Customer Reviews: Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning
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This is an interesting book. It's easy to read and tells a fairly compelling story about a 40 year old professor who always wanted to be a musician finally taking the plunge. This book is a story about human learning told through the perspective of music. The specifics are music and guitar, but that's really not what the book is about.

The Amazon description includes this sentence: "Guitar Zero stands the science of music on its head, debunking the popular theory of an innate musical instinct and many other commonly held fallacies."

Not so. The author specifically states he believes in innate musical talent and he counts himself as one is who lacking even normal levels. Part of what makes the book interesting his his struggle against this lack and ultimately the degree of progress he makes despite this obstacle.

I think this book will be of interest to those who are musically inclined but please be aware that this is most certainly not in any respect a how-to book. This book does not teach you how to play the guitar or any other musical instrument. Instead it is a rather inspiring story of someone who followed his heart fairly late in life and what he learned in the process.
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on January 20, 2012
I'm enjoying this book a lot. I've been teaching guitar to adult beginners for nearly 40 years which is a privilege, because it means I get to be in the presence of courage on a daily basis. Gary chronicles his personal journey as a adult beginner on guitar, but from the perspective of an expert on learning & language acquisition, with all the understandings his profession have given him. He encourages all learners to just KEEP GOING; keep trying. Guitar is complicated. So is music. Gary's understanding of the specifics of what's hard about it, and strategies for making the most of practice time, are well worth the time it takes to read. Practice doesn't make perfect; it makes permanent. If you can make each note beautiful, you can make a whole piece beautiful. On the other hand, you can't learn to ride a bicycle with it standing still. You've got to do a certain amount of falling down. And it's more fun with friends. And most of all, it's not too late!
Fl!p Breskin
co-founder, Puget Sound Guitar Workshop
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VINE VOICEon January 22, 2012
This book wasn't quite what I had expected, but I wasn't disappointed.
Cognitive psychologist Gary Marcus, who clearly has a history of being "challenged" musically, decides as he approaches the age of 40 to learn to play the guitar. A serendipitous sabbatical from his usual gig teaching at NYU gives him enough leisure that he takes on the project seriously. Guitar Zero (a pun on the popular video game Guitar Hero, for those like me who didn't get it)recounts his adventures, which include playing in a rock band with 11-year-olds at a music camp and MANY MANY hours of practice.
I had expected a memoir of a middle-aged scientist observing himself learning a new skill, which I got, but Marcus also explores many facets of the science of music, such as whether talent or practice is more important, what kinds of music people like and do not like (I was pleased to have my own preferences supported by finding out that the "most unwanted song" would be sung by an operatic soprano.), and how experts and novices differ when they listen to music.
No knowledge of music theory is necessary to enjoy this book. Marcus does a good job of explaining the theory needed along the way, but I do not believe he spends so much time on it that it would annoy a reader who does not need the explanation. As someone who is a contemporary of Marcus' father, I was a little at sea when it came to many of his references to musicians I genuinely had never heard of, and I would have appreciated definitions of pop music guitar terms like "riff" and "lick", but he does talk about Bob Dylan and even mentions the Andrews Sisters.
I picked up a lot of fascinating information from Guitar Hero and was incredibly impressed with what Marcus accomplished as a guitarist. Maybe I should pull out that guitar that has been sitting in the closet for the past 30 years....
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on February 12, 2012
I am an experienced working professional musician. I am also a part-time music teacher.

After almost every band performance someone comes up and says, "I would love to able to play an instrument, but I don't have any musical talent".
I am always amused that people think we were born with the natural ability to play Palm Spring Stomp. The reality is that we were exposed to the song for the first time in August 2011. We learned the Palm Springs Stomp during our weekly practices in September. My band mate arranged the song in October.
We continued to practice Palm Springs Stomp and finally started playing it in public in December.
The process of refining Palm Springs Stomp involved countless of hours of group and personal practice. Adults can learn music, if they work at it.

Gary Marcus has hit the nail on the head with Guitar Zero. This is not a book on music theory. It is a study of skill how adults learn music. I have changed my primary instruments four times in my career. The last time was at the age of 45! My real world experiences confirms the theories expounded in Guitar Zero.

Professor Marcus explains that it is possible to learn an instrument as an adult. He clearly explains the methodology that can be used. Dr. Marcus also gives us the permission to give it a try. This is the kind of encouragement the world needs.

The fact that Gary Marcus plays the guitar like someone with only one years experience is not relevant to the value of the book. The review that said so eloquently that "his guitar playing sucks" demonstrates a major block to anyone learning to play an instrument. The unwarranted criticism of beginning students is damaging. Its OK to be a beginner!

Its OK for adults to struggle to learn to play an instrument. If they follow the advise of Gary Marcus, the journey will be less painful.
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on January 21, 2012
I eagerly downloaded this book and read it over the weekend. It is an excellent primer on the differences between adult and child learning, especially with regard to musical instruments. It tells the compelling story of how the author learned to play guitar and what he learned along the way. I am an adult guitar student and this book answered many questions for me. Easy and enjoyable to read. Give it a go.
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on February 15, 2012
It's a great book, I love it!

I turn 50 next November, I took my first guitar lesson 4 years ago. I took lessons for a year and I've been working on my own since. I'd been making steady progress, but it'd been frustratingly slow going. Before reading this book I'd already fallen in love with playing the guitar, but I'd long ago resigned myself to the notion that I'd never play as well as I'd like. Reading this book gave me hope that with correct practice I could play better and do so more efficiently. I'm greatly encouraged by the progress I've made since finishing the book, particularly since my first read through was less for content than entertainment.
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on February 13, 2012
For the person of any age that wants to understand the bigger picture - the context - for their work/practice, this is it. Gary provides it all - how the brain works to develop complex skill, the relationship between raw talent and practice, and remarkable cross section of various master musicians' developmental processes. He convinces you that your challenges in learning guitar (or any instrument) are no different than anyone else's and that simple enjoyment is reason enough to make the effort. Guitar Zero talks to all of us average joes ... making the commitment, practice and work understandable and enjoyable. Great research; great writing.

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on February 25, 2012
I'm willing to bet that if someone has a better understanding of what Guitar Zero is, as opposed to what it seems to be claiming to be, that they may enjoy it a little more than I did. I'm not saying I didn't enjoy it. I did. It's just . . . well . . .

WHAT I THOUGHT IT WOULD BE: Reading the description and the premise, I thought Guitar Zero would be something of a journal of an adult man learning music and guitar for the first time, and that we get the benefit of an insider's view due to the author's advantage as a psychologist, as well as being educated in many other related fields and being one with the willingness to work hard and do research. This even seemed to be set up in the opening pages of the book, when Marcus said that he set out on his sabbatical with guitar and laptop in hand. I didn't really think it would be a "Day 1: this happened;" "Day 17: this happened;" kind of structure, but I was expecting the book to be ABOUT Gary Marcus's journey into music.

WHAT IT ACTUALLY WAS: Unfocused. I never felt like we got settled down into a flow because Marcus spends so much time touching on so many different subjects all the time. Neurological science, music's historical and cultural origins, interviews with famous guitarists, anecdotes of famous guitarists, talking a lot about how precise a musician's movements have to be, responding a lot (directly and indirectly) to the claims made in Malcom Gladwell's "Outliers' (which, coincidentally, was the book I'd finished reading right before starting this one; how about THAT!), and a little bit about his journey into music. Interestingly enough, the thing he focuses the least on is what I expected the book to be about: him learning guitar. He abandoned that pretty early on, it seems. He did spend a whole chapter talking about his experience at a youth Rock and Roll Camp, but there wasn't much personal stuff after that. By the end of it, I'd read a lot of interesting stuff, but I didn't walk away feeling like I'd been on a journey or anything--that lacking feeling was punctuated by the way he talked about his next musical ventures, such as with the MIDI guitar . . . it's like he headed off to 2nd grade one morning and the next time I see him, thinking it's the next day, he's graduating high school. There's a lot of stuff missing there that I wanted to hear: his struggles with grasping more advanced music theory, his personal guitar lessons, his practice schedule, the things he focused on to learn and build his repertoire, other stage experiences (I felt he implied he had them), and instead I got to hear a lot about gray matter and the creative genius of Bob Dylan.

I read this book for insight and, hopefully, encouragement in my own quest to finally get serious about guitar 2 years ago after 10 years of dinking around, and being met with a barrage of discouragement--external but mostly internal--about my age and how wasting my teens and most of my 20's has ruined my chances of being a great guitarist. I don't really know exactly what I hoped to get from this book in regards to that, but I can say that I was fairly encouraged regardless. So in that respect, I did like it. Hence that fourth star.

If someone asked if I'd recommend it, I'd say, "Yeah, if you want."
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on June 10, 2013
I wanted to like this book; I wanted to learn from this book. Gary Marcus is an obviously talented research psychologist (and I say this, knowing much about the field through my personal studies). He's detailed, almost obsessive, in finding connections to previous research about humans and music. But the book is often dull, and Mr. Marcus' insights on research and the pragmatics of learning music are rarely inspired. Though he excuses his lack of competence, referring to his lack of native ability and neglect of practice, his main fault, in the book and, perhaps, in his study of music, is his egotism. And yet researchers don't speculate much, but that is something that kills this book.

Perhaps it's filler, but Marcus' unfortunate description of the difficulties in music begin in a chart early in the book (page 41) where he details the location of individual notes, strings, and frets. Most any adult could tell you that rote learning of the exact positions of notes is painful and rarely successful. Patterns make up our language of learning, whether it's music or language, or... whatever. You wonder what he was thinking. Marcus also frequently refers to his lack of rhythm, but it is one of the few things not detailed, tutored, or analyzed, despite the relentless effort to find out what music "is". No teacher has been quoted who critiqued his rhythm, or suggested a remedy, but he proposed it as a major block in his progress.

TMI. Mr. Marcus would do well to forget research and just BE. If he wants a substantial topic of research for the rest of his career, it's not music, but how one can over-analyze any task to inhibit real learning.
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on April 5, 2012
As a senior citizen picking up the guitar after a 30 year hiatus, I had hoped this book would shed some light on why I was finding this experience to be much more of a mental than physical challenge and, then, to provide some targeted remediation techniques. No such luck. Guitar Zero offered disappointingly little insight beyond the predictable need to practice what you don't already know- or do well, and the unsurprising finding that "the highest-level performers are likely to be people who combine the greatest talent with the most practice."

Stylistically, the authorship of this book seems to shift between Gary Marcus and Dr. G.F. Marcus. That is to say, Guitar Zero reads in part like a diary--with, for example, lots of celebrity name-dropping and a photo of Gary (as an adult) at band camp with his 10 and 11 year old partners in a rock group--and in greater measure like a research article (as attested by Dr. Marcus' 15 pages of Notes and 25 pages of References). Unfortunately, while Marcus handles each style reasonably well, these aren't effectively melded in Guitar Zero. Especially annoying was the failure to provide any indication in the text that supporting Notes and References are appended for key- and not so key points, as would necessarily be the case in a research review article. While this might make for easier reading of Gary's "diary," it is maddeningly unhelpful to Dr. Marcus' more academic readers.

Overall, I suspect many readers will find something of interest in Guitar Zero. Perhaps some will--unlike me--find it worthwhile to invest the time and expense in doing so.
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