My formal music background is minimal. I played trombone for a year in 6th grade. I sang in choir one year in high school and one year in college. I took a couple of months of guitar lessons. That’s it.
Now my self-taught side of things was much more in depth, but I never learned to read music. Boring. Even my guitar teacher – a seasoned multi-band playing god – didn’t emphasize much on reading music, instead focusing on basic music theory for blues and rock, and learning to play songs that I liked. From those basic lessons sprung me into being able to write my own songs, play some licks, and be much more comfortable playing around an audience.
As a family, we’re pretty musical: I play guitar and can muddle my way around an electric bass guitar, my wife plays piano and sax, daughter Birdsnest (11) plays piano, sax, ukulele, and guitar at varying levels, and son Loudboy (9) plays piano – both the kids have been in music lessons for awhile and they pick things up fast. I couldn’t imagine my life without music in it, or without being able to play anything. It doesn’t necessarily mean I’m very good. I still don’t know how to read traditional music, but can get through guitar tabs and with some practice can sing/play a variety of songs, and really enjoy playing songs I wrote.
Music touches the soul and being able to play music doesn’t have to be hard. I’ve heard many adults say “I wish I could play piano/guitar” but then go about their day. If they truly wished to learn, they would make it happen. Like in Groundhog Day when Bill Murray starts taking piano lessons then becomes a seasoned pianist, if you had the opportunity to learn and time wasn’t a constraint, would you? If things were easy, would you take advantage of our one shot here to create something? Your “end game” could be to simply learn something cool and be able to express yourself musically alone, or it could be to play with other musicians at home for your own entertainment, or it could be to play in front of an audience. The biggest audience I played in front of was about 30, but just being able to play and sing some campfire favorites is a sweet skill to rock (Sally McLenanne by the Pogues is a three chord Irish drinking song that is probably my favorite campfire song of all time, since you can make it audience participation, and who doesn’t like singing along with drunk Irish?!).
Or being able to tinkle the ivories with Für Elise or John Legend’s All of Me (both of which I hear in my house) is pretty magical no matter the venue (at the church killing time, at a hotel lobby, whatever).
So without further ado, here are a few hacks to speed up your learning. Keep in mind, that you still need to devote time to practice and to teach those fingers and hands a new skill, but if you don’t want to do endless scales or learn to read music (and it is like another language), these can get you to the end goal of playing faster.
- First and foremost, get a chord book (this is the exact one I have had for a decade). Learn the major chords. Learn basic powerchord fingering and where the root note is on the guitar fretboard. Practice changing chord shapes until your fingers are like claws and they start to do your bidding without you having to think of it.
- Learn to read guitar “tabs,” which are basically another way to read a song if you don’t know how to read music – with six horizontal lines representing the six strings on a guitar and where to place your fingers on the fretboard. Many tabs still follow basic chord shapes, but perhaps you’re merely picking the strings individually (like say, Good Riddance [Time of Your Life] by Green Day). Once you get the basic feel for this, you can find free tabs for many songs online, or buy a Fake Book that compiles them for you (like This). Personally, I printed a bunch of tabs for songs I wanted to learn how to play, 3-hole punched them, and created my own Fake Book binder.
- If you prefer to do things with some forced assistance, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by Rocksmith for Xbox or PlayStation . If you have your own electric guitar (or pickups that can plug in an amp for acoustic), you just plug it in to your console and away you go. I have a heavily modded 1965 Fender Mustang (yes that is a Green Lantern sticker laminated below the hard coat; it was a lost cause when I got her, now repainted Sherwood Green-metallic below-maybe one day I’ll dig up the original pics and do a post about the old girl; Kurt Cobain infamously played with a number of mustangs over the years.). It will dumb itself down to as bad or good you are, and has a lot of tutorials. The reviews from inexperienced guitar players on this method is surprisingly positive. They even have session mode where you can play with the AI musicians and they respond. Both my daughter and I have had success with learning new songs in this way.
First, not being a piano player myself, I’m talking a little out of my ass here, but with three other people in my family and other friends who play, I feel I won’t be too out of bounds with this advice. Also, don’t feel like you need to invest in a piano to learn piano. We were lucky enough to get a free 100 year old piano (that mostly stays in tune) from a friend who just wanted to get rid of it (after doing the Law of Attraction thing of visualizing a piano for our family, but that is a story for another day), but you can find used or new keyboards pretty affordable as well.
- Like guitar, understanding chords is a great place to start. Understanding where the notes are on a keyboard is helpful as well, and we have a keyboard chart that sits on the piano. The major and minor chord progressions are used in a lot of songs. Practice with individually both hands so you can start to feel the shape of what the chord is without having to look down. Or if you want a better way, try..
- Hack your way to playing songs faster by using a course like PianoIn21Days.com (No affiliate link-they are just good peeps). This is pretty sweet and seems to give a lot of bang for the buck for the time, using someone else’s experience to drastically cut your time down and actually play songs you actually like earlier and easier than figuring out a method that works for you. This method has a different way of finding chords than simple memorization. Again, if piano is an instrument you ever wanted to learn, check out PianoIn21Days.com.
Now, getting out of the scope of this article just a little, if you want to make your own songs, very basic music theory won’t hurt. I started to write about them, but decided against it because it starts to sound a little complicated even though it isn’t. If you want to learn, start with Googling what notes make a major or minor chord, 8 or 12 bar blues chord progression, or simply ‘common chord progressions’- many, many songs are only 3-4 chord progressions intermixed with some melodies or alternating with other progressions interspersed.
Good luck, and please, be patient and humble since music is challenging. Stick with it, and you’ll be more than pleasantly surprised. Playing music can be for anyone! If this engineer could learn as an adult, so can you.