to more gadgets, inspirations, and learning materials than any musician that has come before. We are, quite literally, flooded by a sea of information and, it can be hard to find an anchor if you're just starting out. Similarly, if you've been playing a while and wonder what's next, it can be overwhelming to try and keep up with the new playing styles and techniques that seem to be coming out of the woodwork!

There is a timeless quality about the guitar.

From its ease of transport to its assimilation with emerging technologies, it's fit for purpose in most, if not, all situations. Contemporary guitarists are the modern troubadours. Taking advantage of new innovations and continuing to craft individual voices on the instrument. While also rewriting the pedagogy for how the guitar is taught. There's a new generation of players who are hungry for constant reinvention and risk-taking. The guitar is perfectly fit for the present and future of music.


All of this to say, the guitar's limited boundaries create unlimited possibilities for the player. The beauty in the instrument is in the struggle to overcome its inherent flaws by embracing the freedom and creativity of problem-solving. The guitar encourages each player to find ways around individual and wide-ranging performance issues. We all have different hands, arms, bodies and minds. Each of us has different perceptions of how we surmount these challenges to achieve our musical goals. I make clear in all of my lessons: The end goal is always musical freedom and creativity. How you solve technical or performance-related problems is entirely up to the individual to explore. As long as the player is open to constant tweaking and experimentation, they will only be limited by their imagination.

To be a guitar player is to embrace the boundless potential of the instrument, no matter how obscure or seemingly impossible the goal is. Often, the answer that unlocks the impossible door is simply, 'why hasn't that been attempted yet?'.

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