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I'm a beginner guitar player with a passion for the blues, jazz and funk. When I say beginner I mean that I just know a few chords, have some basic technique on how to handle the guitar (I had classes when I was younger) and have been practicing tabs for some of my favourite songs for years now.

Recently I decided to get serious about learning some important stuff such as theory and scales, etc. But I'm not really sure that it's what I want... From the music I've heard all my life I've started to think up songs/solos/riffs, just the sounds in my head and, through a lot of patience (finding the notes, the chords, etc) I've drawn some cool stuff (cool to me) on some tabs of my own.

The thing is, considering what I've said, are there any books on this subject of learning the ability to get to that note, that chord, that scale you're thinking about? Or should I take the time to learn the theory, learn to read scores, learn scales and chords, modes and all those things? Because I have a few books and DVDs on this type of music knowledge.

I'm extremely receptive to ideas, be them from any side of the "fence". Oh and I forgot to mention, I'm a huge SRV fan, so if I'd have to set a "finish line" for this music learning journey I'm about to embark, it would be SRV himself playing Lenny live at the El Mocambo.

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Caleb already gave some great tips, but I have some more specific advice that might help. In my opinion the single best thing you can do to get better at translating what is in your head to what comes out of your guitar is playing along with records and learning songs by ear. This is a form of ear training in a way, but it is more about being able to hear something (in this case a recorded song) and then being able to reproduce that on your own guitar. The better you get at hearing a song and translating it to notes on the fretboard, the easier it will be for you to do the same thing with the notes you hear in your head. I am of the opinion the two skills are closely related.

Of course, theory and technical skill come into play, but they can also be improved by learning songs, especially ones that challenge you. Currently I spend 1/4 of my practice time on theory, 1/4 on technical ability, another 1/4 on songwriting, then the last bit I just play along with songs that I like. In my opinion this last part is pretty important, because I improve my ear, see how theory is used in real songs, and increase my technical skill, all at the same time. Of course this means you shouldn't rely on tabs or sheet music to learn songs, just your ear and your guitar. You'd be surprised how far it can take you.

  • Awesome advice Charles, thanks a lot! I have actually never tried playing along to songs I hadn't practiced beforehand, through tabs; But I'll definitely try it out now! Just to get a feel for it, how much time do you spend, daily, on each of those 1/4s of your music learning process? – besnico Sep 18 '14 at 8:54
  • That varies a lot over time. Recently I've got a lot of free time so I've been playing a lot, up to about 4 hours a day, so an hour for each area. But sometimes just an hour a day total if I'm busy..the important thing is to at least pick up your guitar up once a day and play something. – Charles Sep 18 '14 at 19:03
  • +1. That's pretty much what I was going to write, except I spend a lot more time playing by ear- in fact I hardly ever learn by tab except to get a song nailed first off. As a result I can take a good guess at playing a song without having ever tried before, and usually get it right unless there's something unusual going on. (eg I recently played Tiny Dancer by E. John without tab, right 1st time, which I was v pleased about). This becomes very handy when writing tunes: If I have a notional idea of the chord/melody I'm after, I can usually find it on guitar quite quickly. – user2808054 Jan 2 at 13:08
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I would focus on a combination of theory and ear training.

Music, like language, is a mental construct. Music theory provides a framework for discussing that construct, much like grammar provides a framework for discussing language. The goal with music theory isn't to get to the point where you are constantly consciously analyzing music, but to become so familiar with it, that you don't need to do it consciously because its become intuitive (just as you can construct proper grammatical sentences without constantly diagramming them). To be clear, by 'theory', I don't necessarily mean music notation (though that's useful too), but concepts like scales, modes, keys, intervals, chords, chord progressions, chord extensions and substitutions. You could throw in voice leading too, but that's less important to guitar.

Ear training goes hand-in-hand with theory, because it provides the concrete auditory feedback that enforces the theoretical concepts. So you can learn conceptually what intervals are, but you can also learn what they sound like. Or you don't just learn which intervals comprise a dominant seventh chord, but you know what a dominant seventh chord sounds like.

Together, these give you the ability to hear something in your head and translate it -- either deliberately or intuitively -- into an abstract concept, and then perform that concept on the instrument.

Oh? Did I forget to mention that performance is important to learn too? Because it is! Obviously, that part will be specific to each instrument, since each has their own specific idioms. The other two steps, though (theory and ear training) will apply to any instrument.

In short, to play what you're thinking you need:

  • Ear-training: To hear what you think.
  • Theory: To comprehend what you hear.
  • Performance skills: To play what you comprehend.
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    Thanks a lot for taking the time to write such a helpful post Caleb! About what you said, are there any books you would recommend for theory? I remember trying out a software for ear-training (don't remember the name), what would be the best you to train one's ear? – besnico Sep 18 '14 at 8:50
  • Since you're a beginner (more or less like how I was only a couple of years ago), I would recommend this book called "The Infinite Guitar" by Chris Juergensen. He explains basic music theory in very plain, informal language and I think it's a great start for beginner guitarists who are unfamiliar with sheet notation and may be more comfortable with tablature notation. He also put up several of these lessons for free on his website chrisjuergensen.com – user1953384 Sep 18 '14 at 12:25
  • Awesome, I'll get on it ;) – besnico Sep 18 '14 at 12:38
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Like the other answers, focus on theory and ear training. SRV learned a vocabulary of blues licks that helped him express himself. With that vocabulary he had options to choose from and found originality in his playing.

It is important to be able to use music as a language. Master the common phrases from the blues that the players use. Listen to the old blues and understand the history. All of this will come in time and it is very rewarding.

Start with pentatonic scales and I IV V progressions when you look into theory. Music theory is very huge and keep it simple at first.

Listen and be inspired by the artists you like and you will find learning very enjoyable.

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I can only speak from my own experience as someone who has been learning guitar (acoustic mainly) for just over two years. The single biggest leap for me has been learning the fretboard and the five basic shapes of the CAGED system. To be able to find notes anywhere on the fretboard and then to play scales based on these shapes has made a huge difference for me in terms of basic literacy and stepping out from the first three frets of the guitar. There are lots of very useful sources on both of these, but my go-to has been the 'Practical Music Theory' handbook published by Justin Sandercove and the Fretboard Workbook from the Hal Leonard series. I'm still a ways off full literacy and the ear training recommended above is my next big step, so by no stretch claiming to be an expert. Lots of other light-bulb moments, and they have a kind of cumulative effect, but for me unlocking the fretboard seems a major advance, and one that I can build on. Best of luck.

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