Thinking In Guitar

Thinking In Guitar

It’s odd to think that rather than the guitar, the piano is the world’s most popular instrument. Why? The guitar has been around for longer, it’s easier to transport and can be played sitting or standing. And let’s face it, with its frontal appearance, guitar makes for a much better show on stage. But it’s still true that the piano remains the best instrument on which to begin learning music. Here are a few insights into why learning the guitar requires its own way of thinking.


Six mini-pianos
The piano is a straightforward character. What you see is what you get. It’s literally black and white! In other words, there is only one way to produce the middle C tone (also known as C3) or any other tone: by striking that one note. There are octaves and inversions of notes and chords, but no other way to produce that specific C3 note (in red) or the individual tones of a C chord in more than one place.

Now, if you took a piano keyboard, cut it into chunks of two octaves each and stacked them on top of one another to create overlapping zones, you’d be closer to understanding how a guitar fretboard works.

While the lowest notes could only be played on the lowest octave, higher notes could be played in a few places: high up on a low octave or low on a higher octave. Right? So our red C3 note in the diagram below, could be played either right in the middle of keyboard #2, at the top of keyboard #1 or at the bottom of keyboard #3.

Each mini-keyboard corresponds to one of the strings of a guitar. Guitar strings overlap heavily, meaning that you are actually able to play notes like E4 on all six strings. That’s the same exact tone (not an octave thereof) in six different places! No wonder most of the world’s music lessons start on the piano. It’s far less confusing to imagine one big keyboard than six small ones.
Escaping shapes

If we extend this example to chords, the same principles apply. One chord can be played in multiple places. This is the art of voicing. Good guitarists are constantly looking for the ideal position and fretboard shape in which to voice chords to bring out the most desirable and suitable tones. But many new guitarists make the mistake of overlooking some of the grounding principles that are requisite knowledge for learning piano.

If you aim to play lead guitar, it’s important to know every note on the fretboard. You might be able to navigate E-shape and A-shape barre chords based on their 5th and 6th string root position, but lack the ability to ‘start’ a chord from it’s 3rd or 4th string note. Imagine the freedom of being so confident in how a chord will sound before you play it that you actually have voicing options! Should I give this one the low root, or emphasise the delicacy of the moment with a minor 3rd? This is the aim of our study of guitar chord shapes.

But guitarists do have a tendency to get stuck in chord shapes. This is chiefly because unlike the piano, you can effectively play along to almost any pop song in any key by learning only three chord shapes: major, minor and dominant 7th. Need to change key? No problem: just shift your grip up a few frets. To do this simple task, a pianist would need to learn three new chord shapes for every key they wanted to play! So while piano is easier on the fingers, learning guitar online (or otherwise) is way easier with regards to theory. But if your aim is to be able to improvise melodically over chord changes, you’ll need to start thinking like a guitarist by learning note names and practice new chord voicings. Online guitar courses can help address this. Thinking in guitar

For most of its history, the guitar has primarily been thought of as an accompaniment to melodic instruments such as violins, woodwinds and the voice. But its trajectory over time has seen it rise to prominence as both a self-accompanying and standalone melodic instrument. As late as the 1930s, few musicians would have thought that it would occupy a centre stage role within an ensemble. It was almost always reserved for the rhythm section at the back of the stage, behind the star vocalist or horn line.  

But thanks to the pioneering work of classical, jazz and rock maestros, we’re seeing its status continue to rise as a lead instrument. Like the piano (and few other instruments), guitar now occupies a place of both melody and harmony, able to shapeshift its way through chord changes and voice leading melodies depending on the demand of the moment. In the right hands, this makes the guitar a valuable musical addition to jazz and rock bands, and easily explains its ongoing popularity.

As you might have noticed, a guitar career is a much sought-after job. Guitarists are most useful when they’re able to adapt to the needs of the group, providing both melody and harmony in the form of chord voicings to compliment the rest of the music. So as you continue your studies, keep in mind the versatility of the instrument in your hands, think about what is most appropriate to the moment, and most importantly, keep practicing!

Studying for a guitar degree online is the best way to go. Check out our BA(Hons) Creative Music Performance – JTC Degree

Written by music composer, producer & writer, John Bartmann.