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  • Writer's pictureJay EuDaly

4 Disadvantages of Self-Teaching

Updated: Aug 12, 2019

In one sense, the whole concept of "self-teaching" is oxymoronic. How can you teach yourself something you don't know? On the other hand, you are self-taught no matter how many formal lessons you've had. That's because only you can do the work - the practicing, the repetition, the blood, sweat and tears.

But let me explain what I mean by, "formal lessons." They consist of:

1) A teacher who knows what he's doing.

The teacher needs to have a codified, systematic approach in place that applies music theory to the guitar; knowing the notes all over the fretboard, Triads, 7th Chords, 9ths, 11ths, 13ths and all manner of inversions, voicings and alterations, as well as the corresponding scales, modes and arpeggios. Everything is to be drilled in every key in every position, exhaustively.

The teacher should have the common diatonic progressions and key schemes codified and a method in place to drill those things in every key in every position on the fretboard and be able to lead the student step-by-step through the process, holding the student accountable for the drilling.

The teacher should have a codified system in place for acquiring good technique, inculcating the principle of economical movement and exercises to that end. He needs to be able to teach the student how to think analytically about his movement, hands, fingerings etc.

2) A regular (usually weekly) lesson time, where the student meets one-on-one with the teacher for instruction, guidance, oversight, accountability and feedback.

"Self-Teaching" includes books, videos, podcasts - anything that is not in real time and where feedback is non-existent.

Ok, so technically, it's not "self-teaching" because you are acquiring data from an outside source. I'm not saying that those "self-teaching" devices have no value; they do. If you are really interested in and committed to the guitar you will be doing all those things.

But if that's your primary strategy for learning how to play, you are selling yourself short. Here's why;

1) A video, book or webpage can't say, "Hey, you're having trouble controlling your pinky because of where your thumb is."

What we're talking about here is technique training, of which feedback is an essential component. It has been my experience that I tell the student how to play a scale, an exercise or a song correctly, how to position their hands, how to control every movement, and I demonstrate it for them - just like a video would do - and most come back the next week doing it wrong. They are not self-aware enough to realize they're doing it wrong.

So I point out their mistake and show them how to fix it. That is something a video, podcast or webpage can't do; provide a feedback loop. A good teacher gives feedback to the student every week, instilling self-awareness and analytical thought. And the teacher is getting feedback from the student every week about how best to teach that student based on their default learning style, temperament and commitment level.

2) A significant portion of "self-teaching" involves learning and playing by ear. "Learning by ear" is really "learning by trial-and-error." That's because what your ear is good at is telling you when you've already made the mistake!

The giveaway is when you miss a note by a half-step and "auto-correct" by slurring into it. Most people don't even know they've done it; they're not self-aware enough to realize they've made a mistake, and as my classical guitar teacher (Douglas Neidt) once told me,

"Every time you make a mistake you're programming your hand to make that same mistake the next time."

He also told me, "It takes 10 perfect repetitions in a row to erase the effects of one mistake in your brain."

When I was studying with John Elliott and auto-corrected, he would say,

"Listening, not thinking!"

As I said, most students are not self-aware enough to catch themselves making mistakes; most people unconsciously sandbag. It takes a teacher to listen to them in real time and bring it to their attention.

If you don't have a conscious, intentional strategy and ability in place to minimize mistakes, your progress will be severely hindered. And few students come up with a conscious, intentional strategy on their own.

3) Another deficiency inherent in self-teaching is the ubiquitous use of tablature. Tablature can be a quick-fix, immediately gratifying thing; it can potentially accurately show you where to put your fingers. I say, "potentially" because a huge percentage of the tab I see online is just flat-out wrong. Consumer beware.

Let's assume for a moment that the tab you found on motherf---inglyawesomeguitartabs for the latest dope song you want to learn is accurate - and, I stress, that is an assumption.

So you can now play that song. What do you know? How to put your fingers in the right place like a trained monkey. You've learned a song by rote. You don't know the whys. Why that chord and not this? What scale is he using? How did he come up with that chord? That lick? That progression? How is he thinking? What's the creative thought-process?

You don't even know the names of the notes you're playing. When the tab tells you, "3rd string, 7th fret," you're not learning what note that is. Tab tells you it's not necessary to know the name of the notes. That is a lie, and the common practice of major publishers, "sheet music" that has tab along with the standard notation, transcriptions, and tab websites all perpetuate the fraud.

This is why I say that the habitual use of tab actually sabotages knowledge of the guitar neck. People who use tablature as a primary learning tool are screwing themselves.

Reliance on tab short-circuits learning.

One of the first things I teach my students is a method to find any note anywhere and everywhere on the neck (see Find Any Note Anywhere!); it's not hard, and most students can do it in a couple of weeks - or less.

If all you want to do is learn licks or songs by rote without understanding anything about what you're playing then be my guest - use tab; knowing note names isn't necessary. But that's not me; I want to know why! And that's not the kind of student I want to teach. I want to teach you how to figure the song out for yourself and to understand everything about it. You won't have to pay me to show you song after song, week after week by rote; I want to give you the tools so that you can do that for yourself. And along the way you'll become a much better guitar player because of it!

4) Another common problem with self-teaching is the lack of methodology. In other words, random acquisition.

Random acquisition is one of the consequences of "teaching yourself." When the student is in charge of what he's going to learn, when he's going to learn it, and what order everything is in, he's randomly perusing websites, videos, podcasts etc. and cherry-picking this and that from wherever with no systematic method in place for acquiring the vast amount of knowledge and technique necessary to become a really good player.

Because of random acquisition the self-teaching student has massive gaps in his knowledge and vocabulary and there is no way for him to know what he doesn't know.

I can't tell you how many students come to me because they've been teaching themselves for 10 years (or more) and their lack of progress is astounding to them, given the fact that all this information is available to them with the click of a mouse.

It's only astounding if you have the false premise that mere access to information will solve your problems. It won't - the information needs to be systematized, and imparted in the most linear, sequential and logical order possible. It's the systemization that enables your brain to retain vast quantities of data; if your data acquisition is random, the only way to retain the knowledge is rote memorization. And you can only remember so much.

One of the things that happens with the systematized, linear input of data is that, over the course of time, you learn how to think about music, and so you don't have to remember everything because you have internalized a system that you can access to "reason it out."

You also need someone to teach and model the most efficient way to practice all this stuff; there's a reason that the personal teacher-mentor/student-apprentice model has been used by all cultures for all kinds of things for centuries - it's the best, most efficient way to learn.

The 4 disadvantages summed up:

1) No feedback loop

2) Learning by ear, i.e. trial-and-error

3) Use of tab as a primary learning tool

4) Random acquisition

These are a few of many reasons why "self-teaching" is THE most inefficient and self-sabotaging way to learn how to play guitar.

Still skeptical? Perhaps your skepticism stems from the fact that I am a guitar teacher and so I obviously have an agenda.

Yes, I have an agenda, but it's not what you might think.

First of all, I came to the above conclusions based on my experience as a student, not as a teacher. I spent 10 years formally studying with two different teachers. My experience as a teacher has merely reinforced the understanding I came to as a student. I tell about my own process as a student that necessitated these conclusions in A Little Story.

Secondly, I am not phishing for personal students; I have as many as I want, with a waiting list. Furthermore, I plan to reduce my personal load as I enter into my golden years.

Things may seem to be further confused by the fact that I provide online lessons and lesson series downloads through - which I've appeared here to be arguing against!

So what's the deal?

Well, don't overlook the qualification given above,

  • "I'm not saying that those "self-teaching" devices have no value; they do. If you are really interested in and committed to the guitar you will be doing all those things. But if that's your primary strategy for learning how to play, you are selling yourself short. "

The "primary strategy" should be under the personal guidance of a teacher who knows what he's doing. The self-teaching devices are used in relation to that. goal is to apply my approach, scaled to the internet environment, without sacrificing the mentor/apprentice model for teaching and learning.

How can I do that?

That's an interesting dilemma because the internet environment is not conducive to the mentor/apprentice model.

I'll tell you all about it in the next blog, coming shortly. Subscribe so you don't miss it!


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