I’ve been playing guitar for more than 25 years. I’ve taken lessons with multiple teachers, read books, studied flashcards, played in bands, and jammed with friends. But I think if you took all the skills and knowledge I had about playing guitar you could teach it to someone in maybe 6 months or less.
Guitar is Hard
Guitar is a difficult instrument to learn. There’s the fact that you have six strings that are pretty similar in tuning (so easily get confused) right next to each other. There’s coordination with the left and right hands. There’s multiple ways to play the same thing. And there’s the F chord. I wonder how many fledgling guitarists quit when they got to the F chord. Or if they managed that, then B minor.
To play those chords (and many others), requires you to work through a fair amount of physical pain and repetition. Your hands, over time, magically seem to learn it. But it can be a really long slog up to a mountaintop that never seems to get any closer.
Results From My Latest 3 Months of Practice
But what I want to talk about is learning methods. I have recently been doing two things: speed drills and practicing with videos on TrueFire.com
I use timed drills to increase my speed (using a metronome). Getting faster meant, at times, going slower and figuring out where exactly I was being sloppy or fumbling ever so slightly with my fingers. Small changes in technique had big payouts, but it was like panning for gold to find where the problems were. Overall, I think the drills are worth it. Maybe just 10 minutes a day is probably enough. There’s something weird about how you can practice and not get it, then sleep that night and then the next day you might be better. It seems like most of my strides with guitar are because I struggle during the day and at night my brain figures out how to remove the struggle.
With TrueFire, I have a few problems. First, there’s too many videos and not a good way to find a teacher I will like and a video that is at my level. Each series has a ton of videos, so even when I find something I like I have to dig within that series to find what applies to me. I learned some really good techniques that were new and helpful but a lot of time I was watching stuff I already knew and while review is helpful it also drained some of my energy and enthusiasm that I had when I sat down to play.
But here’s an observation I’ve made and my friend Fred concurred with: Most teachers I’ve had over the years learned by listening to and playing with their favorite records. They often didn’t have teachers or do drills or scales. Many famous guitarists can’t read music or even tell you exactly what they are playing.
Why, then, are the teachers always assigning exercises and drills so you can learn to play when it’s not how they learned to play?
Perhaps it’s because of some mentality of “This is how teaching works. There’s exercises.” Is this whole focus on exercises and canned experiences just because they think that’s what teaching looks like?
Perhaps they learned in what they feel is a roundabout way and they want to help you take a more direct route. Get the foundations right, they say.
Hey guess what. I’m not here to lay concrete and level land. I’m here to rock. If I show up with a guitar and you want me to trade it in for a shovel for a few months, you’ve just made the mountain steeper and we’re just not going to last long.
I recently finished reading the book Ultralearning by Scott Young, which gave me a new perspective on learning. The ultralearner’s primary method is directness. They just do the thing they want to do. They buy a flight to France, get off the plane and start practicing French – even if they don’t know any. They sign up for talent contests and competitions that they have no experience for. They force themselves into the awkward and difficult and frustrating and hard situations that are just like what they want to do. They don’t sit at home researching and learning from books and podcasts and videos. They just go do the thing.
Reflecting on what I know about guitar and how much I remember about where I learned it, only the most basic stuff came from teachers’ drills. Most of it came from me fiddling around and trying to make sense of it on my own: the relationships between notes and chords, the fingerings, chord progressions. And listening to songs and trying to mimic the songs’ chord progressions and solos and baselines. Trying to understand how things are constructed, experimenting with other constructions and seeing what happens. Being curious and mimicking the things I liked to hear.
There is a joy in figuring out a solo of a song you like. I wonder what the full effect of that power is? Does it help you get through it without getting bored as easily as you do with drills? Does it have an emotional connection to you which allows you to learn better – like how they say people who fall in love with a person who speaks a different language learn that language more quickly? Are emotional bonds some kind of superhighway to understanding?
Music communicates. I’m not talking about lyrics. I’m talking about music. It’s some kind of language you learn. A song you like is in a language you already understand. Struggle with that for a while and learn the rest of the language. Going up and down modal scales is not a language that appeals to me. I don’t speak it. Learning modes is like learning swahili: there is no resonance. But learning songs I love is like learning spanish or a language more like english: it’s familiar and inviting in ways that feel familiar.
Drills and modes, I suspect, suffer from the “Transfer” problem. Sure I can learn these modes and scales. But since they are completely absent of songs or the feelings I want to have during songs, I’m not able to move that knowledge to the musical context. For a beginner, there’s no road between theory and music. (Though I bet at some point I might become curious about why a certain lick or chord progression works and then I could dig into the technical reasons to expand my knowledge.)
So I’m going to start with the music and work my way back to the theory (as needed and only as a means, not an end).
Going Forward: Direct and Curious
For the next few months I’m just going to identify solos I like, try to figure them out, then create a questions book and/or flashcard list that I can remember the licks and relationships of things better. I’m going to dig in and get curious.