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In The Beginning: Why I Started to Play the Guitar

 
"If you're not particularly thrilled to be playing an instrument, then you've probably lost sight of why you started in the first place"
 
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Some people are fortunate enough to have certain events take place in their life that leave that everlasting mark. For some, it's about love; for others, it's about their career. For me, it was about the guitar.

I was 11 the first time I really saw anyone play the guitar up close and personal. Up until then, the playing of musical instruments held little appeal next to pickup football and baseball games with my friends in my little suburban town. But on this particular day, one of my friends showed me how adept he had become at playing a tune that I knew very well: "Stairway to Heaven".

OK, so it's the typical cliched beginning, but I was dumbfounded. I had heard this tune so many times, and never did I think it possible that it could be re-created with such ease and grace by someone like me. I guess I had always assumed that this was something that "other" people did - you know, those "musician" types, which would never apply to me. But I never thought of my friend as a "musician" type. He was just a nice kid who had apparently been spending a fair amount of time with the guitar, and was making great progress. The die had been cast.

When you start learning how to play an instrument, I think the most important thing is to have some kind of goal in mind. This helps you stick with it even when you feel you aren't making progress. The worst thing that can happen is to feel compelled to go through the motions, like the kid who dreads his piano lessons and the practicing thereof. If you're not particularly thrilled to be playing an instrument, then you've probably lost sight of why you started in the first place. I know, because I once played the trumpet for a few years, and in the end, I never really had a concrete reason for why I was doing it. I played the trumpet for a few years and probably couldn't have told you the name of one famous trumpet player. How sad is that?

With the guitar, I had a clear-cut goal in mind: to play the intro to Stairway to Heaven. At the start, I became aware of some of the things that go into basic guitar technique: tuning, chords, scales, using a pick, strumming, finger-picking. I didn't know how to use them all, but I knew they existed, and I knew that it would be important for me to learn all these things at some point. I knew that I would have to "pay my dues" before I could begin my quest to be Jimmy Page, and that was OK.

After about 8 or 9 months of learning my basic chords, strumming patterns, and some Beatles tunes, I felt like I had enough skill to plunk through the intro to Stairway, so I fired up my GE cassette recorder with the Zofo tape in it and started to slowly pick out the guitar part. I had so much trouble that my mom (being the very supportive soul she was) bought me the Led Zeppelin Complete book that had music for the intro. For a week, I had problems getting the strings to ring properly, my rhythm was completely off, and it sounded terrible. But I didn't care. I knew that it was a matter of time. I had set a goal, and each day I was inching closer to reaching it.

I think that's when I knew I would always have a very close relationship with the guitar, and music in general. For me, playing the guitar is a meritocracy. Those that work hard are rewarded. If you spend enough time with it, you get better. If you've been lucky enough to have that one event happen that sets your goals for you, then you've got nothing to worry about - you're on your way.

As for the Stairway story, after a few more days, I got it down. I played it for my friend who had originally inspired me, and we started to play it together on a regular basis. The day I got it down, I bookmarked the "Houses of the Holy" section of my Led Zeppelin Complete book. After all, it was going to take a bit of practice to learn how to play "Over the Hills and Far Away"...

Christopher Sung is a guitarist, an adjunct professor at NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program, and a small-business owner - probably in that order.
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