Practical Guitar Magic

Last time, we looked at the “Primitive” part of the Guitar Antihero tagline, and why old school is good school (read all about it here.) In this installment, we’re looking at the “Practical” side of things, and how it’s the domain of true six-string sorcery that works.  After all, we’re supposed to be able to actually DO something with all of this stuff, right?

At first, it would seem like this goes without saying, as of course we all learn some things, put our fingers to metal strings (or nylon, as the case may be), whack those strings with some kind of pick and/or the fingers of the opposite hand, and we’re playing guitar … right?

Well, sure, at least technically. I can slap some paint against a canvas with a brush, and technically speaking, I’d be painting, too.

But how effective is that, how close does that move me to becoming a “painter” (or my perception of one), and how practical are all those things we learn and do?

Are you getting tangible results from what you’ve learned?


Ask yourself “Can I apply this new concept/technique/etc. to my current situation, or is it immediately applicable to what I’ll be doing in the near future?” If the answer is no, it might be wise to ditch it for a while, and instead focus on things that you can do right now, as that will help you to do more down the road.

The truth is, it’s easy to get bogged down with theoretical concepts, aspects of technique, and other ideas that make us think and feel like we’re moving forward and making progress, but are actually limiting our growth.

There’s a LOT of “Bright, Shiny Object Syndrome” in Guitar Land, and we’re often led to believe that we need something new; something bigger; something better than what we already have in order to move forward, and a lot of this is intentional: product manufacturers and other sources make good money by selling the latest dream, or the “If I only had such and such” moment, and we usually buy into this mess at a time when we really don’t need those things. 

I’m not saying to stop buying products or services (hell, I make my living by offering them, too), and I’m not advocating that you stop learning new things. What I am saying is stop doing shit that has no practical application or adds no immediate value to your current playing situation or goals.

Just because someone says “you need to know this!” or “you need to buy this!” doesn’t mean you do. 


 Overloading on unnecessary or irrelevant music theory is a common way many of us bypass practicality in favor of what we think we need. I knew a guy who was the stereotypical “theory-spouting pogue”, and relished in belaboring theoretical points, annoying those around him with useless bits of theoretical knowledge, and generally being a douche about the whole thing; all with an air of perceived musical superiority.

The thing is, he literally couldn’t hang with a band playing a four note bass line in an old-school country tune when it came time to throw down; he couldn’t apply a damn bit of what he knew in a practical way.

Sure, he could rave about Ornette Coleman’s harmolodic jazz ideas and espouse the virtues of the Hirojoshi scale, but he dropped the ball when trying to play Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” for real. So much for all that fancy book larnin’, huh?

It’s easy to fall into a trap of believing that you need to memorize every bit of theory that could ever possibly apply to the guitar, and worse yet, that it will somehow magically improve your playing. But, you don’t, and it won’t. I’m a big proponent of understanding theory and actually using it effectively, but not a fan of trying to cram every term and bit of theoretical knowledge into one’s cranium.

You know a bunch of theory? Good. Big fucking deal.


How are you applying what you know to your present musical situation? I know how electrical current works too, but I’d probably zap myself into oblivion if I tried to rewire someone’s house. Keep it relevant, and find ways of applying what you learn when you learn it.

Let’s see … loading up on tons of instructional guitar videos is another way of fooling ourselves into thinking we’re doing something useful when we’re really not. Yes, I know … the inside of the membership site might have a gazillion different videos on different styles and topics, but how relevant are they all to your immediate playing goals, and how helpful are they going to be in terms of what you need now?

Practical value isn’t determined by the sheer number of options one has, but rather by how applicable those options are for you, specifically. 


If I had the proverbial nickel for every time I’ve heard someone say they’ve been through several of the predominantly video-only guitar courses out there only to come up short (and to come to me with their time and $$$ for help), mostly with the same concerns about such things, I could probably buy every over-hyped program there is with proverbial nickels. 

There are good reasons why I don’t do many “live” guitar instructional videos (relatively speaking), and the fact that having tons of different things to look at and choose from is damn distracting and potentially confusing is a big one for me.

It’s not that videos are bad, and I think they’re generally a good idea and a useful tool. But, they’re only part of a well-rounded curriculum, and not the most practical means of study in every situation.

Some things require visual examples, and some things require other methods.


Ask yourself if having access to thousands of instructional videos on any given style or technique is really helping your playing in a measurable way, or if there’s just more stuff to sift through.

Also, ask yourself if the person in the video actually knows what they’re doing, and has relevant information to offer you, regardless of how many videos they’ve done: prolific doesn’t always mean proficient. 

Alright, moving on. While we’re slaying sacred guitar cows, how about needing to read music as an imminently important or practical skill? This is one of the biggest impractical activities posing as necessity that I see on a regular basis.

Personally, I think being able to read music is valuable, and in some styles or genres, it can be a prerequisite. But, this isn’t normally the case, and you can always learn to do it later if you so choose.

Some years ago, I had a few students come to me when their previous instructor had left town (no, I don’t think he “left” because he was wanted by the law or whatever, but that would make for a much better story. It was because of some boring shit like moving out of the area.) While each of them only knew a couple open-position chords, their sight reading was phenomenal! They also knew about modulation, and how to transpose into different keys.

Problem was, they each had other issues too, from holding the guitar neck like a baseball bat, to an inability to keep the pick from getting “squirrely” between their thumb and index finger, to knowing how to tune the damn thing, and so on.

Well, being able to tune your guitar is fairly important (unless you’re Jimi Hendrix, that is. Then you can consistently play out of tune and people will worship you for it. Sorry/Not sorry. Sacred cows, remember)?

Anyway, while it’s nice to be able to identify “E” on a piece of paper, it’s infinitely more important to be able to identify “E” in 12 (more if you’re a 24-fret slinger) different positions on a guitar fretboard. After all, you’re not physically playing the paper, but rather interpreting what’s on it. 

Whenever I hear a new or prospective student tell me that they can’t read music, I usually think “Good. Now we won’t be distracted and muddled by trying to decipher black dots on a fucking page”.

It’s far more practical to make friends with the instrument and see what it will and won’t do before spending time and effort deciphering those black dots.


Learn how the guitar works and where those notes are on it first, and if you want to, learn how to read later. If you can already read music, then that’s great, but the majority of your work should be focused on the guitar itself and your relationship to it, especially if you’re just starting out. The other stuff can wait until you need to use it. 

There are about a million other examples I could give about practicality being crucial yet often overlooked, but there isn’t enough time or space to do that here, and I don’t think it would be very practical to keep hammering this dead horse. For now, anyway. 

Keep it practical, keep it useful, and make damn sure to apply whatever you’re learning as soon as you’re able … even if you don’t think it sounds good or doesn’t fit the context of what you’re working on, at least you’ll have done something with it, and you’ll get in the habit of actually using things as they come up, instead of adding more clutter to the ol’ memory bank.

If someone tells you that you need to learn or do something that seems a bit impractical, ask them how, where, and why you should use it.

If they don’t have a solid answer, keep moving. 


Six-string sorcery isn’t done by magic, but by persistent, practical methods.

‘Till next time…

P.S. – If you want to cut through the mental muck and bust 9 of the most harmful guitar playing myths around, you can get Mythbusting 101 here. You’ll never approach the guitar in the same way again.


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