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September 09, 2006

A Learning Guitar Thought Experiment

I just want to get this written out because I think I may be using it in a discussion in the near future:

Deserted Island Music Theory and Guitar Study

Imagine that you, or someone you know, who doesn't know a thing about playing guitar is banished to a deserted island in order to study guitar. He (or she) is all alone living in a grass hut, but remarkably has a computer with a very limited satellite Internet connection which allows him to purchase guitar or music related products from Amazon. They'll deliver anything of music orientation that he wants: books, CDs, concert videos, whatever. Everything, that is, except a guitar. His task while on the island is to learn to play the guitar.

Out in the grass in front of his hut is a large log, a meter in diameter, and sawed exactly in half top to bottom. It's laying on its side with the flat side up. Within the face of the flat side of this log has been carved a perfect replica of the front of a Fender Stratocaster. It's even had a rosewood fingerboard with metal frets built in. It has metal tuning knobs, electronic pick-ups, it's varnished, it's got all of the plastic parts, a metal "whammy" bar - everything. Everything, that is, except strings. Instead of strings, there are white lines painted down the length of the guitar where the strings should be. And, of course, this is only the front of the guitar - the back is not carved out, instead blending into the log. So, not only does it not have strings, but it's impossible to even put a hand around the neck to practice fingering chords or scales. This guitar's only function is to give a clear idea to the island's visitor of what a guitar is like.

The word italicized above, "idea", is an important word here, because the point of this exercise is to think of everything that the island's visitor can learn about playing guitar: he can learn music theory; he can learn the fretboard; he can learn scale patterns; he can learn how all of the individual chords are shaped on the guitar neck; he can purchase and listen to ear training products. He can learn a whole heck of a lot about playing the guitar. What he can't learn, however, are the physical skills required for playing. It's all mental for him, it's all intellectual, it's all ideal.

The point of this exercise is to as clearly as possible separate in one's mind the difference between the intellectual side of playing, and the physical skills, the technique side of playing.

There are people who seem to be uninterested in the intellectual side of music. At the extreme, imagine a person who knows nothing of music theory - he doesn't even know the names of notes! Instead, he has a guitar, he knows how to make sounds with it, he memorizes (plays and remembers) where on the fretboard to place his fingers in order to make all of the different sounds, and then playing, for him, is just knowing what sound he wants to make and then going there with his fingers to make the sound. For him, there's no abstract component to the music. It's all physical: it's the physical act of fretting and striking strings, and it's the physical act of hearing sound. It's all percept, and zero concept.

I'm a person who needs the abstract side in order to enjoy the other side. Without that, it wouldn't be enjoyable at all. I set time aside in my day for "practicing guitar", and often my practice will not involve a single moment of actually touching the guitar. Instead, I'm reading books or using workbooks to learn the fretboard backwards and forwards, to learn scales, music theory, etc. To me, the guitar is a tool to use to bring forth the products of that wealth of knowledge. And, in this sense, a guitar is like any other instrument: the music is what is important, not so much the instrument. Or, put another way, some guitarists are guitarists first and musicians second. Other guitarists are musicians first and guitarists second (and often guitarists as a distant second). The latter are those whom I respect the most. An excellent musician with mediocre skills on the guitar is likely to be many, many times better than a mediocre musician who can cleanly shred on the guitar at 20 notes per second. I just don't "get" those people who want to play the guitar the day they get it. Given the choice in a false dichotomy, I'd prefer to get the guitar and put it under glass for a year while first learning everything there is to know about it without ever striking a string.

But that's just me.

Posted by Jeff at September 9, 2006 06:41 PM


I agree in your article and I also believe in a balance of abilities.

Posted by: Will at September 18, 2006 02:44 PM

I agree about shredding, less musical, more physical. Why buy a guitar before you're ready to play it?

Posted by: Jiff at December 15, 2006 11:31 AM

why would you not start straight away, the finger coordination and strength takes a while to be built up sufficiently, during that time learn to make proper music, otherwise your are limited to what you may want to play in the future

Posted by: dave at February 4, 2007 12:31 PM

Shredding can/is be musical, its a craft just like any other musical style.

Posted by: Jaymz at March 3, 2007 05:36 PM

I agree with what you say (music theory is definitley important, you might be going a little crazy with it though), but I disagree that you [meaning you personally] "needs the abstract side in order to enjoy the other side". In my case, if I listen to a piece that is made to emotionally effect people, I'm not thinking about minor thirds or who influenced the composer who wrote the piece, I'm trying to experience the effects the music is supposed to give. What I'm trying to say is that much of music is emotional, an area not best experienced intellectually.
. . . But that's just me
P.S. If you're open to trying new things, try listening to "Epinicion" by john paulson without analyzing it- if that way of music doesn't end up working for you it's great piece anyway you listen to it (and what's important is enjoying a piece to all your potential, which ever way works best for you)

Posted by: Lee at June 20, 2007 12:09 AM

Ok I agree that theory can give you a lot and reading books and stuff but music, music isn't about reading books, music is about having fun, it's about listening and creating something that comes from you so that's why I don't respect musicians who know all the position of all the scales and all the notes and hundreds of chords yet who cannot play a single melody by ear. Music is about experiencing things for yourself and improving yourself by playing, NOT by reading hundreds of books on theory. I believe that first you have to learn to play then you should study theory if you want to.

Posted by: Ylviste at September 21, 2007 09:10 AM

I can't agree more with Ylviste. In my eyes, music is mostly about entertainment and fun. Also, its not about the music, it ís about the instrument and the sound it can produce. People will automatically show more dedication to their instrument as they gradually improve. How can you build up this dedication, or love, for an instrument if you only study "music" itself?

Posted by: Bryan at December 21, 2007 03:43 AM

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