The Diary Of A Guitarist: A Guide For Beginning Guitarists

A guide for beginning guitarists based off of my personal learning experience and the things I wish someone had told me.

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I am a self taught musician, and primarily a guitarist, and wanted to share some truths I've discovered in my journey. While some of the things I talk about seem to be extremely obvious, they weren't obvious for me when I picked up the guitar and decided to learn to express myself with the instrument. (As a side note, that is a goal I haven't accomplished yet expressing myself with the guitar though I am a lot closer than the day I started). Following are some observations: 1. Learn cover songs, not for their own sake but for the peripheral things this teaches you. Learning cover songs does a lot of desirable things. For one, it trains your brain to memorize a song. It causes you to stretch your technique and ability to play the more complicated passages and it gives you examples of music theory in practice. The trick is to always pick songs to cover that force you to stretch your ability, and that you will enjoy playing. A friend of mine once told me when I was starting out that learning to play cover songs is not being a musician; it is being a CD player. I can see that this would be the case if you are just blindly reproducing songs that aren't challenging your skills, but if you are learning songs that are a stretch for you, and you are paying attention to the chord progressions, etc., then it will always be a worthwhile learning experience. 2. There is nothing wrong with trying to play like your favorite guitarists. I seriously have watched hundreds of hours of concert footage of my favorite musicians, and I do try to emulate them. When I apply vibrato or just a string bend I am always either trying to emulate Carlos Santana or Steve Vai. When I am playing a complex melody I am trying to emulate Frank Zappa or Robert Fripp. When I am trying to play some really solid rhythm work then I am trying to emulate Adrian Belew or Dave Mustaine. When I compose, depending on the type of music I am working on, I am trying to emulate Dave Mustaine, Frank Zappa or Isaac Brock. When I write lyrics and vocal melody I am trying to emulate Isaac Brock, Frank Zappa or Jeff Mangum. I think the trick is to appreciate your guitar heroes for their strengths and to attempt to emulate their strengths instead of just copying their riffs and licks. 3. Don't practice scales and modes for any longer than is absolutely necessary. We all have different goals as musicians, and maybe your goal is to be a pure shred lead guitarist. If this is the case, then you may need to spend hours a day practicing scales, modes, etc. But my primary goal as a guitarist is to make music that I enjoy, and while I do enjoy improvising solos and fast single note runs, it is not my end-all be-all goal. I've found that when I practice scales and modes for too long that I tend to enjoy playing guitar less, and I'm more likely to find excuses to skip my practice time or cut it short. However, when I practice scales and modes as my warm up for no longer than 5 10 minutes, then I notice my fingers are limber, I retain more from a memorization standpoint and I enjoy the rest of my practice much more, and so I tend to practice more often and for longer. 4. Don't learn any more music theory than is absolutely necessary. Learning music theory is great and very useful, but trying to take it all in as quickly as possible is a bad idea in my mind. I would say at most learning the major and minor scale and the pentatonic major and minor, and then learning basic chord theory is plenty of music theory to start out with. I know people who have studied music theory to the point where they lose interest in playing and have told me they have lost all joy in playing guitar because the whole time they are playing or writing they are more intellectually absorbed in music theory instead of the SOUNDS they are playing or composing. Here is the thing about music theory it is theory it is a bunch of good ideas that people have had in the past that have become a curriculum for anyone wanting to learn guitar or any other instrument. And music theory should be a tool you use instead of rules you have to follow, and if you find yourself intellectualizing the creative process to the point where you aren't enjoying your instrument, then it isn't serving its purpose. 5. Learn the CAGED system. This is probably the most valuable learning system I've discovered. The premise behind it is training your brain and muscle memory as to where all the notes on the neck are, and learning the basic chord shapes that can be applied anywhere on the neck, learning some very basic chord theory and using this in order to create any chord variation you need in any position very quickly and teaches strategy for better soloing. I'm not doing a very good job of explaining the CAGED system, but there are some awesome DVDs called Fretboard Navigator that are worth checking out. 6. Play with other musicians as soon as and as often as possible. It doesn't matter if you aren't that good yet, it doesn't matter if they don't play the type of music you like, it doesn't matter if you don't have the best equipment, etc. When you start playing with other musicians you begin to establish an internalized sense of meter/timing that you will not get from a metronome. When you play with other musicians you will learn things from playing with and watching them even when you think they have nothing to teach you. When you play with other musicians you are going to meet other people with similar instruments that will help keep you motivated to learn and play. Also, playing with other musicians is a lot of fun and very fulfilling, even if they aren't playing the music you would be playing on your own. Well, that is all I have to share right now. This is the first column I've ever written, and I hope it is helpful.

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21 comments sorted by best / new / date

    NiveK686
    Awesome advice! This really helps, and if you are just starting this is going to be helpful!
    nbur4556
    Not much of a lesson, more of a "what to focus on" thing, but I still liked it, and even though it didn't actually tell me how to play better, it gave me some good ideas, and helps me know what to focus on.
    Leon987
    I am trying to teach my little sister some stuff, the only problem is that I like damn hard soloing on electric, and she likes just some simple acoustic chords, but as far as your article is concered: very good, please do go on!!!
    Im_Broken
    Prekket wrote: Nah. Theory is eventually required if you really wanna express things in your music. That being said this is pretty sound advice ...
    no it doesnt. feeling is all you want o express. there is nothing saying that you cant just put down your guitar, and grab a pick and a bottle, and slide that baby all day long.
    Thomas Vela
    on my first year of playing about once a week or even a month i would get a fantastic piece in my head, i didnt know and music theory because i was only 12 but i would keep the piece in my head and play it over and over again in my head until i remember every single note, then one day i played note by note on the guitar (literally would take me days) until i knew how to play the whole song on 4 different parts of the guitar, then i realized wut a scale is and music theory. ever since then i use a scale of 7 notes. then repeat it on different octaves, i dont know if im explaining it right because i never had a music teacher. anyways, this is for beginners. if you ever have a great piece in your head, be patient and try finding every note from first to last on the guitar, it will consume alot of time but you will get better then after much much practice you will be able to play anything in your head as you play guitar.
    Thomas Vela
    Prekket wrote: Nah. Theory is eventually required if you really wanna express things in your music. That being said this is pretty sound advice ...
    i understand wut he means, i have been playing for 3 years now, i dont know the names to scales but i know the theory for every scale and mode,but when i practice it too much ( and hour or so) i start getting very bored and eventually dont even feel like playing anymore then i get stuck and dont get any better, but if i just play wuts in my head i get better and better, i agree with both of you, but you need to BALANCE theory and sound. i dont know if im explaining it right but anyways, thanks for the advice, i teach guitar and this will help me teach
    Romper Stomper
    I agree with what he's saying, I almost got turned off from playing guitar because I was trying to learn too much too fast, when I took a step back, started playing stuff I could play well, I enjoyed it a lot more. I spend time practicing scales to warm up for 20- 30 minutes then I do some covers for equal time.
    TomusAM
    This will help tons of beginners out. But on number4, I would like to say studying theory is amazing. I love having the ability to know how to make a certain sound. But hey, everyone is different. I can see why theory can be boring to some people, it just fascinates me.
    goo94
    this is all good advice man! I'd agree that theory is great, but sometimes it can kind of kills the fun of playing if you end up trying to tick the boxes rather then play what sounds good. I found that when writing music coursework and referring to theory constantly led to me not enjoying what i was doing, and that led to a sucky piece of music; it could have been better from just coming up with ideas from playing around and not worrying about (for example) using too many minor notes or if the chords are making a perfect cadence.
    Skuzzmo
    Cool, nice piece....and very, very true. I'll come back soon to see the argument that this aricle will invariably start... lol
    katalyzt13
    I like most of it aside from advocating the CAGED system. Id argue that a begining guitarist should learn their major scales across one string and in one octave patterns before learning CAGED shapes.
    Of course if you don't learn the major scale before attempting to learn the CAGED system it isn't going to do you any good. In my personal learning experience I found that the CAGED system gave me a better perspective in general about what I was playing when I was playing chords, it made me more aware of different voicings, etc., and helped me break away from just chording on the first 5 frets or so. Before the caged system I almost looked at the first 5 frets like they are for rhythm and above that is all for solos...the CAGED system helped me get comfortable playing in more positions, with my soloing and my rhythm. There may be a much better system, but that is the best I found in my internet wanderings when I was learning.
    tehREALcaptain
    I like most of it aside from advocating the CAGED system. Id argue that a begining guitarist should learn their major scales across one string and in one octave patterns before learning CAGED shapes.
    prsrulz91
    Let It Be0o0 wrote: Prekket wrote: Nah. Theory is eventually required if you really wanna express things in your music. That being said this is pretty sound advice ... Yeah theory is actually very neccessary, much more than this article points it out to be. Although he does have a good point with not being overwhelmed with theory, solid article
    I think he is emphasizing the necessity to not overwhelm yourself with theory right off the bat. I know that I didn't even look into learning diatonic scales and modes until I felt solid in my expressiveness with my pentatonic and standard major/minor scales. In contrast, I have a friend who managed to take in a shit ton of theory in 2 and a half years of playing and then ended up losing all interest in playing again
    pigeonmafia
    When people say dont try and emulate your ideal, they mean technique wise, so you dont pick up bad habits. And music theory is incredibly useful if you know how to apply it. It allows you to work out how to get the sound you want as opposed to just noodling around. If someone ends up thinking just about music theory and not about 'the sound', that's because they never learned how to apply the knowledge.
    Let It Be0o0
    Prekket wrote: Nah. Theory is eventually required if you really wanna express things in your music. That being said this is pretty sound advice ...
    Yeah theory is actually very neccessary, much more than this article points it out to be. Although he does have a good point with not being overwhelmed with theory, solid article
    SEALSniper1152
    Prekket wrote: Nah. Theory is eventually required if you really wanna express things in your music. That being said this is pretty sound advice ...
    +1. I thought like this article in my first year of playing; now, after taking music theory classes in college I realize how much more I would have progressed had I learned theory sooner. Theory is a beautiful thing.
    Prekket
    Nah. Theory is eventually required if you really wanna express things in your music. That being said this is pretty sound advice ...
    Descendingangel
    whoa...this has got to be the best advice i've heard (or read). All this really made me think twice =)