One question I ask all of my beginning guitar students is, “What made you decide to learn guitar?” Over the years I have noticed that the responses to this question reveal a few common goals we all share when it comes to learning to play guitar.
I have had singers come in for guitar classes wanting to learn to play guitar while they sing. I have taught guitar to some very creative people whose goals are to write original music or just experiment with harmony and other guitar sounds. While these are excellent goals, by far the most common reason people come in for guitar classes is that they simply want to learn to play songs. Oddly enough, while this most common goal seems like it would be the least ambitious, it is actually the hardest to achieve.
In many ways it is easier to write your own songs than it is to play someone else’s song. Or perhaps I should say that to write your own song, all you need is a little creativity. Whatever you create (good or bad) can never be wrong. If you make it up, then that’s just how it goes. But to play someone else’s song, you need information, focus, patience, and discipline. There is always some room for artistic interpretation, but in a lot of ways if you are not careful you can indeed get it wrong quite easily.
Guitar is a difficult instrument to play well, especially during the first year or two. There are many techniques and peculiar coordinations that need to be mastered even to play basic melodies like “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”. For this reason, many of us guitar teachers encourage our students to practice exercises.
Logically speaking, it seems the best way to learn guitar would be to learn techniques via exercises and then learn to play songs which consist only of techniques you have already worked out in the exercises. This is how many method books and beginner guitar courses are structured. As far as teachers go, I find that I am in the camp which believes that spending the majority of your practice time practicing technical exercises, or etudes, is a super fast track to playing real music with ease. The problem with this ideal situation is that music itself is never this logical. Real music almost always contains a diverse collection of technical quirks that frustrate beginners. This makes it hard to introduce students to the real music which they really want to play because to adequately prepare them for even simple blues songs or punk riffs would take 6 months to a year of exercises. Almost nobody who wants it badly enough has this much patience, and nobody who has this much patience wants it badly enough.
So we tell our students to just be patient, do more exercises, and then eventually they’ll be able to play that difficult part and finally complete a few of these songs. This is true, and if they hang in there they will get it. But this is where many guitar students become frustrated and fall off. If they can’t point to a list of real musical songs they can play completely front to back in the first year or two, they may decide to give up. Many teachers simply resign themselves to accepting this as a fact of reality. Like baby sea turtles hatching on the beach. Sadly not all these beginner guitarists are going to make it to the water. But if we, the guitar teachers just accept that, we aren’t really doing our job which is to TRY REALLY HARD to get all these baby turtles into the water. Part of that means not just accepting the current teaching processes and the types of students for which they are effective. We have to actively working to improve the process or find new alternative processes to serve the students who are struggling.
I believe that there exists a learning path from absolute beginner to great guitarist that consists only of learning songs. I am constantly trying to find the right order in which to introduce songs to beginners so that they can completely learn the material in a reasonable amount of time. The order is the whole key to learning by playing songs. You have to chain one song to the next at just the right level of difficulty to create a seamless or at least gradual enough progression. Generally speaking, I think 2 to 4 weeks is a reasonable amount of time to fully learn each new song. If it drags on longer than that, the student is either not practicing effectively, or the song is not at the appropriate difficulty level.
I think that the learning by songs method is fascinating. But, while there are hundreds of method books which teach exercises and etudes as a pretext to songs, there seems to be little in terms of resources that explain what songs a student should learn first and then how these would progress in a logical or gradual manner. Still I will continue to develop my own method of teaching in the hope that one day I might find the right order in which to teach songs so that students can progress directly from song to song, without the need to resort to exercises.