Educated Guitarists: Oxymoron?

Lenny Puig of The Wise Guys with Phil Circle at The Chicago Music Guide Outing

The title of this article alone is a bit of an oxymoron: educated guitarists. The joke in the music community goes like this: How do you get a guitarist to stop playing? Put music in front of him. As a kid I was trained in music from an early age, mostly on piano and voice. Then, after begging my Mom to buy me a guitar, I got into lessons at about the age of 12. By the time I got to college, I could barely read music anymore because the various guitar instructors I had never taught that. Or much of anything about the fretboard, now I think about it. In fact, I was largely dependent on those teachers for any knowledge of the instrument. I began to forsake lessons in favor of teaching myself. I know that plenty of guitarists do this. The problem with that is you don’t really have much of a clue as to what information is valuable without the guidance of a teacher or coach. This is how the problem of the uneducated guitarist perpetuates itself; poor lesson structure and/or unguided self-teaching.

Once I got to college and started my degree in music, I had a sense of this problem. In fact, at age 27 and already teaching music in the classroom, it was my discovery of great gaps in my knowledge that propelled me to get my degree. Along with all my music composition and performance curriculum, I began lessons in classical guitar. Many people equate classical guitar with classical music and immediately write off this method since they don’t really desire to play classical music. This is a mistake. First of all, classical guitar refers to traditional approach to guitar, dating back into the 18th century. For instance, tablature was thrown out by classical guitarists a hundred years ago as being a less practical way of reading music for the guitar than standard notation. Then back in the sixties, “modern” guitarists got lazy and started using tab again. Tab, however, doesn’t provide all the information standard music notation does.

Additionally, classical guitar music includes four hundred years of songs from the Renaissance to modern day, spanning the folk styles (popular styles from long ago) of many countries, especially Spain, the generally agreed upon birthplace of the guitar. Understanding an instrument comes more easily when you’re not working with it based on specific musical styles — a uniquely record industry approach to music — but understanding all the workings of technique and theory as developed by centuries of trial and error undertaken by countless virtuosos. Why anyone would throw out so much of the work of the past masters in favor of reinventing the wheel, a faulty one at that, is beyond me. Albeit, it wasn’t beyond me until I’d been playing for more than a decade, so there’s no judgement. I hope.

I find without fail that when I take on a new guitar student, whether child or adult, beginner or advanced, they move forward in their understanding of the guitar’s complex fretboard theory and difficult-to-master technique through the classical approach. I found this to be true for myself, too. For several months a year, I throw myself headlong into furthering my classical playing. This is always when I see the most improvement at all levels. Countless students of mine have shown the same. I am not a classical guitarist per se, and most of my students are into contemporary styles as well, although a few have gone on to study in Spain with my old teacher. But, it remains the best approach to any instrument to take the lead of the masters who have come before you to understand your instrument completely. This takes all the mystery out of it, so that you can explore the true mystery of music — the creativity and expressive power of the musician themself.

For an easy to follow classical method book that will insure you are site reading before the end of it and enjoying the learning process through many performable pieces, try The Christopher Parkening Guitar Method, Volume One. If you have a good time with this book and want to really grow, follow it up with a book of Spanish classical pieces or the works of Bach. A couple supplemental books I recommend, for the contemporary guitarist expanding through the classical approach, are Pumping Nylon and 25 Melodious & Progressive Studies (for the guitar).

Guitar is a difficult instrument to master, one of the toughest if approached with real mastery in mind. Leaving this mastery to perceived shortcuts and ignoring basic understanding dooms you to many deadends. No violinist walks into a lesson and says, “I’d like to learn bluegrass,” and has a truly dedicated teacher just go along with it. They partake in the initial education that has evolved over generations, building a foundation from there. After mastering some basic skills and the application of knowledge, they are then able to tackle any style they like with confidence. Ruby Harris, one of the most outstanding blues and jazz violinists I’ve ever worked with, who also masters Irish, Klezmer and Bluegrass, is a classically trained player. Nothing is foreign to him. Guitarists could learn a lot from this. In fact, many of the great contemporary guitarists did.

Good luck and remember, no Stairway To Heaven.

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Phil Circle

Phil Circle

Phil Circle is a Chicago-based singer-songwriter-guitarist, award-winning music coach and author, and the founder of Guilt By Association Records.