This article leading up to the book advertisement is important. Give it a read…
In any case, that article kind of hit home with me in that while I feel it’s important to know theory and scales, I believe that you can eventually arrive at that knowledge in your learning journey. Music is meant to be played. And especially with guitar, which is a rhythm instrument, I feel it’s more important to get the movement of the right and left hands down, then get into theory way later, after you’ve learned to actually play some songs.
For instance, I’ve found that with many of the younger players who’ve played with me in my church band and who’ve taken a lot of lessons is that their left hand technique is often far superior to my own, but they can’t play anything outside of what type of music they like. To a person, I found that is because they have horrible right-hand technique. So I tell them that although it’s important to know chord shapes and scales and how to place your fingers on the fretboard, all that is meaningless unless you use your right hand, which is the hand that actually makes the sound! So I tell them that although they may not like various genres of music, I give them a challenge to be able to play reggae, country, blues and even latin music to get used to working their right hand.
You gotta love the energy of kids, especially if they love to play. All of them to whom I issued the challenge would go and practice, then show me later on what they’ve learned. Then I’d say, “Okay, open the book to number ____, and let’s see if you can play it.” And they can play. At that very moment, they get it.
For example, I had one kid who was absolutely flailing on guitar. He had the heart, but he couldn’t keep a beat. At the time, I was on kind of a blues kick, and I told him to go study John Mayer, and learn to play along while listening so he could practice playing with a group, and to be aware. The kid went off to school, then came back during his summer vacation, and just blew me away with what he’d learned. Not only could he play every single John Mayer lick, he had built the confidence to be able to play with the band.
The point is that all people need most of the time is a little nudge in the right direction. And with guitar, right or wrong, the direction I tend to nudge people is to simply play different kinds of music. I suppose that mimics my own experience as I learned to play via chord charts to songs, and figuring out how the original artists executed their tunes. I didn’t have YouTube. I just had vinyl records and cassette tapes. It wasn’t until years later that I started applying theory. I play with modes – a lot – now, but I’ll be absolutely honest: I didn’t start thinking about them until a few years ago when I wanted to expand my improv palate.
Circling back to lessons… Don’t get me wrong, I’m not at all against taking lessons. I’ve taken them from time to time to learn different things. I think the problem I have is learning technique for technique’s sake, and learning it divorced from the context of playing a song. Take learning the major scale for instance. It’s one thing to know the notes of the scale up and down the fretboard. That’s pretty easy. And I suppose you could just take a scale and start playing around and eventually come up with something while playing over a chord progression. But the major scale doesn’t really become meaningful until you apply it to modes, and having a song or practice chord progressions to play against.
I’ll leave a deeper discussion of modes for another time, but I will say that it wasn’t until I started studying modes that all the work with the major scales that I had learned actually became useful because all modes are simply expressions of a certain major scale played over a chord progression.
And I didn’t even learn modes in the academic way, where a mode is described in the spelling of the mode. For instance, with the Mixolydian mode, R W W H W W H R, or something like that. To me, that was always confusing. Even when someone would say, “If you want to play the Mixolydian mode in any key, just remember that it’s simply that scale with a flat-7th.” WTF?!!
The best explanation for the Mixolydian I ever got was this: Since the Mixolydian mode is the fifth mode, simply take the root note, then count backwards along the scale where that root note is the fifth in a major scale. Then play that major scale. So for example, if we want to play D-Mixolydian, we’ll count backwards where D (the root) is the fifth of a major scale. In this case, it would be the G-major scale. So if you want to play D-Mixolydian, then play a G-major scale because that includes all the notes of the D-major scale with a flat-7th. There’s a lot more to it than that, but just learning how to find a particular node for any key really expanded my improvisational toolkit. That didn’t take any formalized lesson. It just took practice to learn.
That kind of segues into my final point which is simply this: Play or die. As I mentioned above, music is meant to be played, and there’s a price to be paid to become proficient with any instrument whether it’s a guitar or piano or even your voice. To me the only way to internalize anything that we learn is to apply it, and that’s especially true of learning an instrument.
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