Playing Guitar - Is It Natural Or Do You Have To Work At It?

By Tim Gillespie

New Players Think You Have To Read Music To Play Guitar. You Don't!Uncle Tim's Building Blocks

Nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact if you do not learn to play songs by reading musical notation, you really don't need it at all.

Although there are benefits to being able to read musical notation, most guitarists use tablature or plain old chord charts to learn songs.

Uncle Tim's First Year does include notation, but it features pictures and text because it makes it so easy. And you can use the information the same day, not later when you learn a new language, which notation is!

For $15, you can put this all to rest right now. Pick up a copy today.

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A while ago I saw a post on a newsgroup that suggested working on technique was not the answer and people should just play the songs they like. The thread even suggested that anything else will cause you to lose that certain sound that people identify with you. This is not the first discussion like this I have seen. It seems that more than a few people take the approach that practice time should be spent playing songs and not technique.

Anyone who has read my books knows how I feel about practice. Practice and technique are what sets up a guitarist for explosive growth. Songs by themselves are an avenue to better skills but coupled with technique a much stronger program can be developed.

Another twist on this line of reasoning is that theory is not necessary to learn, just play and hunt and peck until you find the right notes and it sounds good. I have heard people say that the great players didn't know theory, they had a natural ability to understand music. Theory was not important.

This view point suggest that theory is something other than what it is. That theory somehow gets in the way of music. In fact theory is the process and the guide lines. It is my opinion that anyone who can just sit down and play complicated jazz in an improv already knows theory. Even if they have never articulated the first law or rule. They just took a different path to understanding it and they may not have learned names for the different concepts. Just because they have not articulated what is happening, does not mean they don't understand it. They may not be able to explain it, but they understand it. You can hear it in their music. They can't produce high quality improvised music without knowing about keys and movement for example.

Theory is not just the names of musical concepts, it is a way of identifying like minded chords and describing results you get when you work with different musical elements. It is a description of music. Everything that happens in music can be traced back to theoretical concepts. There are several different ways of learning and understanding theory. The way we all hear about, is by taking a class or reading a book. Experience can also be the teacher and by playing you can become aware of theoretical concepts and how they work. But no matter how you go about learning, theory is still the workings behind the music.

For instance a person may not know that moving to the dominant chord from tonic is a strong move and together with the subdominant chord, they form the primary chords for a key. But a person may know that in the key of D major, G major and A major seem to be the strongest chords to move to and build a song around. Maybe they favor moving to the B minor chord then using the notes very close to D major to build tension and set up relieving it by ending on D major. A theorist may describe it as using primary and secondary chords to set up dissonant sounds which play against the natural progression and reinforce movement to tonic.

Both people know what they are doing, only they don't call it the same thing. You do not have to speak with sophistication to be sophisticated. You can work with big concepts and boil them down to produce the results you want without being able to identify all the component parts or even their names. But you are working with the elements just the same, and you are crafting a work, and you are using theory to do all of this. Even if your mind does not understand it, your ears do.

I have seen people grapple with understanding why something sounds so good without intentionally thinking about theory. They are still participating in theoretical matters.

I would be willing to bet that if a person does not work at the guitar, then the results will show it. If a person does not play long enough to understand the attraction of some chords to others, they will not progress with the instrument. Remember they may not even use names for chords but they can still struggle to understand them and eventually learn how to use them.

So should a person just play songs or should they develop technique and use exercises to be able to play songs better? I don't have the answer for everyone, but I do have the answers for me.

I have heard established, talented musicians tell singers not to practice because it will remove their certain sound and inflections. That they can work out all the nuances to a song but be left with a emotionless voice that has no signature.

This type of approach depends on the level of development currently in place. It seems to stress using what you have and not building anything else. I see the pitfalls they speak of, but if you practice and then put it down for a while, the results will show up later. For me creative sparks happen when I feel good, get over hand fatigue and come back to the instrument. Creativity is using what you know in a unique way.

I really don't think most of us are born with it, it is developed. There are always exceptions, but this seems to be a rule.

If you want to test how important theory is, try this. Go to alt.guitar.beginner and read the threads. You will find a core group of questions that keep coming up. You will see new guitarists struggle to understand the fundamental questions concerning basic music. Most of these people are new to the guitar and approach it from many different angles yet they arrive at the same questions. This pattern of questioning happens almost regardless of their personal situation. Why? Because theory and the answers to these questions are central to playing guitar. Not just understanding it but playing it. At least that is my opinion. What do you think?