(A blog from my teaching days…)
I get this question from my students occasionally, the motivated ones who want to maximize their improvement without wasting any time.
It’s a good question, though, what essentials should you tackle first. Of course, I am but one humble lifelong student of the guitar, so what do I know about the essentials? And then you have all the different styles of music. Surely there are things you must know in the blues that aren’t so important in…I don’t know…classical?
But I feel like writing this because I was reminded of a student the other day, great guy, took lessons with me for a long time and practiced a dedicated half hour a day. But he only practiced exactly what I told him in our previous half hour lesson. Doesn’t seem like this would be a problem except we would inevitably come back to an important scale, bar chord shapes or a shuffle groove required to learn the new song and he STRUGGLED to nail it. Because he hadn’t reinforced these “important” subjects regularly our current lesson would come to a halt as we reviewed the essentials learned months (even years) before. We couldn’t progress in many lessons because I had to teach him old concepts again and again. He eventually got frustrated with his lack of progress and quit.
Hopefully he’s still playing. I sometimes wonder if I could have done something better in my lessons. Or perhaps I’d offered all I could and it was time for him to try a new teacher, as he actually made more progress than he realized.
Maybe the lists I’m attempting below will offend some…whatever–it’s just a blog and this more of an open discussion. But if you’re a beginner wondering what things every guitar player must know to learn to handle all the complexities of music then this list might be helpful. Let’s give it a shot!
1. Major/Minor open chords: Probably goes in the DUH file, as these are often the first chords you learn. But I’ve had so many “serious” students want to buckle down with the cool metal riffs and they still can’t play the basic chords.
2.Major Scale: Not only important to learn all those modes with the fancy Greek names (Phrygian, Lydian…) but also important in learning how chords are constructed.
3. Bar Chords/Caged System: Not my first choice for beginners, but once the basic majors and minors are learned these movable shapes will prepare you to tackle most mainstream styles of music in any key.
4. Rhythm Notation: Understanding the math of groovin’ (quarter notes, eights, sixteenths…) is the best way to keep your strumming sounding fresh–not to mention an essential way to lock into the beat. Some would say sight reading is essential in this skill as well. I would agree but there are many styles of guitar that don’t require extensive reading skills to make progress, not to mention all the amazing players who seem to have done fine without it. But no doubt those amazing players know their rhythm.
5. How to play with a metronome: Maybe this is an extension of #4, but being able to play against a steady click will do wonders for your playing. It will let you know if you’re speeding up or slowing down or playing the proper rhythm against the click. At some point you experienced players will jam with someone and just KNOW they’ve never done this, making you glad the proper time was invested. 😉
6. Alternate picking? Maybe this one’s debatable too, but I’ve lost track of the students over the years who have resisted down/up picking (because they only like all down picking) and it always slows them down when they want to play more advanced things. It’s not that you have to alternate pick for everything, you just want to have the skill at your disposal for when it’s the best way to achieve a particular song or riff.
Then you have the essentials in different genres:
1. Travis Picking: This method of alternate bass picking (thanks to good buddy Merle Travis) and syncopated notes is so huge and far reaching in fingerstyle guitar that you really have no hope of avoiding it. 😉
1. 12 Bar Blues Progressions: Chances are you already know how to play these. If you’re a fan of the blues you’ve absolutely heard them a billion times or more. You haven’t??? Understanding these progressions is Songwriting 101.
2. String bends: Any genre of guitar can have string bends, but the blues was where it took on a life of its’ own!