A musical journey

Sixteen years ago today, I bought my first guitar! It was a Fender Squire in a $400 everything-you-need starter kit, but I never managed to stick with it enough to learn much of anything, barely even the most basic open chords. The learning DVD I bought was boring as hell, the guitar was really heavy and kept going out of tune, and the amplifier it came with sounded awful.

I didn’t get rid of it though, it moved from house to house with us, and it was just sitting in our back room collecting dust when on a lark during the first COVID lockdowns in 2020 I decided to pull it out and maybe have a stab at learning to play again given the sheer richness of learning resources to choose from these days. First thing to do was to get it tuned up, and the very first string I tried to tune immediately snapped. I looked down the neck and realised that it warped to all hell and back, and given I never particularly liked it—in either a nice-to-play or an aesthetic sense—I decided I’d actually splurge a bit and spend more and get a guitar that made me want to pick up and play it.

After a ton of research on learning all about guitar pickups and where the sweet spot is for a guitar that’s properly good in its own right but not unreasonably expensive, I settled on an Epiphone SG Standard in ebony.

A photo of a shiny black electric guitar sitting sitting upright against the wall.

It arrived in mid-June and looked absolutely mint. For actually learning how to play again, I started with Fender Play. It was pretty decent, and absolutely a huge step up from the extraordinarily dry learning DVD I bought in 2007.

Then come mid-2021 we had more lockdowns, even harsher than 2020’s, where we weren’t even allowed to travel more than 5km from our homes. At some point during all this I randomly remembered how much I’d always enjoyed playing the drums in Guitar Hero back in the day, and that a friend had mentioned he had an electronic drum kit from Roland, and I thought, “Why not learn to play the drums too!”

Cue more research, and I settled on Roland’s TD-17KV drum kit.

A photo of an assembled Roland electronic drum kit.

It arrived at the end of July and came with a trial of Melodics, which is a learn-to-play drums app (and also keyboard and also synth pad) where you plug the drum kit into your iPad or computer and it has an almost Guitar Hero-esque system where it scrolls across and you hit the correct pad or cymbal with the particular hand at the right time.

A screenshot of the iPad app "Melodics". It's showing a pattern of notes to hit on the drums, right/left/right/right/left/right/left/left on the hi-hat and snare, so you end up doing in groups of three, but for the kick drum it's on every second note.

It works really well, but while I didn’t want an actual in-person teacher, I felt like I needed something a bit more than just learning from the app. I discovered this drum teacher who’s based in the UK, Mike Barnes, and he puts out a ton of great videos on his YouTube channel, they’re really clear and he does them all in one single take rather than that thing that so many people on YouTube do where they’ll edit out every little bit of silence or gap. He’s got a Buy Me A Coffee page too where you can subscribe for a monthly fee and he’ll send you notations of the stuff he puts up on YouTube, works with you for a practice plan, and you can email him with questions or to get feedback on things you’re working on. I signed up to that in mid-2022 and it’s been really good, highly recommended if you’re learning drums!

On the drum kit itself, I’ve since replaced the stock hi-hat pedal and cymbal with a VH-11 on a proper acoustic hi-hat stand, and it physically moves open and closed and you get a much better sense of how to manipulate the pedal to get the sound you want.

I was thoroughly enjoying learning all this new stuff, and at the end of July 2022 I bought a for-real guitar amplifier with vacuum tubes, the extremely eye-catching Orange Rocker 15 Combo, and in August bought some guitar pedals and decided to treat myself to a new guitar. Nothing was wrong with the old one but I wanted some more variety. I did a bunch more research and became completely obsessed with Nita Strauss‘ signature Ibanez JIVA10 guitar, the amount of different tones you can get out of it thanks to the two custom humbucker pickups and the middle single coil is brilliant, and it looks so pretty to boot. 😍

Also at the start of August that year I ditched Fender Play and signed up for Guitar Zero 2 Hero, which is a course by this Aussie guy based in Melbourne.

For my 40th birthday this year, I decided to keep expanding my musical repertoire and bought a bass guitar and amplifier! A friend of mine had mentioned that he had bought a bass and was learning to play which is what inspired me. Cue another bunch of research and I landed on the extremely handsome Yamaha BB-434 bass and another Orange amplifier.

A photo of a Yamaha BB-343 bass guitar propped up against the wall. The body fades from black around the edges into a dark rich orange/red wood in the middle
A photo of an Orange Crush Bass 25 bass guitar amp. It has a black mesh on the front with the rest of it being the customary bright orange colour

I’d seen many recommendations for the “Beginner to Badass” course at bassbuzz.com so I signed up for that and can confirm it’s excellent. You get a really good feeling of progress and learning as you go through the course and it makes you want to keep playing more, and the guy that produces it gives a really good indication of when you should continue to the next course versus getting stuck in one lesson and losing motivation.

I actually ended up realising that I wasn’t feeling that sense of progress or learning from the Guitar Zero 2 Hero course and was kind of stuck in the mud and hadn’t been playing it. So I ditched that one and found multiple recommendations from people on the bassbazz.com forums saying the closest thing to the Beginner to Badass course for guitar is Justin Guitar (which weirdly is another Aussie guy). I’ve only been doing it since the end of September this year, but it’s very promising so far and I’m getting more of a feeling of progress. In the almost three and a half years years since I bought my guitar I still haven’t managed to get anywhere beyond basic open chords and a couple of power chords from the Fender Play course, but I’m feeling more motivated now to actually stick with it and learn, and I think the Justin Guitar course is helping.

And then finally, because I’m already subscribed to Melodics and it also includes a keyboard course, I bought a MIDI keyboard at the end of last month as well. 😅

A photo of a Roland A-49 MIDI keyboard in white sitting on my (also white) desk. As the name suggests it has 49 keys, and has a number of buttons and knobs on the left hand side.

I actually bought one waaaay back in 2004 but in a similar vein to what happened with my original guitar, never stuck with it due to a lack of good learning resources.

In terms of how well I’m going with things, I’d say I’m far and away best at the drums. Melodics has definitely gamified things and you get “streaks” for practising for just five minutes a day each day, so during my lunch break I’ll go out to the back room where the drum kit is and get my at-least five minutes done. I also discovered this guy Jack Curtis who makes drumless backing tracks, they all come with both regular versions and ones with a click track, and they’re such fun to play along with, so between that and Melodics, all up I’ll probably be playing drums for a good 30-40 minutes every day and I think it definitely shows.

At the start of this year I recorded myself playing along to one of Jack Curtis’ tracks and even between then and now I can see I’ve come quite a lot further again. I need to get around to recording myself playing some more of those, maybe even that same song, but the latest highlight has been playing the drums on this collaboration with some friends. 😁

In terms of guitar, it’s been less good, though I’ve made a few recordings. This one from May of 2022 really clearly shows how not-great I was at keeping in time, I recorded another in December which was a fair bit better, and added bass to it in April of this year. Finally, this from May is better again, playing single notes rather than chords but really only from a single string at a time.

My current goal is to really stick with learning the guitar and get past the basic open chords and be able to properly do justice to the JIVA10 I bought. I started again from the very beginning with Justin Guitar just to be sure I covered everything, and he’s got a separate music theory course that I think I’ll start on as well, and will hopefully report back with good news! 😛

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