So you’re not Eric Clapton

It’s not about the talent in your family, the size of your hands or whether or not you look like Sheryl Crow. Learning an instrument is about desire and sweat. Period. Eric Clapton started just where you did, holding a guitar and feeling like he had five thumbs.

I hear from a lot of prospective students who say things like “No one else in my family plays … I don’t read music … I’m not sure I have talent … I’m only a beginner …”

Let’s look at each one of those.

No one else in my family plays

No one else in my family makes killer guacamole either – however, put me in a room with a dozen ripe avocados, limes, salt and cilantro and darlin’, I can make your whole family weep with joy.

Musical ability is a learned skill. You don’t leap out of the womb with a guitar. (And how painful would that be for your mother?) Sure, it may help if you heard Grandma plucking out tunes on her banjo while you were growing up but it doesn’t define whether or not you can be a good musician.

I don’t read music

The beauty of playing a guitar and other stringed instruments is that you don’t have to read music. Knowing how to read chord diagrams and tab is helpful, however. Easier too. Instead of translating – let’s see, that’s a D note, where do I find that on the guitar? – chord diagrams and tab show you where to put your fingers. It’s like paint-by-numbers for the fingers.

A chord diagram shows you the top of the fret board and exactly where your fingers go, like reading a map. Tablature has one line for each string. The number tells you what fret. So, if you’re looking at guitar tab and you see the number 2 on the top line, it means you press down the first string on the second fret. (“First string” is the one on the bottom, nearest the floor.) No translation necessary.

Reading music is a good skill to have, don’t get me wrong, but if you just want to sit around the campfire and strum Joni Mitchell tunes or play some licks in a blues jam, a knowledge of chord diagrams and tab is all you need.

I’m not sure I have talent

Talent, schmalent! If you really want to play music and if you practice, you’ll get it. Sure, there’s that rare quality that people like Clapton have but we don’t all make music to produce Grammy award winning albums. (And winning a Grammy’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Don’t get me started.) I’ve had students who at the beginning didn’t even know how to hold the guitar; in the end, they could play “Blackbird.” They really wanted it and they worked for it. Simple.

I’m only a beginner

So you expected to start with Hendrix solos right away? You start learning to drive one day and expect to win the Indy 500 the next day? You can definitely work yourself up to that (if you don’t wind up in a fiery crash). That’s one of the cool things about playing an instrument. If you mess up, no one dies.

And one more thing … okay, three

You need a decent instrument and good instruction materials. A good teacher can help, too. I teach via Skype – contact me. I teach guitar, mandolin, ukulele and songwriting. I’ve played the guitar for 40 years and taught for 10. If you live in Ottawa, Ontario, you can come to my studio.


About jamiebobamie

Musician - teacher - writer - gets bored easily. I write an almost-weekly blog that includes true stories gathered from 20-plus years of touring, how-to articles for musicians and profiles of performers. Also, I love dark chocolate, I can play "Brown Eyed Girl" behind my head, and I twirl the baton badly.
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11 Responses to So you’re not Eric Clapton

  1. Love it. Needed it. Live with a “real” musician whose family is musical, is self-taught, and plays by ear. It’s nice to know that needing a teacher is not heresy. Thanks!

    • jamiebobamie says:

      Glad you enjoyed it.

      Even people who’ve never taken a formal lesson have had teachers – they watch and listen to other players. You can’t learn in a vacuum.

  2. How about running through that guacamole recipe for me!? The “honey” bit is new to me, and am I wrong to use garlic?

    • jamiebobamie says:

      I didn’t mean honey literally. Maybe I should’ve said “darlin'”. 🙂

      I don’t have a recipe for guacamole, I just throw it together and taste it as I go. Here’s how I make a little bit – mash up one ripe avocado (it should be green inside, not brown), squeeze about a half a lime on it, chop up a hunk of fresh cilantro – enough to make at least a couple of tablespoons – and add salt to taste. I’ve put garlic in it before but find that it overpowers the other flavors.

  3. Nancy says:

    Hey, Jamie, I love your post and can witness to it. I took up electric bass at age 42 as my new year’s resolution to learn an instrument in my lifetime. (No musical background or family members, and a lousy sense of pitch) I took my first lesson–with a wonderful teacher–as my 43rd birthday present to myself along the way. I’m celebrating 50 as bass player and songwriter in a band called BACKBONE and we’ve just released our first CD, titled WHO WE WANT TO BE.
    So, one of our mottos is: who do YOU want to be?

  4. Not even God is Eric Clapton! 🙂

  5. buzzamato says:

    Great post! I did not come from a musical family but I had the desire at a very early age. Funny about coming out of the womb with a guitar. I actually said I was born breach cause I was trying to finish a composition! Good advice all the way around. Any age is a good age to learn… I look forward to reading more:)

  6. Holly says:

    Hi Jamie,

    I’m a volunteer at our local shelter because i’m too sick to work full time right now and really wanted to feel a bit usefull again while I try to get better. In said pound i’m a Cat Cuddler. …Really!! I cuddle, snuggle and hug wild kittens, bit fat oldies, furry purries, and also the cats who are just there for holidays. It takes hours to get ’em all cuddled, but I manage 🙂

    Anyway, I made a little clip of what I do there and i’ve put “When Cats Take Over The World” behind it to give it a little more flavour. I love that song so much and I keep singing it to the cats when I go visit them. Since it’s your song, I really wanted to show it to you. I hope you enjoy watching it as i’ve enjoyed making it 🙂

    You can find it here:

    Your music inspires me to write songs 🙂 I think it’s awesome you’re so succesfull with it. Keep singin’/writin’!


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