How NOT to Learn Guitar: Bite-Size Guitar Podcast Episode 18

Episode 18 of the Bite-Size Guitar Podcast looks at a trap any musician can fall for and how it can trick you into thinking you’re making progress.

I’ll share a story about two technically accomplished musicians who weren’t able to improvise the simplest of solos. Once you learn how something like this can happen, you can avoid falling for the same trap.

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Podcast Episode 18 Transcript

Hi, I’m Aaron from and this is episode 18 of the Bite-Size Guitar podcast.

Normally in each episode, I try to share with you something you can do to become a better guitarist.

This episode will be a bit different. In this episode, I want to share something to keep in mind about what not to do as you learn new things or push your guitar skills forward.

Knowing traps and pitfalls to avoid can be just as important as the things I cover in other episodes.

The best way to understand the trap I’m going to focus on in this episode is to share a quick story from my own experience. This story has stuck in my mind ever since I was 16 and it shows how easily any musician can get trapped down the wrong path.

When I was 16, outside of jamming with my metal band, I performed regularly on acoustic guitar with a singer as a duo. The singer I would perform with would often talk about two sisters she was friends with who were apparently incredible musicians. One played violin and the other sister played piano. I kept hearing how amazing they were and how we should organize to have a jam with them.

To put things in perspective, at the time I was a die-hard metal guitarist (and I guess I still am in many ways) without any formal training. So the idea of collaborating with two formally trained musicians who were also a couple of years older than me seemed intimidating. I was convinced they would dismiss me and my guitar abilities. Who was I kidding, I just enjoyed mucking around and jamming to Metallica while they were real musicians with formal training.

Eventually, the singer convinced me that we should meet up with the two sisters.
So for the next week, I worked through our setlist and composed basic violin and piano parts for them writing it all out in Guitar Pro. I was really intimidated, so I spent a lot of time reading up on piano and violin and how to write parts for them. I wrote everything in Guitar TAB using Guitar Pro, then printed off the standard notation for them.

When I walked into their music room, I stared in horror at the wall literally full from the top of their upright piano to the ceiling of framed certificates and musical accomplishments. There were certificates for music theory, sight-reading, technical abilities, and other things I don’t remember. I wish I took a photo because it was ridiculous how many framed certificates were on that wall. There were probably somewhere between 30 and 50 framed certificates on that wall. Seriously.

If I felt intimidated before, I definitely had a case of impostor syndrome when I saw that wall of framed certificates.

I nervously gave them the sheet music for our setlist and we worked through all the songs. I thought for sure they would laugh at my pitiful attempts of composing parts for instruments I didn’t know how to play. I didn’t even tell them I wrote the parts.

As you might expect, they were able to instantly join in by sight-reading the sheet music. Real musician stuff. It was a great feeling and very strange to hear parts I wrote on guitar in Guitar Pro played on piano and violin by two accomplished musicians.

In one of the cover songs, there was an instrumental bridge section, but with only one acoustic guitar, I hadn’t yet figured out what to do apart from just strum the chords. I didn’t have a looper pedal then, which would have made my life easier.

I left the violin part blank for that section because I thought it’d be a great spot for her to improvise a solo.
So when we got to that song, I suggested this to her. Something strange happened when I suggested it. She just stared at me with a blank face. Maybe I didn’t explain myself properly, after all, I’m talking to real musicians this time, not the usual metal-heads I jammed with in my garage.
So, I said I’ll strum a chord progression for either 8 or 16 bars and she can just improvise whatever she wanted. She could even go longer if she wanted, all she would have to do is give me a cue when to move to the next part.
After another blank stare, she sheepishly asks me what would she play or if I had sheet music she could use.

Now keep in mind that right behind her is a wall seriously full of certificates and accomplishments for her musical abilities and knowledge. And she’s asking me what she should play.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Maybe she just hasn’t covered this sort of thing yet at the music school she went to.

So I suggested she could play around with some of the vocal melodies and just whatever felt right to her. That’s what I would do and I didn’t really know much about music theory back then.
Would you be surprised to hear that she had never done anything like that before? I definitely was.

Not only had she never improvised before outside of exercises in a method book, she didn’t even know how to start. I told her what the chord progression was, thinking that she could use her music theory knowledge to help guide her playing. Nope. She didn’t have a clue what to play.

After a couple of attempts of her trying to come up with something, it was clear that she really didn’t have a clue when it came to improvising. It was like I was suddenly speaking in a different language.

So I came up with a few basic licks and melodies off the top of my head and suggested she could use those as a starting point and she could just add a few extra notes as she saw fit to stretch the solo out. I thought in my head, you know, violin playing long notes with vibrato, that’s pretty basic stuff.
No good. She first had trouble working out what I was playing, then she couldn’t figure out how to stretch those ideas out for 8 bars.

Again, I’ll point out that she had seriously impressive technical skills, so this was really strange.

So in the end, I came up with an entire 8 bar solo off the top of my head, transcribed it and she played it note for note off the page. My transcribing skills were near non-existent back then, so it probably took me 1 minute to come up with a decent sounding solo, then another 15 minutes to write down the solo on paper.
When I gave her the sheet music, she put her sight reading skills to use and played it flawlessly.

We ended up performing a couple of gigs with these two sisters and the violinist played the solo I wrote for her both times note for note. She didn’t deviate the slightest bit from what I wrote on the page.

If you’re wondering, the other sister on piano couldn’t improvise either. When she tried, all she could do was play around with arpeggiating the chords.

Now if you don’t know how to improvise either, you may relate to these two sisters and how daunting it can feel when you’re asked to do something outside of what you already know. But the point to keep in mind is that you probably don’t have a wall full of certificates boasting your abilities and musical knowledge like they did.
Both sisters were incredibly accomplished in a technical sense. But the wall of certificates did not match their abilities.
They may have passed advanced music theory exams with flying colors, but they both had zero clue on how to put that theory to use. They could instantly sight read all of the songs we worked on, but when I suggested the violinist improvise something simple for eight bars, she froze up in fear.

Something is clearly wrong here.

I didn’t really fully grasp the cause of this problem until years later when I started teaching. The trap both of these sisters fell for is something that regularly happens to a lot of musicians.

The problem is that these sisters confused activity and accomplishment.

Accomplishment is when you achieve something that makes you better off.
Activity is something you do that doesn’t push you forward.

They thought those exams and certificates were signs of accomplishment. Some of them were, such as the ones on sight-reading because they definitely mastered that skill.
But all the exams and certificates on aural skills and music theory weren’t accomplishments. They’re just activity. They only become accomplishment if they take all that theory and study and put it to use on their instruments.

What’s the point of studying for advanced music theory exams if you never learn to put that theory to use?

This is the lesson I want you to keep in mind whenever you’re working on something or trying to learn something new. Don’t mix up activity and accomplishment.
Mindlessly running up and down scale exercises is activity. Learning to use those scales to write riffs or solos is accomplishment.

Reading a book on music theory is activity. Applying the lessons from that book to your guitar playing is accomplishment.

Anything you do as a guitarist could be either activity or accomplishment – it all depends how you apply it.

The mistake these sisters made was thinking that passing exams was the end of their learning for those topics. I’m sure they studied the theory needed to be able to improvise a short solo. But they never learned how to apply that theory.

Now I’m not saying exams and all that is useless. What I am saying is that there’s a difference between passing an exam and being able to use that knowledge to become a better guitarist. The exam is activity, applying that knowledge can be accomplishment.

With anything you read, watch, listen to, or try on your guitar, try to make sure it’s not just activity that won’t lead anywhere.

The title for this episode is ‘How NOT to Learn Guitar’. Well, hopefully by now it’s clear how not to learn guitar.
You don’t learn guitar by reading about it or watching videos. You learn guitar by having a guitar in your hands and trying new things.
Don’t fall into the trap of activity like the sisters did.

Over the next week, whenever you read or hear about an idea, a technique, or anything to do with guitar, try to apply it in some way to your playing. If you watched a video of a guitarist explaining something, don’t just watch the video. That’s activity. Try to put the ideas into practice on your guitar, that’s what leads to accomplishment.

Get in the habit of pickup up your guitar to take whatever you have heard in a video and apply it to your playing.

Hopefully, this short story makes it clear how easily somebody can get tricked into doing things that really aren’t going to help them become better musicians. Take a closer look at the things you’re doing or not doing with your guitar playing and make sure you don’t fall into the same trap.

I hope you found this story interesting and more importantly, you try to keep this in mind for the future.
Try to put this to use in your playing and I’ll talk to you next time.


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