Myths abound about learning to play the guitar. Here are a few I've noticed over years.
1. You must practice everything in every key. Don’t you just hate it when you spend hours or even days working on a scale or a lick only to find the dreaded phrase, ‘Now transpose this to all the other keys’? I’m going to go out on limb here and say that you really don’t need to practice everything in every key. There are some situations where you need a good knowledge of keys, which I’ll come to in a second, but what I would recommend is to get comfortable playing in the classic guitar keys (and their relative minors): C, G, A, E, D; then a couple of flat keys for good measure: Bb, Eb and F. This should cover about 99% of the rock and blues material out there. Of the remaining key signatures, B is probably the most useful. The others just aren’t that guitar-friendly.
Situations where you need to be able to transpose:
If you’re playing with a horn section you may be required to venture into the not so friendly guitar keys as for horn players one key is pretty much the same as another.
If you’re in a function band you will definitely need to be able to transpose, sometimes on the fly, as songs often need to be adapted to the range of the singer(s).
2. You should follow strict fingering patterns for scales
I’m a great believer in comfort over strict fingering/scale patterns simply because if the pattern doesn’t feel comfortable to you or fall under your fingers easily, you’re less likely to bother with it. Scale fingering patterns in particular really benefit from a variety of fingering approaches so as to avoid developing muscle memory and getting into ruts. The pattern should always be a means to an end, in this case making music, and not the end in itself. In other words, the more you run scales the more muscle memory you create and end up fighting with yourself not to play the same old licks.
3. You must practice with a metronome
This is a controversial one but I personally cannot stand the noise a metronome makes. The incessant clicking drives me up the wall. What’s more, it’s more likely that you’ll have to adapt to the rhythm section than vice versa and drummers tend to speed up and slow down, which is not something you can really practice with a metronome. In my opinion, time spent developing feel by playing with other musicians is infinitely more valuable than turning yourself into a human metronome.
4. This is the correct picking technique
Picking techniques are almost like handwriting - no two people pick or hold the pick in the same way; everyone has these nuances that contribute to their individual sound (try imitating Vernon Reid or EVH’s picking styles and you’ll see what I mean). I’ll concede however that some styles require a more standardized picking technique but most do not i.e. what works for one person may not work for another. I remember trying to copy my guitar teacher’s picking technique for years but it never felt comfortable until I gave up and spontaneously developed my own. You’ll eventually need different picking techniques for different situations and sounds but these will come naturally once you get comfortable with your main picking techniques.
5. Alternate picking is the holy grail of fast playing
This is probably the most common technique and the one that gets mentioned most often when there’s a need for speed. I always found it clunky and kind of mechanical. Plus, an upstroke and a downstroke have different sounds and the more you practice alternate picking, the harder it is to break the up down up down thing. Alternate picking also requires you master inside picking (this is rarely mentioned). This is when you have to go from an upstroke to a downstroke inside the space between two strings and if not taken care of can lead to sloppiness later on. Check out this article for an in-depth look at fast playing.
6. You can’t teach yourself to play
Not entirely a myth, especially for those of us who are VERY stubborn, and I think stubbornness is the most essential quality to have if you’re going to teach yourself to play guitar. If you do teach yourself, think about going to see a guitar teacher once in a while so they can tweak your playing. You may save yourself years of hacking around for answers, or you may be missing something very obvious and you’ll probably save yourself a fair few bucks in the long-run.
7. You shouldn’t fret notes by hooking your thumb over the neck
Why not? Jimi did it, Jimmy Page does it. I remember one class at Music College where Bruce Dickinson ( of Little Angels fame) told us that to get the best sounding G chord you should play the G on the low E string with your thumb (while also muting the A string) and the top C and G notes with a first finger barre. Try it.
8. Lead guitarists don’t need to practice chords/rhythm
One thing I noticed after being taught by a seeing a lot of the well-known guitar instructors was that they were also fantastic rhythm players and chording wizards. Learning rhythm (which you’ll be playing 90% of the time anyway) will help your solos to have more feel and learning chords will make your solos sound more melodic and help your phrasing as you’ll subconsciously start to hit chord tones in the right places more often instead of running up and down scale patterns.
9. Practice makes perfect
The law of statistics states that you’ll get good at anything you do consistently for a period of about 2 years (the 10,000 hours theory), so don’t worry about practicing for 8 hours a day. More importantly though is what you practice. Check out the science of practicing in this great article.
Leave a comment to add to the guitar-playing myths list.
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