I think that when it comes to learning guitar, there are roughly two types of people, with a rare third type:
- There are people that learn from tabs and videos. They replicate what they see, whether what they see is numbers on a page (tab) or movements in a video. We will call this the visual approach.
- There are people that learn by emulating the sound they hear. People that learn by ear. We will call this the aural approach.
- There is a rare third type of person, that learns from a combined approach of visual and aural, being able to associate sounds to what they see on a page, and vice versa, being able to write out their musical ideas. We will call this the combined approach.
Now, this article is not here to create a value judgement on the approach that you have taken, it’s merely intended as a way to show you options and provide some perspective for your guitar playing, and maybe give some insights into how you have been learning to play guitar.
Most people are split between the first two types (visual and aural) and rarely, we get someone who takes the combined approach. Often, guitar players move from being either visual or aural, into being a combined approach learner.
Now, which approach is best? Well this depends. There are professional touring guitar players that are either aural or visual learners, and exclusively do this. I have read interviews about some guitar players that tour in a band at a very high level, and one guitar player does the song writing, and writes the song out in tab for the other guitar player to learn. Other guitar players learn purely by ear (aural learners) and will record their ideas on their phone (or tape recorder if you’re a bit old school).
If you are a purely visual learner, you will be restricted in the heights that you can reach as a musician (we are moving from talking about being a guitar player to talking about being a musician. A guitar player is someone who can create sounds from a guitar. A musician is someone who, in the guitar context of this article, can play guitar but also understands how to use music to shape time and create specific emotions in the listener). The restriction in visual learners comes from being able to play guitar, but, not understanding how the pieces fit together, or not understanding the emotional consequences of what they play. This is very common with self-taught players. It is ok for beginners, but generally speaking, if you want to progress musically, then you will have to move from being a visual learner to a combined learner.
Being an aural learner will allow you to progress from being a guitarist to being a musician, with an interesting caveat. You will only be able to communicate with other musicians by playing your instrument. You won’t know why anything you’re playing sounds the way it does, you will just know that it does sound the way it does. Now, if you know the theory behind why what you’re playing works, you will be able to use that theory knowledge to think of additional options with that particular piece of music (for example, in improvising or song writing) and you will also be able to communicate with other musicians, either by writing your ideas down, or providing the context of your ideas. For example, you could write a tab or a score; or you could tell the other musicians that you are playing in the key of E minor (as one example).
So how can you progress from being a visual or aural learner to being a combined learner?
This is actually really easy.
If you are a visual learner, you need your brain to start ‘cataloguing’ sounds. You achieve this by taking small pieces of music, and singing the notes accurately. Sing through some scales. Find an ear training course, or an ear training app you can use to train your ears. If you are an aural learner, start taking some songs you play, and write down the chords. Get a book of basic music theory and slowly work your way through it.
The easiest way to do both of these, is to get a great guitar teacher to help you through the process.
Sam, the author, helps people in London who want to learn to play electric guitar, become better guitar players. If you want to learn electric guitar and live in London, then check out electric guitar lessons in London.