Seeing the Big Picture: How to Build a Solid Foundation for Creating Wonderful Music

Prominent guitarists and educators offer advice on what it takes to become a more musical guitar player and improve your musicianship.

Open any guitar magazine and you’ll find lots of details to sink your teeth into: everything from how to play a 12-bar blues and essential riffs in open-G tuning to the tonal virtues of a torrefied soundboard, with discussions of the merits of Brazilian versus East Indian and Madagascar rosewood.

That’s all well and good, but it’s easy for some guitarists to spend time focusing on these things at the expense of seeing the bigger picture of what it means to be a more musical guitar player—the aspects of musicianship that provide a solid foundation for creating wonderful music; and the skills that allow an understanding of how melodies, chord progressions, and rhythms work together across a variety of different contexts, of how those are all connected, and of how to have a healthy and clear-eyed relationship with the guitar.

For input on how guitarists can address the bigger picture, I reached out to a handful of prominent guitarists and educators—Corey Christiansen, Fareed Haque, Molly Miller, Juanito Pascual, and Lauren Passarelli, whose perspectives are as varied as their backgrounds on the instrument. Working their advice into your daily routine and your guitar playing—and more important, your musicianship—will reap you rewards.

Getting Beyond Tablature

Many guitarists take shortcuts in learning the instrument—relying only on tablature, for instance—which can produce impressive short-term results but can have stunting effects on their musical growth. It might be more immediate fun to learn to play, say, Robert Johnson’s “Hell Hound on My Trail,” than it is to look under the hood to examine how it works and how it appears on the staff. But you’ll be much better off as a musician if you take the time to get to know music deeply.

Fareed Haque, a jazz and classical guitarist who teaches both styles at the Northern Illinois University School of Music, in DeKalb, Illinois, says, “There’s a whole guitar-education cottage industry that attempts to circumvent musicianship in favor of what’s most expedient—like 20 Jazz Chords You Must Know Now! There’s an emphasis on spoon-feeding little bits of information that end up just cluttering the brain and the musical personality.”

Pick a random note past, say, the seventh fret on your guitar. Can you name it without thinking about it? If not, you’re in the same company as plenty of players who have fine technical skills on the instrument, but who could benefit from diving deeply into the guitar and music in general. “I’ve been doing this [teaching at NIU] for 30 years, and I still have students—even grad students—who, when they first come to me, look at the ninth fret on the B string and can’t tell me what note it is. It’s just crazy,” says Haque.

You should know your fretboard inside and out—so that you can instantly identify that note on string 2, fret 9 as G#/Ab) and you can visualize the same pitch on string 3, fret 13 and string 4, fret 18. Being intimately familiar with the notes on the fretboard—and how they’re connected—is essential to the big picture, no matter what style.


There are, of course, many ways to learn the fretboard. (For one approach, see Gretchen Menn’s Basics lesson in the July 2018 issue.) In his teaching, Haque has found that an excellent way of learning the fretboard is to study the major scale in a range of positions, in both two- and one-octave configurations. (See a full explanation of this approach at Haque says, “The way I teach the fretboard isn’t just in terms of several positions that are convenient for guitarists, but in a way that teaches where scales fall on the whole fretboard, and shows the relationships between the keys—things that apply to any style of music across the board.”

It’s one thing to know the names of the notes on the guitar’s fretboard, and another to know where they fall on (or near) the staff. Sure, tablature is convenient, especially considering the fact that most notes appear in the same octave in multiple locations on the fretboard. But the big-picture rewards of being able to read and write standard notation—from learning new pieces to composing them to interfacing with non-guitarists—are staggering.

Being intimately familiar with the notes on the fretboard—and how they’re connected—is essential to the big picture, no matter what style.

Being a proficient sight-reader is a skill that can take years of practice, using scores and contexts of all types, to develop. But there are some great sources that will help you get a leg up. Whether you start with a classic method like William Leavitt’s Reading Studies for Guitar, or an app like Sight Reading Mastery, keep in mind that there are big-picture goals for reading itself: “You have to work toward being able to analyze in real time what you’re looking at, so that you’re not always sitting there counting lines and spaces,” Haque says. “You have to look at a vertical structure and be like, ‘Oh, that’s a G minor chord,’ rather than a bunch of different notes.”

Learning to recognize that structure as G minor and play it in time requires the intersection of at least three skills: a knowledge of the fretboard, of notation, and of basic music theory. There’s a tired argument that learning theory robs you of creativity. Quite the contrary, it can encourage inventiveness by, for example, allowing you to visualize many different ways of playing a G minor chord in all regions of the fretboard, rather than, say, as a standard third- or 10th-fret barre chord. “There’s no way you can do the work and not get the results that come from knowing the fretboard and how it ties in to music theory,” Haque says.

Listening to the Music

Having a well-developed ear—being able to identify intervals, chords, scales, and such, both isolated and in context—will help your big-picture musicianship in a big way. (For more on ear training, click here.) In scrutinizing a recording to learn a song—rather than relying on the printed page or tabs on the web—you can gain a deeper understanding of how music works and an awareness that will inform everything you learn and play.

Lauren Passarelli, who in 1982 was the first woman to graduate from Berklee College of Music and is now a guitar professor there, learned volumes by ear in her formative years—out of necessity. She says that it was difficult to find books of popular music with the songs she wanted to play, let alone with accurate notation for the guitar parts that she found so compelling. So, instead of doing a Google search for tabs of her favorite tunes, she had to dissect the recordings herself.

Passarelli says, “My awesome teacher, Lou Sabini, taught me how to listen for the bass notes of the guitar on a recording and work from there to figure out what the guitarist was actually playing. It thrilled me to play it like the record, because I knew I was understanding what was being played, how it was being played, and I worked on [playing it on guitar] until I felt the same emotion the record had. I learned guitar language, and my original music benefitted tremendously from this because it stretched me in so many ways.”

Even if not specifically for transcribing purposes, the big-picture benefits of deep listening are great. Thanks to streaming, millions of recordings are just a click away, but this great abundance of music can have its drawbacks. In contrast, listening with great intention to a much smaller sample of music can have a beneficial impact on your musicianship.

Corey Christiansen, a master jazz guitarist and professor at Utah State University, explains, “I’ve been concerned, big-picture-wise, about the way students are listening to music. Much of the time, they’re listening on their iPads or phones through inferior, $10 earbuds, to music that’s streaming at a highly compressed level. I’m in favor of listening deeply to a non-compressed version of a monumental recording, over and over again, on a different level each time. That way you come away with a better understanding of how things like different rhythmic feels, articulations, and dynamic controls work; you focus on micro-level things that you then bring to your own playing on a macro level.”

The ability to listen clearly to one’s own playing, whether in an unaccompanied or ensemble setting, is another big-picture skill to acquire. This can be elusive, since it’s easy to be unaware of your own shortcomings—or, oppositely, to give short shrift to your strengths. It can be helpful to record yourself, so that you can hear things from a listener’s perspective and diagnose problematic tendencies you hadn’t noticed when you were playing. You might hear, for example, that you overplayed in an improvised guitar duo—and you can then use this information to your advantage by becoming a more sensitive listener.

When you follow the music that you love, you’ll naturally find a community.

 Coming Together


For many guitarists, playing the instrument is a casual, solo pursuit, enjoyed on evenings and weekends. That’s unfortunate, because much music, especially popular idioms like folk and rock, lends itself to collective expression. Participating in a community is another big-picture item that can bolster your musicianship as well as your playing opportunities.

Guitarists who play only by themselves can suffer rhythmically in their isolation without even knowing it. And an uncertain sense of timing and groove can have an adverse effect on your music, no matter how technically skilled you are otherwise. Belonging to a community of musicians, or even playing in a band, especially one with a competent bassist and drummer, can do great things for your musical life. 

“Building your community of other players to play with teaches you volumes in a fun way,” Lauren Passarelli says. “It’s also great to find [a fellow guitarist] to practice with. It’s so much easier to jump in and learn how to read together, play duets, find harmonies to sing on each other’s songs, and come up with sweet guitar parts to complement each other.”

Haque, who has travelled between many different communities through his work in the jazz and classical worlds, says, “Having a career is as much a social endeavor as it is an artistic one. I can’t tell you how many talented musicians I’ve come across who didn’t want to hang—whether at the club or on the internet—and it didn’t work out for them, career-wise. And the more that you move around in communities, the better chance you’ll have of finding a niche where your skill set can be monetized—for lack of a better word.”

When seeking out a musical community, it can help to simply go to local gigs of musicians whose work you admire. Molly Miller, head of the guitar department at Los Angeles College of Music, who has supported the Black Eyed Peas, Jason Mraz, and others, says, “When you follow the music that you love, you’ll naturally find a community. If you love Adam Levy’s guitar playing and you go to his shows, you’ll find a community there in a way that’s organic—and leave feeling inspired and wanting to practice. It’s super important, where the big picture is concerned, for musicians to be out in the scene, supporting and admiring each other.”

It’s also useful when trying to embed yourself into a musical community—or build one yourself—to come prepared, with a number of standards under your belt. If bluegrass is your scene, be sure to know the melodies and accompaniments for scores of songs like “Sitting on Top of the World” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”; if jazz is more your thing, you’ll want to know the basic forms like the 12-bar blues and rhythm changes in all keys, as well as standards like “Autumn Leaves” and “Take the ‘A’ Train.”

This big-picture item, cultivating your repertoire, will go a long way in helping you nurture relationships with other musicians. Plus—and especially if you learn songs from a variety of genres and eras—the more you know, the more you’ll see how all music is connected, the faster you’ll learn new music, and the more complete a musician you’ll become.

illustration depicting a guitarist in the lotus position meditating with a guitar on their lap


Tending to Body and Mind

It can be tempting, especially in a period of rapid musical growth, to put in long and uninterrupted practice sessions—and to see pain as the byproduct of hard work, or to ignore it altogether. Juanito Pascual, a flamenco virtuoso and teacher based in Los Angeles, subscribed to the no-pain-no-gain idea—that is, until injury forced him to completely rethink his physical relationship to the guitar.

In 1991, when he was 18, Pascual was in an intense period of woodshedding and performing in Spain, often putting in 10-hour days without warming up. As a dance accompanist, he often had to attack the guitar with full force, to be heard over scores of stomping feet. “I had this attitude that if I just threw myself in and went for it, that’s how I would get better,” Pascual says.

On his 20th birthday, Pascual’s pain was suddenly so severe that he couldn’t power through as he’d done for years; when he picked up his guitar, it felt as if his thumb were tearing inside. So he took six months off and rebuilt his technique from the ground up, learning to recognize and diffuse the tension that caused his injury. “I used Feldenkrais therapy and the Alexander Technique as part of the healing process,” he explains. “Plus I read books like Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery to work on my mindset as well, and negate all the panic that came with the injury.”

Taking care of your mind and body is as much part of the bigger picture as honing your craft on the guitar. Just as it’s inadvisable to run without first stretching, it’s important to warm up before performing or practicing. There’s no one-size-fits-all warm-up approach for guitar; you have to experiment to find the routine that works best for you. This might involve, for example, gently stretching your hands and playing scales or etudes slowly and with minimal finger pressure.

Once you’re warmed up and playing, it’s inadvisable to sit for hours in the same position. Let your hands dangle at your sides periodically, and also get up and walk around, just as you would at an office job. Do this at a natural stopping point, such as after working through an etude or song, or set reminders on your smartphone if you’d like.


Practicing yoga can also help by releasing the tension brought on by playing the instrument, as well as instilling greater concentration and an awareness of breathing, which Pascual says has been one of his keys to avoiding injury. “Hand injuries are often closely related to tense breathing,” he explains, “so I’ve learned to be very attuned to my breathing.”

Having a tense mind can also be detrimental in terms of both making progress as a musician and avoiding injury. Incorporating meditation into your routine—whether before a practice session or a performance, even if just for a few minutes at a time—is one way to reduce stress and enhance your playing with clarity of mind.

Also beneficial is not keeping an anxious inventory of everything you ought to be addressing on the guitar, but rather seeing your good fortune in spending time with the instrument. Molly Miller, who studied privately with the jazz guitarist Bruce Forman, remembers, “One day I went into a lesson depressed about how I sounded. Bruce threw down his guitar and said, ‘Molly, what the hell are you doing? You should be honored every time you pick up this beautiful instrument.’”

Adam Perlmutter
Adam Perlmutter

Adam Perlmutter holds a bachelor of music degree from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro and a master's degree in Contemporary Improvisation from the New England Conservatory. He is the editor of Acoustic Guitar.

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  1. I’m a guitar and music theory teacher, and this article reminded me of many truths I too often forget to stress to my students — the importance of reading (and sight reading) standard notation, for one, and, conversely, learning music by ear — especially from the bass up!
    I especially enjoyed the section on embedding yourself in a scene, to paraphrase Fareed Haque. Truer words were never spoken.

    Thank you,
    Peter King