Learn to read fluently. Music, that is. With the guitar, this means acquiring the skill to effortless sight read every note starting three spaces below the treble clef with the low E all the way up to the highest C on your fretboard. It also means fluency with tablature and the ability to instantly recognize chords. It is true that there are many examples of guitarists who never learned to read music. It can definitely be done. But my guess is that having come to the goal of learning to play later in life, you’re looking for the fastest, surest, most efficient way to learn. That path lies through reading fluency.
Mel Bay’s Modern Guitar Method Grade 1 is an excellent resource in this regard. The book is driven in part by a string by string, note by note acquisition of reading literacy. In the long run, if you follow this approach and learn to sight read, you’ll be further ahead than had you played by ear or learned only tablature notation. There’s also a dark side, so to speak, to skipping the literacy process. It is almost certain that if you stay with the guitar that at some point you will wish you had learned to read. This often happens to younger musicians who were trained to play by ear. The process of going back and learning to read after you can already play can be laborious and even downright painful. Another way to look at it is like this: I doubt anyone has ever said, “I’m sure glad I never learned to read music.”
And who knows? You may eventually want to write down songs of your own creation.
Good luck and keep practicing!
Embrace Difficulty: At the outset, any complex task might appear daunting. Overwhelming even. Keep in mind the proverb that a mountain is climbed one step (or handhold) at a time. Chord changes are initially difficult for everyone. No one begins with a beautifully cascading fingerpicking style or a rapid tremolo. These things take practice. With practice, things that once seemed unattainable will become achievements.
Keep a journal. Record dates and make brief notes about improvement and achievements. Use a metronome to measure gains in speed. Occasionally make video recordings of yourself for comparison to past and future performances. Keep track of how many scales you’ve learned, how many songs you’ve memorized, how many chords you know and so forth.
The goal of reaching your first 500 hours of practice is, by itself, a fairly daunting objective. In the room where I do most of my practice, I’ve hung a calendar on the wall where each day write down how much I’ve practiced. I’ve also put a goal thermometer on the wall – a more visual means by which to show the same thing. Measuring in increments of 10 hours, it starts at 0 and goes to 500. Every 10 hours, I color in the space and write a date. Three-hundred 340 hours to go.
Philosophy #17: Be Mindful of Form.
I hesitate to use the word “proper,” but there it is. To maximize your comfort, stamina and capacity to grow as a musician, study and emulate proper posture, proper guitar positioning, proper hand positioning, and standard fingering for notes and chords. This comes under the broad heading of following the lead of those who have been there and achieved success. The time to develop your own style is after you’ve mastered the basics.
(Photograph: Snow Dancers)
Play for yourself and trust yourself. Acquiring the skills of basic proficiency with a guitar is not a competition. Avoid comparing yourself with the progress peers are making. And don’t worry about what others might think about your musicianship, your guitar, your song choices and the rest of it. You’re on your own journey.
Don’t quit. All else being equal, the most important factor in any type of skill acquisition is simply showing up ready to work hard and learn. Michael Jordon was cut from his high school basketball team. And was spurred to develop a work ethic that had him first to arrive and last to leave practice. Jack London vowed to write at least 1,000 words a day. Legend has it that his early work was rejected hundreds of times. He kept writing. By all accounts, Roberto Clemente always excelled at baseball. And by all accounts, he was among the hardest-working players in the game. We wouldn’t know his name if he had quit – at least not as a ball player.
It’s almost impossible to look at where someone is in terms of developing a skill and to then predict how far they’ll go, yet the world has no shortage of put-down artists who act like they have a crystal ball in terms of what other people “can’t do.” Don’t listen to them. And never bet against someone who is in possession of a solid work ethic and optimism.
Longitudinal studies have revealed that there is virtually no correlation between where one begins their musical journey and where one ends up. Young learners who begin with great promise often quit, leaving the field wide open for those who initially showed less promise but who are willing to stick with it. In the end, the path to accomplishment lies not with initial talent, but with a commitment to practice. Along the way you’ll have days when everything falls into place and you play beautifully. Keep practicing. You’ll also hit plateaus and slumps. Keep practicing.
Visualize. Athletes anticipate and mentally map out desired outcomes such as the phases necessary to go through in clearing the bar in pole vaulting or in pulling in a football for a catch. This works for musicians too. Get into the practice of “seeing” ahead in a song to anticipate musical passages and chord changes. Practice chord changes by accurately and smoothly moving back and forth with your left hand without even playing. Picture the chords in your mind. Silently practice. These activities build brain synapses and muscle memory.
The Lake – for a Moment
Chignik Lake, Alaska, Dawn March 26, 2019