For almost a year now, I’ve been foaming at the mouth about how the shape-based approach that lets guitarists cut the line and go straight to the fun stuff is the very same thing that prevents the vast majority of us from ever moving beyond the early intermediate stage.
Recently, John Mayer & Chick Corea took a break from the new record they’re making to talk shop about music & improvisation.
The whole podcast is worth your time, but one thing in particular had me pumping my fists in the air and yelling triumphantly.
John to Chick:
“Every instrument has a geometrical rut in it, and for the guitar, it’s the pentatonic scale. The pentatonic scale is the most satisfying, easy-to-learn/lifetime-to-master sort of scale.
“And it’s the easiest to learn because it’s pretty much a box. It’s almost symmetrical top to bottom. Anybody can do it, anybody can pick it up.
“The way guitar players see it, it’s just this moving box. The reason there are so many guitar players is because the shapes can stay the same up and down the neck.
“I mean, a piano becomes re-contextualized every key. For guitar players there’s this geometry that we get sold on, where we actually play shapes first. So it’s a muscle adventure. It’s an adventure in geometry.
“Imagine it like a chef ready to make you whatever you want. What are you hungry for?
“[And you say,] ‘Well I don’t know, show me a menu.’
“What I’m trying to do is see the guitar as a thing that will do whatever you want it to do. So what do you want it to do? It’s like, always order off-menu. Ask the chef. Every time you pick up your instrument, ask the chef to make something different that’s not on the menu.”
YES. YES. A THOUSAND TIMES: YES
Scale shapes, TAB, chord grids, capos, & watching other people play are all great ways to pick things up quickly, especially when you’re first getting started.
But the longer you wait to backfill the knowledge you missed when you skipped straight to the fun stuff, the less appealing it becomes do so.
I mean, who wants to learn to sight read Hot Cross Buns when you can play Hot For Teacher?
You’re A Big Dumb Tourist In The Land of Music
You’re a visitor in a country full of beautiful, exotic people with sexy accents. They would love to meet you. They’d be fascinated by you. But you don’t ever meet or even see them, because you’re eating McDonald’s on the main tourist drag.
To be clear: this isn’t a guilt trip about how guitarists suck at reading music. Far from it.
What I’m mad about is that you’re missing out on all the good stuff lurking just below the surface, and almost no one is showing you how to get to it.
It’s not that your illiteracy is causing you to miss out on the country’s literature, it’s that you can’t read the big ass sign that says “Cheap Drinks & Sexy People, 0.5 km ->”.
What You Can Do About It
I get it––starting over at the beginning of Mel Bay 1 is a non-starter for just about all of us. But there are some non-awful things you can do to dramatically improve your playing, understanding, & creativity.
- Learn the names of the notes on your fretboard. All the songs you learn (even the ones you learn via TAB or YouTube) are filled with bits of theory & other interesting information, but you can’t access it if you don’t know what you’re looking at. Looking at your fretboard and seeing note names instead of coordinates & shapes is the first step to unlocking a half-dozen amazing new worlds. It’s the foundation of our flagship GuitarOS course.
- Learn rhythmic notation. Not only will this improve your sense of time (which will ripple outward and make every single thing you play sound better), it’ll also prime you for reading basic charts, communicating with proper musicians, and (don’t panic) reading music. This is another must-have skill you’ll learn in our Practical Theory course.
- Learn to read enough music. I’m not saying you need to be able to sight read fast bebop tunes in strange keys, only that there are some vitally important things that TAB can’t teach you. Start with the post Reading Music For Guitarists: 5 Incredibly Important Things No One Ever Told You. Then work your way through Music Reading For Guitar by David Oakes and/or A Modern Method For Guitar by William Leavitt. Again, 5 or 10 minutes each day and you’ll be set.
- Train your ears. It’s awfully hard to steal ideas from the greats if you can’t figure out what they’re playing, and harder still to reach for ideas you can’t conceive of. There are dozens of books and apps for ear training, but most of them suck. The thing you’re looking for is called “movable-do solfege.” It involves singing & a tiny bit of music reading (again: don’t panic. It’s worth it.) Spend a little time each day with The Real Easy Ear Training Book by Roberta Radley and you’re going to grow by leaps and bounds.
Your time is now.
The shape-based approach to guitar served you well in the beginning.
But these days it’s holding you back.
You’ll get so much more out of it than you’d imagine.
But never more than you put in.