Beginner Guitar Done Right

Learning to read the notes on a musical stave

What do you get when you’ve been teaching guitar for seven years and have more of an interest in music theory than your average musician?

You get a music resource folder taking up 6.7GB on your hard drive full of chord charts, explanations, and examples. The crazy thing is, I still don’t really use any of it! Guitar 1 is pretty much the only thing I use to teach beginner students now, and I’ve found it’s pretty much the only resource students need to learn.

Too much of a guitar thing is a bad thing

I’ve felt it is important to make sure I am giving my students the best lessons possible, so over the years I’ve spent hours at a time trawling the net for (legitimate) free resources that I could give my students, or that would help me to be a better teacher. I studied performance guitar at the University of Otago and continued to add all kinds of digital documents and guitar resources to my collection. None of it really helped to teach my beginner students. I ended up finding one or two decent handouts and sticking with them.

I gave this one chord chart to beginner guitar students for years. It was good, but I still had a few issues with the way some of the chords were notated, so I photocopied the document, made some edits, and gave it to the student. I did this  again, and again, and again. Every time I would look at my student and tell them I’d been meaning to make these changes before I put the sheet through the copier. But every time I forgot and would end up doing it by hand. I must have altered those chord diagrams by hand hundreds of times.

Understanding music as a language

I’ve always felt it’s important for students to have the skills and understanding to actually play music, rather than repeat music. I didn’t want my students coming to their lessons only being able to play some songs I’d showed them. Rather, I wanted them to understand what they were doing, and use that knowledge to learn songs and create music themselves.

I wasn’t sure how many years I’d get with my students while I was at university, so the goal became making sure they had a solid foundation of technique and understanding so they wouldn’t get stuck and give up their passion if I left. Many were just doing music as an extracurricular activity and weren’t interested in getting too intense with the music theory. Most of them just want to learn their favourite songs. I wanted to make sure they were equipped to keep enjoying music after I’d gone, or after they’d stopped taking lessons.

There’s a huge number of awesome resources available free online including chord charts and tabs, YouTube tutorials and backing tracks. The only problem is, a lot of these are created by amateurs who don’t always understand what they are doing, and given high ratings by more amateurs who think they know what they are doing.

Music is a language. And like any language, if you don’t know the words, it’s boring. It’s also boring if someone tries to teach you a whole lot of words that you will never have any reason to use. The context of ‘I want to learn my favourite song online’ all of a sudden became a great vehicle to teach applicable theory to students who were just doing music for fun. I was effectively teaching them all the fun words so that when they saw something online, even if it wasn’t ‘spelled’ correctly, they would still be able to understand it and have fun speaking the language of music.

What’s in Guitar 1?

“We’re going to make a beginner guitar resource,” I announced to Matt as I walked into the office one morning. “Something that we can use with our students that looks really professional and includes everything we need to teach a student from scratch.”

In addition to our massive digital library of all things guitar, we also have a bookshelf in the office, which is where we keep our physical library of all things guitar. On this bookshelf are books from years ago that I used when I was learning, manuals on lead guitar with lots of color and pretty pictures, and more chord diagrams than Steve Vai’s guitar collection. We still didn’t really use any of this stuff though, so when we sat down to plan Guitar 1, we made a list of things we didn’t want to be in our beginner guitar book:

  1. Unnecessary text. Why? because it’s annoying. When you’re following a book trying to learn guitar and you to scroll through three pages just to learn three guitar chords cause the rest of the page is full of complicated explanations, you put the book down. We wanted Guitar 1 to include only the essential text. Any additional information could be clarified and expanded on in the video lesson.
  2. Confusing chord diagrams. Some of the chord diagrams you see in beginner guitar books can be extremely confusing. We wanted to create chord diagrams that looked traditional, but clearly and accurately displayed ALL the relevant information you need to play a guitar chord.
  3. Unnecessary music theory. We determined to only include what we’ve found to be the essential theory. Stuff we actually use day to day that helps us really enjoy music.
  4. Long confusing videos. Lesson videos would be short, sweet and to the point. That way people could easily re watch something they were struggling with without having to try and find the point in a 15 minute video.
  5. Songs. The problem with including songs in a beginner resources is that students may not like the songs you’ve picked. And even after doing them they may not really know how to learn the songs they want to learn themselves. We we’re already using the Rockschool resources, TABs and chord charts from Ultimate Guitar, and YouTube videos to teach our students songs. We wanted a resource that would complement these by teaching the basics to each student.

After much planning and many revisions, four months later what began as a spontaneous idea ended up all over our floor as we unloaded the first run of our Guitar 1 books. We we’re stoked to be able to finally start using them with students.

During 2014, we came to realise that many of our students were having significant trouble with their timing. Not necessarily playing in time, rather, understanding the time. We’d be learning a Rockschool piece and jamming along with the backing track, and the student would be nailing the notes because they’d heard and repeated it. However, the moment I asked them to play along with a metronome, count out loud, or tap their foot while they were playing, they lost it. Effectively, we were asking them to do three things at once (a polyrhythm) by counting out loud, tapping their foot, and moving their fingers on the guitar. We decided to address this in Guitar 1 by including dedicated rhythm lessons. This is one of the most essential skills for any musician and is often neglected at a beginner level.

In addition to teaching your basic open chords and technique, we included some basic stuff on playing in different keys, so you can start applying the chords and progressions you are learning straight away in the context of a song.

This might be a chord chart on Ultimate Guitar, a piece from a Rockschool book, or something you’ve written yourself. Guitar 1 also includes a section on fingering picking, and a lesson teaching you how to use Pentatonic Pattern One, which is possibly the most fundamental scale for any guitarist who wanting to rock epic solos!

For a full breakdown of each lesson, check out Guitar 1.

Creating Guitar 1 from scratch

The only problem with committing to write a guitar resource was that neither of us had any idea how to actually process the information so it looked professional. We also didn’t have a budget to spend on expensive computer software to process our resource. Here’s what we ended up using:

MuseScore

MuseScore is a free open source scoring software like Sibelius or Finale. It’s currently at version 1.3, although in the process of creating Guitar 1, we tested the some of the MuseScore 2.0 Beta versions, which look very slick and have some excellent features.

Microsoft Word

We didn’t have other page layout software when we started and we didn’t really look into it. Microsoft Word did the job as long as we put every piece of text in a text box and set the text wrapping on the text boxes and images to ‘none’.

Reason

Reason is my DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) of choice. It’s based on the idea that you are using real life hardware which you can rewire in pretty much any configuration you can think of. It can be as simple or complex as you like. We used Reason to create all the backing tracks because it has an excellent library of stock sounds and effects.

Adobe Premiere

Matt Aldridge did all of the video editing after learning how to use the software. We recorded all the videos using a DSLR camera and an external condenser mic, which we used to record the audio into Reason. We then used Adobe Premiere to cut and sync the clips.

Google Docs

We used Google Docs for all our collaborative brainstorming before we formatted the document in Microsoft Word.

Pixelmator

We used this software to edit all the photos and create all the diagrams. I set up templates for the chord diagrams and scales, which meant it was quick and easy to create many different diagrams without starting from scratch each time.

Future Resources

When we started working on Guitar one we hadn’t really thought too much about launching Activate Music Academy online. It was something we wanted to do in the future but we didn’t think we’d get it up and running so soon. I spent the later part of 2014 learning everything I could about setting up the website and in January 2015 it was live. We converted Guitar 1 into a digital format and made room for our other resources. Our goal is to create a website where we can make music happen for as many people as possible. Guitar 1 was just the beginning.

About the Author

Matt Stuart

Matt Stuart is the founder of Activate Music Academy. A guitarist and a producer, Matt loves the creative aspect of music and working with others to make music happen!

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