“Is there anything I can do to make my fingertips stop hurting? Can I put something on them that will help?”
Well, maybe. Or not. I would say this is the single most common question I hear from beginning guitarists. I’ve noticed some strange looking little finger condom thingies in my wholesale catalogs that are supposedly good for this purpose but I have no experience with them, nor have any of my guitarist friends. One student told me recently that he’d read about using Super Glue on fingertips to tough them up and reduce the pain. Maybe that works but being a fisherman who has used the stuff on broken lures I know it is a major pain to remove from fingers and you certainly wouldn’t want it on your guitar neck. Plus if it is not totally dry I would guess that chord changes would be suddenly very, very difficult – ha!
The truth is, nothing but playing and building up calluses is the best course of action. An added bonus is that this gives you a good excuse to avoid doing the dishes.
“Sorry honey, I just can’t do the dishes, my calluses with get all soft and I won’t be able to play!” You may be able to get away with that one a time or two. But don’t count on it! Works for me from time to time. Shhhh!!!
“Why doesn’t my guitar sound as good as yours?”
Hoo boy, that is a delicate one. I usually gently explain that my $2000+ Martin had BETTER sound better than your $150 Yamaha or I definitely was ripped off! But the student almost always knows that the bottom line is experience. The trick for me is to frame that without implying that my ability is based on anything other than decades of hard work. I often relate the great little story I’ve mentioned here before about a show some years ago by the great Chet Atkins. Someone walked up to Chet during a break and said, wow Chet, that is a great sounding guitar. Yeah? said Chet. How does it sound now?
And on a somewhat related note….
“I just don’t feel like I’m making much progress. When will I be able to play well?”
The cynic in me wants to say, hey, I buy lottery tickets. When do you think I will win? But it’s much more complicated than that of course. Usually I relate it to the most basic element of playing, which is the fact that playing the guitar is on its most basic level a physical endeavor. The more you exercise, the more stamina and strength you develop. Doing moderate exercise on a frequent basis is much more effective that trying to do a lot on an infrequent basis. What goes hand-in-hand with that (sorry for the pun!) is being analytical about your playing. WHY is that chord change difficult? Pure repetition without careful examination hardly ever leads to success. And it’s all held together with rhythm, the most basic and essential musical concept.
And what is “playing well” anyway? Temper your expectations and celebrate small victories. A simple song played well is ultimately much more gratifying than playing a complex song poorly. Your listeners feel the same way. Trust me on that.
And finally, for today anyway…..
“I really like (fill in the blank…artist…style…). When will I be able to play like that?”
We all have musicians we admire and wish we could play like them or at least in their style. I sure do! I do try very hard in my weekly lesson planning session to think about each individual student’s interests, ability, progress and potential. I can use almost any style of music to demonstrate the basic concepts and I know that a student will be much more likely to practice a style that interests them. This is why I don’t use the standard guitar courses such as Mel Bay, Alfred’s or much of the Berklee course, although I sometimes use parts of all those. All I ask of my students is that they try to keep an open mind. They must have faith that what I’m giving them has value not just in terms of learning one particular song but in how that song demonstrates techniques that will be found in many other songs. The best part is that you may discover an artist or style that you really come to like and appreciate.
My wife Kathy spent all her entire career as a public school teacher and one thing I learned from her is the value of problem-solving and especially, unbiased critical thinking, things that are sadly lacking in many aspects of our modern world (witness the presidential election if you doubt this!). Although I encourage and welcome questions from my students I can’t help but wonder if a bit more of those things would have value to a few of them. But I also realize that they are complimenting me when they ask those questions and for that I am grateful.
Peace & good music,