While my guitar gently weeps... for me?
April 24, 2008 8:09 AM   Subscribe

At what point do you give up on trying to learn a musical instrument? Are some seemingly "normal" skills impossible for some people to learn even with time and instruction? Can lack of skill trump desire?

I have been taking guitar lessons, a half hour once a week, for 10 months. I practice approx. 5 hours a week, an hour at a time. My teacher is supportive, knowledgeable and seems to care.

I have read endless guitar forum and AskMeFi questions on how long it should take to "learn" the guitar. Answers seem to range from "I bought a guitar and learned my first song that afternoon" to "It will take a few months to develop calluses, a good sense of rhythm strumming and decent chords but a lifetime to master". I laugh at the ones that say you will have a decent repertoire of songs after a month.

After 10 months I can't play a single song. Not even the simplest two chord campfire favourite. I can't change chords fast enough to play actual music. My fingers simply will not go to 3 or 4 different places on different strings and frets in one movement in the space of a split-second. So, boo-hoo, poor me, I suck... just admit I have no talent for it and give it up.

Except there are also endless articles on how anybody, absolutely anybody, can learn to play the guitar and if someone says they can't play or weren't able to learn their teacher must suck (he doesn't) or they didn't practice (I do) and there are endless articles on how there is no such thing as natural talent and its all just hard work and practice. My BS-meter tends to go off when I read there is no such thing as natural talent. I have a hard time believing anyone can be Tiger Woods if they just put in the hours (not to suggest he doesn't work hard).

Obviously I am so far behind the average learning curve for guitar that it borders on the ridiculous.

So how do you know when you are just not suited to learning something even when you really, really want to learn it? Are some skills just impossible for some people to learn even with professional instruction, practice and time? If so, how do you know it's time to throw in the towel?

(And has anyone else in history taken longer than 10 months to learn how to switch from a G to a C in tempo?)
posted by pixlboi to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (49 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Can't help you specifically with guitar, but I teach figure skating to beginners. In particular with adult beginners I see people who get it right away as well as people who take much longer than they think they should (you start to want to suggest they take up chess). I have never seen anyone who stuck with it (sometimes for years) who did not achieve basic competence (the skating equivalent of G to C, if you will) and even proficiency (maybe the skating equivalent of bar chords!).

Don't give up! Who cares if you suck! The way I look at it (I always tell this to my students)-- If someone can do it, it's possible, and if it's possible I can do it. So I'm thinking you are just someone with a very slow learning curve on this instrument. Stick with it.

Just as an aside (and pardon the obviousness of the suggestion)-- do you do scales? That may help you with getting your fingers more nimble, and getting the necessary muscle memory to change chords quickly.
posted by nax at 8:22 AM on April 24, 2008

Not everyone can be Tiger Woods, but not being tiger woods doesn't mean that you can't golf, nor does it mean that you can't enjoy hitting a golf ball regardless of how far or accurately you can hit it. If you have fun playing the guitar, keep playing the guitar. If you don't have fun, stop. The last thing you should do is devote 200 hours of your life to changing from a G chord to a C chord. That doesn't sound like fun at all. Maybe learn some songs that just have one chord and go from there!
posted by billtron at 8:27 AM on April 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

It seems to me that you're having an issue of confidence. G to C is a pretty basic change, but they are two chords with quite different fingerings. What about mastering an easier transition, like from Am to E, just to convice yourself you can do it?

Also, can you describe your typical practise routine?

I had a complete failure learning saxophone in junior high - I just could not do it, even with full access to an instrument for an entire summer. A few years later I picked up guitar and got pleasure and performance from it. If you're not enjoying it, maybe you should walk away.
posted by Paid In Full at 8:30 AM on April 24, 2008

I learned to play campfire chord songs within a couple of hours of getting my first guitar in 1992. 16 years, and probably half a dozen guitars later, I'm not that much better.

Some people are cut out for music, gymnastics, debate or marksmanship, and some just aren't, no matter how hard they try. My instinct is that after 10 months, you should be able to do basic chord changes and play simple songs. Perhaps the guitar is not your muse.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 8:36 AM on April 24, 2008

To the first question, can lack of skill trump desire, I would have to say, yes, yes it can. Everyone has a different set of innate talents and abilities. Some of them you can enhance with dedication and practice, some you have in meager amount (but can still improve), some you simply don't have in any reasonably capacity. I don't believe anyone can be Tiger Woods either. That level of achievement (in anything) depends on both innate capability and single-minded dedication. For instance, I play guitar reasonably well. I will never play softball reasonably well.

I would have to confirm that 10 months is a long time to not be able to switch between 2 or 3 chords. However, are you using the best possible campfire chord shapes? Your basic G-C-D campfire song should be fingered thusly (IMO) for maximum ease:

G: 3 x O O 3 3 (frets)
G: 2 x O O 3 4 (fingers)

C: x 3 x O O 3 3 (frets)
C: x 2 x O O 3 3 (fingers)

D: x x O 2 3 x (frets)
D: x x O 1 3 x (fingers)

Notice that your 3rd finger never moves off of the 2nd string, 3rd fret. This serves as a pivot point for the other fingers. Notice that to go from G to C requires only that you move a single finger from the low E to the A. And D just requires that you take your 2nd finger off and place your first finger on the G string, second fret. Your first finger can hang out up there, waiting, while your 2nd finger just moves between the E and A strings.

This way, you never have to move more than 1 or 2 fingers. The x's indicate that you either don't strum those strings, or just mute them (for instance, the G chord A string is muted by your 2nd finger).

As for how you know when to give up - since I assume you're not planning on making your living playing guitar, why give up, if you enjoy it? If you hate it, by all means find something else that you think will make better use of your natural abilities. I'm certainly no classical guitar wizard, but I enjoy the lessons and the practice. On the other hand, although I might improve my fielding skill by practicing, I hate softball, so I don't continue in that.

Good luck, give the chord shapes above a try. They will certainly be easier than the "classic" folk chord shapes, and allow you to get started on some songs. Email if you need any clarification.
posted by rhys at 8:38 AM on April 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

After 10 months I can't play a single song. Not even the simplest two chord campfire favourite. I can't change chords fast enough to play actual music. My fingers simply will not go to 3 or 4 different places on different strings and frets in one movement in the space of a split-second.

Answer this question: are you having fun playing? Do you enjoy it? If not, if it is a chore, you'll never learn. The reason people learn so fast in the beginning is because that's when they are the most enthusiastic about it.

That said, your practice isn't tailored to you, and though your teacher is supportive, they should really be having you practice the utmost basics exclusively before trying to get you to learn a song. They should be telling you waht you are doing wrong, and telling you how to fix it.

Speed is not easy, I don't care what anyone says. For every one player who can go from G to C cleanly and quickly, there are thousands who do it sloppy. To quote Steve Vai, the way to play fast is to start by playing slow.

You should practice half an hour a day doing nothing but going from G to C cleanly. Don't worry about songs or anything else. Just do this one thing. If it takes ten seconds, do it in ten seconds. But do it correctly 100 times. Then try to get it down to five seconds, then two. If this is too hard, just relax your hand and arm, lay your fingers lightly on the strings over the frets, and try to go from relaxes to a C or G chord using only the finger muscles. Again, if you have to move them really slowly at first, do that.

Don't exert too much muscle, don't be tense. Pay attention to which muscles you're tightening. And go slow.

don't worry about learning songs. Most songs are rearranging 5 chords. First learn to control your hand. The rest will come very fast.
posted by Pastabagel at 8:40 AM on April 24, 2008 [2 favorites]

Whoops, that should be:

C: x 3 x O O 3 3 (frets)
C: x 2 x O O 3 4 (fingers)
posted by rhys at 8:40 AM on April 24, 2008

My fingers simply will not go to 3 or 4 different places on different strings and frets in one movement in the space of a split-second. So, boo-hoo, poor me, I suck... just admit I have no talent for it and give it up.

If a major problem you're having is simply muscle coordination, you could try improving that separately from the instrument. As weird as it may sound, something like Guitar Hero or Rock Band may be a less frustrating way to train your fingers to move quickly. Obviously it's not a substitute for practicing on a real guitar, but it may be a good enhancement.
posted by Nelsormensch at 8:41 AM on April 24, 2008

When I was about 13, after 4 years of lessons, my piano teacher wrote to my parents and told them I would never pass the Grade 1 exam as I had "no natural rhythm" and she advised that I stop taking lessons. Which I did, and was enormously happy about because the lessons had been somewhat forced upon me by my grandmother.

Looking back, had I been really keen on the piano I could have said, fuck it, I'll find a new teacher or carry on alone, but I wasn't really fussed. But, just to say there are some people out there who do believe that you've either got it or you don't.

But, you seem to want to learn and have a supportive teacher (clearly neither of which applied to me) so I would say just keep on strumming and enjoy yourself. You'll never be Jimi Hendrix but surely it's about doing what you want to do. And only you will really know when (or if) this is something you want to stop doing.
posted by jontyjago at 8:50 AM on April 24, 2008

Keep playing. I couldn't go from G to C for a very long time. As a matter of fact, any time I tried to play C I got all discombobulated.

Some things my guitar teachers have taught me-

1. The idea is to get your strumming hand moving up and down without thinking about it - then you can concentrate on your fretting hand. I like to think of it this way. "Alright. As soon as that crazy hand over there plays this chord 4 times, I'm going to move my fingers into the shape of C."

2. Think about the chords that are coming up before you actually have to change them - as soon as you change to a new chord, start thinking about the next one and where you will have to place your fingers.

3. If you're having trouble with a specific chord transition, play that over and over. And over.

These tips helped me the most. After about a year and a half, I was able to start playing halfway decent, and then another 6 months after that, I was able to play and sing at the same time. So I think you should keep at it - 10 months is nothing. I think those people that can play a bunch of songs within a month are either lying or cheating or geniuses.

Unless you have some kind of hand impairment, I believe that anyone can learn how to play guitar. But it is much more difficult than most people make it out to be.
posted by kpmcguire at 9:01 AM on April 24, 2008

No one has suggested that maybe the guitar is not the instrument for you?

I found out years ago that the guitar was not for me, nor was the violin or other stringed instrument. However I was "better" with the piano and found it fun. This was at school with a wonderful music teacher.

I have reached a plateau with both these instruments and now play a keyboard strictly for my own pleasure. It has a rhythm and automatic chord section and I pick out the melody with one finger of my right hand.

You have not mentioned whether you enjoy your lessons?

Good luck!
posted by lungtaworld at 9:04 AM on April 24, 2008

This is a complicated question that I can't get in to right now (although suffice it to say that I think you should only practice what you find to be fun, and if switching from G to C isn't fun, don't do it. There are MANY things to do on the guitar that you WILL find fun... email in profile, feel free to drop me a line for suggestions).

That said: rhys' diagrams read from low to high (pitchwise) left to right, and his C chord is NOT, strictly speaking, a C - it's a Cadd9. Cadd9 is almost (but not always) interchangeable with a C chord, but they are most certainly NOT the same. Come to think of it, his G chord is a G5, not a full-on G chord. Again, MOSTLY interchangeable, but not exactly the same thing. There are a few different ways to finger each of these chords, and all of them have their advantages and their challenges.
posted by fingers_of_fire at 9:05 AM on April 24, 2008

fingers_of_fire is correct, the chords I have posted are Cadd9, G5 and D5. Not trying to hide anything from you here. These chords will lend your campfire songs a more british invasion-y, oasis-y, rock-y sort of sound, as opposed to the peter, paul and mary-y, dylan-y folk/country sound of the traditional chords.

And the last few answers bring up another good point - what are your goals? Do you want to learn the 12 or so chords you need to strum along to basically any popular song, do you want to learn to play leads, jazz, etc? At this stage, if you're frustrated with not being able to play something recognizable, I'd say your first priority should be to pick a song and try it with those chords. If you can get that down, then start adding fingers.
posted by rhys at 9:11 AM on April 24, 2008

Seconding everything that Pastabagel said, with an emphasis on the idea of just repeatedly practicing the one transition that's giving you trouble. Make a G, strum once, make a C, strum once, don't worry about rhythm or speed at first. If you can do that, then try to do it a little quicker, and a little quicker. *JUST A SMIDGE*. If you can go from G to C and back twice in a minute, try to go for 3 times. If you can do it 3, try to go for 4. If you can do it 4 times in a minute, try to start doing it to a glacial rhythm, say 20 beats per minute, strum once every 4 beats. Slowly ramp up speed. Keep doing this until you've done the transition at least 20 times. Do 5 groups (or however many you can do in the time period) giving yourself a short break in between each group. Do more if you feel like.

It may take weeks of just doing this, and at first might seem useless, but eventually after you've done it for a while and slept on it your fingers should start to hard wire themselves.

Also, don't be afraid to push yourself into a "sloppy" transition for a while. You can ramp the speed up and down, in a sawtooth, going faster and faster until you're past your comfort zone, then dropping back. Going faster than you think you can forces your brain to do it "without thinking". Going back and doing it slowly helps you learn to do it right. Eventually you can strum with each beat, or different strumming patterns, but initially strum as simple as you can, just one downstroke at the start of each measure.

But start slow slow slow, and build from there.
posted by Reverend John at 9:20 AM on April 24, 2008

If you've really been practicing 5 hours a week for 10 months, it's unusual that you're unable to make any transitions with open chords. I'd have to see you play to diagnose the problem though. When you say you can't switch the chords in tempo, what tempo and what rhythm are we talking about? There must be some tempo at which you can execute the changes. Can you make the transition if you're strumming one chord per measure in 4/4 at 60 BPM? Find a speed at which you can do it, no matter how slow (use a metronome) and then work up from there. That's the way to get better at something. Trying and failing over and over to do something at a speed you're not ready for is just banging your head against the wall.

Also there might be something in your technique that's holding you back. I assume that by this point you're very familiar with the chord shapes, but I find problems with chord changes are very often mental more than physical. You need to be able to picture the chord shapes in your mind's eye instantly or your fingers are never going to be able to do the right thing.

Make sure that you relax when moving from one chord to the next. It goes like this:

1) Squeeze first chord
2) Relax hand
3) Move fingers
4) Squeeze second chord

If your hand is still tense when you're trying to make a chord change you won't get it right. Also make sure you're thinking of the chord as a whole simultaneous shape and not a linear placing of fingers. Try making the changes in super-slow motion but forcing yourself to put all your fingers down at once rather than one at a time. Then speed it up from there.

fingers_of_fire is correct, the chords I have posted are Cadd9, G5 and D5.

It's not really a Cadd9 if it doesn't have an E in it. C G D would be Csus2 or Gsus4. But I'm not sure exactly what you meant because you wrote the C chord with seven strings both times.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:30 AM on April 24, 2008

How are your hands?

I have short stubby fingers that aren't very flexible, chords are a nightmare for me and bar chords are completely out. When I first started to play, I played on my friend's guitar, she was a very tiny person and she had a tiny person's guitar, her guitar was much easier to play than when my parents bought me a proper grown up sized guitar.

Some chords I just couldn't do, my fingers just don't bend that way. I did much better at solos than chords, plus I do better with a melody to follow - you might be the same.

Can you pat your head and rum your tummy at the same time? That's a good place to start for most musical instrument.

You should start by identifying your problem, is it physical or mental? Can you easily make the positions but your the brain-hand time lag is too long? Or can you just not move your fingers fast enough? Ask your teacher if there are some exercises you can do to improve your finger dexterity or perhaps ask if you can do more plucking type songs (eg. greensleeves) and less chords.

I gave up on the guitar long ago (even the guitar hero controller is a bit big for the way my fingers bend :()
posted by missmagenta at 9:36 AM on April 24, 2008

One more try, with correct chord names and fingerings (seriously do NOT worry about the numbers and crap after the chord name if you are just trying to string 3 chords together to play a tune):

G5: 3 x O O 3 3 (frets)
G5: 2 x O O 3 4 (fingers)

Csus2: x 3 x O 3 3 (frets)
Csus2: x 2 x O 3 4 (fingers)

D5: x x O 2 3 x (frets)
D5: x x O 1 3 x (fingers)

That'll teach me to try to write chord diagrams in a hurry.
posted by rhys at 9:45 AM on April 24, 2008

nthing the idea that guitar might not be your axe. Me, I started off playing the accordian when I was 8 or 9, played for a couple-three years, never got very far with it. When I was about 12 I tried trumpet. That was a big waste of time.

Then, when I was 16, I sat down behind a friend's drums one night -- whoa! I had the beat! I knew what to do! It all felt right.

I am 58 and still playing drums, making a few thousand a year with my band. Never had a lesson in my life, am purely self-taught.

Short version: try other instruments. You'll know when it's right.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 9:46 AM on April 24, 2008

At what point do you give up on trying to learn a musical instrument?

After you stop having fun.
posted by secret about box at 9:46 AM on April 24, 2008 [2 favorites]

I can't remember how I learned to do chords exactly, but I do remember the two things that came between picking up a guitar and going "This is crazy hard" and picking one up and going "Oh I *see*..."

1) Power chords. Well, not even chords: just the lowest two or three strings with my fingers in the same position (relative to each other) the whole time. Just sliding up and down the neck. First song - Teenage Kicks by the Undertones. And it was like... aha! Music!

2) Getting a 3/4-size guitar, and one where the highest three strings are nylon (rather than an entirely steel-strung guitar.) My hands aren't huge so it's easier to play, you don't have stretch your fingers or move your wrist as awkwardly, and the strings are less cutting on the fingers. Also having the strings closer to the fret-board is good (easier to press them down and get a good note out) and closer to each other (again, you're not moving your fingers as far and it's harder to "miss" the strings." This isn't some YOU NEED AMAZING EQUIPMENT rant - my guitar cost me £20, I just know that my friend has the exact opposite sort (wide, long neck, big body, steel strung) and I can barely play it.

Also, I never had any lessons, but from having lessons in other stuff I suspect your instructor probably wants you to learn things "the right way" to avoid problems "later on." Alas it sounds like "the right way" is preventing you from making any progress so I'd suggest concentrating less on "technique" and instead experiment with finding the bare minimum you can manage that sounds good, even if it's just playing a bass riff on one string, then take it from there.
posted by so_necessary at 10:01 AM on April 24, 2008

Have you considered trying a different teacher or different approach? If practicing doesn't make you any better, it's possible that you're practicing the wrong thing. It's also entirely possible that the guitar isn't your instrument, and you might have more fun with something completely different.

With that said, I agree that there is such a thing as natural talent. I've taught a lot of dance, and there are people who pick it up quickly, style and all, and there are people who slowly get only the basic movements and 30 years later that's still all they can do. But they're still doing it because they enjoy it, and if you enjoy playing one chord, then stick with it. American old-time music has some great one-chord tunes.
posted by PatoPata at 10:15 AM on April 24, 2008

I have been taking guitar lessons, a half hour once a week, for 10 months. I practice approx. 5 hours a week, an hour at a time. ... After 10 months I can't play a single song.

I'm sorry, but that is not normal. Guitar is certainly a complex instrument as a whole, but it should not be an overwhelming challenge to learn the basics. And as I'm sure you know, lots of great songs use nothing more than three or four chords. So you're saying that in 10 months, you haven't gotten to the point where you're applying basic strumming patterns to a series of three chords. I know I'm being more discouraging than some of the other answers, but you're asking for honesty.

Based on your description of looking through old AskMe questions, you may have read my answer that one month is a good benchmark for basic "Hey, I can play some stuff on the guitar and not have it sound awful!" ability -- assuming diligent, daily practice. I know (from those previous threads) that people will dispute this, but look... It'd be different if you had been playing for just one month and were disappointed at not being able to really play. Then I'd say: "Well, maybe I'm wrong -- maybe shoot for two months, or maybe three." But you haven't been playing for one month or two months. You've been playing for ten months, taking lessons, and practicing regularly. You should be able to play guitar by now.

I think some of the above answers are giving perfectly fine general advice on beginning guitar technique but are missing the forest for the trees. Not being able to play guitar after 10 months means something has gone wrong. I recommend having a totally blunt conversation with your guitar teacher about this. You've already been totally blunt with us, and he knows your specific issues better than we do. Or maybe get a new teacher and be upfront about the fact that your goal is to get a fresh perspective and an honest assessment of whether you can get over the hump. Considering the money you've already invested in 10 months of lessons, it'd be well worth the money to devote a couple of lessons to just talking about the big picture.
posted by Jaltcoh at 10:25 AM on April 24, 2008

1)Yes, *you* can learn to play guitar.
2)Yes, there is such a thing as natural talent, but it matters less than your desire and persistence.

In support of item #1: Guitar is the instrument you *want* to learn? Or you just want to play an instrument? As others have pointed out, some folks lock into keys or drums much better. If you like guitar, how about being a bass player? It'll get you more gigs and friends, and only requires one note at a time. Being a bass player also means never having to say "I'm sorry" when showing up to a jam or party: "Oh christ! Not another damn guitarist!"

In support of #2: Guitar didn't come particularly easy to me. That's probably why I stuck with it. Over time I've met some people who just noodled on guitar who obviously had "natural talent", but they never took it very far. If your skills aren't doing what you want, try learning different skills: Power chords are a great way to play a lot of songs without having to reshape your fingers much. If you're not learning guitar, try a different teacher. A teacher letting you beat your head against the wall for so long after so much effort is clearly not *teaching*.

As others in this thread have mentioned, I too feel I could debug your playing quickly just by seeing you play. You'd be playing a few songs in a half hour or sooner. You might be using power chords or an open tuning, but you'd be playing recognizable tunes.

Try a different teacher. Have a guitarist friend sit down with you. Try a different style of music. If open chords aren't working for you, try blues. Or funk flat fingered nines and thirteens. Or rock power chords.

Don't get stuck thinking you have to play G-C-D *first*. Or scales *first*. Your goal is fun, right? Work on what works for you. Guitars do a lot of things, it's all in how you use it.
posted by lothar at 10:47 AM on April 24, 2008

Take a look at this book (it's free and all online). It's about piano technique, but some of the author's assertions as to how we learn to play an instrument have helped me tremendously in my guitar playing.

Basically, the idea is to isolate the things that are difficult; practice them as slowly as you need to to execute them perfectly (i.e., if you took a film of yourself and sped up the frame rate, it would appear to be perfectly executed at normal speed). I suspect that your practice methods are the culprit, here; I've been playing guitar since I was eight years old, but my technique stagnated because of a poor practice regimen. I made discoveries like that book a year or two ago and since then I can't even imagine being the same player I was a few months ago.

If it still doesn't work out for you, I also agree with the idea of maybe trying out some other instruments. Some things just don't jive with some people. I'm not convinced that you'll need to do that, though.
posted by invitapriore at 10:57 AM on April 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

You give up when it is no longer fun.
posted by jeffamaphone at 11:03 AM on April 24, 2008

Response by poster: OP here: Thanks everyone for the great answers and advice on both a specific and abstract level. Some good things to think about.

To answer some of the questions: my practice is usually 5 mins warm-up, 10 mins right-hand exercises, 10 mins left-hand exercises, 10 mins on old lesson material, 15 mins on new lesson material and 10 mins doing whatever, my fingers are normal, and my goal is to eventually play in a Spanish style for my own relaxation (I play on a classical guitar). However, I do like more popular stuff too like Jack Johnson, John Mayer etc. so chords are important.

If I play in 4/4 time at 40 bpm I can strum for three beats but I need the fourth beat to change. That's as fast as I have been able to get. Any faster it all breaks down.

I realize the short answer is that if you are no longer having fun then it's time to quit. Where I am hung up is that since I haven't really had much reward for my practice the answer is no I'm not really having a lot of fun. But you have to go through the tedious repetitive slow stuff before you can have any fun. It's more a question of how long you hold out waiting for the fun... and whether it will ever actually arrive. That's what gets me thinking about whether desire sometimes is just not enough.

I'm not ready to quit yet but I'm getting there. And it seemed to me that there is no magic secret to chord changes so changing teachers would be unlikely to have an effect. Do you think this is true? My teacher has tried a few different approaches (one finger at a time, all the fingers in one movement, think of the shape, guides and pivots) so I'm not sure what a new teacher would do any differently.

From everything I have read and seen it doesn't seem that I am doing anything "wrong". My fingers just don't like to land in a consistent, clean, correct spot to sound the next chord. I have had a bit more success with classical, finger-picking technique because it's more often one or two fingers at a time instead of three or four.

Any further thoughts or advice much appreciated.
posted by pixlboi at 11:29 AM on April 24, 2008

Can you do other things on guitar? What else have you worked on?

I'm wondering if you are a super duper perfectionist? My bet would be that you actually can get from G to C but maybe not as fast as you like. And that you get frustrated and annoyed. I'm probably off base here, but I'm confused. What do you practice for an hour a day?

I ask about the perfectionism thing, because I've seen people who really can't move their hands fast enough to play in time, but still sort of do, messilly. That's different from not being able to move their hands at all.

I'm a musician, and have been doing it for a long time, and only now, when I'm 32, and have been playing music since I was 6 or so, do I feel kind of confident about it (sometimes). It's been a long slow process for me, even though some peopel would describe me as talented. I learned some things a lot slower than I would have liked.

I'm confused about your teacher. You say that he's good, but you are not getting this basic thing after 10 months. My guess is that he's not that good. Or at least, it's not a good match and you shoudl try someone else.

That you give up when it's no longer fun is BS to me. Music has many times not been fun for me, but I stuck with it and I'm glad I did. Most things that are important and meaningful are not always fun. But you keep doing them because they mean something to you.

Feels like we need more info from you.
posted by sully75 at 11:30 AM on April 24, 2008

(I play on a classical guitar)

Have you tried practicing on different instruments, like a steel-string or an electric? The wide neck of a classical guitar has a much different feel and could be making things more difficult for you.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:33 AM on April 24, 2008

Oops. Didn't read your response.

How old are you?

One thing I learned from piano is to not play chords in time, but just to practice jumping between them. bap bap bap...no music, just getting that finger jump as smooth as you can. Sounds like you can play other things, so you are mostly having trouble with chords?

Do you sing? It might help to work on songs that you can sing along with. You may be thinking to hard, and singing might help you get out of that and more hear what you should be playing rather than trying to think what your hands should look like.

Anyway, good luck. Music is tough. You might find in another 3 months that you can't believe this was ever a problem.
posted by sully75 at 11:35 AM on April 24, 2008

You're actually lucky that your problem is physical, as your chord-changing story would indicate. If you, for instance, were kind of tone-deaf, I'd have sighed and not had anything to offer you.

I just want to add: you know the advice rhys offered, about keeping down a pivot-finger? That's basic. If, by any chance, the teacher you have has not told you about that, then you need a new teacher.
posted by Rich Smorgasbord at 11:45 AM on April 24, 2008

Nthing comments about finding ways to finger chords that keep certain fingers in the same place. It is a great help, and for instance, I still mostly play A with one finger, and D with first finger barring the three strings and one finger down, as it's so much quicker, and provides what's needed.

There are people who tried to pick up guitar that I knew who mostly struggled with rhythm, and people who were tone deaf, but apart from that I've never seen anyone not get it eventually. I'd just keep at it, possibly practice a bit more even, and find ways to practice that will help you more than what you're working at at the moment.

Also, have a look at bass-chords, or ask your teacher about them. I kind of started out playing using them without any formal training or reading, and it helped me to get a foundation for the fret board and how to move around it.
posted by opsin at 12:07 PM on April 24, 2008

it seemed to me that there is no magic secret to chord changes so changing teachers would be unlikely to have an effect. Do you think this is true? My teacher has tried a few different approaches (one finger at a time, all the fingers in one movement, think of the shape, guides and pivots) so I'm not sure what a new teacher would do any differently.

I agree with you that a new teacher probably wouldn't have one specific secret technique that would unlock the fretboard for you. But a new teacher might be able to bring a fresh perspective and get straight to the point more easily. Your current teacher surely believes he's doing the right thing by being unwaveringly patient and never discouraging. I'm sure he thinks, understandably, that he has to do that to be a good teacher. But it also means he has a vested interest in not seeing you give up. A new teacher might be able to give you new insights in the first lesson that you haven't heard in 10 months of practicing.
posted by Jaltcoh at 12:18 PM on April 24, 2008

Have you tried practicing on different instruments, like a steel-string or an electric?

An electric guitar is definitely a cool idea, going back to what I said about narrow-necked / strings-close-to-fret-board guitars being easier (in my experience) to play. Also it's remarkably entertaining to turn up the fuzz and make a cool rocky noise even when you're not very good at all. But maybe that's not the genre/sound you're after, which is understandable, and it's a bit more of a financial outlay.
posted by so_necessary at 12:55 PM on April 24, 2008

I know how you feel. I picked up a guitar a few months ago and really, really hate changing between chords. If someone says to me, "Play an A chord!" I can play an A chord, but if they then say, "Play and A chord then a C!" they will have enough time to boil an egg between the chords.

That said, I really love playing the 12 bar blues. I can just play the backing bits over and over again and am perfectly happy to do so. It makes me wonder if I should have picked up the bass instead of the electric guitar, but I'm holding out until I get a few lessons under my belt before looking in to that. I figure once whatever needs to click about solos in certain keys clicks, I'll have even more fun.

One thing that works for me when learning new skills is to walk away for a bit when I get frustrated and come back when I'm in a better mood. This is how I've improved on Rock Band drums and passed songs that made me want to stab a stick through the TV. Forcing yourself to focus on the stuff you dread does not a fun experience make.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 1:02 PM on April 24, 2008

Maybe it's the guitar: I'd try a steel-string acoustic guitar with some fairly light gage strings. Nylon strings and the wide neck of a classical guitar can add to the difficulty. The same is true of trying to play a steel-string acoustic with old, heavy gage strings and/or really high action. Have you played other guitars? Have you found any that are easier for you to play (i.e. that fit your hands better).

Maybe it's your teacher: Even if your teacher is good for other people, he might not be good for you. Have you ever had another teacher? Have you tried any instructional books/videos on your own? It might be that your teacher's teaching style and your learning style are not matching up.

Maybe it's you: Maybe you really do have some cognitive and/or physical issue that makes this a lot harder than it is for moth people. If that's the case, how long to keep at it really does become an issue. Some other instrument might come more naturally to you.

Focus on your strengths. If you can't play open chords, try barre chords. If you can't play barre chords, try partial chords (maybe just the root and third) or power chords (root + fifth or root + fifth + octave). There are a whole slew of moveable "closed form" chords in the middle of the neck that are easier to play than the open chords. You said you do better with the finger picking classical stuff. Why not make that your emphasis. Strengths in one area can balance out for weaknesses in another. Maybe you're not a strummer by nature. But that doesn't mean you can't play. It just means someone else will need to hold down the chords while you play some other role.

On second thought, come on over to the dark side and play bass guitar instead. No one will care if you can't chord. I play guitar and bass and greatly prefer playing bass (even though I like playing chords on the bass).
posted by wheat at 1:42 PM on April 24, 2008

Repeating basic patterns "engraves" them into your muscle memory. That is, you learn to do them without having to think. You see a familiar chord or sequence of notes and your fingers play what they already know.

When you learn the basics, speed is irrelevant. It works just as well at slow speed as at fast.

However, letting yourself make even the smallest mistake "engraves" that mistake into your muscle memory.

Therefore, NEVER PRACTICE FASTER THAN PERFECT. If you need to set your metronome (and you really need to use one) at its slowest speed and do one note per click, that's what you do. If that's too fast, do it every other click.

This is difficult. You lose your mental edge after about 15 minutes. Therefore, give it your best time -- the first 15 minutes of every practice session.

Get one pattern, even if it's only a few notes, to the point where it's perfect 10 times in a row. Then put it away for 3 days to let it soak in. Then practice it again. You'll be amazed and how something impossible has become almost automatic.

It takes a long time to learn the many patterns you need to play music rather than exercises, but it's how every professional player learns to do it.
posted by KRS at 1:56 PM on April 24, 2008

right you are, ludwig_van - thanks for correctly labelling that chord Csus2.

A couple of things, pixlboi - first, don't get too caught up in the "talent/no-talent" issue. It does not take talent to switch from G to C. It takes a certain skill, patience, muscles, dexterity, etc - but in my opinion, it does not take talent. Whether or not you are a talented guitarist is a question that remains to be answered. Judging by your thoroughness and attention to detail, I'd speculate that, when equipped with the necessary skills and knowledge, you will do interesting, tasteful things with the guitar.

Second, there's a psychological component here too - try not to focus too hard on how well you're doing, just do it A LOT. When I was a kid learning these same chords that you are working on, I spent a lot of time strumming through them in front of the television. After all, switching between G and C requires precious little intellectual power - you understand in your mind all you need to know about those chords. There is, however, a practical kind of knowledge that your hands are still in the process of acquiring - I think the distinction is important, because your brain can stand in the way of your hands, etc.

I was taught to play an open G chord with my pinky on the third fret of the high E string, my second finger on the second fret of the 5th (A) string, and my 3rd finger on the 3rd fret of the low E string. The advantage of this fingering is that, when switching to a C chord, you simply drop your third and second fingers one string together, remove your pinky, and add your first finger to the first fret of the second string. Most people learn how to play a G chord using their first, second, and third fingers - and while that IS easier because it avoids depending on your pinky, the weakest finger - it definitely makes switching MUCH more intricate. So maybe experiment with that fingering. In the short term, it'll be a little more uncomfortable getting the G chord to sound good - but I DO think the switch (not just to C, by the way, but to other chords as well) will be easier.

Good luck!
posted by fingers_of_fire at 2:34 PM on April 24, 2008

I started playing the guitar when I was 11. My grandmother took me to a German classical guitar graduate student who taught me very strictly how to hold, finger, zzzzzzzz... I barely learned anything from him. After a year, I quit.

Then, when I was twelve, a certain band took off and I liked their music so much I tried to teach myself their LOUD songs one finger, one note, one acoustic string at a time by ear. I didn't learn how to play the chords at that time but I got used to making simple sounds I liked even though they weren't songs. And I slept with my guitar, messed around with it experimentally probably 5 hours a day, not week. I was smitten for years ... and I wasn't that good either, not for many years.

I think there's a big difference between learning to perform a piece and learning to love making sounds. 15 years later I can't read music (sadly) but I can learn by ear and sit in with all kinds of different musicians. I'm not saying you should shirk lessons but I do think that learning to play the guitar or any instrument is more about accidental love than forcing yourself to become proficient. I'm having that same problem with writing, photography, finding a career.
posted by metajc at 2:53 PM on April 24, 2008

I was the third child of four who was force-fed piano lessons. My parents imposed the same deal on each of us. It was this: you will practice a 1/2 hour a day and you will take lessons from 2nd grade until the end of 8th grade at which time you will be given the option for 4 more years of free lessons.

None of us had any natural talent and each of us hated the first 6 years. But somehow, each of us ended up playing well enough to be interested in taking them up on the optional lessons through high school.

"Can lack of skill trump desire?"
Yes, definitely. But practice, practice, practice trumps lack of skill. Do not quit.
posted by klarck at 3:02 PM on April 24, 2008

letting yourself make even the smallest mistake "engraves" that mistake into your muscle memory.

Therefore, NEVER PRACTICE FASTER THAN PERFECT. If you need to set your metronome (and you really need to use one) at its slowest speed and do one note per click, that's what you do. If that's too fast, do it every other click.


When I was a kid learning these same chords that you are working on, I spent a lot of time strumming through them in front of the television.

This is an excellent suggestion.

I also want to point out the semi-obvious and remind you that changing chords is really not about speed, it's about accuracy. You almost never have to move your fingers really quickly, relatively speaking, to change chords in a musical setting. You just have to move them to exactly the right place on the first try. That's why it's so important to be relaxed when you're making the change, otherwise you'll tend to overshoot your target. Don't get caught up worrying about speed. Concern yourself with fluidity and accuracy and freedom from tension.
posted by ludwig_van at 6:15 PM on April 24, 2008

I've been playing since 1979 and still have the same thoughts you do.

I remember a few things that really helped me. One was playing with someone who had more skill than I. My friend would tell me to play two chords over and over and over and he'd solo over the top. It was pretty badass but also helped me realize how my chords worked within a song. I know finding someone like that may be hard but its worth it.

Another thing too is that when you focus so much on your own skill, you have nothing to measure it against. Videotape yourself playing guitar once a month. After a year I think you'll see you've gained quite a bit of skill w/o realizing it. When I see early video of myself, I cringe. I'm sure I'll do the same thing again in a few years.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 8:16 PM on April 24, 2008

For a couple of years, I was a music major in college, and my chosen instrument was classical guitar.

I sucked very badly and eventually gave it up. But there was another guy who sucked almost as badly as I did, but became at least good enough to graduate.

The difference? He could get over making a mistake or two. He just kept on playing. When he hit the wrong notes, he didn't stop to correct himself, he just pretended he didn't even notice.

On the other hand, a compulsive part of me just HAD to correct every mistake I made. And that's why I didn't stay with the music thing. Not because I didn't have talent, and not because I didn't know what I was doing -- but because I was so insecure and hard on myself that I couldn't overlook a mistake.

Just wondering if that might be a factor in your experience with the guitar . . .
posted by treepour at 10:22 PM on April 24, 2008

If I play in 4/4 time at 40 bpm I can strum for three beats but I need the fourth beat to change.

For many, many songs, this will not be a problem. Instead of
well I'm 
sail   -   ing  a
Em Em Em Em
way,    my   
one    true    

simply play
well I'm 
sail   -   ing  a
Em Em Em *move fingers*
way,    my   
C C C *move fingers*
one    true    
D D D *move fingers*
G G G *move fingers*

Everyone does this when they're starting to play guitar. Once you get used to playing in tempo, fluency will follow naturally.

(on preview, apologies for massive comment, but I can't figure out how to do it more neatly)
posted by primer_dimer at 3:53 AM on April 25, 2008

I'm sure you've heard it said that "practice makes perfect." But a better version is "practice makes permanent." However, there are at least two modes of practice that you have to become familiar with in order to progress at any instrument:

1) Isolating problems and working on them.
I think you and your teacher already do a lot of this. If you can't change from G to C, you simply sit and do that over and over until you can. It's very frustrating but the only way to beat a technical limitation into submission. You can't do it all in one sitting. But it's something you work on a bit whenever it comes up or make part of your practice schedule until it's no longer a problem.

2) Ignoring problems and getting through the piece
The flip side is that good players make mistakes all the time. But they don't stop, grimace, get upset, and get sidetracked by them. In performance, you can't quit. You have to keep on trucking, even if you get lost or blow some notes. So part of your practice has to be simulating performance situations (practicing performance, if you will).

If you ever watch bands rehearse, you'll find some that work on #1 so much that they never get to #2. But it takes both. After you've spent some time working through a piece and stopping to work on problems, dial up a comfortable tempo on your metronome or drum machine and say to yourself "I'm going to make it all the way through this, no matter how bad it sounds." And do it. Just force your way through. Eventually, you'll make it through below an acceptable threshold of mistakes (and, sometimes, without any).
posted by wheat at 7:41 AM on April 25, 2008

I've played music (mostly guitar) with lots of people, good and bad, since I was about 15. My first reaction to someone not getting it right was "what's wrong with these people?". Offcourse, nothing was wrong. Allthough there are many factors at play here, the most important in my opinoin is musical ear. If you don't have a good musical ear you will struggle more than others. When I was a kid I was not aware of the huge difference in people's way to interpret music, notes and chords. Now I know better.

Why don't you try this test?

But, even if your score is low there's no reason to give up. As I mentioned earlier, there are many factors at play. Musicians with bad ear usually display other qualyties (if they are persistent enough to stick with it). Because of my very good musical ear I got a lot for free. I could play along to stuff I liked and develop my skills without teachers and "hard work". This is apparently not the case for you, so here are a few suggestions:

Try to play to along to simple songs you like. If you can't figure them out by yourself play them to your teacher and work on them together. The key is FUN!

Someone mentioned bass earlier. A bass player is usually even more dependant on musical ear than most guitarists, so that might not always be a good idea. But there are some great exceptions: Try playing bass to Joy Division (if you like them). Getting the hang of bassplaying will improve your musical ear. PS: You don't need a bass guitar to play bass.

Don't focus so much on techniques and skills. Focus on understanding what's going on in your favourite songs. What is the bass player playing? Where is that note on my guitar? Can I find the same note in this chord? Maybe twice? What's going on rythmwise?

And believe me: when you break the magic barrier and start playing songs on your own the reward is great.
posted by SurrenderMonkey at 10:44 AM on April 25, 2008

I've been taking guitar lessons for 6 months and feel about the same as you do most of the time. I'm probably ahead of you - I can change G to C pretty fast, and can play some barre chords - but there are lots of people way better than me at 1-2 months, and sometimes it feels like I can't make progress.

I'm going to pile on here with my comments although some of them are probably repeating what someone else said. I recommend you try the following:

1. First, you need to rule out a purely physical problem. Are there tasks similar to guitar that you ARE able to do quickly? Can you type fast? Play chords on a piano? Get a good score on Guitar Hero? If not, you should probably see a doctor or physical therapist, or find some exercises to improve your finger strength and dexterity. Are you practicing late at night when your fingers are tired? Do you work all day at something that tires out your fingers? Are you simply never exercising your fingers EXCEPT to play guitar? Are you left handed and trying to play right? I'd take a good hard look at the physical aspect of this before anything else.

2. Try an electric guitar. Try several at a store. Their necks are very different shapes than a classical and you might find one that works better with your particular fingers. I'd highly recommend that you find one that feels comfortable and buy it. It's helped me a lot to have two different guitars (electric and acoustic) to switch between. When one gets frustrating, I try the other.

3. Try a different teacher. I don't care if you've got the best teacher on earth, you need another perspective. A few lessons with a new teacher could teach you a completely new approach.

4. Practice more. I'd practice 2-3 hours a day for a while if you can. Try just holding the guitar and strumming G and C over and over while you watch TV or read Metafilter. That's what I do.

5. You said, "But you have to go through the tedious repetitive slow stuff before you can have any fun.". I think you've been through enough tedium. START HAVING FUN NOW. Find some songs that use chords you're relatively good at and try to play them. CHEAT if you have to - skip one of the chords, or use a Cadd9 (above) instead of a C, or only play the top three strings.

Get an electric, and you can play lots of songs using just two-string power chords. Heck, turn on some distortion and even alternating two notes on the E string can be fun.

Let go of your perfectionism. Play along (badly) with your iPod. Make up your own silly two chord songs. Find a friend who can play an instrument (bad or good) and play along with them.

If you can't figure out a way to have fun NOW, I'd change instruments. Or change hobbies altogether. (I took piano lessons for 2 YEARS and could never play a single song properly. Guitar has worked much better for me.)

If you're absolutely determined to play guitar, and there's nothing physical stopping you, you can make it work, but I believe finding a way to make it fun is more important than ANY of the tedious stuff. I got through the first couple of months by playing "The Whole Wide World" by Wreckless Eric over and over - it's just E E E E A A A A. But it was fun, and it was something I could fall back on after stumbling over C chords for an hour.

Along with finding a way to have fun, I think you should focus on #1 and #2 - after 10 months, you should be able to do more. Look for a physical issue or an ergonomic issue (guitar too big? Too small? Wrong shape neck?).

If you'd like even more advice, feel free to email me.
posted by mmoncur at 12:46 PM on April 25, 2008

I'm not a guitarist but have over twenty years' experience teaching music to all ages, including a wide range of ability (and disability). A good teacher will tailor the material to the student. And a good student will tailor the material to themselves and create their own. Sorry if I'm repeating what has already been suggested. There's not really any simple way to answer your question, as it all boils down to your philosophy and maybe your temperament I guess. Keep doing it as long as you feel you're getting something out of it. It does sound like you're really stuck though!

Think of what elements you can change and mess around with them- as I like to remind my students there's a good reason why we call it "playing". Messing around is educational! If you feel like you're bashing your head against a brick wall, you should change what you are doing. (Hey, it hurts for a reason!)

As stated above, you need to practise both for detail and for the big picture. Often slow practice IS faster. But sometimes big-picture practice is also faster. Really both are necessary and I would say variety is key, both for mechanical and mental reasons. So: 1: a more holistic approach should ALSO be used and 2: you're getting bogged down in details, but are they even the right ones in the first place?

Like most teachers I've found that with adult students, their very conscientiousness can create a lot of tension which can make it hard for them to access their intuition and the natural intelligence of the body. This is a subject widely discussed in books such as The Inner Game of Music by Barry Green and Tim Gallway, Effortless Mastery by Kenny Werner, or Zen Guitar by Phillip Sodo (a book I love although my instrument is no relation). You might also like Never Too Late by education reformer John Holt, about his experiences as an adult beginner on the cello.

There is such a thing as following a teacher's instructions too religiously or exclusively. Sometimes even very good teachers give slightly wrong instructions which can only be used as a rough guideline. At home you have to be your own teacher. Since you feel stuck, you may benefit from mixing up your practice more, much more! Experiment, use trial and error, be creative, observe details of sensation and posture as well as sound, without force.

Your fingers may need more variety, or to start with some other easier actions. Start with stuff you CAN do and progress from the known to the unknown, bearing in mind this creates a very steep learning curve at first. Sometimes too steep for the student to bear; only you can be the judge of this. Broaden, go laterally and not just straight up. Your practice session should be more self-directed, I'm certain this will help. You may just be stuck on the steep part of the learning curve BUT- wrong practice only makes more wrong. Second opinion?

Also, are you practising in hour-long blocks? You may get more out of shorter, more frequent sessions, practising intensely and then recovering before going again.

Yes, natural ability varies greatly but this often does not predict the student's eventual success, or more importantly their enjoyment. Would you say you lacked dexterity or coordination in general? You may well be more suited to some other instrument, but there's only one way to find out for sure. How in love with the guitar are you? Django Reinhardt was not deterred and invented his own technique. On the other hand musicians often tell stories about starting on the "wrong" instrument and then by chance picking up the right one and feeling its "rightness" straight away. (And then they worked liked dogs, of course.)

I often think of the student who couldn't get anywhere on the flute for six weeks and then picked up a clarinet and played a scale right away with a beautiful tone. Then there was the kid who assembled and held the instrument correctly without being shown how and was making up his own beat-boxing type numbers within the first few minutes. (He should have been giving me the lesson!) I've got thirteen year old beginners who can't tell left from right, and sing or whistle by accident when trying blow their first notes! But you have to ask, is it a bug or a feature? And then give them a go on the drums. (Haha, in my dreams.)

Remember to have fun! Even the most routine repetitions can be fun if you're really concentrating and absorbed in the task, that's what they call "flow". Observe, feel, experiment, listen. Good luck!
posted by Coaticass at 7:55 PM on April 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

plenty of good advice about keeping it up as long as you're having fun, and stopping when you aren't.

just by way of encouragement, I've owned a guitar for just about 10 years now. I never took lessons or anything, just tried to learn from tabs online. I got to the point where I could play a few parts of a few songs on the guitar but I really had a hard time with it, so I almost never played. Last six months or so I've picked it up again and it's really clicked in a way that it never did before: I'm able to remember the chord shapes and my fingers seem much more cooperative than they ever did before. So if you really want to learn, just give it time. Eventually you'll get there.
posted by Chris4d at 11:21 AM on May 2, 2008

Just keep it up, never judge your progress until you feel like you've made any. Only then can you start to feel the expanding ability you have to make the guitar sound like how you want it to sound. It's the joy of learning the instrument, and I'm certain one day you'll pick it up and you'll be approaching it differently, with a certain ease and confidence. It'll make you want to practice and play more.
posted by ageispolis at 9:31 AM on May 10, 2008

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