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Some friends of mine have started picking up my spare guitars and practicing while I play bass. They don't play guitar and have been asking me for tips.

Like me, they struggle with chords because they have to move multiple fingers to multiple strings all while playing. I found playing arpeggios to be easier and a good way to learn the chords, so I've been getting them to play arpeggios while I follow with a bass line.

I'm by no means a fantastic guitarists and not an instructor. Am I leading them down a bad path by telling them to play arpeggios first instead of pushing chords? Is there a reason instructors teach chords before arpeggios?

Chords always seemed harder to me.

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    As a guitar teacher, I've never started with just teaching random chords. I have always taught all my students songs. If those songs have chords, they learn those chords. If they have arpeggios, then they learn the arpeggios. I ask them for a list of songs they like and then we pick ones that are within reach based on their level and/or edit the difficulty of exactly how they play it so it's not frustrating. I'm not sure what other teachers do, but there isn't one right way to learn or teach guitar. – Todd Wilcox Jun 9 '16 at 15:41
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    @ToddWilcox I thought I was the only guitar teacher that believed students should learn to play guitar by learning to play simplified arrangements of songs they actually wanted to play instead of "The Saint's Go Marching In" or "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star". – Rockin Cowboy Jun 9 '16 at 17:57
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    @RockinCowboy I actually hate simplified arrangments unless there is no other option that will help with motivation, be instructive, and also not frustrate the student. More often any simplification will be temporary. Like "let's play it this way until you get it down, then we will add in these elements" until the student is playing the exact same part as on the recording or as written. – Todd Wilcox Jun 9 '16 at 18:08
  • @ToddWilcox Agreed. I prefer to teach various techniques by incorporating them into arrangements of songs they might have already learned a simplified arrangement for. Gives them a more powerful "why". – Rockin Cowboy Jun 9 '16 at 18:33
  • @ToddWilcox - Whilst agreeing that chord playing is the backbone of being a guitarist, I taught chords that went with songs. Maybe subtly different from your approach, not sure. But my objective was not to actually learn a raft of songs, rather to teach how a set of chords worked together. The songs were merely vehicles. Often, I didn't necessarily expect to hear a completed song - that was the choice of the student, but if they understood how chords fit together to work in songs, that was mission accomplished.On a different level, I've worked with many players who obviously did just (cont). – Tim Jun 10 '16 at 7:32
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Actually you might be on to something. I know from teaching beginning guitarist (and from my own personal experience) that learning to contort your fingers and hands into the correct position to instantly finger a given chord is very difficult. Nothing in the natural everyday world provides any advance training for those type hand formations and movements - they are completely foreign and unnatural.

Because it is so difficult to contort into the strange positions needed to play a chord and requires a great deal of dedication and intentional practice resulting in massive amounts of frustration, MOST aspiring guitar students give up their dream before they can play their first song!

But eventually an aspiring guitarist should learn to play chords because almost all guitar music is based on or around chord formations. Obviously rhythm guitar (which is easier for most students to master than lead guitar or classical fingerstyle) is almost all chord based. Learn to play three chords and you can strum your way through literally thousands of songs.

Even when a guitar student advances to playing lead guitar, knowing the scales that are centered around basic chord shapes will help them find the notes they need easier than just randomly attempting to memorize where every note is on all 20 plus frets on all 6 strings.

But - (and here is where your idea has merit) a great way to learn to play chords - might in fact be to play arpeggios based on the chords. By playing the chord tones as individual notes, it would not be mandatory to get your fingers to simultaneously land on each string at the correct fret (as would be required if you were strumming the chords).

So if your friends can play arpeggios while placing their fingers in the correct position for an underlying chord one string at a time - instead of having to try to land all the fingers in the exact right place all at once, then they might actually be more inspired to continue playing. Eventually they will get closer to being able to get all their fingers in the right place at once.

They would not even have to play a true arpeggio, but rather just some melodic sounding picking of individual notes out of a chord one string at a time so that it sounds musical and pleasing to the ear.

So I would say, that as long as your friends learn how to form the chords, if they want to learn to play the chords by placing their fingers one at a time while playing individual chord tones in a melodic sounding way (that resembles an arpeggio) then they need not listen to "conventional wisdom". They may have a better chance of developing the requisite passion for guitar that inspires them to put in the needed hard work IF - they start by doing what gives them more immediate gratification and positive reinforcement.

So you might actually be leading them down the path of least resistance at first, but that path could very well lead to them becoming a capable guitarist.

  • My favorite for practicing the change between G and C is this little melody (all 8th except the last note - I hope the notation is understandable) ef||:gg'b'g''bg'd'g'|e'g'c''e''c'g'e'g'|e'g'c''e''c'g'e'g'|d'g'b'g''b'g'ef:||g - you start out on the lowest string, bring the first finger for the G-chord into position and then have two 8th time to get the finger on the highest string into place before you need to play it. Then the b and you have another three 8th of open strings while you get ready for the C-cord shape. And the transition from C to G also gives you three 8th of open strings. – Sumyrda - Reinstate Monica Jun 9 '16 at 21:14
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Arpeggios generally start on the root, then sequentially play 3,5,8 and so on. Guitars can be used to play these, but they don't always relate exactly to chord shapes. Take a simple E maj. chord, and you find that it leaves out the major 3rd note that you'd play in the arpeggio on the 6th string 4th fret. O.k. the rest of the notes follow well, but the two are not exact copies.

Not many instruments are chordal, so playing chords is something a guitarist ought to be good at. Arps not so important. Probably more important to bass players, but they dont often ( someone will argue that point!!) play chords in a normal bass playing situation.

Yes, it's tricky in the beginning using more than one finger in order to play a chord, but that's the nature of the beast. It's far more useful that a guitarist knows chords than can play arps.

  • Sometimes if I pick out the notes of a chord one string at a time in order, I call it an "arpeggio" even though it technically may not be a true arpeggio the way you would play it on keys. But your point is valid. Agreed that knowing chords is an essential part of learning to play guitar. – Rockin Cowboy Jun 9 '16 at 18:39
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First, there's tradition ... from your Uncle Joe who played bluegrass with the boys for barn dances every Saturday night (or maybe his name was Bill and he covered CCR tunes in the local bars with his buddies) to popular teachers such as Mel Bay and the like. For years guitar method books would teach G, C, and D7 and then tell you that "anybody can play rhythm guitar" ... right? (And thanks to Bill Haley, Elvis, and Buddy Holly it was pretty much true!)

Perhaps worth considering also --- you state "I found playing arpeggios to be easier" (than chords). In keyboard playing it's the other way round; playing 3 notes at once requires less motion and cognitive (read: over a time span) reasoning that playing them as an arpeggio. And an arpeggio is often defined as a "broken chord", too (even on Wikipedia).

So it might be worth finding out if a guitar teacher who teaches chords first has been influenced by keyboard study or a keyboard teacher, or a theory teacher who is "keyboard-centric" (in my experience that's most of them).

  • Good point about the difference it playing chords on keys vs. strings. – Rockin Cowboy Jun 9 '16 at 18:36
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One big reason is that playing arpeggios requires single note playing, often across strings. This is quite advanced compared to strumming all (or most) strings together, assuming you play with a pick. I am surprised your friends find it easier.

Also, playing single notes requires greater coordination between the hands. I would also argue your point that chords are harder because you "have to move multiple fingers to multiple strings, since once you've put them in the right place you can leave them there and bang away with the strumming hand (as long as the chord don't change).

I would also argue that arpeggios are of little value compared to chords, but of course that depends on the situation and musical genre.

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It speaks to why people play guitar. If you want to go to Julliard then just strumming your chords for several hours a day is not going to get you to there.

To get a person who has that ambition is rather rare. What most people get into guitar for is just to play some popular songs with friends and family.

There is of course nothing wrong with such an ambition. Just like not everyone who takes up jogging does it to become an Olympic marathon athlete so does not everyone take up the guitar to become the next John Williams.

Getting people to strum and learn chords is the easiest way to get them to play the songs they like so this is what teachers, teach.

After all teacher just like most other people have to give the people who employ them what they want.

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