The other day I was sitting in the living room with my Nepalese host family here in Kathmandu, waiting out this interminable petrol crisis we’re currently experiencing, trying to ward off ennui with a few songs and some half-baked explanations as to why, of all the instruments that I’ve learned to play, guitar is the one that I’ve stuck with and still love – so much so that I brought not one but two guitars with me to Nepal.
As I heard myself enumerating the myriad reasons of my deep and undying love for this inanimate object, I had a sudden realization – an epiphany, of sorts – that the guitar is probably the best musical instrument ever devised by man.
Now let me say that as an avid listener of all genres of music, I have an appreciation for every instrument. Yes, even the keytar.
But when you consider guitar’s ease of learning, longevity, versatility, accessibility, mobility, and popularity and influence, there’s no instrument that can compare with it for overall excellence.
Ease of Learning
Is the guitar easy to learn? Hell yes. Just ask any mid-20s man sporting a fedora and a little scruff (oh wait, that means me …) and chances are he’ll know at least a few chords. And it’s not because he’s an exceptionally smart or talented person – he’s probably just trying to impress some girl he met at the bar, and playing that one song he knows on guitar is an easy way to do it.
Because despite its sophistication, the guitar is organized in a way that is easy to understand. It’s basically just a grid composed of strings on one axis and frets on the other axis that literally show you exactly where to put your finger to make a note.
Other stringed instruments are far less inviting; the violin, cello, standup bass, sarangi … you name it – none of them have frets, which means that one somehow has to just know (or guess) where the fingers go to make a note.
‘… the guitar … is easy to understand. It’s basically just a grid …’
Want to make an A4 note on a violin? It’s something like “5/8ths the distance from the peg box to the bridge along the 3rd string.” On a guitar, it’s “2nd fret, 3rd string.” With a grid system, it’s that simple.
Guitar is also hands-down the most accessible instrument. Guitar shops are everywhere – even here in Kathmandu – and all you have to do to play one is walk into any of these numerous stores and pull one off the wall.
If you find one you like and want to own, you’re in luck, because this is a relatively inexpensive instrument too. You can get a well-functioning guitar from a respected brand for about $100.
‘… this is a relatively inexpensive instrument too. You can get a well-functioning guitar … for about $100.’
Good luck trying to get a harp, any brass instrument, or another stringed instrument for that price. Heaven forbid you want a piano.
There are instruments that are cheaper, like kazoos, harmonicas, etc., but for instruments of its size and complexity, $100 is as inexpensive as it gets.
Teachers, Teachers Everywhere
Once you’ve purchased your new guitar, teachers are a dime a dozen. Just go to your local Craigslist and you’ll see.
If you happen to live in Antarctica and can’t find a teacher (or can’t find a good one), the Internet is replete with YouTube videos and guitar tab websites (hopefully you at least have internet) to show you how to play virtually any popular guitar song from the last 100 years. I dare you to find as many resources for the flute.
As easy to learn and accessible as it is, the guitar also has enormous learning potential. I mean that it has longevity; that if one really takes the time, you can go far with it – to virtuoso levels and beyond. Not every instrument provides this opportunity – there’s only so much one can do with a tambourine.
‘… you can go far with [guitar] … chances are you’ve heard of Jimi Hendrix or Andre Segovia.’
Put it this way: chances are you’ve heard of Jimi Hendrix or Andre Segovia. They are two of the world’s greatest guitarists and are famous for their unique styles of playing. Chances are also that you’ve never heard of Davy Jones or Joel Gion, two of the world’s greatest tambourine players, even though both played in world-famous rock bands (most especially Davy, who played with The Monkees).
One reason why guitar has so much learning potential is that it has an enormous range of sound. In fact, its versatility of expression is probably unmatched.
First off you have several different kinds of guitars: acoustic, classical, and electric, each with their own unique sound. Then you have alternate tunings, different string materials and weights, and different numbers of strings (6, 7, 8, 12). Then there’s the multitude of playing styles that incorporate different combinations of fingerpicking, capos, brass, steel, and glass slides, and finger tapping, not to mention the full array of stomp box effects pedals, pickups, and amplifiers that can be combined with any electric guitar to make almost limitless kinds of noises.
With such a vast scope of sound at its disposal, the guitar can handle just about every genre, except maybe opera. But that’s debatable. I bet Joe Satriani could do a pretty mean version of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.”
‘[Guitar’s] versatility of expression is probably unmatched.’
Another arrow in the quiver of this six-stringed archer is its limitless mobility. Take it from me – you can take this thing anywhere. I brought two guitars with me to Nepal: one dreadnaught for street performing, and one camper size for backpacking.
The latter was an especially wise choice, since I recently spent three weeks way up in the mountaintop village of Kolki in Lamjung, Nepal, where there’s no running water, no roads, certainly no Internet, and oftentimes no power either.
The village is only 180 km (111 miles) from Kathmandu, but its location is so remote that it took me and my team a full one and a half days’ journey to get there – the last a half-day-long, grueling, several-thousand-foot vertical ascent on foot.
My camper guitar was small and robust enough to fit comfortably into my 70+10-liter trekking backpack, and soon after arriving I was entertaining the entire 150-student body of the Himalaya Secondary School during their daily assembly with a rendition of my song “Johanna.” This would have been slightly more difficult on a piano.
Popularity and Influence
The last and perhaps most deciding factor in guitar’s greatness is its sheer popularity and consequent influence.
Think of any great popular band from the last fifty years and I bet you they had a guitarist. Chances are they probably had two. The Beatles and Rolling Stones each had three.
What do the street performer, the singer/songwriter at your local open mic, and the background musician at your favorite upscale restaurant all have in common? More often than not, they all use a guitar.
‘Think of any great popular band from the last fifty years and I bet you they had a guitarist.’
It’s hard to imagine the invention of another instrument as well rounded and consummate as the axe. And then there’s that – its nickname is totally badass: the axe.
So if you’re looking for an instrument that’s simple to learn, full of potential, easily accessible, expressively versatile, universally appreciated, and infinitely mobile – and has a badass nickname to boot – there’s only one instrument for you, my friend. Go get yourself a guitar.
By Cody Robinson
Cody is a professional singer, songwriter, performer, and recording artist. His instruments include bass, trumpet, drums, harmonica, piano, and most especially guitar. In his spare time he travels, brands businesses, and makes lists of his many accomplishments.
Cody is a student at the University of Utah under his own self-created degree, Music Business and Technology, but currently lives in Kathmandu, Nepal, providing humanitarian aid to the victims of the recent earthquake.