Most people seek out a teacher because they feel they’ve learned as much as they can on their own. It’s something I hear from new students all the time. The challenge isn’t the desire to play, or even a commitment to practicing. The challenge is in knowing what to practice. We all want to make the most of the time we put in, and we want to know that we’re moving ourselves forward. A good teacher can help you focus in on your specific goals and challenges, and lay out an organized plan to meet them. You can do some of this work on your own as well, though.
A lot of what I do as a teacher is diagnostic, especially in the beginning. When I start with a new student, the first session always includes an evaluation or assessment. There are several big-picture elements this always includes. You can perform your own assessment as well, with or without the aid of a teacher. Here are three big areas I evaluate in a new student. It’s worth taking a personal inventory of these things yourself. Whether you then choose to take lessons or not, you’ll have a better idea of what to focus on.
1. Your physical relationship to the guitar
How comfortable are you when you play? Have you ever thought about how you sit when you practice? Do you ever practice standing up? How does sitting or standing affect your comfort level and fluidity? Most importantly, have you ever thought about what you feel in your body when you play? It’s very easy to be so focused on where you put your fingers that you fail to notice things like gripping the neck too hard or holding tension in your arms and shoulders. Good players are relaxed and fluid because their bodies are relaxed, just like good athletes. If you’ve never evaluated how the rest of your body responds to playing guitar, take a look in the mirror or record yourself on video. You might be surprised by what you see and feel.
2. Chord vocabulary
Even if you have very specific guitar goals, there are basic things that every player should know. I’m not talking about the self-taught artist that found a unique approach and style. There are world-famous musicians that just do what they do and can only play their own music. If that were you, of course, you wouldn’t be reading this.
What I’m calling the “core vocabulary” is the basic set of chords that most familiar songs use. This does include barre chords! You should be able to name and play all twelve major and minor chords in at least one place. Things like sevenths and suspended chords can fall into this area too, although some are much more common than others. But if your goal is to able to learn songs easily and effectively, having that vocabulary in place is essential. That also means understanding sharps and flats so that a Bb chord isn’t a dealbreaker when it shows up! And this last point leads directly to item 3.
3. Knowing the notes
I don’t mean that you need to learn to read. Reading is very helpful and I will always encourage it, but it’s not essential. However, knowing the notes in at least a basic way might be more important than you think. At the very least, you should know the notes on the bass strings so you can locate the barre chords. That knowledge gives you a foundation that will lead you to other chord forms around the neck.
Learning some scales (and the note names) in the open position is not only helpful for theory knowledge and for lead playing. Scales teach you about note relationships in a key, because each note of a scale has a distinctive sound. As you learn the note names and listen to the way they relate to one another, you also build your ability to learn new things. In the largest sense, “music theory” is not a theory at all but a set of relationships: physical relationships on the instrument and sonic, musical relationships. The more you can do to strengthen this connection, the more you open your learning potential.
These are obviously three large topics, but they’re meant to be. As I said at the beginning, they are part of a general assessment. Finding the specific gaps in your knowledge will help you (and your teacher, if you choose to work with one) identify what you need to work on. Obviously everyone’s specific goals and needs are different. But these are core elements of technique and vocabulary that apply across genres and will help make you into a confident, well-rounded player.
Once you’ve identified the areas you need to work on, also be sure to look at how you practice! See my earlier post on the subject for some tips.