getting started

Here are a few quick things you will need to know about before we get down to playing. If you've already been playing for awhile you probably won't need this, but if you're just beginning this will most likely answer a lot of questions, and get you on the right track from the beginning.

HOW SHOULD I HOLD MY GUITAR? There will be variations on this depending upon what kind of guitar you're playing, but the typical posture consists of holding your guitar on the leg that corresponds to your picking hand. I’m a righty, so I hold my guitar on my right thigh. I keep my back straight, and I keep my fretting arm positioned in such a way that my fingers point straight up towards the ceiling from underneath the neck. Your picking arm should be relaxed, with the heel of your hand positioned near the bridge if you’re playing an electric guitar. If you’re playing an acoustic guitar, try to keep your hand over the portion of the sound hole closest to the bridge.

HOW SHOULD I HOLD MY PICK? Hold your pick between your first finger (index finger) and thumb of your picking hand, with the pointy end of the pick aimed straight at the guitar. One thing that I am fairly militant about with my students is not having too much pick exposed. The reason for this is the more pick you have sticking out from your fingers the less control you're going to have. Hold it so that you can’t see more than 1/4" of the pick. Once you are holding your guitar and pick correctly, go ahead and pluck each open string a few times. Open means that your fretting hand isn’t doing anything. You’re just picking the strings as they are.

WHAT ARE THE NAMES OF THE STRINGS? From the fattest to the thinnest they are 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. By letter name they are E, A, D, G, B, E. An easy way to remember this is "Eddie Ate Dynamite Good Bye Eddie". Somewhat violent, but it seems to stick.

HOW MUCH SHOULD I PRACTICE? How good do you want to get? My ambitions were pretty lofty, so I practiced accordingly, often over six hours a day. Music and the guitar have been an obsession for me for most of my life, so it’s a labor of love. Clearly not everyone is going to have that motivation, but if you want to improve steadily, a steady diet of a half-hour a day, five days a week will be sufficient to make solid progress. As you get more advanced you may need to practice more in order to maintain what you've already got while you're still learning new stuff, but at first the half hour a day five days a week regimen should work fine. As time goes on your practice schedule should tailor itself according to your desire to improve.

HOW DO I PRACTICE? This is the real question. Someone who knows how to practice will get more done in a week than most people will in a year. Real practice is impossible unless you have a clear objective which means setting goals for yourself. If you want to make real progress you need to think about where you want to be in a week, in a month, in a year. I recommend keeping a list of things you want to accomplish, being sure to write down when you want to have them done. You'll find that when you do this your projects almost take on a life of their own. I admit that in my case some of the items on the list take a bit longer than the time frame I set for myself, but they get done. I’ve heard some say that setting impossible goals is effective, because even if you only make it halfway you’re still in great shape. I think this method works well for some folks, but could be discouraging for others.The important thing is to find something that works for you.

As for the day to day slugfest in the practice room, the best tip I can think of is to locate the things that need the work. This may seem obvious, but If you’re playing a particular piece well, except for bar 53, It doesn’t do you any good to practice starting on bar 1. You have to attack bar 53 like a pit-bull. When you can do it cold, play into it from bar 52. Then practice playing out of it into bar 54. Once you can do this fluidly, kick it from the top, and eventually the whole song will sound as good as the first 8 bars. This requires a great deal of patience, but pays dividends.

It’s difficult for most people to operate like this. I see it daily; people playing a piece beautifully until they get two-thirds of the way through before making a mistake, and starting over from the beginning, invariably making the exact same mistake. This process tends to repeat itself mercilessly. In the interest of disclosure, I still sometimes find myself engaging is this completely irrational behavior, hoping for a miracle. Unfortunately miracles do not breed consistency. The ultimate result of practice of this nature is reinforcement of bad technique. You get better and better at the beginning of the song, while nothing whatsoever is being done to improve the part that needs the love. You get better at playing it badly, which is stupid. While it’s certainly more fun to play the parts of a song that you can play well, but it gets you nowhere. Those troublesome portions of the song in question will literally never get better if you don’t isolate them. Be mindful of how much more fun it will be when you can play the whole song as well as you can play the first 8 bars. Doing this requires that you keep your ears open and be objective. Identify and isolate challenging sections and punish them with practice. Do this and you will have improved for that day. How far can you go if you practice like this every day?

WHY AREN'T I GETTING ANY BETTER? You are. Just like with physical exercise, or anything else you’re going to reach plateaus periodically where it seems like you’re not getting better and you’re wasting your time. Believe me when I say that with continued effort, and careful adherence to the concepts outlined in the answer to the previous question you will get better. All the hours and minutes that sometimes feel like they’re being wasted are like deposits in a bank account. Keep putting in the time and effort and you’ll eventually have forgotten all about whatever it is that was giving you so much trouble. Then you’ll be on to some other seemingly impossible nightmare of a task. Respond accordingly.

Remember as you go along that every little bit of progress is monumental! Be good to yourself, and savor the feeling you get when you see progress. The musicians I admire the most never stop learning and pushing themselves in new directions. They are very familiar with the psychological warfare of practice, otherwise they wouldn't be where they are. If you stick to this path you’re in very good company.

WHAT IF I'M LEFT HANDED? On this site I promise to refer to things in neutral terms in my explanations. In other words, instead of saying right hand and left hand I’ll refer to the picking-hand and fretting-hand. All diagrams will be drawn in the traditional fashion, because I don’t think I’d be doing you lefties any favors by getting you used to looking at diagrams drawn for you, only to send you out into the cold, cruel world of standard right-handed diagrams.

Keep these ideas in your mind and you're going to be in great shape. Now why don't you jump into
Lesson Two?