Throughout the years, I have taught all styles of guitar to all types of students. I love to give someone the knowledge and ability they need to pursue the kind of music they love, and to excel in playing that style of music on the guitar.
There are things that are the same about learning every style, and there are things that are different. For instance, all styles of guitar are played with the fingers! If you do not know how train the more than twenty-five muscles that move the fingers so that they gain strength, stretch, and coordination, you will have serious problems learning any style of guitar.
On the other hand, the things you need to know to be a hard rock player are vastly different than the things you must know to play the classical guitar. There are different skill sets for each style, and they dictate how much effort, and how much time it takes to learn and master each style of guitar.
I recently received a question from Jim, one of my readers about this topic of the skills involved in different guitar styles and it’s a question that deserves a thorough answer. Because there is so much confusion and simple lack of understanding about this subject, which is so important to many aspiring guitar players, I have written this guide to learning the various styles of guitar.
Here is Jim’s question…
When it comes to practice time, you have said a student should practice a minimum of twenty minutes, four times a week for a strum and sing player, and that three hours a day for a serious musician is necessary. You also said the necessary amount of practice time depends to some degree on the style of music the guitarist wants to play.
Can you share your thoughts on the relative degree of difficulty to play effectively (if not master) the different styles. I would assume classical would be the most difficult but how do the others rank in difficulty — country, Jazz, blues, etc. It would be fascinating to hear your thoughts.
The Background Facts of Learning Any Style
We need to realize that there are three parts to becoming a good guitar player in any style. They are:
- Learning how to practice effectively so that a full development of the muscles needed to play occurs over time. This will result in easy, relaxed, real control of the fingers no matter what they are playing. It also results in the ability to continuously improve throughout one’s life.
- Acquiring the tools you need for the style…Every style uses a particular set of scales, licks, chords, and special techniques
- Acquiring the practical, musical experience unique to that style, with which we learn how to use the tools to create music.
We must spend the right amount of time doing the right kind of thing and in the right kind of situations in order to master the tools of any style. And, of course, the final determining factor in how long it takes us to achieve real proficiency in a style is… you guessed it!… the quality of our practice!
If we do not know the proper approaches to teaching our fingers new skills, and guiding them along the necessary path from being ordinary human fingers to super-human guitar player fingers, well, all bets are off! In that case, we simply will not be able to learn and make progress in any style, and that is because all styles of guitar have one thing in common: they are played by having the fingers make coordinated movements which require varying degrees of stretch and strength on the strings of the guitar.
If we do not abide by the laws (and there are definite laws) of how muscles learn new movements, we will fail in any style of guitar. If we know them, we will succeed in any style. And so, in the foregoing discussion, we will make the further assumption that the player wishing to learn these styles does know how to practice correctly and effectively.
So, to sum up so far, the three requirements of success in any style are:
- Learn to practice correctly
- Learn the tools of the style
- Learn the musical aspects of the style
Since my book The Principles of Correct Practice for Guitar covers everything you need to know to become firmly established in correct, powerful guitar practice, we will go straight to the second requirement of learning any style of music on guitar…
Acquiring the Tools
The more complex the style, the more complex are the tools needed to create music in that style. What makes a style complex?
First and foremost, it is the scale, or scales which are used to create the music. A scale is the set of notes used to create the music we are playing. It is to a musician what a palette of colors is to a painter. If I am painting with a palette of only four colors, the limits of what I can do with those four colors will be defined by those possible choices, although if I am artistic, I will still create some amazing and compelling productions. However, if I add one or two more colors, my horizons will expand greatly.
And so it is with scales. Some scales are simpler; they have only five notes (the Pentatonic Scales used in blues/rock). Pop, jazz, and classical music use seven notes scales (the Diatonic Major and Minor Scales). Since chords are simply combinations of scale tones, these scales generate far more complex chords to learn. In addition, other notes are added to the basic major or minor scales, creating even more complex scales and arpeggios. Add to that all the inversions of each chord and arpeggio and you have a whole lot to learn if you are learning a style that actually uses all these tools. There is a lot more to the story, of course, but I am just trying to give you the general idea.
So, the time and effort spent acquiring the tools that you need to be a player of any style is proportionate to the number and complexity of the musical elements of that style. The other qualifying factors are going to be the number of specialized techniques employed by the style, and the sophistication of the musical aspects required to render the style appropriately.
Learning the Musical Aspects of a Style
When we pursue a style of guitar, we are entering into the particular artistic aesthetic associated with that style. For instance, if you want to play folk music on the guitar, you’d better be able to get into the headspace of the culture that gave birth to folk music. You’d better get your folky type attitude on when you are about to lay into We Shall Overcome on a folk guitar. It would be best not to put on your headbanging Metallica or Queensryche vibe, unless you want to scare the kumbaya out of your audience!
This is usually not a problem, because we tend to intuitively follow the musical style that reflects the qualities we possess, but it is good to keep these things in mind. I spent years studying jazz with some great and accomplished players. I wanted to learn the tools, and I’m very glad I did.
But, I tried to learn the musical aspects too. I tried to learn to improvise well and speak the language of jazz. Even though I admired those who could, I realized after awhile that I would never be very good at that, I just did not have that feeling inside of me, or even the desire to find it and nurture it with the necessary intensity. I remained a “dabbler” in that style.
I happen to believe we are born for different styles of guitar, although we can certainly mix and match to form our own flavor. I was born with classical sensibilities, and will be kind of a fish out of water in the serious pursuit of other styles.
No matter what style we pursue, we must cultivate the musical aesthetic of that style. If you wish to play folk, hang out with folkies and go to sing-a-longs. If you wish to rock, make sure to join a band, play lots of gigs, and most importantly, follow the advice of Jack Black in the movie School of Rock – get your attitude on and be ready to fight against “the man” for the rest of your life!
If you wish to be a classical player, spend lots of time being stuffy and serious (just kidding!) and if you want to play Jazz, well, be cool, jewel!
There is one other aspect of playing any style that helps determine how difficult that style is to master. This aspect is subtle, and rarely, if ever, mentioned…
Discrete Movements vs Repeated Patterns
One of the factors determining how difficult it is to master a style is the number of discrete movements used in the playing of the music of that style. What does this mean?
Some styles of music rely heavily on a rather limited set of movements that are repeated over and over, and perhaps modified slightly to create a large number of variations on that riff. A perfect example of this is blues. There are a rather small number of movements that are repeated constantly, changed slightly, and combined in endless ways to produce the actual licks a player will use.
This means that once that limited number of discrete movements is mastered, the keys to the style are yours; all you have to do at that point is increase your vocabulary of licks. However, if you have never really mastered those essential moves, you will have trouble with everything you play (unfortunately, this is the case with many players).
Some styles need a larger set of discrete movements to produce the music. Those styles will require more effort, in a technical direction, to learn. Classical guitar probably tops the list in terms of this consideration. I have played this style for almost forty years, and I am constantly saying to myself when I practice “hmmm, I don’t believe my fingers have ever done this before”. Because of the seemingly infinite number of musical situations in which I find myself as I play the classical repertoire, I am always needing to teach a new skill to my fingers rather than simply applying an old one.
We must keep in mind that there is still much work to do to become a master of a style that uses a more limited number of discrete movements, and a large number of repeated movement patterns. However, it is a different kind of work; it is the work of constantly expanding our knowledge base and vocabulary within the style, and also increasing our fluency in using our expanded vocabulary. For those in love with a particular style, this is usually not a problem, because listening to and playing the music they love is not something they find difficult to do!
Now that we understand the three requirements for success in any style of guitar – correct practice, the tools, and the musical aspects – and the importance of “discrete movement density” within a style, we are in a position to examine the requirements of the particular styles of guitar we find around us.
And we will do that in Part Two, stay tuned…!