The first guitar lessons of a new year always find me asking my students what their goals will be in the upcoming months. It’s nice to feel freshly inspired and to get our minds right in January.
Some of their goals will be stylistic (“I’d like to learn how to play blues better”), some will be technical (“I need some serious practice on my string bends”) and most will be repertoire (“This year I’m gonna learn the entire Led Zeppelin catalog note for note”).
Those three things are “big ticket items” to me; you can never go wrong with this approach and you’ll get lots of bang for your musical buck here. But there are a number of other, less obvious, things that you can resolve to learn as well.
With that in mind, I’ve put together a list of ideas to get you started – a dozen big and small ticket items, if you will. It’s a grab bag of stuff to inspire you and give you some clear direction in the months to come. And who wouldn’t want that?
So let’s make 2015 your best guitar year yet by resolving to pick up that 6-string more and do work.
1 – Finally Learn the Fretboard
This is easily the biggest issue I see with guitar students: they rarely commit to truly learning the fretboard. If this is you, then get after it in 2015. This one item – learned little by little over a period of months – will benefit you more than any other thing on this list. It will impact everything forever. Convinced?
Here are some links to get you started:
2 – Learn Stuff by Ear
Remember, this was the standard method for everyone before the age of the Internet and the power of YouTube: you either read sheet music or you learned it by ear. Most of the great rock, blues, folk, jazz and country players learned by ear, so why not you?
It’s an incredibly empowering thing to know that you can sit down with a recording and make some sense out of it without having anyone show you what to do. Start off easy, with basic chords and riffs, then work your way up to guitar solos. It’s addictive!
3 – Tighten Up Your Lead Guitar Technique
If your technique has you feeling limited – and most of the guitar world is feeling the same way – then resolve to blast through those plateaus and improve your chops.
The best way to do it is the classic method: pick something to work on, get an exercise or two, and set aside a small amount of time every day to hammer away at it. Consistency is the key to locking these fine motor skills into your muscle memory.
Some of the important stuff:
4 – Understand Your Capo
The capo is totally underrated by the average player – some misguided souls even call it “cheating” – even though it is totally useful and employed all the time by pro players. If you play acoustic guitar at all, I recommend that you learn to use a capo properly starting, well, today. It’s kind of a big deal.
There are specific strategies for capo use which require a certain understanding of the fretboard, because you really can’t have one without the other; they are interdependent. But since you’ve already committed to learning the fretboard, it’s all good, right?
5 – Make a Top Ten List of Songs, Riffs and Solos
You may have already seen one of my earliest articles which talked about learning entire songs and if it’s really necessary. Of course, the answer is “it depends”. But generally speaking, I wholeheartedly subscribe to the notion that songs are overrated and riffs rule.
Learning classic guitar riffs – and lots of them – will change your life. I love the diversity of techniques, which not only enhances your skills, but also keeps you interested and engaged. I have often used a book called Famous Guitar Intros, which I highly recommend if you’re just looking for a collection of short, classic riffs.
People are always looking for recommendations for guitar solos to learn. In my studio, there are classics that I suggest to students and some that have become popular requests. Here’s the list:
Making a list of songs is pretty self-explanatory: search your iTunes or CD collections, research the chord changes and go to work. A fantastic resource that I use all the time is the series of books called Guitar Tab White Pages.
Alternatively, you can go through some of the selections that my students and I have worked on over the years in Songs From the Guitar Studio
6 – Change Your Strings
The simplest and most practical way to get to know your instrument better is by changing your strings semi-regularly. Fresh strings typically mean better tuning and better feel. Plus they’re shiny. 🙂
Since I haven’t done my own lesson on string changing, I’ve linked below to a video by Dan Erlewine. Dan is one of the foremost experts on all things guitar repair and maintenance, so whatever he says is pretty much golden. This video is for acoustic guitars, but I’m sure he’s got an electric video somewhere on YouTube as well (although I didn’t link one here).
A couple bonus points I’ve learned over the years at no extra charge:
1 – Invest in the inexpensive Planet Waves Pro Winder, which is a string winder/bridge pin puller/wire cutter combo. Invaluable.
2 – Stretch your strings after you install them by manually pulling on them at the 12th fret. They will immediately go flat, so tune back up to pitch. Stretch again, tune again. Do this one string at a time as many times as necessary until the stretching does not cause any (or very minimal) flattening of the pitch. This could be as little as 2-3 passes or as many as 5-6.
3 – Coated strings are cool, as they prolong the life of the string by minimizing corrosion. But they feel slippery to some people (like me) and I don’t see a lot of pros playing them. Slippery strings may prove annoying when you’re trying to bend notes and they keep popping out from under your fingers. Just a word of caution. As always, experiment.
There are a handful of good, reputable brands but I’ve never used anything but D’Addario for the last two decades. Rock solid reliability with minimal breakage.
7 – Learn to Work Your Gear
In addition to learning to change strings, you should also make it a point to understand the details of your electric guitar. What do all the knobs do? What is the sound difference in the pickups?
Remember that you have volume and tone knobs, often routed to separate pickups. Refer to the manual or just experiment, but figure that part out.
Just as importantly, learn the sound associated with the positions of the pickup selector. Pro players constantly make use of this switch as it’s the easy and instant way to change your tone. Stratocaster owners will want to pay special attention to this, as Strats sport a 5-position switch (as opposed to the 3-position found on dual-humbucker guitars).
How about your amp? Do you know all the functions? A lot of inexperienced players don’t, especially ones with high-tech, programmable Line 6 gear. Spend some time with the manual and you’ll feel more confident.
My fave book on all things guitar, amp and pedal: Guitar Tone by Mitch Gallagher
This leads us to…
8 – Get a Few Great Books
I’m a believer in learning from great books. I know that this idea seems old-fashioned in this era of video everything, but even when I’ve got video at my disposal, I still opt for a book that I can open and close easily, mark up with a pencil, and carry with me from room to room. Call me old school, but I love me some great guitar books.
My favorite and most used “method” books include:
Soloing Strategies for Guitar by Tom Kolb. This is the go-to if you only get one. The best all-around lead book I’ve found.
Guitarist’s Guide to Scales Over Chords by Chad Johnson. I would rate this second only to Soloing Strategies.
Matt Smith’s Chop Shop is a very cool book with lots of practical ideas that I have
The Wolf Marshall 101 Must-Know Licks series offers a boatload of awesome rock, blues and jazz licks for building your vocabulary.
My favorite “process” books include:
Zen Guitar, a modern guitar classic by the late Philip Toshio Sudo. If you’re into the Zen thing, you’ll love this. I give this one as gifts to my students.
Mastery by George Leonard. Life-changing insights into learning any skill well.
9 – Play Along with Recordings
Playing along with recordings is fun and educational and it keeps you honest. And when you nail it – in tempo, in tune, and right along with your favorite player or band – it’s exhilarating. I’m always astounded by the number of students who don’t play along, which is why I’m recommending it to you here. Whatever medium you choose – CD’s, iTunes or YouTube – play along and you’ll improve in leaps and bounds.
If the song is too fast for you to keep up with, you can always grab an app that allows you to load a song and slow it down without changing the pitch. Anytune is probably the best app for this purpose, but I’m sure you can find others as well.
If the song is just too much for you to remember/organize, etc., simply attack it in chunks. Work on small sections and then string them together.
10 – Build Your Chord Vocabulary with “Other Music”
If we always play the same stuff, our chord vocabulary gets stale. The best way to increase our chord options and expose ourselves to a variety of chord progressions is to investigate music that is unlike what we currently play.
Since I’ve always had a very eclectic taste in music, this “other music” approach has been with me since I started. Some options to consider:
Piano-based music. JB’s choices: Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder and Steely Dan. All feature a combination of classic songwriting craft and jazzy progressions.
Soft rock often has interesting chord progressions to explore. You can check out any number of one-hit wonders from the 70’s, but honestly, I don’t know that you can improve upon the Bee Gees here. From their early- to mid-70’s pop-rock to the full-on disco and ballads of the Saturday Night Fever era, the chord progressions and riffs are killer. They’ll surprise you.
Motown, funk, r&b and even disco. These styles often feature the guitar as a piece of the rhythmic puzzle, rather than as the body of the rhythm section sound. JB’s choices: any classic Motown, Earth, Wind and Fire, Chic, Off the Wall and Thriller-era Michael Jackson.
Jazz. If you want to challenge yourself and really expand your vocabulary, jazz is the way to go. If you want to ease into it from the pop-rock side, start with Stevie Wonder and Steely Dan, as above. For a collection of standards, get the newest version of The Real Book and get to work.
11 – Stop Messing Around
I can’t tell you how many folks I hear from who say, “I’ve been playing for ____ years and I never really learned how to ________.” If that sounds familiar, now is the time to get after it. Whatever you’ve been putting off, resolve to just start learning it NOW. This is more about attitude than anything else.
Check out my series on being awesome, then go do it. No more excuses!
12 – Learn Some Basic Theory
You can definitely learn to play the guitar without knowing music theory. But a basic knowledge of theory is extremely helpful and can give you insight into why music sounds the way it does, why chord progressions are organized the way they are, etc. Bottom line: it will make you a better musician.
The theory in the following lessons is the most useful stuff you’ll need to know to understand the music you love at a deeper level. And it’s relatively painless, I promise. 🙂
Every one of these items will empower you tremendously as a guitarist. I hope you pick out a few and commit to improving your skills in those areas. When 2016 rolls around, you’ll look back and be happy you did.
Happy New Year!