It’s back-to-school season, and even if your School days are in the past, if you’re here, most likely you’ve got a desire to learn how to play the guitar.
As inspiration, let’s take a look at how these 5 iconic musicians and guitar players moved from beginner to legendary with their guitar playing skills!
Jimi Hendrix - dedication can rewrite history
Considered one of the “Original Guitar Gods” along with Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix continues to influence generations of guitar players, young and old, trying to imitate his groundbreaking style. Jimi started playing at the age of 15, and despite his life being cut short at only 27, in the span of 12 years he became one of the greatest guitarists of all time.
His journey started with a one-stringed ukulele which he would fiddle to produce different melodies and play along to Elvis songs. While exploring the instrument he learned timing and rhythm despite not having all 6 strings.
His first guitar was an acoustic one gifted by his father that cost $5, shortly after, he got a Supro electric guitar that was stolen. This made way for "Betty Jean", a Danelectro Shorthorn guitar, named after his girlfriend at the time. The relationship didn't last, but the guitar would accompany him at the beginning of his career.
Hendrix started to learn licks and chords from guitarists in the Seattle area. But mostly, he would listen to the radio at home and play along, learning by ear the guitar sections of his favorite songs. That dedication led him to practice 8-12 hours a day, spending his entire free time playing the guitar. Jimi was naturally left-handed, but his father insisted that he played right-handed. The solution was to take the right-handed guitar and restrung it for playing left-handed granting some of the uniqueness of his sound.
It might seem surprising after seeing him shine on stage, but Jimi had a shy personality and almost got discouraged at age 17 after playing with his first group. Other guitarists around him seemed so much better and more confident.
The idea of giving up crossed his mind, but he decided to keep on going. It was when he started playing with Little Richard that he learned how to entertain an audience and dress to impress. These lessons helped Jimi to become the best performer of the 1960s. Only 9 years after first picking up the guitar, he was able to release the iconic album “Are You Experienced”. It shows that passion and commitment to practice are the key ingredients to determine how far you can go on your guitar learning journey.
In an interview for Guitar Player magazine, Hendrix gave some advice for those starting to learn: “You have to stick with it. Sometimes, you are going to be so frustrated you want to give up the guitar - you’ll hate the guitar. But all of this is just a part of learning because if you stick with it, you’re going to be rewarded”.
Elizabeth Cotten - a self-taught unique style
At the age of seven, Elisabeth Cotten fell in love. The object of her affection was a homemade banjo that belonged to her older brother. While he was out at work, she would sneak into his room to play it. But it wasn’t long before broken strings revealed her secret. Even though her brother complained, he never stopped her from playing.
While trying to understand the strings and their sounds, little Elizabeth found her own way. Cotten was left-handed like Hendrix and unaware of string structures, learned to play the instrument upside down instead of having the banjo restrung. She played the tremble strings with her thumb and the bass strings with her index finger. Later on, she tried to learn with the standard strings setup, only to decide hers was the best method, and continued to learn on her own.
When her brother left home, taking the banjo with him, Cotten’s desire to keep making music brought her knocking door to door looking for work. Soon she was able to buy her first guitar, a Stella acoustic. Inspired by guitarists of the time, traveling musicians, and minstrel shows, Cotten mastered the guitar and composed her most famous song, “Freight Train”, when she was only 12 years old.
However, the deserved recognition of her musical talent came much later in her life. At 68, she established herself as one of the main figures in the folk revival of 1960. The exposure brought her music to bigger audiences and later made her a Grammy-winner recording artist.
Proud of her own self-taught journey, she was known to always share with her audiences: “Nobody did teach me. Everything I know, I learned all by myself, so I give myself all the credit!”.
Joni Mitchell - sometimes you have to learn it twice
Joni Mitchell is still a voice that speaks through generations. Her Blue album went number 1 on iTunes in 2021, exactly 50 years after its first release. One thing you might not know is that the Canadian musician had to learn twice how to play the guitar in her lifetime.
She first became interested in music when she started studying at Alberta College of Art in Calgary. At that time, Mitchell started to get familiar with the ukulele. It wasn’t long before the guitar made its way into her life, along with Pete Seeger’s “How to Play Folk-Style Guitar” instructional record. After some initial training with the record, she decided it was time to experiment by herself, “I didn’t have the patience to copy a style that was already known”, shared Mitchell in a Rolling Stone interview in 1969. In the search for her sound, Joni also had another influence, “I went straight to the Cotten picking. So Elizabeth Cotten definitely is an influence; it's me not being able to play like her. If I could have I would have, but good thing I couldn't, because it came out original”. From there on, Mitchell kept experimenting with different guitar tunings and harmonies with her own singing that would shape her style.
Mitchell still remembers fondly one of her first guitars, an acoustic 56 Martin D-28. It came to her possession around 1966, from a Marine captain stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The guitar had a history, it accompanied the Marine to Vietnam. The guitar was stored in his tent when it was hit by shells. According to Mitchell "When they cleared the wreckage, all that survived was this guitar. I don't know whether the explosion did something to the modules in the wood, but that guitar was a trooper, man”. That guitar was Joni’s main companion during her early albums. Sadly, it ended up damaged on an airline flight and later on stolen at the airport on a trip to Maui.
In 2015 a brain aneurism rendered the musician unable to talk or walk. She had to relearn everything, including how to play the guitar again. While recovering, Mitchell taught herself how to play by watching her own performance videos. She would observe her finger placements and how to play the strings, learning everything from scratch. Joni's younger self became her own teacher.
This year, Joni Mitchell was able to perform again at the Newport festival. Now 78, when asked during an interview about how she felt about being on stage again, she shared “I’m never nervous about performing. I just want it to sound good. I wasn’t sure how it was going to be… but I think I didn’t sound too bad tonight!”.
St. Vincent (Anne Clark) - learning on the road
Anne Clark, a singer, songwriter, guitar player, and producer carrying two Grammy awards, first learned to play on a plastic guitar after watching the movie La Bamba. Later on, she began taking guitar classes at 12 years old. According to her uncle, Tuck Andress, in a 2009 New York Times interview, Clark was around 14 years old when she made her first performance, joining her guitar teacher’s band on stage in a club in Dallas.
Tuck Andress, a musician himself (best known as half of the jazz duo Tuck & Patti), recognized his niece’s talent and invited her to follow him on the road as a tour manager. She was able to keep practicing and soon became the opening act. Mentored by Andress and surrounded by different sound references, Clark was able to develop her own experimental style with different effect pedals. In an interview to NPR at SXSW in 2014, Clark shared “In some ways, I feel very reverent about the guitar. I love it so much. But I also don’t care about it being a guitar or sounding like a guitar”.
Joe Satriani - the student becomes the teacher
If this article is to cover how iconic guitar players learned the guitar, the answer for names like Steve Vai, Kirk Hammett, Alex Skolnick, and David Bryson is the same: Joe Satriani.
One of the most successful rock instrumentalists, and consistently packing concert halls, Joe Satriani is considered almost a mythical creature among guitar enthusiasts. But every master was also a student, for Satriani that started at the age of 14. He studied directly under two big names in the bebop scene, guitarist Billy Bauer, who used to play with Charlie Parker, and later with pianist Lennie Tristano.
Satriani was working hard at being a self-taught musician but eventually shared with his parents his desire to find a teacher and learn some secrets of music. “My mother was a teacher, and somebody mentioned to her that this guy from her era (Bauer) was teaching. So my mom asked me if I’d ever heard of him, and I hadn’t, so she set up some lessons”, he recalls in an interview for Jazz Weekly.
The classes with Bauer were transformative. He highlights the importance of understanding music theory in order to expand his sound “Billy had these pamphlets that he had written himself. They revolutionized my view of the guitar because they had scales in three octaves, scales on separate strings, and arpeggios all over the neck. I was only teaching myself rock music and hadn’t yet put together theory education with the actual fretboard knowledge. Billy was the first one who said 'You just need to learn ALL of this stuff in every single key'”.
Two years later, when he was 18, Joe Satriani was again in search of a music guru to give him further insight into playing, when a friend recommended he look for Lennie Tristano. He had no idea he was about to be mentored by one of the key figures of Cool Jazz. Satriani later referred to some of that experience as "Zen lessons". With Tristano, he understood the importance of also feeling music while playing. “You can’t leave any dark or unexplored part of your musicianship alone. You have to learn your instrument, the notes, the chords, the melodies, the harmonies, every string, every key everywhere, and then play only the notes that you want to play. Don’t ever play something you don’t want to play, and never be judgmental when you’re improvising.”
According to Joe Satriani, that’s a lesson that made him realize that musicianship was really the path for him: “I’m going to work on this until the day I die”.
How are you going to learn the guitar?
These inspiring stories are also a reflection of their time. Nowadays making music is even easier, we have access to technology that was considered impossible or even magic in the past. You don’t need to rely on luck to meet the right people, or lots of money to invest in studying.
If you are looking for ways to learn the guitar, why not try Fretello PRO? Our comprehensive app provides a structured Learn Path that will guide you all the way from holding your guitar up to composing your own music. You can also find detailed courses on shredding and improvising, practice exercises with live feedback, as well as have open access to our experts in order to solve your guitar learning questions!