A martial arts approach to learning blues guitar! We have all heard the fable of the kung fu student who looked the greatest master to learn from, who was turned away constantly until finally being accepted, only to find that he was asked to repeat basically easy moves for many months. I once knew a karate master and was surprised to see him practicing a single strike again and again. ‘After 50 years,’ he remarked, ‘it’s still not quite right!’ There is a big truth in this story that can be used in almost everything we want to achieve in life, which includes acoustic guitar lessons. The two important things to note are these – spend a long time finding a good teacher, and never think that you don’t need to keep perfecting very basic techniques.
The Chinese observe that several years doing nothing but looking for the right instructor is time well spent. Which are the characteristics to look for in an effective blues guitar teacher? Foremost, he should be able to play in the authentic way, which demands an understanding of the blues music that extends far beyond the fundamental skills required to perform it. It’s no use to a student guitarist if the teacher is trying to show off his talents – it should be apparent that he is technically able – he’s the instructor! However, we need to be careful here. I have listened to guitarist at the best skill level and been completely bored after several minutes. Playing the blues isn’t just a mechanical movement, although many hours of insistent practice is needed to become proficient. It won’t matter how well someone performs if he doesn’t have that subtle ‘something’, that emotion or feeling that makes the music talk to us.
This property of playing makes us believe in what we are hearing. The most complicated and accomplished blues guitar tabs can’t instruct or describe this quality, as it comes from the heart of a man. It’s a property that is manifest in the most simple techniques, and the power of some fundamental blues standards is testimony to this fact. Lightnin’ Hopkins could play a rhythmic bass line which could give you goose bumps, but technically it was the easiest thing imaginable. It was similar to a heart beat and it spoke directly to the soul of a man. If it’s that simple, then we can all do it – correct? Wrong! This is a little bit of of a mystery, why two guitarists can pluck the same strings in the same rhythm and can deliver a completely different impression. One guy you believe, and the other you don’t.