Learning Guitar: Evolution of Resources Since the 1960s

Learning Guitar: Evolution of Resources Since the 1960s

By: Brian Turner


When I was a baby, technology was too. Watching The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show on TV was the spark that ignited my life-long love for the guitar. Shortly after that, my parents bought a console record player from a department store called Woolworths. They called it HI-FI meaning high fidelity which was the newest technology. I was certainly impressed. Someone in our family bought the album Meet The Beatles which was their first American release. I played that record over and over. I couldn’t wait to get off of the bus from school. I’d run in the house and go directly to our Hi FI set and put the album on. We also collected a few 45 records, and also an album of Alvin and the Chipmunks singing Beatles’ songs. To this day, every time I hear P.S. I love you I hear Alvin singing it in my head.

So, when I began playing guitar in 1968, technology and I, were both very young. There were only 3 ways to hear music: AM radio, the record player, and TV. The radio was usually a small transistor. The record player played the 33-Lps (long playings), and the small 45-records. The 33-Lps usually had about 15 minutes of music on each side; while 45s had two songs, one on each side. The department stores usually had a bin with an assortment of records. Occasionally a small record store would open that had a bigger variety. Music on TV was limited. We had shows such as The Ed Sullivan Show and The Smothers Brothers Show that had music for young people occasionally. We had Hee Haw, and The Grand Ole Opry TV shows that played Country and Western Music. Lawrence Welk played traditional music that appealed to older people. Saturday morning cartoons played classical and jazz occasionally in an attempt to expose children to the classics.

Guitars for beginners were usually purchased at the local department stores such as Woolworths, Grants, Whites and Sears. They usually had two or three acoustic guitars, and one or two banjos to choose from. Sears, which was the biggest department store, had the Silvertone brand that was popular, and not bad guitars.

There were only a few music stores in Houston at that time. The closest music store to me was H&H Music in downtown Houston. The local drug store sold picks and strings. There was only one brand of strings called Black Diamond. They were very thick, but that was the only choice. To tune the guitar you could buy a tuning fork that gave you the A note when you strike it against your elbow. You tuned the A string to the note and tuned the other strings to that string by ear.

The most popular method book was the Mel Bay Modern Method, which only taught traditional folk songs. However, with the rise of rock-n-roll, the kids wanted to play the songs that they heard on the radio, but the written music for popular songs was very limited. You could find sheet music for some popular songs, but they were arranged for piano, with just guitar chord diagrams stamped above the notes, so you could only strum the chords. On top of that, the chords were very simplistic and the voicings were usually incorrect. Also, because they were trying to accommodate pianists, they changed the original keys. This caused much confusion for young guitarists attempting to learn songs that were originally written on guitar, such as most of the Beatles songs. Guitarist usually resorted to learning the songs playing by ear. We would sit beside our record player, with guitar in hand, trying to move the needle of the stylus bit by bit to learn our favorite songs. Hence I ruined many records by scratching them, but I got better eventually.

As rock music became more and more popular among young people, the songs started becoming longer, and bands began to get away from the two-minute song format. They would have extended versions that, in some cases, lasted as much as 15 minutes (i.e., In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida). FM radio came on the scene to accommodate this music: the music of the young hippies.

Around 1969, the eight-track cartridge came on the scene. So, for the first time, you could choose what to play in a car. You could listen to your favorite bands, over and over, without having to hear commercials or stuff that didn’t appeal to you. However, they were useless for a guitarist trying to learn songs since you could not rewind them. You had to listen to ten minutes of music before you got back to the song you wanted to work on. Also, quite frequently, when trying to pull an eight-track tape out of the player it would get hung on the heads of the machine, and tape would go everywhere. When sharing this article with me friend, Eric, he pointed out that people would throw the 8 tracks out the window of their cars when the tape started going haywire. Not long afterward, people started noticing birds were using the tape to build nests. The eight-track went the way of the dinosaur, and I don’t miss them. I’d rather see the dinosaur come back.

Not long afterward, the eight-track was replaced by the small cassette tape. This was a major breakthrough for the ‘play by ear guitarists’, because we had the ability to rewind the tape piece by piece. However, the Life expectancy of a cassette wasn’t very long. They would develop squeaks, and drag.

Sources to learn to play guitar were very limited in my neighborhood in East Houston so, as soon as I was able to get a job, and drive downtown, I started taking guitar lessons. With the growing interest in guitar among the kids, more publishers began competing with Mel Bay, publishing songs and instruction material in traditional notation arranged for guitar. Several guitar magazines sprung up with songs arranged for the guitarist. Some of the most notable were Guitar Player, Guitar for the Practicing Musician, Flatpicking Guitar, and Guitar World. Not only were they arranged for guitar, but they were written in tablature notation, which is easy to read, so guitarists that couldn’t read traditional notation, could learn their favorite songs, note for note. These magazines started popping up at music stores, news stands, and book stores. Serious guitar students would subscribe to them and have them delivered to their doors monthly. I subscribed and collected so many, I eventually had to discard some because they were taking over my garage.

Accessories improved also. Strings of every size and gauge imaginable: heavy, light, extra light, heavy top, light bottom, on and on. The electronic tuner came on the scene. I bought my first one in 1979. It was the size of a loaf of bread, and it cost $440 then. Now you can buy one that fits in the palm of your hand for $20. Or, you can get a free tuning app on your phone.  A tuner is a big advantage since it saves a lot of time spent tuning. Simply tuning the guitar was not so simple for beginners before the electronic tuner arrived.

So, technology and I have grown together. When the digital age came along, bringing the fabulous CD, I was already a guitar teacher. Now my students were able to learn from a CD, and rewind them, just like I did with the cassettes, but much faster, and without messing them up so fast. Also, many guitar method books include ‘play along CDs’. This has been a major step for the guitar students. Now, they can have the music in front of them and play along with the CD. In addition, many of the CDs have a slow version along with the normal tempo.

Moreover, we have the best inventions since the electric guitar: the computer and the Internet. When I got my first computer and printer, a friend told me there were tabs (tablature notation) for thousands of songs on the internet and they were free. I was so excited that I stayed up all night printing out songs. However, after reviewing the tabs, I noticed many were inaccurate. They were the individual’s interpretations, and most were done by amateurs. Some were better than others. Then, web sites on every guitar subject under the sun sprang up. I was like a kid in a candy mall. So much candy! Where do I start? What I didn’t know was that tons of new kinds of candy were coming…

Then we got music software for the guitarist such as Band in a Box by PG Music. With this program you could do many things. You can type in the chords you want in a song, and you can select a style (such as jazz or rock), and you can select the tempo (or speed). And you select what instruments you want in the band such as bass or drums. Hit a button and you have a band in a box to practice with! This is great for practicing. Another great program is The Amazing Slow Downer. With this software you can vary the tempo; you can isolate, and loop small pieces of songs you wish to work on, and you can alter the pitch, if your guitar is not tuned to the song. Streaming services such as Apple Music (replacing Itunes) are great tools. With Apple Music you can type in the name of a song and you may get a hundred or more recordings of versions by different artists. You can sample a segment and buy the one you like. This is great because you don’t have to buy a complete CD when you only want one song.

Another major breakthrough is Youtube. With Youtube you can see your favorite artist performing the songs you love, and you can find people showing you your favorite riffs. You can also slow the video down in settings.

Written materials have progressed also. Mel Bay, the author of The Mel Bay Modern Method, who started selling his book to music stores out of the trunk of his car, traveling from town to town, has passed away. His son Bill Bay has taken over, and today they are the leading supplier of guitar books, with hundreds of titles to choose from. And The Mel Bay Modern Method is still sold.

When I began teaching guitar in 1977 I would use The Mel Bay Modern Method to teach students to read music. There were a few supplemental books available that taught scales and chords. There was also some classical music arranged for classical guitar. I had to create all other materials in hand writing. In the early 80s I would go to the local print shop and Xerox (make copies of) my hand written work sheets. This was expensive, so I printed the most important sheets only. When the computer and printer came on the scene in the 90s, I was able to buy music notation software. This allowed me to create sheet music, matching the quality of professional publishers. Today I just create my own method books in the comfort of my home.

Recording has become easier also. In the 70s recording was expensive. You had to hire a studio, paying by the hour. It wasn’t cost effective for the average Joe. With the improvements in technology, you can now record using software and accessories in the comfort of your home. Now I can publish quality products at an affordable price without leaving my house.

As a guitar instructor, a major asset to me is that, with my software, my computer will play back the music I write. This brings a lot of conveniences. First, I can hear how my written music sounds, and check the accuracy of what I have transcribed. I can vary the tempo also. I post worksheets on my web site where students can access them with their device. They are also available to the public at guitarlessonsbybrian.com

Nowadays, if I decide to learn a song, I can chose a recording from Apple Music, export it into The Amazing Slow Downer so I can slow it down, and take it apart piece by piece while looking at the sheet music in standard notation or tablature. And, I can also see how it’s done on Youtube. How is that for progress? We’ve come a long way baby!

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