What Is The Best Way to Learn Guitar?

How Should I Learn Guitar

            I’ve met a lot of students who have attempted to learn guitar from internet videos, tab sites and other resources.  I’m not going to lie to you, when I was young, I was one of them.  I didn’t have a single formal guitar lesson until I took a group class at my local community college and never took a private lesson until I got to Berklee.  Through high school I scoured the internet trying to learn from tabs, learning little pieces of songs and usually poorly.  I bought some books from a local guitar store to learn my scales and picked up magazines for their monthly lesson pages.  I practiced (read: jammed out) incessantly with what little I knew and played in my high school jazz band.  And looking back on it, I was pretty terrible and GREATLY regret not taking lessons.  I was too young and arrogant to think that any one person could teach me anything.  By taking lessons I would have saved a lot of time and heartache.  I was doing everything wrong!   I picked the strings really close to the bridge, I knew maybe four measures of any song, I had no improvisational vocabulary, no idea how to read music, no knowledge of any music outside of rock and metal etc.  But I was REALLY FAST!  Now I know the variety of reasons studying with a teacher is better than any other option.

1. Only a guitar teacher can tell you what you are doing wrong.  Here’s a story:  A few years ago, I went to take lessons from a jazz guitarist who also happens to be a Berklee professor.  I had been shedding a lot bebop tunes and was eager to take a step forward as a jazz musician.  The first thing he had me do was play a jazz standard while he comped the changes.  He put on the metronome, counted it in, I started playing and we might have played two measures before he stopped me.  “You’re playing on the ones and threes, in jazz we play on the twos and fours.” I had no idea how to use a metronome for jazz!  Oops.  Well, we worked on playing to it right and made it through the tune, trading solos and comping.  When we were finished I was looking for him to say something about my scale choices, use of major triads over dominant chords, phrasing, something esoteric and complicated.  Do you know what he said?  I was swinging my eight notes wrong.  I was playing a dotted eight-sixteenth note time feel instead of a behind the beat triplet modern jazz time-feel.  I was floored!  That was so basic.

The point of all that is more than a teacher can tell you what to do right, they can help you find out what you’re doing wrong.  Most self/book/internet/magazine-taught students that I meet have a lot of bad habits.  They come in wanting to progress and what I usually have to do is breakdown their technical flaws and help them overcome them.  I can’t help thinking if they had a teacher from the beginning, they’d been able to avoid a lot of those mistakes.

2. Teachers hold you to a standard.  I’ve never, ever, ever had someone come in to a lesson who learned a song from a Youtube video and just knock it out of the park.  Most of the time, they can play a small section of the song with a few  mistakes and “wait, wait” moments.  Blossoming guitarists learning from the internet or magazines tend to gravitate toward their favorite sections of songs while ignoring the rest and just accepting all their errors.  When I have my students learn a song, I have them learn the WHOLE THING.  The opening riff of “Back in Black” might be your favorite part, but unless you can play the rest of the song, you can’t really claim to “know” it.  Moreover, if there is a part you mess up every time or just aren’t able to play, you will need someone to coach you through it in real-time.  Youtube, tab sites and magazines won’t show you how work on a section until it’s perfect or encourage you to learn a song in it’s entirety.

3.  You can’t play with books and magazines.  You can play with a guitar teacher.  One of the most important and overlooked aspects of musicianship is the ability to play along with others.  If you’ve ever tried to jam on a song with a band or a friend and found yourself getting ahead or behind, getting lost or messing up a section and not being able to get back on track, you know what I’m talking about.  I remember when I first played with my high school jazz band I would often lose my place, not be able to find where they were and  guessing about what chord I should play.  The difference between playing with yourself and others is the difference between shooting free throws in your driveway and playing on the Boston Celtics.  When playing with another musician, you have to start thinking about how your parts compliment each other and if you are getting in each others way.  Books and magazines can’t provide that.  You can kind of shed along with internet videos and books with play-along tracks, but those are not sympathetic in the way that another musician can be.  They can’t give you directions and slow down or speed up to stay with you.

4.  Guitar teachers can create and follow progressive plans while altering them to fit your needs.  When I would try and learn things from books, I would usually make it through the first ten pages before I got bored and jumped to something else.  In general, I would guess the average guitar/music book has about four pages that I ever find useful or end up utilizing (the exception being books for sight-reading, which I find extremely useful and easy to follow cover-to-cover).  I generally find myself doing the same thing with internet videos, watching the first thirty seconds before I start scanning through the babble to find the information I actually want.  I would guess the average person does the same thing.  Magazine lessons are generally a single page blast of information that might be unrelated to anything on which you’re actually working.  When I make a lesson plan for a student, I make sure it is related to their goals and will not only interest them but also improve their playing.   I know how to jump to the parts they’re going find useful and help them through the parts that are difficult.  Each lesson builds on the skills gained in the previous lesson and is customized to the goals the student specifies.  There is no way books, magazines or internet videos can have that level of personal tailoring.

This is an incomplete list of the multitude of reasons that private lessons are superior to almost all other modes of learning an instrument.  The advantages are endless and too numerous to lay out in a single blog post.  Though my opinion is admittedly biased, I can always tell the difference between someone who studied with a teacher and one who tried to teach themselves.  But you don’t have to take my word for it, find a good teacher and see for yourself.