I couldn’t have a Metal Guitar Week without telling you about my own attempts to become an axeman (axewoman). Be warned – this is a tale of determination, woe, disappointment, and very relieved flatmates!
Ever since I discovered metal at the beginning of high school, I’ve struggled against a strong desire to learn to play the guitar. When I listened to my favourite songs (at that time, mostly Metallica songs), the riffs were what grabbed me and made me want to be a musician – something I’d never really wanted before.
Unfortunately, I was born with zero natural talent for music. In fact, if there is such a thing as negative talent, that is what I have. A musical friend on mine once commented, “I though tone deaf was a physical impossibility until I heard Steff sing.” Our school’s theatre director was going to cast me as a lead in the play my first year auditioning, until he heard my completely flat version of “Somewhere over the rainbow” in a key no one could recognise.
Now, I’m a firm believer in always pursuing your interest, no matter what obstacles life may throw your way. I wasn’t going to let a little musical incompetence get in the way of my shredding dreams. Unfortunately, during my first few years of high school I was a little busy being a friendless reject, and in my last too years I was busy kissing boys behind the music suite to bother much with what was going on inside. When I started university and started hanging around with my musician boyfriend that the learn guitar bug bit me again.
I convinced my boyfriend to give me a few lessons, and even brought myself a gorgeous green acoustic. I lived in a hostel so I couldn’t use an electric. I learned a few chords and basically spent ten minutes a day playing them in various combinations with no sense of timing or tune whatsoever. It was difficult pinning down my man for a lesson, and my uni schedule got in the way of regular practising, and my beautiful guitar lay in the corner, gathering dust.
In my third year of uni, I have broken up with the boyfriend, and go out with my friends to see local metal bands Final Eve, Warbeast and Trial by Fire. That show – especially the set from Warbeast – renewed my interest in learning the guitar and being part of the local metal “scene”.
I decided to get serious about learning metal guitar. I brought an old Strat and amp off a friend and put up a notice on the local metal discussion forum asking for a music teacher.
Two dudes answered, but since one, Jordan, was the guitarist of Warbeast, I went down to his place the next week and got my very first actual guitar lesson.
He taught me about modes and scales, about playing in time, about alternate picking, hammer ons and pull-offs, and about finding the perfect pair of PVC pants. And he was an absolutely sweetheart with a love of metal. And I didn’t mind that he was kinda hot, too. (Hi Jordan!)
I got home and plugged in my amp for the first time, eager to practice what I’d learned. Unfortunately, when I plugged in said amp, I didn’t realise it was turned up to eleven (yes, this particular model had a knob that went to eleven). Our house shook with stadium level distortion as sent my flatmates running. I grabbed the thing and brought it down to a more acceptable level, and started playing away.
Just when I thought I was making some progress, my flatmate (an accompliest flautist and cellist) knocked on the door.
“What are you playing?” she asked, eyeing my little amp with disdain.
“Breaking the Law …”
“Oh …” she slowly backed out of the room.
I chalked up her reaction to hating metal, but in truth, I was just appallingly bad.
I took lessons every week for about a year, during which time I changed flats (much to musical flatmate’s relief!) and got minutely better. My picking got faster and I could actually, when prompted, play along to a metronome. Opeth played in NZ and Jordan started teaching me “Demon of the Fall” and I fell in love with the guitar tone of melodic death metal.
I looked forward to guitar lessons every week, partly because Jordan’s flat was always full of crazy people. One time I arrived to find the entire place covered in newspapers, upon which piles of mushrooms (yes, those kind of mushrooms) were drying, and I was given some amazing soup that made practice very, very interesting.
I finished uni and had to go away on an archaeology job for a month, and then to Greece for five weeks, so we stopped lessons for the year. While I was away I realised that I was probably never going to get better, and I had other projects to get on with, so I stopped taking lessons. I still pick up the guitar from time to time, but my husband normally puts his fingers in his ears until I’m done.
The important lesson here is that you should never tell yourself you “can’t” do something until you’ve given it a good, honest go. After a year of playing the guitar I still couldn’t see myself improving any time soon, so I decided to leave music to the musical people and concentrate on what I was good at – writing.
Even though I sucked, playing guitar taught me a lot. For one thing, I learned to appreciate the complexity and skill required to play metal on a whole different level. I began to dissect riffs and enjoy them on a more technical level. I also learned the importance of good practice habits when trying to learn a good skill and how important it is to motivate yourself to pursue activities you enjoy at home.
And, most important, I learned that playing an instrument is fun. That’s why I still play music – the keyboard and the whistle – and seek out lessons every once in awhile, even though I still profoundly suck at both of them. I don’t play for anyone else – only myself, and it’s great.
What’s your “learning guitar” story?
Steff Metal – in association with GuitarMasterClass – are giving away SIX memberships to the GMC guitar forum. To enter, simply leave a comment on any of the Metal Guitar Week articles – the more comments you leave, the more chances you have to win!