By Bobby Kittleberger, a long-time guitar player, writer, and the founder of Guitar Chalk.

learning-guitar-truefireAvailable in nearly whatever form you could want there’s no shortage of places to learn about guitar topics. That’s a good thing. We should never dismiss the wealth of information we have at our fingertips via the internet, our bookshelves or whatever medium we’re accessing.

Topical content as it concerns our guitar playing is important. Sure, we have a lot of it – much of which is rehashed and recycled – but it’s the beginning of learning guitar. You might call it the first step or the first layer of education. But guitar students and teachers need to understand what comes after that.

What happens after we’ve learned the chords and scales? How do we apply a major pentatonic scale shape musically? Where do those things take us? If we don’t know those answers, we get stuck. Stuck between bouncing around to different scales and chords in the hopes that more topical variety will make us better guitarists. Unfortunately, it won’t.

You can do a lot on the guitar with just a few chords and scales, so piling on information isn’t the only answer. We need to learn how to apply what we already know.

What is Topical Guitar Knowledge?

What exactly are we talking about when we say “topical knowledge?” When learning the guitar, a topic is something concrete that you can learn the same way you would a math problem. Either by memory or recognition, you simply absorb the information and regurgitate it. It’s not creative or artistic. Instead, it’s just something you know. Here are some examples:

  1. Chords
  2. Scales
  3. Modes
  4. Intervals
  5. Fretboard Notation

These topics are static and don’t change without an appropriate designation. Take an open C major chord for example.


In order to play the chord, this is always how you do it. That’s something that we can memorize.

So a topic could also be thought of as anything that has a predefined set of musical properties and designations.

If the chord changes, we have terms to define that change. If we change to a C minor, a barre shape C or an entirely different chord, that’s not innovation. That’s just basic music theory.

So a topic could also be thought of as anything that has a predefined set of musical properties and designations. It doesn’t require creativity, just memorization.

How This Impacts Guitar and Music Education

This type of learning makes up most of the guitar teaching available to the general public. Particularly what’s available online or in print for free. In most cases, you’re dealing with topical knowledge and concepts that require memorization instead of creativity. That’s not a bad thing because we do need this information as a starting point. What can be disappointing is that this is usually where it stops.

We leave material unexplained when we get into territory that can’t be conquered by simple memorization. When you move past topics and into creativity or application, you’re working in something that’s more subjective and abstract.

For example, soloing in the key of E isn’t the same for everybody. You need to consider the genre, the scales and the chord progression behind the solo. And that’s just to name a few of the variables involved.

This has a negative impact on our guitar lessons and education if it’s where we stop. Assuming that all we get is memorization and no guidance when it comes to using and developing what we’ve memorized, our learning is severely limited.

To avoid that, you engage in creativity and application once you’ve mastered enough topics to start putting the pieces together. You move on.

Musical Creativity: The Next Step

Just as we’ve defined topical knowledge, we’ll do the same for musical creativity.

Many are of the opinion that you can’t teach creativity. That’s true in part, though you can teach the constructs that allow it and even the experiences of those who have proven themselves to be tremendously good at it. In a sense, you can help draw out the creativity that’s already there. You can also help them establish a framework under which it can flourish. The guitar is the perfect place for that to happen.

But what about the guitar isn’t topical? It all is to some extent, but we’re looking at what we do with the basics and where we go with things like chords and scales.

Here are a few things that set up a guitar player for application instead of memorization:

  1. Chord Progressions
  2. Melody
  3. Harmony
  4. Rhythm
  5. Timing Accents
  6. Layering
  7. Effects
  8. Improvisation
  9. Lead Patterns (solos)

All of these things can be taught and can serve as mechanisms by which to encourage the creativity and ingenuity of a developing guitarist. They require a certain amount of guess work on the part of the player. In many cases they’re abstract and without specific instruction. So the learning process goes from static to variable and far less of an exact science. Chords become progressions and scales become melodies, improvisation or layering; whatever you want your music to be.

So the trajectory looks something like this:

Topical Memorization –> Developing Creative Constructs –> Application or Creation

The guitar player’s end goal is application. To play and/or write great music. Your goal is not to learn a C major chord and call it a day. That’s just the beginning.

The Importance of Teaching and Learning Application

If we never get to the point where we can apply what we know about the guitar, we’re missing the meat of the instrument. The free resources we have at our disposal are good and valuable, but they too often drop the ball before getting us to the point where we can apply the topics and information that we’re memorizing.

So if you’re a guitar teacher, teach the full spectrum of the instrument and the entire learning process. Take your students through topical memorization, creative constructs and then show them how to apply all of those things to actually make music.

If you’re learning yourself, know the learning process and what you need to do to engage in it fully. Look for more in-depth resources and material or consider paying for your educational material in the form of books or instructional DVDs.

However you do it, make sure you drag yourself through the whole nine yards. Learn how to be creative and how to apply your knowledge. That’ll make three or four chords and a couple of scales go a long way.

bobbyBobby is a long-time guitar player, writer, and the founder of Guitar Chalk.