Most students of the guitar are totally out of balance with the skills they have. Those of you who have read my other articles know that I am not a believer in studying all things musical, nor am I a believer in studying a billion different styles and techniques. As a musician and composer, I am committed to the process of mastering only the skills I need to reach my goals. As a teacher, I am committed to helping my students master whatever things are needed to reach his/her goals. In almost every case, it is not important to learn everything about everything. It would be nice to do that, but there is simply not enough hours in the day (or years in a life) to master it all.
A significant percentage of my students had already been playing/studying music for a while before studying with me, often having studied with more than one previous teacher in the past. In almost every case these students possess some promising skills in a few areas and are severely lacking in other, very important, areas. The problem is not that they are lacking in this area or that one, but that they are lacking in some areas that are often critical (or at least important) in achieving their own goals. The worst part is they often don't realize how much they are lacking in these areas, nor do they fully understand just how important it is for them to be strong in these same areas. It is, in my opinion, every teacher's responsibility to stress this issue to his/her students and to work with the student on a regular basis to bridge the gap and improve these weak spots.
For all you students reading this, if you are already studying with a good teacher, make sure he/she understands what your goals are. If your teacher is a good one, he/she should be working with you in your weak areas, if they aren't, can't or won't, find another teacher.
The one area that many students are usually strongest is actually technique and the weakest areas are usually aural skills, songwriting and improvisation. Songwriting may or may no be a part of your goals, but no matter what your goal is, improvisation is probably going to be an important tool that you will need for your goals and certainly aural skills will definitely be a critical part of virtually all goals.
Being out of balance musically can be a real problem for two main reasons:
1. Your weak areas will always hold you back because you won't be able to accomplish what you need to without being strong in all the areas required to reach your goals.
2. Areas where one is strong in are not as useful without all the other skills needed to go along with it. This makes an area, which in general is pretty strong, now only mediocre because strong areas can't be fully applied.
Here is an example relating to the second point above:
Let's assume someone's main goal is to write great songs with great lead guitar parts. Let's also assume the following:
|This person's strong areas are:||This person's weak areas are:|
|Lead guitar technique||Music theory knowledge|
|Good vocabulary of chords||Aural skills (ear training)|
|Rhythm guitar playing||Improvising|
|Sense of melody||form (song structure)|
It is likely this person will have no problem finding some nice sounding chords because he/she knows a good amount of chords, BUT because of his/her lack of understanding in how chords work together (music theory weakness), it will be hard to consistently find good chord progressions (combinations of chords). Plus, not understanding about theory will make it difficult to write music that is in key and that can change keys fluidly. This person's aural skills are weak too so "hearing" chord progression in his/her head won't be easy either. So in the end, it won't matter much that this person knows a lot of chords because the weaknesses are severely restricting the ability to apply the chord knowledge.
Let's say this person gets a song written and now it's time to record/play a guitar solo over the song. He/she has good lead guitar technique and a good sense of melody. That is a great start, but with weak improvising skills and a weak ear (aural skills), it will be very difficult to write something that actually sounds like it fits the song. With a better knowledge of music theory it is possible to at least party bridge this gap. BUT in our example this person is weak in music theory. So here is another classic example of how one's strong areas are not really valuable since they can't really be applied. Sure this person could play some really fast guitar parts that has some melodic sense to it, but if it doesn't really fit the song, what good is it?
The examples I gave above are not exaggerations or extreme, they are just two, of many, very common situations that really hurt one's ability to reach goals and feel fulfilled from music. Most players are way out of balance and are being held back on a daily basis. Many people are seduced by their strengths and ignore their weaknesses, concentrating on making only the strong areas stronger. All that does is make one even more out of balance, more frustrated and further away from personal musical bliss.
Tom Hess is a professional touring guitarist and recording artist. He teaches, trains and mentors musicians from around the world.
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