Principles of Practice
Based on "The Principles of Correct
Practice for Guitar"
by Jamie Andreas
4, 2001 Volume 31
Why Should I Learn To Read Music? Part One
There is a lot of confused thinking out there when it comes to the
subject of reading music, especially being a guitar player and reading
I want to examine what some of this confused thinking is, and how
people get this confused thinking into their heads, and why it stays
there. Why do some people think they shouldn't learn to read music,
when they should? Why do some people think they should, when they
shouldn't (at least not right away)?
Every Strength is a Potential Weakness
Some people are very "natural" guitar players, they learn
to play by watching and listening to other players. And that is
fine, in fact, that is great. The ability to just watch someone
do something like play the guitar, and somehow "learn"
how to do it yourself, is a great ability.
However, every strength can also be a weakness, and that is true
Often, the person who is able to learn this way starts to get an
"attitude" about the more formal aspects of learning music
and the guitar, things like taking lessons, or learning to read
music. They begin to form certain belief systems about the subject.
And these belief systems can be dangerous, because they prevent
the person holding them from growing and developing as they otherwise
Even if you are a "natural" guitar player, there will
come the day when you will run up against certain musical concepts
which you will be locked out of understanding because you don't
know how to read music. Learning how to read music is one way to
increase your chances of being the best musician you can be.
Let's examine some of the reasons why a person might adopt a belief
system that says "it is a bad thing to learn to read music,
at least for me".
I'm a Genius, and God Whispers Directly in My Ear
Unfortunately, most people have an ego, an "idea" or "image"
of who they are, and whatever that image is, it carries along with
it certain limitations. Whatever our particular image is, it also
becomes our act. We have to live up to it. We have to keep a mental
list of all the things that support our act, and also a list of
the things we have to avoid because they don't fit our act. In some
professions, keeping up your image is essential to survival. Politics
is one, probably the first "I must, at all costs maintain my
image and my act" profession. Being an entertainer/artist is
So, it is very common, especially in the beginning stages of being
a musician, to decide to play the "I am a natural genius who
just picked up a guitar and played like Jimi Hendrix" routine.
The musician playing this role has decided they are the "romantic,
inspired artist". This is the image of the artist who gets
his inspiration from some divine source. He or she likes to believe
(and likes others to believe), that God, or perhaps one of his angels,
whispers directly in their ear, and they best not tamper with the
process. If they interfere with the process by getting some "education",
then, God might get mad, and stop whispering in their ear. God will
stop directly inspiring them with all those great musical ideas
and they will just be another jerk playing the guitar.
Underneath this feeling is the feeling that they are, in fact, just
another jerk playing the guitar. That is why this particular routine
is common with beginners, because most of us do feel like we are
just another jerk playing the guitar when we first begin to play.
And we usually have a little outside help in the matter, in the
form of parents or "special friends", ready to tell us
to get real when we dare disclose our secret dreams of actually
being professional guitar players.
It is very important to grow past this little game. If you do decide
to make this image a part of your professional career (as many artists
do) you must at least stop believing your own hype. If you don't,
you will not move yourself into contact with the resources and situations
that exist to help you grow and develop.
Beethoven comes to mind. There was never a musician who was more
"divinely inspired" than Beethoven. Music flowed into
him and as it came out when he played, people were left sobbing
with intense emotion, or moved to feelings of awe. When he was young,
he would tell people, "I never listen to other composers music,
it would interfere with my originality". He would say that,
but he was full of "you know what", and he knew it. He
was really busy studying with all the greatest composers and music
theory teachers of his day. So he was not only listening to their
music, he was studying it note by note. But he was smart. He knew
he had a good thing going with all these people worshipping him.
He was young, and knew he had to struggle to build a career as an
artist, so he would use this image of the "divinely inspired
artist" to his advantage, and help foster and maintain it in
people's minds. But he wasn't dumb enough to believe it himself,
or let it get in the way of the development of his creative powers.
Another artist, and a supremely great one, who typified this attitude
was Louis Armstrong. When asked if he read music, he said "not
enough to hurt my playing". I believe he was being a bit tongue
in cheek here, and probably also was promoting the "look, I'm
just a genius" image, but there is some truth to what he was
trying to get across.
He was trying to get across the fact that reading music, like reading
words, does not give you talent. Being able to read doesn't mean
you will actually have something to say, and when you are a musician,
having something to say (in a musical sense) is what it is all about.
However, if you have talent, if you have something to say, learning
to read music will not make you less of a musician, but more of
Having Talent/Nurturing Talent
If you are an artist, if you feel you want to be a guitarist, then,
you would really be much better off eliminating the word "talent"
from your vocabulary. You should not even be concerned with whether
you have any or not. You should only be concerned with how much
you love music and the guitar. You should only be concerned with
how much you need to do it. Whether you have talent or not is for
other people to waste their time wondering about.
When you stay focused on your love for what you are doing, the path
of your development will become clear to you. If you love blues
guitar, if you want to play like Jimi or Stevie Ray, and that is
all you want to do, then it will become clear to you over time that
learning to read music is not high on the list of priorities. Playing
constantly with other people who play that style is high on the
list. Learning and copying the solos of a hundred other players
is high on the list. Of course, along the way, maybe you WILL feel
the desire to learn to read.
When I was starting out, my friends would show me blues scales and
licks. I wasn't much interested in just learning finger patterns,
I wanted to understand in a mental way, what I was doing. I wanted
to know the note names and so forth. That was just my personality.
I didn't know then that a few years later I would be captivated
by the classical guitar, which is a style that absolutely requires
note reading and musical understanding in a technical sense, in
order to develop. I was just following my nature.So, being in touch
with yourself, your true nature and needs for musical expression,
is the first thing. But don't interfere with that awareness by clinging
to some dumb "self-image" that says you "shouldn't"
Next: Should YOU learn to read music?
Sad, But True
Here is a letter I recently received. The situation the writer laments
is unfortunately, very common. In fact, part of my work is to make
guitar students realize that they are actually in this dreadful
I just wanted to say that your news letter has become a vital
source of instruction for me.But I do have a serious problem and
it has to do with what you call horizontal growth & learning
by travel brochure. I am encountering great frustration in finding
an instructor who can help me grow as a player. I recently stopped
While my instructor is a talented musician I am not developing as
a player. This is my third instructor! My first instructor was a
disaster after my third lesson I was being scolded like a child
for not practicing enough. That was something I definitely didn't
need. I even explained to him that this is a dream of mine that
I am determined to do but please realize that I am not a professional
musician but a sales manager for a bio-tech company. Needless to
say this was to no avail.
The second instructor, well he just didn't have any teaching ability.
He was a do this do that kind of guy because he said so. So now
I am currently practicing about 1-2 hours per day on my own trying
to learn as much as I can. But, I know this is not a great road
to travel down because this is where you can pick up some bad habits.
Do you have any advice for me on what to do?
I really don't want to go through anymore instructors.
Well, I don't know who gets more upset at things like this, me or
you. I hate to hear of someone practicing 2 hours a day, which is
a lot for a non-professional, and not getting anywhere with it.
With that dedication, you deserve to be making good progress.
You ask my advice, and I will give it. If you don't have my book,
get it. It is the best resource for someone teaching themselves.
The reason I wrote it is to say everything your teachers don't (can't)
tell you. Just take a look in the forum on my site and read what
it is doing for serious players who are spending time every day
working to get better. That is the best advice I can give.
After that, you must keep searching for a teacher. When you find
one that seems promising, give him a copy of my book to read. If
he gets the point of my book, if he gets the point of my web site,
then go with him or her.
The world is full of people like you, and teachers like you describe.
I am telling you to be aggressive about it.
material copyright © 2003 by Jamie Andreas, GuitarPrinciples.com