Pete Seeger Teaches You How to Play Guitar for Free in The Folksinger’s Guitar Guide (1955)


Image by Josef Schwarz, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Along with earnest polit­i­cal pop­ulism and a renewed inter­est in region­al cul­tures, the folk revival of the fifties and six­ties brought with it a lib­er­at­ing sense of pos­si­bil­i­ty, as young writ­ers, singers, and artists dis­cov­ered that, tru­ly, any­one can play gui­tar. Or rather, any­one can pick up most any stringed instru­ment and, with a few fun­da­men­tals, enjoy the expe­ri­ence of writ­ing and play­ing music in a way that seemed unavail­able or for­bid­ding before peo­ple like Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan appeared on the scene.

Both pop­u­lar­iz­ers of Woody Guthrie’s Depres­sion-era bal­lads and of obscure blues and folk artists, Dylan and Seeger took very dif­fer­ent approach­es to their art. The for­mer cul­ti­vat­ed a mys­tique that seems impos­si­ble to pen­e­trate, and that has made him seem—as Todd Haynes’ mas­ter­ful film I’m Not There dramatizes—like a series of dif­fer­ent peo­ple. But Seeger has always been Seeger, from his gen­tle, aw-shucks demeanor and warm acces­si­bil­i­ty to his staunch­ly pro­gres­sive mes­sages that speak to chil­dren and reg­u­lar folks as well as to those with more sophis­ti­cat­ed tastes and tal­ents.

So it seems only nat­ur­al that Seeger released an album of gui­tar instruc­tion, The Folksinger’s Gui­tar Guide, addressed to both begin­ners and more advanced play­ers. “I guess any musi­cal instru­ment can be as hard to play as you want to make it,” Seeger begins, in one of his char­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly flu­id tran­si­tions from song to speech: “If you want­ed to be a per­son like Andres Segovia or Mer­le Travis, why it would take a life­time of train­ing. But for most of us, play­ing a gui­tar can be about as sim­ple as walk­ing.” After that reas­sur­ing com­par­i­son, he does remind us, how­ev­er, that “it took us all a cou­ple years to learn how to walk.”

Seeger begins with first steps—tuning the instrument—and patient­ly leads his lis­ten­ers through some basic chord shapes, strum­ming tech­niques, and then more advanced pick­ing meth­ods, alter­nate tun­ings, and styles like Fla­men­co, “Rhum­ba Rhythm,” and “Mex­i­can Blues.” You can lis­ten to the album track-by-track on Spo­ti­fy, fur­ther up. (You can also find it kick­ing around on YouTube.) Like the great edu­ca­tor he was, Seeger also includes some help­ful visu­al aids in the album’s lin­er notes (see them here), includ­ing draw­ings of chord fin­ger­ings, musi­cal nota­tion, and gui­tar tab­la­ture for those who don’t read music. In addi­tion to his read­able instruc­tions, he also includes the lyrics to all of the folk songs ref­er­enced through­out.

“Prac­tice each small sec­tion over and over,” he writes in his intro­duc­tion, “until it comes easy. Actu­al­ly, if you enjoy play­ing the gui­tar, you shouldn’t think of it as prac­tic­ing, in the for­mal sense. Rather sim­ply play for your own enjoy­ment and that of your friends.” He also rec­om­mends that his lis­ten­ers “beg, bor­row, or steal” the records he ref­er­ences in the book­let, for “they will be of help to you in giv­ing you an idea of the scope and pos­si­bil­i­ties of the instru­ment.” I can’t think of a music teacher more invit­ing than Seeger, nor a method more relaxed.

A sec­ond vol­ume fea­tur­ing Jer­ry Sil­ver­man appeared soon after, and upped the ante a good bit. “Musi­cal stan­dards are on the rise,” Sil­ver­man says in his intro­duc­tion, “the vir­tu­oso folk gui­tarist is on the scene.” He promis­es to help the “strum­ming pop­u­la­tion… keep pace with the upward spi­ral.” You can be the judge of how suc­cess­ful he is in that effort. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, we don’t have Silverman’s sup­ple­men­tary mate­ri­als avail­able, but you can lis­ten to the com­plete Folksinger’s Gui­tar Guide: Vol­ume 2 above.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

James Tay­lor Gives Free Acoustic Gui­tar Lessons Online

Learn to Play Gui­tar for Free: Intro Cours­es Take You From The Very Basics to Play­ing Songs In No Time

Paul McCart­ney Offers a Short Tuto­r­i­al on How to Play the Bass Gui­tar

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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