I ONCE heard it said that an unspoken law in Britain is that every middle-class child must have music lessons, regardless of ability. Owing to this philosophy, my years at primary school were defined by getting to grips with a diverse list of instruments that included the trumpet, harmonica, recorder, piano, and kazoo.
It was not until I was 12 that I started learning an instrument that I actually wanted to play, and, having been raised on my parents’ record collection, I was keen to emulate Jimmy Page and Mark Knopfler. The beauty of playing the guitar is that, to use an old cliché, it is rather like riding a bike: once you learn the basics, you never quite lose them.
When starting out, it is best not to buy an expensive instrument. If you know someone who is willing to let you use theirs in your early stages, then all the better. My parents insisted that I learn on the family Spanish acoustic before they would shell out for anything. It was not until I had been learning for a year that I got a shiny gold-and-brown Gibson Epiphone for Christmas, a model that remains one of my prized possessions.
Lessons are not always necessary. Some of the best guitarists in history have been self-taught. You can look up names of guitar teachers in your area on the internet, but most lessons will not be cheap.
Many websites, magazines, or beginners’ books, available in most music shops, can start you off with some basic chords — some of which will quickly allow you to play simple but recognisable ditties. By mastering the chords A, D, G, and E alone, you can work your way through songs by Bob Dylan or Johnny Cash in a matter of weeks.
Once your fingers grow used to switching between different frets and strings, you can progress on to scales and basic solos. Most music for guitar is written down in a simple form, and, as a result, you do not have to read music (Eric Clapton still can’t). From that point on, it all comes down to practice. Dedicating about an hour a day if you can spare it is recommended when starting out, but, as playing becomes easier, you will find yourself wanting to devote more time.
How you progress is then entirely up to you. You can either join a band or go solo; splash out on flashy equipment or stick to the battered old acoustic; play other people’s material or compose your own. My aim, when I was a schoolgirl, was to master long-winded solos, but, after four years at university, where I rarely had the time, I returned to just strumming some of my favourite songs alone in my room. Whereas I used to play for three hours a night as a teenager, I now just pick up the guitar whenever I have a free night after work.
And that is the most satisfying thing about the instrument. You can take it or leave it at any point in your life, and it is never too late to learn, re-learn, or improve, whatever your age or musical background. It is no surprise that many guitarists develop an emotional attachment to their instruments, even seeing them as old friends. For the past ten years, wherever I have been in the world, I have always had a guitar lying by my bed. I hope I always will.