- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 3, 2005

Evan Hulehan is hoping to be the next Jimi Hendrix. As the guitar player of the band Viewer Discretion, the 14-year-old from Alexandria has been busy picking and strumming.

After the group started 1 years ago, Evan decided he should take guitar lessons to improve his skills. Since he has been receiving instruction, he says, his playing has become more proficient.

“If it’s not fun, practice a lot so you get better,” Evan says. “If it doesn’t become fun after a while, it’s probably not the right instrument for you.”

Nearly anyone can learn to play the guitar with a little determination. Although not all accomplished guitarists have taken lessons, many musicians benefit from one-on-one time with an instructor.

Physical coordination has been one of the many topics Evan has discussed with his teacher, Elden Majors of Alexandria. Mr. Majors teaches from his home. Since the mid-1980s, he has played in a variety of progressive and heavy-rock bands. Although he is primarily self-taught, he also took some private lessons.

Tailoring the lessons to the needs of the students is the most important element, Mr. Majors says.

“When I was young, I took some lessons, but the instructor would never teach me what I specifically wanted to know,” Mr. Majors says. “I concentrate on the students’ preferences but also teach them pieces in different styles.”

For instance, if a student wants to learn music from the grunge band Nirvana, Mr. Majors also sneaks a classical or jazz piece into the mix. He wants his students to be able to play any type of music.

“Classical, rock and jazz have an awful lot in common,” he says. “When you get proficient in one, you use the technique to go into the other.”

After students master a piece of music, Mr. Majors explains the music theory in the composition. He says he tries to make the study of chords, scales and tempos as painless as he can.

In addition to teaching songs and techniques, Mr. Majors inspects his students’ guitars. If the instrument is warped or the strings are too old, a less-than-desirable sound will result.

“You’d be shocked at how bad the guitars look sometimes,” Mr. Majors says. “Make sure the guitar is in tune.”

The strings should be strung close to the fret board so they are easier to play, especially when students are developing calluses on their fingers, he says. As a student’s agility increases, Mr. Majors introduces him or her to fingerpicking, which is playing one string at a time without a pick.

He also teaches barre chords, which allow musicians to change keys easily. However, sometimes the configurations of barre chords — in which the player presses his or her index finger across the guitar neck, holding down several strings — are more difficult to play than other chords.

“You’ll meet people that have played for 20 years and tried barre chords once and gave up on them,” Mr. Majors says. “If you keep practicing, they will sound good one morning. It almost requires a little bit of faith.”

Although learning to play the guitar as a child or teenager is preferable, it’s never too late to pick up the instrument. Jennifer Isaak-Harrington and Tamara Isaak-Harrington, 9, a mother and daughter from Arlington, both take lessons from Mr. Majors. Generally, children are ready to take guitar lessons when they can read.

“I show my friends some of the songs I know,” Tamara says. “I also play the guitar with my brother, Aidan. He plays the drums.”

Students interested in jazz should learn to improvise, says Jonathan Lee, a teacher in Falls Church. Mr. Lee teaches from his home. He has studied privately with guitarist Linc Chamberland.

Although many people don’t like to learn scales, the exercises come in handy when trying to create an original melody with a pre-existing chord progression. Mr. Lee has his students learn jazz standards from “The Real Book,” a compilation of jazz staples.

Even though classical music has a pedagogy, or standard way of teaching, jazz players usually experiment beyond traditional practice, Mr. Lee says.

Further, it’s a myth that beginning guitarists must play with acoustic instruments, he says. In fact, an electric guitar can be easier to manipulate.

Doug Wolford, 43, of Falls Church, who has both acoustic and electric guitars, has been taking lessons for about two years. His heroes are Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones and John Lennon of the Beatles. He also admires solo jazz guitarist Joe Pass.

“I had a rock ‘n’ roll fantasy,” Mr. Wolford says. “You have images of yourself onstage in the lights. Now my image of myself has completely changed. I picture myself sitting in a dark, smoky club, playing rhythm riffs with a jazz combo.”

It’s important for students to learn to play in an ensemble, says Patrick Fritz, a teacher at the Music and Arts Centers in Falls Church, Oakton and Sterling, Va. He holds an undergraduate degree in music from James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., and is part of the hip-hop group Restoring Poetry in Music.

Most guitarists were never meant to be a one-man band, he says. For this reason, knowing how to read music is important. Some guitarists also read tablature, which is a form of notation that depicts the strings of the instrument.

In addition, the techniques associated with classical music are beneficial for all guitarists to learn, he says. For instance, classical guitarists sit with the instrument resting on a knee, using a footstool to elevate the leg.

“You’re really just studying the healthiest way for your body and hands to move,” Mr. Fritz says, “so that when you play a piece with technical challenges, they won’t pose so much of a problem for you. You can execute these things efficiently with as little effort as possible.”

Understanding as much about the guitar as possible will help those students who want to take lessons as part of higher education, he says.

Patrick Slack, 13, of Alexandria, who is a student of Mr. Fritz’s, says he wants to study the guitar in college.

“Classical guitar is very relaxing to hear and play,” Patrick says. “It’s a lot of fun.”

Honing guitar skills can come in handy for songwriters, says Billy Hancock, who gives lessons privately in Falls Church. He also teaches for Music and Arts Centers in Falls Church. He has attended the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and has taught guitar lessons since 1967.

Mr. Hancock says he always starts teaching songwriters in the key of G, introducing the main chords in the key.

“The guitar and piano are equally important as a songwriter,” Mr. Hancock says. “It wouldn’t do you much good to play the saxophone.”

Danielle Westphal of Arlington says learning the guitar has helped her become a well-rounded musician. Because she is primarily a vocalist and songwriter, she has always needed an accompanist. As a result of taking lessons with Mr. Hancock, she hopes she’ll become more independent onstage.

“He builds your confidence,” Ms. Westphal says. “He also doesn’t make me cut my fingernails down to nothing [for guitar], which I appreciate, being a performer. I have to have nice-looking fingernails.”

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