Whether you take guitar lessons or are learning on your own, there is one skill you absolutely must learn. And I think a lot of people, including many guitar teachers, are missing this point.
Don’t take lessons just to learn songs. Take lessons to learn how to learn.
Most people want to learn guitar so they can play their favorite songs. That’s wonderful and important, because loving the music you’re learning to play is highly motivating. And the sooner you can feel like you’re really playing songs, the more likely you are to keep on playing. I introduce songs in my lessons right from the beginning, but choose them based on the vocabulary and skill they require. Just like with anything else, success is a whole lot more likely when you start simple and build from there.
After a while, the average student/hobbyist has built up a vocabulary of chords and a repertoire of songs they can (mostly) play. Sometimes this is enough of a start to allow you to keep learning on your own. After all, one of the great things about learning guitar is that a handful of basics goes a really long way. Five chord formations is enough to allow you to play hundreds of songs, and upping that number to twelve gives you basic access to thousands more.
This would suggest that the sequence of learning should go like this:
1. Learn the basics
2. Learn songs to see how the basics are applied
3. Apply that knowledge to learning new songs
The problem is that so many people miss number three. It’s easy to get stuck on number two – these chords, in this order, with this rhythm. That’s enough to play most songs in a basic form, enough to sing to. But at some point, your focus needs to shift from the basics of the song to the process of learning itself.
Most people go to a teacher when they’re looking for guidance on what to practice. But learning HOW to practice is the most valuable lesson for the long term. Not just how much time to spend on each thing you do, but how to identify, break down, and resolve problems and challenges.
Effective practicing comes from knowing exactly what you’re trying to fix.
I really do mean “exactly”. Is a finger missing consistently? Which one? What does your hand need to do that it isn’t? Why not?
Resolving these questions takes a solid understanding of the mechanics of guitar playing, and of how your hands and mind absorb information. Once that’s in place, every problem has a solution, because you understand how to teach yourself. This is what all pros learn how to do. When you start to do this at even a basic level, your lesson time can devoted to really growing your skills instead of learning things you could probably handle on your own with some dedicated effort. Best of all, it’s a skill set that you’ll use for your whole musical life, and keep you growing in the process.
For more on how to be your own teacher when you practice, check out this short e-book, The Perpetual Beginner’s Guide to Effective Practicing.