Here is a very common question I received recently:
"What specifically should I practice, chords, scales or songs? I am feeling overwhelmed with lessons, books, methods, skills, and principles of practice."
This is a common feeling that troubles many beginning guitar students, and can rear its head from time to time with advanced players as well. It is a paralyzing, immobilizing feeling, and so it very dangerous for our progress, and must be dealt with. If you are feeling this, it is a warning sign that you are not proceeding properly with your efforts to learn to play the guitar.
Getting down to the specifics of things is always the tough part. One of the things that makes it so difficult is the fact that when it really comes down to it, the only person who can get down to those specifics, stick with them, review and revise them on a regular basis, and set goals and make sure they're accomplished is you! Some people have just never really developed the skill to take that feeling of being overwhelmed, and getting past it by stopping, thinking, observing, analyzing, and coming up with a plan.
I always think of it like walking into your room, when it's really messy, with things thrown all over the place, and it's time to clean up. The very sight of it drains your energy, and makes you want to collapse in a heap. At least, that is the first reaction that comes up. But, the only way to get the job done and straighten out that room is to stop, focus, start somewhere, and only focus on what you are doing, one step at a time. As soon as you focus like this, you will begin to feel energized.
Of course, you need some idea of the over-all picture, some idea of the end result to be achieved, and how to get there, before focusing really helps. If you didn't know where everything was supposed to be placed when you went to clean your room, your focusing wouldn't help much. In that case, you would have to decide first where everything goes, and then put it there. The "deciding" part is the hard part for students, because they don't know enough about the whole process of becoming a musician to make those decisions, as expressed by the writer of the question above. They don't know what to practice first, what skills to master first, what goals to achieve first. So it is easy to get overwhelmed by all the materials out there. It is a lot easier to buy books, than it is to use them and learn from them.
Of course, laying out the proper course is supposed to be the job of the teacher, but many of you don't have teachers, and many teachers don't do their job anyway! But in any case, the best attitude for you to have is self-reliance. Even a teacher doing their job cannot relieve you of your own responsibility to be aware, in control, and organized. The first thing to realize is that creating and maintaining your day to day working method is your responsibility. It takes effort. It takes writing things down, keeping schedules and routines. It takes trial and error. It takes regular review of results, and renewed effort based on those reviews and assessments.
In all my years of lessons, I never once had a teacher make any attempt to organize my practicing; I had to learn to do it myself. Not that I think this is a good thing, but I do think it is what happens for most guitar students, so I tell you what I tell you because you need to be aware of the ongoing effort you must make. Early on, I realized that without notebooks, schedules, goals and so forth, I would be swimming in a sea of confusion. Sure, in the beginning, you feel helpless, like you don't know where to start and what to even organize. But realize this: any plan is better than no plan, because you can revise and improve your plan once you begin it, but you can't improve one you never begin.
I found as soon as I had something written down, I felt calmer and more in control. I remember complaining to my father once about all the "crap" I was learning in school that I wasn't interested in. He said a great thing to me. He said, "The important thing is that you are learning how to learn". He was right, and that is one of the greatest skills a person can have. One of the first people to buy my book was a retired educator. When he later contacted me for some lessons, I found that he had taken my book apart, chapter by chapter, exercise by exercise, and made notes on everything, and re-organized things in different ways to help him make certain connections. That is an example of someone who knows how to learn.
Now, having said all that, and made my point about the necessary quality of self-reliance you must cultivate as a student, let me add another important point. Part of your approach to forming an effective working procedure is to go for outside help, to ask questions of people in a position to help you, as the writer of the above question has done. Notice that the educator I mentioned above, after giving it his best shot, came to me for help. That is wise. I have harped on the points made above because I have found that most people do not give it their best shot, they don't use the materials in front of them, but stay stuck wallowing in feelings of helplessness.
Okay, I'll stop sermonizing, and tell you something you can use! Yes, you must have certain goals to work toward as you begin learning guitar. While the specifics of those goals will change depending on what type of player you want to be (rock, classical, folk, blues) I will lay out for you some general achievements that I guide all my students toward, things I want them to be able to do, as soon as possible.
First, I want all students to know how to practice correctly. Without knowing that, there isn't much point in me giving them things to practice! That of course, is why I wrote my book, and I begin each student's training with the Foundation Exercises contained in it.
Second, it is essential that, right from the beginning, the student is beginning to cultivate, through proper practice, the awareness of sensations that lead to good and great playing instead of habits of tension that make playing difficult or impossible. These necessary physical sensations include The Light Finger, The Firm Finger, Heavy and Floating Arm, and in general, a growing awareness of the body and active playing muscles.
(Because of points One and Two, I advised the person asking the opening question to first of all concentrate on the exercises in my book as the first priority of his practice, since I knew he had just got my book. For those who don't have "The Principles", do the exercises in my essays "Discover Your Discomfort", and "The Secret of Speed", where you can begin to discover the correct physical sensations for playing.)
Third, once students have begun to train their fingers properly, it is time to teach those trained fingers some of the basics of playing the guitar. I want all my students to know first position chords, beginning with G, C, and D. We work on getting those chords, changing those chords smoothly, and most importantly, applying them to a song. I do this as soon as possible, probably the second or third lesson.
It is most important to make music as soon as possible! I start this by the second or third lesson. I will keep a student on a simple song for 3 months if I have to, until they can play it through smoothly. This is building Vertical Growth, which is the first kind of growth that must be achieved. After that first song is mastered (something simple, like "This Land Is Your Land"), we do some Horizontal Growth, that is, more songs at the same level, building a repertoire.
Being able to strum through chord changes smoothly is priority number one. It's the quickest route to making music for a guitar player, and is usually what people most want to do. However, for some people, being able to play a simple melody might be more rewarding, but it is technically more difficult in the beginning, (doing so with good form, that is).
I look for songs the student is emotionally connected to. I don't care what it is, as long as they like it, and it is within reach of their ability. For instance, if it is a rock, electric student, I will use something like "Born To Be Wild", which has the basic open power chords. With this type of student, I will want them to master these chords before the traditional folk chords, because open power chords are what is needed to get them playing songs they are emotionally connected to. I will give them the larger, folk chord forms later.
So, the first few goals are:
1) Ability to Practice Correctly,
2) Beginning to Build the Correct Foundation (and the discovery of the proper physical sensations) with the Foundation Exercises,
3) Applying the developing abilities to music with simple chord changes and songs, until a few songs are well on the way to being mastered, and the student is not developing habits of tension in their playing.
Here is a very important understanding: learning a complex skill like playing the guitar is not an entirely linear process. It is not a matter of "do this, accomplish that completely, then do that, and finish it, then that" and so forth. Learning the guitar is more a collection of simultaneous processes, occurring and maturing together to produce an end result. It's like cooking. You start lots of dishes, each one at the right time so everything comes out right and ready at the end. You watch the potatoes, the chicken, the broccoli, and the rice. You give everything the proper attention, making sure nothing get burned. You don't wait till the potatoes are done before you start the chicken. (Umm, I'm getting hungry).
Okay, I'm back; I had to have a snack.
So my point is that at any given time, the actual details of our practice material is carefully arranged to produce that final result we desire. The exact details will be tailored to each person, and must be constantly reviewed and revised. It takes great energy and intelligence. Read all you can about learning the guitar, ask questions, and USE everything you learn to chart your own course.
After the things mentioned above, scale Playing will come next, but only after the fingers have been trained in the micro-details of proper movement.
Many players suffer from the fact that scales were practiced and learned while the hands and fingers were still full of tension and not developed properly. So their scales are in horrible shape, and always a struggle to play. This is because scales are composed of extremely complex physical movements, which must be minutely studied in their micro details before being assembled into the movements required for playing scales. Scales on guitar, for instance, are much more difficult than on most other instruments simply because every note is the result of the precise co-ordination of both hands, and the sound is not produced by just one finger, as in piano.
For rock electric students who want to play blues/rock, the pentatonic scales are the first priority. We spend many months working on form, and speed. At the same time, we begin developing the basic rock licks, and learning how to bend strings. I give them a special set of solos I wrote that use those licks. Again the principle in teaching is to present new material, and then re-enforce by application. And do not leave the material until you gone a long way toward mastering it, at least being able to play it without error at a slow tempo. For the rock guitarist, or improvising guitarist in general, continuous study of the solos of great players is essential, as well as constant playing with other players and taped backgrounds, where licks and scales you have learned are used.
And for you beginner students, take this as a great caution: do not accumulate a bunch of songs that are never put together, and never played to a smooth beat! That is the sign of someone who doesn't know how to practice. That is easy to do. Many such players have their collection of "One Hundred Bits and Pieces of My Favorite Songs"! Do not jump from one thing to another, you will play them all badly! Do not let your teacher push you through either. Make them produce results with you, or find another teacher.
Now, if you cannot take all of this information and begin to create a useful practice routine, well, it's your own fault!