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Want to learn to play guitar? Don’t do what I did.

December 29, 2017

Yes,  this post is somewhat lengthy, but if you are considering learning guitar, I think you will find what I’ve written to be helpful.

First, I’ll write about how I (sort of) learned how to play guitar. Next, I will write about why the way I went about it is bad, explain why you should not do what I did, and what is better to do instead.

I started out on electric guitar. The guy in the music shop where I bought the guitar was also a teacher. I took a few lessons from him. He wanted to start me out with basic chords.

I didn’t want to learn basic chords. I loved hard rock, and that is what I wanted to play.  I left that teacher after a few lessons, and decided to learn from the most popular guitar teacher in the city where I lived.

I told him I wanted to play hard rock. He introduced me to a simplified way of reading music, called tablature. Instead of musical notes on a page, there were numbers on the lines of sheet music. Each line was for a string, and each number was for the fret on which the note was found. What was the name of the note? No idea. How long did I hold the note for? No idea. I listened to recordings to help me learn.

This was around 1989. I started with the rhythm part (the part of the song without the guitar solo or embellishments  – lead lines – played over the rhythm) to a fairly simple hair metal song called “Somebody Save Me,” by Cinderella.

This is a song you are not likely familiar with. Here is a cover played by a guy who actually knows what he is doing. If you can only stand to listen to a few seconds of this song, that is ok. I still like a lot of hair metal tunes, but not this one anymore. I’m just posting the song so you know what I’m writing about:

Why just the rhythm part? Not that challenging for a beginner, if the song is easy. However, guitar solos are a LOT more complicated.

The perfect example of this is many songs by AC/DC. Most of the rhythm parts to songs by this band are easy compared to most hard rock songs. However, Angus Young, the lead guitarist of AC/DC (the maniac in the school boy uniform), is a rather good guitar player, and his solos, like most hard rock solos, though brief, are complicated, and very challenging, especially for beginners.

So I started out on a fairly basic rhythm part of a song. To play this one, I did need to learn a somewhat tricky rock and metal technique called palm muting. I learned to strum strings – one or two at a time, while muting the string or strings with the palm of my hand. Right hand, same hand that held the pick. This took some time to learn.

Palm muting wasn’t easy, but I learned the rhythm part of the song fairly well, and then started on the intro to “Sweet Child of Mine,” by Guns -N- Roses. I didn’t move past the intro, I forget why. Chances are you’ve heard this song, so I won’t post the video for it.

One thing I did learn while working on the intro was up and down picking of individual strings/notes. Which is also not a beginner’s technique.

Then, I was taught a lead guitar style of playing called two-hand tapping. Eddie Van Halen did not completely invent the technique, but he was the first to use it extensively and in an innovative way.

Here is Eddie, playing his revolutionary instrumental, “Eruption.” Watch him use the fingers of both hands on the fretboard. I didn’t get nearly this advanced with the technique, ever, but could do it a little. It was very hard for me to learn.

After I could do two hand tapping at least somewhat, I started on “Panama,” by Van Halen. Even if  you have no idea how to play guitar, if you’ve heard “Panama,” or practically any other song by Van Halen, you’ll no doubt have realized that even the rhythm parts are.. difficult.

I never did learn all the rhythm parts of this song well, but the teacher started me on the guitar solo anyway. I don’t know why. Not like I really had a good grasp of what I was doing.  To make matters worse, “Panama,” even the rhythm part of it, is one of the most challenging and complicated songs by Van Halen.

After failing to learn all of this song well, I worked for a little while on some other techniques, and a song with a more basic rhythm part than “Panama.” The song was called “Long Way to Love,” by a band called Britny Fox (not the name of a person, just the name of the band, as far as I know).

My teacher didn’t have the tabs already written out, so, for a lesson, a half hour of time, he listened to my cassette, and wrote out the tab for the rhythm after he’d listened to the song a few times.

Again.. this is not me playing, but someone who learned the song better than I did:

I got the rhythm part of this one mostly learned, and can still play it. After that, my teacher started to teach me the guitar fretboard – the individual notes and where they were. He gave me a paper with a fretboard diagram on it – showing all the notes, except for the sharps and flats, (C#, Bb, etc.) And said – find all the “A” notes. Ok.. Not the best way to learn the fretboard. One is supposed to learn how the notes relate to each other, not just start by finding where the individual notes are, at random.

By this time, months had past, and the teacher, being an overbearing religious zealot (didn’t help that, for awhile, we went to the same church), got on my nerves with his preaching and guilt trips.

I stopped taking lessons from him. I then for years tried to teach myself, then took lessons from a friend, who was a professional teacher, but who thought I was better than I was. I was into acoustic guitar by this time, and my friend wanted to teach me the rhythm part to a folk song by Jim Croce (pronounced “crow-chee”). Croce – a very good guitar player. Even the most basic part of this song, “Operator,” was beyond me. I practiced the beginning of the rhythm part hundreds of times, but couldn’t get it. Had to learn how to do fingerpicking, also called finger style, in order to even attempt the song:

Yeah.. not an easy song.

Sometime later, I took a beginning classical guitar class at a community. That class was somewhat more useful, except, instead of putting a lot of focus on learning chords and strumming, we were soon taught how to play finger-style, and learn the notes not only on a fretboard, but reading sheet music in the usual way, not tab. And learning basic classical exercises and pieces. Not easy. I practiced a lot and got an A in the class, but damn, even though I’d been trying to play for years, I still had a hard time.

On other thing I did that was really really wrong. Except for when I was working on the music for the classical class, I kept trying to play songs (or bits of songs) at full tempo, before learning to play them well at a slower speed. Speed by itself is absolutely useless. Whether you are a musician or a race car driver, speed is nothing without control.

—–

Ok then.. why was what I did bad?

You might be wondering if the guitar teacher who taught me hard rock techniques was being a bad teacher.

He could have said, “Hey, I can teach you that stuff, but if you really want to play well, learn the basics – chords and strumming.” But then, maybe if he’d said that, I would have gone looking for another teacher – one who just taught me hard rock.

But he didn’t say that. Also, he tried to teach me advanced techniques, and one very difficult song, “Panama,” before I was at all ready for that.

And, he was a jerk about religion.. so yeah.. not the best teacher.

The first teacher was the better one, but I was not mature enough to learn from him. Yep, that’s on me.

Let me go back to when I shopped for and bought a guitar. My first mistake was starting out on an electric guitar.

Starting out on a classical acoustic guitar with nylon strings also would not have been the best idea.

Why?

Pushing the strings down on an electric guitar or classical guitar – this is an easier thing to do than pushing the strings down with one’s fingers on a standard steel string acoustic guitar – steel string being by far the most commonly played type of acoustic guitar, not the classical guitar.

Yes, this is the hardest and most painful guitar to learn on. You have to have some serious willpower to learn on a steel string guitar. Your fingers might even bleed a little at first. Yes, this well and truly sucks! But this is the best way. You build up your calluses, and then your fingers of your fretting hand (for right-handed folks, your fretting hand is your left had, and for lefties it is your right) don’t hurt anymore.

Build up calluses and learn chords. That’s the best way to start.

Not me though. I did build up a bit of calluses even playing the electric guitar, but did not start by learning basic, practical things like chords and strum patterns.

Another reason electric guitar is bad to start on is that there are a lot of really cool sounds one can make using an electric guitar and a typical amp that has many guitar effects built into it. You’ll get really into all the noises you can make with your electric guitar, and spend less time practicing.

Amps were far less interesting when I started out. No computer chips and no multitude of effects built in, just a clean channel – which made the electric guitar sound like an acoustic, and a distortion channel – which made the guitar sound dirty, nasty, crunchy – guitar tones often used in rock, especially hard rock and metal.

You don’t need the distraction. Yes, amps with lots of effects are fun, but better to focus on learning how to play.

Other things not to do are to start with tablature, learn random, somewhat advanced techniques, and learn songs that don’t help you learn standard chords. Most of the chords in the Cinderella and Van Halen songs were not standard chords. These were called “power chords.” I did not even learn the names of the chords.

——

So, why is starting out with a steel string acoustic guitar and learning basic chords best?

As I already mentioned, it’s best to get the hard part over first – the pain of building up calluses on your fingertips. Also, playing on a steel string will help you gain more finger strength than playing on a classical or electric guitar.

Chords are the building blocks of guitar music. Starting out with basic chords, learning to make chord changes quickly, and learning how the chords relate to each other.. this is foundational stuff.

The basic chords are called “open chords.” This is because the strings that are not fretted are played open. What is a closed chord then? A closed chord is called a barre chord. To play one of these, you use your index finger to press against all six strings, and the remaining fingers to fret the chord. Easy? No. Painful? At first, yes. But then..

You can move your hand up and down the neck, without changing chord formation, and play lots of chords. This is good!

After learning chords, you may wish to learn music theory – how to read music, and how to apply reading music to guitar. But you don’t need this part of music theory – how to read sheet music.

However, at least learning lots of chords, the Circle of Fifths (a chart of how chords fit together to sound good – what chords go with what musical keys.. as in key of G major, key of A minor, etc.. this requires at least some knowledge of music theory), learn the fretboard – where the notes are – and learn some scales (notes played individually that go together, and are the building blocks of guitar solos and single note lines of music) to go with the chord progressions – the certain orders of chords.

You will learn chords by playing simple songs. You will also learn strumming patterns using a pick. This is the way to start. At the beginning, it’s not about individual songs, it’s using songs to learn basic chords.

For example, the first teacher taught me three major (major chords sound happy, minor chords sound sad) chords to start out with: D, G, and A.

He then handed me a piece of paper with the lyrics to “Time For Me to Fly” by REO Speedwagon. Above the lyrics were letters for the chords. I didn’t learn the electric guitar rhythm or lead parts to the song, just the chords. This is how chords are taught.

Is tablature good to learn at all? Not to start out with, I would say. Get the basics down first. Chords, keys, some simple scales, notes on the fretboard.

If you want to learn tablature later, that’s ok.

Should you learn to read music, and learn a lot about music theory?

That depends on what you want to play. If you want to play basic rock or blues, after you learn the basics, you can learn with tablature, or by ear, if you are able. Even if you want to play complicated rock music and guitar solos, you can learn with tab.

If you want to play classical guitar or jazz, then definitely learn music theory. You’ll pretty much have to.. these are complicated, advanced forms of music.

To play classical music correctly, you absolutely must play classical pieces as they are written on the page – in standard notation – standard sheet music.

Jazz involves a lot of improvisation. If you don’t know music theory really well, you’ll likely have a harder time learning jazz. Also, even though a full musical score in standard notation is often not used by jazz musicians, lead sheets – simplified notation that still uses standard notation often is. A lead sheet, for jazz musicians is a guideline. Tells you what key you are playing in, what chords to use, and you can make up the rest as you go.. soloing and so forth.. if you understand music.

If you don’t want to learn standard notation, and want to play rock, that’s ok. Jimi Hendrix, in my opinion the best ever rock guitar player, did not learn how to read music. Eddie Van Halen started out with piano lessons for a little while when he was a kid, but mostly forgot how to read music, and taught himself guitar.

Jimi was a genius, and so is Eddie. Also, they usually practiced at least 9 hours a day, often learning songs by ear, and making up their own techniques. If you have lots of natural talent, a very good ear, and 9 hours or more of free time per day, you might want to consider this method.

What about learning with a teacher vs. teaching yourself?

If you can find a practical teacher who starts you off with the basics, then this is best. One on one lessons. Small group lessons are cheaper, and also a good way to go. Even a community education class might be a good place to start.

And an introduction to classical guitar is ok to start with.. you will learn some chords, some finger picking techniques, how to read music, and gradually learn the notes on the fretboard. But, you will not learn how to play with a pick, and most popular guitar music is played using a pick.

Also, usually, a teacher of a classical guitar class will likely insist that you use a classical guitar. You won’t build up calluses as fast, or quite as strong finger strength as you would using a steel string guitar. But, this is not really a bad way to go otherwise.

What about teaching yourself?

There are tons of free lessons on youtube, lessons you can pay for on various other sites, and apps for phone and tablet, etc.

If you can’t afford lessons, or don’t have a teacher nearby, it is possible to learn this way.

I’m not very familiar with the apps. If the apps just teach you songs, I would say skip them. If they start out by teaching you chords and strumming patterns – this is better. You really can learn by yourself and learn well, if you want to.

One thing to keep in mind.. very important.. learn to play the chords/songs well at a slower tempo before playing them at full speed.

Your motto should be: When I practice slow, I learn fast. When I practice fast, I learn slow.

—————

What about buying a steel string acoustic guitar?

1. Don’t buy a guitar online, if you can avoid doing so. It is important to play a variety of guitars first, even if you don’t know how yet.. just strum or pick some notes.. try different guitars. Find the one you can afford that feels and sounds best to you. Although you might save some money buying online, it’s better to find a guitar you really like, and to do that, you’ve got to get your hands on some.  Also, you might find a model of guitar you like, then find the same model online for cheaper. But it won’t be the exact same guitar. It will still feel and sound a little different from the one in the store.

2. If possible, bring a friend or relative who already knows how to play guitar and who can help you pick one.

3. There are many brands out there. For $300 or even less, you can get a good guitar. Some brands to consider are Yamaha, Seagull (my two top choices), Ibanez, Fender, Gretsch, Mitchell, Loar, Recording King, and Epiphone. These guitars, except for Seagull, which is made in Canada, will likely be made in Indonesia. That’s alright. Most guitars and basses I’ve owned have been made in Indonesia, and they’ve been good enough for me.

If you want American-made guitars, you are looking at a starting price of $600, generally. American brands? Taylor, Martin, and Gibson. Some of the more expensive Fender guitars are also made in America. Sadly, just because a guitar is expensive and made in America does not always mean it is tons better than foreign-made, cheaper guitars. You don’t always get what you pay for.

The more expensive Ibanez and Yamaha models might still be made in Japan. These are likely to be good, but not cheap.

If you are just starting out, why spend a lot of money? You don’t need to.

4. Don’t start out on a 12 – string guitar. After I’d been playing for awhile, I bought one. It was a Mitchell, and was a good guitar. However, it was too hard for me to play, especially since I was still having trouble with 6 string guitars. 12 string guitars really sound beautiful, but they are tougher to play. I sold mine to a friend, who is a professional musician.

5. Most steel string acoustics are big and bulky, and are called “dreadnoughts.” There are some slightly smaller ones, sometimes called “parlor guitars” that are good too. But don’t buy a 3/4 or half-size guitar, unless you are buying an instrument for a child. If you don’t know if a slightly smaller guitar is a parlor guitar or 3/4 or half-size, ask.

6. Buying used is not a bad idea, especially if you have someone you can bring along to help you. But, I would say avoid buying from someone on craigslist unless you want to take the chance of entering the home of a stranger. Meet in a public place if you can.  Also, skip pawn shops unless you find a rare one that has at least part of the store converted into a music shop – you’ll be able to tell by looking. Music stores are better for buying used instruments, generally. Some music stores only sell used instruments. These tend to be good places to shop.

Which music store to go to? Ask around.

Some folks might not like what I am about to write next. I’ve shopped at several independent music stores, but generally have gotten the best service at two Guitar Center locations. The sales people at these stores do not work on commission, which means they don’t make extra money by selling as many guitars as possible. Since they don’t work on commission, they are not likely to pressure you. Also, the folks at the two Guitar Center stores I’ve been to have almost all been knowledgeable and rather nice. And, being a huge chain, GC can offer the best deals on new instruments, usually. Lastly, they tend to have great selection.

Not all independent stores are bad though. Some are good, and so are the people working in them. I bought my first guitar at a small independent store. There were many guitars to choose from, and the guy working in the store was great.

But people at the majority of the independent stores and smaller chain stores that I’ve been to? Generally not so nice. And the prices tend to be higher than at GC. Although, here in Boise, there is a pawn shop that is part music store, and the main guy in that department is great.  If you live in Boise and don’t mind buying a used instrument, stop by the Pawn 1 location on Maple Grove and Overland, and ask for Chris. He’s a thin, balding white guy of medium height, probably just over 30 years old, I’m guessing. I’ve bought a lot of instruments and gear from that guy, more than I’ve bought from Guitar Center.  But the GC folks here in Boise are great, and I’ve bought gear and instruments there too.

Just a bit more about GC – you have a month or more in which to return the instrument if you don’t like it, as long as you have not damaged it, or smoked while playing it, and gotten the tobacco or weed stink on the instrument. You probably won’t find that sort of return policy anywhere else. And, you can even buy a warranty for used instruments. Unfortunately, GC sells hardly any used acoustic instruments, at least at the two locations I’ve been to.

If you want to rent a guitar for a little while, you’ll likely have to go to a store or other vendor that specializes in band instruments that are rented to school kids. Generally though, the only type of guitar this place will have to rent to you will be a classical guitar.

If you find you really like playing guitar and are sticking with it, buy a guitar ASAP. Don’t rent to own, unless you want to pay many times more than what the guitar is worth.

Regardless of where you live though, ask around to find the best stores.

If you live in a remote area and must buy online, best to go with Amazon, Sweetwater Sound, Music 123 or Musiciansfriend. These companies all have good return policies.

If you want the best customer service.. someone to talk to on the phone for example, I’d say go with Sweetwater. Some of the folks at Musiciansfriend have been helpful, but that company messed up some of my orders, not only for guitars but for hand drums as well. Also, Musiciansfriend’s email customer support is terrible. Sweetwater’s email support is really good – or at least, that is my experience.

An online company called Elderly Instruments is also good. They sell both used and new instruments.

Ebay? Check the feedback.. make sure it is high. There are some good sellers on that site. It helps if the seller is a music company, not a pawn shop or some random person. Also check to make sure there is a return policy.

Even if an online vendor offers free shipping, if you are returning an instrument that is not defective, but rather one you just don’t like, you might have to pay not only return shipping charges, but reimburse the company for shipping the instrument to you. This can be expensive. Read the fine print of return shipping policies.


As for me.. after many years of fighting with the guitar – taking individual lessons from three different teachers, taking two group classes, and trying to learn and practicing a LOT on my own, I finally stopped trying to learn guitar. I learned very little. Some of us just don’t have the knack. I did find one good teacher, who wasn’t even going to charge me for lessons, but I hurt my right shoulder while volunteering at the library, and could no longer take lessons from him.

My shoulder is healing, but I’m going to do something else.

How will you know guitar really isn’t something you’ll be good at? I’d say work hard for at least a year at the basics. If you are making no, or almost no progress, choose a different instrument. And don’t feel bad. You tried. Don’t be afraid to move on. You’ll likely be great at something else.

There are stringed instruments that are easier to learn than guitar: bass guitar and ukulele. I’d say don’t start on mandolin or banjo. These are not as easy.

I’ve written a very long bass guitar buying guide, which you can find on this blog.

I’m not as familiar with ukes as I am with basses and guitars. But I did find a cheap uke that was better than the other cheap ones. I bought a Mitchell Concert-size ukulele that has abalone inlays (faux abalone?) and a spruce top the same color as most guitars with spruce tops. I tried other ukes for around $100, and thought this Mitchell uke was definitely the best. I found one used at Pawn 1 for only $65. I was extremely lucky.

If you are going to start out on a uke, don’t buy a soprano ukulele – so small..  buy a concert or tenor uke instead, as long as the tenor uke is tuned the same way as concert and soprano ukes. You can tell if the tenors are tuned like the rest by plucking the individual strings. The tenors, if tuned the same, will sound the same, just have a little fuller sound (hopefully), since they are bigger.

Baritone ukuleles are NOT tuned the same way as the others. Don’t start with one of these.

Other easy stringed instruments that are easier than standard guitars to play (you will have to learn how to play these by learning from youtube though, not easy to find a teacher who knows how to play these instruments) are a Seagull Merlin or 3 or 4 string cigar box guitar.

If you want to try cigar box guitar, buy from a guy on ebay who uses the name Weeklyhouse. I’ve bought two from him, a 3 string and a 4 string – both are rather good.

You can find a Seagull Merlin in some music stores, and online. I tried one at GC, but it had already been played a lot, so I bought one online from Elderly Instruments. Their customer service and prices are good.

You might also want to try basic piano or learn a cool wind instrument, such as trumpet or sax. Harmonica is also a great instrument to learn. I’ve written a harmonica buying guide, which you can find on this blog. I’ve tried many brands, and so far, my favorite harp (harmonica) is the Suzuki Harpmaster. The Hohner Special 20 and Lee Oskar Major Diatonic harmonics are also good. Buy one in the key of C. Spend at least $25-30 if you want a good harmonica. I’ve just summed up my buyers guide.. but if you want to read more about harmonicas, and hear some demos from some really good players, check out my buying guide post. You’ll find it in my “top posts” or in the tag cloud, by clicking “music.”

If you are into Celtic music, start with a penny whistle, also called a tin whistle. Feadog, Generation, and Acorn are good brands. Buy one in the key of D, to start with. These cost $20 or less, usually. LOTS of tin whistle tutorials on youtube. I play this instrument. It is fun, and not too hard to learn the basics, but can be very shrill, especially when one is first learning.

Keep in mind that the only truly easy instrument to play is a kazoo. Anything else is going to take a lot of effort, learning, and a whole lot of patience.

I’m trying to tell myself this as I begin to learn the ukulele. 4 strings compared to six but I can still play tons of chords, songs, and apply my finger picking and strumming skills? (I did learn a little bit about how to play guitar). Yes please!

But I’m already running into one problem with myself that I’ve always had – trying to play too fast. Just because playing the ukulele is easier than playing guitar doesn’t mean playing the ukulele is easy.

So.. I’m going to take deep breaths, be patient, learn the chords, learn the fretboard, the circle of fifths, etc. before focusing on complicated songs.

This time, I’m going to learn the right way.

If you decide to learn the guitar (or uke, or whatever), I hope that you go about it in a way that is a lot smarter than what I did.

Thanks for reading.

 

 

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