The Joy of Being a Hack Guitarist

(Image credit: William Baeck)

Question: How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

Answer: Turn left on 8th, right on 57th.

That’s correct. It ain’t necessarily practice. The fact is, most of us aren’t ever going to perform on a major concert stage, even after lots of study. I’ve played guitar for a very long time, but I can still walk into almost any Guitar Center and hear a young teen who not only plays better than I do but better than I ever will. It’s not just training, it’s also talent. They have it. I don’t.

But that’s OK, because what I learned during all those years of not sounding as good as them is that while I may never match their ability, what I can do as well as any six-string superstar is enjoy playing the guitar.

And this is the secret of the hack guitarist: Being happy is as worthy a goal as being good.

I know they’ll never put it in the “How to Play Like…” column of a music magazine, but along with a “difficulty” level, there really ought to be a “fun” level. I once took a class from Keola Beamer, the master Hawaiian slack key guitarist. The most important thing he taught me that day was that if I wasn’t smiling, I wasn’t playing Hawaiian music right. Once I got that, my playing—at least of slack key—improved. By playing happier, I played better I suppose, but it was the happiness that mattered, not the skill level.

Unfortunately, a big smile won’t get you on the cover of Guitar World. Still, I sometimes think being a hack and playing for an audience of one has the Claptons of the world beat, because unlike them, I can play purely for my own happiness.

So to all the beginners, bedroom guitarists and couch noodlers out there—go ahead and embrace what makes being average special. Meanwhile, I invite you stellar musicians to give it a try sometime too. Search out your inner-hack. Maybe you’ve been spending too much time practicing the pieces that impress, which frankly, is what we guitarists too often focus on (Again, I refer you to 2 p.m. Saturday at Guitar Center).

Instead, take a break and find the pieces that are just plain fun to play. It might be banging out loud punky chords, or sliding a bottleneck up to the top frets for some easy bluesy sounds; but whatever that lick is, it’s as basic as a kiss and nearly as enjoyable.

So to the 15-year-old guitar-store virtuoso: Take a moment and learn what a 50-year-old hack can teach you—for the next few minutes don’t worry about technique, equipment or notes per second.

Just turn that amp around, point it at your face, and play what makes you smile.

William Baeck is a writer, photographer and hack guitarist living in London. You can check out his webpage at and reach him on Facebook and Twitter.

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