New Year’s Eve, 20 minutes to show time…
I was the special guest for my friends’ headlining set, and I was frantically trying to teach some songs to a trumpet player we hoped to have sit in with us. We were nearly out of time, and the trumpet player just couldn’t grasp the song I was showing him.
I was baffled and frustrated. The trumpet line was the central hook of the song, the focal point of the chorus, and it was E A S Y. How could this trumpeter not understand these three simple notes? This uncomplicated rhythm?
Nervously eyeing the clock, I played him the recording. I played it slowly for him on guitar, calling out the note names as I went. Still no luck: he couldn’t put it together.
Finally I grabbed my computer, fired up the notation software, and transcribed the part. I put the sheet music in front of him and instantly he was playing the part perfectly, as if he’d been playing it his entire life.
What was going on here? How could someone be so good at sight reading but have no ability to learn by ear?
And Then It Hit Me
The vast majority of guitarists are the exact opposite of that trumpet player: able to play by ear, able to play what someone shows us, able to memorize, but completely music illiterate.
Think about it. If I put this in front of you, could you play it? In real time, at tempo?
All of that frustration I felt when trying to teach that song to the trumpet player is exactly what the rest of the music world feels about guitarists.
But Wait––There’s More!
By Ear and By Sight are the two most obvious ways that musicians interface with music, but they’re not the only ones. There’s actually a third interface for music, one that we guitarists gravitate to even more than we do to By Ear.
By Shape is the guitarist’s drug of choice, and it explains so much of both a) what’s appealing about guitar, and b) why we’re the butt of so many jokes by other, more proper, musicians.
By Shape is the primary way in which we relate to the instrument. We have chord grids. We have scale shapes. Our barre chords can be moved around without having to think about the underlying theory. When we want to solo in a different key, we can just move our favorite scale shapes to a new location and let fly with all of our best licks.
That song you’re strumming on the acoustic doesn’t match your vocal range? You can slap a capo on, and move it around until you find something more fitting.
I Want To Play Aura Lee When I Grow Up
Perhaps the most attractive aspect of playing guitar is the ease of learning to play great-sounding music, without having to wade through the tedium of playing antiquated folk songs.
While the pianists and clarinetists were cutting their teeth on Hot Cross Buns and Simple Gifts, we were rocking out to Back In Black and Stairway To Heaven. Seemed like a win at the time, but now our understanding of the instrument is flawed and incomplete.
Going back to square one to acquire this knowledge is even less appealing now that we’re playing on a fairly advanced level. When you can play The Wind Cries Mary, struggling to read through Mary Had a Little Lamb is a tough sell. Besides, we can justify our music illiteracy by having our own form of notation…
TAB Is Better & Easier!
It’s Our Musical Notation!
Sorry, but no. TAB seems like a perfect analogue for musical notation, and thus squarely in the By Sight camp. I mean hey, it’s written down, we read it, so what if it’s numbers instead of dots?
But TAB is actually yet another manifestation of By Shape. All of the By Shape stuff is doing one thing, and that’s showing you where to find the thing you’re looking for. The what and the when are missing from the equation.
Ok sure, there’s TAB with rhythmic notation, and scales with note names written on the dots, but most of the time we’re letting that information wash over us like so much French on a Canadian road sign.
Why struggle with a difficult foreign language when our native tongue is written right next to it?
Doesn’t Bother Me
And so it seems that our collective reaction to this crisis (and yes, it’s a crisis) is one giant shrug. We console ourselves with our better pay and more-attractive lovers (sorry oboists) and write off this whole “real musicianship” business as somehow being unimportant to guitarists.
Like the marathoner who struggles to open the exit door when the wind is up (or the weightlifter who couldn’t sprint to escape a burning building), we argue that being sufficiently strong in the By Ear and the By Shape categories means we don’t have to have true proficiency in the By Sight department.
Or that, since the guitar is a particularly difficult instrument when it comes to reading (and it is), we should get a pass.
And I’m not here to guilt trip you, or tell you you need to suck it up and learn this already. I doubt that’s going to help much, and besides…
It’s Not Your Fault
The blame for a spoiled child is generally laid at the obliging parents’ feet, and rightly so. And if you’re alarmed that I just compared you to a spoiled child, take comfort that I––and my guitar teaching brethren––are the bad parents in this analogy.
The guitar, as a whole, is easy to start playing. It’s tons of fun. And it’s a peerless vehicle for songwriting.
On the other hand, understanding its ins and outs is anything but straightforward, and reading music on a guitar can be downright treacherous.
So it’s no surprise that all of guitardom leapt at the opportunity to play towards the guitar’s strengths and minimize (or trivialize) its weaknesses. We were already a tribe ruled by By Shape, what with our chord grids and scale shapes. So when the internet gave every guitarist unfettered access to every song ever in TAB form, our people rejoiced.
At some point guitar teachers gave up trying to stem the tide. Perhaps we reasoned that the extra motivation and excitement that came from learning popular songs via TAB would keep students engaged long enough to develop a physical proficiency, at which point we would theoretically double back to the important foundational stuff.
And should the student in question wash out without ever attaining that base level of technical skill? Well then that was just more time that we didn’t waste teaching them something they weren’t going to use anyway.
Logic tends to flow in the direction of our own self-interest. Twas ever thus.
But we overlooked something.
Guitars Don’t Frustrate People, Guitarists Do
Both teachers and students of the guitar have been looking at this the wrong way.
The guitar, for all its user-friendliness on a physical level, is a confusing and murky morass on an intellectual level. It’s almost an article of faith in our tribe. But as it turns out,
The problem is not with the guitar. The problem is how we’re teaching the guitar.
Let me be blunt: the state of guitar instruction today is a total embarrassment. We are drowning in books, DVDs, courses, YouTube videos and blogs. BUT: our ratio of complete-BS-to-useful-and-true-information is no better than that of the diet & exercise world.
The way we teach sight reading is comically bad. Our reliance on TAB to teach technique is massively handicapping student’s future success. We make ridiculous assumptions about the amount and depth of information we expect students to intuitively grasp, and in the next breath we condescendingly talk down to them.
Perhaps worst of all is how quick we are to hide behind the mantra of “lessons MUST be tailored to suit the individual student.” Because what could be more safe? Who would disagree with something so plainly evident?
But again, logic flows towards our own self-interest. This means that “lessons must be tailored to suit the individual student” is usually just shorthand for “I’m too lazy and/or uncreative to find a way to teach this student the baseline essentials that ALL guitarists should know, done in a way that will keep him/her engaged.”
OMG, Will He Ever Stop Lecturing Me
Sorry if, in my anger, I’m a little overbearing with this. I don’t mean to be so soapbox-y. I’m the victim here as much as I’m the culprit, and the light at the end of the tunnel is that––narcissistic though it may be––I’m the knight in shining armor too.
Because I know we can fix this. The mission is fairly simple to articulate:
- Get guitarists to a reasonable technical proficiency without unnecessarily hobbling them with TAB,
- Make IDing every note on the fretboard by sight enjoyable instead of confusing and demoralizing,
- Build a rock-solid sense of rhythm and groove,
- Teach the reading of rhythms long before we attempt reading melodies,
- Teach the reading of melodies anywhere other than open position, and
- Do each of these independently of each other before combining them,
- Teach music theory in a way that is both simple & useful,
- And do it all in an order that makes sense.
The Thing I Wanted Didn’t Exist, So I Made It
I built an entire learning system that does exactly this.1 It’s a series of tiny sequential guitar lessons, delivered via daily email. Each one is easy to digest, fun to work on, and doesn’t require much time. It’s called GuitarOS, and I want to give you the first 15 lessons for free.
If you play guitar AND you truly want to get much, much better AND you’re comfortable with taking a tiny daily action towards that, please sign up here. It’s not quite ready for launch, but you’ll be the first to get access, and you’ll get preferred pricing.
If you teach guitar, and you’d like better students, more money & less stress, please email me, I’d love to talk to you.
Email me at josh [at] fretboardanatomy [dot] com
1Almost. The whole reasonable-technical-proficiency part falls outside of what can be done reliably over the internet. But if you can play along with a song, you’re plenty proficient enough to start GuitarOS. No matter where you’re at in your guitar journey, I still recommend you get a teacher and spend 100% of your lesson time working on technique & time.