Opinion: The Joy of Being a Hack Guitarist

January 14th, 2014

This story is from GuitarWorld.com.

By William Baeck

Question: How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

Answer: Turn left on 8th, right on 57th.

That’s correct, it ain’t necessarily practice.

The fact is most of us aren’t ever going to perform on a major concert stage, even after lots of study. I’ve played guitar for a very long time, but I can still walk into almost any Guitar Center and hear a young teen who not only plays better than I do but better than I ever will. It’s not just training, it’s also talent. They have it. I don’t.

But that’s OK, because what I learned during all those years of not sounding as good as them is that while I may never match their ability, what I can do as well as any six-string superstar is enjoy playing the guitar.

And this is the secret of the hack guitarist: Being happy is as worthy a goal as being good.

I know they’ll never put it in the “How to Play Like…” column of a music magazine, but along with a “difficulty” level, there really ought to be a “fun” level. I once took a class from Keola Beamer, the master Hawaiian slack key guitarist. The most important thing he taught me that day was that if I wasn’t smiling, I wasn’t playing Hawaiian music right. Once I got that, my playing—at least of slack key—improved. By playing happier, I played better I suppose, but it was the happiness that mattered, not the skill level.

Unfortunately, a big smile won’t get you on the cover of Guitar World—unless you’re one of the ladies of the 2014 Buyers’ Guide (and unfortunately, I’m not as gifted as them either).

Still, I sometimes think being a hack and playing for an audience of one has the Claptons of the world beat, because unlike them, I can play purely for my own happiness.

So to all the beginners, bedroom guitarists and couch noodlers out there—go ahead and embrace what makes being average special. Meanwhile, I invite you stellar musicians to give it a try sometime too. Search out your inner-hack. Maybe you’ve been spending too much time practicing the pieces that impress, which frankly, is what we guitarists too often focus on (Again, I refer you to 2 p.m. Saturday at Guitar Center).

Instead, take a break and find the pieces that are just plain fun to play. It might be banging out loud punky chords, or sliding a bottleneck up to the top frets for some easy bluesy sounds; but whatever that lick is, it’s as basic as a kiss and nearly as enjoyable.

So to the 15-year-old guitar-store virtuoso: Take a moment and learn what a 50-year-old hack can teach you—for the next few minutes don’t worry about technique, equipment or notes per second.

Just turn that amp around, point it at your face, and play what makes you smile.

William Baeck is a writer, photographer and hack guitarist living in London. You can check out his webpage at williambaeck.com and reach him on Facebook and Twitter.

  • Simon Black

    Not everyone has the time or the drive to master guitar. But the idea that those folks who are exceptional players got that way because of natural talent is a cop out, and it makes people feel better who are unwilling to practice properly and deliberately.

    Practicing, when done to achieve mastery, is gut wrenching and brain busting hard work, and must be done for hours daily. It’s not palatable for most people. And they should just probably listen to the author’s advice about playing and practicing for fun rather than for excellence. Not everyone is willing to sweat blood to become an amazing player.

    It’s pretty easy (and comforting) to assume that great young players in guitar stores got their chops because of innate talent rather than long hours of hard work. It’s probably not true, but we all feel better when we think that. The alternative is to think that we just don’t want to work that hard and put in the same kind of effort. And who wants to think that? It’s feels a lot better to just tell ourselves that people with more skill than us have a natural advantage, rather than that they put more effort into it, and practiced more effectively. It’s the road less traveled, and it’s the real reason why so few people are masters.

  • Allan L. Branson, Ph.D.

    Bottom line play because you enjoy playing, not to compete…play what you feel….copying notes lick for lick might be impressive but finding your own muse is better. Al DiMeola is fast, Knopfler is soulful…find you, play as much as you want, when you want and as intense as you want, there is no deadline…you have your whole life

  • Brian Chambers

    Have fun practicing, the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Oscar Peterson was criticized in his early career for his flawless technique that some felt was a substitute for “soul”, but his reply was that eventually he would have the chops to play anything he could think of. This meant if you play only one note, it’ll be in exactly the right place at the right time.
    Sure, it’s hard, sure it’s boring sometimes … What isn’t? There’s no way around it, so make it fun.