How Long To Learn Your Style Of Guitar?
What does it take to learn rock guitar? And how long? What does it take to learn acoustic, or classical?.
As important as training the fingers is for a guitar player, there is a lot more to learning guitar. One of the greatest needs you have as a guitar student is to have a guide through the very complex process of changing from an ordinary person into the guitar player you want to be. That process will be different for the various styles of guitar.
There are things that are the same about learning every style, and there are things that are different. For instance, all styles of guitar are played with the fingers! If you do not know how to train the more than 25 muscles that move the fingers so that they gain strength, stretch, and coordination, you will have serious problems learning any style of guitar.
On the other hand, the things you need to know to be a hard rock player are vastly different than the things you must know to play the classical guitar. A jazz player needs a different set of tools than an acoustic player. There are different skill sets for each style, and they dictate how much effort, what kind of effort, and how much time it takes to learn and master each style of guitar.
Because there is so much confusion and simple lack of understanding about this subject, which is so important to many aspiring guitar players, I have taken seriously the following question submitted by Jim, one of my readers. I have written this guide to learning the various styles of guitar.
Here is Jim’s question…..
When it comes to practice time, you have said a student should practice a minimum of 20 minutes, four times a week for a strum and sing player, and that 3 hours a day for a serious musician is necessary. You also said the necessary amount of practice time depends to some degree on the style of music the guitarist wants to play.
Can you share your thoughts on the relative degree of difficulty to play effectively (if not master) the different styles. I would assume classical would be the most difficult but how do the others rank in difficulty — country, Jazz, blues, etc. It would be fascinating to hear your thoughts.
First, I am going to cover the information that pertains to learning any style. Then, I am going to give you the details of how to travel the path to learning each particular style. If you want to skip ahead to the style you are interested in, you can do that here:
|Advanced Strumming||Fingerpicking||Rock Rhythm|
|Rock Lead||Metal||Jazz & Pop||Classical|
The Background Facts of Learning Any Style
We need to realize that there are three parts to becoming a good guitar player in any style. They are:
1) Learning how to practice effectively so that a full development of the muscles needed to play occurs over time. This will result in easy, relaxed, REAL control of the fingers no matter what you are playing. It also results in the ability to continuously improve throughout one’s life.
2) Acquiring the tools you need for the style…Every style uses a particular set of scales, licks, chords, and special techniques
3) Acquiring the practical, musical experience unique to that style, with which we learn how to use these tools to speak the language of our chosen style of music.
We must spend the right amount of time doing the right things, in the right situations, in order to master the tools of any style. And, of course, the final determining factor in how long it takes us to achieve real proficiency in a style is…you guessed it!… the quality of our practice!
If we do not know the proper approaches to teaching our fingers new skills, and guiding them along the necessary path from being ordinary human fingers to super-human guitar player fingers, well, all bets are off! In that case, we simply will not be able to learn and make progress in any style, and that is because ALL styles of guitar have one thing in common: they are played by having the fingers make coordinated movements which require varying degrees of stretch and strength on the strings of the guitar.
If we do not abide by the laws (and there are definite laws) of how muscles learn new movements, we will fail in any style of guitar. If we know them, we will succeed in any style. And so, in the foregoing discussion, we will make the further assumption that the player wishing to learn these styles does know how to practice correctly and effectively.
So, to sum up so far, the three requirements of success in any style are:
1. Learn to practice correctly
2. Learn the tools of the style
3. Learn the musical aspects of the style
Since my book “The Principles of Correct Practice for Guitar” covers everything you need to know to become firmly established in correct, powerful guitar practice, we will go straight to the second requirement of learning any style of music on guitar…..
Acquiring the Tools
The more complex the style, the more complex are the tools needed to create music in that style. What makes a style complex?
First and foremost, it is the scale, or scales which are used to create the music. A scale is the set of notes used to create the music we are playing. It is to a musician what a palette of colors is to a painter. If I am painting with a palette of only 4 colors, the limits of what I can do with those 4 colors will be defined by those possible choices, although if I am artistic, I will still create some amazing and compelling productions. However, if I add one or two more colors, my horizons will expand greatly.
And so it is with scales. Some scales are simpler; they have only 5 notes, like the Pentatonic Scales used in blues/rock. Pop, jazz, and classical music use 7 note scales (the Diatonic Major and Minor Scales). Since chords are simply combinations of scale tones, these scales generate far more complex chords to learn. In addition, other notes are added to the basic major or minor scales, creating even more complex scales and arpeggios. Add to that all the inversions of each chord and arpeggio and you have a whole lot to learn if you are learning a style that actually uses all these tools. (There is a lot more to the story, but I am just trying to give you the general idea).
So, the time and effort spent acquiring the tools that you need to be a player of any style is proportionate to the number and complexity of the musical elements of that style. The other qualifying factors are going to be the number of specialized techniques employed by the style, and the sophistication of the musical aspects required to render the style appropriately.
Learning the Musical Aspects of a Style
When we pursue a style of guitar, we are entering into the particular artistic aesthetic associated with that style. For instance, if you want to play folk music on the guitar, you’d better be able to get into the headspace of the culture that gave birth to folk music. You’d better get your folky type attitude on when you are about to lay into “We Shall Overcome” on folk guitar. It would be best not to put on your headbanging Metallica or Queensryche vibe, unless you want to scare the kumbaya out of your audience!
This is usually not a problem, because we tend to intuitively follow the musical style that reflects the qualities we possess, but it is good to keep these things in mind. I spent years studying jazz with some great and accomplished players. I wanted to learn the tools, and I’m very glad I did. But, I tried to learn the musical aspects too. I tried to learn to improvise well and speak the language of jazz. Even though I admired those who could, I realized after awhile that I would never be very good at that, I just did not have that feeling inside of me, or even the desire to find it and nurture it with the necessary intensity. I remained a “dabbler” in that style. But having spent years studying it and acquiring its tools greatly enhanced my playing.
I happen to believe we are born for different styles of guitar, although we can certainly mix and match to form our own flavor. I was born with classical sensibilities, and will be kind of a fish out of water in the serious pursuit of other styles.
No matter what style we pursue, we must cultivate the musical aesthetic of that style. If you wish to play folk, hang out with folkies and go to sing-a-longs. If you wish to rock, make sure to join a band, play lots of gigs, and most importantly, follow the advice of Jack Black in his movie “School of Rockl” – get your attitude on and be ready to fight against “the man” for the rest of your life!
If you wish to be a classical player, spend lots of time being stuffy and serious (just kidding!) and if you want to play Jazz, well, be cool jewel!
There is one other aspect of playing any style that helps determine how difficult that style is to master. This aspect is subtle, and rarely, if ever, mentioned…….
Discrete Movements vs Repeated Patterns
One of the factors that determine how difficult it is to master a style is the number of discrete movements used in the playing of the music of that style. What does this mean?
Some styles of music rely heavily on a rather limited set of movements that are repeated over and over, and perhaps modified slightly to create a large number of variations on that riff. A perfect example of this is blues. There are a rather small number of movements that are repeated constantly, changed slightly, and combined in endless ways to produce the actual licks a player will use.
This means that once that limited number of discrete movements is mastered, the keys to the style are yours; all you have to do at that point is increase your vocabulary of licks. However, if you have never really mastered those essential moves, you will have trouble with everything you play (unfortunately, this is the case with many players).
Some styles need a larger set of discrete movements to produce the music. Those styles will require more effort, in a technical direction, to learn. Classical guitar probably tops the list in terms of this consideration. I have played this style for almost 45 years, and I am constantly saying to myself when I practice “hmmm, I don’t believe my fingers have ever done this before”. Because of the seemingly infinite number of musical situations in which I find myself as I play the classical repertoire, I am always needing to teach a new skill to my fingers rather than simply applying an old one.
We must keep in mind that there is still much work to do to become a master of a style that uses a more limited number of discrete movements, and a large number of repeated movement patterns. However, it is a different kind of work; it is the work of constantly expanding our knowledge base and vocabulary within the style, and also increasing our fluency in using our expanded vocabulary. For those in love with a particular style, this is usually not a problem, because listening to and playing the music they love is not something they find difficult to do!
Now that we understand the three requirements for success in any style of guitar – correct practice, the tools, and the musical aspects – and the importance of “discrete movement density” within a style, we are in a position to examine the requirements of the particular styles of guitar we find around us.
Strumming & Singing
Being a “strum & sing” player is pretty much the entry level for being a guitar player.
I have to say that the first time I knew I needed to play the guitar was when a family friend showed up at our house with her guitar. I watched her move her fingers around the neck (chords) and make the sound with her other hand (strum) and it was the most magical thing I had ever seen. I knew I had to learn how to do that. I started teaching myself from a book, and practicing two to three hours a day. I learned it rather quickly.
This ability to strum and sings is what I call “first base” in guitar. Anyone can get to first base, but not everyone can get there by themselves. Many folks do need the guidance of a teacher to learn to strum, sing, and most importantly, change chords smoothly.
However, many students, even though they take lessons, fail to learn how to strum and sing, and change chords smoothly without losing the beat. This is the fault of the teaching approach used. If someone is completely unable to move their fingers into the necessary shapes of each chord and move them in time with the beat – that person requires very special training. Their problem is always associated with excessive tension generated in the large muscles of the shoulder and upper body from improper attempts to utilize undeveloped finger and hand muscles. “Correct Practice” is the key to eliminating this tension.
Another overlooked problem for beginners is this: it is exceedingly difficult to sing a rhythmically complex melody over chords that are being played to a steady, basic beat. Often this skill is taken for granted, its complexity is not appreciated, and it is not broken down in the proper way for students.
I want everyone to know that they can learn to strum and sing easily if they practice correctly. The methods I have created in “First Chords & Songs”, work for everyone who uses them.
When we understand how to practice, becoming a “strummer & singer” can be accomplished in about 3 – 6 months with about 20 min to a half hour a day practice time.
If you are having trouble getting to first base with guitar, I strongly suggest check out “First Chords & Songs”.
Advanced Strumming & Singing
After learning the basic chords that are played in the first position on the guitar, many players are happy to just keep learning more songs that use those chords. However, sooner or later they will run into songs that require more complex chords, and many of those will be some type of bar chord played up the neck.
Learning these bar chords presents a new technical challenge that stops the progress of many players. Again, ineffective teaching and practice methods are to blame. The correct and best way of learning bar chords is given in my course “Bar Chord Mastery”, which has enabled many players to do bar chords for the first time in their lives.
If we practice bar chords correctly, we can handle them easily with another 6 to 9 months of reasonably consistent practice, spending 20 min to a half hour a day. After that period of vertical growth, we have the possibility of continuous horizontal growth afterwards, learning more songs and using the same chords and strum patterns. Other techniques such as bass runs and hammers and pulls will make our playing even more attractive.
Whether we stick with the basic chords, or continue on to learn the more complex chord shapes, once we learn them, we’ve got them. Like riding a bike, once you can do them, you do not lose your ability to handle chords as time goes on even if you do not play for awhile.
Oh, one more thing – there are two ways to go about learning the advanced aspects of strumming and singing. You can do it alongside learning to read music, or you can work from tabs. Obviously, working from tabs is quicker, and learning to read will give you more musical understanding as time goes by.
I recommend you do both if you have the time. If not, go with tabs. Just make sure your technique is good as you learn these new and more complex movements. Your left hand should be trained with the Left Hand Foundation from “The Principles” (see video). Once you can do the movements taught here, all bass runs and other types of scale work will become easy.
The Bottom Line on Advanced Strumming & Singing
Time Required: A year or so beyond the initial start up time to reach “First Base Strumming & Singing”
Tools Required: the basic movable (barre chords) basic strum patterns, bass runs.
If we wish to expand our abilities to include fingerpicking as well as strumming our chords, that is much more demanding. Players who have acquired too much tension in the arms and hands from bad practice will find it nearly impossible to control their fingers as they try to learn fingerpicking.
The right hand exercises in “The Principles of Correct Practice for Guitar” will give you real control and independence in each finger, which will open the door to real power and speed with the right hand fingers. From there, the “Guitar Principles Classical/Fingerstyle Course” will give you a wonderful foundation in all the basic right hand techniques and patterns you will need. Then, you can easily learn whatever you wish, and will be able to effectively use all the other resources for fingerstyle/classical guitar on the market.
If we know how to practice correctly, wonderful fingerpicking ability can be gained in 6 months to a year with about 45 minutes to an hour a day.
The Bottom Line on FingerPicking:
Time Required: 6 months to a year, 45min –1hr a day
Tools Required: ability to control each finger independently of the others, keeping hand and arm tension to a minimum. Learning a number of standard picking patterns and runs to use between chords.
“The Principles of Correct Practice for Guitar” book (FingerStyle Foundation Exercises)
“The Principles of Correct Practice for Guitar” DVD (FingerStyle Foundation Exercises)
“The Guitar Principles Classical/Fingerstyle Course” (online course in 6 parts)
The Rock Rhythm Player
Some players eschew single note lead playing and prefer to specialize in providing the rhythm for the band (a la Johnny Ramone). In this case, the style of music will dictate the demands of competency. Again, those demands will fall into two categories: technical and musical.
If one is playing blues based rock, then you need mastery of basic chords and the patterns and rhythms to which they are applied. Each pattern requires study, but these common patterns can be learned by anyone willing to put in the time and who has an idea of how to practice effectively. Traditionally, note reading is not required, and even if you are reading, you will need to see other people do it, and copy them. Six months to a year of one to two hours a day will equip you for this type of playing.
If you play hard rock, you will need to master “power chords”, which are stripped down versions of traditional chords. There are two types of power chords – open and moveable. “Open Power Chords” are played at the first fret, and use open strings. “Moveable Power Chords” have no open strings and move around the neck, changing the letter name of the chord at each fret. Once you learn the basic forms, you will find yourself pretty much doing the same moves over and over for each song you play.
Again, if we practice badly, the same problems that will prevent progress as a “strummer & singer” will prevent progress here. Our fingers/hands/arms will be full of tension, and we will not be able to change chords smoothly.
The Bottom Line on Rock Rhythm Playing:
Time Required: 6 months to a year of 1-2 hours of practice a day.
Tools: first position power chords, movable power chords, common patterns, which are taken from bits of common chord forms around the neck. All of these techniques are taught in thousands of internet lessons. What is not taught is how to get your fingers to easily play these techniques. For that, I recommend the foundation training found in “The Principles”, supplemented with “Bar Chord Mastery.
The Rock Lead Player
The rock lead player must learn the 5 Pentatonic Scale positions, and know how to use them around the neck in all the common rock keys. They must also know the standard licks from each scale, and master the subtleties of getting a professional and musical sound.
Essential techniques of bending, vibrato, hammers & pulls, and string muting must be mastered, along with moderate to advanced pick technique. Since this is an improvised style of music, actually using the tools in an improvising setting must be practiced. It is not enough to simply master the tools themselves outside the context of making music with them.
So, the student must play along with jam tracks, using the scales, licks, and techniques of the style. Learning other people’s solos is a great way to build taste and vocabulary, and paradoxically, to develop your own style, as you intuitively pick and choose the elements you are in artistic harmony with. Finally, playing with other people and joining/forming a band will take you where you want to go.
The Bottom Line on Rock Lead Playing:
Time Required: 2 years of 1 -2 hours a day
Tools: first, the 5 Minor Pentatonic Scales plus the characteristic licks from each style, proper bending and vibrato technique, proper muting technique, competent alternate picking technique.
“The Guitar Principles Rock & Blues Foundation Course” …this course gives you all the tools mentioned above in a level of detail not found anywhere else.
“Hammer-On & Pull-Offs According to the Principles”
Being a metal guitarist is kind of like getting your masters degree, you need the fundamental training of a rock guitarist, and then you need a few more years of advanced training on top of that.
All of the above for the rock guitarist applies, and then the player must acquire a number of more specialized and sophisticated techniques including speed picking, sweep picking, and two hand tapping technique. Great players in this style employ a sophisticated exploitation of the fingerboard’s harmonic potential, requiring an extensive knowledge of scales and arpeggios (similar to the jazz player). Although you may be able to mimic other players rather quickly, in order to really know what you are doing will require an ongoing study of 5 to 10 years, and beyond.
Speed playing is an essential musical aspect of Metal guitar playing, and that means that the student heading in this direction must know those highly specialized practice methods that professional musicians use for building speed into the fingers. These methods have been summarized and fully explained in the Guitar Principles Publication “Beyond the Basic Practice Approach: Strategies for Higher Levels of Achievement on Guitar”.
The Bottom Line on Metal Guitar Playing:
Time Required: 3-5 years of 2-3 hours a day
Tools: extensive knowledge of scales and associated modes and arpeggios, advanced ability in special techniques associated with the style, advanced picking technique.
Jazz & Pop Player
The jazz player needs a vast and extensive range of tools, because the music they play is based on sophisticated scales, and those scales are used to generate extremely complex chord structures. There are hundreds of chord forms to learn, and a great number of scale forms all over the neck, in every key.
From a musical standpoint, Jazz soloing is about as complex as it gets for improvised styles. A very large number of scales, in all keys, and all positions must be learned and absorbed into the mind and the fingers. A high level of refined technique in the left hand and in the pick hand is required to play the scales, and all the licks that come from them.
For the jazz player, scales, chords, and arpeggios are all one thing, and all of these tools in their seemingly endless forms are firmly in the head and hands (and heart!) of a great jazz player.
All of this knowledge of the harmonic potential of the fingerboard also gives you the tools for arranging music on and for the guitar, including playing chord melody style. Many players earnestly wish they could do something other than just strum chords, or just play single notes leads. This type of study is the path for them.
Although there is going to be repetition of patterns as we go about learning all this musical material, there is still a tremendous amount of material to study. Many great players have filled large volumes with the material they practice, and have published it for other players to study (i.e. Ted Greene, “Chord Chemistry”). You can fill a room with such material, and have a lifetime of study ahead of you, which is very fortunate for you if you love this kind of thing. You will become an awesome player with a very large knowledge base, and never have to worry about having nothing to do!
Of course, we learn to use all these tools as we acquire them, step by step, and song by song. There are a large number of “standards” (songs and pieces that every jazz player knows) that they can play and improvise on. All of these must be learned, although there is a “core” of material that you are going to find yourself playing in the majority of professional situations you find yourself in.
A subset of the jazz player is the “pop player”, and many jazz lovers will make a part of their living by playing in bands where pop music and standards are required. The setting will often be club dates, weddings, and social events.
Five years of study, averaging around 2 or more hours a day (hopefully more!) are required to get up and running as a player in the jazz/pop genre. Then, it takes about ten years of 3+ hours a day to fully acquire the use of these tools, and a lifetime of continuing study and refinement if you want to be among the greats. A high degree of refined technique in both hands must be developed as well.
So, you have to decide…do you want to be a brain surgeon, or a jazz guitarist? Probably becoming a brain surgeon will be a bit less of a commitment!
The Bottom Line On Jazz/Pop Guitar Playing:
Time Required: 3-5+ years of 3–6+ hours a day of study.
Tools: Extensive knowledge of scales and associated modes and arpeggios, advanced ability in special techniques associated with the style. Advanced picking technique.
The Classical Player
People often consider the classical guitar as the most difficult and challenging style to learn and master. I am not sure if that is true, but it is certainly a contender!
The term “classical guitar” is simply the name given to the first and original style of guitar, which began about 200 years ago, when the guitar took its present form as the six string instrument we know today. It had grown out of a long tradition of plucked instruments going back to ancient times, and whether as the lyre or the lute, it has always been extremely popular in the cultures where it has appeared.
Because of its long tradition in so many forms and in so many cultures, a very wide range of music from many centuries is played on the classical guitar. Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic/Spanish and Modern are the main genres of music played. So, one of the distinguishing features of playing the classical guitar is the fact that the repertoire spans many centuries, rather than the relatively limited time frame encompassed by the repertoire of other styles of guitar.
However, you do not have to love or desire to play classical (or “serious” music as it is sometimes called) in order to desire or benefit from classical training. The study of any style adds something precious to the depth of our artistry, and many people study classical guitar simply for the advanced use of the right hand fingers it gives you, as well as the intimate knowledge of the fingerboard’s musical potential, an asset in any style. Howard Morgen, who I studied with to learn jazz and fingerboard harmony, is such a player, having studied classical guitar so as to apply the right hand abilities to his 7-string Jazz guitar and the jazz standard repertoire.
The classical guitar has always pushed the limits of what is possible on the guitar in a musical way, and the technique required to play its repertoire is precise and unforgiving. You can get away with imperfect or homegrown technique in many styles, but not with the classical guitar.
Because the physical technique required to play the repertoire is extremely precise, getting that technique requires either an intuitive knowledge of how to do correct practice to develop technique, or exposure to an effective pedagogical system that will teach you how to do that.
The highest levels of ability in both hands are required by an advanced player, and even for the beginner and intermediate student a firm foundation is essential, or playing will be a struggle and progress will be impossible. A correct approach to practice and an absolutely relaxed and comfortable technique must be developed from the beginning, and this is very, very often not the case, especially with the adult student.
In my own experience, I never found a teacher who could do much more than give me music to play, and perhaps tell me which fingers to use. There is more information available today, but the real information for how to develop to the highest levels of ability is lacking in every method I know of – most methods are merely collections of pieces and exercises that would sound great if you knew the secrets of mastering them.
That is why I created the “Guitar Principles Classical/Fingerstyle Foundation Course”. It contains concepts and methods not found anywhere else, and they have been proven to work for the average student, of any age.
A moderate practice schedule of 30 minutes, 5 times a week can get you on the path of playing classical guitar. You will be playing nice sounding pieces within a few months, and, if you follow my methods, you will continue to develop nicely for as long as you play and practice.
To play the classical guitar at a high level, meaning, being able to play the more complex repertoire well, requires 3 to 6 hours a day for about 10 years. However, anyone can enjoy playing the classical guitar as a richly rewarding hobby that they CAN be good at (just like tennis or golf) playing the pieces they have developed with a professional polish IF they learn the methods that professionals use.
The Bottom Line On Classical Guitar Playing:
Time Required: Adult Student – 30 minutes a day, 1 to 2 years to acquire solid foundation and playing ability through beginning level, ready and able to make further progress.
Professional Level: 3 to 6 hours a day for 10 years.
Tools: ability to read music, complete mastery of correct practice techniques, complete understanding of technical mechanics of playing the guitar. Full development of both hands. for maximum functionality on the strings.
This concludes our examination of what it takes to become proficient in the various styles of guitar. I hope this guided tour through the musical terrain trodden by countless guitar greats has helped you see a little further,and a little more clearly into the direction that is going to be right for you.