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

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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 www.ultimate-guitar.com 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
D-C-G 

“Good Riddance” by Green Day
G-C-D 

“What I Got” by Sublime
D-G 

“You Shook Me All Night Long” by AC/DC
G-C-D

“Brown Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison
G-C-D-Em

“Magic Carpet Ride” by Steppenwolf
D-C-G-Bb-Gm

“Blister” by Violent Femmes
G-C-Em-D

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 www.ultimate-guitar.com 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)

Personalized

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!

Gear

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…

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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):

– D D DUDU
– D DUD DU
– D DU UDU

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.

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281 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 :-)

      Like

      • 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!

        Like

    • 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.

      Like

      • 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 :)

        Like

  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.

    Examples:

    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)

    Like

    • 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.

      Like

  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,

    Corey.

    Like

  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.

    Like

  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.

    Like

  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.

    Like

  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.

    cheers!

    Like

  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),
    F,
    F#/Gb,
    G,
    G#/Ab,
    A,
    A#/Bb,
    B,
    C,
    C#/Db,
    D#/Eb,
    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!

    Like

  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!

    Like

  9. I was wondering when Tim would learn a musical instrument!

    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):

    – D D DUDU

    – D DUD DU

    – D DU UDU

    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 just use only 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.

    Like

  10. Great post. I am in the middle of learning the guitar at the moment. I would really recommend trying a 3/4 nylon string guitar – reduces finger pressure / pain and can still be combined with the Capo trick. Beginning Fingerstyle Blues is also a great book if you want to go beyond strumming, it breaks things down in a very DISS style, giving simple exercises that quickly build up to something impressive. Finally if you like Blues, try learning harmonica – it fits so many of the DISS ideas as an instrument (it is already in only 1 key so you can’t play a wrong note, can be carried with you everywhere only costs £30 / $20 dollars). It is a great first instrument to learn.

    Like

  11. Ha ha ha, ever since I saw them play at the comedy festival, I was blown away by just how easy the guitar was.
    So I learnt all of your above steps and now just need to master strum patterns and I am laughing (This to me is the hardest part of them all)
    Tim, your’ve done it again mate, congratulations and thank you!

    Like

  12. ha! I love how this post and these ideas make STARTING more manageable and less intimidating. A lot of people’s failure point (in learning anything) is getting underway. Either it looks too hard, or they’re afraid of making a fool of themselves — they’re intimidated and they can’t start or they do start and quickly give up.

    this by no means gets you to world class but axis of awesome shows us that you can quickly play loads of pop songs. I’m trying to do the same rapid efficient learning with piano at the moment, though I fully intend to develop my skil to be quite advanced.

    Quick story: I learned the basics on guitar and once held a guitar in my hands and held captive a room of about 30 people at a party. i was pretending to know what i was doing. people were shouting requests, most of which I very casually declined as if i wasn’t in the mood. then i’d play a bit of easy pop songs and everyone thought i was a guitar master.

    Like

  13. This is a really great article except the title should be “How To Fret Notes And Learn Your 1st Three Chords.” All the gear recommendations along with advice on the proper mindset is really great because those are two of the biggest hurdles to playing guitar, and learning anything. The problem is that “playing guitar” can mean thousands of different things (think songs) to every single person, and then you need the appropriate techniques to learn with them.

    However, this article succeeded on getting someone started on the instrument, just like how Tim’s books merely get someone started on cooking, living a healthier lifestyle, and/or becoming financially independent. The 4HWW for instance has been a huge influence on my decision to start my own online business, which I’m still working on.

    I mention all this because G-C-D will help you play A LOT of guitar music, but it may hurt someone’s chances of wanting to play riff-based guitar music like Metallica or Led Zeppelin. Metallica’s music requires different playing skills to learn than any of the songs above, and playing lead guitar like Slash also requires totally different skills.

    By the way, Sweet Child O’ Mine uses G-C-D too.

    Anyways, thanks for the article Tim!

    Like

  14. Awesome! I’m a guitar teacher and I’m always looking for ways to improve my teaching, especially for beginners students. They can be very tricky and I always try to be a conscious as possible of the issues that they are having (finger pain, finger coordination, songs choice, or boredom because there parents are making them do it which is all to common). This is has solidified the approach I have been heading towards this year. Hopefully I can really increase my rate of success by incorporating a “point them in the right direction approach” via youtube and UG instead of just printing out the tabs for them (which get lost the next week).
    Another great thing for beginners is the simple riffs on 1 string. Like the classic smoke on the water, seven nation army, sunshine of your love etc. I use this approach and then when the songs have been mastered I move them on to two string riffs followed by 3 string riffs. This has worked really well and I find it pretty easy to add modern pop songs to the mix.

    Like

  15. As a singer/songwriter who has played guitar since I was ten, I would like to offer one more tip.

    Be sure to use the tips of your fingers instead of the pads. This might hurt more when you start practicing but it will hurt a lot less when you finish for the day. This also ensures that you are not accidentally touching other strings, which muddles the sound and can frustrate the beginner.

    Most importantly, have fun with it and enjoy your groove!

    Like

  16. This is a great first lesson and is similar to how I learned how to play.

    I would also recommend finding a song that you really like, but that is pretty simple and master it.

    I had Metallica’s One when I was 15, and the opening riff to Sweet Child O’ Mine by Guns N Roses, as well as Smoke on the Water by Deep Purple and Iron Man by Black Sabbath.

    I usually start people on power chords, but you can play an assload of songs using basic open chords, too.

    Like

  17. Great post Charlie/Tim. Can I make a gear suggestion? Check out the Breedlove line of guitars. I bought mine brand new for $450 from Guitar Center. Never even heard of them before but it had that Taylor brightness and a really easy-playing neck. I’ve had mine for 2 years now and it just keeps sounding better thanks to the solid top. Washburn also makes a decent line of cheapo guitars for around $200. Just make sure you grab the solid top.

    A suggestion for the 80/20 way to learning about 90% of the chords used in pop rock/punk rock music (NoFX, Blink 182, Green Day, etc) is to learn the “power chord.” A power chord is the root note plus the 5th. An easier way to explain it is to put your index finger on any fret and then place your ring finger on the next string down but 2 frets higher. I also suggest learning to read tabs instead of music itself first. Much quicker to translate and learn in my opinion.

    An example would be to put your index finger on the 5th fret of the E string (A note) and the 7th fret of the A string (E note). The tabs would look like this:
    E ——————
    B ——————
    G ——————
    D ——————
    A ———7——-
    E ———5——-

    You can move that positioning to pretty much any fret on the E or A string up to the 7th fret on each (you can go past the 7th but you’ll start to lose sustain or the amount of time the notes will ring out for).

    Like

    • 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, very boogie woogie. 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 has been your first song you 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. I could go on from there about broken chord patterns in the left and right hands repeating and creating a foundation for the melody, but first, you just need to play around with it and create.
      Then you can start playing the white keys in the key of C to begin with, which is the easiest of the keys that include white notes. You can make this sound New Age or jazzy or like the blues. There is a blues scale that is very easy to learn also. Once you learn that, you can’t be stopped. Still, I would not give up the foundation classical training and theory gave me. Because of that, I can take this method and rock out, play by ear, and have a blast, while carrying on a conversation. I truly believe anyone can learn to play, if they are not completely deaf. Drawing, or singing, same thing. If you can write your name, you can learn to draw with just a few shapes. If you can speak, you can learn to sing. Once you learn the basics of chords on a guitar, you can do the same chords on piano. Keep your wrists up a little and curve your fingers, but honestly, 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. Have fun. Sorry this is so long. It is easier to show you in person. A 3-year-old was playing duets with me in less than 5 minutes. I hope this will inspire you and you will reply some day with a video of yourself making music. 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.

      Like

    • See my comment below if ya want a quick summary of how I teach. I can probably throw together a more in depth post somewhere if there’s demand for it

      Like

  18. I’m another guy who has his guitar in the corner collecting dust and waiting for me to finally “get to it”.

    You have to succeed in the beginning to motivate you to go forward. I hope this post motivated me enough to pick my guitar up again.

    I love the idea of just 10 minutes a day. It’s just like flossing only 1 tooth. You get into the habit of doing something.

    Thanks

    Like

  19. About learning other music-related stuff… Per Bristow has a minimalistic unusual method for learning singing effortlessly and freely, and in a fun and relaxed way too. He also talks a lot about learning anything effortlessly. Actually, just today as I’ve been reading 4HC, I’ve been thinking that there’s lots of similarities. Like the TI swimming method. Or the bother of being called “prodigy” when you master something unusually quick and well.

    Like

  20. I’ve been making my way through “The Four Hour Chef”, and thought to myself “There has to be a way to apply this ti learning how to play guitar…”
    Tim, you read my mind, and a big thanks for this. I’ve wanted to play since I was a kid (I’m 43 now).
    So, playing guitar is one of my goals for the new year. And this is a great start.

    One question, when wanting to learn so many things (guitar, language, cooking…), how do you divide up the time?

    Like

    • I’m so glad someone mentioned ukulele. I’m a guitarist who has been teaching ukulele for the past five years because it is heaps easier to start with than guitar. Unfortunately, I haven’t found any ukulele books that show how fun and easy it can be so I’m writing one. It should be out toward the end of this year. I think I’ll write in to Tim with some info relating to starting uke. Maybe he’ll put it up.

      Like

  21. I do an entire 30 minute set, 30 song medley of all songs in key of G that are one hit wonders. It’s funny how much you can fake it by knowing these 3 chords.

    Once the progress and confidence set in, it really helps you get to the next level and over the boring part of learning scales at the beginning.

    Tim,

    Now that you’re learning guitar, duet at the Bachelor auction next year? :)

    Like

  22. Great article, Tim and Charlie! You should also mention that before touching the guitar, it’s good to do some finger/hand warm ups first. Cold fingers make it harder to play. Just a simple, relaxed shaking of the hands will do, to keep the blood flowing and limber up those fingers. But not too hard, or you’ll sprain a finger…

    Like

  23. A long time ago, I taught myself playing the guitar in pretty much the same way (less systematic and sans Youtube) — after years of frustrating piano lessons, the experience of learning music quickly and joyfully was a revelation.

    Want to make the beginning even easier? Put any finger on 2nd string, 1st fret. Only pluck/strum the 1st three strings (the thin ones) — bam, you got a little C chord. Then move that finger to the 1st string (staying on the 1st fret), again pluck/strum the three strings — there’s the G! Now you can play most childrens’ songs and even some pop songs. Sort of. In a way. But it’s a start!

    Like

  24. This is a great article for beginners, or anyone who’s had a lot of trouble getting past the beginning stages!

    There can be many long-term goals on the guitar (virtuoso metal shredder vs. funky rhythmic chord strummer vs. singer/songwriter esque acoustic playing)

    I’ll try to share some concepts that can be applied to making practice more efficient for anyone though:

    -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.

    -As Tim stated, 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 exercises 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, and they might not apply to a lot of guitarists. However, the important thing is, 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. Break it down. Focus on that one section of song. Break it down to it’s simplest form, and blast it until you can nail it consistently. Whether it be 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.

    This is getting lengthy… lol, I’ll stop here but I hope this helps! Hopefully it’s not to generic. I could go into more detail but at that point I’d be writing an entirely new article ;)

    For those of you learning guitar, stick with it! As Tim said, enjoying the process is key, and a burning desire to reach your goals, coupled with persistent action and seeking the right knowledge to apply, will eventually take you past any obstacles you hit and straight to wherever you want to go.

    Like

    • Thanks Tim and Thanks Brandon to complement this!
      Can you tell me which are the best exercises that work multiple techniques at once?
      Don’t you think this approach can be too difficult for beginners?

      Like

  25. Huge fan of both of your blogs. Great post. I’d like to add a bit to it. 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 has so expertly laid out here.

    Soloing:
    Guitar solos are made of single note lines. It’s hard to know which notes to play, so we have these things called scale patterns. A scale pattern is basically a collection of notes that will sound good with the song you’re playing. If you want to solo, there is only one scale pattern 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: http://www.justinguitar.com/images/SC_images/Scale_MinPent-1.gif. 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 Charlie gave you, as well as the chord E Minor, shown here: http://www.jamplay.com/images/chords/e-minor-3.jpg. 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 (http://0.tqn.com/d/guitar/1/0/d/s/a-minor-chord.gif) 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.

    I have given a brief overview here. I can go into more detail ordo this same thing for rap music, if anyone is interested, but for now I think that’s probably enough! Happy picking, everyone.

    Like

  26. I always recommend beginning with an electric guitar. Because the strings are amplified, it requires LESS pressure from your not-yet-calloused fingertips. This means more playing time before pain becomes prohibitive.

    I also believe that enjoyment is top priority for quick learning. I never played exercises, only imitated the music I loved, and the slightest progress was so thrilling that I was playing at a near-professional level before I ever felt the need to “sit down and practice.”

    It’s not about learning quickly, it’s about enjoyment. If you love it, you WILL master it, and soon enough that you’ll feel grateful instead of impatient.

    “There is no way to happiness. Happiness is the way.” –Buddha

    Like

    • Totally agree about enjoyment speeding up your progress. I tried starting with both electric and acoustic, but electric ultimately costs more and having another piece (the amp) is one more thing to worry about for a beginner. Gotta eliminate those barriers!

      BUT I still dream of throwing down Johnny B Goode someday on the electric…

      Like

      • ‘Johnny B Goode’ is extremely easy, Charlie. You should give it a try. It’s a basic blues shuffle pattern that you can play with only 3 fingers (bands like AC/DC also use this technique a lot).

        http://guitar.about.com/od/specificlessons/ss/blues-shuffle-guitar-lesson_3.htm

        The lead is pretty much 2 fingers.

        Most people seem to think that Chuck Berry was some sort of guitar god, but his playing is actually extremely simple. Mostly slides and double-stops (he created double-stops, btw).

        You can check out the tablature to the entire song here:

        http://www.songsterr.com/a/wsa/chuck-berry-johnny-b-goode-tab-s10t0

        These tabs are split by each instrument. In this one, the lead guitar is being shown at first, but change it to see the rhythm guitar, too, and you’ll see how easy that song is to play.

        Berry’s genius lies not so much in ‘expert’ playing skills, but in the innovations he created. He didn’t have anyone to base his particular style of playing on, so he created his own.

        Like

  27. Nice! I like the way you simultaneously broke it down to few enough parts that absolute beginners won’t get swamped, as well as encompassing everything they’d want to know in order not to get bored.

    Nice call on the capo, as well. It really does help with the finger pain, but I haven’t seen any other “learn to play guitar” posts mention this as a strategy.

    One caveat, however: when you’re first learning to read chord charts, or watching YT videos illustrating how to play basic chords, it can be surprisingly difficult to wrap your mind around the fact that your own hand is two frets higher on the neck, above the capo. Beginners should allow for a little initial befuddlement before getting comfortable with this.

    Finally, once you’ve got your three chords down, it’s actually not too soon to start playing some simple, fun solos. It’s easier than you might imagine, too. Check YT or, ahem, the home page at my site for a few extra tips. ;)

    Like

  28. Don’t forget about using a lower gauge (thinner) strings. One of the nice things about playing electric guitars is that the strings are much thinner and therefore are a lot easier on your fingers. When buying strings as for flat wound and the thinnest gauge they would recommend for an acoustic guitar.

    Also I play and would recommend as an excellent beginner through intermediate player, the Martin DX-1 which usually goes for about $500. It’s a composite body so it’s a lot less expensive but still dense so the sound quality is high (for the price). Also you can beat it up a bit and it just looks more worn in and gets more comfortable the more you play it. Hope that helps aspiring guitarists out there.

    Like

  29. Here’s how to start playing the piano by faking it:

    Using the black keys only, play long, deep bass notes with your left hand and add a slow melody with your right.
    With your foot, push down the right pedal each time you play a bass note and hold the pedal as long as you want the bass note to linger.
    With a little luck, the result will sound like new-age meditation muzak.

    Explanation: The black keys form a pentatonic scale, commonly used in East Asian or African music. Great for fake improvisation, because everything sounds kind of nice together. You’ll quickly find out which notes go better together than others. The pedal will nicely blur together all the doodling and noodling.

    Remember to gently rock your upper body, either dreamily closing your eyes or longingly staring off into the distance. As a teenager, I used to do this for hours… Just don’t ever do it in front of a musician.

    Like

  30. That’s funny, very similar to how I teach beginners. I am actually writing a book and will follow up with videos teaching both the principles and knowledge that will allow you to play anything!

    And not to take anything away from this lesson, just to be technical for those really looking to learn, that’s actually not the chord of C major. It’s actually Cadd9. But still a good beginning lesson.

    ALSO, let me add that a good habit to establish from the start is to be sure and put your fingers right behind the metal bar when pressing down on a fret (take another look at the pictures and you’ll see him doing this).

    Another very important thing that should be pointed out from the start, is that picking begins with the fingers, not the wrist. Your knuckles should be bent, not locked. This allows for a little play and finesse. Think of it like painting with a fine paint brush. Picking begins with the fingers, then moves up the arm. DON’T JUST LOCK YOUR FINGERS AND MOVE YOUR WRIST!

    Like

    • Re: C / Cadd9 chord

      It’s hard to see in the post, but here’s the footnote at the bottom:

      “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.”

      Like

  31. There are really only two types of guitars: disposable and forever. If you are learning get a disposable guitar. Spend no more than $100 on eBay for one. If you find you love guitar, save up your money and get a forever guitar, like a Martin D-28 acoustic or a Paul Reed Smith Custom 24 electric. Both will set you back somewhere between $2k and $4k each and will last longer than you will. Then give your first guitar to a kid and let the process repeat. If you find you hate the guitar, give it to a kid anyway, and you’re only out the $100.

    Like

  32. Wow, great post. The same goes for piano playing, except you’d start with melodies instead of chords: learn to play a few simple tunes first, and *then* learn how to sight read. I’m constantly amazed at how most music teachers do this the wrong way round – would they teach a child how to read before they taught them how to speak?!

    Here’s a tutorial I recorded a couple of years ago that’s taught many complete beginners how to play the piano riff from John Lennon’s “Imagine”:

    You’ll need to know the names of the white notes first, which you can learn here:

    Another exercise, which is very empowering: I guarantee that every reader of this blog can work out how to play Happy Birthday on a piano by themselves, *even if they’ve never played a piano before*. Here’s how:

    1) Lock yourself in a room with a piano or keyboard and vow not to leave it until you’ve completed this exercise – I promise it won’t take more than 30 mins! The biggest barrier to completion is not believing you can do it, but every student I’ve ever met has been able to.

    2) Start with G (see the above video if you don’t know which one G is). Play it twice. That matches the word “Happy”.

    3) Now, you’re going to work out the rest by yourself.

    One.

    Note.

    At.

    A.

    Time.

    Using the white notes ONLY.

    Be systematic: is the next note one up? One down? Two up? Two down? (“Up” is right on a piano.) Try all the adjacent notes until you find the one that sounds right, and then remember it. *Keep track of all the notes you get right, so you don’t have to work them out again*.

    4) You can sometimes progress faster by singing a section to yourself before making random guesses at the piano. For instance, sing the first 2 lines (“Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday to you”): do they sound the same? Different? If different, how? Does the 2nd one go higher or lower than the 1st? If higher, that means it goes further right on the piano. Etc.

    5) You’re going to have to jump more than 5 notes in the 3rd line (the one where you sing the person’s name), just to warn you.

    6) If you get stuck, go through the 7 white notes one by one until you hit the right one: A, B, C, D, E, F, G. The most common way to hit a wall in this exercise is to keep on trying the same 2 or 3 wrong notes when the right note is further away, or just the same note repeated.

    7) If you really get stuck make sure you started on the right note, G! Don’t confuse it with A, or D.

    When you complete this exercise you should realize that the possibilities are endless: if you can work out Happy Birthday by yourself, then what else? This is how I learned piano myself, and I’m now a professional. I’d be interested to know how people get on with this exercise as I’ve only done it in person before!

    Good luck and enjoy. ;-)

    Benedict

    Like

    • Hi Benedict, Tim, Charlie and every other reader.

      Very nice post. It kinda shook me up in the sense that after graduating from the Amsterdam Conservatory (Pop-Piano) last year, the past year I’ve been busy writing my own pop-piano-course and building a website/blog/community to support it, which is entirely built with the 80-20 principle in mind.

      I learned how to play the piano at age 17 on my own and by ear and got accepted into the Conservatory 5 years later, with not a single piano lesson taken and without being able to ‘sight read’ (read musical notation).

      This might sound very ‘wowing’ to many people, but it’s not to me. Sure, I might have a good musical ear and maybe even some talent, but personally I mostly ‘blame’ my ‘musicality’ on the fact that I managed to figure out how to ‘hack’ the piano (and actually, music in general).

      As this post perfectly illustrates (or at least, gives you somewhat of a sneak preview of), music, especially pop-music, the music that 80% of us prefers over more ‘classical’ styles, isn’t all that difficult.
      Ok, ok, before anybody get’s mad: it CAN of course be very difficult, but it’s -almost- always very easy to strip down to a basic, simple form -> harmony.

      Guitar players already figured out a long time ago that harmony (chords) is the wisest and best place to start learning music.
      This post perfectly illustrates how many many aspiring guitarist, first learned how both music and the instrument ‘work’.

      For piano players and teachers, unfortunately there is a very strong myth going on, that music and piano should be learned the ‘classical’ way: first learning melody (single notes) in stead of harmony (chords), by learning how to ‘sight read’ and often even by starting with classical songs.

      Let me tell you this from vast personal experience: Piano can be learned in this ‘Pop’-way too, and that’s exactly what I try to show and learn to anybody interested on my website.
      Just like many starting guitarists do, by fist learning chords and what I like to call ‘patterns’ (different rhythms, just like guitarist have different strumming techniques, so to speak), you can tackle the piano with this 80-20 principle. Minimum effective dose eh?

      If you’re interested in learning how to play pop-music on the piano, I’d be very happy to welcome you to my website (currently still partially English and partially Dutch, but we’re working on fully translating everything), where you can learn a lot of the basics for free, get a free lesson / tutorial video of a pop-song / blog post every week for free by subscribing to my newsletter and read many more of my thoughts on hacking the piano: Pop-Piano and how to play it.

      Love the post Charlie. Tim, keep up the great work, you’re an inspiration, after getting starting this dream project after reading the Four Hour Workweek, getting (and currently being) in the shape of my life after reading the Four Hour Body, I received the Four Hour Chef on my doormat. Very curious.

      Cheers,

      Coen.

      Like

  33. Oh wow! I have a guitar that is gathering dust. I will need to actually pick it up and start learning. The key I would think is doing it every day. I will need to do that — these steps will really help. Thanks Tim and Charlie Hoehn for this article :)!!!!

    Like

  34. **Guitarist for 17 years here**

    There are a few problems with this approach Tim.

    1) The capo thing is a neat idea and you’re right, it’s easier to play. The problem is that you’ll be looking at a C shape on the fretboard when you’re actually playing a D. In my opinion it’s important to hear these chords correctly when you’re just getting started. My advice would be to simply practice for shorter times until you calluses and finger strength is up. Get a gripmaster and keep it in the car. It will help tremendously.

    2) Everyone here needs to know that’s not the right way to play a G or a C. It’s sort of the cheat way to play a G. If you learn it that way you’ll never buckle down and learn it the other way because it’s too hard. You should learn your G like this first: http://www.learn-to-play-rock-guitar.com/images/g-major-chord01.gif When you learn it like that it’s very easy switch back and forth between a G and C, which brings me to my next point…

    3) That’s not a C chord. It’s a C9 and there’s a big difference when it comes to making songs sound how they’re supposed to sound. On a lot of the songs you listed a C9 will sound terrible. A C is played like this: http://www.learn-to-play-rock-guitar.com/images/c-major-chord01.gif You can see now, that the second and third finger easily pop back and forth between the C and G when played this way.

    4) Instead of just working your way up the scale to get used to the strings, I say just dive right into the minor pentatonic scale. It easy to play and can be used to solo over pretty much anything. It’s what 90% of guitar players are using when they solo. They stretch it out and add notes to it here and there for color, but that’s the backbone they’re building off of. You can find it here: http://www.justinguitar.com/images/SC_images/Scale_MinPent-1.gif

    The 80/20 thing you posted here is necessarily “wrong.” I just would never start a student out this way. They would hit a wall in a relatively short time. They’d also be really mad at me when I tried to get them to play a standard G chord. “But my pinky won’t do that!” It’s what everyone says.

    Guitar is easier than most instruments to learn for various reasons but it’s still hard. Your first point is excellent and I tell all of my students that. You’re forcing your fingers to do weird little workouts that they’re not used to doing. It going to feel like you’ll never get anywhere in the beginning. But you do. Tim, it’s awesome that you got started. I hope it motivates a lot of people here to do the same.

    Like

    • Tim’s G chord is very much a standard G chord and is in no way “cheating” or the wrong way to learn / play a G major chord. The only difference between this article’s voicing and the one you recommended is one note and the overall left-hand fingering. I don’t even think one fingering is that much easier to learn than the other.

      (As far as the note itself: it’s a D versus an open B on the 2nd string. Both notes belong to the G major triad. Either is equally “correct”.)

      Tim’s voicing is actually more common these days. It also transitions more easily to the C9 or a D major chord, of course. A standard C chord can also be transitioned to from Tim’s G voicing with relative ease.

      Additionally, I think Gripmasters are a waste of money unless you want to become a competitive arm wrestler. :p I know countless guitar gods, and none of them would recommend using one over simply practicing (or at all for that matter). Actually having the instrument in hand is far more beneficial towards developing endurance and dexterity. If someone wants to try the capo approach in order to help get things moving then they certainly should. You can start high and progressively move the capo back over the course of a week or two. And instead of the Gripmaster, if anyone is looking to practice a bit without the guitar in hand (in the car for example), check out the “Shredneck”.

      Like

      • You’re right, having the instrument in hand is absolutely the best way to improve, which is why Shredneck is the dumbest invention ever. If you’re going to bust that thing out then just take your guitar out!

        Light and medium tension grip masters are great for endurance. The finger pads are also a little rough so they help to develop calluses. If you have a lot of transit time they’re a great investment. Obviously there’s no need to be sitting around your house using it.

        My point was that it’s important to learn the G both ways. Tim’s way is absolutely easier, that’s why he posted it. With the other way I’m able to do more voicings but maybe that’s due to my style more than anything.

        Like

    • Clint,

      The G chord is absolutely correct as Tim describes it. The one you described is also correct, the have exactly the same notes, just different voicing. I’m a professional guitarist… been playing for 18 years.

      Also, you’ll notice Tim added a foot note on the his “C” chord that acknowledges that it’s not the standard C chord. And you’re incorrect that it’s a C9 chord. A C9 chord is spelled C, E, G, Bb, and D. The chord Tim described is a C2 (or Cadd9) and is spelled C, E, G, D – and it will work most of the time especially for beginners.

      Like

    • Hey Clint,
      Thanks for the detailed comment. A few thoughts:

      1) I like the idea of the gripmaster, but I disagree that it’s important to hear the chords without the capo. The pitch is just higher; the capo doesn’t change the notes or the tuning — the chords still sound the same. I’ll take less pain over familiarity with sounds in the early stages.

      2) Never buckle down? Come on now, you know that’s not fair. I know how to play multiple variations of each chord, but you need to master the easy ones first.

      3) I pointed this out in the post’s footnote, but yes, it’s not the proper C. Again, this choice was made to simplify things for the beginner.

      4) Scales are fine and fun to play, but they’re not quite as straightforward or easy to remember when you’re just getting started.

      I told Tim a long time ago that every guitar player has a vocal opinion about how to learn, and it’s because we want to show off our expertise on the thing we love. I’m not an “expert” in guitar, I just know what’s worked for me and my friends in getting through the dip. Keep it simple and non-intimidating, and you can make it through.
      There’s no wrong way to learn guitar, EXCEPT for any method that makes you hate the process of learning. Enjoy it as much as possible!

      Thanks again,

      Charlie

      Like

  35. Tim teaches you how to be a rhythm guitarist. This will teach you how to do sick improvised guitar solos, 80/20 style.

    If you’re using Tim’s chords (G, C, D) you are in the key of “G major.” Don’t worry about why right now; trust me, you’re in G major. That means that “G” is an important note.

    Now, learn how to play these patterns forwards and backwards. Find a spot on the guitar where your fingers can move around quickly, and where the “R” note is a “G”
    Patterns: http://www.folkblues.com/images/pent_circle2.gif
    How to find a G Note: http://goo.gl/stLRw

    R stands for “root,” in case you were wondering. It’s a music term; you don’t need to know more than that.

    Now, put on any of the above songs that just use the G, C and D chords. Play along, using any of the notes in the patterns you used, in any order, one note at a time. You’ll find you’ve created a guitar solo. With practice, you’ll learn how to make them more melodic.

    If they sound too “happy” to you, you can shift the pattern up the neck of the guitar by four frets, such that the “R” is centered on an “E” instead of a “G” and it will sound more bluesy.

    This is called a “pentatonic scale”; it’s the cornerstone of blues and it’s hella easy to learn. Henceforth, if someone is playing guitar and you want to join in, all you really need to do a solo is to ask “what key are we in”? If they say “major” you’re good to go!

    (If they say minor, the patterns are the same, but the root is different: http://goo.gl/EtRS1 [the red dots are R])

    Like

  36. The most important thing is play music you want to hear.

    When you go to the guitar store, try a nylon string guitar. If you like the sound, it is much gentler on your fingers (and there is more room between strings). If you must have steel strings,get the lightest gauge strings you can.

    Interesting that three chord folkie lives on.

    Like

  37. A trick I teach my students for promoting the quick development of calluses is to dab a little bit of rubbing alcohol on their finger tips. It will dry out the skin and help quite a bit. Also, straight from the mouth of shred wizard Joe Satriani: avoid soaking your hands for very long, because that can ruin your hard-earned calluses. After awhile though, they stop mattering much, as your fingers seem to toughen up enough permanently.

    Great article, Tim! As a guitar instructor and future virtuoso, I have a million and one more ideas for you on the subject of 80/20 guitar, if you ever feel like doing a lesson / having a talk over Skype.

    Like

  38. Right i’ve done session guitar work and been in the studio(engineering side with Duran Duran, Natalie Imbruglia, Boxer Rebellion etc) blah blah…just to try and qualify myself.

    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 have a massive buzz and want to continue doing it.

    Talking off Slash, i rem reading an interview with him where he said as soon as he could play three chords he got in a band and started playing live any opportunity he could.

    Tim, are you any good? Post up a youtube vid!

    Like

    • I love it. There is nothing more nerve-wracking than the first time you play and sing in front of a big crowd. For those who get a rush from public speaking, it doesn’t really compare to performing. Scary, exciting, and super fun.

      Like

  39. Great post.
    I’ve been playing for 16 years and started teaching about 6 months ago after having 80/20’d the hell out of what I’ve learned… And I have to agree with Charlie – everything discussed comprises an ENORMOUS amount of the material that comprises popular music.

    This post essentially makes up the first month or two of guitar lessons.
    The biggest obstacle for most of my students doesn’t tend to be the information, but the biomechanics. So yeah-dead on.

    Like

  40. Hey,

    Any plans on turning this into a series of blog posts about different skills?

    BJJ with Dave Camarillo has already been mentioned.

    How about 80/20 photography with Chase Jarvis? Now that would be cool :)

    Like

  41. Tim, good chunk of 80/20 advice but I tend to agree with Clint about not using a capo to get started for the reason he cites. Couple of things I would recommend as 80/20 advice for learning quickly.

    1) Use an electric guitar not an acoustic. Electric is far easier to play well and you can get them for cheap at guitar center, craigslist, etc. Same for an amp – you can get a little amp for $20.

    2) Forget using individual chords at first – instead buckle down and learn how to make the primary major barre chord position.

    http://preview.tinyurl.com/9wwhz7a

    Then you can plan any of the major chords by sliding to the frets. You can make a minor by lifting a finger from the chord. Barre chords are the simplest way to learn how to play lots of chords without having to learn lots of chord positions

    3) Even simpler than using barre chords is to use an open tuning.

    http://slide.neonblade.com/tuning.html

    Once you the guitar has an open tuning you just squeeze one finger across a fret to make a chord and slide the finger around on the frets to get different chords. Super simple.

    Enjoy
    Ed

    Like

  42. If you aren’t enjoying it along the way and finding shortcuts to producing stuff you like then its not gonna last. Blind devotion isn’t noble. It’s just stupid if you aren’t getting results that make you happy.

    Like

  43. One thing I was missing in this post it´s vital to define your objective. You want to play song by reading them, by ear, improvise…

    that will defenite change your practice routine. regardless you can still use a 80/20 aproach. You just find different 80`s and 20`s.

    If you like music in general I would go with a good music theory course (sans reading) with it you can play any instrument, just change the mecanics. and watch howard godall ‘how music works’ in youtube.

    Like

  44. I’m a professional piano player (jazz, funk, hip hop, pop) and regularly apply the 80/20 principle to my teaching.

    I fucking love it.

    I think of 80/20 in music as a timeline now.

    The 20% that is important now changes in 6 months’ time. 99% of music is important to learn eventually, but if you start with the wrong 1%, your progress will be slow.

    Start with the 1% that is important. When you know that, a different 1% will be important. Do that.

    Here’s my thoughts on piano so far, and what works the best with students.

    1. Piano is linear (unlike guitar) therefore is very easy to gain a solid understanding of WHY you’re playing certain chords – this is important for self directed learning later down the track.

    As Michel Thomas says – You don’t forget what you understand.

    2. Start with the ‘Four chords’, but learn how they relate to each other.
    The summary: If you’re in the KEY of C (the scale is C D E F G A B C), and you play the chords
    Cmaj
    G
    Am
    F
    Then the corresponding NUMBERS of these chords (if C is 1, D is 2, E is 3 etc) would be 1-5-6-4 (or Roman numerals I-V-VI-IV)

    This seems like a difficult concept at first, but if my 7 year olds can get it in 2 weeks, anyone can.

    Grasping chords as numbers is important for understanding songs later down the track and thus learning the songs at a much more rapid rate. Basically allows you to deconstruct the songs into ‘segments’ instead of individual chords – especially Elton John and Billy Joel stuff

    3. Learn how the chords are constructed
    Again, seems like a waste of time but it takes half an hour with the right sequencing. By learning the fundamentals about how a major chord (triad – aka three note chord) is constructed, you essentially empower yourself to not need a teacher to learn songs.
    Learning how they’re constructed will also give you much more free reign over the keyboard and give you access to all of what are called ‘inversions’.

    An inversion means: If the C major chord is made up of C+E+G (from left to right on the keyboard) then you can also play E+G+C and G+C+E (from left to right) and it still is C major. Simple maths. 3 sounds for the price of one.

    My aim for all of my students is to not need me. My job is to make myself redundant and empower my students to learn their own shit as much as possible.

    4. Learn some basic ‘songification’
    – Technical term meaning ‘Once you know the chords, learn how to do cool stuff with them to make them sound like songs – think of the Journey song ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ – that’s a simple ‘chord pattern’ that is used to make the chords sound like a song

    That’s really it.

    The amazing feeling I get when a 12 year old girl who’s never played piano can start to figure all her own songs out after 2-3 months of learning with me is priceless. I’d do it for free.

    This post wasn’t very in depth, but if you want to know more, just email me or comment and I’ll try and post either a video or write something that makes more sense

    My email is jyazz21[at]gmail. I’m not selling anything. Just my love of music and passion for having other people see how goddam simple it is

    I’m looking forward to applying the concepts in the 4HC to my own teaching a lot more.
    I just bought the Ben Hogan book Five Lessons of Golf – as per your recommendation

    Any other teaching books you can recommend? I honestly would love to become one of the best music teachers in my country. I have the passion for it. Just not totally sure of the strategy. If my music teaching could be even half to what Michel Thomas was for language, I’d die happy

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  45. Pfft – forget guitar. If you want to be play in a rock band on stage at a major music venue (as I did) only 2 months after first laying hands on an instrument – go for BASS.
    Comes with special bonus – your fingers don’t bleed!
    Two years on (of which my bass guitar spent 1 year gathering dust while I was too lazy to practise) … I now play in an all-girl rock band – and we actually get paid!
    ROCK ON! :)

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  46. I started playing the guitar a couple months back and a lot of this does indeed seem to work but I gotta see with my own eyes Tim Ferriss sing and play the guitar. Hurry up Masterlock!

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  47. When I first started playing my dad’s old guitar at the age of 15, he showed me how to play one simple little riff. I sat there for hours, with my fingers hurting, until I got it. After that, I was hooked. I knew I was always on the verge of being able to do something new and amazing. I watched a lot of friends try to learn and quit because they never reached milestones, got excited, or enjoyed the process. This blog post has good advice, and I pity the fool who can’t even follow it long enough to get addicted to playing guitar.

    Also, I think proper technique is important, but falling in love with playing guitar is even more important. When I first learned how to play guitar, I used to play power-chords with my index and middle finger because I didn’t know any better. That’s pretty messed up, LOL, but I rocked out!

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  48. Dang it! I wanted to be the one to deconstruct guitar for you! Would you like to learn to sing as well? Don’t you DARE say you can’t! I’ve heard you speak far too often and know exactly of what your voice should be capable.

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  49. I wish I knew about 80-20 when i learned in grade 6 at 11 years old and more than 7 years of weekly lessons…..but 20 years of playing does teach you the a lot along “the long way” …one thing I might add, what time highlighted here is simply very basic level guitar… to advance to the next level a little hack to get you there is to focus on the Blues Scales (http://tabs.ultimate-guitar.com/m/misc_scales/blues_scales_tab.htm)

    this builds the basis for nearly all things Rock… Zepplin, Hendrix, Doors…you got it all blues based…Black Keys…. All blues scales…

    Learn the blues scales… learn rock.

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  50. Hi Tim
    Outstanding. Just outstanding. As for Axis of Awesome. They were even more outstanding. (bloody awesome actually and soooo funny). That chubby guy in the middle has great humour in his bones! Is he a Kiwi or Ozie. Anyway – it matters not. A great post. Take care. Have a fantastic Christmas. Buy my house if you want country living in a village in NZ. Take care. My wife and I are devotees of your posts. Cheers Craig

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  51. Hey Charlie,

    I didn’t know you play guitar.

    As someone who learned guitar before the Internet, I just want to say that a lot has changed in the last few decades.

    When learning a new song, do a YouTube search and you will find that there are probably dozens of videos teaching you exactly how to play your favorite songs. These not the days of listening to vinyl records over and over again.

    An absolutely, amazing tool is Guitar Pro software. You can download free songs from guitar tab sites and it breaks down each instrument into a different channel, showing both the music notes and tablature.

    The amazing part is that you can slow down and loop sections of the song to practice along at whatever speed you are capable of. Great, great tool!

    Another free piece of software that is helpful is the free audio software Audacity. With Audacity you can slow down complicated parts of songs, but keep the same pitch. This is great for learning solos. GuitarPro is much better if you can download the music, but Audacity is a good substitute and it’s free.

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  52. 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 then regularly scheduled effective practice), one word “feedback”.

    You need high quality, quick and regular feed back to get good fast at any musical instrument.

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

    2. Review the practice recording later and always review the last practice sessions recording as the first step in the next practice session. It’s like football, hockey and other sports they always watch the game after to look for things they missed in the heat of the moment, same goes for playing an instrument, especially guitar because it required a lot of hand co-ordination as well as listening ability. Make sure to record the whole guitar so you can see where your hands are, your posture etc. Listen to the sound, where are the clam notes, did you drop the beat? It’s extremely important to always practice with a beat (metronome, drum machine etc.) and always practice 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.

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    • I am absolutely in agreement with Mike. I was going to say the same.

      Amongst the gear you should buy since the beginning, a very cheap (Chinese for instance) tuner/metronome (there are very small, portable devices operated by a single AA battery that perform both) should be in the first gears list.

      If you want to use phone apps, you should also download a metronome.

      As of my experience, it is much better that the student gets the feeling of the tone and the tempo from the beginning. Always spend some minutes tuning the guitar upfront, and actually *listen* to yourself playing; personally, I do not subscribe to the approach of practising in front of the telly, for the very same reason that I don’t like to listen to music while I am running – I like to listen to myself. It is even more important and appropriate for musicians – always listen to the sounds you produce, even if you are just doing fret climbs. And as well practice with tempo, and try to understand if you are following the rhythm, if you are being sloppy, or staccato, or rubato and so on.

      For the rest, I find it useful. Personally I found myself learning the bass guitar first and then transitioning to the electric and acoustic guitar. I think the massive and distant (easy to stroke) strings of the electric bass can be helpful as a first approach.

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  53. The 80/20 of music theory for guitar is also very simple:

    (1.) Learn the major scale – I like to play it in a Ionian scale fashion [find this on YouTube]; number each note through the scale, for e.g. in G major, G = 1, A = 2, B = 3, C = 4, D = 5, E = 6, F# = 7, then the octave G = 8.

    (2.) Every chord and scale in every key can be named from slightly altering this simple 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 progression. Many people start with a pentatonic minor scale on guitar for theory, so the formula for this is: 1 b3 4 5 b7 8(octave); this refers to how the original major scale is altered, so if wanting to play A minor pentatonic (most common beginners), you’d set up to play the major scale starting from A, but only play the 1st (A), flattened 3rd (C), 4th (D), 5th (E), flattened 7th (G), then octave (A). Remember “CAGED.”

    (3.) Wanna play a “jazzy” 9th chord to impress people with your beginners knowledge – choose which note you want for the root e.g. D, and find a way to play the 1 3 5 b7 9; in D this is: D F# A C E.

    (4.) You can also use these for arpeggios, say if you were keen to replicate some neo-classical metal – try playing a harmonic minor arpeggio: 1 b3 5 7, which in A would be A C E G#; work up the speed and feel the burn!

    This can be used for the most complex scales and chords, e.g. superlocrian flattened 7 (which is in fact a flat flat 7, or a 6th), as well as the most simple, e.g. a major triad. Starting with one scale progression (the major), you can write a formula for every scale, chord, arpeggio, etc. in existence – great for Tim’s one pages as noted in 4HC; on one page you could have every bit of theory condensed nicely.

    Mind blown? I have such a sheet if it is desired by anyone, and many exercises relating to these and similar things.

    *NB* flattened means play the note on the fret immediately before the one you normally would, sharpened means playing the one immediately after.

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  54. great advice,

    im self taught, and picked up some tricks from a basic “learn to play rhythm guitar” type book, it was a great way to teach the basics behind what you are hearing.

    starting with an acoustic without the capo will make it harder at first but pay off big time down the road, its like learning to drive with a stick right off the bat, just get it over with. your strength on the fret board will be much better, an electric will be a breeze.

    i would stress learning the basic blues scale because it gives you the framework from which most rock and blues stems from, so when you learn solos and little tricks you will better understand how they relate to a scale and how to work like-sounding elements into your own improvisation.

    joining a band was the quickest way to improve my skills, especially if one of them is better than you, the rate at which you will absorb new skills is exponentially higher than solo practice.

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  55. Basically on a simple level guitar playing is all about knowing patterns and as you’ve discussed many songs follow the same pattern. The common pattern is 1-4-5, in your example G-C-D, get it? Many songs also throw in the minor 6th, in this case Em like in Brown Eyed Girl. If you know the root aka 1 you can figure out the other chords. Have fun

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  56. Guitar Center has the Fender FA-100, and its $99, and Guitar center has a $15 of $75 coupon on their main webpage too.

    one tip that i came across in The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor, he found that if he left his guitar in a very convient place, such as on a stand in his living room, he practiced 21 out of 21 days, wheere when it had been in the closet, he had practiced 3 out of 21 days. the point being, make it easy and convenient to practice.

    He also took the batteries out his remote and put them in the kitchen when he was trying to reduce his tv time too.

    Good Luck, and thanks for lowering the bar to entry on yet another field Tim!

    Like

    • P.S. I was wrong on the guitar center thing, when trying to check out I found the $15 off $75 coupon doesn’t apply to the FA-100 due to it already being on sale.

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  57. Hey Tim,

    Great idea, great blog. One thing I’d say though, is dispense with the capo and get your guitar properly set up instead (any decent new guitar should come like this). You can have light gauge strings put on and have the action set low (which it should be anyway) to make it easier to play. All a capo does is create a virtual nut at whichever fret you place it, it won’t make it any easier to play. Stick with open chords and progress to barre chords as your fingers get stronger. A crappy, badly setup guitar with heavy old strings and high action will just be a constant struggle to play and quickly dampen your enthusiasm.

    I’d also suggest that if you’re really keen, then buy a decent guitar and amp to begin with and then don’t buy any new gear for a long time. Decent gear can be bought inexpensively these days (like squier guitars) and you will find it more encouraging if you can at least dial in the right sound. For example, nailing a Van Halen lick on an acoustic just won’t give you the sense of elation that doing it on an overdriven electric will!

    Cheers.

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  58. Thanks Tim! The JustinGuitar website will prove to be useful (as I’m now inspired), but thank you for the introduction to Ocean! I’m chilling out listening to this:

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  59. Yo!!!! I just got a guitar several months ago and this info is a godsend. Tim, you are an American hero. Thank you. I can’t wait to implement everything in this post.

    David

    P.S. I now have everything I need for the first two weeks of recipes from the 4HC! I just have to season my dutch oven and IT’S ON!

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  60. Love the post. My start has been collecting dust in the corner for the last year now. Kinda makes me want to pick it back up.

    10 minutes a day. If you can’t handle that, then you must really not want to learn guitar.

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  61. Nice post!

    Next steps to increase guitar proficiency (and ‘stick-ability’ i.e. sticking with it) should definitely focus on learning the pentatonic scale. This scale is used for awesome-sounding solos in literally so many popular songs. If a new guitarist is able to solo along to his favorite song (or even better…improv solo his way through), they WILL stick with it.

    I also would recommend barre chords:
    – A lot of songs use primarily barre chords or at least a fully barred F chord. Sure you can play the open versions of these, but it just doesn’t sound right.
    – Breaking out into solo (especially improv solos) is much simpler when you know barre chords, since the individual notes making up the song’s barre chord progression will generally be the ones you include in the solo.

    Lastly arpeggios. Playing partial arpeggios of each chord in a 4 chord progression for example, sound amazing!

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  62. I’ve been playing for six years and I find it kind of interesting that this is an exact description of my education on guitar. And I don’t think three weeks for the intro to Crazy on You is embarrassing – that’s a wicked intro!!

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  63. Hey Tim, awesome article. I love your emphasis on learning music first. As somebody who learned guitar after a few other instruments, I tended to focus on exercises and theory but quickly lost interest. Once I started to learn music I actually enjoyed playing, things were much easier.

    Here’s my 80/20 guide to improvisation on saxophone:

    1. Focus on tone production. If your tone sounds good, any non-saxophonist will think you’re amazing. The best exercises are pitch bending and overtones. Try Youtube or the book “Top Tones” by Sigurd Rascher for a more thorough explanation.
    2. Learn the most common scales for guitar and piano, on saxophone. I recommend starting with C, A, G, E, and D. On alto saxophone (because the whole instrument is in the key of Eb), that would be Eb, F#, E, C#, and B.
    2 1/2 (Optional). Learn minor pentatonic scales* on sax if you want a rock/blues sound. Again, learn the scales most commonly played on guitar.
    3. Don your leather pants and suspenders, burn a cd of songs using the scales you learned, turn it up, and eat your heart out sexy sax man.

    If that’s not specific enough, I can expand upon any of the points.

    *Bonus (which applies to every instrument):

    Every major scale has a minor pentatonic (the rock/blues sound that every classic rock solo uses… ever) scale that “works” with it. If you’re playing a major scale, find the 6th note. In a C major scale, the 6th is A. If you play an A minor or A minor pentatonic scale over a C major chord, it magically sounds amazing. All you have to do is find the 6th note – this works in any key. Add some Maldon sea salt and a fedora, and you have some delicious bluesy sounds.

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  64. Hi Tim,

    I was wondering how “your” C chord compares to the one I learned (and find as first results in google) it is

    E ——————
    B —1-————
    G ——————
    D ——2-———
    A ————3—-
    E ———–——-

    I see the pattern with your C chord – it is easier to just “go down” with the fingers not changing the position of the fingers, but the chord sounds completely different.

    Anyways, it is a great post again, and I enjoyed reading it.

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    • Hi Holger,

      “Tim’s” C chord is in fact a C major add 9, which means it is the “normal” C but with the 9th of the scale added; adding a B would make it a C major 9, or adding a Bb would make it a C 9th, but either of these is a little difficult to do in this position.

      The one Tim’s refers to probably sounds a little more complicated, jazzier, and/or fuller and that’s ’cause it’s got a whole extra note, the D.

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  65. Tim – check out the book Guitar Zero by Gary Marcus. The book is about a cognitive psychologist who sets out to learn to play the guitar at the age of 40. Along the way he challenges myths about how people become musical, studies how people learn, and discusses the importance of continual learning for living a fulfilling life. Meta learning + guitar.

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  66. Hey that’s AWESOME – you’ve featured so many Australian things here :)
    Just waiting till you get back down under here – I’ll happily play my guitar, looping pedal, sample pads and sing for you!
    x

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  67. TIM – great post as always. I was wondering if you ever heard of Andy McKee. He is an amazing guitar player and a You Tube wonder. His big break started after a couple videos were uploaded. That earned him YT front page status back when they used to do that for most viewed videos. His “Drifting” video is over 45M views so far. (www.andymckee.com) – official site,
    (http://www.youtube.co/watch?v=Ddn4MGaS3N4) – the “Drifting” video

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  68. True True. i applied the same principle to art this year… painted every day for a year… from 11/11/11 to 12/12/12 and posted each one to facebook every day (398 paintings!!!). Not only did my technique improve, but so did the quality of materials I use as well as my confidence. I was also able to increase my prices and sell more :-)

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  69. Hi Tim,

    the right article at the right time :-)
    I am preparing everything for my next 30 day challenge and guess what the challenge is all about …

    Learn to play guitar in 30 days ;-)

    Thanks for your help.

    Cheers
    Anton

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  70. Hi Tim,

    I’m a professional guitar teacher, and I really like what Charlie has done here.

    However, one glaring omission is Wonderwall by Oasis, the ultimate beginner acoustic guitar song!

    Evan

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  71. As a professional guitarist and teacher, great job! The one thing to keep in mind for any of the readers here is the FREQUENCY of practice. Pick it up everyday, or close to it. You’ll progress much quicker with frequent practice. 4 days of 30 min is far greater than one 2 hour session.

    Also if you add the Em and A chords to your GCD practice you can get all 38 of the songs from the comedy troupe plus others (Boulevard Broken Dreams, Wonderwall, Pumped Up Kicks, etc). Tons of stuff using just 5 chords, which is like .01% of the guitar :) You don’t even need 80/20!

    Awesome stuff, I’m thoroughly enjoying 4HC!

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  72. WOW! I will have to bite my tongue on this post. In the words of the Johnny Couger….”shut up and play guitar”….

    p.s. to those of you ppl that think u can play guitar b/c of guitar hero…get yer head outta yer arse….I can’t stand that mental ignorance…I am a musician of over 25yrs and hated the fact that I had to push some weird button on a “guitar” to play a song I know how to play on a real instrument…

    put down the computer crap/games…get some instruments ppl…damn…so much for holdin my tongue w/ tech geeks

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  73. I often thought “how would Tim apply the 80/20 principle to guitar learning?”…Now I have the answer.

    The method is cool enough to help pass the first frustrating weeks (or even months) but I wouldn’t agree on one specific point though… If one want to learn electric guitar, he should go for an electric guitar. I understand why you advise to start on an acoustic guitar (that’s what I did) but still…

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