If you just got a guitar and have never played before there are some things you should know that most teachers won’t tell you. First you need to ask yourself why you are doing this. Learning to play Smoke on the water note for note, is not the same as hanging out and playing 12 bar blues with your friends. If you are already a good singer you have less reason to learn difficult guitar licks. Do you want to learn to play to improve your singing? to accompany a friend? to expand your social life? Your goal determines your pathway to success.
There is more than one way to learn an instrument. You can learn songs from tab and musical notation or you can learn to play what you hear, either in your head or on some device. You can watch other players and read the chords from their left hand. You can take private lessons or you can learn with a group. There are several very good channels on you tube. You should do whatever works for you and focus on what you want to achieve.
These pages are mostly basic music theory for guitar players who don’t read music. If you just want to pick up the guitar and get at it go here to begin playing.
If you are most interested in jamming with a group learn two keys a forth apart and get a capo. This is the most common approach because it is the least amount of work. The key of A is a good starting point. A, D and E are easy chords. The key of D is next. Learn the G chord and you have two keys that will let you play thousands of songs. The chords of D are D, G and A. This, and a capo, will allow you to accompany anyone in any key and that’s all you need to play along at a jam.
Learning three chords will quickly lead to you playing songs without the melody. If you sing well and loud three or four chords are all you need. The play by ear approach will be to sing the melody, play the melody, play melody in the bass on the low strings and on the high strings and up the neck. This takes more practice but sounds a lot better. Pick a song you like and go find the melody notes. The more you focus on melody the better you will sound.
Learning to play melody means learning to hear and identify the notes in the song. I started with Riders in the Sky, Freight Train and Windy and Warm. I discovered early on that Wildwood Flower played in C can be moved over a string and have almost the same fingering in the key of G. It was several years before I began to follow the advice of Barney Kessel and try to play everything in both C and G and I only recently discovered that the major scale has the same fingering everywhere on the guitar. Learn to play Do re mi and find the notes in a simple song. In a surprisingly short time you will discover that hearing the notes and playing the notes happen without effort. You don’t need to see all the notes on the page just the chord names are enough.
Peripatetic Pinky – a song by Jerry Silverman, illustrates the use of the weakest finger of the left hand to augment triads and play melody notes in folk blues. This use of the little finger is one of the things that separate players of melody from the herd. Playing melody notes with your little finger is difficult at first but worth the trouble.
Most performers use some combination of the play from music and play by ear but the mark of a good player is the ability to sit in with a group and play along with music they have never heard.
Music theory is the same for both approaches but ear players, in my opinion, learn faster and play more interesting material than those who insist on playing only from tab or worse yet musical notation.
There are at least two ways to make progress, get better, as a guitarist. First you can learn another tune and perhaps some more chords. Second you can focus on musical technique. I think you should only learn a technique or a scale or a chord when you have a song that would benefit from using the new technique. This is where friends and teachers can help you decide where you should be going.
If you are keen on Bianca Fiore or the Bouree you will need to learn how to read tab. If you are really into classical guitar you will have to learn at least tab and probably standard notation and you need a teacher that can play the pieces that interest you. According to Carole Kaye a lot of session jazz players played by ear but there are still a lot of chords to learn .
The focus of this website is to learn to play by ear. Not because it is the only way but because it is the way I learned and is not well documented like other approaches. Playing by ear is also much more common among really good players than you might have heard from your piano teacher.
On to Playing by Ear.