Are You Learning to Play Songs or Learning to Play Guitar?

(Image credit: Damian Fanelli)

There's a constant battle in the pedagogy of guitar—technique versus music (songs).

Specifically, there are many who play guitar for the sole purpose of learning songs by other artists, and then there are guitarists who advance their skills by focusing on a technique- and theory-based approach.

Many students have come to me over years with the same problem; they can play a few songs (and perhaps quite well), but they have no understanding of what they are doing and they feel like they’ve hit a brick wall. This is a very common plateau I believe many “self-taught” guitarists hit.

Students who try to teach themselves typically do not possess the knowledge of what technical material needs to be covered. Rather, they learn what they want to learn, regardless of difficulty, and this can create inefficient practicing and playing habits that are very difficult to break.

Does this mean students should play only technical material, such as an endless array of scales and arpeggios? Definitely not. But as students develop, they need to incorporate technique and theory into their practice, just as any instrumentalist would.

So what techniques need to be covered? As with any polyphonic instrument, the basics are scales, chords and arpeggios. While a purely technical focus can seem daunting and dull, there are basic fundamentals that can make playing and learning the guitar so much easier.

In the “classical” world, composers would oftentimes write musical studies called “etudes.” These pieces would generally be musically pleasing, but the sole purpose was to develop an instrumentalist’s playing technique. Examples of these can be seen in classical guitar music, where many pieces have the same right hand arpeggio pattern that remains constant throughout the entire piece.

Modern music that is written for performance doesn't take into account the technical building blocks that are needed for guitar students to learn in a logically based musical and technical progression. This is where the help of a qualified guitar instructor can really help.

In the world of piano, if a student is learning a piece of music, there can be several different technical variations so that the student can play the music they want without overwhelming themselves with something that is much too difficult. While some of this exists for modern guitar, it tends to be quite limited unless a student is studying classical guitar.

What can be done so that students can play the music they want and build a strong technical foundation? Taking guitar lessons is a great approach. A good guitar instructor can analyze a song a student is wanting to learn, arrange it so that it is playable at a student’s current technical level, and then develop exercises to aid in playing that song.

In addition to song-based exercises, there are three important technical aspects of which every musician should have an understanding—scales, chords and arpeggios. Scales are the building blocks of a song’s melody. For playing solos, they are invaluable. Understanding scales will also help in building chords and arpeggios.

Many self-taught guitarists get in the endless rut of playing the major and minor pentatonic patterns, which becomes a very clichéd sound. The pentatonic scale is simply a five-note scale derived from the Ionian mode (major scale), so why not start there and just learn the whole thing? It’ll get you thinking outside the “box.”

Chords are simply combining notes together from scales. There are, again, many different approaches to how chords can be learned, but they need to be not just learned, but understood. The reason is simple—there are so many songs that have the same or similar chord progressions. Understanding how chords and their progressions work will allow students to learn a song much faster. This is associative learning, and when applied, the student is learning not just to play the guitar, but learning music itself.

Arpeggios are just chords, but how they are played is a special technique unto itself. The left hand playing single notes and the right hand strumming a chord is such a great technique builder. I can’t express enough how important it is to work on these. Combining technical and musical efforts in a logical progression is without a doubt the best way to become a great guitarist.

And the best way to do this is with the help of a qualified guitar instructor.

Matthias Young teaches online guitar lessons at and is the head of the guitar program at Callanwolde Fine Arts Center in Atlanta, Georgia. His book, Metal Guitar Method, has set a new standard for modern electric guitar pedagogy. You can follow Matthias on Facebook, Twitter and Google+.

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