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|Learning to play guitar is a study in determination and persistence. It takes years, and progress often creeps along at a slow pace. Even students who practice regularly find themselves plateauing at a given skill level for long periods of time without any apparent progress. But progress does happen with consistent and continued study. The learning process never needs to be grueling, but it does need to continue at a regular pace, even if that pace is only casual and slow (that is typical for most average hobbyists).
You will need to work at it - the more you play, the faster you'll get good, and the sooner you'll be able to enjoy your musical skills and abilities. No one ever felt bad after an honest dose of hard work toward a desirable goal - and that's especially true with guitar. Learning to play guitar is hard work, but once you can play, it becomes one of the most satisfying, fun and rewarding skills to be enjoyed throughout life. It's socially, spiritually, intellectually, emotionally, and physically satisfying to play good music. Whether you do it as a hobbyist in your home, whether you play with church and social groups, or perform regularly in a professional group, it becomes a part of life that's satisfying and invigorating, and it's worth the time and effort spent learning how to play!
This document attempts to describe some of the typical barriers and difficulties encountered when learning to play guitar. If you know what to expect, and know that the difficult times are normal, and if you know how to work through them, you'll be much more likely to continue learning until you've reached a satisfying level of ability as a capable guitarist. Practicing musical examples is the only way to learn to play music. The most direct, effective, and time-proven way to learn guitar is to practice progressively difficult examples until the commonly used skills are ingrained. By learning a large collection of examples by rote, all of the technical skills and musical knowledge needed to play an instrument are internalized and intuitively understood. If you continue to play some music every week, you'll learn to play guitar. It's that simple. If the examples are laid out in an organized and progressive order, the learning process will move along in the most natural and painless way possible. And if the music is enjoyable, the process will stay as interesting and satisfying as possible.
There are several problems that students typically run into, though:
It takes a long time to learn how to play. Many students, especially young ones, expect it to be easy - playing guitar looks easy (and it is, once you learn how to do the most common techniques). Many students become discouraged because the learning curve is long, everything hurts in the beginning, and it takes many repeated examples and repeated attempts at practicing the same examples to get good at each technique. Many students get bored and lose motivation.
Practice time is hard to find. This can lead to a vicious cycle of further discouragement. Understanding that it's difficult to learn how to play, and that there are a mountain of skills to acquire makes the learning process seem like an endless journey. It's not endless, but the learning curve in the beginning can be overwhelmingly discouraging for many students. It takes several years to learn all the fundamental skills.The biggest thing that has to be understood from the beginning is that if you just stick with it, the learning will happen. It takes a long time - months to see significant improvement, and years to be able to play well. But if you continue to play new material, you'll improve. Every student improves. Everyone who sticks with it learns how to play guitar to a satisfying degree. Every single one. And the guitar becomes a satisfying source of enjoyment, satisfaction, creative inspiration, social fun, distraction and escape, etc. throughout life.
Once you get into playing for a while, you'll reach plateaus. Pieces of music need to be repeated hundreds of times, and techniques need to be repeated thousands of times in order to sound good and to become comfortable to play. Muscles need to be developed, dexterity and stretching ability need to improve, habitual movements need to be internalized, shapes and patterns need to be memorized, rhythm needs to become disciplined, concepts need to be understood and familiarized, and musicality ("touch") needs to become intuitive. And all those things are required just to become proficient - not to become a virtuoso. During the first year, it can be frustrating and difficult just to make single notes sound consistently clear - let alone to make entire pieces of music sound aesthetically pleasing.
If the materials you practice aren't achievable to a satisfactory degree, you'll become discouraged. On the other hand, if the materials are too simple or uninteresting, or if they aren't consistently progressive, development appears to stagnate, and learning becomes boring. If the approach to learning isn't fun and if the materials practiced aren't enjoyable and desirable, you won't stay motivated.
In the same way, if practice is fun and productive, and if the motivation to play exists, then progress will continue. You will reach points of completion. In the beginning, you will be able to play some short examples all the way through. You will learn to make open chords sound good. As you progress, you will eventually be able to make bar chords sound complete, and you will get string bends to sound in tune. You will be able to play complete extended pieces in rhythm without stopping. And everything
will stop hurting so much. And the great thing is, with each technical and musical accomplishment, your skills will not revert. And you'll get to enjoy the satisfaction that only comes from playing music. It's like riding a bike - once you learn how to do something on the instrument, you'll never forget how to do it as long as you keep playing. And it does becomes more fun and entertaining to play. Along the way, the learning process can be just as entertaining. Simply being involved in music, listening, and having the instrument around to play with is a diversion and an escape from regular life. It eventually becomes a more involved and satisfying labor of love for everyone who sticks with it. Some students seem to have a drive and ability that is unstoppable. They soak up every skill, work through every challenge, and stay motivated to learn guitar with unbreakable determination and motivation, even with bad teachers. For most students, though, that's just not the case. The average
student is easily bored and discouraged, feels like they're making slow progress, assumes they're doing worse than most other students, and wonders if they'll ever be able to play. Most don't find much time to practice. That's the norm!
But those who continue and simply stick with it, do get good.
As a teacher, I've spent nearly two decades trying to overcome all the obstacles that stand in the way of improvement, and I've found every method in common use to make the learning process easier and more effective. I've also found a number untraditional methods and materials that have proved to be effective at building technique, teaching concepts, and maintaining interest.
The most important tool I've found has been curriculum. During the first two years, it's especially difficult for students to maintain interest. Traditionally, the musical materials that beginners are expected to learn are uninteresting. I've collected a huge volume of materials for beginners that are more interesting and desirable than the traditional exercises and simple examples. Playing recognizable tunes and pieces from the mainstream guitar repertoire is much more fun than playing exercises. Being able to play things that listeners actually like to hear is much more motivating than playing generic and specially composed beginner materials. And my collection is complete - I have enough easily playable materials to keep even the most slowly progressing student involved in new music month after month, until skills are learned.
In the beginning, the pool of materials is much smaller and more limited by ability, but there are plenty of well known and enjoyable short musical examples that can be played right away by beginners. Generally, just being able to play something recognizable is surprising to most beginner students who are just starting out.
As technical ability improves, the pool of material becomes larger, and begins to allow for a broader approach. Once the basic technical and musical skills are familiar (i.e., being able to play clear notes, open chords, bar chords, and pentatonic licks), it's easy and fun to ingrain them by learning new music. Virtually all mainstream guitar music is made up of that small set of technical abilities. After the learning curve endured during the first two years, most of what is found in popular guitar music becomes familiar and easy. Once that learning curve is beat, continuing to play is smooth sailing. Everything becomes easier, and all the techniques, fingering patterns, and musical skills become immediately recognizable in real music. Songs and pieces of every type can be acquired quickly, and with complete understanding, once all the basics are familiar and playable. Until then, learning can appear to be a mystery, and the light at the end of the tunnel can seem far off. Knowing what to expect along the way can provide motivation and perspective. If you have a good teacher, you'll understand this path from the beginning, and you won't get discouraged by having to work a little.
One of most difficult routines that every student and teacher encounters comes when plateaus are reached. It's never enough to simply experience new techniques once and expect them to become internalized. In fact, every student needs to see each technique and skill in many pieces of music before they become completely familiar and easy to perform. Just getting clear sounds to come out of the guitar consistently can take the average beginning student a year or more. Open chords and simple power chord shapes can take anywhere from 3 months to a year to become completely ingrained. Bar chords and bend techniques have a similar learning curve. It's possible to sit down in one long lesson and show every basic shape and technique that's used on the guitar - it would only take a couple hours to do that. But it typically takes a couple years to build the habitual technique and intuitive musical skill required to make them sound good and feel completely internalized. Along the way, it's easy to feel bored and frustrated with practice when those things repeatedly sound bad, hurt physically, and seem to progress at a snail's pace. Knowing that that's gonna happen is essential to maintaining your resolve and sticking
Along the way, again, curriculum ends up being the saving grace. Having many pieces of music that are fun to play, recognizable, and which demonstrate the same musical materials and techniques over and over, is essential. Seeing the same techniques over and over makes them more familiar, and repeated attempts at playing the same techniques make them finally become ingrained. On the down side, it can also make those techniques seem completely frustrating when they don't improve quickly. At times likethat, gears need to be shifted, and other techniques need to be approached. Lots and lots of simple, fun examples need to be available to keep motivation from completely deteriorating.
The focus of lessons will often shift from repeatedly focusing on specific techniques and ingraining those same skills again and again, from week to week, to shifting gears and maintaining interest and motivation with completely new techniques, skills, and knowledge. Your practice time will dwindle to nothing for periods - that's normal for most students! Often life is simply too busy and tiring to allow for musical interest and drive to be maintained. That's when most students risk quitting and never reaching the very basic goal of learning how to play. During those periods, lessons become essential practice sessions - one good, focused practice a week is better than none, and lessons can serve to keep the guitar a regular part of life. It also keeps progress moving ahead, and skills improving, even if at a slow pace.
During periods like this, lessons are often the only time when you'll get any practice. Again, having materials that are immediately doable, interesting, and fun to play - that's what keeps progress happening and that's what will keep you from quitting and wasting all the time and practice you've put in. As long as you keep learning new materials, you'll continue to see each of the basic techniques again and again, and you'll become familiar with the things that make up guitar playing. That's all that has to happen to learn how to play guitar. Consistent, continued study is needed to learn how to play - interest and available practice time will ebb and flow based on other things in life. But, if you stop completely, you'll never get good. If you continue, you will get good. It's that simple.
I organize and categorize every piece of music that I teach in terms of technical content, and I organize their chronological presentation in terms of difficultly and complexity. That's the basic approach that music teachers have maintained for generations - the materials I use are simply the most interesting and straightforward pieces of music that I've been able to find, which students ask for over and over, and which have been effective at teaching the basic techniques. I continue to add to that curriculum when new music enters the mainstream, but a core of approximately 700 songs and pieces have formed the basis for the last two decades. 200 additional difficult pieces round out the curriculum for advanced players. I've created simplified arrangements of many licks, songs, and pieces that keep beginners and intermediate players interested and progressing until the learning curve for each technique has been beat. When new music enters the popular mainstream, I categorize it by technical content, and add it to the curriculum. That way, the approach stays up to date, interesting, relevant, and productive.
Having a larger body of material only helps. Every year, several great new tunes become part of popular music culture, students request them, and those gems are added to the collection of teaching materials. Every piece of music is made up of fundamental skills and techniques. By continuing to learn new pieces of music, you'll learn and internalize those skills and techniques. By learning pieces of music that you know and like, and you'll stay interested. Sometimes you'll practice more and reach your goals more quickly. Sometimes in lessons, we'll focus closely on specific techniques for extended periods of time - until they become ingrained and comfortable, or until you need a break from the routine. Sometimes, you'll get bored, frustrated, and less interested in learning guitar. And sometimes it will be difficult and unsatisfying. But those times will pass. For some students, it won't be worth it. For me, it has been. And for many thousands of students who stick with it, learning guitar ends up being a worth while endeavor. You'll have to decide whether or not it's worth it yourself. In my experience, everyone who sticks with it for several years is satisfied by their ability to play guitar, and it becomes an entertaining
and deeply rewarding part of life in many different ways. That's been the case for every student who I've seen stick with it - every one. It's my hope to bring every one of my students to that point and beyond. I work hard with every student, and I try my best to make the whole learning process fun and productive.
Please let me know if you ever have any questions or concerns. I'll do my best to keep it interesting and to provide clarification and motivation!
Copyright © 2004-2013 Nick Antonaccio, all rights reserved.