With all the resources out there, where do you begin?
There’s so much instruction on how to play an instrument out there from method books to exercises and from videos to blog articles (like this one) that it can be overwhelming when you first start learning. But what do you really need to do when you start playing? The solution is simple. What do all of these resources have in common? They are all trying to prepare you to play real music. So why not just play real music?
I personally believe the best way to learn to play music is just to play music. It sounds incredibly obvious, yet there are entire businesses built on method books and exercises that try to replicate real musical examples. Learning songs on the other hand is learning actual real musical examples. I am constantly asked to recommend books for people to work through. While there is nothing wrong with method/exercise books, I believe they should be used to augment your musical education; in a way that takes a back seat to learning and working through songs/repertoire.
Even the most creative method/exercise book can only dream of coming close to real music. An exercise book won’t contain the same interesting guitar licks, drums fills, bass grooves or piano chords that you would find in real music written by the greatest instrumentalists/songwriters of all time. Even if the books have some interesting content, it wouldn’t be presented in the same way it would be in a song. Learning a song will require you to switch between playing rhythm and lead guitar, drum beats and fills, etc all in a way that’s entirely unique. Method and exercise books tend to show you some of the most common ways that these types of things occur in music. However, after you’ve learned a bunch of real music, most people will have realized what types of things occur commonly on their instrument.
So what should you use method books for? I think of method books as intense training. If I’m trying to get better at one very particular aspect of my playing (especially if it’s something that I don’t normally find in my regular repertoire), then I will use the book to augment my regular music practice. If I really need help with sweep picking technique or how to apply diminished scales, then I might add a method book that addresses those topics as part of my practice. However when I do that, I’ll also immediately look for real musical examples of those topics as well.
Simply put, when starting to learn an instrument you should devote as much time as you can to learn every song you can. When you finally get a gig you’ll be glad you did. You’d be surprised how uncommon it is for someone to call “scale exercise #4” at a gig.