The Perpetual Beginner: creating your personal guitar syllabus

November 20, 2017
The Perpetual Beginner: creating your personal guitar syllabus

The word “syllabus” probably takes you back to college classrooms, final exams, and stressing over your GPA. I worked as a college professor for several years, and while my time in academia was a mixed blessing I did learn a lot about organizing a curriculum: a specific set of goals that need to be met in a limited time frame.

A structured program is a powerful way to improve. If you’re “stuck” in your guitar journey or just want to step up your skills, setting specific goals in conjunction with an organized plan is the best way to move yourself to a new level.

The personal guitar inventory

In a recent post, I wrote about self-assessment and the need to get a clear picture of what you do and don’t know. This “personal guitar inventory” is the first step in creating your syllabus: an outline of the skills or “competencies” you want to develop, and the sequence of actions you’ll take to make it happen.

There are general areas that every player should develop, regardless of your musical goals. Performing the personal guitar inventory will give you a clear picture of which areas need the most attention. Here are the primary categories the perpetual beginner should be addressing, as I see them.

1. Finger coordination with single notes on the fretboard
2. Open chord vocabulary and transitions
3. Picking hand control for single notes and strums
4. Rhythm and groove vocabulary
5. Barre chords and other moveable forms
6. Song repertoire

For the more experienced player, we might add the following four:

7. Scale vocabulary up the fretboard
8. Improvisation and soloing
9. Ear training (how to learn songs on your own)
10. Interaction with others

Now what?

Once you’ve identified which areas you want to address, it would be wise to find a teacher to help you develop your practice plan. Not every teacher is experienced or organized enough to do this, but a good one will be able to help you. Share your guitar inventory with them, and make it clear that these goals are your priority.

On your end, you need to be prepared to make a commitment to regular daily practice. Just like you did in your college courses, you’re going to have homework. A curriculum builds sequentially, so the things you practice in week 5 will be more challenging that what you practiced the first week. That means you need to keep yourself accountable, which a good teacher can really help you do. Fortunately, your timeline is not fixed to a 15-week semester the way it was in school. So you can work at your own pace, but doing the work is essential.

The way forward

In my own private teaching, I’m developing a set of basic syllabi that can be adjusted to meet the needs of each individual student. Each one will be aimed in a particular direction, from overall skill development to specific genres and topics. Even if your teacher hasn’t taken this step, a good one should be able to assess your needs and organize the practice plan accordingly. Don’t be afraid to ask for a general breakdown of how the teacher sees this plan unfolding…it will help them serve you!

There are also many organized programs out there that you can take online or from a DVD series. I design courses for, a site I recommend highly, and there are many others. These courses can be more affordable than private lessons, but will require more discipline on your part since you need to keep yourself accountable on your own. Set programs also can’t be adjusted as you progress, but you can still learn to personalize the sequence or the specific exercises. It’s all part of your ongoing guitar journey. Remember that in order to become the kind of player you want to be, you will ultimately need to learn to be your own teacher as well. This ongoing self-assessment and personal commitment will help you develop that ability.

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