A 20+ year journey lead me to Spy tunes!
How long does it take to learn how play the guitar?
It took me over twenty years to be able to look back at learning the guitar, to finally feel as if I knew what I was doing.
Since then, I’ve been teaching, writing and lecturing about how anyone can do it much, much quicker than that.
In addition to this, I’ve been writing music, touring and recording. I’ve 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, sometimes for years. I have to admit after twenty years of searching to understand the instrument, teaching guitar became almost as big an obsession as it was to learn it.
I’ve spent another decade now teaching guitar which has been incredibly rewarding. To find a way for a student to progress, no matter what their background, is something I just love doing.
Sign up to my step by step guitar courses and I’ll pass everything I’ve learned, both by myself and from other students, on to you. Do this and it certainly won’t take you twenty years to learn guitar – I promise!
How I learned to play the guitar
I started learning by playing the classical guitar at the age of eight in group classes, primarily simple stuff.
I remember these first lessons being about ‘playing sheet music’, rather than making music. The other kids in my class didn’t find it easy, so I just sat there, played whatever the sheet music displayed and waited for the other kids to catch up.
At the time I thought it didn’t seem much fun, but I have to admit, I did find it really easy. I’m not showing off, we were playing Jingle Bells on one string! During this time I did wonder, surely, there’s got to be more to it than this?
As I grew a few years older, I was selected to attend guitar classes from other schools and I also 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.
Private guitar lessons
At about the age of twelve, I started electric guitar lessons. These were privately held by a musician who had pursued the classic musician lifestyle that most mature guitar players encounter – covers bands and private tuition.
He showed me a few songs but most were done from a book. After going through the entire book, I’d learned five positions of the Minor Pentatonic scale. This took almost two years to achieve!
At no point during my weekly guitar lessons was there any indication of what I later discovered to be the main ingredients of how to learn the guitar or any instrument for that matter. These were the things missing:
2. Scales in relation to actual songs
3. Relevant chord theory
Using muscle memory, I learned hundreds of classical pieces, rock songs, folk songs and pop songs, none of which I can remember, even vaguely, today.
There was one major change between my early classical lessons and the later 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 the worst feature added to my guitar learning experience, possibly on a par with reading chords above lyrics in songbooks. Neither of the two schools taught me anything that enabled me to actually understand music.
As I entered my sixteenth birthday, I stopped my guitar lessons and decided to pursue my quest to learn the guitar properly. To do so, I needed to give up my private tuition and go to a music college instead.
I signed up for three years of college tuition expecting to learn how to play popular music on the electric guitar. When I received my acceptance letter, I was the happiest teenager in the village! Little did I know what was ahead…
There I was, my first day of music school, I thought it was going to be great. I could barely hide my excitement. I was finally going to learn how it all worked and maybe one day I would be able to write songs, guitar parts, improvise and maybe even express myself, all through an instrument!
But it didn’t work out that way for me.
Guitar lessons at a music college
The music college had the concept of weekly one to one guitar lessons alongside the other group classes.
Without a doubt, this was the most useful experience that I had had so far and was the first breakthrough in my learning of the guitar. This was not because of what my teacher specifically taught me. Rather, it was to do with his completely unique approach to playing the instrument.
My teacher, Matthias Windemo, played a double neck guitar, tapping the melody on one neck and playing chords on the other. To make things even more complicated, his guitar wasn’t even in standard tuning!
The best thing about my lessons with Matthias was that I got to spend an hour a week playing with someone who was much, much better than me.
For me, when it comes to one to one guitar tuition, to actually play together is the main thing.
If you have someone in your life like this, it really is worth the money for a weekly lesson, as long as you play a lot together.
We mainly improvised over jazz standards having modes written below the chords, but what we didn’t do was listen to the original recordings, play rhythm guitar parts from records or work on any kind of popular music repertoire.
I was almost as if I was to busy playing music, I forgot to listen to any records.
Consequentially, when I played a song, I just played some kind of rhythm using whatever chords for the song, waiting to rip into a rock fusion solo, which clearly, was my main focus.
I was technically impressive, stylistically awful.
I was an unbalanced player that needed to “get out there” and learn about stuff that couldn’t make it into a practice room on a Tuesday morning at 10 am.
I couldn’t wait to move on and live the life of a musician.
Gigging but not getting better
After three years in music school, I graduated, got the hat, threw it in the air and decided that my next step had to be getting gigs. Most guitar players I read about, had not gone to music school. Instead, they had simply “learned on stage”. I reasoned that maybe that was what I was missing, that perhaps if I just gigged a lot, things would just automatically fall into place.
I couldn’t find a working band to play electric guitar in, but I did find a few older singer-songwriters and we started gigging together as acoustic duos. I had about eight or nine duos over six years of intense gigging, as well as half a dozen cover bands.
I learned a lot of songs that I can’t remember today and I saw most parts of Europe whilst gigging. I bought and sold a lot of guitar related equipment but I learned absolutely nothing new about playing the guitar.
In fact, to my great surprise and dismay, I was actually a worse player six years after music school than when I left!
At this point, I was pretty fed up, to say the least. I felt I had searched everywhere yet I still did not understand how music applied to the guitar fretboard. It was all just frets, chord names, TAB, cheat sheets and the same old licks in every solo break.
I could sum up my applied knowledge as:
1. Three Minor Pentatonic shapes that I knew really well and used to improvise solos
2. Chords as names. An Am was to me, always an Am
3. Musical equipment – I thought I knew a lot about this. In reality, I had just read a lot of guitar magazines
Neither did I know how to apply my huge Neo-Classical arpeggio shapes that I had learned from fellow Swede, Yngwie Malmsteen. I, along with the other students at the college, had memorized these and played them as fast as possible every time we tried a new amp in a music shop.
Nowadays, I understand that the majority of guitar players in the world never go beyond this point, at the time I thought I was alone!
The search goes on
“Every lesson was as if the teacher was doing a gig in front of me. I learned nothing of real value, although it was entertaining at times!”
After six years of calling myself a professional musician, I may have been paying the bills by gigging but I felt as if I was on a road to nowhere. Learning on stage definitely didn’t work for me as I was just using muscle memory again. So, I went back to my initial plan – to find a guitar teacher that could help me crack the fretboard code.
I called everyone in the Yellow Pages as I figured that, if you knew what you were doing, then you would list yourself there.
After a couple of one-off classes where the tutors couldn’t really offer me any real guidance, I actually felt a bit better about my abilities. Maybe I wasn’t as bad as I thought. I was at least as accomplished as they were.
Every lesson was as though the teacher was doing a gig in front of me. I learned nothing of real value, although it was entertaining at times.
Not much was actually gained from these tutors, apart from one, a Flamenco/Classical guitarist who unknowingly opened my mind.
The Flamenco/Classical guitar tutor
This tutor was incredibly expensive, he charged more than twice the normal rate. However, when I mentioned my hero at the time, Michael Hedges, he sounded very confident that he would be able to help me. I thought I was on to a winner!
I met up with him that week and at first, I was very excited. Unfortunately, after watching him try to work out how to play ‘Aerial Boundaries’ from my vinyl record, it was pretty clear that this was no winning ticket.
The guy had no clue but since I was paying for the hour I thought I had better let him continue. He suggested that I learn a few etudes. He told me that they all worked on different techniques and he gave me a stack of sheet music to take away.
Once home, I knew I wouldn’t be going back to this tutor again but I decided to keep practicing the etudes. What harm could it do? After only a few days of practicing, I started to notice a new ease in my playing. It was refreshing to actually feel as if I was improving.
However, I was looking at sheet music only and I couldn’t see how this would help me. I had no idea how to connect the concept of the etudes with playing in an actual band. I became very despondent about the whole thing and decided to give up for a while.
After sixteen years of trying to learn the guitar, I abandoned my search for understanding the instrument and decided it had to remain a mystery.
I was still playing gigs and could play many songs and improvise blues solos. If I wrote and memorized it, I could even play solos in pop and rock songs but it was all TAB, muscle memory, trial and error.
Another world – Another music school
A year or two later, I discovered a new music college based in England. I was fed up with my somewhat mindless gigging life and decided to go for it again. This time, I was going to be away from my Swedish roots and away from all distractions. I was going to give this one more go!
At the age of twenty-six, I drove my car from Sweden all the way to England to start my second degree in music. I had three years ahead of me studying popular music, this time in English. It had been a few years since my last trip to a music college but it all came back to me very quickly.
At college, I’d go from one classroom where a tutor suggested one theory, to the next where the theory was completely different, even contradictory! Why? Yet again there was no commonly embraced system or method to teach you how to play the guitar, just a bunch of self-taught guitar tutors all teaching the guitar in their own individual way. I was furious!
Luckily, I found a mentor in the founder of the college who hit the nail on the head as he explained to me “There is no one system. If you want to find one, you need to come up with it yourself and, by the way, playing guitar in a rock band is actually not that complicated. It has more to do with sound, the feel, songs, image and all of those things that you can’t find in a system. It’s not hard to play guitar in a rock band, some people even do so whilst drunk!”
Unfortunately, I had just put myself into huge debt by taking out a student loan for this experience. I didn’t have a band and I had set three years aside to practice, not to get a new hairstyle!
Consequently, I stubbornly continued my chase for the system that would solve my problem of not understanding the guitar fretboard. I was convinced that there must be a more holistic way.
I spoke to Guthrie, who if you ever get a chance must hear live, if there was an award for the best guitar player in the world, Guthrie would win, no debate. The man is a complete guitar genius.
He understood my issue and adviced me to just sit down and work it out. Pick a system, tweak it or invent a hybrid, whatever, but just do it. And write it all out so it actually makes sense. Do it, then practice it.
This was the defining moment. I decided I was going to have to work it out myself, inventing a new system. I locked myself indoors. It was crunch time!
No more excuses – Let the work begin!
So there I was, I knew hundreds of songs, a bunch of 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 that would solve the mystery of the guitar fretboard.
Between my practice hours, which consisted mainly of technical exercises to a drum machine, constantly pushing the BPM, modal improvisations and various scale exercises, I also kept looking online for information.
I read countless library books, went to many “one to one sessions” with different tutors and bought quite a few guitar books, DVDs and play-along CD’s, all of which I felt was completely useless to me.
Around this time, a well-known jazz improviser released a DVD box set which cost a fortune. I decided to buy it anyway. When it arrived, I was almost as excited as when I met the flamenco / classical tutor a few years earlier.
Sadly, I was equally as disappointed when I realized that he was just improvising and having a chat to the camera. I remember one particular comment “I’m just improvising here” made me especially frustrated, no explanation, no help, just showing off!
The jazz piano professor
After going through every recommended guitar book, 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 areas whilst teaching jazz piano:
I thought I’d give this method a go and boy was I in for a treat! Once I had stopped looking at an Am as an Am, and instead thought about it as a roman numeral, everything 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 having perfect pitch!
I could tell that I was on to something here and started to organize all my chords around each major scale shape. I wrote them out and tested which chord shape worked, ensuring 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 chord, 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 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 how chords connected on the neck. 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. If I played a G major scale around fret 3, I could see all of the chords within that scale shape, as well as all of the arpeggios, and also all of the modes. 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 sixteen bars. Previously, I had only played one Minor Pentatonic scale over it, fumbling for notes and 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!
I remember recording one version of each concept. With the first one, I’d play just a Minor Pentatonic as a blanket scale, aiming to ‘feel’ the notes that worked. With the second concept, I strictly followed the chords, applying either an arpeggio or a mode as the chords changed. The first way sounded like more traditional blues soloing and the second way sounded more jazz-like.
The best news was that it was easy! My hands would tell me where to go. It was literally 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 realm of consciousness – It was as if I was having an out of body experience!
I started testing my new found theories using jazz standards, pop songs, dance music, folk music, and rock. Every time, it just worked!
It was as though the mystery had simply disappeared. Was it really this simple? Turned out that it was. It wasn’t a case of practice makes perfect. It was more a case of perfect practice will get you there, pointless practice will get you nowhere.
I realized it’s only worth putting the hours in if you know exactly what you are working towards. By eliminating all unnecessary information, I 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. I had, in fact, taught my hands the language of music!
Job done – Now what?
“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!”
I had almost completed the first year of my degree so I took some time off from practicing. I had spent almost two decades trying to crack the fretboard code and now that I had, I wondered what I could do with it. I joined a few bands and put my system to the test. It never failed me and I now found playing the guitar to be very enjoyable, instead of frustrating.
I met up with my mentor again and showed him what I’d discovered. He was impressed and to my great surprise, he asked whether I would be happy to re-write the guitar course that I was currently undertaking. He was prepared to guide me through it and ensured that I would be paid sufficiently.
This was a pretty good day in my guitar teaching career, to say the least!
Writing guitar courses and magazine columns
It wasn’t easy, our first meetings were not particularly successful. It was difficult to construct a course over several subjects with definite timelines but I kept at it and after six months it was finished. The course was published in the following year’s manual and I was offered a teaching position at the college.
It felt strange to be a student in the morning and then teach classes in the afternoon. Nevertheless, I was making money and my system worked. I had excellent results with the students and everything felt as though it had finally fallen into place.
Over the next two years whilst still a student, I continued to teach at the college and update the course. I also started to write for one of the guitar magazines that I’d grown up reading.
I wrote a metal column for ‘Guitar Techniques’ magazine for about a year. I’d never played in a metal band myself but after transcribing a few songs, I’d look at their chord progressions and riffs and then write new songs ‘in the style of’ every month. As there are only twelve notes to choose from, I just had to work out which notes a song used and produce variations of them.
I had great feedback, no one knew I wasn’t a metal player and for me, it was just music and after cracking the fretboard code, it was easy!
The Guitar Conspiracy
During the final year of my degree, several guest speakers came to the college to share their knowledge of the music industry with us.
One of them was the manager of the famous 90s band Fine Young Cannibals. As he conveyed his experiences in the music industry, he explained the marketing strategy of finding a gap in the market and focusing on it.
He described it as a massive brick wall that you’d need to find the missing brick in. It instantly hit me:
Guitar players don’t know how to apply music theory to the fretboard – that’s a pretty big brick!
I knew that I had the system that would fix this!
I started writing what would eventually become the foundation of Spy Tunes, the Guitar Conspiracy.
Most importantly, this had to be THE complete reference manual, including all exercises, that explains the language of music on the guitar fretboard.
I also completed what was to become Chordacus.com, a completely free software that clearly outlines the fretboard with all chords, scales, and arpeggios.
This meant that I could share my discoveries worldwide in a very cost-effective way for anyone who might want to learn guitar.
All those exercises I knew a student had to complete could not just be in TAB, but also have a video demonstration (preview completely for free in the exercise library).
But we can’t just practice exercises to learn how to play guitar, we have to learn real songs and develop a repertoire. This is what I do here at Spy Tunes, I’ll teach you all those important exercises, at the same time as we learn songs.
I’ve learned so much about the format of teaching online and from my students that a decade since launch when you take these lessons, you don’t even have to practice those important chord exercises anymore. I’ve found ways to incorporate them into the song lessons in the courses.
When you take the step by step courses available today you’re learning the fretboard, improvising, writing and playing songs – all at the same time.
I hope to see you on the other side!