How We Learn To Play

Welcome to this month’s edition of Fingerstyle Monthly. This month we’ll look at a subject that can be confusing. That is, if we think about it at all. The subject is how we learn. Specifically how we learn to play the guitar.

In a sense, everyone teaches themselves everything. The learning of every task requires us trying to do something until, suddenly, we can do it. Think about learning to ride a bike, or how to whistle. Someone probably stood on the sidelines giving instructions.

Hearing instructions by themselves isn’t enough. You have to hear the instructions, and then attempt to follow them. Your body has to do whatever the task is so that your muscles can learn how to perform.

Suddenly you know how to swim or whistle. The instructions on how to do it and your body attempting to do it all come together. Bam! “There’s nothing to it.”

The majority of guitar players are self instructed. This means that we’re the ones on the sideline shouting instructions. To ourselves. Can you see a potential problem here?

How do we know what instructions to give? That depends on what our natural abilities are.

Some people are natural mimics. They can hear something and repeat (or play) it. The number of people who are really, really good at this is very small. There are many more people who are pretty good at it. These people tend to learn mostly by ear. The artist on the recording is the one on the sideline giving instructions.

Where does that leave the rest of us?

Books, CD’s And DVD’s

There has been a big increase in self instructing materials over the last 30 years. The re-introduction of tablature has enabled many more people to teach themselves. This can be good and bad.

It’s good because we can learn what we want to learn when we want to learn it. It’s bad because picking our own material to learn can actually keep us from progressing.

That’s because we may not have a big enough over-view of what we need to learn. This is when it’s good to have a teacher. And if not a teacher, a very complete set of instruction materials.

Here’s how I approached this situation. I decided that I needed to learn about music and how that applied to the guitar. My thinking is that if I know about music, then it would be easier to learn different songs in different styles. And the more I would be able to develop my own style, or voice.

This approach seems to be working for me. The hardest thing has been self-discipline. Instead of learning songs, I spent a lot of time learning chords, scales and exercises. Not quite as interesting as learning new songs. But now it’s easier to learn songs.

I did have instruction as a kid. My teacher was a good fingerpicker who had some classical guitar experience. This helped me establish good physical skills. Other than that, I was a lousy student. The method that I described above is what helped tie it together for me.


So this sums up my thoughts on the subject. If you’re a brand new player, take at least some lessons from a qualified teacher. This will help you develop good physical habits.

If that’s not possible, get a DVD of basic classical guitar techniques. Classical guitar has the most systemized approach to normal fingerstyle technique.

Learn music theory and how that applies to the guitar. It seems like most written instruction in this area is about jazz guitar. The book that I’ve found extremely helpful is The Art Of The Solo Guitar.

This doesn’t mean that you want to learn to play jazz guitar. It’s just good overall information.

You have to look at both the big and little picture. The big picture is that you learn this information and physical skills and you can play whatever you want. The problem with the big picture is that it’s really big. It can be kind of scary. That’s when you look at the little picture.

Break the big picture down into small segments and concentrate on learning them. After a period of time you’ll know lots of little things. Put all of the little things together and you’ll find that you know a lot about guitar playing.

New Book

I’ve completed my ebook on how to buy an acoustic guitar. I believe that I have a unique viewpoint on the process. I’ve bought and sold my own instruments. I’ve also sold production and high-end guitars in a retail setting.

Those two experiences alone, I believe, have given me a broad overview. Working in quality control for a guitar manufacturer has also helped. That has given me a very critical eye for what to look for in an acoustic guitar.

It’s a 38 page, no frills guide to the entire shopping and selection process.

I hope that you enjoy this issue of Fingerstyle Monthly. If you have friends that you think would enjoy it, feel free to pass it on.

As always, if you have questions, contact me.

See you next month!

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