By Jamie Andreas
is a very common question I received recently:
specifically should I
practice, chords, scales or songs?
I am feeling overwhelmed with lessons, books, methods, skills, &
principles of practice."
This is a common feeling that troubles many beginning guitar students, and
can rear its head from time to time with advanced players as well. It is a
paralyzing, immobilizing feeling, and so it very dangerous for our
progress, and must be dealt with. If you are feeling this, it is a warning
sign that you are NOT proceeding properly with your efforts to learn to
play the guitar.
Getting down to the
specifics of things is always the tough part. One of the things that makes
it so difficult is the fact that when it really comes down to it, the only
person who can GET down to those specifics, stick with them, review and
revise them on a regular basis, and set goals and make sure they’re
accomplished is YOU! Some people have just never really developed the
skill to take that feeling of being overwhelmed, and getting past it by
stopping, thinking, observing, analyzing, and coming up with a plan.
I always think of it
like walking into your room, when it’s really messy, with things thrown
all over the place, and it’s time to clean up. The very sight of it
drains your energy, and makes you want to collapse in a heap. At least,
that is the first reaction that comes up. But, the only way to get the job
done and straighten out that room is to stop, focus, start somewhere, and
only focus on what you are doing, one step at a time. As soon as you
focus like this, you will begin to feel energized.
Of course, you need
some idea of the over-all picture, some idea of the end result to be
achieved, and how to get there, before focusing really helps. If you
didn’t know where everything was supposed to be placed when you went to
clean your room, your focusing wouldn’t help much. In that case, you
would have to DECIDE first where everything goes, and then put it there.
The “deciding” part is the hard part for students, because they
don’t know enough about the whole process of becoming a musician to make
those decisions, as expressed by the writer of the question above. They
don’t know what to practice first, what skills to master first, what
goals to achieve first. So it is easy to get overwhelmed by all the
materials out there. It is a lot easier to BUY books, than it is to USE
them and LEARN from them.
Of course, laying out
the proper course is supposed to be the job of the teacher, but many of
you don’t have teachers, and many teachers don’t DO their job anyway!
But in any case, the best attitude for you to have is SELF-RELIANCE. Even
a teacher doing their job cannot relieve you of your own responsibility to
be aware, in control, and organized. The first thing to realize is that
creating and maintaining YOUR day to day working method is YOUR
responsibility. It takes effort. It takes writing things down, keeping
schedules and routines. It takes trial and error. It takes regular review
of results, and renewed effort based on those reviews and assessments.
In all my years of
lessons, I never once had a teacher make any attempt to organize my
practicing; I had to learn to do it myself. Not that I think this is a
good thing, but I do think it is what happens for most guitar students, so
I tell you what I tell you because you need to be aware of the ongoing
effort you must make. Early on, I realized that without notebooks,
schedules, goals and so forth, I would be swimming in a sea of confusion.
Sure, in the beginning, you feel helpless, like you don’t know where to
start and WHAT to even organize. But realize this: any plan is better than
no plan, because you can revise and improve your plan once you begin it,
but you can’t improve one you never begin.
I found as soon as I
had SOMETHING written down, I felt calmer and more in control.
I remember complaining
to my father once about all the “crap” I was learning in school that I
wasn’t interested in. He said a great thing to me. He said, “the
important thing is that you are learning how to learn”. He was right,
and that is one of the greatest skills a person can have. One of the first
people to buy my book was a retired educator. When he later contacted me
for some lessons, I found that he had taken my book apart, chapter by
chapter, exercise by exercise, and made notes on everything, and
re-organized things in different ways to help him make certain
connections. THAT is an example of someone who knows how to learn.
Now, having said all
that, and made my point about the necessary quality of self-reliance you
must cultivate as a student, let me add another important point. Part of
your approach to forming an effective working procedure is to go for
outside help, to ask questions of people in a position to help you, as the
writer of the above question has done. Notice that the educator I
mentioned above, after giving it his best shot, came to me for help. That
is wise. I have harped on the points made above because I have found that
most people DO NOT GIVE IT THEIR BEST SHOT, they don’t use the materials
in front of them, but stay stuck wallowing in feelings of helplessness.
Answer the Question!
Okay, I’ll stop
sermonizing, and tell you something you can use! Yes, you must have
certain goals to work toward as you begin learning guitar. While the
specifics of those goals will change depending on what type of player you
want to be (rock, classical, folk, blues) I will lay out for you some
general achievements that I guide all my students toward, things I want
them to be able to do, as soon as possible.
I want all students to know how to practice correctly.
that, there isn’t much point in me giving them things to practice! That
of course, is why I wrote my book, and I begin each student’s training
with the Foundation Exercises contained in it.
it is essential that, right from the beginning, the student is beginning
to cultivate, through proper practice, the awareness of sensations that
lead to good and great playing instead of habits of tension that make
playing difficult or impossible. These necessary physical sensations
include The Light Finger, The Firm Finger, Heavy and Floating Arm, and in
general, a growing awareness of the body and active playing muscles.
of points One and Two, I advised the person asking the opening question to
first of all concentrate on the exercises in my book as the first priority
of his practice, since I knew he had just got my book. For those who
don’ t have “The Principles”, do the exercises in my essays
“Discover Your Discomfort”, and “The Secret of Speed”, where you
can begin to discover the correct physical sensations for playing.)
Third, once students
have begun to train their fingers properly, it is time to teach those
trained fingers some of the basics of playing the guitar. I want all my
students to know first position chords, beginning with G, C, and D. We
work on getting those chords, changing those chords smoothly, and most
importantly, applying them to a song. I do this as soon as possible,
probably the second or third lesson.
is most important to make music as soon as possible! I start this by the
second or third lesson. I will keep a student on a simple song for 3
months if I have to, until they can play it through smoothly. This is
building Vertical Growth, which is the first kind of growth that must be
achieved. After that first song is mastered (something simple, like
“This Land Is Your Land”), we do some Horizontal Growth, that is, more
songs at the same level, building a repertoire.
Being able to strum
through chord changes smoothly is priority number one. It’s the quickest
route to making music for a guitar player, and is usually what people most
want to do. However, for some people, being able to play a simple melody
might be more rewarding, but it is technically more difficult in the
beginning, (doing so with good form, that is).
I look for songs the
student is emotionally connected to. I don’t care what it is, as long as
they like it, and it is within reach of their ability. For instance, if it
is a rock, electric student, I will use something like “Born To Be
Wild”, which has the basic open power chords. With this type of student,
I will want them to master these chords before the traditional folk
chords, because open power chords are what is needed to get them playing
songs they are emotionally connected to. I will give them the larger, folk
chord forms later.
the first few goals are:
Ability to Practice Correctly,
Beginning to Build the Correct Foundation (and the discovery of the proper
physical sensations) with the Foundation Exercises,
Applying the developing abilities to music with simple chord changes and
songs, until a few songs are well on the way to being mastered, and the
student is not developing habits of tension in their playing.
Here is a very
important understanding: learning a complex skill like playing the guitar
is not an entirely linear process. It is not a matter of “do this,
accomplish that completely, then do that, and finish it, then that” and
so forth. Learning the guitar is more a collection of simultaneous
processes, occurring and maturing together to produce an end result.
It’s like cooking. You start lots of dishes, each one at the right time so
everything comes out right and ready at the end. You watch the potatoes,
the chicken, the broccoli, and the rice. You give everything the proper
attention, making sure nothing get burned. You don’t wait till the
potatoes are done before you start the chicken.
(Umm, I’m getting hungry).
Okay, I’m back; I had
to have a snack.
So my point is that at
any given time, the actual details of our practice material is carefully
arranged to produce that final result we desire. The exact details will be
tailored to each person, and must be constantly reviewed and revised. It
takes great energy and intelligence. Read all you can about learning the
guitar, ask questions, and USE everything you learn to chart your own
After the things
mentioned above, scale Playing will come next, but only after the fingers
have been trained in the micro-details of proper movement.
Many players suffer
from the fact that scales were practiced and learned while the hands and
fingers were still full of tension and not developed properly. So their
scales are in horrible shape, and always a struggle to play. This is
because scales are composed of extremely complex physical movements, which
must be minutely studied in their micro details before being assembled
into the movements required for playing scales. Scales on guitar, for
instance, are much more difficult than on most other instruments simply
because every note is the result of the precise co-ordination of both
hands, and the sound is not produced by just one finger, as in piano.
rock electric students who want to play blues/rock, the pentatonic scales
are the first priority. We spend many months working on form, and speed.
At the same time, we begin developing the basic rock licks, and learning
how to bend strings. I give them a special set of solos I wrote that use
those licks. Again the principle in teaching is to present new material,
and then re-enforce by application. And do not leave the material until
you gone a long way toward mastering it, at least being able to play it
without error at a slow tempo. For the rock guitarist, or improvising
guitarist in general, continuous study of the solos of great players is
essential, as well as constant playing with other players and taped
backgrounds, where licks and scales you have learned are used.
for you beginner students, take this as a great caution: do not accumulate
a bunch of songs that are never put together, and never played to a smooth
That is the sign of someone who doesn’t know how to practice. That
is easy to do. Many such players have their collection of “One Hundred
Bits and Pieces of My Favorite Songs”! Do not jump from one thing to
another, you will play them all badly! Do not let your teacher push you
through either. Make them produce results with you, or find another
Now, if you cannot take
all of this information and begin to create a useful practice routine, well,
it’s your own fault!
2000 by Jamie Andreas
. All rights reserved.
Since this essay was
written, I have designed a course of development to be used by aspiring
guitar students, the Mel Bay
Study Group, which is part of the Newsletter Archive.
"The Principles DVD Set
"The Principles" to life, showing you exactly how to establish
the "bottom of your practice" on The Foundation Exercises...more
info on the DVD's
completes what is to me: a masterpiece......."For anyone reading
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saying that there is not.
"I feel confident in saying that if you
think another book or DVD will work for you, that you will be back.
In the meantime, you will have wasted precious time practicing
Donna Z, CA
(30 years playing experience)
Principles of Correct Practice for Guitar"
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