Top Ten Barriers to Success with Guitar
Reasons You May Find Yourself in a Rut
By Chad Crawford
PMI Blues & Classic Rock Guitar Instructor
In this article I will address some of the reasons that many struggle with guitar over a period of years only to end up with disappointing results. This list is not a typical “top ten” type list with the most significant reason at the top. All of these factors are significant.
#1 – Improper physical technique. – Physical technique refers to all aspects of the way our body interacts with the guitar, from holding the guitar to the finer details of finger control. By default, the human machine is programmed to approach certain types of tasks in certain ways. The default programming is quite good for common tasks, but it is not fully developed for specialized tasks involving fine motor control. Aspiring guitarists tend to repeat the same handful of technique errors, such as gripping the guitar neck like a baseball bat and picking with a scooping motion. Improper physical technique can be forced with enough effort to get the job done up to a point. However, improper technique will make the job much harder than it has to be, and will ultimately impose a needless upper limit on peak performance.
#2 Ineffective practice routine. – If there is any “secret” to progress with guitar, it is this: practice. And yet, some kinds of practice can yield very minimal results. Why? Because of practicing the wrong things, the wrong way, in the wrong order. For instance … many is the bedroom guitar hero who will practice the bits and pieces of a dozen or two songs that he has been able to pick up with the least amount of effort, never bothering to learn the whole song. While this is actually better than not doing anything, it is not going to yield the mastery of various techniques and knowledge that is necessary to play complete songs and solos with fluency, and it will never lead to the thing that most of us covet – self expression. An effective practice routine involves a goal oriented approach to efficiently covering multiple areas that are relevant your playing goals.
#3 Lack of a clear plan. – Myrtle Beach is a popular vacation spot around here. Imagine setting out to Myrtle Beach with this plan: just start driving, and select turns based on hunches, tips from your passengers, and directions from equally lost drivers, until you arrive at Myrtle Beach. You might get there eventually, but even if you don’t get there, you will be closer than when you started. Right? Maybe. Maybe not. Most likely, you will give up before getting there. On the other hand, the aid of a map drawn by an expert cartographer will direct you to the most efficient route. You drive so many miles to such and such landmark and then turn. Go so many more miles to such and such landmark then turn again. Etc, Etc. Follow the landmarks and you will definitely reach your goal. Then you can maximize your enjoyable time at your destination. Guitar is no different. We do not get far without a good plan, consisting of measurable “landmarks” that are known to lead us to our final destination – being able to play as we want to play. Learning guitar is a process. It can be a very frustrating and fruitless process, or it can be a very rewarding process with predictable and measurable results. The difference is in effective planning.
#4 Isolation – Learning to make music is a long term endeavor, with ongoing challenges. Human nature is such that we tend to better bear burdens and savor victories when we share them with others. If you want to get the most out of your musical endeavors, it is critical to include a social aspect to your experience. Cultivate relationships with others who share your interest in music. When you are ready and able to play along with others, form a band or music oriented club and get together regularly for jam sessions. If you know of an existing friend who has also expressed an interest in guitar or some other complementary instrument (drums, keys, bass), see if you can cajole them into pursuing their passion along with you. Finally … seek out a good teacher. The built in accountability of a regular program of lessons will help keep you in the game, when you might have otherwise allowed yourself an extended break to the great detriment of your hard-won collection of skills.
#5 Trying to teach yourself. – Music is an art form, and as such it deals with using sound to achieve emotional effects. A well performed piece of music will look and sound like an effortless outpouring of emotion, similar to the way we express emotion through speech. However, music is in fact NOT an effortless means of communication that grows naturally out of our inherent human characteristics. Contrarily, communication through music requires highly developed mental and physical skills. It is not something that we easily just “pick up” by experimentation, the way we learned speech as toddlers. Few people would set out to teach themselves engineering or medicine. Yet many tend to feel that learning music is instinctive and will thus try to “teach” themselves. I will not go the extreme of suggesting that it is not possible to learn anything at all this way. However, this is certainly not the most effective way to achieve satisfying results in a minimal amount of time. I will admit with regrets to the fact that I tried this approach. When I met my first really good teacher years later, I deeply regretted not having the critical information early in my musical pursuits that my teacher revealed to me in a short time. I wasted a lot of years and effort that could have been put to much better use with exponentially better results if I had only known better. When it comes to music, the self taught method is a short cut to a diploma in frustration.
#6 Not following the instructions. – Whether the instructions come from a web site, videos series, or one on one lessons, I have observed that many (probably the majority) of students at the hobbyist level handicap themselves by not fully following the teacher’s recommendations. Rather, what people will do is try to pick out the easiest or most satisfying parts of the material and concentrate on those things to the neglect of others. Six months later, they have greatly improved in those few things, but we can not move forward because they are still at introductory level on the other things. Whereas, if they would just bite the bullet and do what I recommend, in six months they would not only be able to do a better job of the things that they enjoyed most, but would also realize some meaningful and helpful results from the other things that were not so immediately gratifying at first. Then we could move forward into new areas that will bring even greater results. The bottom line is … not following the teacher’s recommendations will greatly reduce one’s rate of progress.
#7 Confusing temporary barriers with “lack of talent”. – One of the great myths surrounding music is that you need a large measure of “natural talent” to be a good musician. Let’s not completely discount the fact that some folks do seem to have a greater measure of inherent ability in music than others. However, the truth is … these folks are rare. Most musicians by far achieve their goals through persistent effort. Some students of music feel that if it gets difficult, frustrating, or tedious that these things indicate a lack of natural ability that is essential to musical skills. This is simply wrong. All of us, even the very gifted ones, go through struggles with various aspects of building up our skills. We all reach plateaus where we seem to hang out for a while and can’t make any progress despite our best efforts. This is a normal part of the process. The key is not “natural talent”. The key is persistent effort.
# 8 Half-hearted commitment. – One thing is certain about learning guitar – you are either going to do it, or not. It is that simple. Regular practice is essential. There are no excuses that change this. The guitar is not going to try to help by playing itself because it knows you have had a busy week. There is no method, trick, short cut, secret, or expert teacher to get around it. Anyone who wants to be good with the guitar is going to have to make regular practice high on the priority list of things to get done throughout the week, for as long as it takes to achieve the desired results. I’m not making any value judgments about what is right and wrong for anyone to do with their time. I’m just stating the fact that with guitar, the level of achievement will follow the level of regular practice.
#9 Trying to bypass the basics. – I’m not a huge sports fan, but I believe I am correct in attributing to renowned football coach Bear Bryant the idea that having his players master the basics was the key to his long enduring success. This same principle applies to guitar. I have found that with some hobbyists from about age mid teens and up, there is a tendency to want advanced playing skills in a hurry. Accordingly they will often wish to bypass the basic and intermediate level skills and go straight to working on advanced songs or techniques. The results of this approach are predictable: frustration, poor skills across the board, and a guitar gathering dust in a corner. Advanced techniques depend on high levels of fine motor control. Development of fine motor control is a process that involves repetition of increasingly demanding tasks. Turning a beginner loose on advanced material is the equivalent of turning the proverbial bull loose in the china shop. Untrained hands are just not going to do things that they are not trained to do. The basics may not sound as pleasing as the advanced techniques, but the advanced techniques are the sum and outgrowth of the basics. If you want to play at an advanced level, master the basics.
#10 Aversion to music theory. – I can’t count the number of times I have heard the logical contradiction, “I don’t want to waste my time learning music theory. I just want to learn to play guitar”. That is equivalent to saying, “I want to be a football player, but I’m not interested in any running”. The old adage became an old adage because it is true: Knowledge is Power. Knowledge of music theory gives one the power to know how to achieve a desired effect before striking a note on the fretboard. While it is possible to figure things out by ear, and this is a desirable skill that is worthy of development, music theory gives one the power to hear a result in the mind before having to hear it on the guitar. Thus, it greatly reduces the amount of time to get a desired result – such as figuring out the chords or riffs of a specially loved song, or figuring out how to coax out of the guitar what we hear in our minds. Music theory is not nearly as tedious as some make it out to be (if you know the name of a single chord, you already know some music theory). Contrarily, it is the paint with which we musicians create our works of art and should properly be a subject of great interest to any aspiring musician. It is much more interesting if presented in relevant pieces as part of an overall approach to learning guitar.
Is your satisfaction with your guitar music hindered by weaknesses in one of more of these critical areas, or maybe you are just not sure what is limiting your results? I know how you feel ... the same way I did until I finally found a great teacher to provide the critical puzzle pieces I was missing. Do you want to get out of your frustrating rut sooner rather than later or never? Then click through to reserve a free introductory guitar lesson with the author.
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Copyright 2010 J. Chad Crawford
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