The one thing that I have run across in my 25+ years of teaching guitar is that it is not an easy instrument to learn. Thousands of people buy guitars every year, learn to finger a few chords or play a few riffs through tablature or YouTube videos and are happy with that level of playing or become frustrated with their lack of progress and either quit or look for lessons.
I own a brick and mortar music school in Southern California. Before that I had taught guitar privately and in the classroom so I have “fought the good fight” with literally thousands of students of all ages and levels of experience. The common thread that I see running through most students’ struggling with the instrument is that they lack an internalization of both their physical skills to play the instrument and of music itself.
For my purposes, internalization refers to owning your information or skills well enough that you don’t need to consciously think about them to make music. They become as automatic or involuntary as breathing or walking. These skills (especially the most fundamental ones) are the building blocks that we make music from.
The physical skills portion of this is easy to fix. It just requires hours and hours of practice in a constructive manner, and with the student working on the information in smaller and easily digestible “bites”. When I was in college one of my professors put it this way: if I walked an elephant in here and gave you a fork and knife could you eat it in one sitting? Probably not. But if we ate an elephant steak every day for a year you could work your way through all of it. Learn your music a bite at a time, digest it and let it become musical nutrition for you.
Play a new scale SLOWLY with a metronome to make sure you have it right before trying to shred a solo with it. Accuracy and speed are two different musical parameters. You can only improve one at a time and you should have something accurate before you make it fast. Smaller bites!
Sometimes the most important bites are the ones that define the most basic of concepts. I have had students on break from a national tour with their band not understand basic subdivisions of time or even where their notes are on the fretboard. And the vast majority of my students do not know how to read music.
The music reading thing is a problem. If you were to learn any other instrument you would expect that reading music would be part of the learning process and through that process you would learn what and where your notes are on your instrument. You would also learn how to read and play rhythms, dynamics, articulations and all sorts of information that makes music….musical. Lots of “blocks” to build from in learning to read music. And yeah, I’m mixing metaphors between elephant steaks and building materials, but I think you get the idea 🙂
Music reading on the guitar is (in my estimation) more difficult than pretty much any other instrument between a complex fretboard layout and the fact that you have two hands trying to master two completely different skill sets for this all to come together. If you go the classical guitar route then you are definitely learning to read music. The majority of my students happen to be rock, blues and jazz enthusiasts though. My “kid” students all end up learning to read music at least a little bit because I’m mean that way.
When I teach my adult students I’ve needed to find ways around the music reading “thing”. Most adults have preconceived notions of how they should learn and limited time in their busy schedules to work on what is for them essentially a hobby. If I get obnoxious with the music school stuff on them they’ll most likely get burnt out and quit playing altogether. This is where the “smaller bites” concept starts paying dividends….
At the core of all of this, what my job has become is to teach people how to make specific sounds in a specific rhythm. Music on a very fundamental level is just a series of pitched sounds happening in time. If we can teach you to internalize how the most basic subdivisions of time work and we can organize the pitched sounds in a way that makes sense to your ears we are on our way to become a musician, and not just a guitar owner.
In the attached video I discuss subdivisions of time. I am aiming this at beginning and early-intermediate players who have some ability on the instrument but might struggle a bit with playing in time. You can do the single note exercises with any scale that you know and the rhythm guitar stuff can be on any barre or movable chord shape. What is important is that you get the concept of subdivision of time, as it happens in real time. When we play music in the real world there is no time to stop and go back to fix something and if you slow down to think about what is coming up next or how to finger a difficult chord or any of that. Becoming acclimated to (and able to play music in) the consistent flow of time in music is vital.
If you want to start working on the “pitched’ component of your musicianship, my “CAGED and Beyond” workshop is now available on TrueFire.com.