It’s undeniable that you need to master the fundamentals of music in order to reach your full potential on the guitar. What are the fundamentals of music that are important for guitarists to study, and what is the best way to learn them? Let’s take a look.
1. Standard Music Notation
To play anything musical on guitar, you have to know how to play specific pitches (notes) for specific lengths of time (rhythms). The reading studies in The Guitar Lesson Companion, Volume One teach you the notes and rhythms, progressively and thoroughly, while also giving you the skill of being able to read standard music notation. Sure, you could just practice the technique of physically playing notes, but then you would have to go back later and learn the names and functions of all the notes. You’ll improve much faster on guitar if you practice the technique of physically playing each note while learning the the notes on fretboard. And, knowing how to read music is useful and fun.
If you’ve been playing guitar for a while and you tend to play the same strum patterns and solo riffs on all your songs, you would also benefit by learning to read music. Besides improving your technique and learning a new skill, you will train your hands and ears to play rhythms and note combinations you wouldn’t naturally play. The history of music is written in standard music notation and it is waiting for you to unpack it. If you are a serious guitarist, it is your responsibility to take what has come before you and develop it further.
Tablature is a system of notation that was designed specifically for string instruments. Unlike other instruments, like piano, notes on the guitar can be played in several different places on the neck. (I think the average note can be played about 2.8 different places, but it depends on the length of the neck.) Tablature shows you the the fret and string where the note (pitch) is located on the guitar, but most of the time it does not show the rhythm.
If the rhythm is shown, it is unintelligible to people who have not studied standard music notation. In that case you’ll have to use the recording to help you learn the piece. While learning songs from recordings is a really important skill (see Ear Training), the purpose of notation is that you don’t need to listen to the recording to learn the music, so you can learn to play the music faster.
Learning to play clear single notes while you are learning to read music prepares you to play chords, where you play more than one note at a time. Chords demand good eye and hand coordination as well as a good understanding of rhythm and time. A song doesn’t really sound familiar until the correct chords and the correct rhythm are being played, so if you are learning how to read music, you are also getting a good handle on rhythms you can use to strum chords.
One of the hardest things for most beginners is to change from one chord to the next, clearly and on time. In The Guitar Lesson Companion, Volume One and the Free Lesson Guide, you will learn chord changing exercises that I have used to correct this problem for every student I have ever taught, in just a few minutes. If this is an issue for you, contact me about guitar lessons via webcam, and I’ll help you out.
Intermediate and advancing guitarists who have worked through all the power, barre, and seventh chords found in Volume One, usually ask me how to create more interesting chords, good voicing leading techniques, triads, and embellishing chords in a Jimi Hendrix kind of way. These more advanced concepts are in The Guitar Lesson Companion, Volume Two and the Free Lesson Guide for the book.
4. Scales, Basic Music Theory, and Chord Tones
Many students are interested in jamming with other musicians, and that’s where scales and theory become useful tools. If you have a basic understanding of music theory, you can figure out which scale to play over a specific chord progression. Scale construction, chord construction, and basic harmonic concepts are covered in beginning music theory classes, and are in The Guitar Lesson Companion, Volume One.
If you’ve been playing for a while, you might be getting tired of playing scale patterns and wonder what is next. Your playing probably sounds box-like and predictable. You want to work hard, but you don’t know what to do, and you have been searching for the answers for a while. Most teachers don’t have a clear path for how to get you sounding like your idols. Sometimes books and/or teachers offer a vague, incomplete strategy, but honestly, I think a lot of people think that you’ve either got “it,” or not. I don’t think that way at all.
My approach to teaching improvisation maps the history of improvisation in jazz music. Jazz music involves thoughtful and passionate improvisation. If you look at how improvisation developed in jazz music, you’ll notice that musicians started improvising by playing around with the melodies. They added embellishments here and there, but you can really hear the melody in their improvisations. A bit later, musicians started relying more on the chord progressions, and they started soloing using chord tones, and then they embellished those chord tones with notes from the modes and other scales.
If you were to sing an improvisation over a chord progression, you would most likely sing a lot of chord tones. (Maybe even all the notes would be chord tones.) Those are the truest sounding notes that we naturally want to hear over a chord progression. So guitarists need to study these notes, right? Yep.
I have always been a music theory nerd. As a teenager, I checked out every available music theory book at our library, and I took (and loved) the music theory course offered at my high school. I still love theory, and as a friend of mine puts it, “I’ve never met a theory book I didn’t enjoy.”
A lot of guitarists love music theory so much that their curiosity ends up hurting them. I have known so many guitarists who enjoy learning really advanced and esoteric stuff, but who cannot play all 12 scales while naming the notes they play. What good is knowing all that (really cool, mathematically pleasing) stuff if you cannot apply very basic concepts to the guitar?
Theory is so cool, but you’ve got to pace yourself and master all the concepts very carefully so you can use what you learn. Learn your notes in open position and all the open chords (while learning to read music), learn the notes on the E and A strings (while you learn power, barre, and 7th chords). And play a bunch of songs!!! Learn all the other notes on all the other strings (while learning the chords in the CAGED system). And have fun playing a bunch of songs, soloing using patterns, and playing chord melodies, if that appeals to you. Learn to construct the scales and chords, find out how chord progressions work, and write some of your own songs, if that appeals to you.
Then, think about studying intervals, the modes of the major scale and the modes of the minor scales (harmonic and melodic). Then study the whole tone, dominant diminished, and diminished scales, while applying them to dominant 7 chords. Take a look at tritone substitutions and feel awesome because you know the notes so well that you can immediately put the concept to work for you on your guitar. Mastery of the basics is awesome because it makes everything else feel easy. (All of these concepts are in The Guitar Lesson Companion, Volume Two.)
6. Ear Training
Students who are enrolled in college music programs take intense ear training courses where they learn to write the notes and chords of music they hear, on paper. It’s intense! There are apps and programs you can download if you want to train your ears on your own. I think some of them are really good, and I think that this kind of classroom ear training is helpful for guitarists.
Training your ears is also the process of learning how to play a song on guitar just by listening to it. I did this the first time by accident. I was learning how to play a C chord and transition to a G chord. Those two chords in that combination sounded really familiar to me. I kept at it and I added another chord, and another chord, until it sounded right to me. I finally noticed out that the song I was figuring out was the song, “Patience,” by Guns and Roses. (Hey, it was the late 80’s!)
It feels great to know how each chord sounds, so you can identify it when you hear someone else play it. Most rock music is pretty simple, so if you know the sound of your basic major and minor chords, you have the tool to play hundreds of songs. Play lots of other people’s songs, write your own chord progressions, and you’ll develop your ear so you can just hear songs and then play them back.
Learning other guitarists’ solos by ears is a really important (and fun) activity too. The guitar solo to “Let it Be” is a good one for most folks who have been taking lessons for about a year to learn, but ask your teacher for more help.
The systematic study that teaches you the chord tones in The Guitar Lesson Companion, Volume Two, also helps train your ear. I really like students to get the most out of their practice time by doubling up on projects.
There are many kinds of guitar techniques to learn, depending on what you want to play. Techniques can include left or right hand strengthening/coordination exercises like those in my play-a-long YouTube Technique Lessons. The concept of technique also refers to stylistic techniques like slide guitar, solo jazz guitar, tapping, fingerpicking, etc.
You can develop good technique by going slowly, carefully, and with the purpose of mastery. Ultimately, it feels like you’re simultaneously playing like you just don’t care, and also like your life depends on it.
Wrap It Up:
Good teachers have unique ways of presenting, explaining, and applying the fundamentals to the music that you want to play. Of course, many teachers do not teach the fundamentals of music, and those teachers have a lot of excuses to explain why they do not teach them. More often than not, teachers who do not teach the fundamentals of music do not know them well enough themselves. Find a teacher who will help you build a solid base of skills that will support whatever style(s) you wish to pursue, and use The Guitar Lesson Companion Method Books to help you get there faster.
Good luck on your journey!
Susan Palmer teaches jazz, blues, and rock guitar styles in Seattle and via webcam. Since 2006, she has been the guitar instructor at Seattle University. Palmer created and taught, “The Rock Project” at Cornish College of the Arts from 2010-15, and she was music instructor at Seattle Girls School for the 2016-17 school year. Palmer is the author of, The Guitar Lesson Companion Method Book Series which is used by teachers and students in over 10 countries, including faculty at Berklee College of Music. Her extensive collection of lesson videos and jam tracks are available for free on YouTube. Palmer’s current and former students perform regularly throughout the country, including these Seattle venues: The Comet, The High Dive, Skylark, Neumos, The Hard Rock Cafe, Chop Suey, The Tractor Tavern, The Rendezvous, The Sorrento Hotel, The Crocodile, The Mix, Cafe Racer, The Edgewater Hotel, The Sunset, and other private events.