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Christy Bannerman

Guitarist, Musician and Teacher

Why starting guitar with chords is the STUPIDEST idea ever

Spock Illogical Guitar

Start guitar lessons with a local guitar teacher and the chances are the very first thing they’ll show you is how to play chords.

Did your first experience of guitar begin with chords? I know mine did.

In fact, when I started out, I went through so many months of frustration and difficulty with chords that I felt like I would never ever be able to learn guitar.

I kept practicing, but who wants to pick up something cool and exciting only to grind to a halt with the first thing they do? No one.

To say I found those first few months demotivating would be putting it mildly.

You see, when I first started guitar lessons, I didn’t know what I needed to do, or what was the best approach to take.

I just knew I wanted to sound like the guys in Guns 'n' Roses

Slash Guns n Roses

I wanted to play heavy riffs and screaming lead guitar!

Instead, and like most people who try out guitar, I had taken up guitar only to find myself endlessly practicing chords. It seemed like playing chords WAS playing the guitar!

My teacher and I trudged through this old-school chord based song book, and nothing we did ever sounded like the kind of playing I wanted to do.

No Rock Music Allowed

The lessons continued like this for some more months until I changed teacher.

Of course my teacher wasn’t deliberately trying to make things harder than they needed to be. It’s common to start guitar like this, and no doubt he was doing what he thought was best.

“He was a nice guy and a good player” (said every guitar student ever).

That’s great, but there’s a big problem:

Starting guitar with chords makes no fucking sense

And the reason why is so simple and obvious.

You’re already learning how to use your fingers in completely new ways, and to play chords you need to control several fingers at once, AND accurately move them in and out of intricate patterns.

Why make things this hard right out out of the gate?

This is why starting with chords is just illogical

Spock Illogical Guitar

If you know some basic chords already, then picture playing a common chord like A, C, D, or E. Now think of everything that’s involved for a beginner:

Get several fingers into the correct shape; position them all close to the fretwires; apply the correct pressure across all fingers; position with the fingertips and arch the fingers correctly to avoid muting strings; and all while positioning the thumb at the back of the neck without any pressure…

And all of this is just to play a single chord…

"What do you mean...?"

To attempt an actual SONG, you need to be able to change between several chords. Changing chords presents a whole range of other issues that need to be worked through. Then we need to learn some strumming technique to make it even begin sound at all like the song…

And at the end of that, even after all your effort, you’re usually missing the recognisable meat of the song — the ‘riff’ or melody.

At best we’re playing something like an acoustic chord backing track to a song which is nearly unrecognisable without vocals. At worst we’re struggling to make a musical sound at all!

This cannot possibly be the best way to start guitar!

It’s not that starting with chords makes no sense to me. It’s not my opinion.

It’s that it makes no sense rationally to make someone jump to all of this at once. It’s obviously harder to use 2 or 3 fingers at once then it is to use 1, and it’s obviously harder to play groups of notes together than it is to play one at a time.

It’s like making someone climb a mountain just to get started.

Mountain to climb with chords

I’ve had many good beginner students who I know would have struggled if they had started this way, and many who may even have given up entirely.

You might be thinking this is just a stage you have to get through before things get more fun. After all, there’s not much a teacher can do with an absolute beginner besides chords, is there? Wrong.

Here's what I would do with a complete beginner electric guitar player

It’s simple — we’d have some fun with an easy to play but cool and recognisable rock riff arranged on a single string. Let’s say Smoke On The Water:

Smoke On The Water

We’d practice the riff together get it comfortable, then build in to playing it with a backing track:

I’d put the distortion and some effects on the student’s amp at the studio to make it sound cool, and then we’d play it together with the backing track. Then I would play some lead over the top, then I might even show him some basic lead stuff so we could have a little jam.

The result? The student learns how to play something really cool in their very first lesson, how to play it well, enjoys the process… and is encouraged to learn more. Simple!

I can’t imagine how much better most student’s experiences of guitar would be if lessons began in a more fun and approachable way like this.

Was your early enthusiasm for guitar ruined by learning chords too soon? Let me know about your experience in the comments below.

– Christy

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Christy Bannerman is an electric guitarist from Scotland, UK, on a mission to demystify rock music and help guitar players around the world.

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