The average person trying to learn guitar on the internet is being swamped with information.
Too much information, frankly, because there are also lots of opinions on what has value to you and what doesn’t. Put those two things together and it’s hard to know what to practice, or whether you’re putting your energy in the right places.
I love that the internet gives me the ability to research practically anything in depth. If I want to learn a song, I have multiple sources to check including the possibility of watching the artist play it. This is wonderful, and a big improvement from writing chords on my hand while sneaking a peek at the sheet music book in the store back when.
But you might also have hard drives full of more guitar information you could ever go through, and still feel like you can’t really play.
It’s not that there’s some inherent problem with the medium except for the obvious one: there’s no filter on the internet and no way to gauge the “best” information easily. There are many excellent resources out there, from blogs and interactive websites to subscription services and hours of video courses. (Disclaimer, I’ve worked with the subscription service JamPlay.com for years and have, I think, over 500 video lessons on their platform).
You can learn a lot from practically any resources you choose, but many people struggle with what to actually study. After all, time management is a factor for practically everyone, and you want to know your practicing is going to be impactful. So how do you know what to focus on, especially when there seem to be so many differing opinions out there?
It will come as no surprise that I have opinions of my own, but let’s call them perspectives.
Remember that some of the information out there is universal and applies no matter what music you play. Other information is more specialized to a particular style. And even the fundamental vocabulary can be different from one genre to another. The first steps to play hard rock are different than the first steps to play folk, even though either could use an E minor chord. The difference is the treatment of the chord and the way it’s played.
In other words, the physical technique is inseparably related to the style.
Knowing that you’re playing E minor is one thing, but knowing how to attack it in a way that’s appropriate to the style is something else. So “E minor” is one piece of information. How you play the chord is another. The musical context is a third piece that informs the way you use the first two. Each of those pieces is a building block, and every song you learn illustrates one way those blocks can be put together.
For example, if you learn a song that goes C – Dm – F – C, it’s good to know that you are playing in the key of C. Within that key, we can call this chord progression 1 – 2m – 4 – 1. As introductory theory, that’s enough, even if you can’t remember the significance of the numbers. Just get used to the idea and that tidbit of information.
If you were learning to “play the changes” on this song, you would then need to know the makeup of each chord. Point being, the information you need depends on where you are and what you’re learning, but it’s limited and quantifiable either way.
But what about building a well-rounded foundation?
You might wonder if this kind of narrow focus leaves important things out. It does, but that doesn’t matter. You’re going to repeat the process over and over again as you continue the track you’re on. Since your work is more focused, you absorb more fully, and the well-roundedness comes over time from doing this again and again with different pieces of music.
That doesn’t mean you can’t explore different styles. I follow enthusiasms myself, and so what I practice is often just what’s interesting to me at the moment. You can do that too, provided you do one thing: finish every practice session doing some aspect of it a little better.
The point is, you can absorb information in a slow, piecemeal fashion and still grow and benefit from it.
It’s not so complicated, really. Practicing means getting to know the music better, no matter what you’re practicing. There are absolutely things you will need to know regardless of what kind of music you play. But don’t let the volume of material distract you from what is really your only, constant goal: playing one thing well.
Choose a few things, rotate between them, and swap out songs and sounds as you progress. I’m generally working on four or five things at once, following my basic enthusiasms and rabbit holes. But if every time I’m working, I’m doing something better, it really doesn’t matter which aspect I choose to focus on.
Granted, it’s easy for me to say that when all my foundational knowledge has been in place for years. But my point is that it’s ok to file away things that don’t make sense to you in the “over my head” bin. As long as you’ve noted the existence of the term or concept, you’ll encounter it again and at some point it will make sense.
Bottom line: don’t let the volume of material on the internet bog you down, or convince you to take on more than you can really handle.
Eventually, with the help of this wonderful resource, it really does all come together, but give it time.