As a former engineer, I constantly ask myself: “What is the best way to learn guitar?” (or for me currently it’s “What is the best or most efficient way learn jazz?”. This is especially true since I went back to college at age 36 to study jazz guitar. With pretty good technique from being an 80’s shredder, and with a good work ethic (from Master’s Degree in Engineering, and Diploma in Object-Oriented Programming) people were telling me I’d have no problem learning jazz – I just needed to “learn the theory” since I already had the chops. Boy was this a wrong assumption!
In Classical music, in which I don’t claim to be an expert, musicians spend a lot of time playing songs. These are scores by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Paganini, etc and these composers usually have written many etudes. This means ‘study’ in English and provides a means to develop one’s chops, but in a musical manner. Sure these musicians also practices their scales. When you go to see a classical concert, the performer has undoubtedly spent countless hours playing and replaying the piece until it is up to speed and perfect. While no one really understands how learning works exactly in the brain, the usual comments are that this practice builds up muscle memory in the hands and head. I doubt any musician could play a challenging piece at full speed the first time it is placed in front of them. There are stories of famous jazz musicians who couldn’t solo over songs like Giant Steps at first because of the unusual chord progressions – these are people who were excellent musicians, knew all their scales and theory but were frozen. I view improvisation and the spontaneous combination of pre-rehearsed ideas, not as mysterious as many artists would like to project. Even Charlie Parker was quoted as saying “Learn the changes, then forget ’em”. I interpret this to mean “learn what works over the progressions, get them into your ears so that you hear them and reproduce them without much thinking”.
When I think back to how I learned guitar, I spent most of my time trying to learn songs. This was because I was inspired after hearing a song. I needed to be able to play that tune! The challenge was that often these songs were so far beyond my technical ability at the time. And they usually incorporated way too many techniques in just one solo – bends, slides, hammer ons, pull-offs, two-hand tapping, sweep arpeggios, economy picking, legato playing, pinch harmonics, you name it! When this happened I had to isolate the issue (sweep picking) and get this working before adding it back into the main song.
Music is a language – the way we learn a language is by imitation. Early on ,we learn words and phrases without really understanding what we’re saying, then we assimilate the information and eventually innovate or improvise in daily life when we speak sentences to each other. Learning a style of music like rock or jazz should be the same way. Most of us never learned all the technicalities of the english language but we picked it up by listening, reading, speaking and making mistakes and being correct by our parents or teachers. Learning music should be the same.
There are many components to being a well rounded, professional musician, especially when improvisation is required. You need to learn scales, intervals, triads, arpeggios, chords, sight reading and ear training to name a few. These things as practice items themselves should be a smaller percentage of your overall practice time (say 20%). You need to have at least the basics down -such as the ability to alternate pick, hammer on, pull off, chords, etc. (If you’re a beginner, check out this excellent guitar course). I had top marks in courses like jazz theory, put in tons of practice time, but still wasn’t happy with my improvisation ability. Most times it felt like a deer in the headlights.
I recently was lucky enough to find Jazz Sax Etudes by Greg Fishman from Chicago. He teaches differently than most, using tunes to inspire and teach students, and focusing on the songs. His instructions are to first get the tunes up to full speed BEFORE diving into all the theory.
So in summary, my point is that the best way to learn guitar in any style is by learning songs you love. Songs you love will inspire you to keep practising and to get better. These songs will teach you the techniques you need to learn. Transcribe the songs, slow them down, buy a book to get the correct tab, do whatever you have to do to get the song down on paper. Remember that at slower speeds any song is playable by anyone! I use software called “Amazing Slow Downer” to slow down tunes and then I play along with the slowed down version. Play it slower at whatever speed you can play it perfectly, then slowly increase the speed until you have it at the actual tempo. If you have problems at speeds of 50% or less, isolate the problem areas until they match your ability with the rest of song.