The guitar is a truly amazing instrument that allows you to play music as simple or as complex as you like in any style that suits your fancy. However, no matter what kind of music you are interested in, there are certain fundamentals that must be learned.
Since the guitar is a musical instrument, you need to learn to read music. You also need to know about keys and scales.
Since the guitar is a chord instrument, you need to learn about chords ─ how to recognize them, how to build them and how to use them.
Some people think of the above as “music theory” and specific only to “classical” music. “Music theory” is probably a misnomer. There is nothing theoretical about it. It is a description of practical musical usages and applications, or in essence, a “how-to guide” to any and all music, as equally applicable to folk, country, blues, jazz, pop as to classical.
I am self-taught, but I was able to learn on my own because I already knew how to read music. This allowed me to pick up various method books, both general methods and style specific methods, and reading the text and the music, absorb the knowledge those books had to offer.
Beyond being able to read, understand, and apply what I learned from various books, I was also able to learn from the music itself.
For example, I started off as a “folkie,” mostly singing songs while playing the chords. There are hundreds of publications out there arranged for voice and piano with guitar chords and many of the chords are shown with fingering diagrams.
Because I can read music I can:
- Look at the fingering chart and know what the written notes are for the chord
- Look at the written notes for a chord (on the piano part) and figure out a chord fingering
- “Invent” a chord fingering and know what the notes are and what the chord is
- Learn what the difference between different kinds of chords
- Look at the notes in the melody and compare them to the chord used in order to understand how the melody and harmony fit together
- Take any melody and work out, on my own, what chords to use
- Transpose a song into key that would fit my vocal range (No longer do I have to struggle with “rocket’s red glare”)
- For instrumentals, I can simply pick up the music and learn it. I can also create my own melodies and harmonies, either as songs with lyric or as instrumentals. I can also simply run chords and hear the hidden melodies that could be used to connect them
Some people think that one need only “play by ear.” To “play by ear” is a particular skill learned by listening and experimenting. In musical families, everyone knows the same songs and the way in which those songs are played, making it easier for family members to learn to “play by ear.”
But by knowing music, music can teach music. By listening to what is being played and knowing what the music is doing ─ how the chords and melody work together ─ one learns to play with an educated ear.
As a result, I can do anything with the guitar that I darn well please. Sadly, not everyone can.
Here are three vignettes to make a point.
I heard a friend playing a song I really liked. I asked him what the chords were and he said, “I don’t know. I just know where I was told to put my fingers.”
An opportunity arose to do some really fun ensemble work which would have paid well and been a nice little credit on the resume. I couldn’t take the gig because I was already booked, but I recommended a friend who played rather well. He had to turn the gig down because it required that he be able to read music and he never got past TAB.
Back in the day, there were “folk music clubs” all over the country. These clubs served to allow people to get together and enjoy music as a social function and learning opportunity. Musicians would “trade licks,” teaching each other new songs, or new techniques of playing. While the majority of members would be playing guitars, there were also people with mandolins, violins, clarinets, and a variety of other instruments. The highlight of the evening was when folks would sit in a circle and each would take a turn in leading the group in a song, while everyone else followed along. Not everyone knew the song being played, nor did everyone do it in the same key, so when the song was announced the “leader” would tell everyone what key they would be doing it in. For Example, “Tennessee Waltz” is often done in G, but I can’t sing it in that key so I usually do it in A.
If you know the key you really don’t need to know the song, at least for most of the folk and pop varieties. You know the notes of the key and you know the chords for the key. By combining that knowledge with what you hear (the educated ear) you can usually follow along reasonably well.
One evening at the Westwood Folk Music Club, a girl came in with her guitar hoping to spend a pleasant evening having fun with her instrument and with other people. She had learned a few songs by having someone show her where to put her fingers and by using TAB, which is a kind of fingering diagram. But she couldn’t read music and she knew nothing about keys and chords and all the practical knowledge which is unfortunately referred to as “music theory”.
She was there to have fun with her instrument and with other people. She never played a note. She didn’t know most of the songs, she didn’t know the chords and she didn’t know the keys. She couldn’t follow along with anything that was played. When time came for the snack break she quietly put her guitar back in its case and left in tears.
I don’t teach music theory. I teach music fundamentals and practical applications as they pertain to the guitar, including note reading, scales (not for the sake of scales), chords and keys across the full range of the fret-board.
I don’t teach “classical” guitar”. I teach finger-style guitar because you can do more with your fingers than you can with a flat-pick (plectrum). I do prefer that my students use a nylon strung “classical” guitar, but only because it’s easier on the finger tips. I introduce my students to a variety of musical genre since any kind of music can be played on any kind of guitar. Yes, you can do “classical” on a hard-body electric.
I have two simple goals for my students: that they can do anything musically they want with the guitar, now and in the future, and that they learn music from music. That is why my method series is titled Music and Guitar.