There are a ton of guitar books out there, a lot of which claim to turn you into a virtuoso in 10 easy lessons, or some other drivel to that effect, and an infinitely smaller minority which are actually quite good and worth investing in. I’m sure guitar book sales have slumped in the last few years with the rise of the mighty YouTube, online TAB farms and scanners, but back in the day books and magazines (I’m not that old) were about the best thing you could lay your hands on if you wanted some decent instructional material; otherwise you had to work it out for yourself…
Working things out for yourself is no bad thing. In the wise words of Marty Friedman, ‘Any monkey can learn a technique…’ and there are plenty of them to gawk at on YouTube but working things out for yourself will develop your ear, and a good ear will take you further on guitar than all the sweep-picking exercises on YouTube put together.
YouTube is most guitarists first port of call when they want to learn something, and at first glance it may seem like the ultimate resource for learning just about anything. Sure you can glean bits of useful information and maybe learn a thing or two but there’s no structure there, and nothing to really take you from point A to point B, or wherever you want to go. I believe a good book and/or a good guitar teacher are still the best resource for actually learning something well, but there are a lot of crap books too…
How to Choose a Guitar Book
1) The Shorter the Better. This doesn’t have a lot to do with being a lazy-ass guitarist but if you want to learn something, get a short book. You may think a huge tome like the Guitar Grimoire is the fountain of all useful knowledge on the guitar and you’ll learn a ton of stuff but you're actually more likely to be put off by the amount of information there is to learn, unless you’re some kind of masochist. If you’d known how much information you needed to know to play guitar well before you started, you probably never would have picked it up in the first place.
2) Logical Progression. You want a book that has some kind of methodology or logical progression that leads to the accomplishment of a skill, or to actually internalizing the information. A lot of books just present you with a bunch of diagrams and kind of expect you to somehow learn them, defeating the object of why you bought the book in the first place. Books that have a logical progression are easy to spot as they have a good balance of visuals and text, provide good insight along the way and don’t teach licks.
3) Great Player or Great Teacher? Be careful when buying instructional material based on or by your favorite players. If it’s based on your favorite player you can bet it’ll just be a bunch of useless licks and some backing tracks. If you want to incorporate a certain player's style into your playing there’s no substitute for extensive listening; their influence on your playing will naturally surface. Great players often do not make great teachers; you’ll know this to be true if you’ve ever bought any Yngwie Malmsteen instructional material. A cursory trawling of YouTube will tell you if your guitar heroes are actually good guitar teachers, before you spend your hard-earned cash.
Let’s say we want to learn some blues or we’re just starting out with the blues and want a book to help us on the way. There are a ton of blues guitar books but using our criteria we can at least narrow things down to a half-dozen candidates. The one I’d recommend, and that fits our criteria perfectly, is Mel Bay’s Classic Blues Licks for Electric Guitar by Fred Sokolow. The title is a little misleading as it’s not just a bunch of blues licks but a step-by-step guide to working in the most common blues keys which includes licks, chords, turnarounds and even how to play over changes. It’s perfect for beginners and intermediate players looking to fill in the gaps, and is only 30 or so pages long, plus it provides some great insight into blues guitar playing along the way. The real beauty of this book thought is the way it's set out, logically moving through the blues boxes on the fretboard, while explaining and extracting the most useful information. Check it out here.
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