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  • Writer's pictureKirby Lee Davis

How I learned to play the guitar

Updated: Apr 15, 2021

And now for something completely different – a reader’s request!

An overseas friend asked if I might teach him how to strum the guitar. I couldn’t, for with my high data costs and budget limitations, I do not participate in many online meetings, and I doubt I could add anything of value to the plentiful instructional videos already on the web. But since he asked, I offered to explain my guitar play in a blog, which he promised to read. So here we go!

I started pondering this as the last century came to a close. After enduring some mishaps by accompanists and sound engineers while I led a few church services, I figured it might help if I could play a portable instrument that didn’t require an amplifier. The guitar seemed the perfect answer… a way to provide that one-man-band experience. That task might also fill a void in my life created by my 1997 divorce.

It took a few years to get started. Ideas began to jell as I volunteered my services at Life Covenant Church (later to become Life Church.TV and Life.Church) when that Oklahoma City congregation opened its first building. I got to observe their musicians and study modern worship presentation. A separate jolt forward came when one of my employer's rare company parties turned into a karaoke fest, with the mike landing in my hands. The pleasure this brought reminded me of my guitar dreams.

As 2003 came to a close, I learned of a 90-day course for beginners about to take off at a local vocational school. Its timing and location sounded ideal, so I signed up. That required an instrument, so I picked out a guitar that felt right to me – a Takamine acoustic/electric dreadnaught (that term “dreadnaught,” taken from century-old naval terminology popular when this model-type launched, refers to acoustic guitars with larger than normal bodies, which in theory provide a deeper, richer sound). At $450, that Takamine far exceeded what was generally recommended for beginners, who often do not finish what they start. It also taxed my budget a bit. But I saw that quality as something to aspire to… something I would recognize every time I held that guitar in my hands. I figured this investment would improve not just my sound, but how I looked while making that sound, which is not a matter of vanity, but of being taken seriously by my audience… starting with my dad.

My father discouraged this endeavor, saying I had no idea how much work it took to master the guitar. He reminded me that I was getting old – 43 at that time – and too far along to forge such skills, especially under a job that left little free time for learning and practice. But I saw myself as 43 years young, and stubborn. Having studied music most of my life, I knew just how challenging any instrument could be.

For our class textbook, the teacher (a music professor at Oklahoma City University) used the Hal Leonard Guitar Method Book 1. While there are many other options available, I can recommend this inexpensive training book not just from my experience, but because I appreciate its logical approach (a good accompaniment is the book Guitar For Dummies). Having already played the piano, clarinet, cornet, and a few other instruments (none with great skill), I understood how to read traditional music notation. Hal Leonard Guitar Method uses this instead of guitar tablature (a method often used by guitar players, displaying fingering positioning instead of musical notes).

Ironically, that’s one reason why a few of my fellow students took this course. While they already knew how to play guitar, they wanted to learn music notation!

Book 1 offers simple instruction on how to hold and tune a guitar. It introduces students to notation symbols, terms, and individual notes in what’s called the first position (the hand placement at the top of the guitar neck, beside the tuning pegs/knobs). Players learn eight notes through simple exercises (often well-known song excerpts) that help users focus on timing and sound quality while getting comfortable with holding and playing the instrument. The book also proceeds into first-position chords – C, G, G7, D, D7, A7, Em – with instruction on strumming and picking.

Now that may not sound like much, but with those first-position options, players may tackle most popular (and even unpopular) songs… which is one of the beautiful aspects of playing the guitar. Even marginal players (like me) can sound good!

Our class advanced through those eight notes, covering one a week. That slow pace helped students deal with the true challenges would-be guitarists face:

• To adopt a schedule of patient daily practice.

• To develop the fingertip callouses necessary for effective play.

• To master fingering skills, learning by instinct how to reach individual notes and apply just the right pressure to get your desired sounds.

This underscores the hardest aspects of tackling the guitar, especially in adulthood. Our complex, deadline-oriented culture rarely grants us time enough to accomplish what we wish or need to do, and yet to succeed at the guitar, a beginner must make time for effective daily practice – which includes putting up with and working through all the repetition, the frequent disappointments or setbacks, the questions and doubts this generates, the peeling skin and painful callouses. That’s another reason why I started with that quality instrument: the investment served as an incentive to not give up.

Our instructor recommended students practice at least 30 minutes a day, but I found an hour necessary, along with patience to put up with the frustrations of those callouses and my poor skills. I continued those hour-long practices for more than 10 years, even when traveling.

When this class ended, my instructor provided me weekly lessons at night, after my newspaper deadlines. But I soon found this hands-on instruction didn’t suit my goals. I had no desire to play lead guitar, just rhythm and chords, for if you recall, I sought to learn this portable instrument to accompany my singing. Also, I lack the hand-eye coordination necessary for quality finger picking or mastering other hand positions along the neck. I found the first position suited my vocal range, and adding a capo addressed nearly all other needs.

On top of all that, my eyesight was getting worse, which impacted my playing and focus. Here’s a fun example of that. I use sheet music when performing, for it helps me recover when distractions make me stumble and lose my place. I started printing my own sheet music – lyrics with chord notations above key words – in 12-point type. I now use 24 point, and I’m thinking of enlarging it!

Understanding my singing intentions, my instructor offered to help me grasp individual songs, with hundreds of arrangements for me to choose from. We started down this road, but having turned daily practice into a habit, I soon discovered I could learn my chosen songs on my own. I found plentiful books to supply my desired sheet music, along with many downloadable versions on the web. Thus my six months of training came to an end, and I started adding experimentation and arranging to my daily practice, practice, practice routine.

Believe it or not, I gave my first public performance as part of that class, delivering a horrible version of Love Story to a friendly audience of fellow students and their families. If only I could have sung that instead struggling through an instrumental.

About two months later I entertained my fellow Journal Record employees in an outdoor July luncheon along the streets of downtown Oklahoma City. That required my first amplifier investment -- a stereo Roland that I loved, and wore out. I think everything went well, for I was asked to do it again the following year. Some bystanders stopped and listened from time to time at both events, which was encouraging, and our staff photographer, a drummer in an established band, gave me a hearty complement, which truly boosted my spirits.

In November 2005 I moved to Tulsa to launch our newspaper’s first bureau office, so my performance history took a break until 2010, when to participate in our company’s annual United Way campaigns, I offered to do a benefit concert at the Tulsa Press Club. That’s when things got serious, for few people there knew I had any musical aspirations or abilities.

A courtesy photo of me at the Tulsa Press Club. By this time I played a beautiful Taylor 614 ce!

I got the ball rolling by emailing 200+ friends, sources, and contacts a satirical press release announcing the event, complete with “quotes” from our editor and publisher on how they hoped my horrible play would not repulse and sicken our readers. A frequent contributor immediately asked if this was real, starting a viral email avalanche that entertained everyone more than the press release. That curiosity snowball resulted in a packed Press Club. I provided an hour-long set of covers, followed by an hour of requests that ended in a standing ovation – one I attribute not to my touch, but my scream to close out Won’t Get Fooled Again. We also generated more than $450 in contributions to the United Way, validating the effort!

The Press Club soon asked me back to support a construction tour of the hotel going into that building’s upper floors. It happened on a busy news day that required I finish four articles (one needing an afternoon update) before opening the 4:30 p.m. performance, with my publisher in the front seat. I ended up playing almost four hours – two hours longer than the tour – to a packed room. I think many people liked that one more than the first concert, for I talked more and threw in some Monty Python and Dr. Demento tunes.

Other offers followed, but I turned most of them down, for my employer didn’t want me distracted, and neither did I. Nonetheless, I ended up playing five other concerts over the next few years, most benefitting the Tulsa Area United Way. In the midst of this I started writing my own songs, which is a tale for another time.

With these performances naturally came some disappointments. I discovered that I didn’t do well if I couldn’t clearly hear myself, which happened when the venue didn’t want my music louder than the crowd noise. I also found my father didn’t care for my play, to the point where he’d walk out if he saw me unpacking my guitar. While those were family, not public, performances, it discouraged me nonetheless, as did my own analysis of what I sounded like in my recordings. I tried many things to get my sound where I wanted it, but rarely succeeded.

Another Press Club shot, this one from my stationary camera.

When The Journal Record closed its Tulsa Bureau in 2015, letting me go in the process, I took a break from public appearances, though not the guitar. I’ve written many tunes since then, with most featured elsewhere on this website, and I’m contemplating my next performance, virus or no virus. For I have yet to use my guitar in public worship, and I have many worship songs to share!


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