Cassidy is a great acoustic piece released on Bob Weir’s 1972 solo album Ace. It contains a lot of interesting bits and pieces, as it’s a tribute to Neal Cassady, who was buddies with Jack Kerouac, both members of the Beat Generation and artists of words, albeit more spoken than written. They let others do the writing and their use of the English language is loose and slippery and to me reflects the style of the time. Wildly imaginative and reflective of the Acid tests, open-mindedness and psychedelia that was popular around the Bay area where they dwelled around this time.
Cassidy is a beautiful acoustic number written by the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir with poetic lyrics complements of the incredible JP Barlow, who Weir wrote many songs with, as Jerry Garcia similarly paired up with Robert Hunter to write many of the Dead’s more notable and famous songs.
By John Perry Barlow with Bob Weir
Recorded on Ace (Warner Brothers, 1972)
Cora, Wyoming February, 1972
I have seen where the wolf has slept by the silver stream.
I can tell by the mark he left you were in his dream.
Ah, child of countless trees.
Ah, child of boundless seas.
What you are, what you’re meant to be
Speaks his name, though you were born to me,
Born to me,
Lost now on the country miles in his Cadillac.
I can tell by the way you smile he’s rolling back.
Come wash the nighttime clean,
Come grow this scorched ground green,
Blow the horn, tap the tambourine
Close the gap of the dark years in between
You and me,
Quick beats in an icy heart.
Catch-colt draws a coffin cart.
There he goes now, here she starts:
Hear her cry.
Flight of the seabirds, scattered like lost words
Wheel to the storm and fly.
Faring thee well now.
Let your life proceed by its own design.
Nothing to tell now.
Let the words be yours, I’m done with mine.
An explanation by John Perry Barlow:
This is a song about necessary dualities: dying & being born, men & women, speaking & being silent, devastation & growth, desolation & hope.
It is also about a Cassady and a Cassidy, Neal Cassady and Cassidy Law.
(The title could be spelled either way as far as I’m concerned, but I think it’s officially stamped with the latter. Which is appropriate since I believe the copyright was registered by the latter’s mother, Eileen Law.)
The first of these was the ineffable, inimitable, indefatigable Holy Goof Hisself, Neal Cassady, aka Dean Moriarty, Hart Kennedy, Houlihan, and The Best Mind of Allen Ginsberg’s generation.
Neal Cassady, for those whose education has been so classical or so trivial or so timid as to omit him, was the Avatar of American Hipness. Born on the road and springing full-blown from a fleabag on Denver’s Larimer Street, he met the hitch-hiking Jack Kerouac there in the late 40’s and set him, and, through him, millions of others, permanently free.
Neal came from the oral tradition. The writing he left to others with more time and attention span, but from his vast reserves flowed the high-octane juice which gassed up the Beat Generation for eight years of Eisenhower and a thousand days of Camelot until it, like so many other things, ground to a bewildered halt in Dallas.
Kerouac retreated to Long Island, where he took up Budweiser, the National Review, and the adipose cynicism of too many thwarted revolutionaries. Neal just caught the next bus out.
This turned out to be the psychedelic nose-cone of the 60’s, a rolling cornucopia of technicolor weirdness named Further. With Ken Kesey raving from the roof and Neal at the wheel, Further roamed America from 1964 to 1966, infecting our national control delusion with a chronic and holy lunacy to which it may yet succumb.
From Further tumbled the Acid Tests, the Grateful Dead, Human Be-Ins, the Haight-Ashbury, and, as America tried to suppress the infection by popularizing it into cheap folly, The Summer of Love, and Woodstock.
I, meanwhile, had been initiated into the Mysteries within the sober ashrams of Timothy Leary’s East Coast, from which distance the Prankster’s psychedelic psircuses seemed, well, a bit psacreligious. Bobby Weir, whom I’d known since prep school, kept me somewhat current on his riotous doings with the Pranksters et al, but I tended to dismiss on ideological grounds what little of this madness he could squeeze through a telephone.
So, purist that I was, I didn’t actually meet Neal Cassady until 1967, by which time Further was already rusticating behind Kesey’s barn in Oregon and the Grateful Dead had collectively beached itself in a magnificently broke-down Victorian palace at 710 Ashbury Street, two blocks up the hill from what was by then, according to Time Magazine, the axis mundi of American popular culture. The real party was pretty much over by the time I arrived.
But Cassady, the Most Amazing Man I Ever Met, was still very much Happening. Holding court in 710’s tiny kitchen, he would carry on five different conversations at once and still devote one conversational channel to discourse with absent persons and another to such sound effects as disintegrating ring gears or exploding crania. To log into one of these conversations, despite their multiplicity, was like trying to take a sip from a fire hose.
He filled his few and momentary lapses in flow with the most random numbers ever generated by man or computer or, more often, with his low signature laugh, a *heh, heh, heh, heh* which sounded like an engine being spun furiously by an over-enthusiastic starter motor.
As far as I could tell he never slept. He tossed back green hearts of Mexican dexedrina by the shot-sized bottle, grinned, cackled, and jammed on into the night. Despite such behavior, he seemed, at 41, a paragon of robust health. With a face out of a recruiting poster (leaving aside a certain glint in the eyes) and a torso, usually raw, by Michelangelo, he didn’t even seem quite mortal. Though he would shortly demonstrate himself to be so.
Neal and Bobby were perfectly contrapuntal. As Cassady rattled incessantly, Bobby had fallen mostly mute, stilled perhaps by macrobiotics, perhaps a less than passing grade in the Acid Tests, or, more likely, some combination of every strange thing which had caused him to start thinking much faster than anyone could talk. I don’t have many focussed memories from the Summer of 1967, but in every mental image I retain of Neal, Bobby’s pale, expressionless face hovers as well.
Their proximity owed partly to Weir’s diet. Each meal required hours of methodical effort. First, a variety of semi-edibles had to be reduced over low heat to a brown, gelatinous consistency. Then each bite of this preparation had to be chewed no less than 40 times. I believe there was some ceremonial reason for this, though maybe he just needed time to get used to the taste before swallowing.
This all took place in the kitchen where, as I say, Cassady was also usually taking place. So there would be Neal, a fountain of language, issuing forth clouds of agitated, migratory words. And across the table, Bobby, his jaw working no less vigorously, producing instead a profound, unalterable silence. Neal talked. Bobby chewed. And listened.
So would pass the day. I remember a couple of nights when they set up another joint routine in the music room upstairs. The front room of the second floor had once been a library and was now the location of a stereo and a huge collection of communally-abused records.
It was also, at this time, Bobby’s home. He had set up camp on a pestilential brown couch in the middle of the room, at the end of which he kept a paper bag containing most of his worldly possessions.
Everyone had gone to bed or passed out or fled into the night. In the absence of other ears to perplex and dazzle, Neal went to the music room, covered his own with headphones, put on some be-bop, and became it, dancing and doodley-oooping a Capella to a track I couldn’t hear. While so engaged, he juggled the 36 oz. machinist’s hammer which had become his trademark. The articulated jerky of his upper body ran monsoons of sweat and the hammer became a lethal blur floating in the air before him.
While the God’s Amphetamine Cowboy spun, juggled and yelped joyous *doo-WOP’s,: Weir lay on his couch in the foreground, perfectly still, open eyes staring at the ceiling. There was something about the fixity of Bobby’s gaze which seemed to indicate a fury of cognitive processing to match Neal’s performance. It was as though Bobby were imagining him and going rigid with the effort involved in projecting such a tangible and kinetic image.
I also have a vague recollection of driving someplace in San Francisco with Neal and a amazingly lascivious redhead, but the combination of drugs and terror at his driving style has fuzzed this memory into a dreamish haze. I remember that the car was a large convertible, possibly a Cadillac, made in America at a time we still made cars of genuine steel but that its bulk didn’t seem like armor enough against a world coming at me so fast and close.
Nevertheless, I recall taking comfort in the notion that to have lived so long this way Cassady was probably invulnerable and that, if that were so, I was also within the aura of his mysterious protection.
Turned out I was wrong about that. About five months later, four days short of his 42nd birthday, he was found dead next to a railroad track outside San Miguel D’Allende, Mexico. He wandered out there in an altered state and died of exposure in the high desert night. Exposure seemed right. He had lived an exposed life. By then, it was beginning to feel like we all had.
In necessary dualities, there are only protagonists. The other protagonist of this song is Cassidy Law, who is now, in the summer of 1990, a beautiful and self-possessed young woman of 20.
When I first met her, she was less than a month old. She had just entered the world on the Rucka Rucka Ranch, a dust-pit of a one-horse ranch in the Nicasio Valley of West Marin which Bobby inhabited along with a variable cast of real characters.
These included Cassidy’s mother Eileen, a good woman who was then and is still the patron saint of the Deadheads, the wolf-like Rex Jackson, a Pendleton cowboy turned Grateful Dead roadie in whose memory the Grateful Dead’s Rex Foundation is named, Frankie Weir, Bobby’s ol’ lady and the subject of the song Sugar Magnolia, Sonny Heard, a Pendleton bad ol’ boy who was also a GD roadie, and several others I can’t recall.
There was also a hammer-headed Appaloosa stud, a vile goat, and miscellaneous barnyard fowl which included a peacock so psychotic and aggressive that they had to keep a 2 x 4 next to the front door to ward off his attacks on folks leaving the house. In a rural sort of way, it was a pretty tough neighborhood. The herd of horses across the road actually became rabid and had to be destroyed.
It was an appropriate place to enter the 70’s, a time of bleak exile for most former flower children. The Grateful Dead had been part of a general Diaspora from the Haight as soon as the Summer of Love festered into the Winter of Our Bad Craziness. They had been strewn like jetsam across the further reaches of Marin County and were now digging in to see what would happen next.
The prognosis wasn’t so great. 1968 had given us, in addition to Cassady’s death, the Chicago Riots and the election of Richard Nixon. 1969 had been, as Ken Kesey called it, *the year of the downer,: which described not only a new cultural preference for stupid pills but also the sort of year which could mete out Manson, Chappaquiddick, and Altamont in less than 6 weeks.
I was at loose ends myself. I’d written a novel, on the strength of whose first half Farrar, Straus, & Giroux had given me a healthy advance with which I was to write the second half. Instead, I took the money and went to India, returning seven months later a completely different guy. I spent the first 8 months of 1970 living in New York City and wrestling the damned thing to an ill-fitting conclusion, before tossing the results over a transom at Farrar, Straus, buying a new motorcycle to replace the one I’d just run into a stationary car at 85 mph, and heading to California.
It was a journey straight out of Easy Rider. I had a no-necked barbarian in a Dodge Super Bee try to run me off the road in New Jersey (for about 20 high speed miles) and was served, in my own Wyoming, a raw, skinned-out lamb’s head with eyes still in it. I can still hear the dark laughter that chased me out of that restaurant.
Thus, by the time I got to the Rucka Rucka, I was in the right raw mood for the place. I remember two bright things glistening against this dreary backdrop. One was Eileen holding her beautiful baby girl, a catch-colt (as we used to call foals born out of pedigree) of Rex Jackson’s.
And there were the chords which Bobby had strung together the night she was born, music which eventually be joined with these words to make the song Cassidy. He played them for me. Crouched on the bare boards of the kitchen floor in the late afternoon sun, he whanged out chords that rang like the bells of hell.
And rang in my head for the next two years, during which time I quit New York and, to my great surprise, became a rancher in Wyoming, thus beginning my own rural exile.
In 1972, Bobby decided he wanted to make the solo album which became Ace. When he entered the studio in early February, he brought an odd lot of material, most of it germinative. We had spent some of January in my isolated Wyoming cabin working on songs but I don’t believe we’d actually finished anything. I’d come up with some lyrics (for Looks Like Rain and most of Black-Hearted Wind). He worked out the full musical structure for Cassidy, but I still hadn’t written any words for it.
Most of our time was passed drinking Wild Turkey, speculating grandly, and fighting both a series of magnificent blizzards and the house ghost (or whatever it was) which took particular delight in devilling both Weir and his Malamute dog.
(I went in one morning to wake Bobby and was astonished when he reared out of bed wearing what appeared to be black-face. He looked ready to burst into Sewanee River. Turned out the ghost had been at him. He’d placed at 3 AM call to the Shoshone shaman Rolling Thunder, who’d advised him that a quick and dirty ghost repellant was charcoal on the face. So he’d burned an entire box of Ohio Blue Tips and applied the results.)
I was still wrestling with the angel of Cassidy when he went back to California to start recording basic tracks. I knew some of what it was about…the connection with Cassidy Law’s birth was too direct to ignore…but the rest of it evaded me. I told him that I’d join him in the studio and write it there.
Then my father began to die. He went into the hospital in Salt Lake City and I stayed on the ranch feeding cows and keeping the feed trails open with an ancient Allis-Chalmers bulldozer. The snow was three and a half feet deep on the level and blown into concrete castles around the haystacks.
Bobby was anxious for me to join him in California, but between the hardest winter in ten years and my father’s diminishing future, I couldn’t see how I was going to do it. I told him I’d try to complete the unfinished songs, Cassidy among them, at a distance.
On the 18th of February, I was told that my father’s demise was imminent and that I would have to get to Salt Lake. Before I could get away, however, I would have to plow snow from enough stackyards to feed the herd for however long I might be gone. I fired up the bulldozer in a dawn so cold it seemed the air might break. I spent a long day in a cloud of whirling ice crystals, hypnotized by the steady 2600 rpm howl of its engine, and, sometime in the afternoon, the repeating chords of Cassidy.
I thought a lot about my father and what we were and had been to one another. I thought about delicately balanced dance of necessary dualities. And for some reason, I started thinking about Neal, four years dead and still charging around America on the hot wheels of legend.
Somewhere in there, the words to Cassidy arrived, complete and intact. I just found myself singing the song as though I’d known it for years.
I clanked back to my cabin in the gathering dusk. Alan Trist, an old friend of Bob Hunter’s and a new friend of mine, was visiting. He’d been waiting for me there all day. Anxious to depart, I sent him out to nail wind-chinking on the horse barn while I typed up these words and packed. By nightfall, another great storm had arrived. We set out for Salt Lake in it, hoping to arrive there in time to close, one last time, the dark years between me and my father.
Grateful Dead songs are alive. Like other living things, they grow and metamorphose over time. Their music changes a little every time they’re played. The words, avidly interpreted and reinterpreted by generations of Deadheads, become accretions of meaning and cultural flavor rather than static assertions of intent. By now, the Deadheads have written this song to a greater extent than I ever did.
The context changes and thus, everything in it. What Cassidy meant to an audience, many of whom had actually known Neal personally, is quite different from what it means to an audience which has largely never heard of the guy.
Some things don’t change. People die. Others get born to take their place. Storms cover the land with trouble. And then, always, the sun breaks through again.
I don’t post much about my daughter where it can be seen publicly a lot. That’s for her protection and privacy reasons, mostly. I have thousands of photos and hours of video of her safely stored from before her birth through a few hours ago, but try to keep it archived for my own use. I don’t trust the internet enough to put photos of my child everywhere and write about her endlessly online because I just don’t trust the general public or even certain people enough.
But I have to brag about her and give her credit when it’s due. She’s about to turn four years old in July, and the past four years with her have really been a blur. I look at photos of me holding her as a newborn little worm and can’t believe it’s the same creature crawling all over me talking and running amok and laughing and playing in front of me now.
She’s so much more than I or any parent could ever ask for in a child. She’s so smart and well-tempered and creative and funny and thoughtful and on and on and on. It’s amazing. I don’t have a lot of experience being around many small children other than what I see in public and what random “family” has brought around over the years. When compared to them I have to believe I hit the jackpot. She’s simply a dream come true.
Cecelia never has temper tantrums or is fussy. She’s logical and respectful and has manners and I can’t even remember the last time she cried about something. She’s curious about everything and finds creative solutions to solve problems, rather than rely on me to help her with everything. She’d rather try herself first and prove she’s a “big girl” than have me do everything.
She’s willing to try all types of food and trusts me to not give her anything I don’t think she’d like. If she doesn’t like it, that’s fine; I’m not going to force her to eat something she doesn’t like. But she will actually at least try it first. She’s trustful of me, which means a lot. I value that trust and protect it. It’s why I don’t lie to her about Santa Claus, only to prove I was lying to her the whole time later in life. I believe in mutual respect and trust, and it’s working out very well for us.
I just can’t say enough good things about Cecelia. She’s mature, and thoughtful and considerate. She worries about me eating enough when I’m worried about feeding her. She worries about me getting enough sleep, even though she hates going to sleep. She’d rather play until she drops, which is a trait she, unfortunately, got from me, I believe. She’s also very patient, most of the time, which isn’t a trait I had when I was young.
She has an eye for detail and can pick things out from a mile like a hawk. It’s uncanny. She remembers things that I forget, which could speak to my poor memory, but I prefer to believe it speaks more to her uncanny memory. She knows where we left some little item weeks ago. She’s a great sidekick and helper. She really wants to help and can help, which is amazing considering her age. She’s brave and willing to take risks, and trusts me to allow her to take them and protect her from a disastrous failure when I’m around. I’m always by her side ready to save her and she knows it. It’s a reason I’ve watched her balance and coordination improve so much on the playground and she’s becoming a pretty good little athlete. We went and played soccer on a real field today and she picked it up like it was second nature. She kicked the ball all the way down the field into the goal, which was something to behold for such a little person.
She declared today that her professional goal is to be a ballerina doctor. (That is, a medical doctor who performs ballet, not a doctor that performs medicine on ballerinas.) But I believe she’ll have many options available to her when the time comes.
My introduction to guitar was around age 12 or 13 when I won a classical Yamaha guitar from a radio promotion I’d entered. I remember my mother driving me to the radio station to pick it up and then me sitting on my bed in my bedroom wondering what in the world to do with it. Little beknownst to me, or my parents, a classical guitar isn’t what most tweens aspire to play and is quite different from a steel string acoustic guitar most people are familiar with. It has thick nylon strings on a much wider neck, which isn’t suitable for kid’s hands, and produced a plunky sound most people probably associate with Flamenco, or Andres Segovia if that cultured. I was determined to learn it, so my mother signed me up for guitar lessons with a man named Mr. Foley who lived in the next neighborhood, and was around 95 years old and I remember really liked to suck on his dentures and make a distinctly froglike sound. I remember sitting in his bedroom with him and his acoustic guitar, while his wife cooked supper in the kitchen next to the bedroom, strangely, and him writing out musical notes on special musical papers while trying to teach me such popular hits with the teens such as “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore.” I stuck that out longer than anyone should have thanks to my mother being determined not to waste the entire $50 or so she spent on the ten lessons we’d signed up for. I immediately hated the guitar.
I pawned that guitar as soon as I was old enough to do so, but was eventually struck with the desire to learn to play again, hitting my teen years and realizing boys that played guitars attracted pretty girls. I failed to realize the important part, which was that the boys had to play with some proficiency. That was the untold trick. In any case, I managed to get my hands on a steel string guitar, which I probably begged my mother for until blue in the face, and in return, received a bottom of the barrel, piece of junk guitar that sounded awful, even for the 1 second it stayed in tune, and I’m not sure if it ever was put in tune, since tuning it requires at the minimum, a note to tune it to and some knowledge of doing it. Back then, tuning forks were the norm, not even electronic tuners, which can be bought for a few dollars today.
That guitar was also a flop, needless to say. Thinking the problem was that I was thinking acoustic, which was out of style even to Bob Dylan at that time, I soon got my hands on an electric guitar, bought for a small sum from the local pawn shop that I had become acquainted with. Not in the best part of town either, thinking back on it.
I actually managed to learn some chords on that guitar, which I don’t remember the make of, but still have the Crate amp I bought to go with it. I remember the strings getting very rusty very quickly, not surprising considering our proximity to the Atlantic Ocean where everything rusts within minutes. But not having the inclination to or budget to change my strings each week, I eventually sold that guitar for money to buy a surfboard, which was a much more used and enjoyed item during my teen years. Also, I bought a black Fender Squier Bullet electric guitar for about $100, which was the going rate back then for one at an actual music shop, which I graduated to.
I learned more and more on that and even landed a Fender acoustic guitar, which I hated. It was a piece of junk, but I didn’t really know it since I didn’t know much about guitars at the time. It was never properly set up, and the action was terrible, and it didn’t stay in tune, and just wasn’t a quality instrument in any way. I often bought Guitar Player magazines and learned to read tab, and learned to exchange riffs and scanty musical knowledge with friends, but it was still a frustrating experience. And remained so for a long time. I taught myself to play lots of Beatles tunes and riffs from magazines that had tablature. And so it went for a long time. I eventually sold all my guitars and was without one until I received an all-maple Ibanez dreadnaught for a birthday present my sophomore year in college. And I played and had that for a very, very long time until it was broken by a pack of 8 crazy puppies I was looking after who knocked it off its stand and broke the headstock beyond feasible repair. I still have it, however, nested in its case.
I could go on from there about every guitar I’ve owned, but I’ll fast-forward to present day because this post is about “learning to play guitar” not “Michael’s uninteresting collection of guitars over his life.” But hopefully it shows some dedication to the instrument and what a lot of people I think go through before deciding to either part ways with the notion of ever learning to play it, or actually becoming proficient with it, which I believe anyone can do, if they really want to. Especially with the resources available these days, which are light-years ahead of anything imaginable when I was a kid. And what I intend to discuss here.
You don’t need to learn how to read sheet music to play guitar. I’d argue few guitarists actually can, and those that do know it came from a piano or keyboard background before learning the guitar. The guitar is considered a keyboard instrument, and if you hold it the right way you can see why. Your fretting fingers are akin to the string lengths on a piano and your right hand provides the keystrokes, while the body of the guitar acts similar to the construction of a piano. I took a course in college that was “Physics in the Arts” which was sone of the most interesting classes I took. In it, I learned how instruments and sound work, as well as our ears and brains, to process the sounds, and my “thesis” project was demonstrating how guitars produce sound and work, complete with a demonstration of putting sand on a soundboard of a guitar and playing it to the class to watch how it creates different patterns from the vibrations.
But one activity that pays dividends, and is pretty easy, is to learn tablature. Tablature is the visual representation of the guitar fretboard with keys as to where to place your left-hand fingers(or whichever hand you use for fretting) and which fingers to use for plucking, or upward or downward strokes. It also uses some more involved graphics to illustrate bends, slides, pull-ons and offs, harmonics, and other subtle fret-hand techniques you should know. It’s easy to pick up and read, relative to sheet music, however. There are lots and lots of websites and apps that use tablature extensively, which I’ll list below in the TOOLS section.
The biggest help in the last 20+ years has been the adoption of the internet to help people learn to play the guitar. Youtube itself must have millions of videos and billions of hours dedicated to it alone. Guitar manufacturers like Fender have made lessons available to complement their guitar sales. And above all else, there are tons of free videos by people who just like to teach others that have spent no small amount of their own time producing some incredibly-high-quality videos to do just that.
A word of caution: with so much material and so many videos, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with material that isn’t helpful and isn’t structured in a way that’s optimal for a beginner, or anyone, to just jump in and start learning. I’ve spent hours watching (mostly) guys that have thrown up (almost literally) videos that aim to teach you something about becoming proficient playing the guitar. Don’t just jump in.
Finding someone online that teaches songs and artists that you enjoy listening to certainly helps. As I mentioned above, when I began and was forced to learn “Twinkle Twinkle” instead of James Talyor or Jimmy Buffet, I became immediately discouraged. While it’s important to have material you can at least tolerate, I urge you to view learning as something more important than ONLY learning the songs you like. The goal is to play guitar, any artist or song, not just a couple of favorites. It won’t take you long to learn that many of your favorites are composed by using just 3 or so chords, and after you perfect those, you’re on your way.
Two people I’ve found that teach better than anyone else, are on YouTube. The Stitch Method, based in Sarasota, Florida, USA and Paul Davids, from the Netherlands.
Ian Stitch caught my eye because he teaches a lot of the material I love: The Grateful Dead, The Allman Brothers, and others, and really digs down deep in some of their most amazing works. He teaches the theory, which I believe is important. Learning the chords and scales is vital- don’t get me wrong- but the theory and how it all works together is equally important at a near point to learning the basics. Otherwise, you’ll plateau and become disinterested, if not frustrated. I’ve been there. Many times. I’m writing this all out to save you the years I learned by trial and error.
Paul Davids caught my eye because, well, he’s eye-catching. His videos are top-shelf in terms of production value, and every other type of value you can think of. He’s a top-notch educator, knows what he’s teaching backwards and forwards and presents it as if he works for Pixar. His videos are entertaining, well-done, and I can’t say enough good things about them. Everything is meticulous, which is one of the reasons I think I like them, even his hipster appearance is military-level. He’s kind of a perfectionist, as am I.
Fender has done an exceptional job with onboarding people to guitars with their lessons. It’s a marketing initiative called Fender Play. This is a great example of how marketing guitars well can help a business, help an art form, help people create, and generate interest in their products while genuinely teaching people how to play their instruments. It’s a situation where everyone wins.
As mentioned above, videos are a great visual and auditory way to learn. Most internet formats are even interactive so that you can chat and interact with the teachers one on one, in fact, for free. They’ll hold AMA (ask me anything)sessions that can be useful when you hit a snag.
But above that, you can watch your favorite players play their songs and dissect how they’re doing it. If you’re interested in traditional players like Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Dickey Betts, Johnny Marr, or whomever, there is goldmine after goldmine of them playing live where you can watch, pause, rewind and study just how they’re doing it. And if you’re into non-traditional players like the guys on Radiohead, there is still a treasure trove of videos where you can see how they create their sounds and get inside their heads and learn about the gear they use.
This is a video by the awesome and humble Alex Lifeson of Rush teaching how to play the songs he’s helped write, for example:
Or Johnny Marr playing “This Charming Man:”
Or this incredible video which is a talk with Ed O’Brien from Radiohead discussing his approach to playing guitar and his experience. It’s an amazing look into the backstory, and a non-traditional guitarist who’s become a master of his art:
The fact is, if you don’t play consistently and diligently, you’ll never get better. That’s just a fact. With anything. The best players do nothing but play and have spent days locked up in hotel rooms and elsewhere just playing and studying and teaching and learning. Fortunately, practicing the guitar isn’t as hard as, say practicing football or tennis where you need a lot of space and equipment.
The tricks I’ve found to practice – to MAKE yourself practice, even when you don’t feel like it – is to have your instrument available as much as possible. If you work at a desk all day and can do it, keep your guitar right next to you so when you need to take a quick break from work, you can reach over and play a little guitar. It’s great for bouncing between brain hemispheres, if you do a lot of quant work, I’ve found and can take you to another place, even if momentarily, so you can dive back into work refreshed.
Something else that helps immensely, which I’ll discuss next, is keeping your equipment in tip-top shape. It’s no fun to want to play/practice and realize you only have 4 strings because you didn’t feel like replacing that string you broke. Or your strings are dead or even rusty because you don’t keep them fresh and clean. Even trying to keep your guitar in tune at all times is a good idea. It should always be in tune when you play, but it’s just a nice favor to do your future self to tune it up when you can.
Learning open-ended chords, then barre chords, then scales and how they create those chords is the usual way to learn. And it works. But make sure you’re learning the right thing. I learned lots of scales but never how they fit together or formed chords, so I had to go back and un-learn everything ad re-learn it correctly. Music theory is important as well. If you’re serious about being good at playing, I’d advise learning theory as you go and applying it to what you’re learning. And learn to listen to music differently. Pick out the guitar parts and really listen to what’s going on.
Learn to play in-time. There are metronome apps and backing tracks to help with this if you don’t have an actual metronome. But you have to be able to play in a groove or else you’re playing it wrong. Tapping your foot may look goofy to some people but there’s a good reason musicians do it.
Having a guitar you like is essential to learning to play one. I say that as someone who, as discussed in great length above, spent most of his life with the wrong ones. It’s exasperating. They don’t stay in tune, and no matter HOW good you are, you will never sound any good on an out-of-tune guitar. And even when in-tune, it’s not really fulfilling to play on one that just doesn’t sound good. No deep lows or bass you can feel in your chest. No mids at all. O high treble notes that don’t ring and sound tinny or buzzy or just hurt your ears. No good.
There are resources online and apps on your phone these days that do nothing but help pair you up with the right instrument. Price wise, size-wise, intonation-wise, and every other way. Use them. But also be realistic about what a good instrument might cost. While you don’t need a gold-top Les Paul or Taylor Grand Pacific to learn on, I’d plan on getting a guitar you not only can learn on, but will grow into for the intermediate times and beyond. You may find yourself learning pretty fast and wanting to upgrade faster than later. Just be sure to take very, very good care of your instrument, because they aren’t toys. A nice guitar was (mostly these days) handmade and inspected by professionals to provide a consistent, beautiful experience, to the ear, eye, and hand.
There are some pretty good acoustic guitars that can be found these days for $300-$500. $750 can get you a nice used one and $1000 will get you a very nice one indeed, used or new. Keeping it in a hard case is a good idea, and if you live in a humid or dry area, keeping a close eye on the humidity level is another good idea. You don’t want to be taking it from a very humid environment to a very dry one suddenly because it will damage it, no question. Keep your strings clean and wipe them down before and after playing, or even during if you’re really putting in some intense time.
Finger-Ease is a spray and wipe-on product I and many guitarists use for strings, despite the toilet-humor giggles the name often provides. I use Elixir strings because they live a lot longer than others. Keeping the fretboard clean and free from oil and dirt is essential. If you buy a used, or even a new guitar, having it set up by a professional luthier is a good idea. Most mid-size cities will have a couple. Be sure to vet them and know that they have a lot of experience. I use Bill Barney here in Louisville, and I have another guy I haven’t used but plan to in the future since I have the need. Frets become worn with use, and I recently had an electric pickup system installed in a Talyor 414 acoustic. Not a job for an amateur. Even though I’m great with my hands and a very competent woodworker with endless tools available, I resist the urge to work on my guitars myself because they are such delicate, precision, finely-tuned and made pieces of playable art. And I’ve learned the hard way grabbing a wrench and screwdriver and going to town on the truss rod and electronics or tuners of a guitar is the best way to ruin one. Again, the reason I’m writing this is that I’ve done the try-and-fail method so you don’t have to.
Having a travel or parlor-sized guitar to take on the road with you is also a good idea if you can swing it. Camping, or going on trips where you know you’ll have some downtime in the hotel room are great times to get some practice in. You can find nice travel guitars on Facebook Marketplace, eBay, Craigslist, Reverb, and elsewhere. They don’t really pass for the real thing in my experience, and a cheap travel guitar is asking for frustration. Get one of the better travel guitars, like Taylor’s Babys, Martin’s weird shaped travel thing, or one of the other better guitars. Expect to spend about $300-$400 for a new one, and a little less for a used one. Buying a used one with some cosmetic blemishes at a discount is no big deal since they tend to get banged up anyway. Just make sure it hasn’t had a real serious bang-up and has structural damage or is on the edge of falling apart or has been damaged and poorly repaired. I’d personally steer clear of one that’s been repaired at all at this price range since the cost to repair it usually would outweigh the cost of a new one, so it’s probably been done by a novice, rather than a qualified luthier.
I played acoustic guitar exclusively for a loooong time. I love woodworking and can appreciate the work that goes into making a guitar. And I like the organic sounds and simplicity that an acoustic guitar provides. I’ve always liked the sounds stringed instruments make like violins and cellos, and even woodwinds, over brass and percussion. I like the earthiness over the screeching spit-valve blurts, I guess. Personal preference, of course.
Some essential tools for changing strings is a soft piece of leather or cloth, some little wire clippers and a guitar string winder, with a built-in pin puller. The link I just provided is a three in one that goes for less than eight dollars.
Learn to change your strings properly. There’s little worse than excitedly putting new strings on a guitar, working your way up to the high b and e strings, and popping one, without a backup. The reason strings break usually is because there is something up at the nut where the string crosses to be wound that isn’t smooth. Keep the grooves that the strings rest in smooth, and even lubricated if necessary. Check the bridge at the saddle to make sure there’s nothing that might cause a string unnecessary wear down there as well. Then, when changing your strings, make sure you don’t crease them and be sure to insert them into the post and wind them correctly. Here’s a video that shows how. It’s simple but the devil is in the details.
Keep your guitar in tune. You can be the best guitarist in the world but if your instrument is out of tune, you’ll never sound any good. It can’t be overstated. A good guitar should stay in tune but getting it there and making sure it stays there is easy. If you have a good ear you can learn to tune it by ear and by using harmonics and as long as one string is in tune, you can tune the rest around it. But a cheap electronic tuner can save the day and you should have one.
Recently I bought some electric guitars for a diversion. I got a Les Paul, and two Telecasters. Two of my acoustic guitars have pickups installed, a Taylor 414 and a 1977 Guild Bluegrass Jubilee but that doesn’t make them electric guitars, of course. I don’t play gigs or in front of audiences, so I don’t need a lot of equipment, thankfully. I recall going to a friend’s apartment in college who played, and still plays, in a regionally popular band in the South, and nearly every square foot of his place was black boxes housing musical equipment. It was a maze to navigate.
I have a Yamaha THR10C which I’ve written about before on this website and is a great little personal amp. It’s just loud enough, with no buzz or hum, and emulates tube amps perfectly via technology, to use a vague term. It has a built in tuner, 5 memory buttons you can set your favorite settings to, and the ability to play using a number of vintage tube amps within a small box, with carrying case. It recreates the sounds of those amps perfectly and impressively. And if that wasn’t enough, there’s a USB port that lets you pull up an interface to fine tune everything, with about 20 or so preset effects already built in and about 20 more spots where you can save your own. It’s really easy to use. Ports for headphones, an Aux jack for your phone to play along with backing tracks or music, and it even looks cool. My only very minor complaint is that Yamaha decided to put the settings indicators in a dark-colored typeface, on a dark background, so it’s nearly impossible to see where or what you’re doing in dim light. The knobs themselves are clearly marked, but what they point to is invisible. A good reason the THR Editor app is useful.
Another piece of equipment that’s useful is a looper. You can make backing tracks to play along with and entire compositions if you’re clever enough. I have a Boss RC-30, which is great, although I’d admit has a steep learning curve. But there are looping apps you can find on your smartphone and online.
When you begin to get into electric guitar playing, I’m seeing that there’s a rabbit hole to easily go down, which is labeled pedal effects. There are hundreds, if not thousands of pedals out there, and used in conjunction with one another, can absorb a lot of your time. Same with MIDI tinkering. This is where a musician who’s a gearhead is in heaven. There’s no end to the equipment you can try out to get that gnarly sound you’re after. Hopefully, your recording deal gave you a large advance to buy it, because you can also spend a fortune. And you have a lot of time, because this is where you never knew music could get so complicated and complex.
Two things I know about really well at this point in my life are marketing and guitars. And one of the hardest jobs there is must be marketing guitars. At least, marketing them successfully, which means increasing ROI, sustaining (if not growing)margins, decreasing costs, maintaining if not improving the target market segments’ perceptions about them, and the rest of the duties product managers, marketing managers and directors, VP’s and the other roles tasked with the job have.
But guitars are similar to motorcycles, or at least some makes of them such as Harley Davidsons, certain high-profile custom bikes and a small list of other brands like Triumph, Indian, and others that have gone in and out of business due to the challenges I mention here. The main problems are saturation, limited room for product innovation, and being chained to cyclical and fickle target markets that come and go with generational tastes, fads, cultural trends and external forces such as media involvement, since a lot of what compels people (a lot of males for both, coincidentally) is the whole “image” owning and using guitars and motorcycles conveys. Or, at least what their perception is of what they convey to others, mostly fawning ladies that like guys with motorcycles and who play guitar, which is a study left to another time. Machismo is connected to motorcycle ownership, and no small number of guitars have been sold in hopes of being the next teen idol on a stage with an army of attractive roadies backstage waiting to spend time with the next Peter Frampton. Even though I’m sure studies will reveal the results are far from what someone would consider successful.
Back to marketing the things though, particularly guitars. Acoustic guitars have been around for approximately 370 years in modern form. Since 200BC if you want to consider the lute a type of guitar. Electric guitars have been around less time, understandably, for ~90 years. The number of manufacturers has been in the hundreds, if not thousands, with only a few remaining, and even fewer remaining profitable. Most makers have been absorbed by corporations, mainly buying the badge and reissuing cheaper models made in Mexico or other cheap labor markets. Some makers have used technology to make instruments at a lesser cost, by using laser cutters and robots. I’ve seen new guitars as cheap as $20 made in China, that are playable.
The big names in the space worth discussing are Gibson, Fender, and Taylor. There are a lot of other brands, like Guild, Paul Reed Smith and Washburn, but they are owned by Gibson and Fender and large corporations, and not really independent luthiers of magnitude. That’s not to say there aren’t a lot of worthy brands to consider – there are – but they aren’t giant global guitar shops. Recording King is a small batch shop, which I own an instrument from, in fact. And small boutique luthiers exist all across the world and make incredible instruments. But they are specialty makers and command large commissions. They aren’t the people I’m talking about having to market either.
Taylor is an interesting case study because they’ve been around since the 1970s, in California, still headed up by Bob Taylor. Thanks to a reemergence in acoustic music in the 1990s with Dave Matthews, Jason Mraz, John Mayer, et al., Taylor saw a surge in popularity and expanded their operations considerably, as they also began manufacturing instruments in Mexico and cutting costs while increasing margins by increasing their lines and prices. Rather dramatically in some cases. The US made models that use exotic woods can be near $10,000 apiece these days. Most domestic acoustics hover in the $3,000-6,000 range and aren’t for the average plinker.
There are a few ways they stay competitive that should be noted. Some are very good and some are sort of weak, but I’m sure they are still effective or else they wouldn’t be employed. (The tactics, that is, not the people.) Incidentally, Fender has caught onto some of their strategies and has done a great job themselves of keeping themselves relevant through technology. Specifically, their app, YouTube presence and lessons they offer, focusing on the new player.
Taylor sends out a Wood and Wire magazine to people that own their instruments, which is a high-end publication as far as marketing materials go. Taylor also has an app that has the usual tuner, metronome(in FourTrack), videos, and a way to store information about your Taylor guitars, but they also have come up with an innovative service called TaylorSense™.
TaylorSense is a trademarked ability to remotely and electronically monitor everything about your instrument to keep it in top condition. Specifically, humidity, temperature, battery life and impact(when it’s dropped, not how hard you’re shredding). Taylor owners typically take very good care of their guitars, and they should considering they cost more than a lot of people’s cars. Humidity control is very important for wooden instruments, there’s no denying, but most guitar owners aren’t likely to be able to have a humidor for their guitars or the technology to keep instruments at a desired humidity and temperature.
You have to have a guitar that has the sensors installed, of course. And that means….buying a new guitar! Why not!? A built-in hygrometer is a must! These features actually are useful for the gigging musician, who are putting their guitars in the back of hot cars, vans, and airplanes and carting them across hill and dale. Having your guitar in Charleston, SC for a week and then toting it suddenly to Sedona, AZ, for example, isn’t a good idea.
Fender introduces new models all the time. And a lot of the time they’re “new” just like the old ones. A reissue of 1950’s Les Pauls for example. A gold top! New flaming! There’s not a whole lot to jump and down about unless you have lots of money and collect the things, in my opinion. And even then, it’s dubious to me. Taylor does the same thing, a twist here and there to the cosmetics, a new bracing that “redefines” guitar playing, using a “new,” limited stock of wood, or whatever. But there have been few real breakthroughs when it comes to creating an awesome guitar, either electric or acoustic. Mostly gimmickry and marketing hype. Which is still effective. I have to believe the big guys have MBA types that can run tests and validate the effectiveness of the strategies, rather than just winging it like a lot of businesses do, incredibly.
If you look on Facebook Marketplace, eBay, Craigslist, Reverb, or a gazillion other places where there’s a used guitar marketplace (and new guitars as well) it’s easy to see there’s no shortage of guitars in the world. Just like motorcycles. Nice ones, too. So, how does a company get people to shell out $1000+ for a new guitar?
A friend of mine from New Zealand wrote a stunning guide on how to choose an electric guitar. It’s free and you can find it with that link provided. I coincidentally bought an old Suzuki acoustic guitar whilst trekking through New Zealand at a bookstore for $20. It kept me busy many nights at hostels and camps while moving around the islands. I still have it hanging right here on my wall, in fact, around 25 years later.
My Suzuki guitar I brought back with me from NZ.
My offset Limited Edition Fender Telecaster
Another effective tactic is to grow your target market. Women and guitars haven’t traditionally been one in the same, save for but a few creative, explorative, adventurous types. And of course in guitar advertising, with half-naked women draped over guitars, or holding one without even pretending to know a single chord. How they fit in playing guitar is an interesting topic in itself. However, there is a recent noticeable surge in interest by women and acoustic guitar ownership, which is successfully being seized by manufacturers, if not helped greatly by guitar marketers.
If you join some of the many guitar-related groups on Facebook, you’ll notice how many fantastic ladies post videos of themselves playing, and singing, pieces they’ve learned or even written. It’s impressive. I’d argue women should be able to equal if not surpass men with acoustic guitar proficiency. I base that on the fact they’re generally better with small tactile tasks with their fingers. They can do fast, accurate motions better than thick-fingered gorillas men can, like sewing, embroidery, knitting and lock-picking. Just kidding about that last one; I have no idea. But it makes sense. They are no less creative when it comes to writing music, and often are more naturally adept at converting passion and feelings into works of art. Music itself has lots of mathematic undertones to it, which is one of the few reasons that may deter females. I’m not saying that to be masochistic – it’s just a natural fact, which some people refuse to believe despite evidence as long as humans have existed to the contrary. It’s why women are having to be coaxed, unsuccessfully I might add, into engineering and computer programming fields, as well as mathematics and other highly quantitative areas.
When scouting out marketing tactics for this piece, I noticed Fender marketers decided to take the safe route and inject an androgynous female with a man’s haircut, but with tattoos and rings and edgy clothing with their acoustic and electric models on display. It’s as visually neutral as possible.
Although you can, and should use effects pedals and loopers with acoustics, they generally are gear for electrics. And this type of gear that men can spend a fortune of money on as women can shoes, and days playing around with, is just something that doesn’t interest the softer sex. It’s like guys like remote controls and lots of knobs on things, and women want it simple and “just done.”
My effects pedals and looper
I don’t seem to notice more women adopting electric guitar ownership, which is also understandable for the above-mentioned reasons. Electric guitars don’t offer the natural, soft, organic tones and typically the same level of visual artistry as acoustics do, with their exotic woods and finishes. Electrics are made from driftwood and anything you can think of as well, sure, but they just don’t add up to acoustic instruments in terms of sheer beauty. The electronics, huge fingerguards, tremolos, knobs, and other onboard instrumentation detract from the luthier’s work on an acoustic. Some don’t, like Taylor’s electrics, but generally, they’re night and day visually. The pricing on visually beautiful electrics also set them in another league in terms of price from the everyday Stratocaster/Telecaster/Les Paul type guitars. You’re looking at several thousand dollars just to get an entry-level Taylor. You can get an arguably decent, yet totally average-looking and constructed electric for a few hundred.
My Red Telecaster
Something guitar marketers are smartly doing is making guitar ownership something personal, and something that is enjoyed on a level that is enjoyed as a passionate hobby for self-improvement and recreation. That’s opposed to years past when guitars were bought to become the next rock-god, usually even just in the owner’s mind.
The evolution of electric guitar ownership typically goes: air-guitar to tennis racquet to Harmony garage-sale acoustic to Squier Strat to used bottom-level Les Paul or Mexican Made Telecaster to new Strat, Tele or Les Paul, to collecting dozens of vintage collectible Les Pauls, Strats, Teles to collecting all sorts of exotic, weird, vintage makes.
Rock and roll music was what kept people, mostly teenage boys and middle-aged men, buying axes from pawn shops and lusting after shiny new ones. But over the past decade or two, rock and roll has taken a backseat to hip-hop and more electronic music, instead of wannabe Stevie Ray Vaughns. Cultural trends have had an impact on the industry which has been brutal.
These guys talk about Fender and Paul Reed Smith and dicuss the topic, and they know their stuff:
Instead of receiving long, related “strings” of ideas, organized or synthesized for us, we are increasingly exposed to short, modular blips of information–ads, commands, theories, shreds of news, truncated bits and blobs that refuse to fit neatly into our pre-existing mental files. The new imagery resists classification, partly because it often falls outside our old conceptual categories, but also because it comes in packages that are too oddly shaped, transient, and disconnected.