Most guitarists brought up in my era learned to play guitar from a variety of sources… guitar instructors, friends, books, copying our favorite artist, etc. We worked hard for our ability to play and are sometimes pretty proud of it, but when it comes to teaching others we lack a systematic model to teach from.
The thing is there really is a faster, easier and less frustrating way to learn. One way to look at learning guitar secret #3 is that there are building blocks to learning guitar. There’s a best first thing, then second thing, third thing, and so on. When done correctly and in order it can save a lot of time and save you from the frustration of undoing bad habits.
My Story And A Confession
Now I didn’t always get this concept myself. When I first started teaching I wanted to make my students happy. I thought the best way to do that was to teach them what they wanted to learn.
Makes sense, right?
I started off teaching them songs that I thought they would like and that were easy for beginners. Then I began “taking requests”. You probably know the drill. The student likes a pop/rock song (some popular song at the time) … so I’d figure out how to play it, and then I’d teach them the chords and perhaps the cool lick that everybody knew.
I confess I knew this wasn’t the best way to teach but at the time I didn’t know what else to do.
The Stairway To Playing Beautiful Guitar
I had several students who wanted to learn the then-popular song “Stairway To Heaven” by the band Led Zeppelin. I could understand their motivation. That was one of the songs that inspired me as a young teenager to go from being an avid music listener to practicing guitar for hours on end.
Being the “good” teacher, I would encourage them to learn some basics first. For the next several months they would occasionally ask me if and when it was time to learn something “cool.” Finally I would give in and teach them the beginning of the elusive “Stairway to Heaven,” the mark that they were on their way to becoming a real guitar player.
At first their practice time doubled, and I could see wisps of smoke coming from their ears from how hard they were working. The more determined continued this way for months as I showed them more and more of the song.
Eventually though, even the most die-hard had to admit that it just didn’t sound great, or at least not much like the album (yes, it was albums in those days). Then they would begin the process again with another cool lick or song like Smoke On The Water, Iron Man, Crazy Train, etc. I guess I’m dating myself. (I prefer the term “Classic Rock” to oldies).
Was I Teaching Bad Guitar Learning Habits?
After about a year of teaching I began to realize something that I couldn't quite see when I first began learning guitar myself. The students could muddle through some cool licks and parts of songs, but they weren’t learning anything that would actually lead to really being able to play guitar.
In fact, they were developing some bad habits, like tensing their fingers and poor hand position, to play something they weren’t properly prepared for. These bad habits would have to be undone later if they were going to progress. And I was to blame, and some of my own first teachers were guilty of the same offense.
What Does Really Work?
After this first year of teaching I began to study and work hard… not only at being a good teacher, but I was also developing an excellent teaching system and materials to support my students. I found that when I stuck to solid teaching principles the system and materials pretty much fell into place.
Here’s are some of the most important learning principles that you can use to learn to play beautiful guitar:
Learn The Fundamentals
Depending on the style of music, some fundamentals are more important than others in the beginning. For example, it is more important to learn good note-reading skills when playing classical guitar than it is when playing rock guitar. But there are always fundamentals, and learning them first will give you a solid foundation to work from. Skipping important fundamentals will cause you undue pain and suffering.
Imagine trying to get to the top of a three-story building with no stairs or ladder. You’d have to scale the side of the building. No problem for Spider Dude, but for the average person it would be slightly demotivating. Now imagine putting a ladder against the side of the building. Even if you’re afraid of heights like I am, you could just avoid looking down while you put one foot up after another. Very doable.
Prepare, Prepare, Prepare
Use exercises or simpler versions to prepare for more difficult material coming up. For example, to prepare for the infamous bar chord I use an exercise that strengthens the index finger long before I present the first bar chord. Before learning a song in a particular key I have the student play simple chord progressions in that key.
Watch this video for an example of a step-by-step method for learning bar chords.
If someone has stiff fingers I start with a simpler “G” chord and expand to a more difficult one later, then an even more difficult one after that. All three versions of the G chord will be useful later on, depending on what they are playing. In a way they get three chords for the price of one.
This all requires a very experienced instructor with a good system, or possibly a well-thought-out system delivered through multimedia (DVD or Internet).
One More Thing…
Over the years I’ve literally talked to thousands people as music school director at Starland. I conduct something called a Musical Learning Needs Analysis with potential students. This is a system of questions I’ve developed to help me uncover enough information to make recommendations on how best to proceed.
The one thing I hear over and over again from guitar students is that they have tried to learn from books, videos, friends, or relatives, and they can’t seem to make significant progress. When I ask what they have been learning, I discover that they are often practicing something not even remotely close to what is appropriate for their level of experience, interests, and goals.
But Here’s What Really Concerns Me
Their assumption is almost always that there is “something wrong with me”. Not their friend’s or relative’s lack of teaching experience or their choice of materials… but their own ability to learn.
Now these are the people who have decided to give it another try. I can’t help but wonder how many more people tried and will never come back to it.Been there, done that, it didn’t work… I must not have what it takes. 🙁
Don’t be one of those people. Playing any instrument is a rather complex skill. As with learning any complex skill, there are principles to learning. By following these principles anyone can be successful at learning guitar… including, and especially YOU.
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