I recently read an article about Steve Jobs and how when he rejoined Apple his first priority was to axe as many of their products as possible and focus on only a few. Initially there were about 300 different products which he managed to cull back to around 10. Jobs certainly did not invent this philosophy but he did come close to perfecting it and proved that less can be more. A lot more.
I have seen this with guitar students time and time again. Typically they have a guitar case full of half tabbed out songs and when asked to perform they happily show off a dozen different riffs or intros to songs but no actual complete pieces. The problem is not really the fact that they cannot play a complete song but it usually highlights an underlying issue. Many songs include sections that are simply beyond the beginner student so rather then develop the skills required many students just move on to a new song. For example there might be a simple intro but a challenging solo so the student will learn the intro almost like a party trick hoping they will never be put in a situation where they are required to play the song in it’s entirety.
Songs are projects
Students who jump from one song to another often fall into the habit of skipping difficult sections or what they may perceive as boring. Songs should be seen as projects either long or short depending on the difficulty. You should aim to finish any song you start. If you learn say the intro and then find the verse too difficult don’t just give up. Instead talk to your teacher and ask them what you need to do to be able to play the section in question. In other words what skills do you need to develop. It may require a skill that will take you several years to learn but that’s okay. The process of developing this skill will lead you often to new discoveries. Like Jobs treat songs like products and get good at a few songs rather than average at many.
Focus on skills
When we focus on developing a specific skill there is a real sense of achievement whereas jumping from one song to another can leave you feeling frustrated. Taking the approach of finishing what you start will help you to become more selective about the songs you learn. Like Jobs you need to throw out the hundreds of songs and focus on a few. Don’t try try to be the ultimate guitar songster but instead work on a Top 10. Your friends may even be impressed initially by your extensive repertoire but you will end up dissatisfied with yourself knowing that you are not really improving your guitar skills. Playing a hundred riffs that all require the same level of skill will not make you a better guitar player.
Your ultimate song list
To get around this problem I created what I call the Ultimate Song List (USL). On this list students write down a maximum of 25 songs they ultimately hope to be able to play. I usually ask students to fill this list in over the first few weeks. Once the list is complete it’s not written in stone. Students are free to change songs at anytime but their list can never be anymore than 25 songs. It usually takes 6 to 12 months for a student to finalize their list. When the list is complete the student has a clear direction. New songs and riffs may come along and of course they can learn other songs but the USL is the goal. It keeps the student focused and acts as a reminder of where they are heading and what skills they need to develop.