Learning to Play Guitar: Where Do I Start?
By Jason Mounce
As a staff member of JamPlay I run into an often asked question. Where do I start when learning guitar? Or for guitarists that have been playing awhile , “where do I go from here?” It’s a fundamental paradox of not being satisfied with your current skill or knowledge, but not knowing how to obtain that satisfaction.
I often find myself in the same place with hobbies or activities I’m involved in. I’m somewhat embarrassed, but not afraid to admit that I’ve failed at many things before I realized what exactly the problem was. Planning and tenacity.
Before you can do anything or go anywhere, you’ve got to have a destination. Unless of course you’re destination is nowhere, but that’s another blog post. This is where planning comes in.
I’ve found that many individuals, myself included, lack serious planning skills. It’s easy to conceptualize sitting around a campfire, strumming away the most recent country music hit and your friends singing along. We’ve all got that dream or a variation on it. It’s getting there that the problem lies. Let me give you some advice that will help you answer that question of “where to start?”
I can not understate enough the importance of planning. More than that, the planning has to be honest and attainable. You can’t hope to become the next Tommy Emmanuel if you’re unwilling to learn fingerstyle guitar. You can’t become the next Bob Dylan if you’re unwilling to strum a few chords. By being honest with yourself with what you want from your playing, you can effectively figure out what that destination is. Not everybody wants to be the next Tommy Emmanuel just as not everyone is satisfied with strumming a few chords. I suggest sitting down and actually listening to what you yourself desire as a guitarist. If what makes you a happy guitarist is strumming simple songs, that’s what you should work for. If you want to shred metal and write prolific solos, you should work in that direction.
Both are attainable, but require different paths to get there. This of course will be true for any skill level of player. Whether you’ve never touched a guitar, or you’ve been playing for 30 years. Before you can reach your goal, you’ve got to know what that goal is.
For example, let’s take somebody that wants to just strum some simple songs. Your first order of business is creating that foundation for playing. That means learning the most basic parts of the instrument. Most of the songs you’ll want to play will have open position chords, so you’ll want to learn and drill those skills. Once you’ve mastered your open position chords, you can start incorporating that knowledge into playing the songs you want. Eventually you may find a song you really want to play that doesn’t fit into that mold. Maybe it’s a bit more complex and uses barre chords that are tonally different than what you’re working with. At that point your path may diverge into learning basic arranging techniques, or maybe you start learning barre chords. As your goals change, so must your planning. You may need to stop working on a song in order to acquire the new skills that you need to complete it.
As you can see, it’s easy to know where to go if you’re stuck. All you have to do is look at your goals and make a plan. Proper goal setting should include short term, mid term and long term goals for your playing. If you ever get stuck, refer back to the goal you’re working on. It will guide you in the direction you need to take.
Stumbling on problems is a fact of life. It’s easy to do and everybody does at some point. It’s human nature to get discouraged and it’s always much easier to lay down the instrument and walk away. But what then? Your goals are still there being unmet and staring at you every time you see your guitar sitting in the corner. Eventually it’s a nagging thought that can distract you from other activities or go as far as causing insomnia.
This is where tenacity comes into play. Without it, all the planning in the world will not help you obtain your goals and reach your destination. Those who succeed have the ability to rise above the adversities that they face and carry on. It’s impossible to truly fail at something unless you quit.
The first part of this is recognizing that you will face some hurdles. This is inevitable. It may be a certain chord change, or maybe a certain rhythmic pattern. Maybe you’re having trouble with a sweep pick you’re trying to utilize. Whatever the hurdle is, understanding that you will face them makes their existence less daunting. Having tenacity means that instead of walking away, you face the problem head on.
At this point you’ll want to refer back to your planning and goals. You may need to add or otherwise modify parts of that plan.
Lets say for example that a song you’re learning has a complex rhythmic section that you’re having trouble counting properly. As a result you end up several bar off from where you should be. Nothing you’re trying seems to help and you’re at the point of frustration. Instead of quitting, go back and review your short term goal. In this case, it’s to complete the song you’re learning. That’s all fine and dandy, but you’re having trouble with a rhythm section, making that goal look impossible to reach.
Instead of viewing it in that term, lets set a new short term goal. Mastering the troubling rhythm section. Repetition and practice works certainly, but what if you’re missing a piece to puzzle? That’s where adding that goal helps you out. You can now effectively take a look at the tools you need to complete the new goal. In this case, rhythm knowledge. So you start incorporating rhythm techniques into your practice. Maybe the section is a compound meter played over the bar with a corresponding straight meter drum pattern. Knowing this, you put down the song for a bit and start studying compound meter. Then you begin to practice your rhythm counting over a straight drum track or metronome. The next thing you know, you’ve got a handle on the part of the song that was causing you trouble and you’re back on track with your next goal of completing that song.
Instead of putting the instrument down, you approached the problem from a different angle and walked away victorious.
In closing, I’ll leave you with this small tidbit. If ever you find yourself asking “where do I start?” or “where do I go from here?” know that the reason you’re asking this is because you don’t know what you want next. Once you know what you want, “where to start” is just a bit of planning and tenacity away.