1. Learn to listen to yourself.
As musicians, our most important tools and teachers are our ears. Develop your ability to listen from the very beginning. Learn to listen to one sound; its beginning, its development, and its ending. Listen to its timbre, length, volume, and pitch. Everything that you play must always be under the control of your hearing. The movement of your fingers is NOT the most important thing; they are merely doing what your ears are telling them to do. Play with your ears!
2. The positioning of your right hand is the foundation of all future technique.
For guitarists, the right hand is the foundation of all technique. That is why it is crucial that you give a maximal amount of attention to the correct positioning and tone production of your right hand. In the beginning stage of your study of the guitar it is your number one problem. A very popular mistake is to rush through this stage, or even just skipping it altogether. They just play in whatever way works, just to “play something.” This is a bad idea. With incorrect positioning, you are forever doomed to play crookedly, tensely, and overall bad sounding. In the long run, bad positioning will become an unconquerable obstacle in the development of your technique. You’ll just be able to strum stuff, but you won’t be able to play anything sensible, and relearning technique is infinitely more difficult than just doing it right from the very beginning.
So, play your exercises with your right hand alone on open strings however long it takes for reinforcement of correct hand positioning and confident tone production. Even if you think you’re doing everything right, watch the lesson one more time. Compare the positioning of my hand to yours from every angle. Play in front of a mirror, slowly! Think you got it? good, now play it ten more times; now twenty, and then another fifty. It’d be easier with a teacher; he’ll tell you when you’re wrong. If you’re learning on your own, everything depends on your observation of every detail. The lessons provide fundamental information. Your job is to study the lessons inside out. Learn EVERYTHING by heart, every detail is important, nothing is trivial. It’s not enough to just do it correctly one time. It has to be in your muscle memory, so that when you finally start using your left hand, the right hand can do everything precisely, as if you’re actually using one hand, not two.
You can’t build a house without a foundation. Similarly, without proper positioning and tone production all efforts are futile. Remember this.
3. Learn to relax.
In the beginning, one sees the guitar as something strange and unfamiliar to him. Everything just feels weird. It’s weird to sit properly, it feels weird to hold a guitar properly, your hands aren’t doing what you tell them to do. At this stage, it is very easy to tense up. And tensing in your body is an obstacle. Everything needs to be relaxed all the time, primarily your hands. No exceptions! It doesn’t matter what you’re playing, it has to be done with a light feeling in your body and your hands. That is the only way your efforts will pay off.
Just sit comfortably. Breathe, listen to the silence, and relax. Let your hands hang loose. Now shake them out. Remember this feeling; these are the hands you should play with. Not breathing evenly, clenching your jaw, raising your shoulder, and balancing your foot on your toes are all evidence of tenseness. Stop playing, breathe, shake out your arms, and relax all your muscles.
Good playing requires a minimal amount of effort. If you feel a tension in your playing, then you’re doing something wrong.
4. Don’t rush.
It’s almost as if rushing is a plague that targets all beginner guitarists. Rushing comes in different forms. Examples include discontentment at the speed of the progress, attempting to learn pieces that they’re not ready for, trying to learn as many pieces as physically possible, and playing in a fast tempo, even when it is not necessary.
You have to choke out your urge to rush from the very beginning, and choke it out mercilessly. Recognize a few simple truths:
- There is no shortcut to mastery. If you want to play on a high level, you will have to put years of effort into it. Accept this and enjoy the process.
- The most foolproof way of improving technique is a gradual movement from simple to more difficult, and when I say simple, I mean VERY simple. The more stages there are devoted to this path the better. We are developing good habits step by step calmly and with no pressure, increasing the difficulty little by little. If you try to leap to a level for which you are not ready, you will inevitably tense up and lose your footing. You will get discouraged and confused. You’ll feel like you’re trying to break through a brick wall. In the end, your studies will only take longer because you will have to start way back square one and relearn everything. This path can be passed from start to finish ONLY step by step, vigilantly and without skipping over anything. You will have to accept that. Sometimes, it seems that you can take a shortcut, but that’s merely an illusion. You’ll just have to go back and walk the path all over again, and that will just take more time.
- There is no standard amount of time that education should take; everyone progresses at their own speed. Some people go quickly, some people go slower. It doesn’t mean that the faster one is better, or the other way around. We’re all different. At one point Johnny might be progressing faster, and at another Bobby is. The fact that someone is progressing faster than you should not worry you one bit. Music is an art form, not a sport.
Don’t race with anyone. You have your own path, and there’s no one else on it. Others have a completely different one. Why do you care how they’re taking their path? You’re unique, your path is unique, and therefore your music is also unique. Once you accept this, positive energy will become your constant companion.
5. Half fun.
This is the key point in everything you do. Playing a musical instrument is not work, but, first and foremost, enjoyment. Your studies must always be viewed from that point of view. It doesn’t matter what you’re playing: learn to hear beauty in every sound. Even one sound is beautiful. You can listen to it forever, hearing its various qualities. It can be heard in millions of different ways, and each time it will be different. There’s no such thing as two identical sounds, they’re all unique.
When you enjoy the process, you are living in the present. Nothing is worrying you. You don’t really need anything, because you have it all. You have a guitar, and you can make music with it. Isn’t that great?
6. Play slowly.
Another common affliction beginners suffer is the tendency to play faster than they can, at the expense of the music, tone, and expression, with clenched jaws and bad technique, just as long as they can play fast. Why?
There are a few reasons:
- Senseless increasing of tempo. A beginning student is not capable of controlling their hands, and they’re just running in front of a train that they think is trying to run them over. Neither the head nor the ears are active in this process, everything is on automatic pilot. This is fixed by playing with a metronome. I will discuss this separately.
- The student finds it boring to play slow. Why? because he’s incapable of listening. His ears are closed. He doesn’t hear the beauty of the sound. To him, there’s only one function: the movement of his fingers. And what’s between the movements? nothing, just the anticipation of the next movement, and the longer the wait, the more boring it is for the student.
This approach is, by definition, the opposite of a musician’s way of thinking. For a musician, the most important thing is sound. For the sake of sound, a musician makes a movement. When the sound is born, he listens to it. At precisely that moment, at the moment of the audibility of that sound, the musician finds pleasure. He tries to prolong the life of that sounds for as long as possible. The greater the distance between two consecutive sounds, the longer the life of the sound, and the more pleasure the musician gets. Think about this. Music is not movement of the fingers. Music is sound.
- Students often find themselves under the influence of a ridiculous notion: the most hardcore musician is the one that plays the fastest!
This is about as far from the truth as it gets. Simply virtuosic playing is a sport. It’s the same thing as a car race, a track race, and a shooting competition. There’s nothing bad about that. It’s great, it’s awesome. But it’s not music, it’s sport. Speed and precision are the most important things there.
In music, we have entirely different goals. Our main purpose is to express our emotions to the listener, to connect with them, to have a conversation with them. When you’re talking a person you care about, be it a friend or significant other, or when you want to be understood, how do you speak? Quickly and fumblingly? No, you speak calmly, letting every word make a point. It’s the same thing with music. Music is a language, and it has the same significance as human speech.
Yes, music can be fast, but in those cases, speed is not a goal, but a tool. It’s necessarily for the expression of a certain emotion. But do you often have the emotions that you need to express by firing a machine gun? I don’t.
In addition to everything above stated, it’s necessary to point out that for a beginner, it is absolutely forbidden to play fast. No idiot would try to gallop on a horse without being able to make it walk first. The first year you have to play only in a slow and moderate tempo. At this stage, you enforce basic good habits. These are positioning of the right hand, correct tone production, a sense of rhythm, relaxation, the ability to listen, connecting sounds, and forming musical phrases. All of this work must be done in a slow tempo, so that everything can be observed and heard. The more difficult you find something, the slower it needs to be learned. This is a universal rule.
But what about speed, you may be asking. I’m never gonna learn to play faaaasttt??? My answer: this coveted speed of yours will come to you as a result of well structured studying, if, by that time, you will even have that wish.
The most reliable way to learn to play fast is to play slowly!
7. Use a metronome.
Music is strictly organized in terms of time. Every sound has a specific place in the time scale. Any kind of music has a pulse, a musical meter. The ability to feel that pulse and play rhythmically is one of the fundamental skills of a musician. This skill can only be developed by playing with a metronome.
A metronome doesn’t care. It won’t let your hands slow down or speed up whenever they want to. There will be no approximations. It requires complete control over your hands. As a beginner, you lack that control. Your hands are playing in whatever way works. With a metronome, you will learn to produce the sound when necessarily, exactly when YOU want it, not your hands. How can you even think about making music is your hands don’t listen to you, if they’re playing independently from you?
Quite often you might hear that constantly playing to a metronome makes your playing mechanical and lifeless; but no one says that you must ALWAYS play to a metronome. Yes, music has moments when it slows down, or speeds up. The music lives along with its maker. This is called rubato. Rubato, however, is the next step.
To be able to properly, logically, and naturally variate the tempo, one must first learn to play precisely. And only then, feeling that steady pulse inside himself can he start adding variety to the tempo. Only then will it turn out sounding good. You will know exactly how much to change and why. It will be logical. Without being able to play precisely, any attempts to add rubato will just sound like inexperienced, rhythmicless playing. Remember: first ideal precision to a metronome, then rubato.
There’s a common practice of a replacing a metronome with tapping your foot. You’re tricking yourself that way. You think you are playing rhythmicly, but that is an illusion. Your hands are still doing what they want, without your control, and your foot is just tapping to your playing. Basically, your feet are following your hands. If your hands start dragging, the tapping slows down, if your hands rush, your foot will try to catch up. This is easily proven. Turn on the metronome and try playing. You will think you’re playing correctly, but the metronome is slowing down.
Playing to a metronome shows that you can control your hands and that you have a sense of rhythm. Regardless of your ability to variate the tempo in a piece, you must, at any given moment, be able to play it to a metronome. It’s like a mountain skier, who should be able to weave through all the flags at the descent; at any given moment; regardless of how he cruises. Or a car racer, who should be able to make a turn with ideal timing, regardless of how he drives to the family picnic. This is the skill you must master, to demonstrate your control. And so, a metronome is a crucial element to your daily practicing.
8. Learn to read music.
It’s strange that I even have to point this out, but the popularization of tablature leaves the need to once more remind you of the crucial knowledge of being able to read notes.
I can go on forever about the advantages of standard notation, because there are a lot of them, and to musicians they are obvious. This is a whole different discussion; I just want to bring out the most important point.
Notes reflect the musicality of a piece on a piece of paper. Tablature just shows where to poke and what to pluck. Do you feel a difference?
Imagine that someone invented a way to record speech, where instead of letters, words, and sentences, we use descriptions of the what a person needs to do to produce a sound. For example, consider the word “mother”: we all understand what this word means, right? Now imagine that in order realize that you are reading the word “mother,” you have to read the following: “do this with your lips, now that with your tongue, now this with your teeth, etc” and the whole book is written this way. Would you get much out of a book like that? How hard would be to even remember a single sentence out of that book?
Now imagine that you’re learning a foreign language by using this method. You’re moving your lips and mouth the way the instructions are telling you to. It seems like you’re talking, but do you understand WHAT you’re saying? Will you be able interact like that? Will you be able to write a letter, or read a book written in normal words in that language? Of course not. This analogy accurately demonstrates the advantage of standard notation over tablature.
People who read tabs just move their fingers as the instructions tell them to, but a musician plays music. He already sees it; he knows what it’s made up of. In the long run, with experience, he will be able to variate his playing, to add something of his own to the music, change it, he’ll be able to play it differently, maybe make his own arrangement. A method of recording music initially identifies the way of thinking of the student.
So why limit yourself and make your life harder? It’s pretty easy to learn to read music, despite popular opinion, and given the possibilities they provide, it’s might be worth the trouble even if it were difficult. You will find a whole new, infinite world of music, and your will be able to speak with other musicians in their own language.
If you still don’t know how to read music, now is the best time to start.
9. Sing, dance.
Sing! The most perfect instrument, given to us by nature, is our own human voice. All musical instruments are really just attempts at imitation of it. Rules of intonation and phrasing are borrowed by music from human speech. When one sings a melody, he naturally makes the right accents, he breaths, sings out the words and phrases. The singing of the music that you play is a crucial aid to expressive and beautiful playing. You will never make a guitar a sing in your hands if you can’t express yourself with your own voice.
I am not talking about controlling your voice. This is a whole different study, you need training for that. I’m talking about the feeling. You can sing in your head, and you can sing in a whisper. You can also just sing however you can, you don’t even need to hit the right pitches. The most important thing is to get a feel for the melody. Hear inside of yourself how it’s supposed to sound, ideally. To make the right accents, and to logically sing motives and phrases. Imagine that the melody is being sung by a professional singer. How will s/he have sung it? While playing, you must always sing to yourself, and then make the guitar sing what you’re singing in your head. You’re not just moving your fingers, you’re singing with the guitar, and you are evaluating you’re playing from that point of view.
Dance! why is that important? It just is! To dance, you will have to open your ears, you will have to hear the music and its rhythm. To let that pulse through your body, and to make it move with the music. You will have to relax and think of nothing just you and the music. You will realize that to move with the beat is just as natural as breathing. You will understand what musical meter is. You will stop treating music as something foreign, existing separate from you. You will finally feel the music inside you.
After that, you will just not be able to play in a stiff, tense position. Your body will naturally move to the beat of the music. You will relax, and that will be immediately obvious in your playing.
10. Don’t limit yourself to the guitar.
The guitar is not the center of the universe. It is only a tool with which you express yourself. A good musician is good not because he can move his fingers, but because he has something to say with his music.
So fill yourself up with emotions and impressions. See the limits of this world. Travel, love, read books, play sports, listen to music. Learn to do other things. Every new skill gives you possibility for more sensations. You will live life more fully.
In music, the most important things are emotions. They are the heart of music. Experience them and express them through your playing. If you succeed in passing on your feelings to you audience, congratulations, you are already a good musician, regardless of how many “mistakes” there were in your playing.