Learn by playing songs
Ok so I'm somewhere between beginner and intermediate by my own standard. I've been messing around with a guitar for several years. I read on one of these learn guitar the best fastest method sites that the quickest way to improve is by playing songs, and not really bothering with theory or learning the fretboard or anything else. I'd like to know who agrees with that.
I mostly agree with this, except that you can't help but learn a bit of theory and where notes are on the fretboard simply by paying attention to what you're doing. For example, if you're playing an Em chord, you can't help but notice that you're only fretting two strings, so figuring out the notes of an Em chord (E, G, and B) doesn't take all that much effort. Then, realizing that you've got to change the G to G# in order to make E major is an easy step from there.
It's very hard to not learn things about music while you're learning guitar...
Little late to the game here but although songs seem to be a good way of learning and they definitely are for learning technique. Make sure you don't just learn a handful of similar bands otherwise you will just end up mimicking them in the long run. Try make sure you get some exercise books as well to broaden your playing a bit as well as someone else mentioned making sure you learn the basic theory involved.
I've been a guitar teacher for a long time (next month it will be 40 years!). In that time I've taught thousands of people, many of whom became gigging guitarists, and at least three are currently making a living as guitar teachers themselves.
I disagree with the statement, because it confuses the "why" with the "how".
Songs are the why. We play to express ourselves, and we do that through songs. The majority of the time guitarists use songs as their primary means of expression, either by covering the songs of others or by writing their own. When we're using music to express ourselves through jamming with others, it's sort of spontaneous song: you still need some awareness of song structure if you're going to sound good.
The learning process is the how. Any given song requires some combination of knowledge and skills. You'll need to know how to fret specific chord shapes, or where to put your fingers on the fretboard. You'll need a sense of rhythm to make the changes at the proper time. If you're improvising, you'll need some idea of what notes are going to be "safe", and as you advance you'll want to have a reasonably good idea of what some melody will sound like before you play it.
There are many guitarists who learn solely by playing songs. Any given song will require some specific skills. If you set out to learn a song that has a chord you don't know, you'll look it up in a chord dictionary, or you'll watch someone else playing the song and pay attention to the fingerings they use. You'll practice the song, improving your timing and speed. So by learning the song, you are certainly going to acquire some skills and knowledge.
But to claim it's the quickest way to improve is bunk.
Each skill appears in thousands of songs - maybe in a different order, or having a different function in the tune, but if you learn skill X, you'll be seeing it again later when you learn song Y. The quickest way to improve is to know what skills are needed for the styles you want to play, follow a plan to develop them, and relate what you already know to each new tune you tackle.
You can get the first part (knowing what you need) by just learning songs: if you don't know a chord, strumming pattern, picking style, etc. you'll learn it as needed. You can get the second part (following a plan to get them) by repetition, although for some skills a bit of instruction or explanation wouldn't hurt.
It's the third part, relating what you know to a new song, that's essentially music theory and fretboard knowledge in a nutshell. Music theory gives labels to things. If you learn song A, and it has the chords C, Am, F, Dm and G7, knowing that those are the I, vi, IV, ii and V chords will allow you to play that song in other keys, or to relate the song structure to other songs and chord progressions. Knowing that the notes of a specific phrase are part of a pentatonic scale will let you learn similar phrases faster, write comparable phrases of your own, and "see" which notes might work well over a given set of chords when you improvise.
If you don't bother learning any theory or fretboard patterns/note names, each new song is a new challenge. If you DO learn some of the theory/fretboard stuff, each new song has some familiar elements that you recognize, and your learning curve will be shorter. Shorter learning curve = quicker progress.
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I say that both are very important.
The theory is great for learning and being aware of concepts that show up over and over again in songs. If you learn these, then it makes learning songs easier, as well as variating those songs to make new ideas for yourself, or to make an interesting cover of that song.
For instance, if a song uses accents in the rhythm on beats 2 & 3, you can variate the rhythm whilst keeping those accents, and make a cool variation that fits with the original rhythm.
Learning new songs, on the other hand, is good for learning other styles to your own. I say take ideas from all that inspire you, or as many as you can be bothered to learn, then create your own ideas using those as inspiration.
I think it also depends on how you find you like to develop as an artist. People learn in different ways, and you may be oriented/ strong in some learning areas than others. Like, you may be able to pick up songs very easily, and learn theory through reading books hard.
Take it or leave it, the shadow is always there.
Holding your hand.
With a glass of ice cold lemonade in the other.
Listening to reggae music.
What more do you want?
Both are important to me. You have to make sure to have a good grounding of theory, however, I think songs seem to be a huge aspect of keeping learning the guitar fun and actually a great way to track your progress or set goals you wish to achieve.
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I'd like to add that in addition to practice, which is what I call playing songs, there is also the method, which to me is the theory. I took some music theory courses in college, on top of playing piano for years as a youth, so I have some familiarity with sheet music, the circle of fifths, triads, and such.
To me, I find the shapes on the fingerboard key. There are certain root triads upon which I find knowing the root, third and fifth of any chord is the basis of forming any "enhanced" chord or note pattern. In the first example given in this thread by David Hodge, he mentions moving up the G to G# in the E chord structure to go from minor to major. All I need to know in this movable chord structure, is that the third of any triad is on the upper string, and from there I can determine major, minor, sus, etc. This works also for the A and D open chords, as they too, are movable forms.
There are other movable chord structures (the CAGED system spells them out), but I find the E, A and D the easiest to maneuver. Thus, I don't need to know the note name, but just the placement of it. Still, that method is based in theory, so knowing that a sus4 chord is a root with a perfect fourth and a root with a perfect fifth helps.
Duke Ellington said it best: "If it sounds good, it IS good!"