Learning songs vs. learning to play the guitar

Discussion in 'Tab, Tips, Theory and Technique' started by JBFatFingers, May 3, 2017.

  1. JBFatFingers

    JBFatFingers Tele-Meister

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    Starting this thread mostly to vent, but also to see if anyone else has had the same experience and how you've dealt with it...

    I started taking guitar lessons for the first time (my first really serious effort to learn to play any instrument, not just guitar) about a year ago. I tried to make it clear to my first teacher that I wanted to learn "the right way" - understand the theory, the technique, etc., with the long-term goal of learning to create my own music rather than just learning to play somebody else's. I think maybe that teacher was not used to having a student that wanted to learn this way, because it seemed like no matter how often I talked to him about this, all he wanted to do was work on songs and would shy away from any discussion of more fundamental concepts. It was like pulling teeth even to get him to talk about things like major and minor scales. More often than not, lessons were more or less him asking me, "What song do you want to learn next?" Eventually, I realized that if he's supposed to be the teacher and I'm supposed to be the student, he should be the one deciding how we're spending our time together and telling me what I should be spending my practice time working on in order to help me develop into a successful player over time.

    Growing frustrated with the situation, I switched to a different teacher back in December. Generally, things have been better - we have talked more about theory and I've started to gain an understanding of keys, modes, etc. However, I feel like if I don't stay on top of this issue, the new teacher also wants to revert back to simply learning songs without placing them in a larger context of music fundamentals. As cool as I think it would be to (eventually) be able to play Angus's solo on Back in Black, as someone with less than a year of real guitar experience under his belt, I question the rationale of spending my practice time on something like that at this point (yes, this is a real example).

    I have two young sons (ages 9 and 6) who are taking piano lessons, and I look at the way small children are taught to play the piano - starting with simple finger exercises, building hand-eye coordination, moving slowly into basic theory and having them play simple songs that allow them to practice these fundamentals. It seems like an analogous approach could and should be used for someone learning to play the guitar as a first instrument, rather than throwing them into the deep end of the pool and basically trying to teach them to "shred" right from the get-go. However, in my (admittedly limited) experience, teachers don't seem to be inclined to take this approach. Quite honestly, I wonder how much of a teaching "system" the two teachers I've experienced really have.

    Any fellow forum members experience anything similar? Am I crazy for thinking that the learning process should be more about structure and fundamentals and less about learning to play individual songs? Thanks in advance for your thoughts.
     
  2. stringslinger

    stringslinger Tele-Holic

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    I understand where you're coming from. There are tons of finger-related exercises, both using specific scales and just "chromatic" sequences. Besides scales in different positions (aka modes), I think you would get a lot out of learning triads on 3-string sets and their inversions.

    But with your teacher issue, part of the problem is guitar is still a relatively young instrument compared to piano (and violin). Even more so for the electric guitar. Because of that, there aren't any universally used methods in teaching. Many electric players take the approach that those before them did. Which was basically learn from the radio/CD/recordings. They learned the language by initially emulating what they heard from others. This still works for most people, as they have songs as goals, and not abstract concepts as goals.

    If you wish to get more into the fretboard theory, than I'd suggest look for a college guitar teacher, or a teacher with a degree as they more likely would have the conceptual approach down.
     
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  3. screamin eagle

    screamin eagle Poster Extraordinaire

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    Learning theory is a touchy thing. Commendable that that is your priority focus. The thing about theory is that it is explaining what's going on. Thus the going on has to already exist. So learning musical pieces and getting them committed to memory is a good thing. Then go back and apply the theory to the known, learned pieces. This is a tried and true method. Theory can get intangible sometimes when it's above and beyond your scope to internalize and relate to.

    I remember a time when I was having coffee with a friend of mine who was a pro level player and a college teacher in music. I was poking him on chord substitutions (I wasn't ready for this type of depth yet and he knew it). I saw how some chords sub. for one another, but didn't really understand why others couldn't. He ultimately got through to be to just spend time learning a dozen standards. Any standards. He didn't care. Just learn some standards and increase my general knowledge of chord progressions and arrangements and usages. He was right and he knew it.

    Some times we have to go through the jungle to learn the way through it.

    Learn the Major scale
    Learn the CAGED Shapes
    Learn Chord construction
    Learn chord progression concepts


    Learn songs and see how you can apply those learned theory concepts to them. From there you'll learn how to use these tools to make your own music.
     
  4. Tom in Georgia

    Tom in Georgia TDPRI Member

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    I agree 100%. I ended up finding some pretty good books on music theory using the guitar and just started slowly working through them by myself. Actually started up with a couple of intro books for kids until I understood the basics. Right now I'm working through Richard Daniels' "Blues Guitar Inside and Out". There is a quote in it somewhere to the effect that you basically "teach yourself guitar". I have come to believe that there is a lot of truth in that statement.
    Tom
     
  5. cnlbb

    cnlbb Tele-Afflicted

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  6. ronzhd

    ronzhd Tele-Holic Ad Free Member

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    That is pretty close to what I found, seems the few teachers I went to, would focus on their own strong points. Cowboy chords and a few easy songs. Eventually they would ask me what I wanted to "learn", I would reply "the guitar", and move along. I have found that learning guitar is a never ending quest and some of the aspects you avoid early in the process, i.e.... theory, are the things you actively seek out further on down the road. Having realized I am guitarded, I keep sniffing rosemary for my memory, and hitting another lick.
     
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  7. MDZimmerman

    MDZimmerman Tele-Meister

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    Inevitably it seems most guitarists are inspired to learn to play by an artist they have REALLY connected with and subsequently begin to learn their songs. From there, at least for me, you rapidly realize your own strengths and weaknesses and a path of least resistance is created for you to either follow or structurally avoid.
     
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  8. dkmw

    dkmw Poster Extraordinaire

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    For me, this is what has worked. Well, to the extent that I'm still a hack after three years of ''returning to guitar'', but I'm a much better hack than I was. And I get better every week.

    There's a lot to learn and I'm sort of working on all of it at the same time. It starts to come together after a while. I don't think (for me at least) that it would be best to concentrate on just one thing. Playing whole songs is one part of it, though. It makes for more satisfying practice time as well. Again IMO.
     
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  9. McGlamRock

    McGlamRock Poster Extraordinaire

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    screamin eagle has the right idea. You learn 20 jazz standards (learn = knowing the melodies and all the changes) and you'll have a much stronger grasp on theory
     
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  10. lammie200

    lammie200 Friend of Leo's

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    The only right way to learn to play (and the only right way to play, for that matter) is what works for you. Keep at it, but have an open mind.
     
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  11. thunderbyrd

    thunderbyrd Poster Extraordinaire Silver Supporter

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    JB: since 1st picking up guitar in 1973, i have, over all those years, probably been to something like 12 different teachers. the only one i learned much of anything from was blues guitarist Kelly Richey. i learned more in 2 lessons from her than from all the others. that's because she is just as talented as a teacher, in her own way, as she is a player. in 2 lessons, she made me learn the bar chords shapes, taught me about CAGED, and showed me a very effective exercise. i didn't get to study any further with her because i changed jobs and changed schedule.

    but pretty much all the rest were about "tell me a song you want to play". my problem with that method is that there is no one song i want to play, i want to play a million songs.

    TO ALL GUITAR TEACHERS OUT THERE: here's what you need to make sure your students know. 1st thing, after getting them going with basic chords, is to give them a "key chart" and show them how each key consists of a certain set of chords. show them "like a rolling stone" and how it fits together perfectly in C - and various other songs. if this sounds so basic to you that you are thinking, "Why, only an idiot wouldn't know that..." don't be a guitar teacher.

    2d: fairly early, tell them to practice with a metronome or drum machine at least a little every day or two. tell them not to be nervous about it, just relax into it. stress the importance of timing, but gently.

    3d have them learn the name of the notes on the neck.

    those are 3 things that i know of that need to be addressed early on.

    """the learning process should be more about structure and fundamentals and less about learning to play individual songs"""

    absolutely.

    it irritates me that i went to so many "teachers" over the years and none of them ever told me about the key chart. i would sit down with a record of some song, i can remember "mr tamborine man", for one, and try every single chord i could think of, and get precisely nowhere.

    it was all so massively frustrating that it's a wonder i still play.
     
    Last edited: May 3, 2017
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  12. chris m.

    chris m. Poster Extraordinaire

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    You can't play guitar unless you can play songs. You can know all the theory in the world but it's useless if you can't play with proper rhythm, timing, phrasing, etc. I know a lot of guys who know a lot of theory but couldn't play there way out of a paper bag.

    A good teacher should teach you two things. #1 How to play guitar. #2 (in distant second) Enough theory so you can understand how harmony works, how to read charts, how to understand what you're hearing, etc..

    Playing scales, arpeggios, etc., can become really boring. When playing scales one of the challenges is to play them as if you are playing real music rather than just doing a robotic exercise. If you practice robotically you will sound robotic. I had a clarinet teacher who stopped me in my tracks long ago when I was reeling off a simple major scale and he explained to me that even a plain old major scale should always be played with feeling.

    As a teacher I would cover four basic areas of musicianship-- 1) learning to play the instrument: primarily by focusing on songs, but also by working on some exercises that would improve solo and rhythm skills. 2) learning to hear music-- some listening drills, such as learning to hear the difference between major and minor. 3) learning theory-- how to read and understand song charts, key signatures, circle of fifths, chord structure, modes, TAB, sheet music, how it's put together, why certain things go well together, etc. 4) how to play in synch with others-- primarily by playing along with the teacher, recorded tracks, or other musicians.

    A good teacher will also teach you how to practice effectively. How to structure your practice sessions so they are productive. You learn to break up your practice in such a way as to develop all of these skills and make good use of your valuable time. For example, the little piece of advice to play every single exercise as if it were "real music", even if it's just a simple major scale, was hugely important advice that made a big difference in my playing and my approach to practicing.

    If your teacher keeps steering you towards focusing on some songs because he wants you to have a balanced approach as I'm describing, then I think he's right. If he's steering you this way because that's the only way he knows how to teach then you should probably find another teacher.
     
  13. thunderbyrd

    thunderbyrd Poster Extraordinaire Silver Supporter

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    lots of really good players, in towns all over, hang out their shingle as a "guitar teacher", few of them are any good as teachers.
     
  14. Grux

    Grux Tele-Holic

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    Learning "to play guitar" and learning "theory" are different. Learning "theory" wont do you any good if you can't play your instrument.
     
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  15. Grant Austin

    Grant Austin Tele-Meister

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    I've taken lessons with two different teachers and had very different experiences.

    One went to "guitar college" and almost solely focused on learning songs.

    The other was conservatory trained in classical and jazz guitar. He was a much more versatile teacher. We did a ton on fundamentals coupled with relevant theory. We mixed in songs to keep things motivating.

    I spent about 2 years with that second teacher. Now I feel like I need to find a teacher more like the first, focusing on learning songs and performing with others. I've got at least rudimentary skill on fundamental techniques
     
  16. chris m.

    chris m. Poster Extraordinaire

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    thunderbyrd-- Key charts are helpful, but even better is ear development. A teacher can teach you how to key into the bass line first to get a clue on the chord. Then how to pick out individual notes of a chord, sometimes very painfully, until you can build the chord. Sometimes you get a clue from what the keyboard is doing....Also how to hear if the chord is being played on open strings or fretted strings. With ear training you also start to recognize very typical changes-- from the 1 to the 4, a 2-5-1, a I-vi-ii-V-I, modulations from major to minor or up a half step, etc.

    As Joe Pass says, despite all the fancy names a chord functions generally as either major, minor, diminished, or augmented. With practice it is usually possible to find the chord at least with proper harmonic function, using your ears. But there are some very unique chords for which the precise fingering can be a real bear to decipher and makes a big difference to the sound, I'll be the first to admit that.

    Thank goodness for YouTube, where you can often find excellent information to help figure out exactly how something is being fingered. As an example, I think the chords to the Beatles' "She's So Heavy (I Want You- I Want You So Bad)" are pretty darn tricky to figure out even for an experienced transcriber with big ears. You still need big ears, however, because a lot of the time the videos are wrong, which you won't know unless you can hear the errors and either fix them yourself or find a more accurate video.

    Kashmir by Led Zep is another great example. Just using my ears I could always play a pretty good facsimile, but it never sounded quite right. With a good YouTube video suddenly you realize, aha, it's an open tuning! Before YouTube I remember staying up late for Don Kirchner's Rock Concert or Saturday Night Live so I could watch my favorite rock stars play and try to get the more arcane fingerings in real time right off the screen (also before everyone had a VCR). At least I would see what part of the neck they were playing on, which often helped me unlock the secret....



     
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  17. chris m.

    chris m. Poster Extraordinaire

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    One great clue with Jimmy Page is if you're finding the fingering to be really difficult you're definitely doing it wrong!! ;-)
     
  18. Doyledagain

    Doyledagain Tele-Meister

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    If a teacher is going to teach via songs, they should be used as tools to reinforce a lesson that s/he wants the student to learn. Whether it's mechanics or theory, it should fit into a plan that moves the player forward instead of just being the next "cool song" to learn.

    I think too many players don't get enough theory because guitar is looked at as a tool for personal expression, and a lot of rock/blues players "play from the gut" - that's fantastic if you're a natural virtuoso, but the rest of us could use a lot more tools in the belt - and theory is a way to teach people fundamental building blocks that can spark creativity. Geniuses play outside the box. They bend the rules. But you need to learn how to build a damn good box before you can stray from it.
     
  19. PC_Hater

    PC_Hater Tele-Meister

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    I suspect that if you were leaning classical guitar it would be much closer to the piano teaching your sons get.
    I think I am about to recommend that what you should do is switch to Classical Guitar. That should give you a solid technical background including reading music, meanwhile for 'fun' you can play whatever you want on your electric guitar but using your ears and some of those things the Classical teacher taught you. Best of both worlds?
    Or the Worst?!
     
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  20. Lobomov

    Lobomov Friend of Leo's

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    And I've always regretted spending to much time on theory and not near enough on tunes. Go figure?
     
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