Myth 2: Knowing How to Read Music is Unnecessary for Guitarists

This is one of those statements which depends on the reasons why you are playing the guitar, and what you want to achieve from it.

For those guitarists who simply want to learn a few songs, either by ear or from TAB (or both) to play for their family, friends or in a covers band, learning how to read music is definitely not necessary. Even if your intention is to make albums and tour the world, as shown by many guitarists who do this, you don’t necessarily need to be able to read music.

All of these reasons are valid and if you are happy to play guitar for any, or all of the above reasons, that’s great, all the best to you. For those who want to teach, be a studio musician, a session musician for shows or new-music premieres, want to enrol in music courses, want work as a transcriber or music writer, or simply want to expand your knowledge in the field of music, knowing how to read, and for some careers, also write music, is very necessary.

  • For teachers the ability to read (and write) music enhances your skills; it will probably also give you a greater understanding of music theory. Besides, think of all the potential students who will go to other teachers to learn to read music because you can’t teach them.
  • A studio musician is generally required to be a very good sight-reader. Chances are you won’t even get a look in the door if you can’t read music.
  • Being a session musician comes in various guises. For some sessions you may get by using only your ears as a guide, for other sessions you will be expected to read. Consider this scenario: you are given a new score to premiere and all you have is the score, no recordings, no chance to improvise over a rhythm section, only the notes on the page. Either you’ll need a music-reading friend who is willing to teach you the notes, rhythms etc, or you’ll have to learn to read.
  • Most diploma or degree music courses require you to read and write music; not knowing how to may jeopardise your chances of being accepted.
  • If you want work as a transcriber or want to write a book or write articles for publication in magazines or journals, being able to read and write music is a necessity.

Knowing how to read and write music is like knowing how to read and write a language; it gives you a greater understanding of your subject because you can study and use more aspects of it. Don’t get me wrong, other skills, such as developing your ear, are also very necessary for musicians, however, on their own they may only get you so far – remember the new-work premiere example? Enhancing all aspects of your musicianship, including being able to read and write music, will give you more opportunities for work while also helping you become a well-rounded musician.

Myth 1: Knowing Too Much Music Theory Stifles Creativity

I want to begin to dispel a myth which still exists in the guitar community, that is: If you know too much music theory it stifles your creativity when composing or improvising.

Firstly, I think this myth may exist because people don’t fully understand the process which the majority of composers, and improvisors (improvisation is a form of composition) use. Many people seem to think that composers compose with a book of musical rules open in front of them, and are guided by these rules. It’s important to remember that throughout the history of music it was practice which generally preceded theory. In other words, composers composed what they heard in their head and were guided by their inspiration and the theory which they knew. This theory didn’t restrict their compositions; many innovations in music theory came as a result of composers following their inner ears (the development of the Harmonic and Melodic Minor scales for example). Learning theory means internalising theory so that it can be applied to actual music. For example, if a Jazz musician is improvising over a fast tempo tune where there is a change of chord every few beats do you think they are running all of the theoretical possibilities through their head as they play? They don’t have time for this. It is their inner ear which, through the internalisation of music theory, is guiding their inspiration and improvisation.

Even when a composer chooses to base a particular tune on a specific musical device, this device is internalised and it is the ear which guides the composition. For his tune, The Enigmatic, Joe Satriani chose to use the Enigmatic scale as a compositional beginning. I would suggest that Satriani would have catalogued all of the harmonic and melodic possibilities which this scale contains and internalised these sounds, it would have then been his ear which guided the tune’s creation; based on the sounds and theory of the Enigmatic scale.

Music theory can open your mind and ears to different possibilities, but remember, it must be connected to practise for it to have the most benefit.

Playing Fast – Is it a waste of time?

For many guitarists, the ability to play fast, or shred,  is seen as a necessity for attaining guitar mastery. Many who covet this skill spend hours and years perfecting alternate and sweep picking, three-note per string scales and other trademark techniques. But are these would be shredders wasting their time? is playing fast equal to playing without feeling? and is the ability to play fast on your guitar an unnecessary skill when viewed against the complete skill set of a well-rounded musician?

Before answering these questions I should mention that in many styles of music playing fast when required, is an accepted part of music making and musicians and fans of these styles typically give little thought to this aspect of the style.

So, are would be shredders wasting their time? and is the ability to play fast an unnecessary skill when viewed against the complete skill set of a well-rounded musician?

As a skill, acquiring the ability to play fast is not a waste of time. If this ability is elevated to a level where other aspects of musicianship are ignored, however, it can be.

As I stated at the beginning of this post, many people view this skill as the key to becoming a master guitarist, just look at how many Youtube videos headed ‘the best guitarist in the world’, or similar, feature guitarists shredding up and down the fretboard. Surely, the only aspect of guitar mastery which this indicates, is that of technique. On its own, however, technique is useless when not combined with other aspects of musicianship.

Perhaps, many of the guitarists on Youtube do possess these ‘other’ aspects. The danger for many beginners who see these videos, however, is that they focus only on acquiring speed and ignore other fundamentals of becoming a well rounded musician. This can be seen in many of the comments accompanying the videos where people ask, ‘where can I get the TAB for this?’. I have nothing against TAB when used in its correct context. Using it as the sole means of finding-the-notes, however, especially when these notes will then be used to practise playing fast, is a recipe for disaster.

The result of this single-focus practising can be seen and heard when a student intent on acquiring speed is asked to play over a progression, or a set of chord changes, or to identify the key of a piece of music, or identify an interval etc. Solely acquiring speed for its own sake only gives you the ability to play fast. If you don’t learn the other aspects of being a musician, or learn how to transfer the ‘musical information’ contained in the passages you are practising to other contexts, then you will be locked into a one-dimensional approach to playing the guitar.

I am not implying that all shredders are locked into this approach, I am simply cautioning against adopting a one-dimensional approach to guitar playing.

As for the question: is playing fast equal to playing without feeling? Firstly, how do you gauge if someone is playing with feeling? Typically, people seem to associate the ‘feeling’ of a performance with how it makes them feel, or how it connects with them. With this in mind, this question is a very personal one and therefore is very difficult to answer as everyone will have their own thoughts on the matter; which is probably why this topic has been polarising, and continues to polarise the guitar community.

Perhaps we should take our cue from the performers and fans of other styles of music, and accept speed as an integral part of music – an integral part which works with many other parts to create a complete piece of music.

5 Benefits of Learning a Second Instrument: A Guitarist’s Perspective.

Unlike many classical musicians who can play two or more instruments to a very high level, we electric and acoustic guitarists rarely consider learning a second instrument and instead appear to devote our time to mastering the guitar’s intricacies. While I’m not saying this is a bad thing, I would like to outline some of the benefits which learning another instrument can give the ‘ax slinger’.

Recently I began taking piano lessons, and although I’m essentially a self-taught guitarist who has performed, taught and practised guitar for over twenty years, I am happy to report that the piano lessons are helping with many aspects of my guitar playing.

I want to share these thoughts so that they may give encouragement to those of you who may be worried that learning a second instrument will take too much practise time away from the guitar, or, that it will be teaching a completely separate set of techniques which are unrelated to the guitar, or, that you don’t have the time to learn a second instrument.

While this discussion comes from the perspective of a guitarist-who-is-also-learning-the-piano, I’m sure that many of these observations are applicable to other instrument combinations.

 

Time to Practise:

Scheduling sufficient practice time in our busy lives can be a nightmare. Many of you are probably thinking, ‘I don’t have enough time to practise one instrument, how will I practise two?’. While this argument is, for many, the main reason for not learning a second instrument, it doesn’t have to be.

The golden rule for any type of practice routine is, LITTLE AND OFTEN. Even ten minutes every day is better than two hours once a week; and you will see greater improvements also. The important point is that your practise is regular and is focussed on specific areas which require attention – playing through everything once is NOT focussed practice. Because having two instruments to practice means you’ll probably have even less time to spend practising, it tends to actually focus you onto areas which need the work as opposed to simply playing the easy parts and neglecting the more difficult.

 

Structured Practice:

 

As a largely self-taught guitarist I’m enjoying the fact that I’m being taught by someone else, as opposed to finding out information for myself. The piano’s long history means that there is no shortage of teaching methods, teaching material and repertoire. This structure is something which many self-taught musicians lack and for many their practice time is not as productive as it could be. Having specific practice material for scales and arpeggios; finger independence and dexterity; and performance pieces is a great way of dividing however much time you have for practising your instrument into productive, focussed sections.

 

Finger Independence and Dexterity:

 

Because classical pianists are trained so that they are capable of playing anything which is required, their finger dexterity and overall technical command of their instrument is generally far greater than the average guitarist. The exercises which pianists use to improve their capabilities translate well to the guitar.

Obviously, exercises for the left hand are more helpful for the guitar, although, my tapping hand has also gained more strength and endurance with piano practice.

 

Sight Reading:

 

Let’s face it, sight reading for most guitarists doesn’t rate very high on the need-to-learn list. If you are a guitarist who can only read a music chart very slowly, learning the piano will definitely assist in taking your sight reading skills to the next level. Because there is no equivalent alternative method for writing down piano music, such as tablature for guitar, all of the resources which you will be using for your piano lessons are written using standard notation. This will encourage you to learn the notes and it will improve your reading speed also. You will also have to learn the bass clef to play the piano which, although it may not seem important or necessary for a guitarist, is great for expanding your general music knowledge.

Nuances: 

 

Probably the greatest difference between learning the guitar (modern styles) and learning a classical instrument is the amount of time which classical musicians take to perfect the intricacies of a piece. Dynamics in particular is one aspect which electric guitarists generally neglect as the use of an amplifier minimises the dynamic range of the guitar, unless you are constantly manipulating the volume pot or amp’s volume controls. Articulation is another aspect which generally doesn’t concern electric guitarists (again, it could be the amplifier’s influence which masks the many subtle ways in which a note can be played). Giving more thought to these aspects can give extra depth to your playing while also enhancing your connection with the notes and music.

 

Finally…

 

You need to make sure that the second instrument is something that you really want to play. As with most things, if you have a strong urge to learn a second instrument then chances are, it’ll happen for you.

Guitarist Spotlight: Jazz Great, Pat Martino

Pat Martino is one of those guitarists who always seems to know exactly what he’s doing. Whether writing his own tunes, comping behind other soloists or blazing through his own improvised solos, Martino has been producing incredible music for close to 50 years.

Along with consistently releasing albums since the 60s Martino has also released several teaching DVDs showcasing his incredible technique and explaining the theory underpinning his playing.

In 1980 surgery for a brain aneurism left Martino with amnesia meaning he effectively had to relearn the guitar. When you compare recordings from before the operation to those after, you can hear Martino’s playing is as good as it ever was, if not better.

The thing which shines through all of Martino’s recordings, aside from his complete command of the guitar, is the joy he has for his music, and for life.

Below is a selection of material, in no particular order, from this remarkable guitarist:

Rising Force’s 30th Anniversary

2014 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the release of Yngwie Malmsteen’s first studio album, Rising Force.

Whether you like him or hate him there’s no denying the influence which this album and its creator has had on the guitar community.

With Rising Force Yngwie provides a template for Neo-classical Rock and Heavy Metal music which until its release had only been hinted at by guitarists such as Randy Rhoads, Uli Jon Roth and Yngwie’s own early work with bands such as Steeler and Alcatrazz. Compositionally, at least in terms of instrumental music in the Rock and Heavy Metal genre, and technically, Rising Force sees Yngwie pushing the bar way above its previous level.