Martha Masters is a big fish in the guitar world. She is a wonderful prize-winning guitarist and head of the Guitar Foundation of America. Her credentials are impeccable. These books are by Martha with Tom Dempsey, a jazz guitarist. It is not clear exactly how he contributed.
So when one of the best-known and respected players on the planet writes books on how to play the guitar, we need to take notice. Guitar 101 is a course book for adults in two volumes. I don’t believe it is widely available in the U.K., and since it is a predominantly self-study book, we may not encounter many students arriving with it – but you never know.
It is complicated because there are occasional references to a teacher, and duet parts for the teacher to play. If a teacher is involved, then much of the book may become academic in any case, because a good teacher will have their own tried and trusted methods of conveying so many of the concepts contained therein.
This is split into three sections: Technique and reading music; Chords and Songs; Improvisation.
It is nearly impossible to assess anyone’s efforts in conveying “how to read music” if we already do. Everything Martha says makes sense to me and seems well explained, but I can read music, so it would. If I place myself in the chair of the student with a new guitar and a new enthusiasm for embarking on a voyage into music, it might seem a bit off-putting.
I fell in love with the guitar because I heard it. I want to hear myself play it. But lesson one is full of academia and no mention of a guitar yet. It’s the nature of the beast which is the problem, not Martha. We learn spoken languages aurally, only later developing literacy. Children can chatter to their friends without reading a word. It can be the same on the guitar of course – but not if I am left alone with a book. Now we need a language.
If we agree that tablature is a short-term and limited solution, then developing literacy in music has to be important. Martha presents her new students with a mountain to climb before they have plucked a note. That’s not a criticism – it’s a truism. Students coming at the guitar with no background in music will be intellectually challenged on many fronts.
When we do pick up the guitar, Martha takes us through good and bad sitting positions, finger movement and pick control. Open string exercises with semi quavers turn up early on. I like this. How many semibreves do guitarists play? So why we are taught beat multiples rather than a subdivision, is a mystery. Page 34 is the first time the teacher is invited to get involved with a duet. It is page 42 before the left hand is mentioned.
She takes the student progressively through 1st position, and gets to tab on page 60. There’s some odd juxtapositions – a Bach minuet is followed with an introduction to the electric guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan. When we finally meet 6/8 time it receives the most cursory introduction before we have to play a piece. I anticipate the self-taught student needing a lot more help than Martha offers. It isn’t until page 116 of this 152 page book that we get to chords – so this tells you how much weight has been given to developing notation skills.
There is good advice on the barre but poor advice on strumming. No serious strummer would use the elbow as the only fulcrum, but this is what we are told is the best way to do things. The chord charts place the dots equidistant between the frets, which of course is NOT what we do with our fingers. Martha does not give us full songs – rather she advises us of a strumming pattern and the chords needed. The CD, which did not accompany the review books, will offer us the remaining insight apparently.
The final section on improvisation encourages experimentation at a very simple – one note per bar rate. There are some pentatonic chord patterns and some ideas on how to play a Blues.
This is an extension of the first book. Positions, power chords, polyphony, and more advanced chords are introduced. The layout is clear and the material more useful to a teacher because the rudiments have been discarded now and it is assumed we have a platform for more advanced study. The fonts are clear and as with volume one, objectives and aims are stated – together with tests to make sure that the knowledge is being assimilated. It seemed odd to have spent all of volume one teaching how to read music and then in volume two having most of the pieces written simultaneously in notation AND tablature. The lazy student will inevitably read the latter.
These books need testing on students. Until that time, the efficacy of them is hard to determine. In trying to be all things to all players, and in being unsure whether these are solo or teacher-led books, there are inevitably holes, missed opportunities and of course either too little or too much information – depending on how the material is used. I think the mistake is trying to apply too broad a brush to this world. The guitar in two books…….well it was always going to be an optimist who thought it possible.