Stop what you're doing

Updated: Mar 3

When I was 18 I met a guitar instructor that offered 3 lessons for $18. I had been playing guitar and bass for 5 years and was in a few bands in high school. This was before I knew I'd go to college and was trying to make a go of a music career and thought it might be time to get some formal training.

Our first lesson went like this:

Instructor: Show me what you know.

Me: (I played power chords, the pentatonic scale and all the chords I knew A to G with some minor and majors.) I used to know how to read sheet music, but it got complicated so I stopped.

Instructor: Power chords aren't technically chords and the pentatonic scale is done to death. You don't need to read sheet music unless you have to. You already know the chords and have the finger dexterity to play them so we can move on to the second lesson. Do you know there are only seven notes and five half notes? Do you know where to find them on the fret board?

Me: No... I can, but it takes a while. There's only seven? But there's six strings and there's so many frets.

Instructor: Ok. Good. Let's teach you the notes and how to find them. Whats the top string?

Me: Standard tuning is E!

Instructor: What's after E?

Me: ...I don't know.

Instructor: What's after E in the alphabet?

Me: F?

Instructor: Yes. What's after F?

Me: G!

Instructor: Almost. F sharp or G flat. The open string is E, then the first fret is F. The second fret is between F and G. You can call it F sharp or G flat. That makes the third fret G. Most notes have a sharp or flat between them except B sharp or E sharp. Those don't exist. You could also say C flat and F flat don't exist. It doesn't really matter. You add them all up and there are 12 notes. What comes after G?

Me: I don't know.

Instructor: A. Once you get to G it starts over at A again.

Me: So after G would be G sharp and then A and then A sharp and then B and then B sharp.

Instructor: There is no B sharp. After B it goes to C and don't forget that E goes right to F. See the dots? They mark the 3, 5, 7, and 12th frets. What happens at 12?

Me: I don't know. It gets messy down there, but that's where you solo.

Instructor: There's only 12 sounds. The double dots mean 12th fret so you start over at the open note. If the open note is E then the 12th fret is also E, which makes the 13th fret F and 14th F sharp. This is the same for every string. If you tune the open note to F then the 12th fret is now F. Understand?

Me: That makes so much sense.

Instructor: If you put your index finger on the 6th fret of the E string you are playing A sharp or B flat. If you skip the string below and move your pinky two frets forward what note is that?

Me: (I start with the open D note and count my way to the 8th fret) A sharp? No B flat. They're the same?

Instructor: Yes, either of those are correct. That's a little short cut. Put another finger in the 8th fret in between and you've got a power chord. That isn't really a chord though because you're only playing two notes. You're playing two octaves of A sharp and the note between the top and third string is?

Me: (thinking and counting) F! It would be an E sharp, but that doesn't exist, so it's an F!

Instructor: Very good. That power chord is only two notes: Two A sharps differing in pitch and F. Chords have a minimum of three notes which means power chords aren't technically chords, but they're good enough for rock n' roll. Now you know all the notes and how to find them.

The second lesson went like this:

Instructor: Do you want to learn how to improvise a solo?

Me: I'm not ready. Yes.

Instructor: Pick a chord and strum it.

Me: (strum a C)

Instructor: You picked C and will have to solo in the key of C. What notes are you playing when you strum a C chord?

Me: (remembering first lesson) Two octaves of C, two octaves of E, and a G.

Instructor: Yes. If you play those notes in any sequence, generally starting on C and ending on C you'll be soloing in the key of C for any chord progression in the key of C. I'm going to play a simple C major chord progression. It will be C chord, F chord, and then G chord. What are the notes being played in those chords?

Me: (remembering first lesson). C, G, E for C. F, A, C for F. G, B, D for G. So I can play A, B, C, D, E, F, G? (Confused) Those are all the notes.

Instructor: Yes. Even some flats and sharps in between. It doesn't matter that much so long as you generally start with a note in the C chord and end on a note in the G chord. If you play a sharp or flat, slide back into key and you'll be fine. It matters more how it starts and finishes.

We practiced for the rest of the hour with different chord progressions.

The third lesson:

Instructor: You know the notes, chords, how to find them, and when to play them. We can learn different scales. Scales bias certain notes over others. There's no trick to them. You just learn the scales. Once you know the notes in the scale you can combine three of them to create a chord. Once you have the chords you can create chord progressions. Find a nice progression and then solo within the scale. Adjust for key and play until it sounds good.

Me: It's really that easy?

Instructor. No, it's that simple. The greats make it look easy.

Me: I don't understand how music can sound so different if everyone is using the same 12 notes.

Instructor: Timing, intensity, and temporary exceptions to the rules. You can imply a predictable note with silence. You can play a note out of key and save it at the last moment to fit in the expected pattern. You can do whatever you want with those 12 notes in any sequence and with any emotion.

Me: What now?

Instructor: Practice and experiment. Well...there's one more thing. It's really important. What do you do when you're reading something and come across a word you don't know?

Me: Keep reading and try to understand the word in the context.

Instructor: No. A lot of people do that. It's what they're taught. Don't do that.

Me: What am I supposed to do?

Instructor: You put the book down and look up the definition of the word. All the definitions. You think about it. Then go read the sentence again. Don't read the next sentence until you understand the one you're reading. A lot of people will fill in the blank with their presumptions of the definition. What if they're wrong? What if that sentence was the foundation for the next paragraph or the entire chapter? They've completely misunderstood it and everything after and they're not even aware of it. Now go make sounds until you like it.

If you want to practice click the picture to visit for common repeating chord progressions.

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