Milestones: Celebrating 25 Years of Playing Guitar

Another trip around the sun marks my 25th year of playing guitar. My thoughts on the journey so far, grappling with skill plateaus, and more.

Before I get into this post, I must apologize for the lack of new content here in recent months. Life has been quite busy for me, to say the least! I married my amazing husband, began transitioning into a new career, rediscovered old hobbies, and took a long break from music-related activities. While I won’t be able to return to a regular weekly blogging schedule any time soon, I do have a few more posts in the works that I’ll get to when I can.

And speaking of significant milestones … 25 years of playing guitar, egads! I can hardly believe it, as it feels like it was just yesterday when I pulled my Cort S400 out of its gig bag for the very first time. In this post, I’ll talk more about what these last 25 years have looked like for me as a hobby guitarist, reflect on what I hope to do next with the instrument, and speak more generally to the importance of seeking out new musical challenges.

From Skate-Punk to Post-Punk

Picture it: the year was 1999, and the two most important bands in my life were The Offspring and Green Day. I also secretly loved Queen (though I could never admit it to my friends), thanks to my parents’ oft-played copy of Queen’s Greatest Hits compilation.

After much pleading and many assurances that I would make lots of money as a famous guitarist in a famous band (haha), I managed to convince my parents to buy me an electric guitar for my birthday. It had to be electric, because Noodles and Brian May played electric guitars, you see. This would end up becoming somewhat of a trend with me — but more on that later.

Playing guitar never ended up making me lots of money (or any money, for that matter), but that little Cort S400 Stratocaster copy quickly became an important part of my life.

My Cort S400 — demoted to mere wall decoration these days, but still a much-loved guitar with a lot of personal history.

My first year of guitar ownership was discouraging at times, mainly because I wanted to play punk songs and my amplifier didn’t have an overdrive channel. This was further complicated by the fact that I also had no idea how to learn any of the songs I wanted to play, because we didn’t have the Internet yet, I wasn’t taking any guitar lessons, and we lived in a town that didn’t sell any guitar magazines. Simpler times!

As mentioned in an earlier post, my guitar ended up collecting dust in a corner of my bedroom until I discovered U2 and The Edge in 2000. What came next can only be described as an intense period of living and breathing all things guitar. That period of time in my life coincided with gaining access to the Internet at home and learning about a relatively new website called Ultimate Guitar.

The Drawbacks and Benefits of Being Self-Taught

A few memories from the last 25 years.

I sometimes feel like new guitarists today do not appreciate just how good they have it. When I first started learning how to play guitar, there was no such thing as YouTube. Websites like Fender Play didn’t exist. I was solely reliant upon the two guitar lesson books gifted to me by my parents, music videos on MTV and VH1 (back when they still played music videos), a few concert films on VHS and DVD, and the often terribly wrong guitar tabs posted on UG by fellow hobbyists. I also picked up a few technical tricks from the lead guitarist in one of my high school bands, but that was it.

Since I was completely self-taught, I picked up a lot of bad habits along the way. I don’t hold my pick “properly,” for instance. I read online circa 2001 or so that The Edge holds his pick upside down, so I immediately started doing that. I still struggle to hold picks right side up to this day. Edge’s picking technique works for him, of course, but it does make it a little difficult at times to play other music I’m interested in. Draping my thumb over the fretboard was another bad habit I acquired. I didn’t have a guitar teacher around to tell me otherwise, so I had no idea this was “bad technique.” I also found learning scales very boring, so I mostly stuck to learning songs note for note — something that has stunted my ability to improvise solos over a chord progression.

Would I have changed anything about those formative years, though? Probably not. Even though I didn’t always learn guitar the “right” way in my teens, I had a lot of fun in the process. I have so many fond memories of finally nailing a song I was struggling with, practicing with the band in our bassist’s tiny basement jam space, our first live performance at school, playing our first hour long set in front of an audience that mainly consisted of our parents, and so on. Would I be a better guitarist today if I’d formally taken lessons? Almost certainly, but there’s also a chance I would have ended up hating it. For me, learning guitar never felt like a chore. I can’t say the same for friends of mine who were forced into taking piano lessons.

Joining YouTube and Falling Down the Gear Rabbit Hole

YouTube launched nineteen years ago. I was studying at university around that time and my days of playing guitar in bands were firmly behind me, but the desire to perform music for others was still very much there. And thus, like so many other bedroom guitarists at that time, I turned my camera on and started playing.

In the years since then, I’ve managed to amass over 6,500 subscribers and 1.3 million total views. Those statistics always surprise me a little, as I know I never could have achieved numbers like that by playing in bar bands on the weekend. I was (and still am) genuinely humbled every single day by the appreciation and support I receive from people who watch and learn from my videos. Biggest highlight by far? Reading viewers’ ecstatic comments back when I got hauled up on stage to play guitar with U2.

SEE ALSO: Playing Guitar On Stage with U2: My Unforgettable Experience

Photo by Steph Van Linden

While the last almost two decades on YouTube have mostly been positive, I must admit that it did create an unhealthy obsession with acquiring and selling gear. Here is an exhaustive list of all the guitar gear I’ve owned at various points since I started uploading videos, not including pedals, modelers, or amplifiers:

  • Two Stratocasters
  • Two Telecasters
  • Two Les Pauls
  • Four Explorers
  • One Casino
  • Three Acoustics
  • Three Basses

That’s a whopping seventeen different guitars owned over the course of nineteen years. A few were gifts from my parents, but I purchased the bulk of them new or used.

As much as I’d love to say I was justified in buying and selling all that gear, that was not always the case. I often bought guitars not because they were the best guitars for me, but rather because I felt my viewers deserved (and expected) to see the “right” guitar in my videos. What I mean by that is if The Edge originally used one of his Les Pauls to record or perform a song, I felt like I also needed to use a Les Paul for my cover. If he used a Casino, I also needed to use a Casino. And so on.

I’m not the only one who does this, of course. See, for instance, Kfir Ochaion covering Queen with a replica of Brian May’s Red Special (sixpence on the headstock and all), or Sparky Guitar covering Pink Floyd with a decidedly David Gilmourish black Strat. I’ve seen this practice referred to as “cosplaying guitar players,” and it’s so true. There’s nothing wrong with it, per se, but in my case at least, it has resulted in a few purchases I probably wouldn’t have made if I didn’t have a guitar-oriented YouTube channel.

I’ve since whittled my collection down to four electrics, one bass, one acoustic, and my Cort S400 (which I’ll never part with, for sentimental reasons). I’m finding now that the older I get, the less interested I am in purchasing and playing the gear of my idols.

Looking Forward to the Next 25 Years

As fun and rewarding as the last 25 years of playing guitar have been, I don’t want to keep playing the same old stuff for another quarter of a century. Here are just a few of the things I’ll be focusing on, going forward:

Sticking to Gear that Works for Me

I’ve written previously about how I no longer play Les Pauls; I may end up adding Epiphone Casinos to that list as well. I bought my Casino four years ago because I wanted to cover songs like “Breathe” and “Cedarwood Road.” Unlike The Edge, I couldn’t (and still can’t) afford to drop several thousand dollars on a vintage USA-made Casino, so I had to purchase the cheap MIC import instead.

Photo by Al Elmes on Unsplash

It’s not a bad guitar by any means, but I’ve never been wowed by it, and it’s the one weak link in my collection. When I go to pick up a guitar, it’s usually my Strat, my Explorer, or my Tele — hardly ever the Casino. There are so many things I dislike about it: the noisy pickups, the tailpiece (which is so irritating to deal with when it’s time for a string change), the overly thin binding, the headstock, and the cheap overall feel of it. Let’s put it this way … if I hadn’t specifically wanted to cover U2 songs that featured a Casino on my channel, I probably wouldn’t have bought it.

Four is still a nice number of electric guitars to have, though, so we went up to a local music store recently with the idea of replacing the Casino. I unfortunately couldn’t find anything in stock that worked for me, but I know what I want now: a modern-spec guitar with 24 frets, a tremolo system that isn’t a Floyd Rose, a thin neck, a well-balanced Strat-style body, coil splitting, and a headstock that doesn’t scream “play nu-metal on me.” The hunt is on! If you have any recommendations for a new guitar that meets those requirements, reach out via YouTube.

Fixing Bad Habits

As mentioned above, teaching myself how to play guitar means I ended up doing a lot of the things you’re not “supposed” to do. Those things have long since become muscle memory. While I have no interest in only playing guitar the “right” way — and, in fact, firmly believe that playing the “wrong” way is how many guitarists push boundaries — I would like to master the more traditional playing techniques as a challenge. It’s difficult to undo 25 years of muscle memory without any formal instruction, mind you, so it looks like guitar lessons are likely in my future!

Leaving the Comfort Zone

Covering U2 songs is a joy, but I think that focusing on U2 as heavily as I have over the last 25 years has resulted in a bit of a skill plateau for me. In high school, the bands I joined mainly covered metal and punk songs released in the 90s and early 2000s — stuff with a lot of lightning-fast palm-muted downstrokes and/or big solos. I realized the other day that I can’t even play the intro to “The Kids Aren’t Alright” at full speed anymore. That was something I could play in my sleep at age sixteen!

The maxim “use it or lose it” irks me a little because, as Lawrence M. Schwartz says, it should really be “use it or lose it, until you work at it again.” While I’ll continue to play U2, I also want to branch out more and play music that takes me out of my comfort zone. I want to regain old skills I’ve lost and learn new ones. As comfortable and enjoyable as it is to play what you know, there is also a lot of value in challenging yourself by learning something new. I anticipate that this part of my journey will mainly be a private one; I know people subscribe to my channel to hear me play U2, not Rage Against the Machine. That’s okay, though! Playing for yourself is just as important as playing for others. I don’t want to limit my progress over concerns about things like losing subscribers.

Final Thoughts

Even though there were frustrating moments and missteps a-plenty, playing guitar these last 25 years has been something I’ll never regret. Long-term friendships, once-in-a-lifetime experiences, personal accomplishments, and pure joy are all things I think about when I glance over at my first guitar. Here’s to another 25! 🍺

Questions?

Do you have a question about the subject matter of this blog post that I didn’t answer above? Feel free to leave a public comment on my YouTube channel by clicking on the button below, and I’ll get back to you there as soon as I can.

See Also: