If a thing is worth doing it’s worth doing badly.
I remember the first time I heard that saying and I remember the first time I gleefully repeated it to my mother. Her reaction was pretty predictable and came with the question about why I couldn’t aim to do the ‘thing’ well as in ‘If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing well’?
But I got the reasoning behind the first statement. Yes, I was being a clever little sod but actually there’s more than an ounce of sense in it. If something is worth doing it’s worth doing no matter how badly you may actually do it, especially when you’re a beginner.
This certainly applied to my first real attempts to play the guitar and, let’s be honest, it’s the same for everyone who picks up a musical instrument for the first time. It’s going to sound terrible. It’s certainly not going to sound like you hope it will. You’re going to sound crap, it’s a fact, get over it and move on.
The next thing you’re going to notice is that the guitar is going to hurt you. Your fingers will start to hurt, the tips of your fingers will be painfully tender. As Bryan Adams sung in his hit Summer Of 69 your fingers might even bleed. But you have a dream and so you carry on playing the thing until your fingers stop hurting and by that time, hopefully, your ears will have stopped hurting from the din you’ve been making.
My first guitar was a nylon strung acoustic that I ‘borrowed’ from a friend. He didn’t get it back for over 50 years and then he promptly gave it away to someone else. Maybe I’ll tell you that particular story later.
I started to learn some chords but I never really bothered or even really wanted to learn other people’s songs. It never stuck me as being creative. They had already written and recorded those songs and me and my nylon strung acoustic weren’t in any danger of doing them justice or performing them any better. That left me with a bit of a problem. If I wasn’t going to learn other people’s songs what was I going to do with this guitar that had me fully captivated?
The answer was to write my own songs. Put like that it sounds both easy and ridiculously arrogant at the same time. There I was, someone who knew nothing about the instrument and even less about musical construction. Not for me the years of learning my craft by copying the masters like Lennon and McCartney, Jagger and Richards and their influences such as the stellar Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Lennon and McCartney started writing songs together pretty much from their first meeting onwards but they had also learnt dozens of songs and went on to learn hundreds more. They pounded away night after night across Liverpool and Hamburg racking up hundreds of hours on stage honing their craft, often playing five, six or seven hours a night, taking three minute songs and stretching them out for twenty minutes. They copied mercilessly from their heroes until they learnt their craft, they became an excellent live band and morphed into the pioneers that literally transformed popular music for ever.
Crucially they had each other. They egged each on, challenged each other, competed with each other and grew together. It’s no coincidence that so many songs are written by at least a pair, there’s something about writing with someone else that just seems to work. Funnily enough I’ve never written a song with anyone else. I prefer to work on each song I write at my own pace. I’ll explain how I do that later but for now it’s correct to say that not having anyone else to bounce off was extremely limiting for me, especially at the start of my musical journey. Music is ultimately not just a solo venture, it’s there to be shared, so if you can share your musical journey with others. Don’t worry if you’re not as good on the instrument as they are, once upon a time they were just like you.
It’s also worth remembering that back then there was no internet, there were no YouTube videos showing you every detail of every song and how to play like Eric Clapton or Jimi Hendrix. The best there was were ‘Play In A Day’ type books where somebody who had endured a style by-pass took you through the most painful way of learning an instrument ever devised. Even if you had the patience to wade your way through the book, and I certainly didn’t, learning to play Greensleeves wasn’t what I had in mind when I picked up the guitar.
Instead I sat in my bedroom and tried to cobble together my own tunes from the meagre number of chords I knew. My brothers, sisters and parents probably couldn’t believe the dirge they were hearing but surprisingly they never really made any comment about it.
Slowly, ever so slowly, I started to learn the instrument, well as much as I could without and tuition and only a book of chords that just listed them out without reference to niceties like keys. It was starting to come together. I was besotted by the whole thing, by the noise I could make, it was magical. As for writing songs, well let’s just say I wasn’t at all confident that what I was doing was any good at all. And anyway even if I did write the next She Loves You or Satisfaction who was ever going to hear it?
My father once came into the living room as I was stabbing away on the piano, an instrument I was even more inept on than the guitar, and asked me why everything I played was so sad and dirge-like. My reply was that I liked the noises I made, clearly he had other ideas. What was galling was that he could play just about any tune on the piano by ear. He was by no means a virtuoso and I don’t think he’d had a lesson in his life, but he could pick out a melody, any melody. Gradually he just stopped doing it and never seemed to miss the piano when eventually it was gone but I wished I had that sort of talent or gift.
It became obvious that I needed to either form or join a band. More especially a band that needed a guitar player, his nylon strung acoustic and a severe lack of musical knowledge and ability. Then, as now, the demand for someone with these specific characteristics is rather low.
But, and it’s a huge BUT, don’t ever let anyone put you off picking up a musical instrument and having a go with it. Accept you’ll be rubbish and it’s going to take you time to get anything worthwhile from it. As I said, if it’s worth doing it’s worth doing badly, no matter what anyone else thinks. And when you analyse it it’s a very liberating way of thinking, even if it does upset your mother.