Off-Topic: From C to Shining C


As I continue down the path of guitar proficiency, I still reflect heavily on that one fateful day over 20 years ago when my dad tried to teach me how to play. He sat me down with his full-sized acoustic, and asked me to play a C chord until I got a feel for it. On that day, I never did get that feel. Instead, I felt the pain of the strings slicing through my fingers, the pain of my hands contorting in an awkward manner, and the pain of my childhood dreams being crushed by the presumed reality that I’d never be good enough. Until Steff gave me the Rocksmith guitar bundle last year as a Christmas present, I hadn’t picked up a guitar in earnest since.

In the last few months, I’ve overcome the once insurmountable psychological hump I created for myself back then and am enjoying the instrument with the limited skills I currently have. I definitely see myself continuing to work at it from this day forward. However, I can’t help but think about how I could have grasped the concept of guitar playing back then had certain things been handled differently.

I’ve shared this story with my coworker Zach, who happens to be an avid guitar player, and he said I should have started out on a kids-sized one with softer strings for maximum comfort. While this is a valid point, I don’t blame my dad for using what he had as a litmus test. Most instruments aren’t cheap, and it wouldn’t have been a good use of family funds if I just immediately dropped it.

My point of contention was the chord he tried to teach me first. The C chord is not an easy chord to start out with, as it requires three of your fingers to be spread widely along the fretboard and along different strings. As a kid on a full-sized guitar, I was at an even bigger disadvantage, as I was stretching beyond my means. Instead of hearing a clean C chord, all I heard was noise.

As someone with a deep interest in video games, I’m very mindful of learning curves. I think the best learning curves are immediately rewarding, yet encourage you to continue gradually advancing your skills until you’ve reached the top level of mastery. With guitar playing, that logic still holds true. I think that had I achieved something that was immediately rewarding to me at that moment, the likelihood of sticking with it would have gone up dramatically. Instead, I failed on step 1, which made me believe that everything after that was leagues beyond what I’d ever be capable of. Even now, with months of experience under my belt, I still struggle to play that chord consistently.

In reality, there are a number of other, easier chords that my 8-year old self probably could have played first while achieving the desired result. Or, we could dial things back further and learn how to play notes. In Rocksmith, the first thing the game has you do is to slowly play three notes in a sequence. It picks up the speed as you get better, and before you know it, you’re playing the opening riff to Satisfaction by The Rolling Stones. When that moment happened for me while playing the game, it was a huge turning point. Because I had achieved that, I was genuinely interested in seeing what else I could do.

It’s easy to just say it’s my dad’s fault for starting me on the wrong foot. But did he? A little while ago, I was at my parent’s place and he and I were playing the guitar. After sizing up my current ability, he decided to teach me how to play Hey Ho! by the Lumineers. Guess what chord is prevalent in that song? C.

And guess what chord is prevalent in a large portion of songs that I have even the slightest interest in playing? C. I’ve gone through dozens of supposed easy guitar tutorial videos on YouTube, and almost all of them are dependant on being able to play C consistently. Because I can’t, they’re not so easy after all. And to many of these tutorial makers, the C chord is step 1 in the guitar playing process. I think like a lot of people who play the guitar, they feel that if you can learn C first, you can branch out into anything from there.

In hindsight, C probably wasn’t the best place for me specifically to start, but it probably was for others. I can’t go back in time and tell my dad to teach me the opening riff to Satisfaction instead of C, but I’m fine with that. If there’s ever a time when I’m doing the teaching, I’ll be mindful of both perspectives.

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