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How To Get Good Fast (Accelerate Your Learning)

Focus on having fun, no matter how much or how little you know.

If you only know two chords, rock those two chords as hard as you can!  If you only know "Happy Birthday", try to focus on making each note as beautiful as you can make it.  Becoming a good guitar player takes a lot of time and hard work - if it didn't, everyone would be good at it and it would be about as special as being able to tie your shoes.  Be patient with yourself and remember that every great player started at the beginning just like you, and had to practice very hard to get as good as they are.  A lot of people get down on themselves by thinking about all the things they don't know or can't do yet on the guitar rather than enjoying what they can do.  That frame of mind can seriously block your progress and hurt your ability to have fun playing, which will then lead to you playing less and less.  Instead, let your desire to learn those skills motivate you to keep practicing and move forward.  Remember, becoming a better player starts with a genuine love of playing and making cool sounds - if you love to do it, you'll do it all the time and that will make you better.  Be mindful and present in the moment while you practice - let the rest of your life and your stress melt away until the only thing that exists in the universe is the guitar in your hands.  If you actively remind yourself to enjoy every note and chord, the time will pass quickly and you'll improve all the time.


Practice at least 30 minutes every day.

This will give you enough time to review old material, and also to keep moving forward by working on new songs or techniques.  I've also found that it's not necessarily how long your practice sessions are, it's how often they are and how focused you are.  Even just 10-15 minutes every day is better than one long session every 3-4 days.  This is especially important when you're just starting because daily practice will help you strengthen your fingers and develop calluses.  Any additional time you can put in over the 30 minutes I recommend will just help you progress that much quicker.  It also helps to section off an area of your room, basement, or office as your "music area" where you can set up your guitar & guitar stand, your music stand, some blank music sheets for working out new ideas or exercises, a simple music recorder, and your computer or CD player.  That way you can always find what you need quickly and it won't be such a process to start practicing, jot down a quick song idea, or even just mess around.


Buy a good instrument and have it set up professionally.

Avoid buying instruments on the cheap end because they can actually make it harder to play, specifically with bar chords and scales in the higher frets.  A cheapo guitar is OK for the first few weeks when you're working on open chords and basic melodies, but as you progress, you'll definitely want to upgrade.  You don't have to spend a fortune, but spend enough to get an instrument that won't fight against you and potentially frustrate you to the point of giving up.  Also, if you want your guitar to play its best, consider having it "set up" by a professional.  Most guitars come right out of the box and right onto the rack at a music store without any time taken to make sure it's playing right.  A professional setup can make a guitar play a lot easier and sound a lot better, so don't skip that step if you're getting serious about your playing or if you're having some technical problems with your guitar.  There are a lot of adjustments that can be made to the bridge height, nut height, intonation, pickup height, and your truss rod that will help keep your action (string height) low while at the same time eliminating buzzes, dead frets, and excess finger pain.


Pick the right teacher and take weekly lessons.

Well, I can't leave this one out now can I?  Having regular lessons with an experienced teacher is especially important when you first start playing.  A teacher can teach you the right lessons in the right order, keep you supplied with fresh songs and exercises to work on so you don't get bored, coach you when you get stuck, encourage you when you're frustrated, catch your bad habits before they become entrenched, and keep you accountable to your musical goals.  Even in a world with YouTube guitar lessons and a billion tablature sites, there is no substitute for the value of a good guitar teacher.  Teaching yourself to play is definitely possible, but the right instruction at the right time can save you hours of research and enable you to learn much more quickly.


Listen to a lot of music.

This one might seem obvious, especially since most people who take guitar lessons are doing it because they already love music.  But the reason I put it on the list is that the best players and writers have open minds and open ears.  They're constantly searching for new sounds and techniques, not only within their own genre, but also in seemingly unrelated genres.  If you're into metal, try listening to some classical music - Randy Rhodes did (Ozzy Ozbourne's guitarist on "Crazy Train").  If you're into rock, try listening to some jazz, folk, or funk.  You might find some sounds that you can adapt to your own uses.  Also, don't limit yourself to just listening to other guitarists.  You can learn a lot from vocalists (Carlos Santana's biggest inspiration), keyboard players (our closest musical relative - we can learn a ton from them!), as well as trumpet, trombone, sax, flute, violin, cello, mandolin, drum, and banjo players (every instrument, really).  You have to be able to hear an idea in your head before you can play it with your guitar, so make sure you spend lots of time filling up your mind with musical ideas by listening to all kinds of music.  And it doesn't have to be expensive - we have one of the best library systems in the world right here in Columbus!  Reserve some books, CDs, and DVDs online and have them delivered to your local branch for free.


Work on your form first, and your speed later: practice slowly enough to make as few mistakes as possible.

When you're practicing, you're not just learning the notes, you're also programming your brain and hands to know what it feels and sounds like to play it right.  It's more time efficient to play a little slower and make sure you're programming yourself with good information.  If you try to practice too quickly, you're going to be making mistakes all the time (kind of like typing too quickly and constantly having to hit "backspace/delete"), and it'll take you longer to get the song up to full speed with no mistakes.  A good metaphor for this is when you watch the special features of a movie that has a lot of fight sequences (think of

'The Bourne Identity' or 'The Matrix').  When they're learning all the punches, kicks, and spins in a sequence, they move very slowly at first, and learn the sequences in small chunks.  Only after they can do it slowly do they speed it up and start joining the smaller chunks of the sequence together.  If they tried to learn it at full speed from the very start, it would take them longer to learn, and would lead to a lot more black eyes!


Practice playing along with an external timing reference.

After you've learned the notes in a song, practice playing them at a constant tempo by using a metronome or a slowed-down recording of the song.  Most music sounds better when the tempo or beat stays constant, but very few people have truly accurate and consistent internal timing, especially when playing unfamiliar material.  When we're playing and we come to a part of the song that's tough, we tend to slow down without being aware of it.  Because a metronome or recording doesn't ever slow down, it can help identify places in the song that need additional practice.  Being able to maintain a constant tempo is not only crucial when playing music with other musicians, but also when you're performing or recording solo.  Make sure that you tap your toe on the downbeats and lift it on the upbeats, constantly staying in sync with the tempo of the song.


Make some goals and work toward them.

Always have a list of songs you'd like to be able to play, techniques you'd like to learn, or other things you'd like to accomplish like starting your own band, writing your first song, performing a song in the school talent show, etc.  We can use these goals to structure your lessons.


Don't wait for perfection before moving on.

Many students feel like they have to perfect a lesson or technique before they move on to something new.  But focusing too hard on any one chord, progression, scale, technique, or song can be counter-productive because the longer you work on something, the harder it is to keep your mind interested in it.  Work hard on each lesson, but go ahead and move on to something new once you have it at about 80%.  Then make sure to devote some practice time each week toward reviewing old material so that you can keep it fresh in your mind and make up that last 20%.


Take advantage of every learning resource that's available.

Taking lessons is a great first step toward becoming a good guitarist or bassist, but we can't possibly go over everything you'll need in our short sessions each week.  There are tons of great guitar books, DVDs, websites, and magazines out there that will help you become a more well-rounded musician.  Some are more general and try to cover every facet of playing the guitar, and some go more in-depth about specific genres or techniques like blues guitar, slide guitar, jazz guitar, recording, music notation, music theory, etc.  And don't forget about songbooks from your favorite artists.  Some are better than others, and I would definitely caution you to take the transcriptions on tablature sites with a grain of salt (as evidenced by how many different versions of the same song you can find - remember, the people who have the time to post their transcriptions onto a tab site are not necessarily the most qualified to do so!).  But in general, there are lots of ways to learn more, no matter learning style.  Unfortunately there is no "silver bullet" book or site out there that has it all, so look around for something that looks fun, well-organized, and substantive and give it a shot.  Click here for a short list of some of my favorite books and sites.


Play music in a group setting as often as you can.

Students who play guitar with other musicians tend to progress much faster than those playing only on their own.  You can learn a lot from other players, and a little friendly competition helps too.  If your place of worship or school has a music group that has other guitar players in it, talk to them about sitting in on rehearsals.  Before going to your first practice, consider meeting up with one of the current guitarists so you can get a song list and start working through the material on your own.  We can work on the songs in our lessons too.  If there aren't any existing groups that you'd want to play with, find a friend or two and set up a weekly time that you can all get together and play.  It's fun, and you'll learn a lot!


Perform in front of people and record yourself playing as often as you can.

Nothing will motivate you to practice and become better than the idea of performing a song in front of other people, even if it's just your family or friends.  Take that scary step and give it a shot!  You'll be a much better player because of it.  Recordings or video of yourself playing will help you identify things you can improve, especially tempo fluctuations and (in the case of video) stage presence.


Record your song ideas.

I wish someone would've told me this when I first started.  I often wonder how many ideas I lost in my first few years of playing.  It's almost impossible to recapture the magical moment when you come up with a cool idea.  You may say to yourself, "Oh, I'll totally remember this one - it's so cool, how could I not?"  But then the next day, although you may remember part of it, it just won't have that same emotional power to it and your mind won't be in the same place it was yesterday, so writing variations on the idea will be tougher.  Make sure you have an easy-to-use recorder (like your phone, a cheap cassette recorder, or digital memo recorder) so you won't lose your best ideas when inspiration strikes.  As you become a better musician, your ideas will get better and better too.  I've been recording my song ideas, no matter how short the idea, since high school.  I have a playlist in iTunes called my "melody orphanage" (i got the name from Daniel Lanois, an amazing guitarist and producer) full of musical ideas that I haven't used yet.  I can pull from if I have to write a song fast - kind of like a stocked pond for a fisherman.  I give each idea a name that is as descriptive as possible like "funky E blues bass line" or "fast latin horn section hook" so that I can quickly find what i need.  Sometimes an idea from 10 years ago ends up being just the chorus idea I need for a new song.  One other piece of advice for songwriters (from Bob Dylan) is to try to write as much of the song as possible, and try to finish it if you have the time, on the same day that inspiration first strikes.  You'll be much more likely to finish the song, and it'll be much more likely to be good.

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