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Guitar Learning Secret #3 – Learn In The Correct Order

Most guitarists brought up in my era learned to play guitar from a variety of sources… guitar instructors, friends, books, copying our favorite artist, etc.  We worked hard for our ability to play and are sometimes pretty proud of it, but when it comes to teaching others we lack a systematic model to teach from.

The thing is there really is a faster, easier and less frustrating way to learn. One way to look at learning guitar secret #3 is that there are building blocks to learning guitar. There’s a best first thing, then second thing, third thing, and so on. When done correctly and in order it can save a lot of time and save you from the frustration of undoing bad habits.

My Story And A Confession

Now I didn’t always get this concept myself.  When I first started teaching I wanted to make my students happy. I thought the best way to do that was to teach them what they wanted to learn.

Makes sense, right?

I started off teaching them songs that I thought they would like and that were easy for beginners. Then I began “taking requests”. You probably know the drill. The student likes a pop/rock song  (some popular song at the time) … so I’d figure out how to play it, and then I’d teach them the chords and perhaps the cool lick that everybody knew.

I confess I knew this wasn’t the best way to teach but at the time I didn’t know what else to do.

The Stairway To Playing Beautiful Guitar

I had several students who wanted to learn the then-popular song “Stairway To Heaven” by the band Led Zeppelin. I could understand their motivation. That was one of the songs that inspired me as a young teenager to go from being an avid music listener to practicing guitar for hours on end.

Being the “good” teacher, I would encourage them to learn some basics first. For the next several months they would occasionally ask me if and when it was time to learn something “cool.” Finally I would give in and teach them the beginning of the elusive “Stairway to Heaven,” the mark that they were on their way to becoming a real guitar player.

At first their practice time doubled, and I could see wisps of smoke coming from their ears from how hard they were working. The more determined continued this way for months as I showed them more and more of the song.

Eventually though, even the most die-hard had to admit that it just didn’t sound great, or at least not much like the album (yes, it was albums in those days). Then they would begin the process again with another cool lick or song like Smoke On The Water, Iron Man, Crazy Train, etc. I guess I’m dating myself. (I prefer the term “Classic Rock” to oldies).

Was I Teaching Bad Guitar Learning Habits?

After about a year of teaching I began to realize something that I couldn't quite see when I first began learning guitar myself. The students could muddle through some cool licks and parts of songs, but they weren’t learning anything that would actually lead to really being able to play guitar.

In fact, they were developing some bad habits, like tensing their fingers and poor hand position, to play something they weren’t properly prepared for. These bad habits would have to be undone later if they were going to progress. And I was to blame, and some of my own first teachers were guilty of the same offense.

What Does Really Work?

After this first year of teaching I began to study and work hard… not only at being a good teacher, but I was also developing an excellent teaching system and materials to support my students. I found that when I stuck to solid teaching principles the system and materials pretty much fell into place.

Here’s are some of the most important learning principles that you can use to learn to play beautiful guitar:

Learn The Fundamentals

Depending on the style of music, some fundamentals are more important than others in the beginning. For example, it is more important to learn good note-reading skills when playing classical guitar than it is when playing rock guitar. But there are always fundamentals, and learning them first will give you a solid foundation to work from. Skipping important fundamentals will cause you undue pain and suffering.

Small Steps

Imagine trying to get to the top of a three-story building with no stairs or ladder. You’d have to scale the side of the building. No problem for Spider Dude, but for the average person it would be slightly demotivating. Now imagine putting a ladder against the side of the building. Even if you’re afraid of heights like I am, you could just avoid looking down while you put one foot up after another. Very doable.

Prepare, Prepare, Prepare

Use exercises or simpler versions to prepare for more difficult material coming up. For example, to prepare for the infamous bar chord I use an exercise that strengthens the index finger long before I present the first bar chord. Before learning a song in a particular key I have the student play simple chord progressions in that key.

Watch this video for an example of a step-by-step method for learning bar chords.

If someone has stiff fingers I start with a simpler “G” chord and expand to a more difficult one later, then an even more difficult one after that. All three versions of the G chord will be useful later on, depending on what they are playing. In a way they get three chords for the price of one.

This all requires a very experienced instructor with a good system, or possibly a well-thought-out system delivered through multimedia (DVD or Internet).

One More Thing…

Over the years I’ve literally talked to thousands people as  music school director at Starland. I conduct something called a Musical Learning Needs Analysis with potential students. This is a system of questions I’ve developed to help me uncover enough information to make recommendations on how best to proceed.

 The one thing I hear over and over again from guitar students is that they have tried to learn from books, videos, friends, or relatives, and they can’t seem to make significant progress. When I ask what they have been learning, I discover that they are often practicing something not even remotely close to what is appropriate for their level of experience, interests, and goals.

But Here’s What Really Concerns Me

Their assumption is almost always that there is “something wrong with me”. Not their friend’s or relative’s lack of teaching experience or their choice of materials… but their own ability to learn.

 Now these are the people who have decided to give it another try. I can’t help but wonder how many more people tried and will never come back to it.Been there, done that, it didn’t work… I must not have what it takes. 🙁

 Don’t be one of those people. Playing any instrument is a rather complex skill. As with learning any complex skill, there are principles to learning. By following these principles anyone can be successful at learning guitar… including, and especially YOU.


Related Post:

Secret #4 – When Music Theory Can Be a Roadblock To Learning Guitar

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  1. I like the way you approach the lessons. The exercise on bar chords looks very helpful.
    Keep up the helpful and fun hints.

    1. Hello Winston,

      Thank you so much for the appreciation.
      Yes, Tomas will definitely continue to give helpful tips.
      I hope you will look forward to it.

      Warm Regards,
      Starland Guitar
      Customer Support

  2. Tomas, I can really relate to the things you said in your last few paragraphs. I took lessons (Classical) from a particular teacher (who shall remain nameless) for 2 years. He could play classical very well; had even gone to college and studied. But he couldn’t teach classical worth a flip. But I didn’t know any better. Every time I went for a lesson I would go in with great expectations and hope. Each time I came away from a lesson I felt defeated, hopeless and I had that thought, “What’s wrong with me?” You are probably thinking why I stayed with him so long. I can’t give you a definitive answer for that. But through a series of minor incidences I had the blinders yanked from my eyes and I went in search of another teacher, not affiliated with any music store. I’ve found one local who not only plays classical guitar extremely well, she’s also a gifted teacher. I have learned more from her in 6 lessons than I ever did in 2 years and I’m doing things on the guitar I didn’t know I should have been able to do. Sorry to be so long winded. I’ll say one more thing and then I’ll hush. People, if you come away from your lessons more often than not, feeling hopeless and discouraged, that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. It might just mean there’s something wrong with the teacher who is supposed to be teaching you. Don’t be embarrassed to walk away.

    1. Hello Donna,

      Thanks for sharing your experiences with your guitar teachers. One thing that really struck me was the thought
      that you didn’t know who your guitar teacher was. He may have some good reasons to hide his identity but it’s always
      great to work with someone we know. It is one way of building rapport and of course trust. If you noticed, every video of Tomas Michaud – he always introduces himself. He doesn’t even want me to reply comments using his name. He wants to be honest because he also wants his students to be honest too and everything then follows.

      I have here an article to share with you written by Tomas himself. I hope this can help you and the rest of our budding guitarist our there who are looking or in search of a good guitar instructor. The article is How To Hire A Good Guitar Instructor
      I really hope this make sense.

      Take care,

      Starland Guitar
      Customer Support

  3. I’ve wantod play the guitar every since my college days ( 50 Yrs ago now) I though I would teach myself after I retired, since I have collected many ,many other hobbies of which I have taught myself to do. All have to do with the use of your hands. I do have a music background but as a drummer. I’ve found the guitar a very totally different animal. I started taking lessons at the local music store this year, But the lessons seeam to go just as you said when you first started teaching trying to learn what I wanted to play before I could even play . I teach young kids ( 7 and 8 yr olds) basketball and I totatally agree you must start with the very basics or they fail to prograss in a reasonable amount of time. I do not think I am getting enough of the basics. I’ve found your vidios very eye opening and informative. Cant wait to watch more. A true beginner.

    1. Hi Charles,

      Great! Beginner is best. I strive to keep the curiosity and enthusiasm of a beginner in my own learning. Welcome aboard.

      – Tomas

  4. Hi Thomas I have just started to learn to play and like many others turned to the net and the on line courses but have never signed up for more than a video or two . I have now found myself confused and dejected and ready to give up , I am 72 and have wondered if I am just too old. I can play a few cords. Know the fretboard reasonably well but I am just not getting anywhere. I sometimes think it’s my guitar being not good enough, or it’s just me .my son picks up my guitar and plays beautifully but he can’t read a note of music or tell one cord from another he says he just finds what sounds good and figures out how to play it. Makes me want to give up …but I don’t want to give up. I want to be able to play well and not just cords!, what am I doing wrong?

    1. Hi Paul, What you described is fairly common. No, you’re not too old. There’s no point in comparing yourself to your son. I remember feeling that something was wrong with me when I compared myself to others who played much more fluidly and with ease. What it came down for me was getting good instruction, and then practicing persistently for an extended period of time. I use to interview people at my music school before they started lessons (someone else does this now). Many told me that they tried to play guitar and can’t seem to get it. They’ve seen others play and make it look easy. They wonder if something’s wrong with them. Then I asked them how they’ve gone about learning and I realize they didn’t have a chance in hell. They’ve tried to learn from varying sources in an unorganized way, with no clear progression, and with sporadic practice. Once they get real instruction and practice regularly they are often amazed at how much progress they make.

      There’s nothing wrong with you Paul… Nothing that a good instructor, a regular practice schedule, a dose of patience and persistence couldn’t alleviate.

      I wish you the best,


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