Let me pass on to you what took me 20 years to discover!
It took me 20 years to be able to look back at learning the guitar. To finally feel as if I knew what I was doing.
Post these 20 years I’ve been teaching, writing and lecturing about how anyone can do it much, much quicker than that.
Well, I’ve mainly been writing music, touring, recording, been in loads of bands and had a great time, but I’ve also wanted to give something back, pass something on.
Now that I get it, I can see why it took me so long to understand certain elements, I can see why I got stuck for sometimes years.
I have to admit, after 20 years of doing it, to teach guitar became almost as big of an obsession as it was to learn guitar.
I’ve spent another decade now teaching guitar and it’s been incredibly rewarding. To find a way for a student to progress, no matter what background is something I just love doing.
Take one of my guitar courses and I’ll pass everything I’ve learnt myself and from other students on to you. Do this and it certainly won’t take you 20 years to learn guitar, I promise!
How I learned to play guitar
I started playing guitar at the age of 9, group classes, classical guitar, simple stuff. I remember the first lessons being about “playing sheet music”, never playing the guitar or music.
At the time I thought “well this isn’t much fun”, but I have to admit, I did find it really easy. The other kids in my class didn’t find it easy, so I just sat there, played whatever was on the sheet music and waited for the other kids to catch up.
I’m not showing off here, we were playing Jingle Bells on one string! During this time I did think, surely, there’s got to be more to guitar than this?
As I grew a few years older I was put in guitar classes from other schools, played a few Christmas gatherings; it wasn’t very exciting to be honest. You’d get the sheet music; you’d play it, end of story.
One on one lessons
About the age of 12 I started electric guitar lessons, privately held by a musician in his 30s who had pursued the classic lifestyle most guitar players encounter: Covers band and a bit of teaching.
He showed me a few songs, but most was done from a book. After going through the entire book I’d learned 5 positions of the minor pentatonic scale. This took about two years to achieve!
At no point during my weekly guitar lessons from the age of 9 to 15 when I ended my group and one on one classes was there any indication of what I later discovered to be the cornerstones of how to learn the guitar, or any instrument for that matter.
These where the things missing:
2. Scales in relation to actual songs
4. Relevant chord theory
I did however learn (using muscle memory) hundreds of classical pieces, rock songs, folk songs, pop songs, none of which I can remember (even vaguely) today.
There was one major change between my early “classical” lesson and the electric guitar lessons; I went from reading sheet music to reading TAB. This was not in any way, shape or form an improvement.
On the contrary, TAB was most likely the worst feature added to my guitar learning experience. Possibly on a par with reading chords above lyrics in song books. Neither of the two schools taught me anything that made me play the guitar better, nor did either enable me to understand music.
As I’m entering my 16th birthday I stopped guitar lessons, why? Because now I was going to pursue this, I was going to properly learn how to play the guitar, even if it was the last thing I ever did!
I went to a music college, I signed up for three years to learn how to play “popular music” on the electric guitar.
When I got the letter that said I was in, I was the happiest teenager in the village, little did I know what was to come!
There you are, first day of music school and you think it’s going to be great, you can barely hide your excitement!
You are finally going to learn how it all works and maybe one day you’ll be able to write songs, guitar parts, improvise, maybe even express yourself, through an instrument!
But it didn’t really happen that way for me. Again, it’s crystal clear to me now why, back then I was very confused.
Let’s take a moment to examine a few of the subjects I encountered since you may be in a similar position, asking yourself: What do I need to learn in order to play music?
The main problem with music theory taught in schools is that the theory teacher assumes the best way to understand music is to look at it on a piano.
And yes that would make sense, especially to a piano student! Maybe even to a singer, or a musician who want to write scores, arrange, transcribe, orchestrate, because the piano is laid out in the simplest way; one note after another.
It would make perfect sense if the instrument used when doing all these things was a piano!
But I din’t sign up for learning music on piano…
The problem with learning music theory on a piano is that the harmonic structure of the piano is completely different to that of the guitar.
As a guitarist you will learn very little from the fact that all white keys on a piano are notes from the C major scale, or that Stevie Wonder loves to play in Ebm because all black keys form the Eb minor pentatonic scale.
None of these facts have anything to do with guitar, which, after all is what I was trying to learn!
I mean, I wasn’t on my own, every theory class I’ve been to has gotten less and less populated throughout the year…
Let’s move on to ensemble/live performance since, this one is even more hilarious!
Let’s put all the kids in a band and get them to play songs that the music school choose… As I am writing this sentence it becomes even clearer that this concept will never work.
In the real world you’d join a band with people who have similar taste and want to achieve similar goals to you.
You pick or even write the songs the band is going to play based on what you as a group want, collectively.
Someone else makes all those decisions for you (who to play with, what songs etc) and the teenager is without a doubt going to have an issue or two!
The negative spiral has begun and tends to escalate during the year, downwards…
Sight-reading, well… this topic is almost too funny to be true. Let’s just prove that this doesn’t work by asking our selves this question:
-How many guitar players do I know (aside from Classical Guitarists) that can read music?
Yeah, I thought so… none.
Now, today I know how to sight read and I can teach anyone who is interested in five minutes, it’s so simple, if you know how and why, but I never came across anyone who knew, I really didn’t…
Let’s see, what else do we learn in music school?
I didn’t realise this at the time when I was a music student in my late teens but singing is absolutely vital in order to connect with music on a deeper level. So I guess I only have myself to blame for not trying harder with the choir!
It may not make much sense at the time, you might hate your own voice (don’t we all?) and you might not feel as if singing will help your guitar playing, but believe in me, it does!
Should the singing lesson be done with sight singing and have elements of aural perception (ear training) exercises as well then we would be on to a winner, sadly this didn’t happen in my music school so I dismissed the concept entirely and blamed it on that I don’t like my own voice.
Oh, how many people I’ve met since that have done the same…
There are a few different approaches here; in the music college I went to in the early 90s we had the concept of weekly individual one-hour lessons.
This was without a doubt the most useful experience I had and the breakthrough in my learning of the guitar. But not because of what my teacher taught me, but what he didn’t teach me.
I’d like to see this as the next breaking point in my learning experience because now I started to realise that the reason it had all been so fuzzy was because there was no set way to learn guitar, there was no system, there was no goal. If you wanted one, you had to come up with it yourself!
And this is my main problem with music schools; if you have to do all the work yourself, then when are you going to fit that in, in between classes?
I was about 16 when this happened, so after 7 years of trying to find someone who could teach me the guitar I had begun to realise that there was no one but myself who could do this.
However, this would be a slow and painful learning curve that I refused to fully embrace (that and the fact that I had to go to what seemed like an endless amount of lessons).
Gigging but not getting it
After 3 years of music school I graduated, got the hat, threw it in the air and thought to myself, the only way forward now is to just get gigs!
Most guitar players I read about had not gone to music school, they had “learned on stage” so I thought; maybe this is what’s missing, maybe if I just gig a lot things will just automatically fall into place!
I found a few older singer songwriters and we started gigging together as a duo (if I count correctly I had about 8 or 9 duos over 6 years of intense gigging plus half a dozen cover bands).
I learned a lot of songs that I can’t remember today, I saw most parts of Europe, I bought a lot of guitar related equipment and I learned absolutely nothing about playing the guitar.
To my great surprise, I was actually a worse player, 6 years after music school than when I left!
At this point I was pretty pissed off to say the least, I had looked everywhere and I just couldn’t work out how to play the guitar, it was just all frets, chord names, TAB, cheat sheets, and the same old licks in every solo break.
I could sum up my understanding of the guitar with:
1. Three minor pentatonic shapes that I knew really well and used to “improvise”
2. Chords as names, an Am was to me always an Am
3. Gear, I knew a lot about Gear
Today I know that 99% of all guitar players in the world never go beyond this point, at the time I thought I was alone!
The search goes on
At the now somewhat embarrassing age of 25 I decided that learning on stage definitely didn’t work for me so I went back to plan A: finding a guitar teacher that would reveal it all!
To find him I called everyone in the yellow pages. I figured if you knew what you were doing you’d list yourself there. I was expecting one or two clowns along the way but I felt, surely, I’d find someone!
After a couple of one off classes where the tutor couldn’t really give me any guidance I actually felt a bit better, maybe I wasn’t as bad as I thought I was, the tutors I had seen were not really much better than me!
I did feel like I was 12 again and saw my first electric guitar tutor who had done a bit of teaching, done a bit of gigging. It was all “bits and bobs”, no real depth, and certainly no goal in sight!
Every lesson was as if the teacher was doing a gig in front of me, performing. I learned nothing of real value, although it was entertaining at times!
Nothing fundamental was actually gained from these lessons in terms of learning the guitar, all except one…
A Classical/Flamenco Guitar Teacher saved my day!
I called this guy up (from the yellow pages) who was incredibly expensive, he charged more than twice the normal amount and sounded very confident as I mentioned Michael Hedges on the phone so I thought I was on to a winner!
I met up with him within a week, I was very excited at first but after watching him trying to work out ‘Aerial Boundaries’ from my vinyl record it was pretty clear this was no winning ticket, the guy had no clue!
After 5 minutes of watching him painfully trying to work out how to play the piece I said: “Maybe you have something else we could look at?”. I have never seen such a relieved look on a mans face since…
As he turned Michael Hedges off and brought his stack of sheet music to the table, at least the sweat had stopped dripping from his bald little head, which did make me feel slightly less uncomfortable.
I had lost all hope at this point but since I was paying for the hour I thought I’d let him continue.
What he suggested was that I should learn a few Etudes, they all worked on different techniques he said and he gave me a few to take away.
As I got home I thought to myself: Why not just learn these, what harm could it do?
I had a few pieces that day and one of them changed everything!
I did learn a lot that day when I got my first Etudes. I never went back to the tutor, but I kept practicing the etudes and started to notice a new ease in my playing.
However, on the paper was only sheet music, I had no clue how to connect this with anything else or what I could use the strange new tremolo technique I had acquired for, but I did like it, it was refreshing to actually feel as if I was getting better.
I wasn’t really sure about how or what I was getting better at but I was definitely getting better. There was a new ease in my playing.
Since I considered myself a full time musician I did continue to gig during this time, but completely unable to match the new technique with popular music I soon became a bit depressed about the whole thing and actually gave up.
After 16 years of trying to learn the guitar I gave up. I did continue gigging but my search for understanding the guitar, I simply gave up and decided it had to remain a mystery.
Funnily enough, people around me wouldn’t agree if I said I couldn’t play the guitar. It certainly sounded like I could!
I could play songs, and I could play a blues solo or if I memorised it; even solos in pop and rock songs, but I did actually have no idea how music in itself worked on a guitar, I really had no idea. It was all trial and error.
Back to music school!
A year or two later I find this music school on the internet, I was bored with my somewhat mindless gigging life and decided to go for it again, this time away from my country, away from all distractions, I was going to give this one more go!
At the age of 26 I drove my car from Sweden and arrived in the U.K to start my second degree in music. I had three years ahead of me studying popular music, this time in English.
After two weeks I realised that I wasn’t going to find any answers here either. It had been a few years since my last trip to music school but it all came back to me very quickly…
Different tutor, different system!
I’d go from one class room where one guy said one thing, next class and the theory was completely different, even contradictory! Why?
-Because there is no commonly embraced system or method to teach you how to play the guitar. There just isn’t.
Consequentially, in any music school you get a lot of self-taught guitar tutors, all teaching the guitar in the way they look at it, I was furious!
Luckily I found a mentor in the founder of the college who actually laid it straight to me:
“There is no one system, if you want to find one you need to come up with it. And by the way, playing guitar in a rock band is actually not that complicated, it has more to do with sound, feel, songs, looks and all things you can’t find in a system.”
I can assure you that these where harsh words to my ears, but never the less true; it’s not hard to play guitar in a rock band, people do it drunk!
Unfortunately for me I didn’t have a band, and I had set the year aside to practice, not to get a new hair style, so I stubbornly continued my chase for the system that would solve my problem of not understanding the guitar.
I continued to go on about this to other students and tutors until it was pretty obvious nobody was listening anymore. When this happened I decided to basically invent a system that on paper would make sense, then learn it.
I decided to use what I learned, I took the core of it all and decided to just lock myself indoors to actually do the work.
No more excuses – Let the work begin!
So there I was, hundreds of songs, few set licks, massive theory and gear knowledge and no clue how to apply it all…
I thought to myself: If I divide music into different categories and then practice them individually, it should be possible to find connections, connections that would solve the mystery of the guitar.
Between my practice hours, which consisted mainly of technical exercises to a drum machine, constantly pushing BPM, modal improvisations and various scale exercises, I also kept looking online for information.
I read countless books in the library, went to many one on one sessions with different tutors and bought quite a few guitar books, DVDs and play along CD’s, all which where completely useless to me.
At the time a well-known jazz improviser released a DVD box set, it cost a fortune.
When it arrived I was almost as excited as when I saw the classical tutor a few years earlier, and equally disappointed when I realised that it was just him improvising and having a chat, pretty impressive to fill 5 DVDs with jibber jabber, but that was it.
I remember one comment “I’m just improvising here” made me especially angry, no explanation, no help, just showing off!
Learn more from other instruments!
After going through every available guitar book recommended I stumbled across a jazz piano book, written by a professor from America. The layout of the book was very academic and focused on two things as it taught you jazz piano:
1. Read chords as numbers.
2. Transpose the numbers to different keys.
I thought I’d give this method a go, and boy was I in for a treat!
Once I stopped looking at an Am as an Am, and instead thought about it as a number things started to fall into place.
The sound of Am in the key of C was pretty sad and belonged to blues/rock solos. But in the key of G, the Am had a completely different quality, so much for perfect pitch!
I realised that I was on to something here and started to organise all my chords around each scale shape.
I wrote them out and tested which chord shape worked, ensured that no shape was repeated and that they all had their place in relation to the major scale.
For example, a D7 chord in the key of G would be a C shape when I was playing chords around fret 2, 3, 4 and 5, but in the next position my D7 would be an A shape, this led to a D shaped G, allowing me to clearly separate the positions with not just scales, but also chords and even arpeggios within that scale.
Looking back this was the most important discovery I had made in my guitar playing life so far, and most likely since!
You can also see it all move around the neck at chordacus.com. Being able to play play them all is what matters though…
You only get back what you put in!
Admittedly, at first I couldn’t do much with my newly found chord knowledge musically, but I started to see the patterns of how chords connect horizontally on the neck and more importantly, in each “position”.
I practiced this day and night. Since I knew about the modes theoretically I simply added them to my routine as well as the arpeggios.
So If I played a G major scale around fret three, I could see all the chords within that scale shape, and all the arpeggios, and all the modes, and they all used the same notes, just with different starting points!
After a few weeks, things started to change in my playing, I tried a jazz blues over 16 bars. Previously I only played one minor pentatonic scale over it, fumbling for notes, not understanding why a lick wouldn’t work over a different chord..
Now that I knew every chord, arpeggio and mode all over the neck I could use those notes as well!
The result of this was that my solos sounded more sophisticated, it sounded as if I was following the music, which I was!
Blanket scale Vs New chord = New scale
I remember recording one version of each, the first one I’d play just minor pentatonic, aiming to “feel” the notes that worked.
The second I strictly followed the chords, applying either an arpeggio or a mode as the chords changed.
The second way sounded more Jazz, the first more blues. I combined them and found what I felt was a great combination, but the best news was, it was easy! My hands would tell me where to go, it was as if they knew before me.
For the first time in my playing life I was watching myself play, rather than focus on what I was playing. I had entered a new level of consciousness.
It was as if I had separated myself from myself, I just listened and watched.
I started testing my new found theories using Jazz Standards, Pop songs, Dance music, Folk music, Metal and found that every time; it just worked!
Now I understand why, back then it was as like the mystery had simply disappeared, I just wasn’t quite sure, was it really this simple?
Was the answer that you only had to put the hours in once you knew exactly what to do?
It turned out that it was. It wasn’t a case of practice makes perfect, it was a case of perfect practice makes perfect.
I had eliminated all unnecessary information and just followed the natural laws of music, I had taught my hands where everything on the neck was, and it wasn’t even that hard!
Learn from other instruments!
If my pianists professor could teach me harmony, then who could teach me rhythm?
-Well, that should be the drummer shouldn’t it?
As I was in a music school there were other musicians around as well, not just guitar players and one instrument had students that always excelled over the others.
The drummers seemed to always become really good, really quickly. I was intrigued so I bought some drummer DVDs, a few books and had a few chats with drummers around the college to see what they practiced.
Turned out that these guys where almost as organised as the piano players, there where commonly embraced techniques and exercises that all drummers learned, one of them was called Rudiments, the idea is to “separate the limbs”.
To make a long story short, the rudiments are combination’s of left and right hand strokes, so for example: R L R L R R, L R L R L L would be played to a click and the BPM was pushed. Next exercise could be: R L R R, L R L L.
All in all there are 40 drum rudiments that once completed provide you with a new ease in your playing.
By moving the rudiments to a drum kit and applying, for example, the R hand to the snare and the L hand to the ride, you’d get different rhythms. After such an adventure you’d have “separated the limbs”, meaning that any hand or foot could play anything, independently of the other limbs.
Rudiments become the Spyder
I though long and hard about this before I developed and started to test what was to become the “Spyder”, a chromatic exercise that vary the rhythm.
The Spyder takes the drum rudiments idea of separating the hands and puts it on the guitar.
During the Guitar Courses we dive deep into how this amazing exercise can develop your accuracy, speed and control.
Finger style vs pick
As much as there is to focus on for the left hand for guitar players as they get to know the neck, there’s another hand that most guitarists rarely consider, which is strange since there are only two!
As a guitarist you essentially have three options of how to play the instrument:
1. Finger Style
2. With a pick
3. Combination of the two above
As the guitar is a self-taught instrument we can see how every famous player has a unique style when it comes to their right hand.
This might sound like bad news, just like there is no commonly embraced chord and scale system, there is no “one way” to play guitar with the right hand.
Very often players want to try both techniques and often find that one makes the other worse… You play with a pick for a few weeks, swap to finger style for a few weeks, and as you come back to the pick it all of a sudden feels alien to you!
Perhaps the ultimate solution is a thumb pick so you seamlessly can move between the two styles but few players who try one like them, myself included.
Another massive factor is your individual hands anatomy, if it’s a massive hand or a small one matters, neither is better or worse, but it does matter. It effects how you, as an individual, have to adapt to the instrument in a way that is unique to you.
After extensive research on the topic I have found that there is only one exercise that works for this and that is the Spyder.
The Guitar Courses explain this further but let me share with you a few tricks that can improve your pick and finger style control.
Isolate the hand movement!
Instead of varying your pick movement between up and down strokes you could try the concept of playing only down strokes for the entire exercise, followed by playing only up strokes.
The latter is what will improve your skills since it is always the case that the up stroke is weaker than the down stroke.
For finger style exercises, play the Spyder with only one finger at a time, this would have to be executed on a much slower BPM setting.
When you played the exercise with individual fingers, move on to combining fingers such as thumb and index, thumb and middle, index and middle etc.
By taking this very scientific approach to the Spyder you will iron out any imperfections in you right hand.
Remember that the key to successful Spyder practice is to do it regularly. 20 min every day for 6 months is much better than 1 hour a day for two weeks, so don’t burn yourself out by trying too hard!
Expect to see results within a month when practicing regularly, keep going beyond the first month and the results you’ll get are truly unbelievable.
I also have to mention here that there is a common idea that the Spyder should be varied in the left hand by playing 1324, 1423 etc instead of just 1234.
This would be a pointless exercise, save yourself the headache and just stick to 1234, there is no point to memorise an unmusical pattern!
Job done – What now?
After realising that chord progressions was what tied music together and that all modes, arpeggios, chord extensions, arpeggio substitution and pentatonic scales was simply an extension of seeing chords as numbers, my progression was rapid and I completed my training in 8 months.
Somewhat confused with how to move on from here I took some time off from practicing, I simply didn’t need it anymore!
My music college course was barely a third away from being completed so I begun to wonder what to do next, after all I had spent almost two decades looking for the answer to “how does music work on the guitar”. I felt a bit lost without having to look anymore!
So I joined a few bands and put the system to practice, it never failed me and I found playing music to be very enjoyable, not frustrating anymore.
As I met up with my mentor again and showed him what I’d done he suggested (to my great surprise) that I should re-write the guitar course for the college I was in!
He would guide me through it and I would get paid. This was a pretty good day in my guitar teaching career to say the least!
Writing a Guitar Course
It wasn’t easy, our first meetings were not successful, I found it hard to construct a course over several subjects with definite time lines but I kept going and after 6 months we finished it, it was published in the following years manual and I began teaching a few different subjects at the college.
It was somewhat strange to go from being a student in the morning to teach classes in the afternoon. But I was making money and my system worked. I had great results with the students and everything felt as if it had finally fallen into place.
The following couple of years I continued to work at the college, kept updating the course which now started to include other subjects as well.
I compiled courses for singers, drummers, bass players and went to meetings with other tutors to further discuss what should be taught as I by now had a clear understanding of all subjects.
I also write for one of the guitar magazines I’d grown up reading, I wrote a metal column for Guitar Techniques for about a year. I’ve never played in metal band, I just listened and transcribed a few songs, looked at the chord progression and wrote a variation on it.
Recorded it, transcribed it and published it. I had great feedback, no one knew I wasn’t a metal player but to me it was just music, after cracking the code, it was easy!
It didn’t even matter what the style was anymore, it’s all the same, there are only 12 notes. I just had to work out which notes a band used and produce more of them.
Learning about other things than guitar
One day we had a guest speaker in the college, he was the manager of a band that was very famous in the 90s and he said a lot of interesting things, one in particular that stuck with me was when he said: “Find a gap in the market, focus on that”.
He described it as a massive brick wall that you’d need to find the missing brick in.
I was instantly thinking: Guitar players don’t know how to connect theory with the instrument, that’s a pretty big brick!
Guitar players can play songs, solos, perhaps improvise a bit and they can usually even play scales, what is missing is the connection between it all. And I felt that I had the system that solved all those problems.
This was also the day when I sat down and thought, what am I going to do with this discovery? I have a system that works, I’ve tested it, I’ve seen the results, how do I bring this further?
After looking into publishing a book the traditional way as well as seeing the explosion of video on the web (2006) I thought that this was the perfect platform to build a music school based on video demonstration.
To me, the format of the internet was like made for efficient learning and I begun to explore the possibilities to launch my new system on the web and perhaps even make a living from it.
The seed for Spy Tunes was born and even though it took many years to come to grips with the online world I have by now completed what I set out to do.
You can see the entire lesson library here at Spy Tunes for free, all is organised under the four levels.
If this seems like the way forward for you, sign up to one of my Guitar Courses. You will not be disappointed!
Perfection can only be achieved by monitoring and tweaking!
As the Internet is a different format than teaching in person I have over time seen that there are necessary tweaks to implement.
Since I rarely see the students in person I’ve had to follow the progression of active students in the early years user forum, via videos they post, emails and Skype and develop the course with real people and the internet in mind.
What has changed since the start?
Seven years after Spy Tunes was launched I had produced 9 eBooks and almost 1000 videos.
I started selling these eBooks as one big package and had great feedback from customers. I gave them all the answers in one big package, some customers were literally ecstatic. Acoustic and electric guitar, it was all in there.
But there was a problem, I kept getting the same question form students: Where Do I Start!?!?
This led me to begin working on what is now available here at Spy Tunes, the step by step guitar courses.
The Guitar Courses
These courses is the magic formula I’ve been looking for since the beginning.
I’ve slim lined the material and now give you step by step instructions towards the goal.
There is no use in knowing how scales, arpeggios and chord progressions work, if you can’t actually execute any of the information.
Just like there is no use in being able to play things you don’t understand.
These courses keep you connected, giving you just what you need to grasp a concept and develop enough to move on to the next step.
I have spent thousands of hours developing these courses, tested them on my student focus group, tweaked and finally launched them.
I hope you enjoyed my story and sign up for my guitar courses. I have so much to tell you about when it comes to practicing, learning and understanding the guitar.
Let’s get started, I know: You Can Learn Guitar!
Dan (your guitar guru)