Getting to the Next Stage with the Guitar


Guitar is an easy instrument to learn.

Or maybe not. It depends how far you want to go with it.

Lots of new guitar players learn two or three chords along with a basic strum pattern, and are playing along with simple songs after just a week or two of practice. This is what I will call the “Play Along” Stage or (Stage 1) in this article.

I know. I did it. And I’ve seen many others do it too.

Learn a little bit about the guitar and you’ll be able to “play along”. You’ll be able to accompany yourself in a basic sort of way, or maybe even play while the group gathered around the campfire sings “Blowin’In the Wind” or “Michael Row the Boat Ashore.”

That is one of the cool things about the guitar. In fact, it is one of the things that sets the guitar apart from other instruments like the violin, saxophone, or even piano. You don’t play chords on the violin or saxophone, and you can’t take the piano with you to the campfire. At least not without a fair bit of hassle.

Limitations of the Play Along Stage

When you do this – learn two or three chords, and a basic strum pattern – you will pretty soon find out how much you don’t know about the guitar. Your chords only work for two or three songs, and you’ll have no idea how to learn more.

This is when a lot of beginners stop trying to play the guitar. They calculate that the work required to become a better, smarter, more versatile player is just not worth the effort. “Let somebody else play for the group around the campfire. Why do we need a guitar anyway?”

That is unfortunate, because it’s just the time they’re ready to move past the raw beginner stage into Stage 2 of “Real” Guitar Playing.

Getting to Stage 2

I’m going to stick my neck out and say, there are two basic reasons that getting to Stage 2 is so difficult.

The first is that when you take that second step – after your initial success at “playing along” – the stuff you try to do is too complicated and you try to do too much, too fast. You may not realize it, but the techniques and riffs those youtube gurus are trying to show you how to play are often too difficult for a Stage 1-trying-to-become-a Stage-2 guitar player. They don’t tell you but they themselves have spent years playing the guitar, and often have studied the formal music theory they often say you don’t need.

The second is that guitar teachers usually do not present a systematic way to overcome (or avoid) the complexity of guitar playing. They talk like they do, but the comments on guitar forums tell a different story. They are littered with comments from people (mostly older men like me) who have tried different courses of study only to find them ineffective.

The simple fact is that music is complicated, and the guitar takes this complexity and in some ways makes it worse. This is not unusual for musical instruments. Most of them look and act completely foreign to the uninitiated.

But once you get a bit of exposure to the guitar you realize you have a lot to learn to become any good at playing it. There’s the physical or “mechanical” side of it of course – making your fingers go where they’re supposed to go. But beyond that there is coming to grips with the totally weird nature of music itself: rhythm, notes, chords, sharps and flats, keys and scales, major and minor, etc., etc.

The new musician who wants to jump from Stage 1 (the “Play Along” stage) where you play 5 or 6 chords, to Stage 2 where, for example, you find yourself in a band environment, is confronted with a massive mish mash of new things to learn. It is just too much all at once. In reality it takes years to master it all.

The “One Key Strategy”

One area of complexity encountered by the Stage 1-trying-to-become-a Stage-2 guitar player arises from the fact that music can be written (and played) in 12 different keys. This creates a massive amount of complexity for all students, not to mention newish ones. It makes it difficult to progress if you’re constantly having to say: “OK, let’s try that in a couple of different keys now.”

From the outsider’s point of view, these different keys basically mean nothing. And the biggest reason they are so important to the new student is because their teacher says so. Sure they become an issue, eventually. But right here, right now when you’re trying to learn some important fundamentals? Really?

What I’m driving at is that one promising possibility for simplifying the mish mash is to cut down the number of keys you play in at this stage of your journey. Working in just one key is enough to demonstrate many, many techniques, and is a significantly more productive, easier and more efficient way to illustrate concepts that can be later applied to other keys.

I am NOT saying other keys don’t matter!

It has to be emphasized that the One Key Strategy is only meant as a strategy to get you into and past Stage 2 of your guitar experience. If you think of the Raw Beginner stage as Stage 1, Stage 2 is when you start learning about your instrument in a deeper way. The One Key Strategy is a specific, clearly defined way of approaching Stage 2.

To put it another way, the One Key Strategy is not meant as the one and only way to move you to a more advanced level. Rather, it is meant as a replacement for other beginner approaches – the kind that encourage you to learn 5 different major and minor scales, 20 or 30 “most important chords”, and give you a taste of playing songs and exercises in 3 or 4 (or more) different “essential” keys.

The purpose of the One Key Strategy is simply to move you to Stage 2 by exposing you to a more in-depth look at just one key. The fact that you are focusing your attention on just one key means that you can approach it in a much more intensive way. You can spend your time and energy learning things about note positions, scales and arpeggios, alternative chord shapes and much more. As as result, you will learn things about your instrument that a more traditional approach won’t give you until much later.

This is not a magic solution. You will still have to put in the time, practice a lot, memorize stuff, and use your head to figure out how your knowledge applies to other keys.

But just imagine how this will free you up to learn more advanced information and techniques if you don’t constantly have to say to yourself, “Now, what key am I playing in?”

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