Common Sensei – (or, The Myth of the Self-Taught Guitarist)

Guitar Sensei

“Music can teach you everything you need to know.”
– Philip Toshio Sudo, Zen Guitar

One day when I have absolutely nothing better to do, I would like to sit and ponder why it seems that certain questions seem to come in waves. For no apparent reason, seventy to eighty percent of the questions over a given time period will relate to a specific topic. Take this week’s column as an example. Since maybe mid-December, I have gotten a lot of emails asking about “the best way to learn.” Is it having a teacher? A certain book? A website that’s miles ahead of another website?

While those of you who’ve been loyal readers will know that my philosophy is usually “learn whatever you can from whatever source you are able to get your hands on,” there is, without doubt, more and more information available to the guitarist with each passing day. I, myself, am even dabbling in the idea of writing a book for the beginning guitarist (“dabbling” is the wrong word – it will get written. Published, though, is another matter…) to add to this eternally growing pile.

But exactly how you, the average beginning guitarist (or returning, advancing, whatever your situation may be), manages to sort through all of this “pile” may seem such an impossible task that you may just give up before you start. And I really wouldn’t blame you. What I’d like to do with you today is to look at many of your guitar instruction possibilities and to help you get a handle on what may or may not work for you. And just so that today’s column will not be totally paradox free, I will also show you how, if you are of the right frame of mind, can get all of it to work for you.

Think about this: What, exactly, does the term “self-taught” mean? Anyone, including me, who tells you that he or she is a self-taught guitarist is living a bit of a delusion. In all fairness, this is not intentional – we simply do not know how to better explain how we learned the instrument. But it is very safe to say that our learning how to play the guitar (or about music, for that matter) was not the individual accomplishment that “self-taught” literally describes, that is one without any outside source at all. Someone or something taught us how to tune the thing, how putting notes together in certain ways produced chords, all sorts of things like that.

You see, “self-taught” is usually short hand for “I learned without the formal use of a teacher, but I had a lot of help. From books, from friends, (and these days) from the internet. From watching and listening and then being able to put two and two together myself.” So if you only learn one thing from today, let it be this: Everyone got help of some kind in order to get to whatever level of playing ability he or she currently enjoys. And in order to reach whatever that next stage of development may be, more help is going to be needed.

What You Know And What You Need To Know

If you’ve read any of my previous columns, you’ll know what I’m going to say next. Before you can get anywhere, it’s usually a good idea to have an idea, any idea no matter how vague, as to where you want to go. This advice is the same whether you are a pure beginner or whether you have been playing for decades and want to up the ante a little bit.

And you also have to have a really good idea as to where you currently are. What do you already know? Do you have any previous musical background? Have you learned another instrument, even if it was clarinet waaaaaaayyyy back in the third grade? Can you read music? If not, would you like to be able to? What sort of music do you listen to? Why do you want to play the guitar? What kinds of music would you like to be able to play on the guitar? Do you have more interest in learning how to play on your own or do you want to be able to sit in with other musicians as well? Are you more concerned with your own enjoyment or do you want to make a career out of this (and these things are not mutually exclusive)? Which guitarists’ styles/sounds/songs most interest you? If you could play any one song or solo right here and now what would that be?

Before I agree to take on a new student, I insist that we talk over many of these questions. I truly don’t expect my prospective pupil to have a lot of answers, but I do hope that he or she has a few clues.

Please understand that these questions are not meant to be intimidating or to show you huge holes in your thought processes or anything like that. They are to get you thinking.

More than anything else, how you decide to proceed from this point is going to be a matter of your own personality. If you are first able to be honest with yourself about what you really want to do, then you should be able to start to take those steps that will get you closer to where you want to be.

And with so many available means of obtaining information, you’re bound to run into two distinct dangers: being overwhelmed or being paralyzed. Either you go scurrying around from one source to the next and never end up actually doing or learning anything or else you are spending so much time analyzing what you want to do that, again, you wind up not doing anything. So yeah, I guess you could also add that you could become paralyzed because you’ve been overwhelmed.

One last thing that you really have to realize is that this will be a series of both steps and leaps. Some people pick up some things quickly while others do not. And what exact things those are also vary from person to person. If you go into learning the guitar in full blown “all-American-everything-is-a-competition” mode, then you might as well hang it up now. You will not be happy. There will always be someone better than you are. Often much much much much better. If that sort of thing bugs you, then in all likelihood you will have a very difficult time enjoying either music or the actual process of learning. You may think that is a bit strong, but believe me, it is true.

Take A Good Look Around You

Seriously, I do mean that. If you are reading this column in the first place that means that you are on this website. You are at Guitar Noise at, right? Therefore, you are also one of the few people on this planet who is well enough off to have computer access. Oh, I know you might not consider yourself that way, but if you are capable of placing yourself outside of the center of the universe for even the briefest moment, you should have no trouble at all seeing this.

But, in all fairness, as students we do tend to focus pretty much on our own needs and desires. You’ll even note that all of the questions that I asked earlier were all pretty self involved. Yes, I hate to tell you, but this is another paradox and one that you do have to come to grips with. Teaching yourself actually requires you surrendering yourself to the mercy of the rest of the world until you are able to get your bearings, until you know enough to be able to stand upon your own two feet.

Paul and I have recently done a minor, yet important upgrade to these guitar column pages. If you go to the index, you will now find a Site Map which breaks down each and every article that I have written by subject matter. The whole purpose of this is to give you a place to start. Some kind of steps that you can take. And if you search around this site, you will find all sorts of help – anything from beginners’ chord charts to complex jazz theory. But you have to be the one who initiates the search. And, again, as long as you have even the faintest idea of what to look for, there’s so much here to help you.

But again, you see, we come to that point where you have to have a clue. If you are indeed a pure beginner (albeit one who does have a guitar), then the first thing you’ll want to do is know how to tune it. We have a page for that. Learning where the notes are on a guitar? That’s here. too. Chords? Piece of cake. Selection of lessons and/or songs with which to start? Guess what? That’s all on this website. And more than that, you’ll also find links to all sorts of other websites offering lessons and advice and virtually anything that the guitarist could possibly want.

But you do have to look for it. Or write to me and I will look it up in the search engine (that’s how I find it!) and send you back the appropriate @ddress. All I am saying is that if you have a bit of patience and are not one who is easily overwhelmed by sorting through information, then the internet will certainly give you a lot of good material to get you started on your way.

But it does have it’s problems. The main one being that even though it gives the impression of being an interactive media, that is truly not the case. There will be lag time between questions and answers. There will be site crashes and audio files, when they do exist, may be incompatible with your computer or just not work for some reason or other.

More importantly, you will have to become smart about your choices very quickly. What does that mean? Well, think about it. Anyone with access to a computer can write on the internet. And think about what it is like when you want some advice and you go “Ëśround and ask everybody. Is it all good? Do you take everything to heart? I don’t know about you, but I have read some things online (not just concerning guitars or music theory) that have made me laugh so hard at their inaccuracies that I would cry. As good a tool as the internet is, it is vital that you back up your learning with some other source.

See Hear

My first guitar teacher was a book, specifically The Songs of Paul Simon. It wasn’t even a “guitar” book because way back then (shortly after we switched from stone to paper), music books were pretty much all meant to be piano books with guitar chord diagrams thrown in for good measure (no pun intended). Once I learned how to form the chords I could play them in the appropriate places in the course of a song.

Now I had already learned to read music and knew enough about theory to figure out how to transpose (playing a song in Eb, for instance, in the key of D instead – much easier, take my word for it). The one thing the book couldn’t teach me was some of the playing tricks and techniques that Paul Simon used when he played. So while I could play the song, I certainly did not sound like he did on the records (big plastic round things we used to use to listen to music), but again, I have never been concerned about copying any player note by note.

Books nowadays are as numerous and as diverse as websites. You want to learn the blues? I could go to or and find fifty of them without working up a sweat. Or a video. Or a book that had a CD or cassette in order to give me audio confirmation of what I was reading.

How do I know where to start? Which one is going to work for me?

Now please understand, I don’t mean for this to sound as vague or as silly as it’s going to sound: I don’t know and it doesn’t really matter much which one I pick first because any and all of them will teach me something.

Again, think about this. All beginners books are going to teach the same things – what the notes are, where to find them on the guitar, how to form chords, maybe throw in a song or two that they either wrote themselves or is part of the public domain (avoiding copyright costs, you see). All scales books are going to contain scales and, if you’re lucky, maybe an explanation or two as to how to figure out a scale yourself. Books of “Great Rock Riffs” will be just that. “Eric Clapton for Guitarists” will be very much a book of Eric Clapton‘s solos tabbed out for the guitarist.

Say you wanted to buy a car. Or a guitar for that matter. Or a box of breakfast cereal. They are all essentially the same (four wheels and an engine, a block of wood with six strings, sugar and grain or grains). Which one you pick and buy is usually more a matter of your own desires than of the object itself.

I have shelves full of music books. This is how I got them (discounting any that were given as gifts): I walked into a music store and briefly looked through them. If what I saw interested me enough, then I bought it. If, upon getting it home and going through it, I found that I had bought something a bit beyond my capabilities, then I was delighted because then I would be indeed learning something. Notice that I said hard and not simple. I have never bought a book that was too simple because it’s pretty easy to see when I’m looking through it whether or not I already know the material. What was important was whether or not I got a taste of the writer’s itinerary. This is easily done by checking the table of contents or by looking at the lessons/exercises at various points in the book.

I do not own one book that has not taught me something. The only two downsides to any book, once again, are that you (a) do have to make some choices and to make the most of those choices and (b) you are again involved in a one sided conversation. There is plenty of giving and taking but it is all one way.

Some books contain CDs. Sometimes I think this is precisely why they (the CDs) were invented in the first place. Some people find them indispensable and some find them to be a hindrance. In general, and this is merely my opinion, I think that they tend to be more helpful for people on either end of the spectrum, and not for long for the majority of beginners. Intermediate and advanced guitarists will probably enjoy those CDs that are mixed so that you can basically create your own solos over a prearranged backing track.

Videos, like CDs, are usually limited in both appeal and usefulness. More often than not, they can only focus on a specific small area of a specific genre and that’s great if that is the only thing in which you happen to be interested.

But this does not mean in any way that they won’t do you any world of good. Sometimes you simply hit it off with a particular source. If someone hands you a video, CD or book, you should never turn it down. If you pick up one idea or one technique that was not already part of your repertoire, then it was certainly a worthwhile investment of your time.


Human beings come in more varieties than do books, CDs and videos. And, just to make things even more interesting, they are capable of being different every moment of every day (imagine a book having new chapters (or arranged in a new order) each time you opened the cover!). In addition to the knowledge they possess, teachers, like books, will have styles and individual manners of presenting that knowledge to their students.

Over on the Guitar Forum, there was an interesting discussion concerning whether or not guitar teachers were “certified.” You owe it to yourself to read the question and the answers from Jimmy Hudson and Dan Lasley:

Q: Could someone let me know if there is a certification for guitar instructors, and if not how would you go about finding a qualified instructor?

A (Jimmy Hudson): As far as guitar teacher certification, no they do not exist, personally I think they should under federal law because there are a lot of people teaching guitar that probably should not be. Now there is a national music teacher certification and each individual state has a teacher certification, however most guitar teachers are not members. A lot of it is because of cost, and honestly the only reason why you would want teacher certification is so you can teach in schools. The best way to find quality teachers is interviewing them, ask them if they have a music degree, if they teach full time, if they at least studied at a college. I have found that jazz and classical teachers are usually the best to learn from. You can also check, and have a list of teachers in your area and be able to read their resume. If they are serious teachers, that means they have put in some serious time learning and they are still learning. I learn something new everyday. Sometimes they don’t even have to have a degree – they might have the equivalent in work and or learning experiences. For instance, say John Doe does not have a degree, but he studied under Allan Holdsworth for ten years, that would be a knowledgeable teacher. If you do sign up with someone and the first question they ask is what song do you want to learn, that should be a serious red flag. Studying music is not about learning a whole bunch of songs. It is about learning the language of music so you can not only teach yourself songs, but also write your own songs in a way that makes sense.

A (Dan Lasley): In addition to Jimmy’s excellent points, I would suggest that references are good. Ask for permission to talk to a couple of the teacher’s students to get a feel for the teacher’s style and attitude. We’ve been lucky with our local private music school. The owner has an excellent perspective, and he has several teachers to choose form, so he can match your goals with a teachers skills and approach. If you have such a school near you, it might be worth checking out. Also, they tend to be a little cheaper per hour, cuz you go to them.

Quite a lot to keep in mind, huh? Well, let me also add my two cents worth to this discussion. And “discussion” is the key word here. You have to be able to enjoy a dialog with your teacher. Anyone can talk a good game but it is important that both teacher and student alike have to be able to listen.

This may sound funny, but your guitar teacher does not have to be the best player or the smartest theorist (otherwise there would only be one or two teachers in the world, right?). The important thing is that he or she is able to challenge and to motivate you. As the two of you journey along the paths of music, you have to trust your teacher to choose the routes according to your abilities, to point out the dangers and wonders along the way.

One common thread among all these: the good ones – teachers, books, websites, videos and CDs – will stay with you all your life. You will hear their influence each and every time you pick up the guitar.

Another great idea for the neophyte is to take a session or two of group beginner’s lessons. Many places, such as community colleges or adult learning centers or even music stores offer beginners lessons. Usually they run once a week for three to ten weeks (six seems to be the average) and you tend to get a good grasp of the very basics – chords, hand position, posture, strumming. With a good grasp of this knowledge it is then possible to get an idea as to where and how you want to progress. Since these classes are done in (relatively) small groups, It’s also a great way to meet and network with other people that you might have a chance to play with someday.

Learning By Doing

If I look back at all of the stuff that I’ve learned about the guitar, it might be safe to use the following generalization: my theory came from books and my technique came from people. This is not entirely true, but it is pretty close.

My playing skills improved each and every time I met and played with another musician; I usually learned at least one thing from just about every guitarist I’ve had the pleasure of jamming with.

But as much as I’d like to think that this is everyone’s experience, I know that it isn’t the case. You have to be in a receptive frame of mind in order to learn and, far too often, people come to play with the attitude of a hired gun – I’m going to show you my best stuff, hope that it’s enough and then walk back out. The thing is, even when you find yourself with someone of this nature, you can still do a lot of learning. Simply being able to watch someone else’s hand on the neck of the guitar or to listen to the strumming patterns and techniques he or she uses can prove invaluable. Using your eyes as well as your ears can help solve some of the guitar’s mysteries.

Integration and The Importance Of Tunnel Vision

If there is any one thing a “self-taught” guitarist has to have, it is a sense of how to make sense out of all of this. How does one look out over all this craziness and figure out how to play the guitar?

The first and most essential discipline is to develop a focus. You cannot learn everything at once, so it is up to you to narrow things down to a manageable level. If you are just starting out, then the things to work on are the very basics – chords, general theory, strumming. From there you can work on learning more chords (and also different chord voicings), finger-picking, maybe a walking bass line or two.

These steps will work regardless of your level of expertise. Last fall, for example, I bought a hollow-body electric guitar and decided that it was high time that I stopped being afraid of playing jazz. Having made this decision, I went out to several of my usual music store haunts and, after two weeks of thumbing through various books, tapes, CDs and videos, I bought three. The first is a beginner’s guide to jazz (full of chords and scales), then there’s an intermediate book of riffs (which for some reason are called “licks” in jazz), and finally a book/CD of standard jazz solos. The solos are written out in the book as lessons (in both notation and TAB) and the CD is mixed so that the solo is in one channel and the “accompaniment” is in the other. I flip from one source to the other seeing how it all fits together. In a perfect world, my next step would be to sign on with a teacher. Maybe by the summer…

And two other things that I do in order to learn: I go out to the jazz clubs and pay a lot of attention to what the guitarist is doing and I ask all sorts of questions of my friends that play jazz guitar. None of them live close enough to play with but, boy, the next time one is in town, look out!

The bottom line is that, with so many choices, literally at your fingertips, you have to take responsibility for where you go and what you do. There really are no wrong choices since you can always drop a book, CD or even a teacher and take up with another. Get all the info you can, gather all the advice you can from all the sources at your disposal.

As always, please feel free to write in with any questions, comments, concerns or topics you’d like to see covered in future columns. You can either drop off a note at the Guitar Forums or email me directly at [email protected].

Until next week…