Do I have to read music?

A new pupil asked me this question.

The short answer is no. Many fine guitarists do very well without reading music.

There are options  to learn without reading standard notation: good observation, good listening, chord windows and good old guitar tabs. There are also plenty free videos out there on web-sites which help people learn without the need to read music. Do I make use of all of the above -of course of I do!

Can I read music -yes!      Do I insist other people learn to read music -no!

Do I recommend other people learn to read music -yes!

My own experience of playing the guitar and music generally was transformed when I learned how to read standard notation combined with a bit of music theory. It was as though everything became quicker to learn and the musical universe expanded for me.

(If you want to play classical guitar you will struggle if you can’t read standard notation, and this is one aspect of my own teaching where I insist students do learn to read music.)

My only regret is that I waited until I was into middle age before I stopped avoiding the issue and got on with it.

Did I find it easy? Some of it was very easy, but I have to admit I found some parts of it  a little confusing  at first and was glad I had someone to go to who helped me make sense of it all.

So that’s were I stand on reading music, but I stress this is based purely on my own experience.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Structured Practice Brings Improvement

I’ve had a number of discussions in recent months with experienced guitarists who say they play regularly but don’t seem to improve, so they want to take some lessons.

Naturally I’m pleased about this because my business depends upon well motivated people coming to the studio. What I find interesting is that their lack of progress is nothing to do with their ability to develop as guitarists and all round musicians; and their experiences resonate with my own.

My own problem in my younger years was that I picked up my guitar and played it in a passive relaxed way. What’s wrong with that?  Well nothing is wrong with that if you just want to relax  and let your mind wander. Improvement can still take place but it happens in a hap-hazard kind of way, and somewhere along the line progress slows down until you hit a wall. It’s at this stage many people seem to stagnate and for some it is dispiriting because the satisfaction and joy that comes with genuine improvement is gone.

Some folks actually stop playing. I know this because it happened to me in my early twenties, and a twenty year hiatus began where my guitar gathered dust in a corner. The odd thing was that from time to time I would look at it and sigh, then find ways to rationalise why I wasn’t playing anymore. I still puzzle over this behaviour, but somewhere in there was a desire to play and I suspect the frustration was that I didn’t know how to improve.

I suppose at some point my background in education and training plus my love of music came together. I had an understanding of the processes that go into effective learning and when I finally did pick up the guitar again I was better equipped to move forward. Yet I still found that I spent a lot of time in what one of my students describes as “noodling around”. Again I emphasise there is nothing wrong with this, but don’t expect to make rapid progress.

I eventually took the plunge and found a teacher. He put more structure into my practice by making me focus upon specific exercises and pieces which stretched my abilities. Improvement happened rapidly at first and then in steady increments over a period of years. Motivation came from doing, satisfaction came through measured improvement. Reluctantly I also took exams and this added a further layer, in my own case I also finally admitted that this love of the guitar and music generally was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life and it led to an “eleventh hour” decision to change the focus of my working life.

Now I’m not saying that’s how it will be for everyone, but I do believe that if you practice with specific targets in mind and make it a conscious effort rather than a passive period of relaxation -you will make more progress.

Do you need a teacher? I don’t know-it depends what type of person you are, but for many of us a little external motivation helps keep us focussed on what we really want to achieve.

So think about how you structure your practice and make sure that at least for some of the time you focus on the things you want to work on in your playing. Because it isn’t about the quantity of practice you do, it’s the quality you put into it that really matters and having a structure will enhance that quality…and you will improve.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Buying The Right Guitar-Some Basics

Some time ago a young student  arrived at my studio for her first lesson with a  new guitar an uncle had bought  her as a surprise birthday present. It was an inexpensive model and there was nothing wrong with it as a starter instrument…except that in proportion to her size it was like an adult trying to hold  and play a double bass as if it was a guitar.

Diplomatically, I pointed out that she needed to grow a little before it would be the perfect size  for her. The parent and the child were a little put out, but I keep a three quarter sized guitar in my studio  and when I let her try it, they both agreed it was much closer to her requirements.

The parent was happy to go away armed with a couple of recommended guitar shops (sadly I’m not on commission). I gave some additional advice about what to look for and cautioned the parent, not to pay too much for a first instrument. They reappeared a week later with something more satisfactory.

When you buy a guitar I still think it is best to see it, handle it and get the feel of the instrument before you part with any hard earned cash. I  know many people (including myself after careful research)who have bought instruments on-line with good results, but photographs and reviews can only convey a limited amount of information. That said, I do think the quality of guitars has become more consistent in recent years, and you get better value for your money at the “starter” end of the market than I would have expected in my younger days.

If you are buying for a child, the guitar needs to be the appropriate size, so the youngster can hold it correctly, and use the fretboard without strain on their growing hands. There is enough to ponder and assimilate when you start playing a musical instrument, and the last thing you need is to turn the process into a balancing act.

Guitars commonly come in half size, three quarter size, and full size. You can also get them as seven eighth instruments, there may be other sizes as instrument manufacturing is evolving all the time.

Other than that the range of instruments is vast. It depends upon the type of music and sound you want to produce.

Set yourself a realistic budget, don’t pay too much if it’s your first instrument, and go somewhere that has no problem letting you try out a range of guitars. A good dealer won’t hurry you, try to blind you with too much technical detail, or  foist something upon you beyond your budget or experience.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

“Learning Guitar -Lifestyle Issues”

To get value from your guitar lessons you have to set aside time to practice between lessons. Many students ask -how much time? My response is it depends where it fits into your lifestyle, but a short period everyday is likely to yield better results than a long evening once a week.

I ask parents not to make their children’s practice a heavy chore, but,if they are to improve, some time -even a few minutes -is needed most days. I understand there are other priorities to fit in such as homework and other activities, but try to ensure the guitar practice doesn’t get lost amidst everything else in the child’s often hectic and packed lifestyle.

The issue of practice and lifestyle applies equally to adults. The biggest problem many working adults have is fitting time for the guitar into their own schedules. Students who stop taking lessons really do want to learn , but work and other priorities become so engulfing -they don’t practice and when improvement is slower than expected they become frustrated.

This is ironic because many tell me they want to learn an instrument to take them away from the stress they feel in their job. The advice I offer(and this does work)) is to make appointments with yourself and put practice time in the diary. Treat this appointment like any other work or life commitment. Keep the appointment with yourself short and you’ll find a few minutes focussed effort on most days will bring about gradual improvement.

The amount of time you can commit to practice varies from person to person. Someone who has retired will find it easier to schedule blocks of time than someone in a full time job. The time you can devote or are prepared to devote will depend upon where you see your playing fitting into your lifestyle and where the priorities sit at any one time.

I originally took up guitar to have a diversion from my work; there were periods when I had enough time available for considerable practice, but sometimes it became difficult to follow a practice regime which lasted more than a few minutes. Eventually I realised music was more important to me than the work I was doing, so in the end I studied and practised for examinations and made a late career change.

Another lifestyle factor to consider is not the quantity of practice you can do but the quality of practice in each session. Some years ago I made the mistake of commiting to a fairly advanced grade examination at a time I was working long hours and doing a considerable amount of travelling.

When I arrived home in an evening I dutifully committed time ;to practice for the examination, but the usual magic didn’t happen. In fact I seemed to be getting worse, I think my teacher had reservations about my exam entry, but I have a stubborn streak and kept on. My pieces were not at the standard I wanted them to be, but I convinced myself that I was good enough to pass if all went smoothly on the exam day. It didn’t go smoothly -I failed -only by a whisker but it was a blow to my confidence.

The problem wasn’t the exam or my abilty, it was simply that the quality of my practice had been poor. I was tired and instead of enjoying it as a release from the day – it became another stressful burden. With hindsight I should have put the exam back a few months and been more realistic about the quality of my practice.

In the long term it proved a valuable experience and I think it helped me to become a better teacher coach and mentor to different students. But at the time the failure hurt.

So if you are thinking about taking lessons ask yourself what time you can you realistically give to quality practice. You may love the idea of learning to play but think where it fits into your own , or perhaps your children’s overall lifestyle before you commit to taking lessons.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Am I too old to start now?

I often meet people who are approaching retirement or have been retired some time who say they’d love to learn to play the guitar.

“So what’s stopping you?” Iask.

“Oh I’m probably too old now” they often reply.

Now for me this suggests a couple of things are going on in their heads. Either they like the idea of playing the guitar -but it is just that -an idea they like – or they’ve really have bought into the idea that after a certain age you can forget learning a new skill, …and that is pure tosh.

Some of the best guitar students are older beginners. Provided they have the desire to learn and are prepared to put in the practice time and work through the frustrations of not being able to do something immediately, most people surprise themselves at the progress which can be made.

Indeed people who are retired usually make excellent students because they tend to have more control on their time than someone in a job or in education. I suggest it is more a question of deciding what you want to achieve as a guitarist, which is the question I tend to ask people contemplating lessons. I can then advise on the best route for them to take.

The first step, however, is to make the decision to learn. You’ll make that decision whatever your age if you really want to.

And to echo the words of Henry Ford “either you think you can or think you can’t;  either way you will be right”.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Practice Time

It’s a funny thing but I can usually tell within a few weeks if someone is going to really progress with their playing. It hinges on what’s happening between lessons. Now to be fair to a lot of folks, the problem is not whether they want to play a guitar (rather than just own one) it’s how practice fits into everything else that’s going on around them. The ones that really want to progress schedule some practice time on most days. I’m not saying practice needs to be your main priority every day, but you do need to make a regular “appointment” with yourself and try to stick to that.

Some people have a tendency to have one big practice session, often on the day before their lesson is due. However, in my experience both as a teacher and student of the guitar, the principle of “little and often” works best.

So to practice well, look at it in the context of your life -what other commitments do you have? Then make a realistic assessment of what time you can devote to your playing (preferably each day and at a time you feel alert)-and above all make sure you don’t try to crush your practice all into one session. Five minutes alert practice everyday will probably yield better results than a long evening’s slog, after a hard day’s work once a week.

Make sure you concentrate on what you are doing when you practice. If your mind wanders it can cause problems because you continue to learn. Unfortunately, you may learn incorrectly because the “muscle memory” develops unhelpful playing habits which may need to be rectified at a later date. The result is slower progress and frustration.

So to conclude:

  1. Be realistic about the time you can give to practice.
  2. Schedule a little time on a frequent basis.
  3.  When you practice be alert and aware of what you are doing.
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

How long does it take to learn to play guitar?

I got a phone call today asking this question.

My response is that it depends what you want to do. It can take a few minutes to learn a couple of simple chords and strum a simple accompaniment to a tune or a song, and if that’s all you want -then it’s job done.

However, the other side of the coin is that you never “learn” how to play the guitar, because the more you study and practice the instrument, the more you realise there is always something new to explore.

For those of us who seriously have the guitar bug, learning becomes a life sentence, but if you love the instrument, in its many forms, it is a light yoke to bear and every new challenge is something to relish.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment