Have you ever wondered how your favorite guitarists learned to play? No professional guitarist starts out as an expert – some of the world’s most famous guitarists were self-taught, some took traditional lessons, and some had other musical backgrounds before picking up a guitar.
Here’s how these famous guitarists learned how to play their instruments.
Nirvana frontman and guitarist Kurt Cobain was born into a musical family. His uncle played in a band called The Beachcombers, his aunt Mari played guitar in bands, and his great-uncle was an Irish tenor who was featured in 1930’s King of Jazz. According to Mari, Cobain began singing at the age of two and was singing and playing the piano at four. For his 14th birthday, Cobain’s uncle let him choose between a bike and a used guitar as a gift, and he chose the guitar. He learned songs by Queen and Led Zeppelin before starting to work on his own songs. Cobain was forced to write with his right hand, but he played guitar left-handed.
Legendary Guns ‘N Roses guitarist Slash originally planned to learn the bass before picking up a guitar.
Slash told Marshall Podcast that he didn’t have either instrument when he showed up for his first music lesson at age ten. His instructor showed him some guitar licks by Cream, and Slash said he realized that was what he wanted to play. The young Slash didn’t enjoy taking lessons, but his teacher promised him that if he learned the basics, he would teach him to play whatever he wanted. The instructor kept his word, and showed Slash how to learn by ear. Slash quit after a few lessons and continued to learn by ear.
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Queen guitarist (and astrophysicist) Brian May’s enthusiasm for guitar started early, when his father taught him a few chords on the ukulele. At seven, he was given a Spanish guitar and also started taking piano lessons.
The family didn’t have a lot of money, but Brian’s father had a background in engineering. When Brian was 15, they built an electric guitar together from scratch, creating the “Red Special” that May still uses today. The process took about 18 months, using an 18th century fireplace mantle for the neck, oak for the body, and pearl buttons for the fret markers.
According to a 2010 biography about the guitar legend, when Jimi Hendrix was in elementary school, he had a habit of carrying a broom with him and pretending it was a guitar. After a year of this, the school’s social worker took note and requested funding from the school to buy young Hendrix a real guitar. However, the school and Hendrix’s father both refused. Young Hendrix did get his hands on a one-stringed ukulele after finding it in the garbage he and his father were removing from a home during a side job. He was able to teach himself Elvis Presley songs by ear while listening to the radio. The next year, at age 15, Hendrix bought his first acoustic guitar. He played for hours every day, listening to blues artists like B.B. King and Robert Johnson.
According to an LA Times article, young John Mayer became infatuated with the guitar after watching Marty McFly’s performance in Back to The Future. Mayer’s father rented a guitar for him to play when he turned 13, and a Stevie Ray Vaughan cassette tape gifted to him by a neighbor helped Mayer develop his affection for the blues. Mayer took guitar lessons from a guitar shop owner in his Bridgeport, Connecticut hometown. His preoccupation with the instrument concerned his parents so much that they took him to see a psychiatrist, who assured them he was fine.
White Stripes lead singer and guitarist Jack White had older brothers who were in a band, and he played their hand-me-down instruments, including a drum kit he found in the attic. White told 60 Minutes in 2005 that he had planned to become a priest, and was even accepted into a Wisconsin seminary, but he had just gotten a new amplifier and wasn’t sure if he’d be able to bring it with him. Instead, he went to a technical high school and played drums and trombone in a band, and began playing guitar in a band while doing an apprenticeship with a family friend.
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