Alternative Music Education: The Real Way to Learn Guitar

My focus while building this blog and coming up with posts and educational material (hopefully) has been to provide an alternative form of music education, since most of us know how to look up scales and how to find chords online.

While Guitar Chalk has done some chord and scales explanations (especially early on) the core focus has been on showcasing a more in-depth and natural way of understanding and learning the instrument.

It’s my belief that just learning scales and and chords is essentially the same thing as stepping up to the starting line. Once you’re there, the entire race is still in front of you.

The “meat” if you will, comes after you’ve learned those building blocks. You need to, in a sense, put those blocks together, and the amount of formal material on that process seems to be sorely lacking.

Putting the Pieces Together

So with that in mind, what we want to do here is go deeper into the process and provide resources for exactly how to use these pieces. I suppose that’s the “alternative” aspect of the method.

This process leaves us with a more practical and applicable way to learn the guitar, or perhaps the “real” way to learn guitar, if such a thing exists.

The battle isn’t one or lost in stale chord books and repetitive memorization. It happens by understanding music and learning how to fit the smaller pieces into the larger picture.

The Real Way to Learn Guitar

With that in view, we should be able to identify the primary components of that process and zero in on some methodologies that actually help us apply what we’ve learned from scales and chord books.

1. Dissecting and Applying Pieces of Guitar Scales [Modes]

By itself, a scale doesn’t do you a great deal of good. Once you’ve memorized it, then what?

What needs to happen, is that you need to identify smaller chunks and pieces of that scale that can be used in certain keys at certain parts of the fretboard. That means the process of applying a guitar scale, will look something like the following steps:

  • Take small pieces of the scale in two or three note portions.
  • Make a mental note of what key they’re being played in (The key of the scale itself).
  • Make a mental note of where they are on the fretboard.
  • Memorize the pattern.
  • Memorize the sound.

Once you do this, you’ve got a two or three note block that you can start putting together with other two or three note blocks and begin connecting the dots.

Take the following scale chart:

Guitar Scales

I’ve circled two three-note combinations, that might not seem like much, but are actually far more helpful than simply playing through the entire scale. All we do now is put them into a tab sheet and come up with a riff to help us associate those notes with the corresponding frets and key.


2. A Music Focused Approach

Training in concepts and ideas specific to the guitar (like modes and arpeggios and the such) are important, but what is equally important is a music-oriented approach to the guitar.

A guitarist’s ultimate goal (and primary responsibility) is to be able to decorate or give skin to a piece of music. Particularly for those in a lead guitar role, their focus will be centered around the dressing up of a song.

For someone to be able to effectively do this, they need to have an understanding of how the guitar fits into music as an instrument.

This leads into the following areas of interest and study as it pertains to the guitar:

  • The Role of the Guitar: As we’ve already touched on, the role of the guitar is one of decoration, or the sprinkles on the cake, if you will. Far too many guitar players tend to play like they’re driving th song. That’s not to say a guitar player can’t be rhythmically focused; plenty of them are. However they first need to understand the purpose that a guitar is setting out to fill. It’s the dressing and not the lettuce.
  • Song Dynamics: A guitarist’s ability to distinguish between the low and high intensity parts of a song and everything in between.
  • The Difference Between Rhythm and Lead Guitar: The differences between rhythm and lead guitar play an important part in how a guitar player is going to approach the instrument and the music that surrounds it. While that player can focus on both rhythm and lead guitar, the two playing styles need to be taught and understood differently.
  • Being Able to Play with Touch and Control: Though control and touch are developed with time, it can still be explained, taught and practiced, and will allow a guitarist to be more in control of whatever chords or lead licks they might be adding to a song.

3. Listening and Playing Along with MP3s

If the goal is to integrate yourself with music, the best way to learn how to do that is to play along with the bands and songs that you’re the most familiar with.

Most amplifiers of our day come with an MP3 input, but even if you don’t have an amp to handle that, there are plenty of cheaper options that can get you playing along with your iPod.

While it might sound a bit simple, this is a huge part of learning to play in a group and being able to keep up with the pace of the music around you. Constantly playing guitar by yourself all the time doesn’t provide that framework or require you to play within a certain timing constraint. Having that is good for a guitar player, and it’s simply one of the best ways to learn how to make your notes count.

This is a big part of a music focused approach; big enough to have received its own category. The list of what it can effect in terms of your playing is long, but here are some of the main benefits:

  • Improved timing and rhythm.
  • Improved understanding of the differences between verses and choruses.
  • Improved understanding of note placement and arrangement.
  • Improved knowledge of when to underplay.

The more you play along with actual music, the better your understanding of these topics will be. It should be noted that always playing along with your favorite band isn’t smart either. There is a balance, but thankfully it’s an easy one to strike.

4. Focusing on Rhythm and Timing

Rhythm and timing are perhaps the most undervalued aspect of guitar education. In my opinion, it’s the most important part of playing guitar (though I’m sure many would disagree).

If your rhythm is off, than it doesn’t matter how great your technique or tone are, it’s not going to sound right.

Learning guitar from the angle of rhythm and keeping time doesn’t have to be a constant in the way you learn, but it should be something that you focus on, the same way you might devote some time to focusing on chords, scales or other more tangible aspects of your playing.

Rhythm is tough too, because it needs to be understood and practiced somewhat differently than other guitar concepts.

Even still, it’s a big part of the learning process and shouldn’t be left out just because it’s “hard to teach.”

In-Depth Focus

In addition to the conventional guitar topics, these areas of focus are necessary to engage the guitar at an in-depth level, instead of constantly being on a surface level understand and hope that these other things just come with practice.

Certainly they will come with practice, but I believe that a better way is to hone in on each idea and develop it intentionally once we’re ready.

We’ll be more advanced and professional with our instrument in the long run if we’re able to practice these things proactively.

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