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Learning from books

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Learning to play from books

I have learned to play mainly from books and by listening to other players. I have however realized that I have relied too much on my eyes, and not enough on my ears in the learning process, and my playing has suffered from that. It has meant a lot of effort to work my way out of the dead-ends and side tracks that this practice has led to. And my simple assumption is that I am not the only one with this problem. That is why I will share some of my experiences. If you are interested, you can read a bit more about how I learned to play.

Music is a hearing art, just as painting and drawing is seeing. But a guitar is a technically complex instrument that is difficult to master. It gives you the opportunity to play both melody and harmony, and many of us want to master both aspects of guitar playing. But the fretboard is not structured in the same logic way as a keyboard. I am not saying that it is easier to play a keyboard compared to a guitar - every instrument is difficult to master at an advanced level. But the logic of the keyboard makes it more easy to understand what you are doing musically.

My personal experience is also that it is easier to take off into some improvisation if you are playing a monophonic melodic instrument - an instrument that can play only one note at a time. I do occasionally play trumpet at a very basic level. When I do not have to pay much attention to the harmony, I can concentrate on melody and improvise around melodies and motifs. Another aspect is that you (or at least I) build a stronger ear/instrument relationship on a trumpet compared to a guitar (or keyboard). If you hit the right fret at the right string on a guitar, you get the right note. It might sound different from what you expected, or you may not have very much anticipation of the sound at all. If you hit right, the note will be correct. Not so on a trumpet. You have to know the sound you are going for, or you will miss it. If the sound in your head is B when you should play a C, you will get nothing. Your fingering is for C, but your blowing is for B. And the B will not sound with C fingering. Playing a trumpet is in that sense very similar to singing - if you don't know the sound of the note you shall sing, you will miss it.

Guitar is an instrument that makes it easy to be preoccupied by the technical aspects of playing. Now there is even a magazine called Guitar Technique. Guitar music can very easily become a vehicle for displaying technical skills. A good player need good technique, no doubt. But music and musical skills are much more than instrumental technique. And you should be a musician who happens to play guitar, not just a guitar player demonstrating his or her skills.

When you are learning from printed music, found in books, magazines or other places, there is a high risk of being preoccupied by technique. When you feel that you are banging you head against a wall, it is easy to learn another lick or another song from a tab. But as long as it is only mental walls, your head is stronger than the wall. And you have to keep banging until you get through.

The only cure seem to be training and educating your ear. A better ear will help you in all aspects of music: You will be able to pick up songs from records more easily (but exact transcription is an art and even the pros have to work hard to get down a complex piece). Your improvising skills will improve. Your musical memory will improve, making i easier to memorize songs. And you will get more info, and then more excitement from your listening.

But there are many ways to train your ears. Maybe the best approach is to work your way through traditional ear training. But then you are back to school, and you really need to have dedication to complete such a course. If you are a mainly self-thought guitarist, you probably have very thorough, extensive and deep knowledge of some aspects of music, and very shallow knowledge or no knowledge at all on other aspects. You have to take advantage of the knowledge you have, but go back to a very basic level where you are lacking knowledge. I assume that you have played numbers of songs and chord progressions, but also that you have some problems identifying chords when you hear others playing (if it is easy for you, there is no need to continue).

I also believe that you need some knowledge of musical theory. You may have very good playing skill without that knowledge, but you need that knowledge to understand what you are doing. And you need it to understand what others are doing, when you are trying to figure it out from listening to their playing.

I am in the process of preparing a series of lessons on how to identify chord progressions. When this series is finished (if it will ever be), I might continue with some lessons on identify melodic elements (licks, etc.). But I will not promise anything in that direction.

I will also stress that these lessons are based on my experience from working my way out of the problem. I am not saying that this is the only approach. I am not even saying that it is the best approach. But it is an approach that worked for me.

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