Dear Little Bobby: Frustrated With Guitar Failure

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Dear Little Bobby,

For the last few months I’ve been trying to learn how to play an instrument (guitar). It has mostly felt like a struggle, I still don’t feel like I can play. It feels like failure instead of fun. Can you help me with this?

—Frustrated With Failure


Dear Frustrated With Failure,

Do not feel like a failure, even for a moment. You are doing something brand new. Even after a few months, you are still new to it. I struggled with the guitar for almost 10 years until I started playing piano which taught me some of the things I had still not learned from the guitar. If you are having trouble with guitar, try playing a bass guitar or a horn or anything else new. That can help teach you more about music, which will make playing the other instrument easier. On top of that, get help. Seriously.

Use that part of your brain which destroys methods.

Even though you might not want to, take some lessons, maybe from players you know, maybe even from a professional teacher. I always suggest seeking out a few different teachers. Each person brings their own experience to music, as well as a different approach to the instrument. You may find that you do or do not like the way that they teach, or maybe you do or do not like them as a person. This experience needs to be enjoyable because THAT is the whole point to playing music. Play the songs that you want to play. Look online and/or ask a teacher to help you learn a particular song. It is a goalpost that you can use, not to judge yourself as a success or a failure, but you can use it to track your progress, pure and simple.

What if you choose a song that is too hard for your skill level? Does this mean that you are a failure? Of course not. As long as you are trying, you are being successful by making the effort. I have known people who began training for a marathon and after months of running miles and miles and miles they were unable to run the race. Perhaps they got injured, or were too busy with work/family. These people are not failures. I would not call training for months and running many many miles a “failure.”

Not getting to a particular goal does not equate with “failure.” If it did, then every person who has ever died could be considered a “failure.” Fuck that.

If you REALLY want to play an instrument, then keep at it. Use the part of your brain that learns systems and modalities, like music theory. Take lessons, even just a few. Also use that part of your brain which destroys methods and rebels against how other people do things. Do whatever you want. Bang on it. Slap it. Fight it. Love it. Use your fingers to make love to it, then fuck it. (I hope we all know the difference between making love and fucking.)

The important thing is that you FEEL it and you stop worrying about playing the damn thing. Do not be afraid of failure. We all fail sometimes. If you want to give in to that, then do not even bother trying to learn how to play it because I think you have more important issues to work on. But if you want to succeed at this, or anything, keep trying. Fail. Then get back up, start over and keep finding ways to enjoy it—even in the most difficult, early uphill stages which are most difficult.

—Little Bobby Tucker
“Ziggy played for time, jiving us that we were voodoo.” —David Bowie, “Ziggy Stardust” 1972

Email your questions about music lessons/failure/side jobs/sex/careers and anything else vexing your creative brain to Little Bobby:

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  1. Wow. A person has been trying to play an instrument for a FEW MONTHS and doesn’t yet feel that he/she has succeeded? If you talk to pretty much any musician, they’re going to tell you that they still don’t feel like they have mastered their instrument, no matter how many years they have been playing.

    There is a famous story about the cellist Pablo Casals, in which he was asked, at age 81, why he was still practicing so many hours per day. He replied, “Because I think I am making progress.”

    People have come to want everything to happen instantly. Learning an instrument is just not like that. And yes, you should definitely study with a professional teacher! You will save yourself an incredible amount of frustration.

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