I’ve been trying to learn to play the guitar now for about two years. For the first year I only worked on acoustic steel-string guitars, figuring that would be best for toughening up my fingertips and for strengthening my fingers. When I finally bought a cheap electric guitar (cheap, but a pretty nice guitar, it’s a Peavey Raptor XP) I was amazed at how much easier it was to play the electric compared to the acoustic.

I had an actual strategy when I started learning guitar. I figured I’d spend the first year learning chords, figuring it couldn’t be that hard to learn the basic guitar chords. Which turned out to be true for the most part, but it also turned out that most of the songs I like don’t actually use the “basic” guitar chords, they use all manner of “seventh,” “augmented,” “ninths” or other weirder things like combinations and inversions. As I started playing I also started watching other guitarists and was dismayed to discover that all of my song books invariably showed the famous “open string chords” where every guitarist on TV is all over the neck on every song.

At the end of a year, I felt like I had pretty good command of the open string chords, and I could do passable backup to a lot of pop and rock songs, but I still felt like a rank amateur and was embarrassed to play in front of true guitarists. So I decided I needed to learn Barre chords, which I figured were the chords that guitarists were playing up and down the neck. So I learned the “F” and “B” barre chords, the two easiest to learn. Then I started trying to play songs using just those chords, but the strain on my wrist and arm was terrific, and with advancing age also comes arthritis and other joint, muscle and tendon problems. I found that I could only play a few songs using nothing but barre chords before my hand and arm cramped up, or tired to the point that I was unable to keep the chords sounding clean.

So I decided to look into finger picking, which is common in folk songs and some pop songs. Jim Croce and John Denver in particular seem to have songs with lots of finger picking backup. I soon discovered that finger-picking is a life-long study itself, with some finger picking based on chords, and other finger picking based on who knows what.

Now approaching two years of guitar playing, I was feeling that not only had I barely begun to master basic chord playing, but that entire branches of rhythm guitar were virtually unexplored. So I decided to finally break down and go take guitar lessons.

Heh. The first thing my teacher told me to do was to learn basic strum patterns. “Strum patterns? You mean you don’t just play the chords in time to the melody?” Nope, you learn to move your right hand up and down in a “one anda two anda three anda four anda one anda …” pattern, where the hand moves down on the numbers and up on the “andas”. And to make interesting rythmic sounds, you have different patterns of actually hitting the strings when you move your hand up and down.

Now this is after two years of trying to master chords and some basic finger-picking. This concept of playing rhythm in this manner was a revelation to me. I came home after the first couple of lessons, and was just doing basic “G” and “C” chords with different rhythm patters from a strumming lesson book, and my wife said “that’s the first time you sounded like you were playing guitar.” Ouch.

So I spent a couple of months learning the strumming patterns, and was actually doing pretty well, I probably advanced further in one area on guitar faster than I had on any other. Pretty soon I was making up my own strumming patterns and feeling like I had turned a corner.

But then that too got a little boring. It’s all background, no melody. So back to the fingerpicking, this time with the guitar teacher helping out. And again it turns out that there are specific patterns for fingerpicking, and learning them can start making the guitar sound pretty cool.

But then I went and played with a friend who has been playing most of his life, and again all that I’ve learned felt like a drop in an ocean.

How can this be so hard? It’s just a stupid guitar, with six strings and made of dead trees. Suddenly I am looking at learning “hammer ons” and “pull offs” and “slides” and “bends” and all manner of mysterious arcana that apparently comes naturally to real musicians.

So here I am now thinking that after two years I am just now beginning to understand what you can actually do with a guitar. Everything I’ve learned up until now feels like reading the forward of a thousand page novel.

I am beginning to realize that I am musically challenged. It’s been a tough realization because I have generally been pretty good at most things I’ve attempted. I foolishly assumed playing guitar would be something like, oh I dunno… typing. I learned to type pretty fast, and within a few months I was in the top ten percent of typists worldwide. Or baseball. I used to be a pretty fair infielder. Or swimming. Or writing… etc…

But somethings not right when it comes to this guitar.

Last night I was watching a John Denver special on our local PBS station. John Denver is no Eric Clapton. But I realized immediately that I wasn’t even close to mastering even the basics of John Denver’s songs. Which really bugged me because I have a John Denver songbook and had “mastered” the songs in the book. But when I tried to play along with John on the TV, I would follow the book’s chords, and move from a basic C to a G for example, but John was all over the blasted neck again! And when my chords were simple strum patterns, John’s fingers were writhing all over the place, and I couldn’t hear well enough to figure out what he was doing. I figure it was some of that “hammer on” or “pull” off or whatever. But I couldn’t match him.

So today I’m sort of bummed out on the whole guitar experience. I’m sure I’ll get over it, I love playing too much to stay bummed out, but at the rate I am “learning” to play guitar, I’ll be crippled by arthritis and mental dysfunction by the time I master anything remotely comparable to the intro riff for Stairway to Heaven…

If anyone has any advice, please feel free to pass it on…