What You Really Need To Know

Hi all, and welcome to my new column all about what your priorities should be when learning the guitar. Let me say right up front that I was not the poster child for how to do it right when I first started playing. I didn't learn to read music, had little understanding of harmony, and didn't use correct picking technique for the first 4 years I played. What did I know? I knew how to play fast, how to do two handed tapping, and that I thought Eddie Van Halen was a god. Of course we all still revere Eddie almighty, but learning what you really need to know right at the beginning will make your trip to guitar mastery a little less bumpy. Let's talk.

Who do you want to be?

Before we can really discuss what you need to know we must know where you want to go with your playing. If you want to play punk rock, you can probably stop reading this article right now. No, trust me you know all you need to know. If you want to play bebop prepare yourself for a musical internship like the kind doctors go through. As in years, and years of study, gigging, and practice. If you are like most people interested in heavy duty rock playing, you fall somewhere in between, and I will now direct the rest of this article to you.

Chords and Rhythm

All guitarists should know their basic open position chords, like C, D, G etc., as well as, barre chords, power chords, and seventh chords. There are tons more where those came from, but if you only know a few chords make it these, as they will see you safely through most gigs. You should also know how to count and play the following rhythms: quarter notes, eighth notes, triplet, shuffle, sixteenth note triplet, sixteenth notes, and thirty second notes. You should also be able to perform these rhythms in 4/4, 3/4, 9/8, 6/8, 12/8, and 2/4 time signatures.


You don't need to have Joe Pass like understanding of harmony, but you should know how the basic key centers work with regards to major and minor keys. You should also have an understanding of modal progressions that you might often use in rock and metal such as phrygian, locrian, and dorian. In other words you need to know how chords work together to form keys and modes in order to know what chords work together, and therefore what scales can fit with them. This is a must for songwriting, improvisation, and communicating with other players.

Playing Lead

I could spend all day talking about the various tools used by great players, but this article isn't called everything there is to know, it's what you really need to know. You can pretty much narrow down the scales that you need to pentatonic, and diatonic scales. Remember that diatonic scales include your modes, so don't think you're getting off that easy. You should learn to play all of the pentatonic and diatonic scales in every position and in every key. Also try to understand the modal implications of what you are playing. I find that often times the cerebral part of guitar playing gets completely forgotten. Other tools such as: arpeggios, doublestops, harmonic minor, melodic minor, diminished, etc. are incredibly helpful, but not entirely necessary.

Music Reading

I can already sense you rolling your eyes at me. Yes, reading is an important skill to develop. Sure, you will often not need to use this skill set. But knowing how to read will alleviate the awkward need to explain to the band leader that you can't read after you already got the gig. Just bite the bullet and learn to read, do it for me, do it for you, and do it for every rock guy who has ever been the butt of the old joke: How do you get a guitar player to turn down? Answer: Put a chart in front of him!

I think that is a pretty brutally cut to the bone list of what you really need to know. You'll probably notice that I didn't explain all the techniques that I listed. That is because it would take way too long in one article. My aim is to arm you with the knowledge to ask the right questions when you get in front of a teacher. It can also help guide you if you are looking for books to learn from. But if you need me to explain in further detail go to the lessons page of my website, www.scottallenproject.com, or read some of my articles on these and other subjects elsewhere on this website. Good luck, and get to work.

Scott Allen is a 1996 graduate of the Musician's Institute, G.I.T. He currently teaches guitar to 65 to 70 students weekly at Northridge Music Center.

His latest CD is entitled "III", featuring his impressively fluid playing, with a style marked by an incendiary sense of phrasing.

Scott Allen