What I Teach Beginners And Why



     In traditional method, the primary focus is on scales and other technical exercises, and reading music notation. The practice of elementary pieces prepares the student for more advanced repertoire. In classical music, this makes sense, since it is almost exclusively read from a page and even moderately challenging pieces require considerable technique. Popular music, however, is different. Much of it is “written” in the head of the composer, played in a “stream of consciousness” manner. It is then notated informally, usually with what is called a lead sheet. Some lead sheets have notation and chords, but most guitarists write them with chords only, with or without the song lyrics. For example:


      G                                          am

I’m taking my time, feels like a new day


C                                            G

Wonderful girl, you keep me happy come what may


     A lead sheet of this type gives the player only the chords and where they are phrased in the melody.  Not much information, is it? Yet this is all an experienced player needs to play the song, once heard. That’s because the rhythm and structure of the song when heard are internalized very quickly by such a player. Thus, a lead sheet such as this is basically an outline.

     Classical music is written in “standard notation”. This means notes on the staff, complete with all the information (note lengths, phrasing and other instructions) needed to play it. This is called a score. A complete score will have all the music for every instrument. Complete scores for one instrument are usually written for piano, and look like this:





As you see, there are two separate parts, one for each hand of the piano. The top part is generally a melody played with the right hand, the bottom part chords for the left. Parts for guitar can simulate this, but using the right hand only, using the thumb for a bass line while the fingers play a melody. This is called fingerstyle. Otherwise the guitar is played strumming chords, with or without a pick. Fingerstyle parts are often written in standard notation, or in tablature, a special notation system for guitar.


Strumming parts are not notated, yet

this is where help for the beginning to intermediate player is needed the most! 

    Now, let’s look at the same tune with guitar chords added:






This is typical of most music books and transcriptions. Sometimes chord diagrams are added in case the player is unfamiliar with the chords. But what is missing?



 Since so much popular music calls for strumming the guitar, with or without a pick, you would think strumming patterns would be included to show how to actually play the rhythm of a piece. Yet this is not the case. Occasionally you will see arrows to indicate strum direction, but not the rhythm itself. Here is the same song with this notation:




Note that the introductory measures (1 and 2) show the notation of the melody-the VOCAL melody. Unless one guitar was playing a full arrangement (not suggested for beginners), these notes would not typically be played by the rhythm guitar, but by the voice, lead guitar or other instrument. So if we want to notate the rhythm guitar, that part would start at the C chord, and the notation would show only the rhythm.




To illustrate this, here is the same section notated for percussion:


(Vocal intro)                     (Guitar)

The idea is the same; the notes are showing the rhythm of the part only.  If the notes and the strum direction were provided, the player would know what to do with the right hand. It doesn’t matter if notes or the symbol x is used, they are in a line, no movement up or down.

    Here is the same notation with chord symbol and strum direction:








Here it is, sung and played on the guitar: I am showing the right hand only. Trust that I am playing the simple chords C and G major with the left hand.


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 This is the type of notation the beginner needs! In fact, this is the notation that every player needs that can’t yet hear, either in the recording or in his head, what to do with the right hand rhythm. I was fortunate to have the time and passion to copy a lot of song parts when I started playing as a boy, and I played for years without reading. But for anyone whose ear is still developing, reading is essential.


 Remember, for playing popular styles, reading RHYTHM should come first; reading melody and harmony can wait.


    A Word about Tablature


     Tablature is a notation system for guitar. It has become very popular over the years, since it is relatively easy to read compared to standard notation. Instead of 5 lines on a staff as in standard notation, 6 lines representing the strings of the guitar are used. The previous song example in “tab” would look like this:



   These are the notes of the vocal melody. As you can see, there are no rhythmic values shown for any of them. This is because tab is intended as a guide only. The player is assumed to know how to phrase the notes in time. Tab only works if the player can do this. Many beginners and even some more advanced players cannot reliably copy the rhythm they hear. So tab is either a great learning tool or a story half told, depending on the skill level of the player. Tablature is best for single note (lead guitar) riffs, or any phrases where less than full familiar chords are to be played. Even so, it only works if the rhythm can be emulated.

©2016 Jim Greenfield