I want to really understand the guitar.
July 28, 2009 12:08 PM   Subscribe

How can I advance from being someone who plays the guitar to a real guitarist? I'm tired of the same old open chords and basic barres. How do I become a true musician on the instrument? Kinda long inside thingy.

Some background on me: I took piano lessons through my childhood. I regret quitting, who doesn't? I played on the drumline in my middle school/high school band. I was quite proficient in mallet instruments, playing four mallet marimba parts in 8th grade.

I picked up the guitar a little over three years ago. I took lessons for about a month, and after that decided I'd learned enough for myself for then. My teacher told me I was advancing stupidly fast (mostly because I played every night until my fingers bled, often 6-10 hours). I learned the open chords (C, D, E, A, G, Emin, Amin, Dmin, G7, etc...), and exactly one scale pattern. I've spent the last two and a half years or so learning four to six chord acoustic songs that I like to sing. I guess over the time I've become better at picking up strum patterns, chord changes, rhythm and such, but I'm feeling extremely stagnant, and for good reason. I have zero skill in soloing/improv. Somewhere along the way I had a year of college level music theory and ear training. My knowledge of modes and how they relate to soloing over progressions and changes is extremely lacking.

I'd like to learn the instrument very well, and I'm willing to put in some hard work. If I had to break my goals down simply, I'd do it like this:

1. Learn the fretboard backwards and forwards, up and down. It frustrates me that I can more quickly form complex extended chords on the piano than I can on the guitar still. I want to be able to put my finger on a fret at random and know precisely what note that is.

2. Learn to play jazz guitar, both rhythm and lead. But, I'm not looking to memorize 4820 "jazz chords", I'm looking to develop the ability to build them myself on the fly. I'm also not looking to be able to solo over one scale pattern in one position, but to be able to seamlessly use the entire neck. I have some classical theory education, but zero in jazz theory.

The music I listen to is probably only classified as "indie rock", and that's kinda what I see my style as. Mellow, very melodic, expressive. My hero on the guitar is Chris Walla, not Satriani or Vai.

Lessons are out of the question, as I simply cannot afford them. I'm hoping for a few books that I can work through independently that will advance my mastery of the instrument. I'm not looking for the suggestion that "music is not math--just keep playing and you'll get there." No true, I've just been "playing" for over two years. I'm perfectly willing to put in some hard work every day, just need some direction. Feel free to memail me or anything.
posted by Precision to Media & Arts (22 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
I was once in your position, and while I've moved on to non-guitar instruments, I really liked "The Guitar Handbook" for general autodidact material.

For your questions:
1) Scales. Learn them backwards and forwards and learn how scales, keys and modes fit together.

2) You don't have to learn a billion different chords if you learn the theory behind them. Then you can take the scales learned in step 1 to create the chords you want to play. Chords are just combinations of notes from a scale, after all.

Depending on your "style," you may not need to learn Mixolydian suspended fourth dim9 whatever stuff, but you'll probably want to figure out what the useful and useless parts are on your own. You may discover something in yourself or something new to apply to a calcified genre.
posted by rhizome at 12:15 PM on July 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

How can I advance from being someone who plays the guitar to a real guitarist?

The first thing you do is give up the idea that there are "real" guitarists. Don't get the idea of a playing hierarchy get in the way of avoiding practice, which is what these feelings usually do.

I do like the Guitar Grimoire series the best for learning.

Practicing a lot helps tons. As for learning the fretboard, learn the intervals of the scales from memory and learn the intervals between the strings. Then the scales become second nature because you are just extrapolating out the intervals you see in your head to the fretboard.

I'd also get some sort of recorder, even if it is a little job. Solo over stuff you've recorded. You'll get the feel for improvisation, which is much more about trusting yourself than getting things exactly right. There is no right, there is "I like this sound" or "I do not like this sound."

Also, do yourself a favor and buy a music stand if you don't have one already.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:25 PM on July 28, 2009

Thinking back to how long you played the piano, "I've just been 'playing' for over two years" doesn't seem like much. It takes longer for some people to integrate that kind of feeling-knowing on the guitar than on the piano, too, since piano is very visual and very linear.

Give yourself some credit. Give yourself some time. Noodle around with songs you know VERY well, backwards and forwards, and start to build in some little licks and fills and then leads. Try very simple songs, like bluegrass songs in G (sorry, that's my background talking, but any song where you have a major key and simple chords and a verse-verse-chorus thing will do). A lot of this is just time and practice, and it sounds like you're doing the right things. I hope someone else will have some concrete examples of books that will be useful, but I just wanted to say, be kind to yourself, it sounds like you've made a lot of progress in two years.
posted by fiercecupcake at 12:30 PM on July 28, 2009

Sit down with the tablature of some songs you really like but are out of your league and practice them until you can play them cleanly and at the right tempo.
posted by tylerfulltilt at 12:37 PM on July 28, 2009

Play what you want to learn. If you want to learn jazz, start learning jazz tunes. Buy some records by jazz guitar players, listen to what they are doing, and recreate that. Like learning anything new, it will take time, but if you can figure out what other people are doing and internalize that, you will then be able to take those ideas and techniques and put your own spin on them.

If you want to start learning to improvise, start with just one chord and play over that. Don't worry about anything except creating something that fits over that chord which sounds good. Once you start to get comfortable doing that in all 12 keys, start adding a second chord, and play 8 bars of each one until that feels comfortable. As time goes on, you will start to hear which notes transition from one chord to another, and you should start to internalize that.

Most of the best players I have had the privilege of playing with spend many hours every day working on the basics, so that when it comes time for them to play, they don't have to think of it.

Also, if you want to internalize the notes on the fretboard, try improvising very slowly over a chord. First play a simple melody, and say the notes out loud after you hit each one. Then, start calling out the note names to play before you play them, and then when you play them, see if the sound like what you thought they would sound like.

I would also strongly suggest finding a teacher for just one or two lessons (not a weekly thing) to discuss where you want to go with your playing. A good teacher will be able to find the weak points in your technique/skillset, and can give you a plan of what to work on which is tailored specifically towards you. The cost of one lesson is not going to be more than the cost of one or two books, and (as long as you find a good teacher), you will most likely start working in the right direction right away. If you try to go it alone, you may find that it takes you several months before you start working on the things which you need to work on, just because there is so much out there to learn.
posted by markblasco at 12:41 PM on July 28, 2009

Oh, and if you are serious about learning the notes of the fretboard, don't ever use TAB to learn songs. Do it the hard way, either by transcribing the songs out, or getting the actual sheet music. TAB is great if you just want to learn to play a song, but it definitely hinders the development of being a good guitar player and musician.
posted by markblasco at 12:43 PM on July 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Do you like the blues? A great deal of rock guitar soloing is based on the blues. Get some BB King or Albert King albums and try and play what they play. Then take the licks you've learned from them and see where else you can shoehorn them in, in different kinds of songs. Repeat as necessary, gradually increasing in complexity.
posted by wabbittwax at 12:43 PM on July 28, 2009

@tylerfulltilt: This is what I've been doing for the past two years. My chops have improved, but my ability to understand what I'm playing in a musical sense has not.

I'm learning my scales now, and I'm finding that to be helpful already. Made sure I built the patterns myself, I understand how they work musically, so I should understand how they work on the guitar.
posted by Precision at 12:45 PM on July 28, 2009

You might want to check out the Jamey Aebersold jazz books for help in learning the basics of building jazz scales and chords. He even makes some of his stuff available for free, including his fairly well-known Scale Syllabus. Mostly, just practice, practice, practice. And play along with recordings of people whose music you admire. It's a great way to "internalize" common chord progressions, pick up ideas for styling your music, and it a fun way of practicing improvisational playing.
posted by rhartong at 12:51 PM on July 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

"I took piano lessons through my childhood. I regret quitting, who doesn't?"

I was just going to say "Learn to play the piano." And, yep, I've never met any adult who has said that they are happy that they quit piano lessons as a child although I have met a few who said they were happy that they quit a particular piano teacher.
posted by bz at 12:58 PM on July 28, 2009

One of the first steps to fretboard knowledge is thinking about the intervals between strings. Spend some time really thinking about the fact that it's a perfect fourth between all but one pair of strings, and that's why, for instance, a major second between two strings requires you to fret a note on the higher-pitched string three frets lower than the one you've fretted on the lower-pitched string. Really get to know not just scale patterns but specific intervals between all possible string pairs. This makes piecing chords together on the fly much easier.

Also, at the beginning, in terms of note familiarity, just putting your finger down anywhere and trying to name that note as fast as you can is actually a good practice. After that, think about a chord progression where the chord changes once every measure and just play appropriate quarter notes (in the most conservative, classical sense) at a slow tempo in both step-wise motion and arpeggios. If you're still unfamiliar with the fretboard at first this exercise will be excruciating and will sound terrible, but just soldier on through as best you can. Once you get better, try to voice lead; if the progression is C Maj7 -> Dmin7 and you're playing notes stepwise, you might play C-D-E and skip up to G so you can land on the more appropriate chord tone of F on the first beat of the next measure. At the same time, you should always play scale patterns with the awareness of what note you're playing in your head. It's actually better to use solfege here (do re mi etc., where do is the tonic note, if you need help with how to say altered notes, memail me), whether you say it out loud or not, because the relation of the note you're playing to the key is ultimately a lot more important than its designation.

The most important thing, I think, is that once you know the fretboard back and forth, the key to being able to create chords and melodies on the fly is being able to hear what you want to play in your head, and in a way such that you know when you hear it what notes you're hearing (relative to the key). As silly as it might seem, solfege is indispensable for this. The way to really begin to exercise this skill is through sight-reading with solfege. Hopefully you've got some of your old ear-training books around? Start doing this. Start out with simple melodies and get more complex, and soon you'll able to listen to music and hear pretty often what degree of the scale is currently sounding. Once you're pretty solid at this, you should start attempting to play what you hear on the guitar, with the eventual goal of not playing a note you're not already hearing in your head. The next step, if you want to build jazz chops, is to pick up something like The Jazz Theory Book by Mark Levine, which will, along with the ear-training, give you the foundation to start transcribing (listening to and learning to play) jazz tunes. That will really get the sounds of the music you like in your head, which combined with the ability to know what you're playing as you play it will give you huge amounts of power to improvise over anything anybody might throw at you.

I know it seems maybe a little ridiculous to do so much work that doesn't directly involve the guitar, but I think the use of solfege to create a solid, theory-informed ear is really the central method to develop the sort of musicianship you want. The reason just learning to play songs mechanically doesn't help is because you're still playing them using the sort of hearing that hears the notes and not their functions. Your eventual goal is to not play a note without knowing how it relates to the key and the chord you're playing in/with/over.
posted by invitapriore at 1:10 PM on July 28, 2009 [6 favorites]

I know exactly where you're coming from. I took guitar lessons for a little over a year. My background was playing bass by ear for years. I wanted to learn guitar and improve my bass playing at the same time. I quickly figured out that what I needed was music theory and guitar was just as good a tool as any. Fortunately, I my teacher was able to adapt to my needs and focus less on getting down eight and sixteenth notes.

Go spend some time at a big chain bookstore in the music book section. Look at all the guitar books. At least one will grab you. Look for something that'll teach you the fretboard and some theory in a way that makes sense to you. You already know all the notes, so you should be able to pick that part up rather quickly. And, of course, it all starts over again at the 12th fret.

You're correct in that you don't need to learn 4820 chords and learning the chord formula is more likely to help you. You may find something like Chord Workbook for Guitar helpful. It'll help you learn how the various chords are constructed and it's a workbook in the classic grade school sense. I have it and a few others by the same author.

It's also worth learning all the keys and modes because they will help you understand how to solo as well as how all the keys/notes relate to each other. Knowing the modes will help you understand how to play a scale (mode) over the entire neck.

As for the jazz theory, again, I recommend some face time with as many books as you can see. Beginning Jazz Guitar seems well received by fellow amateurs.

Also, if you're not already on the various guitar forums, do some digging! There are lots and lots of people out there who are more than happy to help you along. And don't forget Youtube and lots of other video sharing sites have guitar lessons.
posted by jdfan at 1:12 PM on July 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

This instructional DVD, "Exploring Jazz Guitar," could help you a lot. It's done by John Pizzarelli, who IMO is one of the greatest living jazz guitarists you could hope to know.
posted by Kimothy at 1:37 PM on July 28, 2009

One thing I forgot to mention for getting familiar with your between-string intervals is that you should be able to instantly translate between an interval and the number of semi-tones it spans. That really helps for working out that a minor seventh plus three frets is a major ninth, for example.
posted by invitapriore at 2:06 PM on July 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

You have a high level question you have to answer for yourself - "Are you are willing to put in the hours?"

Conventional wisdom (for what it's worth) says it takes 10000 hours to become an expert, in any subject. Let's say you're a genius, and you can do it in half that time. That's still 5000 hours...

So, what's it going to be?
posted by w.fugawe at 2:29 PM on July 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you are familiar with Tuck Andress of Tuck & Patti, you might be interested in a series of articles on his techniques he has done and is continuing. But ultimately, for many styles, you can't make the mistake of putting all your energy into left hand development. To get Stanley Jordan's fluidity, you are going to have to learn hammer style, including how to hammer on and pull off forcefully. And while it is great that you are working on learning scales and want to be able to "know" the position of every note, instantly, on the fretboard, you'll find this a much more daunting task, once you start investigating the world of alternate and open tunings, which make John Renbourn's acoustic music so interesting. You also need to know how to get rhythmic power and accent out of your guitar, by close coordination of left and right hand technique, including playing into partly and fully damped strings, using harmonics, and being able to finger pick, in various styles and patterns, including claw, roll, and Travis picking.

Some of this stuff is 10x easier to learn from a teacher, but given the Internet's resources, if you're diligent, you can find a lot of good tutorial material online. A subscription to Guitar Player magazine, as well as frequenting their Web site for articles and tutorials is one good place to start your search.
posted by paulsc at 2:30 PM on July 28, 2009

For me practising is half of it. The other half is improvising with other musicians. You need to not only know how to make music on your own, but learn how to be involved in a conversation with others.

It is much easier to improvise when there is someone reacting to what you do, extending it, supporting it, etc. You will learn from their ideas, and learn all kinds of subtle things about playing music that you don't get from practicing alone, such as hearing the breathing of another player, the tapping of their feet, their expression and body language. These things communicate so much of the overall experience, and give you an indication of how they have internalized their music.

And, don't forget about time. Probably the most important thing of all, more than chords & melody, is the feel with which you play. This is another thing that you need to do with other musicians, not just alone (in addition to practising with a metronome by yourself of course). A good swing feel is an indefinable, un-notatable thing. Try to play with the best drummer and bass player (or just bass player) that you can find.

Listen to Kind of Blue (wow, 50 years old next month!), e.g., and don't just notice the effortlessness of the playing, but how few notes there often are, and how good things just feel. Miles plays his notes like you would arrange jewels in a display case. Each one delicately placed and glittering, lots of space around it, because it takes up so much room all by itself.
posted by SNACKeR at 2:40 PM on July 28, 2009


You'll find a wealth of free downloads here.
posted by nathanfhtagn at 2:40 PM on July 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Heres something that made a huge difference to me. I had guitar lessons, I was studying music at uni, in bands and I thought I was pretty damn awesome at the guitar. So I was having classical lessons, and my teacher asked me to play G Major one octave. No sweat. 2 Octaves. No worries. 3 octaves... ummmm what?

I thought I knew G major (and harmonic/melodic minor etc) but I'd been playing them two octaves (e.g. G major, starting third fret of the bottom e string, finishing 3rd fret of the top e string). When I learnt to stretch it to 3 octaves on the guitar it opened me up to whole new patterns, finger movements.

You might already be all over 3 octave scales, but if not, give it a go.

Another thing that helped when it came to modes was to just try them. At first my fingers didn't know where to go, what felt natural etc, but after a while I started to find patterns I liked the sound of, my fingers got used to the shape of the mode and I was away.

Another thing I do when I'm in a rut is listen to music from a totally different style than I am used to, or try to play music from a style I'd never normally attempt (even if I don't like it). So maybe take a few tacky Europe songs, or Britney Spears, or just something different to your normal style.
posted by Admira at 4:00 PM on July 28, 2009

I'm a guitar teacher. Read my answer to this previous question.

I'll emphasize that to supplement your scale/chord practice on the guitar, you should write those chords and scales out on the staff with a pencil and paper. You should also sing them and play them on the piano. All of these things will go much further than just playing them on the guitar -- similarly to the distinction you draw, I'd say this stuff is the difference between "someone who plays guitar" and "musician."
posted by ludwig_van at 5:39 PM on July 28, 2009

You might already know this since you have some music theory under your belt, but understanding basic music harmonic behaviours like voice leading, Tonicization, chord inversions and how they affect music can help you be a more flexible and adaptable player of any instrument.

Do exercises of different types. Rhythm exercises are often ignored by guitarists, but I think strumming, picking, or even just tapping different rhythms can be useful. Try playing a scale in quavers, change half way to triplets, then change back to quavers. Play with accents on different parts of the beat. Choose a different time signature and tap a rhythm. Play around with hemiolas in rhythm. Once you have a grasp of these, you'll ear them in music you listen to, and find it gives you a bit of flexibility in playing.

If you always play with a pick and find yourself in a rut, put the pick down, strum with your fingers, or do finger pluck style, I find it makes the other part of my brain work a bit harder. Alternatively, if you always play plucking with your fingers, get a pick and try that.

I agree with ludwig_van that writing scales, rhythms, chords etc on a musical staff will help your musicianship. If (like me) your musical notation looks like a chicken has dipped its feet in ink and walked over the paper (a quote from my composition lecturer) then a simple notation program like anvil studio or finale notepad might be better :)
posted by Admira at 9:17 PM on July 28, 2009

Two things that IMHO can really help someone develop as a player:
1. record yourself and listen to it
2. arrange songs for the guitar that were written for some other instrument
posted by primer_dimer at 2:55 AM on July 29, 2009

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