How did you first start learning the guitar? Perhaps you just started experimenting on your own, or decided to enrol in guitar lessons, or bought a book, or watched a video, or nowadays it seems you can just download an app.
All of these approaches to learning guitar are great, but they do not paint the full picture of a holistic guitar learning journey. Learning the guitar is such a multi-faceted experience that if you don’t limit yourself to just one or two approaches, you run the risk of becoming just a guitarist, and not a musician.
What do I mean by that? A guitarist is someone who can play the guitar, that big wooden box with six strings strung across it. It’s a physical activity. But just playing the guitar doesn’t necessarily make you a musician, at least not immediately a good one. Being a musician is much more than just your instrument, it is who you are as a person. A musician listens, understands, creates, communicates, influences, expresses, and embodies the art of creating beauty out of organised sound through your instrument.
Now I’m going to share five domains you should actively seek out and engage in to ensure you have a holistic guitar learning experience.
1) Technical skills
This one is pretty self-explanatory, and it’s likely the first domain you cover as you learn the guitar. After all, you need to physically play the guitar to exercise your musicianship. This includes physically playing chord shapes, scales, melodies, posture, fingerstyle, flatpicking, the list goes on. You can learn technical skills from a teacher, videos, books, and recordings. Now that was pretty obvious, let’s get to the second domain.
It’s not enough to just learn scales and chords, as a guitarist you apply these techniques into playing and performing songs. But it’s not just about learning songs, but having a library of songs, pieces, music that you have internalised. The nature of this library varies depending on your genre - a jazz guitarist needs to memorise many standards, a pop guitarist should have a grasp of signature guitar tunes, a fingerstyle guitarist should study and learn pieces from fingerstyle greats.
Even if you write original music, you cannot be an artist in a vacuum. Music is an ecosystem and you need to listen and learn from other artists, as other artists will likewise learn from you.
3) Theory (Explicit and Implicit)
Theory is to understand how music works, and you can gain this knowledge in a multitude of ways. But there are two types of theory that we need to examine - explicit and implicit.
Explicit refers to what you can commonly find in theory books and online courses - scales, chord voicings, how to organise rhythm, and so on. But implicit theory is much harder to grasp and teach.
Implicit theory refers to the rights and wrongs in playing music that are more subjective depending on the context in which it is played. In the context of western music, it could be the use of non-chord tones in a melody - sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t - and this can differ depending on who your listener is!
In the context of another musical culture, say South Indian classical music, the movement of one note to another is extremely precise, and it is practically impossible to notate this movement in a book. On top of that, what is considered an acceptable movement differs depending on the context and piece being performed.
All that is to say is that implicit theory is not something you can pick up from a book, or youtube videos alone. You can better understand implicit theory from being a part of a musical community, having a teacher or teachers, and peers to interact with musically.
4) Creativity and Expression
You can see we’re getting from more tangible domains to the intangible. How do you learn creativity and expression? For that matter, how do you teach it?
While having a good teacher helps, creativity comes from you. A teacher’s main role in this domain is to create an environment for your creativity to come through. In other words, to encourage the creativity that already lies within you.
The same goes for expression, the teacher can show you how to make a melody flow, sing, and make a piece evoke a certain emotion. But beyond that it is up to you to interpret it and convey that emotion in your music.
How do you go about developing creativity and expression then? It is to simply put yourself in musical environments - listen to music, and I mean really listen actively, not just have it play in the background while you cook - watch concerts, jam with friends, talk about music with others, spend time alone with music, think about music.
You get the idea - just immerse yourself in music.
5) Culture and Values
This last domain, culture and values, is perhaps the most overlooked one. Being a musician is not just about the music itself, it’s also about the cultural context that makes the music what it is.
Blues would not be blues if not for the people who created it and the trials they faced, pop wouldn’t be popular if not for the masses who listen to it, flamenco wouldn’t be the outpouring of passionate emotion it is if not for the social conditions that cultivated it.
Understanding the cultural context and values attached to the music you play is not just about reading a history book, although that helps, but it’s about being a part of that community or placing yourself within that community and absorbing it’s values through osmosis.
The best part is that it all comes around to improving your playing technique and musical expression in the end. As I study flamenco and carnatic music, I place myself within these local musical communities and it gives such a richer perspective to why the music sounds like it does, and I am better able to embody the essence of it, even as someone not native to these musical cultures.
I truly believe you will find your guitar learning journey so much more fulfilling, enjoyable, and holistic as you actively seek out these five domains to grow in.
What style of music do you play on the guitar? I’m excited to know what different guitar communities there are out there in this little community of mine here, so do leave a note in the comments below!
With that, I wish you all the best in your guitar learning journey.
By Neil Chan
The ideas and contents of this post are inspired by the book 'Facing The Music' by Huib Schippers.