How to Finally Play the Guitar: 80/20 Guitar and Minimalist Music


When will you stop dreaming and start playing? (Photo: Musician “Lights”, Credit: Shandi-lee)

I’ve always wanted to play the guitar.

It started as a kid, listening to my dad play around the fireplace during the holidays. The fantasy continued with Guns N’ Roses and the iconic Slash. From hyperspeed Slayer to classical Segovia, I was mesmerized.

But I never thought I could do it myself.

Despite tackling skills as esoteric as Japanese horseback archery, I somehow put music in a separate “does not apply” category until two years ago. It was simply too frustrating, too overwhelming.

My fascination with guitar wasn’t rekindled until Charlie Hoehn, an employee of mine at the time, showed me the 80/20 approach to learning it.

This post explains how to get the most guitar mileage and versatility in the least time…

Do you have any additional tips, whether for guitar or applying the 80/20 principle to another instrument? Piano, violin, flute, or other? Please share in the comments!

Enter Charlie

Almost everyone has fantasized about performing music in front of a huge screaming crowd at some point in their life. For me, I’d always dreamed of playing guitar with the same mastery as Jimmy Page, Allen Collins, or Mark Knopfler. Sadly, I could never stick with guitar practice.  I ended up quitting multiple times for a host of reasons: the material was boring, my teacher moved too fast, my teacher moved too slowly, my fingers were killing me, my wrists were sore, I wasn’t making enough progress, and so on.

Then my friend Jake Ruff taught me two simple exercises that changed everything, and I’ve been able to stick with guitar ever since.

Some guitarists proclaim that you need to tackle music theory first, while others will tell you to learn sheet music while you’re practicing chords. I found it most effective to focus on a few easy exercises, while minimizing boredom and pain. In other words, the process for learning that you enjoy the most is the best one, even if it isn’t comprehensive.

Comprehensive comes later.  First, we need to get you hooked.

The Ground Rules 

In order to get past the initial pain period that comes with learning guitar, it’s critical to manage your expectations. If you don’t have a clear understanding of what these first few weeks will be like, there’s a good chance that you will get frustrated and give up.

Here are the three things you need to know before learning guitar, under my plan or anyone else’s:

1. You will feel clumsy. Remember when you first learned how to type? You wanted to hammer out 100 words per minute, without ever making an error. The reality? You constantly had to look down at the keyboard, and you’d get frustrated whenever you made a mistake. Guitar is the same way. As much as you’ll desire the ability to play all your favorite songs beautifully, your body and brain simply won’t be able to. Your fingers will move slowly, your hands will feel awkward, and the sounds coming from the guitar will not be easy on the ears. Relax, and give yourself permission to suck. Allow yourself several weeks to build “muscle memory” – getting comfortable having your hands in positions they aren’t used to.

2. Your fingers will be sore. Expect the tips of your fingers to hurt for at least a month while they’re developing calluses. If your fingers get extremely sore, take a day off, and never play until your fingers bleed.

The pain you’ll feel is largely unavoidable, but you can reduce it by using a capo (a clamp you fasten across the strings of the guitar – read more on this in “Getting Started” below). The most important thing, of course, is to not quit playing altogether because of the pain. Whenever you want to quit because it hurts your fingers too much, say to yourself, “Justin Bieber taught himself to play guitar before he was 12.” Yes, that’s right. That effeminate kid successfully got through the same pain you’re feeling, and so has every other guitar player on the planet. You’re more than capable of pushing through.

3. You need to practice for at least 10 minutes each day. There is no quick path to mastering the guitar, but there is a fast track to failing: a lack of practice. During the first month, you need to make playing your guitar for at least ten minutes into a daily habit. Playing every day will help you build calluses faster, and increase your comfort level with the instrument.

When I first started, I aimed for at least two 10-minute practice sessions each day. I found the most convenient time to practice was while watching TV. The two exercises you’ll be focusing on won’t require intensive periods of concentration, so it’s totally fine to watch your favorite show while strumming away.

Getting Started

First and foremost, you’ll need to buy a guitar (See guitar recommendations below in the Gear section). I know it’s obviously possible to learn with a friend’s guitar or one that’s been given to you as a gift. However, I found that my desire to learn increased substantially only after I put some skin in the game. Buying my first guitar only cost me $100, but spending that amount made me much more committed to learning.

I strongly recommend starting with an acoustic guitar, rather than an electric. With an acoustic, you don’t have to plug it in to play and there’s less of an upfront investment (i.e. you don’t need to buy an amp). Learn on an acoustic first; if you decide to play electric later, the transition will feel much easier than it would have had you only learned to play electric.

Next, you’ll want to buy a capo. This is a clamp that raises the pitch of the strings. You’ll be using it for a different purpose, but to start, it will help reduce the pain in your fingers.

Capo on the second fret.

The capo pushes down on the strings, putting them closer to the fret board and thereby making it easier for you to push them all the way down with your fingers. When you’re doing the exercises, I suggest putting the capo on the second fret.

You don’t have to use a capo, of course, but it can really help while you’re still developing calluses.

Once you have your acoustic guitar, capo, and a few other essentials (see the Gear section at the end of this chapter), you’ll need to put the strings on and get them in tune. Here are a couple videos that will help you do both of these things:

Changing acoustic guitar strings tutorial

Tuning your guitar

For tuning, the $3.99 ClearTune app works really well and is convenient to keep on hand when playing, particularly in the beginning. It’s available for both iPhone and Android.

Now that you’re all set up, it’s time to take a seat in a comfortable chair and get in position to play.

The most important thing about your posture is to stay relaxed. Because you’ll be pressing down hard on the strings, you’ll often feel your upper body tense up. Take a deep breath and only maintain pressure in your fingers.

One final note on your positioning: Your thumb should not wrap around the neck of the guitar; it should be pressed against the back of the neck. Sure, you’ll see a lot of professional guitar players who don’t comply with this, but it’s much easier on your hand to learn chords this way.

Without further ado, let’s get started!

Exercise 1: G-C-D

The number of chord variations you can learn on guitar is seemingly endless. We’re going to start with three of the basics: G, C, and D.

Before we get into explanation of this exercise, take a look at how to hold the G, C, and D chords: [Note the use of the silver capo in the photos]

The “G” Chord

Index finger on the fifth string, second fret.
Middle finger on the sixth string, third fret.
Ring finger on the second string, third fret.
Pinky finger on the first string, third fret.


The “C” Chord?1

Notice that, from G, fingers 1 and 2 are each dropping down one string.  Otherwise, the hands are the same.  So, for C:

Index finger on the fourth string, second fret.
Middle finger on the fifth string, third fret.
Ring finger on the second string, third fret.
Pinky finger on the first string, third fret.


The “D” Chord

Index finger on the third string, second fret.
Middle finger on the first string, second fret.
Ring finger on the second string, third fret.
Pinky finger stays off the fret board.

In the G-C-D exercise, you’ll be working on switching from chord to chord. Here’s all you need to do:

  1. Form the G-chord. Strum.
  2. Transition to C-chord. Strum.
  3. Transition to D-chord. Strum.
  4. Transition to C-chord. Strum.
  5. Repeat steps 1-4.

Each time you switch to a new chord, you should first pluck all six strings individually to ensure that six crisp, clear tones ring out. If any of the strings sound muted or dull when you pick them, check your fingers to ensure that (A) you’re holding the strings all the way down on the fret board, and (B) each finger is only touching/holding down one string.

Once all six strings sound nice and clear individually, you can begin strumming to hear the full sound of the chord. Strum lightly for 10-15 seconds, making sure that the chord sounds nice and clear with each strum, then transition to the next chord.

After you’ve reached a point where you’re fairly comfortable with transitioning between these three chords, you’ll want to try playing along with actual music. Jamming to your favorite songs is definitely the most fun way to learn in the beginning, because it really feels like you’re producing a better sound than you actually are. It also forces you to get better at matching the correct tempo of a song while strumming.

Here are several popular songs that are great for practicing the G-C-D exercise:

Lynyrd Skynyrd – Sweet Home Alabama (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
Green Day – Good Riddance (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
Sublime – What I Got (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
AC/DC – You Shook Me All Night Long (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
Van Morrison – Brown Eyed Girl (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
Steppenwolf – Magic Carpet Ride (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
Violent Femmes – Blister (YouTube, Guitar Tab)

Really listen to each song. Try to distinguish the difference in tone between the G, C, and D chords, and see if you can match what you’re hearing. If you have trouble, find the the song on to see (1) what chords you’re hearing, and (2) when to make transitions between these chords.

The songs are all heavy on G-C-D. Some are comprised entirely of those three chords. Here’s the breakdown:

“Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd

“Good Riddance” by Green Day

“What I Got” by Sublime

“You Shook Me All Night Long” by AC/DC

“Brown Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison

“Magic Carpet Ride” by Steppenwolf

“Blister” by Violent Femmes

Exercise 2: The Fret Climb

The purpose of the second exercise is to get you comfortable with moving your fingers up and down on the fret board. The below images will give you an idea of what the Fret Climb looks like. You can use a pick for this exercise, or just use your fingers to pluck the strings.

Index finger, 1st fret.

Middle finger, 2nd fret.

Ring finger, 3rd fret.

Pinky finger, 4th fret.

Here are the exact steps for this exercise:

  1. Push down on the first string (the one furthest from you), 1st fret, with your index finger. With your other hand, use your index finger to pluck the string. Ensure that a clear, crisp tone emits. If it sounds dull or muted, press down harder on the string.
  2. Push down on the first string, 2nd fret, with your middle finger. With your other hand, use your middle finger to pluck the string.
  3. Push down on the first string, 3rd fret, with your ring finger. With your other hand, pluck the string with your index finger.
  4. Push down on the first string, 4th fret, with your pinky finger. With your other hand, pluck the string with your middle finger.
  5. Move your index finger down to the fifth fret.
  6. Push down on the first string, 5th fret, with your index finger. With your other hand, pluck the string with your index finger.
  7. Continue “climbing” the fret board until you’ve reached the 12th fret.
  8. Once you’ve climbed all the way up to the 12th fret, it’s time to do the exercise in reverse. Go all the way back down the string, moving up the neck of the guitar one fret at a time, and plucking the string each time your fingers move down a fret.
  9. After you’ve gone up and down the first string, switch to the second string. Do this exercise on all six strings.

Again, it’s important to ensure that you’re getting nice, crisp tones each time you pluck the string. Don’t rush through the exercise if the tones aren’t perfectly clear.

Once you’re comfortable with the Fret Climb, try to increase your speed.

Next Steps

Once you’ve mastered the G-C-D and Fret Climb exercises, you’ll have a nice solid foundation that you can build upon in the months to come. But what do you do after you’ve perfected those two exercises?

I suggest mimicking the Axis of Awesome, then picking and choosing your favorites to learn.

Axis of Awesome

First, prepare to have your mind blown.  Then, watch the The Four Chord Song by Axis of Awesome.

This comedy trio plays 38 pop songs in five minutes using just the E, B, C#m and A chords.  Pick up those new chords, use to look up the below songs for ordering, and you can play them.

How’s that for Minimum Effective Dose?

1.      Journey – Don’t Stop Believing (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
2.      James Blunt – You’re Beautiful (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
3.      Alphaville – Forever Young (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
4.      Jason Mraz – I’m Yours (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
5.      Mika – Happy Ending (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
6.      Alex Lloyd – Amazing (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
7.      The Calling – Wherever You WIll Go (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
8.      Elton John – Can You Feel The Love Tonight (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
9.      Maroon 5 – She Will Be Loved (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
10.     The Last Goodnight – Pictures Of You (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
11.     U2 – With Or Without You (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
12.     Crowded House – Fall At Your Feet (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
13.     Kasey Chambers – Not Pretty Enough (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
14.     The Beatles – Let it Be (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
15.     Red Hot Chili Peppers – Under the Bridge (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
16.     Daryl Braithwaite – The Horses (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
17.     Bob Marley – No Woman No Cry (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
18.     Marcy Playground – Sex and Candy (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
19.     Men At Work – Land Down Under (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
20.     Banjo Patterson’s Waltzing Matilda (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
21.     A Ha – Take On Me (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
22.     Green Day – When I Come Around (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
23.     Eagle Eye Cherry – Save Tonight (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
24.     Toto – Africa (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
25.     Beyonce – If I Were A Boy (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
26.     The Offspring – Self Esteem (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
27.     The Offspring – You’re Gonna Go Far Kid (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
28.     Pink – You and Your Hand (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
29.     Lady Gaga – Poker Face (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
30.     Aqua – Barbie Girl (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
31.     The Fray – You Found Me (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
32.     30h!3 – Don’t Trust Me (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
33.     MGMT – Kids (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
34.     Tim Minchin – Canvas Bags (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
35.     Natalie Imbruglia – Torn (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
36.     Five For Fighting – Superman (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
37.     Axis Of Awesome – Birdplane (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
38.     Missy Higgins – Scar (YouTube, Guitar Tab)


Next, you can learn more chords and tabs by tackling the songs you most want to learn (search “[song name] chords” or “[song name] tabs” on Google). One of the reasons people abandon the guitar, even after nailing down the basics, is because they’re learning from material that isn’t fun or interesting enough. It took me (an embarrassing) three full weeks to learn the intro solo from Heart’s “Crazy on You,” but it never felt stale or boring because I loved the material. So pick three of your favorite songs that you really want to learn, and practice each of them until they sound great. When you get bored, concentrate on perfecting the nuances of those songs or move on to new material.

After awhile, you might start thinking about what you’d like your guitar career to look like. Perhaps you want to learn music theory and take classes. Maybe you want to play your favorite songs with your friends at parties. Maybe guitar will be your vehicle for meeting people while traveling. Or maybe you’ll be happy just to have a new hobby that keeps you sane.

Whatever the case, always make sure you’re enjoying the process.

Once you get past these first few weeks, it’s smooth sailing. Have fun!


Fender Squier SA-100 – This is a great beginner’s acoustic guitar that won’t break the bank (about $100). I learned on a similar Fender model, and have been playing it regularly for five years.

Taylor 110 Dreadnaught – For those wanting a nicer model than the Fender, this acoustic guitar is fantastic and runs for about $600.

Kyser Capo – The most popular quick-release capo. Use it to quickly change the pitch on all six strings, and to reduce soreness in your fingers while practicing.

D’Addario Acoustic Strings – It’s in your interest to buy nice strings for your guitar, as they will last longer and be more comfortable. Get at least two sets, in case a string snaps.

String Winder and Cutter – This handy little tool speeds up the process of restringing your guitar, and has a built-in wire cutter so you can trim the ends of the strings off.

Guitar Picks – You can learn guitar without ever using a pick, but I can guarantee you’ll eventually want to use one. Picks give you a crisper sound and more precision in your playing. You won’t regret practicing with one.

Tools, Tricks, and Resources

Justin Guitar – Justin Sandercoe, a London-based guitarist, assembled more than 500 free lessons, many of which contain video and audio tutorials. This is one of the best resources online if you really want to dive headfirst into learning all things guitar.

Ultimate Guitar – This is my favorite spot for finding free song tabs. One of the site’s most helpful features is its quick display of how a chord is held when you hover your cursor over any chord listed in the song.

“Ocean” by John Butler – My favorite guitar instrumental, by far and away. This song is motivation for me (and several of my friends) to keep practicing. [TIM: Here’s a video of a separate friend, Maneesh Sethi, playing Ocean after one week of 4 hours/day practice.]

This is a variation on the more commonly used C-chord, as this one is easier to practice for beginners. With this variation, you won’t have to change the positioning of your hand when transitioning to/from the G-chord.

AFTERWORD: Best of Tips in the Comments

This post produced some GREAT comments and tips from readers. From the first 100 comments, Charlie chose some of his favorites. Here they are…


How to Practice Guitar

“Using feedback to your advantage” by Mike Roode

I am going to weigh in on this one because the article is missing what I think is the most important thing to getting good fast (other than regularly scheduled effective practice). One word: Feedback.

You need high quality, quick and regular feedback to gain proficiency quickly on any musical instrument.

1. At the end of each practice session, make a video recording of yourself (with your phone or laptop) of you playing what you practiced (song, scales, chord patterns) to a metronome.

2. Always review the last practice session’s recording as the first step in your next practice session. It’s like football, hockey, and other sports — they always watch the game afterwards to look for things they missed in the heat of the moment. It’s the same principle for playing guitar because it requires a lot of hand coordination and listening ability. Make sure to capture the entire guitar in the frame of your camera so you can see where your hands are, your posture, etc. Listen to the sound… Where are the calm notes? Did you drop the beat? It’s very important to always practice with a beat (metronome, drum machine etc.) and to be in tune (use a guitar tuner).

3. Spend time with a good teacher if possible, they will be able to correct things and teach you things that can only happen in a face to face medium.

“Learn shapes, not chords” by Micky H Corbett

1) You only need to learn 3 “shapes” rather than chords and use a capo. With these shapes and use of a capo (to change key) you can play 95% of songs out there.

2) Most shapes (and all for starters) consist of two fingers bunched and one stretched. Sometimes it is just two bunched.

3) You don’t need to play full chords – learn how to use 3 fingers first (index, middle and ring) by using the shapes.

4) DO NOT play all the strings at once – 80% of the time play the lower (base notes) and play the upper strings as highlights. Less is more. It is the difference between teen angst and lounge cool.

5) The chord shapes are: the C/G (as above but don’t need the pinky unless you want to); the A/D – (like D but only index and middle, A is one underneath the other); and Em7 shape (like G but with index and middle on 2nd fret A and D strings – two lowest but one)

That is it. Too much time is spent with learners trying to play full chords and having all the strings ring out. That will come in time. For now, stuff that. Dexterity with minimum movement is what you are after. Combined with only playing groups of strings will make you sound more experienced then you are!

“Effective Practice Tips” by Brandon Bloom

-Know your ultimate guitar playing goals, and figure out what you need to learn/be able to do to reach them. Set measurable goals and a schedule for each practice too. (This might be more for those at an intermediate/advanced level) Aimless practicing is wasted practicing, and consistency is key.

-The more extremely focused your practice is, the better. Especially as you get more advanced, it will take a lot more effort to refine your technique further and further until you reach your goals. The less distractions you have while practicing, and the more focused and uninterrupted you are, the more effective your limited practice time will be.

-Stay as relaxed as possible. Use only as much tension as is necessary to make the sounds you want. Anything excess is holding you back, and while it can take a lot of effort and practice to reduce tension when playing something difficult, do so to the best of your ability.

-Focus on exercises that work multiple techniques at once. While practicing isolated techniques is good, if you have limited time, you might not be able to get to everything. Exercises like ‘string skipping’ focus on alternate and/or directional picking, coordination between your two hands, your fretting technique and string skipping itself, while an alternate picking exercise might only help you get better at alternate picking. I know some of you might not know what all of those terms are, but the important thing to know is that — just like exercising for fitness — certain guitar exercises do more for you than others.

-You don’t need a guitar in your hands to learn songs or new chords/scales. Figure out the gist of the song on guitar if you have to, then go on to practice things that will make you better. Spend the rest of your day, when you have time, visualizing yourself playing the song, what you’d do on the fret board to get the sounds you want, etc. Then next time you sit down with a guitar, since you’ve memorized it in your head, you can focus on mastering the song instead of wasting time trying to remember which part comes next or how to play this or that. This can save you hours of wasted practice time.

-If there is only one part of a passage or song that’s keeping you from playing it perfectly, don’t play through the whole song over and over again hoping you’ll get it right eventually. Focus on that one section of song. Break it down to its simplest form, and blast it until you can nail it consistently. Whether it’s a transition between chords, a certain note pattern or riff, whatever… It’s much more efficient to focus solely on that part and then integrate it back into the song than it is to keep playing that song repeatedly while making the same mistakes.

“Use competition to learn faster” by Daz

I’d advise you to hook up with someone else as soon as possible and learn from each other. Friendly competition, more rewarding and good fun. If you can sing all the better, learn one song and go to an open mic night (if you can’t sing find a singer). There are a million songs that you could play with the chords above – choose one. Trust me: you’ll practice if you know you have a gig at the end of the week. You’ll get a massive rush and want to continue doing it.

“Public accountability” by Debbie Happy Cohen

I applied the accountability principle to art this year… I painted every day for a year, from 11/11/11 to 12/12/12, and posted each one to Facebook (398 paintings!!!) My technique and confidence levels improved dramatically. I was also able to increase my prices and sell more :)

Intermediate Techniques

“The almighty power chord” by Geoff Strickland

This is exactly how I started learning. Find about 4 basic chords and learn to switch between them. This part SUCKS and you will sound terrible, but trust me, it gets better.

Learn about the almighty power chord (throw the guitar in drop d tuning to make this super easy). This will let you learn just about any mainstream punk/pop or rock song and play the sh** out of your favorites. Keep it simple. Nobody starts out playing Stairway to Heaven…. instead try ‘Smoke on the Water.’

The most important part is to push through the month or so that you aren’t very good. Focus on learning songs you love to stay inspired.

If you want to take the band route (this was the fastest way to catapult my playing to a new level) find some guys that want to learn bass/drums/keys etc and go at it. Sitting around in high school and saying to my friends (none of which could play any instruments) lets form a band was the best decision I’ve ever made.

“Strumming and open chords” by Max

As a guitar teacher for many years, this is very accurate as far as breaking down the basic skills. Here’s what I would add:

1) Learn these 3 basic and common strumming patterns (D=down strum, U=up strum):


2) There are only EIGHT, yes EIGHT basic open position chords (without getting into fancy variations). The open major chords are C, A, G, E, D (spells the word CAGED). Open minor chords are Am, Em, and Dm. Spend your first few months switching between all of these chords (there are millions of songs that only use these chords!). You should be able to switch from any chord to any other chord instantly.

3) Combine basic chord pairings, for example: (C-G), (G-D), (D-A), (E-A), (Am-C), (Em-G) with the strumming patterns above.

This is literally months worth of practice for an absolute beginner.

“Solos and Songwriting” by Andrew Edstrom

I grew up in a very musical family (mom is a professional blues singer and stepdad is a guitar teacher) and I’ve been playing guitar seriously for 7 years. After dozens of paid gigs, and thousands of dollars spent on lessons, these are what I have found to be the 20% of skills that get 80% of the results, beyond what Charlie laid out here.

Solos: If you want to solo, there is only one scale pattern (i.e. collection of notes) you need to know. MOST famous players, including Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, and Eric Clapton, use an extended form of this box for over 90% of their soloing. It’s called the first form of the pentatonic scale, and it is a repeated pattern of five notes that you can see here. If you are playing any of the G C D songs here, put the lowest note of the scale (marked with an R in this picture) on the 12th fret of the low E string. For any of the Axis of Awesome songs, put the lowest note of the scale on the 9th fret. Now practice going up and down the scale in time with the songs and experiment with starting and stopping at different points. Gradually, steal licks from your favorite players and sooner or later you’ll start to come up with some of your own!

Songwriting:? Write your songs in this format: Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Bridge, Chorus Chorus. For “Good Riddance,” the verse is where he says “Another turning point, a fork stuck in the road…” and the chorus is where he says “It’s something unpredictable, but in the end it’s right.” The bridge is the instrumental breakdown after the second chorus (I advise you to put words in the bridge, however). Got it? Great.

Now which chords should you play in your song, you might ask? Well, fortunately, Charlie already gave you three of them. Write all of your songs with the G C and D chords, as well as the chord E Minor. Experiment with different combinations of these chords. Your verses should all have the same chord progression, and your choruses should have the same chord progression, but the progression in the verses should generally be different from the progression in the choruses. If you use the same chords in both sections, make them last longer in one than the other. The key is variation to maintain the listener’s interest. In the bridge, come up with a new combination of these chords, and try adding the chord A minor for spice. For inspiration on how to combine chords, learn the songs Charlie has listed here. See what decisions those writers made. I also highly recommend learning Taylor Swift songs, no matter your opinion of her music. The only way to avoid writing cliché songs is to learn as many cliché songs as you can so that you know what not to do.

Learning Other Instruments

“80/20 Piano” by Linda Dye

This is foolproof. Anyone can make up their own music. I found out when I lost my vision and was so scared I would not be able to play piano because I always read the music and could not play by ear. I heard a Ray Charles song and realized, he was playing on the black keys. Revelation! (My vision came back later.) Baby What’d I Say – it’s blues with a 1-4-5 pattern, starting on the E-flat. But even if you don’t know music or what that stuff means, you can use the black keys to improvise and play a relaxing melody.

This is what I show children how to do—Play a black key with your left hand and press the foot pedal at the same time, holding it down. (There are 3, use the right foot on the far right pedal.) The note will sustain itself. Touch a black key with your right hand, then another, try to make a pattern, then repeat it a couple of times if it sounds good. Play another note with your left hand, down in the bass notes, the low notes, and again move around in the treble, high notes, with the right hand. STAY ON THE BLACK KEYS and you will not make a mistake. Try to establish a rhythm, which is just the beat. If it sounds a bit wrong, do it again, as if you meant to do it, then move to a sound you like better. Maybe this will be the first song you’ve ever composed.

To end it, you can repeat that first pattern, hold the last note and maybe do one last bass note. Breathe in, breathe out, close your eyes, and you will feel the music, plus look cerebral and cool.? Let the pedal up now and then or it will sound too murky, maybe when you change bass notes… Just to prove my point when someone is skeptical, I have played on the black notes with my fist, forearm, and even my elbow, and can make it sound like it goes together.

Try googling 1-4-5 and blues scale for more. There are tons of music lessons out there. Learn the circle of fifths, learn the scales and the chords, major and minor. You will never run out of things to learn with music.

“80/20 Flute” by Kaylin Johnson

Here are some key points for applying the 80/20 principle to classical flute, designed for someone who can already read music:

(1) When playing solos and other pieces, flute players rarely benefit from re-playing the portions they can already play well. I see a lot of students who are so determined to play perfectly from start to finish. They end up wasting a lot of time playing the portions they have already mastered, when instead the majority of practice time could more efficiently be spent focusing on the parts that are causing them difficulty.

(2) All etudes and exercises are not created equal. I once had a teacher tell me that if I could master the exercises in the Taffanel/Gaubert 17 daily exercises book, I could play almost any solo. This is true to some degree, but I would recommend focusing on the portions you need for each solo as you choose to focus on it, unless your goal is accurate sight-reading in an orchestra or other performance group.

(3) I completely agree with Tim that consistency is key when it comes to practicing. My first band teacher said to practice eight minutes a day (about an hour a week), and that actually got me into the practice habit because it was achievable. I worked up to two hours a day, but, looking back, I’m not sure that playing past an hour was worth it. I got through more content (etudes, exercises, solos, etc.) but I don’t think it was necessary based on the 80/20 principle. I’ve also heard of many serious musicians who develop problems in their hands or other parts of the body, which seems like a huge motivator to practice smarter, not longer.

(4) A private teacher can be an immensely powerful motivator for practicing and designing a plan for advancement. If you are looking to do something unconventional, such as following the 80/20 principle, it may take a few teachers before you find one who supports you. For example, I play with an unusual embouchure (lip placement) and all but one teacher out of five was determined to have me learn “proper” embouchure if I studied under them. I went with the one who wanted to work with me as I was, and still found success without undergoing a lengthy re-learning process. To note, a teacher can also serve as a mentor and a friend, so I recommend scheduling shorter lessons and getting right down to business if you want to get the most for your money. You can even warm up ahead of time if possible to save a few minutes.

(5) Having the right tools, such as a tuner that can detect notes or a metronome, eliminate guesswork and save you a lot of time and effort.

(6) When working with other groups, such as small ensembles or piano accompanists, listen to recordings ahead of time, if available. When you are paying someone like an accompanist per hour, you don’t want to be paying to learn how each part sounds together. Instead, you should be focusing items such as cues, tuning, and entrances.

Some of these principles may apply to other instruments as well, especially woodwinds.

Posted on: December 11, 2012.

Watch The Tim Ferriss Experiment, the new #1-rated TV show with "the world's best human guinea pig" (Newsweek), Tim Ferriss. It's Mythbusters meets Jackass. Shot and edited by the Emmy-award winning team behind Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and Parts Unknown. Here's the trailer.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Comment Rules: Remember what Fonzie was like? Cool. That’s how we’re gonna be — cool. Critical is fine, but if you’re rude, we’ll delete your stuff. Please do not put your URL in the comment text and please use your PERSONAL name or initials and not your business name, as the latter comes off like spam. Have fun and thanks for adding to the conversation! (Thanks to Brian Oberkirch for the inspiration)

288 comments on “How to Finally Play the Guitar: 80/20 Guitar and Minimalist Music

    • I have to agree with this. I like many others bought a guitar enthusiastically after guitar hero came out, but it was rather different and the idea was shelved due to difficulty/lack of time, the usual excuses.

      I’ll cut this one out using 80/20 and come back to this post later when I’ve got the automated income, a fit body and am speaking Japanese :-)


      • Tim,

        If you want to separate the pros from the Joes–the fret climb is the right exercise. But for a different reason.

        The pick hand/strum hand/fingerstyle hand distinguishes between players and beginners and is a lot more difficult than developing calluses.

        However, the fret climb, as you have named it, is a great first step. Just make sure to use a plectrum [fancy word for a pick] and make sure that you alternate each stroke–meaning always go up and down even as you move between strings.

        This may seem obvious if you pick 1234, 1234, etc. It gets way more interesting when you pick 123, 123, 123, and ALWAYS ALTERNATE–this will teach you how to pick.

        The hand that picks make the player–kind of like being with a woman–but it is much more complicated than the Four Hour Body–Zing!


    • Great post.. Funny, I used many 80/20 principles in my own guitar teaching and in my book. There are some great points. You can use 2 finger versions of these chords to get started as beginners often have a hard time with the G and C chords.


      • After years of buying Tim’s books, trying things with various levels of success and seeing people criticize his methods it is interesting to see an article on something I’m an expert in (top rated teacher in LA).

        My gut reaction was to disagree with a lot here because of bad habits and far more effective ways and all the places I’ve seen people get lost.

        Then I thought about it and thought about how I encourage my students to do whatever it takes to keep the instrument enjoyable and could see how this would be a good path to use to start.

        I do feel a little of it assumes knowledge and there are somethings that could be simplified much further (also there are many free apps that fiction just as well as my $100 stage tuner so I see no reason to drop 4 bucks). But I dig the enthusiasm and concept and hope it gets a lot of people to strt playing.

        Tim if you’re ever in Los Angeles, I’ll give you a free lesson for encouraging me to start my own business. I’m usually top of yelp so :)


  1. Throw in Am and F chords which are very natural progression from the four chords mentioned and you’ll be able to play an even wider variety of songs.


    1. Somebody That I Used To Know (Gotye)
    2. Gives You Hell (All American Rejects)
    3. All The Small Things (Blink182)
    4. Before I Fall to Pieces (Razorlight)
    5. She’s So Lovely (Scouting for Girls)
    6. Hot n’ Cold (Katy Perry)
    7. All Summer Long (Kid Rock)
    8. What Makes You Beautiful (One Direction)
    9. All Star (Smash Mouth)


    • Nice additional list. Yup, more chords will naturally give you access to more songs – although the F chord is a bar chord and so is a bit more difficult to finger. If it’s too hard initially, you can cheat by using Dm (F’s minor)

      But the additional Am and Em are easy chords that everyone should know (especially for bridges).

      Rock on – the secret to learning guitar is striving to play songs you want to play, plus a shake of chord family theory.


  2. Tim, tone it down a notch. I can’t deal with the sheer amount of awesomeness you’re posting lately. You are the King. And, to top it off, you had to go and use my celebrity crush Lights as the picture for this post. This was the first girl I met to cross off my list from The Dream Book. Meeting you in Seattle was the 6th! I just want to say, once again, thank you for all that you do.

    One of your 1,000 true fans,


    Liked by 1 person

  3. Tim, I’m so glad we have similar interests. You make learning what I want to learn so much easier. I’ve played 6 different instruments throughout my life but could never quite grasp the piano or the guitar.

    Next, I just need you to become a parent to help out with this whole raising a kid thing on a minimum effective dosage.


  4. Great post Tim! I’ve been waiting for you to take up the guitar so I could read your thoughts on learning it.

    This virtually the same line of thinking I have been thinking — combining ideas from your learning approaches to guitar. A as play of some 22 years, I think I’ve tried enough tricks and exercises to figure out what is “the 20%”. The chords you have outlined are certainly the most used in popular music. Heck, Blues, Rock and to an extent Jazz guitar progressions are primarily based on 3-4 chords (I IV V in music terms).

    The next step is to take shapes and create Barre chords. That way, you can take a chord shape and move it up and down the fretboard at will. Essentially your E and A shapes as well as Em and Am can be used to create any major or minor chord (you can use the C and D shapes but they’re a bit trickier).

    As for single note lines and lead guitar techniques, simple chromatic patterns are a great starting point. The easiest way to learn to “wail” and learn a number of different rock solos is via the pentatonic scale, which is essentially a 2 note per string scale that forms the foundation of the blues and rock.

    Use a metronome as you begin to increase speed. Everything in music is tied together by rhythm and timing so this sense needs to be developed from the outset.


  5. Hey Tim, I wrote an ebook a few years ago with pretty much this same exact concept. Years ago (and I mean YEARS ago) when I first started playing guitar I found traditional lessons soooo boring as most had me going through Mary Had a Little Lamb, Aura Lee (Love Me Tender), and a BUNCH of antiquated songs I had absolutely NO interest in playing – so I quit.

    My interest only sparked after Guitar for the Practicing Musician came out and I could play actual current songs that I loved. Then I kicked ass (after many many painful nights where I couldn’t even pick up a piece of paper b/c my fingers hurt so bad). I am now proficient and KNOW that this type of method works as it has for many of my students.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. thank you for covering music! i was wondering when this would happen! you are a master of language learning and music IS a language (the most beautiful one at that) and glad you are now sharing this with your community! very well written!

    im working on drum lessons using your DiSSS model and hope to have them up by spring.


    Liked by 1 person

  7. Been waiting for this. I’ve played guitar for 12 years. Fascinated by your learning methods I think I’ve applied many of them long time ago while trying to learn everything guitarwise.

    There’s a clear and simpel system to learn to play all chords that you need. You just need the principle (some music theory, not much). And I can’t wait to help other learn to play in fast, funny and ridiculous easy fashion!

    For example. The lowest string called E. From there if you go fret by fret the notes named:

    E (for the open string),
    then back to E again at the 12th fret.

    Let’s say I know how to play the A chord as a barre chord at the 5th fret. Then I can just move these along the fretbord to make other chords.
    At 7th fret it’s B (if I just count the steps from A in the list I made). At 11th its Eb. And so on…

    If I know how to play Am (Aminor) on the fifth fret I know can play almost any song I ever want to play.

    Keep going!


  8. What an awesome article, Tim. I think every man in the second half of the 20th century, at some point, wanted to play the guitar. Great work as always!

    Now we just need 80/20 BJJ or 80/20 Judo with Dave Camarillo!