Playing guitar is like sailing

I think this is a somewhat personal simile, but bear with me: Playing the guitar is more like sailing than playing the piano.

As I attempt to pull myself (well, be assisted) out of a health low, I've been looking for activities I enjoy, to fill the gaps in my life previously occupied by "being ill". I want to get back into music theory, as you can see from a post or two back, and I'm also looking at trying to learn a little more rock guitar, something I've been a time-to-time novice at for many years. I don't expect to get good, just enjoy it.

(Why rock guitar? I've never been into classic rock, Led Zeppelin for example leaves me absolutely cold. On the other hand, much of the indie/alt rock I love, like Smashing Pumpkins, seems to build more on that style than others. For me, power chords are a better starting point than more classical chords.)

My previous musical experience is playing the piano. I was pretty good at it, got up to Grade 7 ABRSM, even if I'm extremely rusty now. The piano "interface" is extremely well-defined. You make music by pressing and releasing the keys at the appropriate time, with appropriate force/speed. Slightly fancier than the harpsichord (no volume control), but clinical enough that my entire playing style could be captured in a basic MIDI file.

It's not unlike using a computer, where the interface is through a small set of devices, discrete and digitised.

I learnt to sail the year before the pandemic. My initial assumption was that it was kind of similar. Sitting in the boat, holding the tiller and main sheet (rope) to control the sail, I thought that was the interface. Early on, I was surprised to see the instructor help the boom across during a tack by pushing it with their hand. It seemed like cheating.

Over time, I realised how wrong my initial impression was. I moved from learning in a Bosun, which can happily seat four, to playing around in a single-handed Pico. Weight distribution is hugely important - where you sit, and how you lean, are vitally important. I was taught to roll tack - a fun technique I never really got the hang of - which relies on you moving your weight around very dynamically to tack efficiently. I also learnt about adjusting the vang/kicker, the centreboard when going down-wind, and other miscellaneous adjustments.

In short, the interface with the boat is actually whatever it takes to get it going where you want it to go. It's a wide, subtle and flexible interface.

Electric guitar is like this. It's not just a matter of pressing down some frets and striking some strings. I had not really twigged all the techniques for muting, damping and stopping strings, quite how numerous the variations in how how you strike the strings are, hammer-ons, pull-offs, bends and slides, variant tunings, all the various playing techniques, before you get on to different guitar types, knob settings, amps and effects. Let alone "prepared guitar" a la Sonic Youth. With electric guitar, whatever you do is valid to produce the sound you want.

In many ways, I think this "insight" will seem incredibly shallow to most, and is perhaps more of an insight into how I think about things than the things themselves. Despite that, it has had a significant effect on how I'm approaching learning the guitar!

Posted 2024-01-26.