There’s no best way to learn to play an instrument, period.
And no right or wrong way, no matter what anyone might tell you.
I stumbled across a blog post the other day in which the writer took a quote I had given in an interview and used it – negatively – to make his point. I had made reference to peeking at books of sheet music in music stores when I was a teenager, and writing down the chords on my hand. The writer took this comment as an opportunity to suggest that this wasn’t the way to really learn, and that he suspected I eventually learned to just hear it myself. This happens to be true, but I was puzzled by the way he chose to make his point.
I have heard musicians with naturally gifted ears express disdain for others that studied formally, and “educated” musicians speak condescendingly about the self-taught. These are both equally useless perspectives, not to mention at least mildly and needlessly insulting.
People tend to develop a bias towards the method that worked for them. That’s fair enough, especially if there were methods that didn’t work. But everyone learns in their own way, and it’s shortsighted to dismiss any approach out of hand without considering whether you might benefit from it yourself. The best way to learn to play is to gather as much knowledge as you can from as many sources as you can. You still need to do the work yourself to put the pieces together, and this was our blogger’s point. But to suggest that all the different ways you could acquire those pieces don’t help is just plain silly.
You don’t need to know how to read music. Your favorite musicians probably don’t, unless your favorite musicians are in the jazz or classical world. In popular music you’re more likely to read chord charts – essentially a general roadmap – than written notes. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t value in learning.
First of all, learning to read musical notation gives you a way to indicate rhythm. This is one of the great flaws of guitar tablature, which is otherwise a very useful shortcut. Tabs show you where to put your fingers, but not when it happens or which finger to use. Also, even chord charts will sometimes include rhythm figures even if they don’t indicate individual notes. If you’re going to learn anything at all about notation, learn to understand written rhythms.
Second, reading music gives you the means to explore thousands of method books, etudes, and exercises, thought out by master teachers and musicians over hundreds of years. My teachers go from J.S. Bach to John Coltrane to Jerry Garcia. I need my ears to use them all, but it’s a whole lot easier to follow something as complex as a Bach invention or a Coltrane improvisation when you have a reference.
Before the internet, you had three options when you wanted to learn a song. Find the sheet music (if it existed), find a teacher, or work it out by ear. Now, if I had to choose one method of learning above all the others it would be playing by ear. But even now with all my years of experience, I’ll take all the good supplemental resources I can get, and the internet is full of them.
YouTube is probably the most useful free resource, given that there are thousands – maybe millions – of guitar lessons on every subject imaginable. It’s also great to be able to reference live performance video when learning a song and actually see what a player is doing. This is really helpful for things like fingering and other subtleties of technique.
When you use YouTube, though, don’t just take one person’s word for it (including mine). Watch several lessons on the same song. It’s valuable to get several different perspectives. The notes of the song are what they are, but interpretations are still subjective. Besides, one person’s way of teaching might illuminate something that another doesn’t.
The same caveat goes for tab and chord sites like UltimateGuitar and Songsterr. (There are many others, but these two are my go-tos). Often there are multiple versions of a tab, and you should always look ar more than one. First of all, some will just be plain wrong. Others might simplify a song more than you might like to. Most often there will be subtle variations between one and another. Just as with YouTube, it’s worth getting different perspectives.
Formal video lesson sites like JamPlay and TrueFire can also be very helpful. (Disclaimer, I’ve been a contributor to JamPlay for several years and have seven courses on the platform). These are subscription-based services in which a membership buys you access to their video library. The courses are often structured sequences taught by professional instructors. Others are taught by artists you know, some of whom are excellent teachers. Some are not, but even so it’s nice to watch a player you admire up close with multiple camera angles and included tabs.
Private lessons help keep you accountable in a way that working on your own can’t. A teacher can help you set specific goals, make a plan to reach them, and keep you moving along the way. In some instances, a single lesson can have a great impact on your playing. However, no teacher can move you forward if don’t do the work.
Think of your teacher the way you would an athletic trainer or physical therapist. The work you do in the sessions is important, but the work you do outside the sessions really determines how much you get out of them. Sometimes just having someone to “work out” with once a week is a goal in itself, and that’s ok. You can absorb a lot in a single interaction. If it maintains a connection to playing music and gives you some gratification besides, that’s great. But you’ll see the greatest improvement in your playing if you commit to a practice schedule along with your lesson schedule. Work with your teacher to determine what a reasonable workload is for you, and stick to the plan.
Playing By Ear
Learning to play is not an either-or proposition, and choosing to focus on one approach doesn’t mean you can’t also incorporate another. My most successful students all learn new music on their own outside of their lessons. They might do this by working from tabs, or watching YouTube videos, or reading sheet music. But all of these methods need to incorporate another approach to really work: listening.
Learning “by ear” is simply listening to music and trying to duplicate the sounds on your instrument. At first, it’s pure trial and error. But that trial and error process helps to train your musical ear: your ability to differentiate between sounds and recognize specific relationships. Over time, you can build up a vocabulary of sounds that are familiar when you hear them. After a while, you won’t even need an instrument to know how to play some songs, because the patterns you hear will tell you what to play.
Ultimately, playing music is ALL about pattern recognition. Yes, there’s a visual aspect in that you place your hands in specific positions on the guitar neck. But what “playing by ear” really means is that you start to connect the patterns you hear with the patterns you see. This is the way naturally gifted musicians learn to play. Some people can intuitively make the connections, while others need to learn how.
Again, this is not an either-or proposition. You can have a good natural ear and still have to learn about what you’re hearing in order to really develop it. Most people fall somewhere in the wide middle between musical savant and tone-deaf, and even the “tone-deaf” can learn to play. Start listening critically when you learn a song. Ask yourself what you hear. Do you hear single notes or chords? High pitched or low? Can you hear when the chords change? Can you differentiate between the instruments? Odds are, when you start listening for these things you’ll start to hear them.
The bottom line is, there’s no “best” way to learn to play. But there are lots of methods you can use, and while you might resonate more with one then another there’s something to be gained from them all.