Those who look to take shortcuts are criticised and considered lazy. Yet, to achieve mastery, we have to understand the most efficient way of doing any task on the guitar – which is looking for shortcuts.
People often consider a shortcut to be the easy route. However, it can be more challenging to learn and master the most efficient way of moving our hands or learning a piece of music. As we progress through our journey of musical development and learning the guitar, we must consistently review how we play and learn to ensure it is the most efficient way we are learning it.
Looking at chords, instinctively, we wish to place our first finger in place then move the other fingers one at a time to get into position. Eventually, we can do this very quickly. Let us review this from an efficient point of view. The first or index finger is the most mobile. Why are we placing it first? Every time we place a finger, we reduce the mobility of the other fingers. Since the index is the most mobile, we place it last. So which finger should we place first? Logically, it should be the middle finger since it is the longest, then the ring and pinkie finger, then the first. The pinkie is the second most mobile finger, so it should be the second last.
Is this still the most efficient way of doing the chord change? Not really – going back to the statement “Every time we place a finger, we reduce the mobility of the other fingers”, should we be placing any fingers in place before the rest are in position? The best way is to move all the fingers together so each finger arrives at its destination simultaneously. We then squeeze all the fingers down together to form the chord.
We now have the shortcut, move all the fingers at once and squeeze them all in place together. No matter how quickly you can move your fingers independently, you will never achieve the fluidity or speed of moving them all together.
If, and it is a big if, we learn to do this with every chord change once we have the first few basic chords under our fingers, we automatically learn to do this with every new chord we learn. As a result, we significantly reduce the time we take to learn a chord well enough to play in a song. But, on the other hand, if we don’t take this extra effort to learn the most efficient playing methods, we slow up our learning for the rest of our journey.
To teach this is a tricky balance. To make the student feel they are progressing, we have to allow some element of the long route in their playing as it is more straightforward and more immediate rewards. However, at some point, we have to focus on the learning for the long term gain, which may only see rewards months to years down the line. Or, do we train the skills required separately and introduce them as necessary to speed up the process. Yet another shortcut?
Not something that came naturally to me was strumming correctly. I had played the guitar for about 20 years and hit a wall with my frustrating development, so I looked for a guitar tutor and went for lessons. I turned up for my first lesson with Ben Wright, and one of the first issues he highlighted was my strumming hand was poor. I went away confused as I had considered myself pretty good rhythmically and did some research and found that he was entirely correct. In all the information I had read about strumming and rhythm, the message had been there. I had just not picked up on it.
Swallowing my pride, I developed the rhythm playing as he and many others described, and after about two years, I had corrected this fault in my playing. Part of the issue was I had to unlearn every song I had ever learned and play everything differently, quite a task.
Now that I am a tutor, I do not wish anyone to have to go through this, so I encourage correct strumming hand motions from the start to develop a solid bass from which to build on. And in a statement, it is straightforward. The strumming hand must move continuously in time with the beat. The reality is that keeping that hand moving is one of the hardest things a beginner has to learn on the guitar.
The first steps are to move the hand down with every beat, missing the strings. From here, we progress to hitting the string on every beat. At this stage, almost everyone is successful. The next part is to hit the strings as we move the hand down and hit again on the up. At this point, a significant number struggle. Those that succeed try a chord changing without stopping the strumming hand, and almost every beginner cannot do this.
To learn how to strum correctly like this, we must feel the rhythm we are trying to play and internalise it. Once it is in our subconscious, we can start applying this rhythm while we play music and change chords. Unfortunately, humans struggle to learn more than one thing at a time. Therefore getting this correct has to be isolated from our attempts at learning songs and anything else our fretting hand may be doing. Going further, we have to feel the rhythm separate from getting a strumming hand missing and hitting the strings.
To this end, we clap the rhythm in time with our foot. We get the feel of how the rhythm sounds and clap how it feels till we can clap it without counting. Next, we get our hand moving down and up in time with our foot without hitting the strings. Say the rhythm out loud, then progress to hitting the strings to create the rhythm without changing the speed or timing of our rhythm
From this base, we can then progress to applying chords to play along with songs without the time-consuming task of unlearning the pauses we learned when stopping to change chords mid-song.
Learning how to transcribe songs is an art form that every aspiring guitarist should learn. It helps immensely with training your ear and provides excellent learning to how others approach music creation. However, before being at a level where we can do this, we have to rely on others to write out the music to play rather than just learning exercises.
As a teacher, I have to present materials that progress towards the end goal, not just the immediate gratification, hence the format that I use for transcribing songs. The transcribed song is presented to the student as a series of sections, not the complete article from start to finish. All the necessary information to play the whole song is there. The student then learns each section and puts it all together based on listening and playing with the music. I am not alone in this approach, as I see many articles and videos posted that teach songs in this manner.
There are three main advantages of this process.
Presenting transcribed songs in this manner does mean extra work. I cannot just go on the web and find a transcription and give it to the student. I have to listen to the song, learn each section, write it out in the above format. However, the benefit to my students is massive, and as any guitar teacher out there will tell you, if you don't have that passion for helping others learn, there is no point in becoming a guitar teacher.
There are times when I do get stuck trying to work out a song. I then look at other transcriptions…
That is a topic for another day