How to play pop music if you’re trained as a classical musician

arjai101 asks: I play guitar but I don’t play the kind of guitar everyone knows worldwide. I play classical guitar, which is basically Beethoven on a guitar. Which in some cases is scary. People ask me everyday why I can run my fingers up and down the frets of a guitar at incredibly high speed with single notes, but not strum a few chords. It may seem like its not a problem but it is. I want to learn acoustic guitar but, my parents won’t sign me up for anymore music activities because I’m in three already, and the classes I take are the most expensive in town. I want to teach myself but my schedule is really busy. Plus, when I do take the time to teach myself, it doesn’t do much, because there’s something about the yell of a thick European accent that makes one the best guitarist in the school. So what should I do to teach myself acoustic guitar?

Hi arjai101 –



Before I answer, I need to ask you a favor.  I understand everything in your question except the part at the end about the “yell of a thick European accent that makes one the best guitarist in the school.”  Are you saying a European-accented yell is good, or not?


Either way though…


Well, the news is good.  Very good.  Classical guitar, piano, or just about anything else, is usually the hardest technique to master.  As a dog, I adore pretty much anything that sounds good, and so I loooooove classical guitar!  Spanish malaguena, Bach’s lute music, I adore it all.  And there is very little about acoustic folk-rock guitar you would need to learn, if you can play all that.


Really, it’s about the feeling.  Having mastered the passion and precision required for the great classical pieces, it takes a bit of mind-shifting to go to the casual energy required to play pop songs.  But think about it – those people who say you’re playing one-note-at-a-time… haven’t they heard that awesome banjo work Mumford and Sons highlights?  All he’s doing is playing with classical skills in a folky format.


Now when it comes to learning how to strum chords, that’s easy, because (unlike me) you have fingers!  There are gobs of websites out there that will tell you how to play the main chords of popular music (all the majors, the minors, the sevenths, etc.).  And when they do, as long as you know how to read the symbols of how to play them, they’ll tell you what strings to play and which to not.  Then, all that strumming involves relaxing your skilled hands and running your thumb or a pick down the strings.  The more you do it, the more you’ll find it natural to strum upwards some too, or to add a few single notes (most likely bass ones) in while you play.


Now don’t get me wrong.  There’s tons of technique that’s specific to playing folk, blues, jazz, or of course rock guitar well.  Jimi Hendrix might have studied classical technique, but that wasn’t all he knew, clearly!


But you know what I’d suggest even more (because this is what Handsome did when he was a teenager)?  Think about what pop songs are your favorite.  Not super-complex stuff that’s based in instrumentals and dance grooves, but straightforward singing.  Do you like Adele, Taylor Swift, Mumford and Sons, or even older stuff like the Beatles or Bob Dylan?  I’d go to a music store and get a book of sheet music of their songs.  Sometimes the books just cover one album, and sometimes they cover the artist’s whole career.  But I’m pushing to find one you know and like.  So you’ll already know how those songs should feel.  Then buy the book, and in your free time, pull out your guitar and play a few songs from it.  Again, just simple strumming.  And I think you’ll be amazed at how easy it is, and how naturally it comes when you do it.


But I’ve gotta side with your parents on this one.  If you’re doing well with the classical guitar, don’t give it up!  Later, if you want to move into jazz or rock, you’ll be amazed at how much easier it is because you’ve learned all these great skills now!


Have a BLAST!!!



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