Many folk music fans have a secret (or not so secret) desire to be the next Bob Dylan or Carly Simon. The problem is often, as with any dream, simply knowing where to start.
This can be an especial problem for older people without any previous musical training. The good news is that – at least as far as folk music goes – anyone can learn to pluck a string, and you don’t need to be a virtuoso to strike an emotional chord with an audience.
Acoustic, Electric or Bass?
Each type of instrument is associated with a stereotypical kind of person who plays it. One joke goes: “What do you call a person who hangs out with a group of musicians? A drummer.”
There may be some truth to this – at least, most people will have known an extremely laconic bass player or two who occasionally has to be reminded what an octave really is, as well as guitarists with tons of enthusiasm but a total inability to step onto a stage while sober. If someone packs a banjo or lute, there’s a distinct temptation to check if they have all their teeth and know what year it is, respectively.
Still, there are certainly more exceptions than conformity to all of these rules, so choosing an instrument based on your personality is a little silly. Some make their choice based on what instrument seems the “easiest” to become proficient in, such as when when deciding between steel or nylon strings. The truth is that, beyond a fairly basic level, every instrument used in folk music is as hard or as easy as you choose to push yourself.
When deciding which to take up, the most reliable indicator of what you’ll enjoy is how much you like the actual sound of different instruments and which feature most prominently in the music you enjoy most. Most guitar-like instruments are so similar that switching from one to another later will be a breeze, anyway.
Choosing the Right Instrument
A lot of people automatically accept the saying that a craftsman is only as good as his tools. While there is some truth to this, a more accurate way of saying the same thing would be that his tools impose a practical maximum on what he can accomplish.
Whether to motivate themselves, to show their commitment to their new hobby or just because some salesman saw them coming a mile away, too many aspiring musicians think that they’ll need the best guitar they can afford if they want to progress. The thing to remember here is: a $50 pawnshop find played well will always be superior to a $5,000 guitar played badly.
So, unless you intend to rely exclusively on electronic effects to make music, it’s far better to start out small. Eric Clapton may be able to afford a gazillion guitars and has his own reasons for doing so, but learning basic technique requires no more than the cheapest mass-produced instrument you can find. It won’t be as tuneful or as loud as one hand-crafted on some Andulisian mountaintop, but this hardly matters while you’re mostly playing to yourself.
As you gain confidence and technique, you might feel the urge to start playing to an audience. Perhaps this will be at open mike night at your local bar or at family get-togethers, but remember that few things look as ridiculous as a musician whose gear vastly outstrips their talent.
An affordable speaker can still be good enough for groups of a dozen or so people as long as the environment is reasonably quiet (and if it isn’t, chances are that nobody will want to hear a Joan Baez cover anyway). Several companies will be more than happy to rent out a more capable rig if you need it.
Another useful piece of kit to have is some kind of recording device that isn’t your cellphone. Even if your intention isn’t to produce a demo tape or even your own indie CD, this is one of the best ways to keep improving after you’ve mastered the basics. The notion here is that most musicians imagine the piece they’re playing while they’re performing it. This means that the music in your head mingles with what you’re actually hearing and any flaws are masked somewhat. Listening to something you recorded earlier as if evaluating someone else’s performance forces you to take an objective look at what you really sound like.
Learning to Play
While it’s possible to learn guitar from a book or video – Jimmy Hendrix and David Bowie were both self-taught – the process becomes much easier when you’re guided by someone who not only knows how to play, but knows how to teach others.
It’s important to ask for references from former students, but it’s equally vital that you make sure that you can mesh both musically and interpersonally. Being told that you’re doing something badly can grate on your feelings, so it’s much better if this comes from someone you can think of as a friend.
Finally, there’s no substitute for time and effort. Learning to play folk music well isn’t an overnight project. You can expect to spend several months before becoming any good at all, which means that someone who isn’t capable of making time for practice (and dealing with frustration) will probably not succeed.