How do guitar learners stay motivated and start "knowing" the fretboard?
April 1, 2011 5:04 AM   Subscribe

I'm thinking about getting back to playing guitar after a decade. I never got past the basics the first time around, so I've always wondered about two things: how do experienced guitar players fundamentally see and "know" their instrument (especially where everything is on the fretboard), and what motivated them to keep practicing when they were newbies?

Around 10 years ago, I took some guitar lessons and played acoustic guitar for a while (achieving a "strumming simple chords around a campfire" level of proficiency), but gradually lost interest and gave up when I realized just how monumental the task was to achieve the level of competence that I desired.

However, I later got into fake plastic rock with Guitar Hero and have continued on that path up to this day. The release of Rock Band 3 introduced the Pro Guitar mode, where you play the game using an actual tricked-out Squier Stratocaster. On Expert difficulty, every note and chord of the actual song is played.

Pro Guitar mode made me interested in picking up a real guitar once again. It doesn't replace proper lessons from an actual guitar teacher since there's more to proper technique than just hitting the right notes, but it does beautifully complement the learning process. "Gameifying" the experience probably helps with some of the motivational hurdles.

Thing is, I've been hesitating to buy the Squier because of my previous motivational slump. I just don't know if I'll be able to maintain my focus and practice enough for it to make a difference, game or no game.

To me, learning a thing is a process of constantly failing at that thing but failing ever so slightly less over time. But it's still failing a lot, and thus still not fun, and thus demotivating. I've never really been able to see it from the opposite side, as a string of small successes in the midst of punishingly hard work. Consequently, I've never understood how people persist at learning something hard in the hope of some future reward.

So the first question is: how do guitarists who keep practicing until they're happy with their playing keep themselves motivated enough to do so? (Learning more never stops, I guess, but let's just assume some "good enough" level of competency for argument's sake here.)

Another, slightly more vague question: what sort of "automatic understanding" and mapping of finger positions to notes on the fretboard do guitarists generally possess? Is it possible for them to, say, find all the different ways of playing a G note on the fretboard without thinking about it?

Aside from the finger positions for all the basic chords and some bar chords (which I know solely from looking at chord diagrams), I have no knowledge of this area. I can't read notes, I've never played solos, scales or lead melodies, and I have no idea how chords actually work, i.e. what notes go into them and why. I also suck at math, which gives music theory that extra level of difficulty.

I'm rambling, but my incoherence here is indicative of my confusion of how to learn both the knowledge of where everything is on the fretboard and the physical dexterity to use that knowledge to actually play music. How do you approach the motivation issue, and assuming sufficient motivation, how do you "get" the fretboard?
posted by jklaiho to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (16 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
A clarification I just thought of: to me, a "good enough" level of competence would be the ability to play any melody that comes to my head without having to separately search for the notes on the fretboard. How hard is this? How many years and what kind of practice does this involve?
posted by jklaiho at 5:07 AM on April 1, 2011

Well, there's only 12 notes that repeat up and down and across the freeboard. Adjusting for the G string, the same scale patterns are movable anywhere. Practicing scales is what makes what you're trying to do much easier.

Music theory, how chords work and what notes go with them, is beyond most guitarists to be honest. The typical path for most rock guitar players is listening to a LOT of music they admire, gaining an ability to discern harmony, and senses of rhythm and melody by ear, and trying to brute force that ability on their own instrument. It's almost inconceivably difficult until it isn't. Its definitely not the only way to learn, but before Tabs and YouTube lessons it was the way many learned.

Are there certain artists you're inspired by? Don't get discouraged by how much there is to learn inthe guitar. When you were doing cowboy chords or whatever you were playing MUSIC. That's MUCH more important then knowing all the notes.
posted by tremspeed at 5:38 AM on April 1, 2011

what motivated them to keep practicing when they were newbies?

First, it was getting a guitar over summer break between 7th and 8th grade. I would practice for several hours a day. Why? The real question is: Why not? What else would I have rather been doing? Nothing. It was the most exciting thing in the world to me at that time. You have to be excited about it.

I played mostly Nirvana and Green Day. In retrospect, that seems like a very crude approach and not the best music to start with, since I have my criticisms of those guitarists' technique. But I did happen to make a good choice in that this music is based on quite simple chords, with some lead melodies that are generally on the easy side. At the same time, the music is energetic, smartly constructed, and catchy. If you have music like this that's to your taste, start with that.

I notice you talk about things like practicing, Guitar Hero, chords, and melodies ... but you don't mention any music you're excited about. What do you actually want to play?

I know a lot of theory. When I play a melody on guitar, I know intuitively what notes in which scale I'm playing. But I learned lots and lots of songs I was into before thinking much about the theory behind them. I figure: if Kurt Cobain and John Lennon didn't have to understand music theory to write some of the greatest rock songs ever, I don't need to understand that theory in order to learn their songs. The theory still exists and is worth knowing about, but you don't need to study it off the bat. Only once I was totally fluent with guitar did I start analyzing it. I happened to learn piano too, which made this easier. I would suggest focusing on playing guitar for now, and put the theory aside. Once you're ready for it, you could ask another AskMe that's just about music theory applied to guitar. In fact, too much theoretical knowledge can be a downside with certain types of music; you should actually relish your theory-free guitar playing while you're doing it. I wish I could temporarily turn off my theoretical thinking while playing. (That's part of why guitarists will use alternate tunings — to dismantle their preconceptions of how one chord is supposed to lead to another.)

Practice 30 minutes a day, minimum. Ideally, practice an hour or more a day.
posted by John Cohen at 5:50 AM on April 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

To me, learning a thing is a process of constantly failing at that thing but failing ever so slightly less over time.

Not necessarily. It takes a lot of patience, but really good practice is the opposite. You have to slow everything down and break it up until you're not making mistakes, then gradually put the pieces together and speed it up. When you make a mistake in practice, stop, figure out why, and practice just that bit.

Never do this in performance.

It does get easier. Having trouble with a particular change? Spend some time getting it right - I bet that change comes up in something else as well, and when you get to that, you'll sail through. Whatever you play, if you have a decent musical vocabulary, there's so much you can do because it's just like something else you've already learned.

There's a payoff. The better you want to become, the more you will have to do this - bad habits can be extremely limiting, but real focused practicing takes a lot of self discipline. Be realistic about what you want to achieve.

Pick some simple stuff that you will find rewarding. If you're going to practice well, nothing kills a song like playing it at 1/4 tempo for weeks. It's like dissecting a much-loved family pet. What I'm suggesting is more like really thorough grooming - do the work now, and there'll be no month-old bits of matted hair and poo that catch you by surprise next time round.

It's connected to the 'finding your way round the instrument' thing. That really is just memory. You need to train your memory (were talking bodily-kinaesthetic, or 'muscle memory') to put things in the right place, and extend that map of your body that your brain generates to cover positions on an instrument. I do remember seeing an article on brain scans that indicate that anyone skilled in a physical discipline (musicians, sportsmen, craftsmen) subconciously perceives the bits of the body they use most as larger, and have more detailed maps of them (it's the same 'map' that sometimes convinces amputees they hcan feel the missing limb).

The more you fail, the more you're repeating the wrong moves, and the more you will repeat them without having to think about it. Practice makes permanent.

Do think about posture. Good posture will avoid painful problems later on, but it will also help you to develop that memory - the more consistent your posture is, the easier it is to remember where that note is - because it's in the same place every time. Practice not looking at your hands - not only because it'll particularly help the memory, but also because it puts your spine in a position you really don't want it to be in.

Careful on the practice time - like a runner, if you overexert yourself, you'll start learning bad habits just to get through, but yes, I'd call half an hour a day a sensible minimum - and more as you get better. I used to teach my pupils that regularity was as important as total time, but at least one study suggests I was completely wrong in this - so an hour every other day wshould work just as well, if you can take it.
posted by monkey closet at 5:57 AM on April 1, 2011 [4 favorites]

I can't speak to how guitarists get to 'know' the fretboard, because I am not that good, especially at playing lead. If I'm going to lay down a solo, I need to plot it out, play it repeatedly, rework it, practice it ... being able to solo like you describe would be cool, but I never was willing to practice that much.

On motivation, that's a different question that will have a lot of different answers. What motivates me now is recording. I like to write songs, so I need to be at least good enough for that. As it happens, there was a song I recorded with friends where a couple of other guitarists couldn't quite nail their solos, so now I'm going to practice much more and plot out a solo and record it. Then I will stop playing again for a while.

I don't know how helpful this explanation is for you. I don't look at guitar as something I should learn to fail increasingly less ... uh, at. What kept me going at the beginning is how easy it was to sound passable, thanks largely to my being into rock instead of some other, more challenging genre. I don't push myself as a guitarist when I'm songwriting; I stay in my style, which isn't so challenging to play. When we went into the studio to record our latest batch of songs, there was an arpeggio that repeated throughout one of them. I could have played it, eventually, but our producer could nail it with less wasted time, so I let him do it. And yet the songs, with me playing most of the guitar, sound great. That's part of why I still play.
posted by troywestfield at 6:06 AM on April 1, 2011

guitarists will use alternate tunings — to dismantle their preconceptions of how one chord is supposed to lead to another

To me, this is kind of the opposite of theoretical knowledge. If you have the theoretical knowledge that, say, D7 leads nicely to G, that doesn't change regardless of the tuning you use. If, though, you've got that in the muscle memory (this position leads to this position) it doesn't work - it forces you to use the brain, not the learnt physical habit. If it happens to sound nice, that's more accident that musicianship...

To me, it's more about aural skills than theory - you should be able to hear where that chord's going, and work out what you need to do to get there.
posted by monkey closet at 6:08 AM on April 1, 2011

I also suck at math, which gives music theory that extra level of difficulty.

Don't let that get to you. There's not all that much math involved. You can go really far with a small number of rules of thumb, such as one octave up equals two frets higher and two strings up, or a minor third equals three frets up or one string up and two frets down (unless you cross from the G string to the B string in which case you have to add one.) Once you encounter these and internalize the ideas it becomes purely visual and you really don't think about adding numbers that much. Same thing with counting frets: the markers on the neck are meant to make it a visual thing, and if you find yourself laboriously counting out fret numbers don't worry, eventually you get an intuitive sense of where 12, 7, 5, etc. are.
posted by Rhomboid at 6:18 AM on April 1, 2011

guitarists will use alternate tunings — to dismantle their preconceptions of how one chord is supposed to lead to another

To me, this is kind of the opposite of theoretical knowledge.

Just to be clear, this is what I meant.
posted by John Cohen at 6:41 AM on April 1, 2011

I have been playing guitar and bass for about 17 years. I'm not amazing, nor am I trained, but I feel like I know the fretboard pretty well. That is, when I'm playing, I intuitively know where to finger the relative notes I want to play. Just like adjusting the pitch while you are singing.

I guess my point is that it doesn't take training to achieve comfort on the instrument. It takes practicing the songs you love over a fair bit of time.
posted by gnutron at 6:49 AM on April 1, 2011

what sort of "automatic understanding" and mapping of finger positions to notes on the fretboard do guitarists generally possess? Is it possible for them to, say, find all the different ways of playing a G note on the fretboard without thinking about it?

You could play around with a fretless bass, finding notes by ear instead of by eye, until you find a "singing voice."
posted by StickyCarpet at 7:17 AM on April 1, 2011

There's this thing that happens. It happens with every musical instrument I've played and practiced on to some degree of proficiency:

Learning the hard stuff is rarely a linear process. If I practice something time and time again, there's no guarantee that after x times I can play it. However, what does happen is that one day the planets align and from somewhere out of the blue you are a total monster. You can't hit a wrong note. You're not thinking about technique because you're breathing it. You are one with your instrument.

That feeling is one you can use to sustain you. It is addictive.

The other thing is to play what interests you. If your interests shift, shift what you're learning. It's OK. In fact, a decent teacher will go with that because s/he knows that you'll be a better student if you're interested.

If you go see a teacher, set goals.

"I want to play guitar." is not a good goal. I will inject some workplace mumbo jumbo, but it applies. A good goal is SMART - Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timely. So "I want to play guitar" is relevant.

"I want to play Freak Show Excess by Steve Vai."

OK, that's more specific. It's also somewhat measurable in that you can break the piece down into parts and progress is measured in what you can do, but there's no time and it might not actually be achievable."

"I want to play the bridge in Freak Show Excess in two months at 1/2 tempo."
OK, that's more specific, more measurable, fairly achievable, relevant, and has a decent time frame (not for me - I don't really get time to practice/play anymore).

And instead of getting frustrated and thinking, "I'm NEVER going to be able do this!" you can look at progress (that whole measurable thing) and see that you're getting better. I'm not saying you won't get frustrated, but you should move past it easier.

I'm also a firm believer in technique though music and not music through technique. In other words play music first, build technique while you're making music rather than doing endless fingering/scale exercises before you play music.

Then again, I had a teacher who could make scale exercises sound beautiful - and that was a joy to behold.
posted by plinth at 7:52 AM on April 1, 2011 [7 favorites]

Lots of great responses above. Just wanted to drop this in: Guitars in cases don't get played.
posted by digitalprimate at 8:01 AM on April 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Wow. Fantastic responses. I marked John Cohen's and plinth's responses as the best answers, but not for the reason I expected I would when I wrote the question.

There were two parts in John Cohen's reply that solved the issue for me.

The first:

Why? The real question is: Why not? What else would I have rather been doing? Nothing. It was the most exciting thing in the world to me at that time. You have to be excited about it.

That made me realize I was never properly excited about playing the guitar. It was just another hobby I dabbled in, sharing time and mindshare with video games etc. and in no way more special than any other use of my free time.

But this second bit was the final revelation:

but you don't mention any music you're excited about. What do you actually want to play?

You know what I realized, reading that? I realized that I'm not actually excited about any music in particular, not in the sense of actually wanting to play. I never have been. I've been thinking about this the wrong way for ages. I've been thinking about playing guitar as a neat skill in isolation, without regard to what kind of music I'd actually want to play, how I would express myself and apply the skill of playing a guitar. I like to listen to various types of rock and metal, mostly, but I've never had any real interest in playing any myself. I'm 30, if I don't yet have that, I most likely never will. My life is plenty filled with other stuff to occupy me.

As plinth said: "I want to play guitar." is not a good goal.

And that is the only goal I've had with regards to guitar skills. I never thought this in terms of the actual music. Now I understand why I lost the motivation: the necessary passion was never there to begin with.

Emboldened by this realization, I'm going to go ahead and abandon the idea of playing guitar, and probably sell my old acoustic one. Maybe some kid with real passion will put it to good use.

You may not have intended me to come to this conclusion when answering my question, but trust me, scales fell from my eyes. Thank you.
posted by jklaiho at 8:34 AM on April 1, 2011 [5 favorites]

I know this sounds like a contradiction to a lot of what's been said above, including your resolution... but I want to say: who cares if it's not the sun and moon of your existence. Pick it up anyway, and just strum for fun!

One of my favorite bumper stickers of all time is "Real musicians are amateurs". Making music is for people to do, you don't have to be a professional or a genius. If it's fun then it's for you.

If it's not even fun, then by all means get rid of it. But too many people feel all-or-nothing pressure, and I want to be the one to say... you can just enjoy being half-ass. When all is said and done, that's what we're here on earth to do, after all.
posted by Erroneous at 11:11 AM on April 1, 2011

Oops, it was "real musicians have day jobs". Close to the same point at least.
posted by Erroneous at 11:12 AM on April 1, 2011

@Erroneous - I will say that I'm saddened in jklaiho's decision too, but because I, personally, am so passionate by music that I consider one less person making music to be a loss for us all, regardless of his/her talents.

Heck, I'm saddened when I see someone with a lip piercing, because I think that s/he'll never play sax (at least not without an extra whistle), never mind that sax may never have been an option.

Still, it's jklaiho's decision, and I translate his reasoning to be "if I spend money on a hobby/pastime, I want it to be a lasting one that I love" and I respect that no matter what the hobby is, the same way that I respect passion for just about any hobby.
posted by plinth at 1:01 PM on April 1, 2011

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