Home Practice Audio for Advanced Beginners
In Spider Man: No Way Home, teenager Peter Parker and his friends have a big problem–and it isn’t a supervillain or a rift in the space time continuum.
It’s worse: they don’t get into their dream college. In fact, it is a desperate attempt to reverse fate and get into that highly selective school which results in a plague of supervillains from other dimensions.
As I sat in the theater with two teenage daughters, I knew all too well that Peter Parker and his friends aren’t the only ones feeling anxiety about getting into college (or more accurately, anxiety about which college). In this movie, art imitates life; according to Pew Research, about 70% of U.S. teens who plan to go to college are anxious about whether they will get into the college of their choice.
Parents are anxious, too. The Let Grow motto “when parents step back, kids step up” sounds good–but when it comes to college, for many parents the stakes seem too high to let go. You probably remember the recent “Varsity Blues” college admissions scandal in which college coaches and test proctors were bribed in an elaborate scam to game the admissions process to elite schools. Those parents were breaking the law–but the NY Times reports that totally legal college consulting is now a multi-billion dollar industry, with tens of thousands of families getting help on everything from essay topics to what activities will look good on a college application.
Why all this fear and anxiety? Psychology Today says heightened parent concerns about which college our kids will attend “reflects parents’ perception that in an increasingly unequal economy, the path to success for their children has narrowed.” Parents love their kids and we want them to be ok–and think that which college they go to will help them.
But let’s take a step back and see what we and our kids really want. And then let’s ask how important which college you go to actually is.
Everyone wants to be happy, right? The Brookings Institute reports that students who attend a “prestigious” school like Yale or Amherst end up no happier than students who attend less selective schools.
If which college you attend doesn’t make you happier, what does? According to a recent Gallup poll, “enduring effects of the college experience on human happiness relate to personal bonds with professors and a sense of ongoing intellectual curiosity.”
So much for happiness. What else do we and our kids want for the future?
According to a PEW research report, we want our school age kids to grow up to be responsible, hardworking and helpful. And teens are concerned with living fulfilled lives–81% want a job they enjoy, and most of them want to know that they are making the world a better place.
Those are beautiful sentiments! But having a job you enjoy depends more on what job you have rather than where you went to college–and being hardworking depends more on, uh, how hard you work.
But…I know what you’re thinking right now. Because as a dad worried about whether my kids will be able to put a roof over their heads, I thought about it too!
What about the Benjamins?
First of all, let’s not kid around. As awesome as the trades can be, that Brookings Institute report makes it clear that college grads have “higher wages, better health, greater job security, more interesting work and greater personal autonomy” on average than people who don’t graduate from college.
But what college you go to matters way less for future income than which specific program you attend. When the Foundation for Research On Equal Opportunity did a comprehensive analysis on the ROI (or Return On Investment, the change in expected lifetime earnings less the cost of education) on almost 30,000 degrees, they found that every college, including the most selective, has programs that statistically make students poorer, not richer.
ROI also drops for students who take more than 4 years to graduate–and it really drops for students who don’t finish college. And taking out a student loan for a fancy degree could also be counterproductive; a Magnify Money study of Financial Reserve data shows that millennials with student debt have only 25% of the net worth of those who graduate debt free.
There are a lot of ways that teens can positively affect their future earnings and wealth that don’t relate to which college they go to–like what career path they choose, how hardworking and motivated they are, how well they work with others and help others, and whether they get a savings and investing habit.
Our kids–and us–are being sold an illusion–the idea that getting into a particular college is more important than their characters and actions. It’s a lie that sustains an expensive college consulting industry and predatory student loan industry, inflates tuition, pressures high school kids to have superficial experiences and activities, exacerbates inequality by loading up high-achieving poor kids with student loans, and contributes to immense anxiety and cynicism in kids and parents.
Want to be happy in college? Do things that make you happy, like being curious and grateful, finding professors and classmates who you can learn from, and contributing to others. Want to make money and become wealthy? Pick your program with wide open eyes, learn good financial habits, and avoid student loans unless you’re crystal clear on how they’ll be paid off–and be sure to be hard working and dependable!
If even a superhero like Spiderman has a hard time fighting the illusion that what college you get into matters more than who you are and what you do, then as mere mortals our work is cut out for us. But here are a few suggestions to help your teen (and you) have a healthier view of attending college.
Read this article with your teen. Ask them what kind of a life they want to live emotionally, professionally and financially. Then, encourage them to explore schools and majors on the FREOPP database for a look behind the curtain. Watch the non-partisan (featuring voices ranging from AOC to Dave Ramsey) Borrowed Future documentary about student loans.
And over and over again remind them that what they seem to be isn’t as important as who they are and what they do. Their best plan for high school is the same as their best plan for life–have fun and do their best! They’ll be fine.
Teens are anxious about college: https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2019/02/20/most-u-s-teens-see-anxiety-and-depression-as-a-major-problem-among-their-peers
Why are parents scared about college: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/love-money-and-parenting/201903/why-are-parents-so-scared-about-college
Varsity blues scandal: https://www.bestcolleges.com/blog/operation-varsity-blues-college-admissions-scandal/
Multi-billion dollar college consulting industry: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/13/us/college-admissions-consultants.html
TIME magazine Pew poll: “And the Quality Most Parents Want to Teach Their Children Is …”
What moms want for their babies:
Mindshare survey of teens:
Where you go to college doesn’t affect your happiness: https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2014/05/20/harvard-said-no-be-happy/
A majority of teens are worried about the cost of higher education
A comprehensive study on the Return On Investment by college and program: https://freopp.org/is-college-worth-it-a-comprehensive-return-on-investment-analysis-1b2ad17f84c8
Oh yes and student loans: https://www.magnifymoney.com/blog/news/student-debt-kills-millennials-average-net-worth/
Money isn’t everything, but:
Motivation, not college choice, leads to higher achievement:
I founded NYC’s largest rock and roll summer camp. While some of our students have gone on to get signed to major labels, tour with cool bands, and become professional musicians, most just had fun playing in bands, made music and friends, and went on non-musical endeavors while continuing to enjoy music as a hobby.
Both routes are awesome!
Ultimately, we aren’t trying to help kids be stars–we’re trying to help them have fun, be social, and get better at writing and playing music. But lately I’ve noticed a couple trends in original teen songwriters that I think deserve some discussion, because they are interfering with fun, confidence and skill development in our teens.
I call the first one “Must Release-itis”, the overwhelming feeling that you must release your music publicly. I call the other one “Can’t Release-itis”, which is the feeling that your music can never be good enough to share. These both have the same root cause–comparing ourselves to others.
Let’s break them down.
MUST RELEASE-ITIS: The overwhelming feeling that you must share your music publicly.
A few decades ago, the only way to record music was to book an expensive professional studio. But now, anybody with a laptop can easily record and share music. And they do! In 2021 over 60,000 tracks a day were uploaded to Spotify alone. Millions more were added to Soundcloud, Audiomack, YouTube, Bandcamp and other sites.
So it is no wonder that when a teen writes a song, a well meaning parent or friend will say “hey–you should release that. Like so-and-so from your school did.”
Cue comparison anxiety.
Unfortunately, that can instantly throw a teen into a state of comparison. Instead of staying in the fun and creativity of writing and learning, now they are thinking about how many “likes” their song will get, whether people will criticize them, or are even wondering if their song will become a viral sensation–even if it’s one of their very first songs or tracks.
Give yourself a chance to be a beginner if that is what you are! Don’t worry, 60,000 original songs are going to be uploaded to the internet today, yours will not be missed! Instead, just have fun playing and practicing. Both will bring you pleasure–and skill.
And when a friend or parent says “you should release that”, just laugh and say “maybe later. Right now I’m just learning and having fun.”
(Don’t worry, the internet will still be there later when you change your mind.)
Now, on to the flip side of the comparison trap.
CAN’T RELEASE-ITIS: The overwhelming feeling that your music is not good enough to share.
The ease of uploading music ironically also discourages experienced young songwriters and producers from releasing music even when they are more than ready.
I know a skilled teenage songwriter who has written dozens of great songs and has extensive production skills, but even after weeks or months of recording and mixing isn’t able to say “good enough”. This student may endlessly tweak the EQ on a snare, modify the side chain compression on the vocal track, or repeatedly rewrite a lyric–all to avoid actually releasing a song.
That student isn’t crazy. Often, teenagers who put a lot of time into playing, writing and producing music have developed an ear which allows them to hear the difference between their work and that of The Weeknd, Billie Eilish, Ghost or one thousand other pro artists, and they can be very hard on themselves for the difference.
They are also all too aware of how many other songs are being released, and are afraid that their song won’t receive positive attention (the dreaded “under 1,000 plays”) or will even get negative attention–criticism.
They are right on all counts.
Research shows over and over again that the best way to get better at any creative art is through repetition. After all, the artists you admire most typically wrote and produced scores or even hundreds of tracks before becoming famous–or are working with producers or songwriters who did the same.
Perfection is literally unattainable. You CAN’T write a perfect song or record a perfect track. But you can only approach it with lots of practice! Here’s a great quote to remember:
“Don’t Be Afraid Of Perfection–You Will Never Attain It” — Salvador Dali
So instead of trying to release one perfect song over six months, instead write 24–then record 12 and release 6. Or more!
Every song will increase your capabilities. Those extra songs also increase your odds of getting more listeners–and some of them will be better than that original song you were stuck on.
You’ve heard the quote that “the more love you give the more you have.”
The same is true of creativity. The more you create, the more creativity you have! You have an infinite number of songs inside you. So don’t hold back–because the only thing that stops creativity is stopping.
I’m sorry to report what you already know: you can’t please everyone.
Luckily, success in music has more to do with connecting with people who enjoy what you do than with placating critics. In the meantime, one of your best moves is to connect with other songwriters, who can give you honest and supportive feedback as you improve–and remind you that you are the one who is creating and putting something out into the world, not the critics!
Music is a tough game to be commercially successful at. For example, just 1 out of 140 artists on Spotify makes more than $10,000 in royalties a year. But that still means there are tens of thousands of people who are having fun and making a career in music. And if music is your hobby, it doesn’t matter how much money you’re making, because you’re doing it for fun.
Either way, as an aspiring pro or a happy amateur, the same strategy applies: Finish good work, share it, and then go on to more good work!
Picking up your guitar or opening your Digital Audio Workstation is a great way to experience joy and to express your feelings–and making music with another person is an incredible way to connect with others. Recognizing that outside forces can make us feel pressure to release music, to not release music–or both– gives us the opportunity to set that pressure aside, and just make some music!
Our summer camp program is designed so that campers grow as musicians and as people in our time together. Playing music with others and performing on stage is one of the most exciting and transformative experiences for a young musician (or any musician!)
We empower campers by challenging them to collaborate, compromise, and overcome obstacles as they play music together, build their skills, and prepare for an EPIC show. Check out our programs and how you, too, can join in on a summer of fun!
I’m excited that Lenore Skenazy, the enthusiastic and entertaining founder of Free Range Kids and a co-founder of Let Grow, will be soon be speaking to the NYCGS team and community on the topic of “Always Helping Kids Is Hurting Them.”
My wife and I have felt aligned with the Let Grow motto (“when parents step back, kids step up”) since our children were small, and the stories and resources from organizations like Free Range Kids have helped encourage us as parents.
In preparation for Lenore’s visit, I decided to ask my kids (now they are 21, 18 and 15):
“What are you glad that we did as parents to give you more freedom and responsibility than other kids? And why?”
Here’s the resulting list along with notes on how our family approached them or how it felt from my point of view as Dad, in the hopes that it might be useful to parents of teens and younger kids–and with the caveat that every parent, family and kid are different–including at different ages!
(The truth is that even when her walks were rationally and statistically quite safe, she wasn’t the only one expanding her comfort zone–I had to overcome my own worry.)
(I’m glad he remembers it this way. I think he might have underestimated how hard it is for me to keep my brilliant advice to myself–or how annoyed my teens got when I couldn’t help myself from volunteering it!)
(I do think there are times when calling another parent is literally a “good call.” But as I’ve aged as a parent, I’ve decided that usually the best way I can help my kids with social conflict is to ask questions and listen, share my own relevant experiences and to ask “so, what do you think you’ll do?”)
A few more “stepping back” success reports from our offspring:
(This might not be for everyone–but it ended up being one of the most positive parts of our family culture. My wife and I told our kids that money for non-essentials, from snacks to video game consoles to cell phones was their responsibility. That meant they worked–first with small jobs at home from the “job board”, then moving on from dog walking or helping neighbors to working at summer camps and weekend or afterschool jobs.)
I notice a common theme. It’s ownership. Teens are sometimes scared to be in charge of their life–but they also like it, and they feel proud and capable when they handle things on their own.
There’s no perfect way to parent, and every family is different. In those past moments of parenting, we didn’t know how things would turn out–and we still don’t. But I’m glad we’ve imperfectly tried to give our kids the room to grow into their own awesome capacities. And I’m glad that they’re glad.
Because when parents step back, kids really do step up.
(For best results PRINT THE “BULLETPROOF YOUR RESOLUTION” PDF OUT NOW and use it as you read the blog post.)
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Every January we get lots of calls from students who are making a New Year’s resolution to play guitar. That’s awesome–it’s always a good time to make your dreams come true!
But I’ve realized that the students who are most successful in learning or improving guitar skills in each New Year are the ones who began thinking about their goals and strategy before waking on January 1st!
So this year I’m giving you science backed tips to successfully learn guitar–or reach any other goal RIGHT NOW.
Don’t wait until January to start thinking about what you want in the new year.
Below is a research backed guide to planning a resolution and making it bulletproof. It includes a detailed worksheet..so my advice is to print this article out, and then close your phone and computer and start reading and writing.
You can download and print a PDF of the worksheet here.
Where do you want to go and what is your initial idea for how to get there? France on a boat? Mars on a rocket ship?
Everything starts with recognizing what you want to do or who you want to be, and getting a first idea of an activity that you have confidence will get you there if you maintain it.
There are many proven ways to maximize your chances of maintaining your new activity and reaching your goal. Most people who reach their goals don’t use all of these approaches at the same time–but if you use even one, two, or a few of them you’ll dramatically improve your odds.
As you read through this section, fill out your worksheet! (You printed it out, right?)
Your goal is to be a “real guitar player”, and you believe that if you take a class and then practice guitar daily, over time the magic will happen.
You want to play at family holidays, make friends jamming with others, and enjoy progressing in a hobby you’ve always dreamed of, so learning and practicing guitar is absolutely aligned with your music and family loving self!
You’ve decided that a great marker of progress toward being a “real guitar player” would be to play a song at your brother’s wedding reception. And your basic practice session will be about 25 minutes long, starting with a standard warmup up, then practicing new material from your last lesson, and finishing with playing a song from your expanding back catalog.
You’ve decided to play guitar in the morning, right after you make your coffee.
You’ve set up your guitar stand in the kitchen right next to the coffee machine and your guitar notebook is on the table.
Since you know that “the Instagram” is a competing morning habit, you plug your phone into the bathroom outlet each night, resulting in better sleep and an ability to focus on guitar–and you’re not going to unplug it until after your guitar practice is done.
You have a weekly lesson with a teacher, a regular Sunday afternoon practice session with a friend, and as mentioned you’ve committed to playing a song at your brother’s wedding reception. Oh–and you also took advantage of NYC Guitar School’s one-year membership discount to pay for an entire year of lessons in advance. (Now that’s commitment!)
Your classmates and your practice session with a friend motivate you to keep up with other guitar loving humans.
Every day you practice you put a cool guitar sticker on your wall calendar every day you practice…and you also have a binder full of the songs you can play and you write the number of songs on the front of the folder.
Sometimes you’ve run late in the morning– so you decide that if you don’t have time to play your 25 minute practice session, you’ll at least play your 5 minute warmup to maintain momentum. And breaking a string would put a crimp in your practice, so you order an extra set of strings just in case.
You have an energizing routine to start your morning practice sessions…place your fresh cup of coffee on the table, open your guitar notebook, pick up your guitar, take a single delicious sip of coffee, and then scream “Hello, Cleveland!” as you imagine beginning your warmup in front of your screaming fans.
Once a week you open your guitar notebook and brainstorm ways to make your rituals, practice habits, songs, etc. even more effective, and to remind yourself of how much you want to play guitar.
YOU CAN DO IT WORKSHEET
Build An Ironclad Plan To Reach Your Goal! (*Not Just For Guitar*)
If you want something so bad that you’re considering making a resolution to make it happen, then you need to spend 15 minutes getting real and concrete about how you’re going to do it. Here’s a series of science-backed questions to help you bulletproof your goal. After you complete this worksheet, you can incorporate your most valuable ideas into your plan.
“Well begun is half done.”Aristotle
NOTE: You have to want it.
To do all this stuff, you gotta want it. So go back to the beginning and remind yourself of your intention. Cherish that flame. Shelter it. Feed it. It’s the most precious thing.
“Obstacles cannot crush me. Every obstacle yields to stern resolve. He who is fixed to a star does not change his mind.” ― Leonardo da Vinci
NOTE: Consistency will yield incredible observable results. But the unseen results may be even bigger.
What will happen if you maintain your activities towards your goals?
“The heights by great men reached and kept were not attained by sudden flight, but they while their companions slept, were toiling upward in the night.” — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
WARNING: Start small.
If you try to establish too many new goals or habits at once, it is easy to get overwhelmed and stop everything. Of course this approach will certainly work in multiple domains…but take your time. Establish one activity or habit at a time, before moving on to the next.
WARNING: It’s not about the streak.
Don’t confuse your goal with your habit. If your goal is “learning to play guitar” and your activity to reach that goal is “practicing guitar every day”, don’t get upset or give up if you miss a day.
WARNING: One day you will wake up and not feel motivated by your goal.
It’s totally normal to wake up one day and think “Being the person I want to be? Meh. I could take it or leave it.”
That is so normal. It would be crazy to think that a feeling you have some or most of the time (like “I want to play guitar” or “I want to save more” or “I want to eat better” etc.) would also be a feeling that you have all of the time. Who feels the same all the time? Nobody!
Cars run low on gas. Bodies run low on fuel. And dreams run low on motivation.
That’s why you need to fill up your car with gas, eat healthy food to fuel your body, and continually re-visit your desires and motivation to fuel your dream.
Plan ahead for a moment of low motivation, and understand that it is probably just a moment, nothing more. What will you do in that moment? And in the meantime, keep refueling your motivation tank with good information, positive fantasies, social support and anything else that helps!
These are five of my favorite books about consistency. The first three are directly about reaching goals through thoughtful habits. The fourth is about an incredible (and incredibly consistent) coach, and the fifth is about a felon who discovered the power of goals and consistent habits in turning his life around.
The Compound Effect: Jumpstart Your Income, Your Life, Your Success by Darren Hardy.
With Winning In Mind by Lanny Bassham
You Haven’t Taught Until They Have Learned: John Wooden’s Teaching Principles and Practices by Swen Nater & Ronald Gallimore
The Upside Of Fear by Weldon Long
I’m passionate about guitar–and I’m super passionate about self-improvement, practice routines and being an effective parent to my three kids. To my surprise, when I started writing blogs about those topics, they received way more engagement (and student signups) than the previous posts about scales and barre chords. So, here’s another parenting blog from a guitar school founder and guitar playing dad!
Our kids may be learning music–but they are also preparing for the bigger “all the world’s a stage” stage of adult life. To get ready for life, they need to practice meeting life resistance. Ideally while enjoying themselves.
Some of this preparation can happen in the classroom. But much of it can’t–or won’t.
And that is where parents come in.
Over the years, my wife and I have tried to help our three kids gain confidence and skill by encouraging or expecting them to take mass transit alone, go for walks, learn to swim and drive, earn their own pocket money, spend unsupervised time at home or with other kids, etc.
The school can’t do that.
There are other things the school can’t or won’t do. For example, our kids went to an elementary and middle school where children were not allowed to run on the playground because of a fear of lawsuits–and “indoor recess” during inclement weather consisted of watching videos.
Have you heard the old adage “change what you can and accept what you can’t?” My spouse helped create a PTA led indoor recess with board games, legos, and even some jump roping instead of videos. That was good.
But the complicated school/legal/district system was not going to let our kids run at outdoor recess! That, in our view, was bad.
Since we believed that children need to run (and climb, chase, fall down, etc.) to be healthy we became responsible for making sure our children had the chance to experience the thrills and mild risks of being physically active without undue supervision.
At the end of the day, we were the ones responsible, not the school.
Later, our kids got the incredible opportunity to go to a high school with caring and skilled teachers (including my English teacher spouse), great facilities, and a competent and devoted administration. That was good.
But this school had a problem which more and more schools have. While the student body was as kind and thoughtful as the faculty, the school environment was a political echo chamber, featuring few challenges to the dominant ideological world view, and an unfortunate lack of nuance in some discussions. That is, in our view, bad. (Even though we agreed with many of the prevailing viewpoints.)
Since we believed that children are stronger when they are exposed to strong conflicting arguments, and that questioning convention and making up your own mind are virtues that make people more capable (as well as more fun to hang out with) we chose to be responsible for making sure that our kids get some extra education in these areas.
We knew this wasn’t going to happen by accident. It had to be a priority.
I shared my worries with my kids. I said, “I am concerned that you are getting a one-sided view of the world, and I want to make sure you’re able to hear and examine different perspectives.”
One basic step to help our kids get a wider perspective was to encourage them to read books about kids from different situations, like the famous I Am Malala (by a teenage girl who was nearly killed by the Taliban as she fought for the right to be educated) or Red Scarf Girl (about a teenage girl growing up during the Cultural Revolution in China).
Since our children were small, we’ve also often posted a “value of the month” (like courage, reliability or kindness) in our kitchen, along with fun or inspiring quotes. As our concerns about unhealthy messages in education grew, we added something to the other side of the quote board–the “3 Untruths” popularized by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff: “What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker”; “always trust your feelings”; and “life is a battle between good people and evil people”. This handy reference of bad advice is useful during dinner table conversations about ideas coming home from the internet–or school.
Here’s a picture of our quote board. (Right now the other side, which we change out from time to time, is entitled “Freedom Of Expression” with quotes from Frederick Douglas, George Orwell, Maya Angelou, Judy Blume and Oscar Wilde.)
As our three kids got older (I now have 2 teens and a 20 year old), I’ve also shared many podcasts and videos with my kids from various points of view. I joined a non-partisan group dedicated to “depolarizing America” called Braver Angels and attended virtual events with people with very different politics from around the America–and with one of my daughters. And I encouraged that daughter to enroll in a pilot program for high school students from BridgeUSA which brings together students from “across the ideological spectrum for constructive dialogue.”
One activity we especially enjoy is watching documentaries together. Not only is this a fun way to spend time together, but because we alternate choosing the film, both of us get to be challenged and learn. (Her most recent choice was a movie about climate change called “Cowspiracy”. Mine was “Borrowed Future”, an expose of the awfulness of the student loan industry.)
Oh yes, we’re doing a lot.
And a couple things are clear.
One is that my kids have and will have different perspectives than I do. That’s understandable–they are independent people. That’s OK with me. In fact, they’ve already changed my own mind about certain issues.(I’ve even been known to ask my son for his voting recommendations, since he’s typically better informed than I am!) I’m not just raising kids–I’m gaining valuable sounding boards!
But another thing that is clear is that school isn’t going to be the only place where they will be exposed to polarization and groupthink. Any skills they learn now about thinking critically and independently are going to come in handy for the rest of their lives.
I remember getting into an argument with one of my small children once, and losing my temper. And afterwards my wife said “one of you is going to have to be the adult–and it isn’t going to be the 10 year old.”
Wow. Good point. I’ve never forgotten that.
We’ve been lucky to send our kids to good schools with committed teachers and administrators who are sincerely working to make the world a better place. But no matter what a school is like, it would be very surprising if there wasn’t some dissonance between the values of some of the practices or people at the school and those of the parents. That’s going to be true whether you’re a “blue” or a “red” (as we say in Braver Angels), and whether your concerns are educational, political, or other.
There’s a gap. And in the middle of that gap is your child.
Now…who will be the parent?
Dan Emery, Founder NYC Guitar School
P.S. Here are a couple of resources I’ve found to be helpful as I strive to raise independent kids:
LetGrow https://letgrow.org/ Resources for raising independent kids from very young to teen (motto: “When Adults Step Back, Kids Step Up”)
Heterodox Academy: https://heterodoxacademy.org/ A resource for teachers, administrators and educators (and a great mailing list for parents to get on)
Dear NYC Guitar School Community,
For the past two decades I have devoted myself to making learning guitar as absolutely accessible, achievable and easy for my students as possible. “It’s easy to play guitar!” I shouted. “Anybody can learn to do it!” I strove to make every chord, every progression and every piece of theory as easy as possible as NYC Guitar School grew from a single room to thousands of students.
But one day one of my teenage students came in and taught me a valuable lesson. He said, “Hey, Dan—I just realized something.”
“What?” I asked.
“Sometimes guitar playing is just not easy” he explained. “Sometimes it’s just hard, and you just have to keep working at it until you get it, and it takes a lot of time and effort.”
I felt like I’d been hit by a thunderbolt. He was absolutely right. And in my effort to make guitar accessible to people, I’d actually been doing them a disservice by intimating that it was always easy to play guitar. No wonder my students sometimes got discouraged when it wasn’t!
For example, for most beginning guitar players, the G to C change is a giant and inconvenient pain in the phalanges.*
Theoretically, it is easy to get comfortable with the change—after all, you simply need to practice the change somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 times. But, practically, practicing changing from G to C between 1,000 and 2,000 times takes a lot of, uh, practice.
And sometimes that’s not easy!
So let’s not play pretend. Whether we’re learning guitar or chemistry, or getting ready for a concert or an interview, sometimes the most important part of a great strategy isn’t the strategy–it’s the part where you keep going!
And when you get tired, when your fingertips are sore, when you lose your focus, give yourself a pat on the back! In life and guitar playing alike, persevering may not always be easy—but you’ll be glad when you can say “it was worth it!”
On To Greatness!
*A phalange is one of the digital bones of the hand or foot.
Ukuleles are quite similar to guitars. One of the perks of playing fretted instruments is the relative ease with which new instruments in the family can be picked up, and going from guitar to ukulele is no exception. It might not be quite as direct a one-to-one translation as going from guitar to bass, but the broad strokes are still pretty similar. Notes are fretted the way, each fret represents the same interval, and the two instrument’s standard tunings are more similar than they may at first appear. However, some things to watch out for are the ukulele’s significantly smaller fret size, the fact that it has fewer strings, and the one string on the ukulele that’s tuned quite differently from anything we have on guitar.
The standard tuning for a ukulele is G-C-E-A, when looking at the strings from left to right. However, while the strings on a guitar are tuned higher in pitch than the string preceding it, this is not entirely the case with a ukulele. While the E and A strings of a ukulele do follow this pattern, the G string is actually tuned to a higher pitch than the C string. I wouldn’t fret too much about tuning the G string to the right octave; ukulele strings are much more brittle with less mailable tunings than guitar strings. If you strung your ukulele correctly, then the G-string should find the right octave pretty naturally when you start tuning.
Once you’re in tune, let’s take a moment to analyze standard ukulele tuning. Even the G-string is tuned higher than the C-string, the distance between those two strings can still function as a perfect fourth, which is the same interval as most strings are tuned apart on the guitar. The distance between the C string and the E string is a major third, and the distance between the E string and the A string is another perfect fourth. If music theory isn’t really your thing or if you didn’t otherwise pick up on the significance of those intervals, then please allow me to spell it out for you: those are the same exact intervals as the top four strings of a guitar.
This means that any shapes and patterns you know on the guitar that don’t involve the 6th and 5th strings can be directly applied to a ukulele. It’s true that it’ll be in a different key than it’ll be in when playing it on a guitar, but any intervals and chord qualities will remain the same. If you wish to keep the pitch the same, you can accommodate for the differences in tuning by either raising everything by seven frets or by lowering everything by five frets. While employing some combination of these two methods in which you raise some notes by seven frets and lower other notes by five frets can technically work, if you’re not careful it can result in disjointed melodies that awkwardly hop between octaves, so I’d recommend sticking to just one or the other if you can.
If you’re looking to find notes along the ukulele neck and simply transpose the notes you know on guitar, then don’t worry! As I mentioned earlier, each fret on a ukulele represents one half-step, just one fret on the guitar does. This means that you can count up the fretboard in half-steps exactly as you would on a guitar, except that your starting pitches are G, C, E, and A, as opposed to E, A, D, G, B, and E.
One alternate option is to tune your ukulele to D-G-B-E, just as the top four strings of a guitar are typically tuned. This will allow any guitar shapes, patterns, or songs you know to be applied directly onto a ukulele without any need to transpose the frets. It’s true that the D string will be tuned to a higher pitch than the G string, which it would not typically be on a guitar, but it would still be a D-note and will harmonize and blend with other notes just as any D-note would.
If you try out this strategy, I highly recommend tuning down to D-G-B-E instead of tuning up. Ukulele strings are fragile and have a tendency to snap when tuned up even small margins past their standard tuning, and the difference in tuning required by this trick is substantial. However, tuning down this much will significantly lower the pitch of the ukulele. While that much was probably obvious, what’s less obvious is the impact this will have on the timbre of the instrument.
When tuned down this much, a ukulele will lose the bright, snappy tone that is the instrument’s trademark. What you’ll get instead is a much more somber, mid-range heavy sound that, while not without its merits, is likely not what you were going for when you decided to pick up your ukulele today. So if you’re going for a classic chipper ukulele sound, then tuning down probably isn’t the way to go.
As I mentioned earlier, any shapes you know that only use the top four strings of the guitar can be applied to a ukulele. However some guitar chord shapes will work particularly well when played on a ukulele, and it takes surprisingly few of them to navigate many common chord progressions. One particularly useful chord shape is the open F-chord shape from the guitar. You can see it charted out for a ukulele below.
When applied to a ukulele, it utilizes all four strings to form a nice, versatile, and almost root-position major chord shape. When played in first position it forms a Bb-chord, but the handiest thing about this shape is the fact that it’s entirely movable. As there are no open strings in the above shape, you can slide it anywhere you want along the fretboard. The root note occurs twice in this chord shape; once on the G-string and once on the A-string. That means that whatever note you are playing on those two strings will be the name of the chord. As the root note repeats, you can feel free to drop one of the two root-notes if you’re looking for a slightly smaller sounding chord.
For example, when you play that shape along the first three frets of a ukulele as written above, it forms a Bb-chord, as previously stated. But if you slide that entire shape up one fret, then you’re suddenly playing a B-chord. If you slide it up another fret you’d be playing a C-chord, if you slide it up another fret then you’d be playing a Db-chord, and so on. As the fretboard of a ukulele spans a little over an octave on each string, this shape can get you through every simple major chord you might come across. Also, don’t forget that these shapes can be slid down to open position, where the open strings can be utilized.
If you’re curious, the answer is YES, this same exact thing can be done with the open F-chord shape on a guitar.
It’s true that just sliding the same shape up and down the fretboard might not make for the most interesting changes, but it’s enough to get you started!
If you take the above major-chord shape and lower the note on the C-string by one fret, you’ll get a movable minor-chord shape that will function exactly the same as the major-chord shape. Between the two shapes, you’ll be able to make your way through any chord progression consisting only of simple major and/or minor chords. You can the movable minor chord shape charted below.
Take the common chord progression below, and see if you can figure it out on a ukulele, using just the chord shapes above.
If you figured it out correctly, then you should be playing something like this:
So while it’s true that sticking to just these chord shapes can get you through most simple progressions, doing so would involve lots of jumping around the fretboard and would have next to no variation. So while these movable shapes certainly have their merit, the next step is to learn some alternative voicings. Luckily, these voicings can be borrowed from your guitar knowledge as well.
The movable triad shapes that are often played along the top three strings of the guitar can be applied directly to the top three strings of a ukulele. While you’ll have to adjust the frets as previously discussed in order to get to play the same chord, the quality of the chord will remain the same. Learning to play these triads on the ukulele will allow you to save time moving around the fretboard, will give you chord voicing some great variation, and can get you surprisingly far on the instrument.
Just like the chord shapes, we went over, these triads are all entirely movable. If you are unfamiliar with these shapes, they are discussed in depth in the article link above, and some of the most pertinent shapes are charted out for ukulele below. The root notes for each chord shape are highlighted.
If you are interested in further exploring this topic, I highly recommend checking out the two videos below, which go further in-depth and fill in some of the gaps.
Pentatonic scales are a great way to start improvising on guitar. Pentatonic patterns are simple and easy to memorize, and they remove some of the riskier note options, essentially ensuring that every note choice will land safely. However, those riskier notes that the pentatonic scale removes can also be some of the most effective note choices when used well. So while the pentatonic scale is a great scale to start soloing with, learning the full major and minor scales are an important next step for your guitar playing. Luckily, the full major and minor scales are not very different than their pentatonic counterparts. If you have a solid grasp of those pentatonic scales, then you’ve already done most of the work involved in learning the full major and minor scales.
Before we get into the full minor scale, let’s review the minor pentatonic scale. There are multiple fingering patterns one can use to play a minor pentatonic but below is tablature for the most common pattern. The pattern is in the key of A-minor in this example, but it can be applied to any key. Play through the pentatonic scale a couple of times if you feel like you can use the refresher, and try jamming on it for a bit if you could use the refresher.
A-Minor Pentatonic Scale
We’re now going to add the notes from the full minor scale that are absent from the minor pentatonic. The notes missing from the minor pentatonic are the second and sixth scale degrees, which in the key of A-minor are the notes B and F. As the above minor pentatonic spans a little over two octaves, the newly added scale degrees are both going to occur multiple times. The second scale degree is going to occur three times and the sixth scale degree is going to occur twice, for a total of five additional notes to add to the shape. The full A-minor scale is tabbed out below.
Try playing through the above A-minor scale shape until you feel a bit more comfortable with it. Once you feel ready, try jamming on the full A-minor scale and give special attention to the new notes you just added. Explore the way they sound and try your best to integrate them into the licks and phrases you already know. The scale should feel mostly familiar, but those new note options can make all the difference in the world to its sound. If you’re looking for something to play along with, the backing track below will work great.
The process of adding notes to the major pentatonic scale is going to be just like adding them to the minor pentatonic. The most common major pentatonic scale isn’t quite as standard as the most common minor pentatonic shape, but the shape tabbed out below is still most likely the one you’re familiar with. If there’s a different major pentatonic shape you prefer, then feel free to use it instead and adjust as needed. The below scale is in the key of C-major, but like the above A-minor pentatonic shape, it can be moved to any key. As with the minor pentatonic, review and jam on the below scale if needed before moving on.
The notes removed from the major pentatonic are the fourth and seventh scale degrees of the major scale, so those are the notes we need to add back into the scale. In the key of C-major, the fourth scale degree is an F and the seventh scale degree is a B. If those notes sound familiar, it’s because those are the same notes we added to the A-minor scale. The fourth scale degree and seventh scale degree both occur twice in the full major scale, for a total of four additional notes to add to the pentatonic. You can see the full C-major tabbed out below.
As with the full minor scale, try playing through the above major scale until you feel solid with it. Once you feel up to it, try jamming using the above major scale shape. Give special attention to the new notes you added, see how they sound, and try blending them into the major pentatonic licks you already know. The backing track below will work well for the C-major (don’t let the fact that it’s labeled D-Dorian dissuade you, the notes are the same as C-major), and the backing track above will do the trick as well.
I hope you learned something from this article! If you have any questions, comments, corrections (I have been known to commit the more than occasional type or notation mistake), or requests for future articles like this one, please feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
While learning new chords can often be daunting, even the trickiest chord shapes can feel not so scary when you’re able to relate them to shapes you’re already comfortable with. Any chord shape can be mastered with enough practice and elbow grease, but you might be surprised to learn just how many chord shapes are out there where you’ve already put in the bulk of the effort without even knowing it. In this article, we’re going to go over some chords that you may not know but are very similar to two chords that you probably do: F and Dm.
We’re going to start by learning some chords based on the open F-chord shape. This is not the 1st fret barre chord F that some players learn early on, but instead the version where you put your ring finger on the 3rd fret of the 4th string, your middle finger on the 2nd fret of the 3rd string, and collapse your index finger of the 1st frets of both the 1st and 2nd strings. You then strum the top four strings, skipping over the 5th and 6th strings entirely.
A perk of this F-chord shape is that it is entirely movable. As it contains no open strings, you can slide this shape up to any fret and it’ll still be a major chord. Exactly which major chord it is will change based on where you place it, but it will always retain its quality as a chord, and the same is also true for all the chords we’re about to learn based on it.
To play an Fadd9 chord, start by making the open F chord shape described above. Then add your pinky to the 3rd fret of the 1st string. You can choose to either leave your index finger collapsed, or you can straighten it out and have it touch only the 2nd string. It makes no difference to the sound of this chord, so it’s really about whichever is more comfortable for you. The Fadd9 chord will work almost everywhere that your ordinary F chord will work, and its more somber sound makes it an interesting choice as a substitute.
Playing this F6 shape is going to be a lot like playing the above Fadd9 chord. You’re again going to just add your pinky to an open F-chord, but this time add it to the 3rd fret of the 2nd instead of to the 3rd fret of the 1st string. This chord will again work just about anywhere that an ordinary F-chord would work, but it has a nice touch of melancholy that the plain old F-chord lacks.
Although slightly more of a stretch than the other chords discussed so far, this F7 shape has a great, crisp sound to it. To play this F7, start by playing an F6 chord exactly as described above. Then slide your pinky finger up one fret, from the 3rd fret of the 2nd string to the 4th fret of the 2nd string. That one fret is all the difference there is between an F6 and an F7 chord, although it makes a world of difference in terms of harmony. An F7 chord will work about one in every three times that you see an ordinary F-chord written, so I’d avoid using it as a substitution if you don’t have too much theory knowledge.
Next, we’re going to learn some chords based on the open D-minor chord (commonly abbreviated as Dm). We’re going to use the common open Dm as our frame of reference. To make this chord, place your middle finger on the 2nd fret of the 3rd string, your ring finger on the 3rd fret of the 2nd string, and your index finger on the 1st fret of the 1st string. Then strum the top four strings, allowing the 4th string to ring out open, and skipping over the 5th and 6th strings entirely.
This Dm chord isn’t quite as perfectly movable as the above F-chord because it involves the open 4th string. However, if you remove the 4th string from the chord entirely, then the remaining three notes of the Dm chord are completely movable and can be placed anywhere on the fretboard. This is also true for the chords we’re about to learn based on this Dm shape, so feel free to experiment with moving these shapes and down the neck.
To play a D-suspended-fourth chord (or Dsus4, for short), play the Dm chord shape as described above. Then add your pinky finger to the 3rd fret of the 1st string. That’s all there to it! You can choose to either leave down the middle finger already on the 1st string or lift it off the fretboard. It makes no difference to the sound of this chord, although it is easier to switch back and forth between a Dus4 and a Dm chord if you leave the finger down. The Dsus4 will work just everywhere your Dm chords will, and their ambiguous sound can make them a very interesting choice for a substitution.
In order to play this D-minor 7 chord (or Dm7), start with the open Dm shape. Then lift your ring finger off the guitar and collapse your index finger so that it covers the 1st frets on both the 1st and 2nd strings, similar to the way you would play an F chord. In fact, another way to arrive at the Dm7 shape is by starting with the F chord described earlier, then lifting your ring finger off the guitar and letting the 4th string ring out open. A Dm7 will work pretty much anywhere that you see an ordinary Dm written, and substituting it can be a great way to subtly class-up a chord progression.
Even though this is the only chord on this list where we’re going to change the root note, it’s surprisingly easy to change a Dm chord into a Bb. All you have to do is take the above Dm shape and slide your middle finger from the 2nd fret of the 3rd string to the 3rd fret of the 3rd string. That one fret makes the difference between a Dm chord and Bb, although some would refer to this Bb voicing as Bb/D.
Alternatively, you could refinger this voicing with your ring finger on the 3rd fret of the 3rd string, your pinky on the 3rd fret of the 2nd string, and your index finger on the 1st fret of the 1st string. These are some frets as described above, but you may finger it more comfortable to instead use these fingers. As it is a different root note entirely, substituting a Bb for a Dm typically won’t work out super well, but it’s still a great chord shape to know.
I hope you learned something from this article! If you have any questions, comments, corrections (I have been known to commit the more than occasional type or notation mistake), or requests for future articles like this one, please feel free to reach out to me at email@example.com.
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