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How To REALLY Play Guitar: Why Some Become Great, Or Not So Great

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Playing guitar is VERY easy. Don’t believe me? Okay, then I’ll tell you exactly what to do: Take your right hand thumb, and just strum the strings. Don’t fret the notes or do anything at all…….

Did you do it? Great! You just played the guitar!!!

Alright not really, sorry about that. But this is just as good an answer to that question, “How do you play the guitar?

That’s because there are thousands of ways to play the guitar. There are just as many ways to play as there are songs, or even people in the world.

Everyone want’s to “play guitar” but the problem is that lots of people never set a more specific goal than that once they’ve walked out of Guitar Center. They may or may not have a specific song or a certain genre that inspires them to set this goal.

What we’ve got to do is dig deeper into the question you’ve asked yourself. A better one perhaps is, “What does playing the guitar entail doing or knowing? What is the difference between someone who can play and who can’t play? How will you know when you can?”

That’s what I hope to help you with…….

There’s hundreds of ways to play the guitar: lead, rhythm, country, metal, jazz, blues, etc. All of these styles of the instrument have their own peculiar chord choices and mixture of techniques.

Because of these wide variety of choices, there is not a specific 8-step method or list of chords that will properly cover the entire spectrum. Your goal isn’t to play all of these genres and learn every technique, more than likely, but this is what every article and method I encountered has assumed.

It’s the same idea that was handed down to you from your school days. Everyone reads the same textbooks, works on the same homework, and is judged by how many right or wrong answers they get. They taught you that everyone learns in the same exact way so they must learn the same exact method and get the same exact answers.

This is absurd in music.

Eddie Van Halen doesn’t play like Andres Segovia, and George Harrison doesn’t play like James Hetfield. The techniques and chords common to one area of music may be totally irrelevant to another.

What’s the solution to this problem? You must start thinking for yourself. You must start making your own mistakes and learning from them.

Listen to what my hero, William Faulkner, has to say about this:

“Let the writer take up surgery or bricklaying if he is interested in technique. There is no mechanical way to get the writing done, no shortcut. The young writer would be a fool to follow a theory. Teach yourself by your own mistakes; people learn only by error. The good artist believes that nobody is good enough to give him advice. He has supreme vanity. No matter how much he admires the old writer, he wants to beat him.”

This doesn’t mean that you’re totally on your own. It just means that YOU are the highest authority when it comes to what music you want to play. No teacher, no guitar website, and not even I can accurately say what you’re wanting to play on the guitar right now.

What I can give you is a set of techniques and a foundation of musical knowledge that applies everywhere throughout the guitar……..

How To Know What You Don’t Know. Make Sense?

The most important problem is that you don’t know what you don’t know. That’s why I’ve explained to you how not having a strong goal and assuming there’s a “method” to playing guitar is detrimental. When you have a list of chords and theory concepts to learn instead of songs you already like, it’s pretty easy to get confused and doubt your ability to learn.

Without further ado, I want to list the skills you actually need to play the guitar:

  • You only need to know five scale patterns and little more than a dozen chord shapes to play the guitar because most riffs, chord progressions, and lead guitar solos are derived from these basic shapes.
  • Guitar players do exercises only to improve finger dexterity and muscle memory so that they can become physically able to play more difficult songs that don’t use typical chord or scale structures. Most of the work of becoming a good guitar player comes from learning actual music.
  • The most difficult obstacle to overcome at first is becoming a better listener of the music you already listen to. Most guitar players are primarily playing “by ear” in that they can easily remember rhythms and melodies that they can match to the guitar tablature in front of them.
  • No, you don’t need to know theory to become a better player with great technique, but it helps you remember the solos and chord progressions as you go along. Otherwise, you’ll just be memorizing lots of meaningless numbers from guitar tabs, and then probably mixing up the locations of those numbers.
  • Guitar does not involve a lot of “practicing.” I personally hate this word because it brings the image of a person playing exercises all day by themselves. Becoming a guitar player is learning how to play songs, which is a lot more fun when you play songs you like and enjoy hearing on your guitar.
  • Lastly you must be able to read guitar tablature, but this entails lots of other smaller skills. You’ve got to be able to hear various guitar techniques in the music you listen to, apply the rhythms you hear to the tab in front of you, identify chord shapes you’ve already memorized, etc. The bad thing about guitar tabs is that it’s really just a hint to how to play a certain riff or song.

As you can now see, it’s not what you think it is. Learning chord shapes and scale patterns as well as reading tablature is something you learn the first day, sure, but everything else is being hidden from your view.

However, these are the most basic skills that even Steve Vai or any pro must use every day.

Music is predominantly a hearing art although our visual and kinesthetic (emotional, feeling) systems come in an awful lot. Learning how to play guitar mostly entails becoming a better listener, and yes, I have more tips for how to do this………

You Can’t Get Better By Watching People Make Music!

There is no 3-Step method for how to play guitar, but if there was, this would be it:

  • Have the music you want to learn to play clear in your mind
  • Match it to the guitar tab in front of you
  • And then use trial and error to get as close to the original version as possible.

However that doesn’t really help you, does it? This is what someone who has learned to play the guitar can do without thinking.

So like I said already, linear step-by-step methods don’t work. Only systems of knowledge can help you.

I keep repeating the word “system” so it’s a good idea to define it:

System: 1. A set of connected things or parts forming a complex whole. 2. A set of things working together as parts of a mechanism or an interconnecting network.         

If you see or hear one thing, then you do X. If X occurs with Y, then you do Z. Like almost every other body of knowledge I’ve encountered, the guitar is played through a set of interrelated concepts and techniques, not solitary guitar chords and scale patterns.

Think of it this way: you don’t use the same tool for every problem do you? A doctor doesn’t try to heal your broken leg with the same method he uses to cure a sore throat, does he?

What a doctor actually does is diagnose the problem as accurately as they can so they can give the proper treatment. This is why they spend so much time studying biology, chemistry, and anatomy & physiology, amongst other things.

In music, you must know a little about a wide variety of musical knowledge in order to determine the best solution to the guitar tab in front of you (that is, if you want to be a good player). Here’s a sample list of those topics:

  • Various up/down strumming techniques and rhythms for chord progressions
  • Downpicking, alternate picking, tremolo picking, travis picking, fingerpicking; all of which are right hand techniques
  • Powerchords, major and minor chords, and all their different positions across the neck
  • Many types of scales as well as their construction
  • Guitar tricks like pick harmonics, whammy bar dives, tapping, etc.
  • Applying all of these techniques to various chord progressions or even in combination of each other.
  • Ability to break down riffs and chord progressions as they’re heard on the record in order to determine which of these techniques go where.

Once again it’s all about becoming a better listener. Even though I’ve listed all of these concepts and jargon, you more than likely have no references to what they are or how you could identify them if you were to see them later.

The awkwardness and difficulty involved in learning how to play guitar is doing the work so that you can properly diagnose the tab, metaphorically speaking.

You can’t perform even a third of the functions above by simply knowing how to finger a G or C chord. What most guitar players do in the face of this obstacle is to limit themselves to being chord strummers.

If you want to do more than that, it’s very important that you also understand and practice the following things………

The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective Players

1. It’s very important that you enjoy music that’s already guitar oriented.

There’s no way around this one. If there is no access to guitar tabs or even sheet music to your favorite artists, the ones you REALLY want to learn, then learning is going to be a very difficult, uphill battle. You’re not going to be playing what you like, but more than likely something that has been dictated to you.

AC/DC, Metallica, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, Ozzy Osbourne, Jason Mraz, Dave Matthews, Nirvana, etc. are some of the most common artists that people want to learn first. Of course, there is a lot of great music for the guitar and measures are being taken to expand the repertoire, but you must enjoy at least a little bit of the music where the guitar dominates the track.

2. Learning guitar involves building muscle memory.

This is one of the things that only you can learn. You can’t watch a video or even buy my materials to learn this. Muscle memory only comes from learning lots of songs.

This task is a lot like running sprints, lifting weights, or solving math problems. The more you repeat the processes involved in these activities, the better you will internalize them.

In guitar, you play lots of chord progressions, riffs, and solos to exercise. Every new guitar part either uses some of the muscles you’ve already developed or forces you to adapt and build new muscle memory.

Anyone can show you chord shapes and scale patterns, but not everyone can really tell you what will develop this skill and what won’t.

3. Guitar is a game of finger positions, just like it is in guitar hero.

The developers of the video game Guitar Hero actually did a really great job with the yellow button – red button gameplay. At its simplest core, the guitar is approached in the same way.

You build the muscle memory of various finger positions involving chords and scales, as well as positions involving your right hand, in order to play lots of guitar parts that take advantage of these fingerings. If you learn to play a powerchord progression from one song, you’ll be able to use those same lessons in any other power chord progression you come across.

Being a good guitar player also involves being able to adapt to new demands in fingerings, and predict what’ll be the simplest way to move around the fretboard.

4. Amass an arsenal of guitar techniques.

Strumming has been misrepresented as the majority of guitar technique. The badly written material involving guitar suggests that knowing all the open chords is the end-all be-all of technique. This has not only stifled the creativity of many songwriters, but created a misperception of what you can do with the guitar.

I believe it’s this reason that destroys the ambition of many players to become decent or maybe exciting players. No one tells them that heavy metal can be played with the knowledge of techniques that anyone can learn, or that Jazz simply involves being able to play over a handful of chord progressions, also with it’s own stock of techniques.

A good guitar player has done the work of acquainting himself with nearly every genre of guitar playing at least a little bit. Slash uses lots of country techniques while Eric Clapton learned nearly everything he knows from Blues.

It’s a dangerous mistake because by limiting yourself to one genre you’ll only have a small set of tools to create music with.

5. Play lots of riffs to recognize familiar patterns and chord progressions.

By studying a little bit of every genre you’ll have already done the work of knowing how to approach a wide variety of playing problems. And often it’ll involve just having some insight into riffs you’ve already played before.

Knowledge builds on top of other knowledge. Schools tend to create the impression that every body of facts and figures differs from the other in such a drastic way that any connections to the other become unidentifiable. But the truth is that chords, scales, fingerings, and styles rarely ever change from place to place.

Blues is connected to rock n’ roll, jazz is connected to pop music, punk rock is connected to metal, and so on.

6. Set a large goal that get’s you excited.

The goals I had when I started playing was to learn a lot of Metallica’s riffs because they were my favorite band, to study lead guitar because it represented a great technical challenge, and unlock the keys to music theory so I could learn how to make music like many artists I admired.

As I learned more and played more, my goals got more specific to where I studied pentatonic scales, the construction of various chords, chunking down Van Halen and Marty Friedman solos, buying tab books of Metallica and listening to their music to understand what I was seeing on the pages, and so on.

If my goal was to learn how to play a chord without screwing up I would’ve been really bored. My goals were within sight and I believed that learning certain guitar techniques and concepts would later give me the ability to do the things I already mentioned.

This is not as hard as it sounds. You more than likely have one artist or one song that really grabs you. That’s what you should start with. As time goes by, you’ll notice other riffs you’ll want to play and maybe you’ll go deeper by studying the way the songs were made.

For now, just make a list of songs to learn.

7. Emulate your heroes and study their music.

Having a model of success is probably the most important thing in any endeavor, after having a specific goal to reach.

Take Jimi Hendrix for example. No one talks about it because we love to idealize him as a god, but he had one of the greatest educations you could possibly get when it comes to guitar. He toured with Little Richard, the Isley Brothers, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, and Ike and Tina Turner as well as being famous for bugging Albert King and B.B. King for playing tips when he encountered them on the road. Jimi was even able to see Elvis Presley and his band play live before he was drafted. Later Jimi moved to England where the Rolling Stones and The Who were getting started around the same time as the Experience.

Those who have been successful at what they do will leave you clues in their story. Dig deeply and be open to whatever comes your way. In our time, all you need is a few tab books to learn directly at the feet of the masters and maybe a youtube video for the tougher parts.

 

The End Of The Beginning

I’m truly sorry to burden you with more knowledge. The more you learn, unfortunately, the more you learn what you don’t know and thus what you need to know.

In the back of our minds, everyone knows that there are no magic bullets to learning any skill. It’s easy to believe that we can turn a key, and unlock a box of hidden talent we didn’t know we had before. But we believe this so that we can avoid responsibility for our own thinking, for our own work.

Don’t be sad though because this actually means that you can do the work if you’re willing. This can actually set you free since the amount of talent you do or don’t have is not a barrier anymore. You won’t beat yourself up for not becoming a virtuoso in a day.

And now you know that you’ve been asking yourself the wrong questions. Acoustic or electric? Practice or don’t? Lessons or no lessons? They’re all distractions from doing the real work.

The only question you must ask yourself is “What will it take to play the guitar part I’m hearing in this song?” The answer may not come immediately but it will come if you don’t tell yourself you’re “too stupid” or that “I don’t have natural talent.”

For instance, one of my favorite guitar players, Marty Friedman, is pretty much ignored by all the popular guitar publications so there seems to be a lack of knowledge concerning the way he plays. But I’ve found all sorts of guitar tabs, rare music lessons, videos, etc. that reveal the mystery behind this relatively unknown guitar player’s style.

Saying that, you can’t avoid learning how to properly fret a note, read a chord diagram, tune your guitar, etc. There is a right and “wrong” way to do these very basic guitar skills, but they’re only temporary hurdles to playing the music you want.

Not everyone’s approach is the same. That’s why I believe that playing guitar is a systemic, scientific process and not a one-shot, one-kill game. There’s thousands of riffs and licks to play on the guitar for hundreds of thousands of different people to play on various guitars.

So having one method for all people is guaranteed to be detrimental to some of you. I’ve already revealed some of the other methods, but here’s what one of my heroes has to say about learning one’s craft:

 “Read, read, read. Read everything – trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it is good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out the window.” -Faulkner again

Basically, don’t worry about practicing or getting everything right, just PLAY for god’s sake.

You have all the means inside of you to play guitar right at this moment. You’re free to play anything you want. All the best guitar players ultimately relied on themselves AND the teachings of others to reach their goals.

I want to leave you with these last 4 beliefs that have helped me as I took on the gigantic task of becoming a good guitar player. I wish you good luck and hope that I can help you in the future…..

  • Rely on concepts instead of instructions because concepts like palm-muting or strumming a C chord function pretty much the same way everywhere.
  • Have the ability to adapt to any problem that may come your way as you learn.
  • Don’t rely solely on any outside person to do the work for you.
  • Trust your own great minds to find the solutions to your problems.

 

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