How to Finally Play the Guitar: 80/20 Guitar and Minimalist Music

When will you stop dreaming and start playing? (Photo: Musician “Lights”, Credit: Shandi-lee)

I’ve always wanted to play the guitar.

It started as a kid, listening to my dad play around the fireplace during the holidays. The fantasy continued with Guns N’ Roses and the iconic Slash. From hyperspeed Slayer to classical Segovia, I was mesmerized.

But I never thought I could do it myself.

Despite tackling skills as esoteric as Japanese horseback archery, I somehow put music in a separate “does not apply” category until two years ago. It was simply too frustrating, too overwhelming.

My fascination with guitar wasn’t rekindled until Charlie Hoehn, an employee of mine at the time, showed me the 80/20 approach to learning it.

This post explains how to get the most guitar mileage and versatility in the least time…

Do you have any additional tips, whether for guitar or applying the 80/20 principle to another instrument? Piano, violin, flute, or other? Please share in the comments!

Enter Charlie

Almost everyone has fantasized about performing music in front of a huge screaming crowd at some point in their life. For me, I’d always dreamed of playing guitar with the same mastery as Jimmy Page, Allen Collins, or Mark Knopfler. Sadly, I could never stick with guitar practice.  I ended up quitting multiple times for a host of reasons: the material was boring, my teacher moved too fast, my teacher moved too slowly, my fingers were killing me, my wrists were sore, I wasn’t making enough progress, and so on.

Then my friend Jake Ruff taught me two simple exercises that changed everything, and I’ve been able to stick with guitar ever since.

Some guitarists proclaim that you need to tackle music theory first, while others will tell you to learn sheet music while you’re practicing chords. I found it most effective to focus on a few easy exercises, while minimizing boredom and pain. In other words, the process for learning that you enjoy the most is the best one, even if it isn’t comprehensive.

Comprehensive comes later.  First, we need to get you hooked.

The Ground Rules 

In order to get past the initial pain period that comes with learning guitar, it’s critical to manage your expectations. If you don’t have a clear understanding of what these first few weeks will be like, there’s a good chance that you will get frustrated and give up.

Here are the three things you need to know before learning guitar, under my plan or anyone else’s:

1. You will feel clumsy. Remember when you first learned how to type? You wanted to hammer out 100 words per minute, without ever making an error. The reality? You constantly had to look down at the keyboard, and you’d get frustrated whenever you made a mistake. Guitar is the same way. As much as you’ll desire the ability to play all your favorite songs beautifully, your body and brain simply won’t be able to. Your fingers will move slowly, your hands will feel awkward, and the sounds coming from the guitar will not be easy on the ears. Relax, and give yourself permission to suck. Allow yourself several weeks to build “muscle memory” – getting comfortable having your hands in positions they aren’t used to.

2. Your fingers will be sore. Expect the tips of your fingers to hurt for at least a month while they’re developing calluses. If your fingers get extremely sore, take a day off, and never play until your fingers bleed.

The pain you’ll feel is largely unavoidable, but you can reduce it by using a capo (a clamp you fasten across the strings of the guitar – read more on this in “Getting Started” below). The most important thing, of course, is to not quit playing altogether because of the pain. Whenever you want to quit because it hurts your fingers too much, say to yourself, “Justin Bieber taught himself to play guitar before he was 12.” Yes, that’s right. That effeminate kid successfully got through the same pain you’re feeling, and so has every other guitar player on the planet. You’re more than capable of pushing through.

3. You need to practice for at least 10 minutes each day. There is no quick path to mastering the guitar, but there is a fast track to failing: a lack of practice. During the first month, you need to make playing your guitar for at least ten minutes into a daily habit. Playing every day will help you build calluses faster, and increase your comfort level with the instrument.

When I first started, I aimed for at least two 10-minute practice sessions each day. I found the most convenient time to practice was while watching TV. The two exercises you’ll be focusing on won’t require intensive periods of concentration, so it’s totally fine to watch your favorite show while strumming away.

Getting Started

First and foremost, you’ll need to buy a guitar (See guitar recommendations below in the Gear section). I know it’s obviously possible to learn with a friend’s guitar or one that’s been given to you as a gift. However, I found that my desire to learn increased substantially only after I put some skin in the game. Buying my first guitar only cost me $100, but spending that amount made me much more committed to learning.

I strongly recommend starting with an acoustic guitar, rather than an electric. With an acoustic, you don’t have to plug it in to play and there’s less of an upfront investment (i.e. you don’t need to buy an amp). Learn on an acoustic first; if you decide to play electric later, the transition will feel much easier than it would have had you only learned to play electric.

Next, you’ll want to buy a capo. This is a clamp that raises the pitch of the strings. You’ll be using it for a different purpose, but to start, it will help reduce the pain in your fingers.

Capo on the second fret.

The capo pushes down on the strings, putting them closer to the fret board and thereby making it easier for you to push them all the way down with your fingers. When you’re doing the exercises, I suggest putting the capo on the second fret.

You don’t have to use a capo, of course, but it can really help while you’re still developing calluses.

Once you have your acoustic guitar, capo, and a few other essentials (see the Gear section at the end of this chapter), you’ll need to put the strings on and get them in tune. Here are a couple videos that will help you do both of these things:

Changing acoustic guitar strings tutorial

Tuning your guitar

For tuning, the $3.99 ClearTune app works really well and is convenient to keep on hand when playing, particularly in the beginning. It’s available for both iPhone and Android.

Now that you’re all set up, it’s time to take a seat in a comfortable chair and get in position to play.

The most important thing about your posture is to stay relaxed. Because you’ll be pressing down hard on the strings, you’ll often feel your upper body tense up. Take a deep breath and only maintain pressure in your fingers.

One final note on your positioning: Your thumb should not wrap around the neck of the guitar; it should be pressed against the back of the neck. Sure, you’ll see a lot of professional guitar players who don’t comply with this, but it’s much easier on your hand to learn chords this way.

Without further ado, let’s get started!

Exercise 1: G-C-D

The number of chord variations you can learn on guitar is seemingly endless. We’re going to start with three of the basics: G, C, and D.

Before we get into explanation of this exercise, take a look at how to hold the G, C, and D chords: [Note the use of the silver capo in the photos]

The “G” Chord

Index finger on the fifth string, second fret.

Middle finger on the sixth string, third fret.

Ring finger on the second string, third fret.

Pinky finger on the first string, third fret.

The “C” Chord?1

Notice that, from G, fingers 1 and 2 are each dropping down one string.  Otherwise, the hands are the same.  So, for C:

Index finger on the fourth string, second fret.

Middle finger on the fifth string, third fret.

Ring finger on the second string, third fret.

Pinky finger on the first string, third fret.

The “D” Chord

Index finger on the third string, second fret.

Middle finger on the first string, second fret.

Ring finger on the second string, third fret.

Pinky finger stays off the fret board.

In the G-C-D exercise, you’ll be working on switching from chord to chord. Here’s all you need to do:

  1. Form the G-chord. Strum.
  2. Transition to C-chord. Strum.
  3. Transition to D-chord. Strum.
  4. Transition to C-chord. Strum.
  5. Repeat steps 1-4.

Each time you switch to a new chord, you should first pluck all six strings individually to ensure that six crisp, clear tones ring out. If any of the strings sound muted or dull when you pick them, check your fingers to ensure that (A) you’re holding the strings all the way down on the fret board, and (B) each finger is only touching/holding down one string.

Once all six strings sound nice and clear individually, you can begin strumming to hear the full sound of the chord. Strum lightly for 10-15 seconds, making sure that the chord sounds nice and clear with each strum, then transition to the next chord.

After you’ve reached a point where you’re fairly comfortable with transitioning between these three chords, you’ll want to try playing along with actual music. Jamming to your favorite songs is definitely the most fun way to learn in the beginning, because it really feels like you’re producing a better sound than you actually are. It also forces you to get better at matching the correct tempo of a song while strumming.

Here are several popular songs that are great for practicing the G-C-D exercise:

Lynyrd Skynyrd – Sweet Home Alabama (YouTube, Guitar Tab)

Green Day – Good Riddance (YouTube, Guitar Tab)

Sublime – What I Got (YouTube, Guitar Tab)

AC/DC – You Shook Me All Night Long (YouTube, Guitar Tab)

Van Morrison – Brown Eyed Girl (YouTube, Guitar Tab)

Steppenwolf – Magic Carpet Ride (YouTube, Guitar Tab)

Violent Femmes – Blister (YouTube, Guitar Tab)

Really listen to each song. Try to distinguish the difference in tone between the G, C, and D chords, and see if you can match what you’re hearing. If you have trouble, find the the song on to see (1) what chords you’re hearing, and (2) when to make transitions between these chords.

The songs are all heavy on G-C-D. Some are comprised entirely of those three chords. Here’s the breakdown:

“Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd


“Good Riddance” by Green Day


“What I Got” by Sublime


“You Shook Me All Night Long” by AC/DC


“Brown Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison


“Magic Carpet Ride” by Steppenwolf


“Blister” by Violent Femmes


Exercise 2: The Fret Climb

The purpose of the second exercise is to get you comfortable with moving your fingers up and down on the fret board. The below images will give you an idea of what the Fret Climb looks like. You can use a pick for this exercise, or just use your fingers to pluck the strings.

Index finger, 1st fret.

Middle finger, 2nd fret.

Ring finger, 3rd fret.

Pinky finger, 4th fret.

Here are the exact steps for this exercise:

  1. Push down on the first string (the one furthest from you), 1st fret, with your index finger. With your other hand, use your index finger to pluck the string. Ensure that a clear, crisp tone emits. If it sounds dull or muted, press down harder on the string.
  2. Push down on the first string, 2nd fret, with your middle finger. With your other hand, use your middle finger to pluck the string.
  3. Push down on the first string, 3rd fret, with your ring finger. With your other hand, pluck the string with your index finger.
  4. Push down on the first string, 4th fret, with your pinky finger. With your other hand, pluck the string with your middle finger.
  5. Move your index finger down to the fifth fret.
  6. Push down on the first string, 5th fret, with your index finger. With your other hand, pluck the string with your index finger.
  7. Continue “climbing” the fret board until you’ve reached the 12th fret.
  8. Once you’ve climbed all the way up to the 12th fret, it’s time to do the exercise in reverse. Go all the way back down the string, moving up the neck of the guitar one fret at a time, and plucking the string each time your fingers move down a fret.
  9. After you’ve gone up and down the first string, switch to the second string. Do this exercise on all six strings.

Again, it’s important to ensure that you’re getting nice, crisp tones each time you pluck the string. Don’t rush through the exercise if the tones aren’t perfectly clear.

Once you’re comfortable with the Fret Climb, try to increase your speed.

Next Steps

Once you’ve mastered the G-C-D and Fret Climb exercises, you’ll have a nice solid foundation that you can build upon in the months to come. But what do you do after you’ve perfected those two exercises?

I suggest mimicking the Axis of Awesome, then picking and choosing your favorites to learn.

Axis of Awesome

First, prepare to have your mind blown.  Then, watch the The Four Chord Song by Axis of Awesome.

This comedy trio plays 38 pop songs in five minutes using just the E, B, C#m and A chords.  Pick up those new chords, use to look up the below songs for ordering, and you can play them.

How’s that for Minimum Effective Dose?

1.      Journey – Don’t Stop Believing (YouTube, Guitar Tab)

2.      James Blunt – You’re Beautiful (YouTube, Guitar Tab)

3.      Alphaville – Forever Young (YouTube, Guitar Tab)

4.      Jason Mraz – I’m Yours (YouTube, Guitar Tab)

5.      Mika – Happy Ending (YouTube, Guitar Tab)

6.      Alex Lloyd – Amazing (YouTube, Guitar Tab)

7.      The Calling – Wherever You WIll Go (YouTube, Guitar Tab)

8.      Elton John – Can You Feel The Love Tonight (YouTube, Guitar Tab)

9.      Maroon 5 – She Will Be Loved (YouTube, Guitar Tab)

10.     The Last Goodnight – Pictures Of You (YouTube, Guitar Tab)

11.     U2 – With Or Without You (YouTube, Guitar Tab)

12.     Crowded House – Fall At Your Feet (YouTube, Guitar Tab)

13.     Kasey Chambers – Not Pretty Enough (YouTube, Guitar Tab)

14.     The Beatles – Let it Be (YouTube, Guitar Tab)

15.     Red Hot Chili Peppers – Under the Bridge (YouTube, Guitar Tab)

16.     Daryl Braithwaite – The Horses (YouTube, Guitar Tab)

17.     Bob Marley – No Woman No Cry (YouTube, Guitar Tab)

18.     Marcy Playground – Sex and Candy (YouTube, Guitar Tab)

19.     Men At Work – Land Down Under (YouTube, Guitar Tab)

20.     Banjo Patterson’s Waltzing Matilda (YouTube, Guitar Tab)

21.     A Ha – Take On Me (YouTube, Guitar Tab)

22.     Green Day – When I Come Around (YouTube, Guitar Tab)

23.     Eagle Eye Cherry – Save Tonight (YouTube, Guitar Tab)

24.     Toto – Africa (YouTube, Guitar Tab)

25.     Beyonce – If I Were A Boy (YouTube, Guitar Tab)

26.     The Offspring – Self Esteem (YouTube, Guitar Tab)

27.     The Offspring – You’re Gonna Go Far Kid (YouTube, Guitar Tab)

28.     Pink – You and Your Hand (YouTube, Guitar Tab)

29.     Lady Gaga – Poker Face (YouTube, Guitar Tab)

30.     Aqua – Barbie Girl (YouTube, Guitar Tab)

31.     The Fray – You Found Me (YouTube, Guitar Tab)

32.     30h!3 – Don’t Trust Me (YouTube, Guitar Tab)

33.     MGMT – Kids (YouTube, Guitar Tab)

34.     Tim Minchin – Canvas Bags (YouTube, Guitar Tab)

35.     Natalie Imbruglia – Torn (YouTube, Guitar Tab)

36.     Five For Fighting – Superman (YouTube, Guitar Tab)

37.     Axis Of Awesome – Birdplane (YouTube, Guitar Tab)

38.     Missy Higgins – Scar (YouTube, Guitar Tab)


Next, you can learn more chords and tabs by tackling the songs you most want to learn (search “[song name] chords” or “[song name] tabs” on Google). One of the reasons people abandon the guitar, even after nailing down the basics, is because they’re learning from material that isn’t fun or interesting enough. It took me (an embarrassing) three full weeks to learn the intro solo from Heart’s “Crazy on You,” but it never felt stale or boring because I loved the material. So pick three of your favorite songs that you really want to learn, and practice each of them until they sound great. When you get bored, concentrate on perfecting the nuances of those songs or move on to new material.

After awhile, you might start thinking about what you’d like your guitar career to look like. Perhaps you want to learn music theory and take classes. Maybe you want to play your favorite songs with your friends at parties. Maybe guitar will be your vehicle for meeting people while traveling. Or maybe you’ll be happy just to have a new hobby that keeps you sane.

Whatever the case, always make sure you’re enjoying the process.

Once you get past these first few weeks, it’s smooth sailing. Have fun!


Fender Squier SA-100 – This is a great beginner’s acoustic guitar that won’t break the bank (about $100). I learned on a similar Fender model, and have been playing it regularly for five years.

Taylor 110 Dreadnaught – For those wanting a nicer model than the Fender, this acoustic guitar is fantastic and runs for about $600.

Kyser Capo – The most popular quick-release capo. Use it to quickly change the pitch on all six strings, and to reduce soreness in your fingers while practicing.

D’Addario Acoustic Strings – It’s in your interest to buy nice strings for your guitar, as they will last longer and be more comfortable. Get at least two sets, in case a string snaps.

String Winder and Cutter – This handy little tool speeds up the process of restringing your guitar, and has a built-in wire cutter so you can trim the ends of the strings off.

Guitar Picks – You can learn guitar without ever using a pick, but I can guarantee you’ll eventually want to use one. Picks give you a crisper sound and more precision in your playing. You won’t regret practicing with one.

Tools, Tricks, and Resources

Justin Guitar – Justin Sandercoe, a London-based guitarist, assembled more than 500 free lessons, many of which contain video and audio tutorials. This is one of the best resources online if you really want to dive headfirst into learning all things guitar.

Ultimate Guitar – This is my favorite spot for finding free song tabs. One of the site’s most helpful features is its quick display of how a chord is held when you hover your cursor over any chord listed in the song.

“Ocean” by John Butler – My favorite guitar instrumental, by far and away. This song is motivation for me (and several of my friends) to keep practicing. [TIM: Here’s a video of a separate friend, Maneesh Sethi, playing Ocean after one week of 4 hours/day practice.]

This is a variation on the more commonly used C-chord, as this one is easier to practice for beginners. With this variation, you won’t have to change the positioning of your hand when transitioning to/from the G-chord.

AFTERWORD: Best of Tips in the Comments

This post produced some GREAT comments and tips from readers. From the first 100 comments, Charlie chose some of his favorites. Here they are…


How to Practice Guitar

“Using feedback to your advantage” by Mike Roode

I am going to weigh in on this one because the article is missing what I think is the most important thing to getting good fast (other than regularly scheduled effective practice). One word: Feedback.

You need high quality, quick and regular feedback to gain proficiency quickly on any musical instrument.

1. At the end of each practice session, make a video recording of yourself (with your phone or laptop) of you playing what you practiced (song, scales, chord patterns) to a metronome.

2. Always review the last practice session’s recording as the first step in your next practice session. It’s like football, hockey, and other sports — they always watch the game afterwards to look for things they missed in the heat of the moment. It’s the same principle for playing guitar because it requires a lot of hand coordination and listening ability. Make sure to capture the entire guitar in the frame of your camera so you can see where your hands are, your posture, etc. Listen to the sound… Where are the calm notes? Did you drop the beat? It’s very important to always practice with a beat (metronome, drum machine etc.) and to be in tune (use a guitar tuner).

3. Spend time with a good teacher if possible, they will be able to correct things and teach you things that can only happen in a face to face medium.

“Learn shapes, not chords” by Micky H Corbett

1) You only need to learn 3 “shapes” rather than chords and use a capo. With these shapes and use of a capo (to change key) you can play 95% of songs out there.

2) Most shapes (and all for starters) consist of two fingers bunched and one stretched. Sometimes it is just two bunched.

3) You don’t need to play full chords – learn how to use 3 fingers first (index, middle and ring) by using the shapes.

4) DO NOT play all the strings at once – 80% of the time play the lower (base notes) and play the upper strings as highlights. Less is more. It is the difference between teen angst and lounge cool.

5) The chord shapes are: the C/G (as above but don’t need the pinky unless you want to); the A/D – (like D but only index and middle, A is one underneath the other); and Em7 shape (like G but with index and middle on 2nd fret A and D strings – two lowest but one)

That is it. Too much time is spent with learners trying to play full chords and having all the strings ring out. That will come in time. For now, stuff that. Dexterity with minimum movement is what you are after. Combined with only playing groups of strings will make you sound more experienced then you are!

“Effective Practice Tips” by Brandon Bloom

-Know your ultimate guitar playing goals, and figure out what you need to learn/be able to do to reach them. Set measurable goals and a schedule for each practice too. (This might be more for those at an intermediate/advanced level) Aimless practicing is wasted practicing, and consistency is key.

-The more extremely focused your practice is, the better. Especially as you get more advanced, it will take a lot more effort to refine your technique further and further until you reach your goals. The less distractions you have while practicing, and the more focused and uninterrupted you are, the more effective your limited practice time will be.

-Stay as relaxed as possible. Use only as much tension as is necessary to make the sounds you want. Anything excess is holding you back, and while it can take a lot of effort and practice to reduce tension when playing something difficult, do so to the best of your ability.

-Focus on exercises that work multiple techniques at once. While practicing isolated techniques is good, if you have limited time, you might not be able to get to everything. Exercises like ‘string skipping’ focus on alternate and/or directional picking, coordination between your two hands, your fretting technique and string skipping itself, while an alternate picking exercise might only help you get better at alternate picking. I know some of you might not know what all of those terms are, but the important thing to know is that — just like exercising for fitness — certain guitar exercises do more for you than others.

-You don’t need a guitar in your hands to learn songs or new chords/scales. Figure out the gist of the song on guitar if you have to, then go on to practice things that will make you better. Spend the rest of your day, when you have time, visualizing yourself playing the song, what you’d do on the fret board to get the sounds you want, etc. Then next time you sit down with a guitar, since you’ve memorized it in your head, you can focus on mastering the song instead of wasting time trying to remember which part comes next or how to play this or that. This can save you hours of wasted practice time.

-If there is only one part of a passage or song that’s keeping you from playing it perfectly, don’t play through the whole song over and over again hoping you’ll get it right eventually. Focus on that one section of song. Break it down to its simplest form, and blast it until you can nail it consistently. Whether it’s a transition between chords, a certain note pattern or riff, whatever… It’s much more efficient to focus solely on that part and then integrate it back into the song than it is to keep playing that song repeatedly while making the same mistakes.

“Use competition to learn faster” by Daz

I’d advise you to hook up with someone else as soon as possible and learn from each other. Friendly competition, more rewarding and good fun. If you can sing all the better, learn one song and go to an open mic night (if you can’t sing find a singer). There are a million songs that you could play with the chords above – choose one. Trust me: you’ll practice if you know you have a gig at the end of the week. You’ll get a massive rush and want to continue doing it.

“Public accountability” by Debbie Happy Cohen

I applied the accountability principle to art this year… I painted every day for a year, from 11/11/11 to 12/12/12, and posted each one to Facebook (398 paintings!!!) My technique and confidence levels improved dramatically. I was also able to increase my prices and sell more 🙂

Intermediate Techniques

“The almighty power chord” by Geoff Strickland

This is exactly how I started learning. Find about 4 basic chords and learn to switch between them. This part SUCKS and you will sound terrible, but trust me, it gets better.

Learn about the almighty power chord (throw the guitar in drop d tuning to make this super easy). This will let you learn just about any mainstream punk/pop or rock song and play the sh** out of your favorites. Keep it simple. Nobody starts out playing Stairway to Heaven…. instead try ‘Smoke on the Water.’

The most important part is to push through the month or so that you aren’t very good. Focus on learning songs you love to stay inspired.

If you want to take the band route (this was the fastest way to catapult my playing to a new level) find some guys that want to learn bass/drums/keys etc and go at it. Sitting around in high school and saying to my friends (none of which could play any instruments) lets form a band was the best decision I’ve ever made.

“Strumming and open chords” by Max

As a guitar teacher for many years, this is very accurate as far as breaking down the basic skills. Here’s what I would add:

1) Learn these 3 basic and common strumming patterns (D=down strum, U=up strum):




2) There are only EIGHT, yes EIGHT basic open position chords (without getting into fancy variations). The open major chords are C, A, G, E, D (spells the word CAGED). Open minor chords are Am, Em, and Dm. Spend your first few months switching between all of these chords (there are millions of songs that only use these chords!). You should be able to switch from any chord to any other chord instantly.

3) Combine basic chord pairings, for example: (C-G), (G-D), (D-A), (E-A), (Am-C), (Em-G) with the strumming patterns above.

This is literally months worth of practice for an absolute beginner.

“Solos and Songwriting” by Andrew Edstrom

I grew up in a very musical family (mom is a professional blues singer and stepdad is a guitar teacher) and I’ve been playing guitar seriously for 7 years. After dozens of paid gigs, and thousands of dollars spent on lessons, these are what I have found to be the 20% of skills that get 80% of the results, beyond what Charlie laid out here.

Solos: If you want to solo, there is only one scale pattern (i.e. collection of notes) you need to know. MOST famous players, including Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, and Eric Clapton, use an extended form of this box for over 90% of their soloing. It’s called the first form of the pentatonic scale, and it is a repeated pattern of five notes that you can see here. If you are playing any of the G C D songs here, put the lowest note of the scale (marked with an R in this picture) on the 12th fret of the low E string. For any of the Axis of Awesome songs, put the lowest note of the scale on the 9th fret. Now practice going up and down the scale in time with the songs and experiment with starting and stopping at different points. Gradually, steal licks from your favorite players and sooner or later you’ll start to come up with some of your own!

Songwriting:? Write your songs in this format: Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Bridge, Chorus Chorus. For “Good Riddance,” the verse is where he says “Another turning point, a fork stuck in the road…” and the chorus is where he says “It’s something unpredictable, but in the end it’s right.” The bridge is the instrumental breakdown after the second chorus (I advise you to put words in the bridge, however). Got it? Great.

Now which chords should you play in your song, you might ask? Well, fortunately, Charlie already gave you three of them. Write all of your songs with the G C and D chords, as well as the chord E Minor. Experiment with different combinations of these chords. Your verses should all have the same chord progression, and your choruses should have the same chord progression, but the progression in the verses should generally be different from the progression in the choruses. If you use the same chords in both sections, make them last longer in one than the other. The key is variation to maintain the listener’s interest. In the bridge, come up with a new combination of these chords, and try adding the chord A minor for spice. For inspiration on how to combine chords, learn the songs Charlie has listed here. See what decisions those writers made. I also highly recommend learning Taylor Swift songs, no matter your opinion of her music. The only way to avoid writing cliché songs is to learn as many cliché songs as you can so that you know what not to do.

Learning Other Instruments

“80/20 Piano” by Linda Dye

This is foolproof. Anyone can make up their own music. I found out when I lost my vision and was so scared I would not be able to play piano because I always read the music and could not play by ear. I heard a Ray Charles song and realized, he was playing on the black keys. Revelation! (My vision came back later.) Baby What’d I Say – it’s blues with a 1-4-5 pattern, starting on the E-flat. But even if you don’t know music or what that stuff means, you can use the black keys to improvise and play a relaxing melody.

This is what I show children how to do—Play a black key with your left hand and press the foot pedal at the same time, holding it down. (There are 3, use the right foot on the far right pedal.) The note will sustain itself. Touch a black key with your right hand, then another, try to make a pattern, then repeat it a couple of times if it sounds good. Play another note with your left hand, down in the bass notes, the low notes, and again move around in the treble, high notes, with the right hand. STAY ON THE BLACK KEYS and you will not make a mistake. Try to establish a rhythm, which is just the beat. If it sounds a bit wrong, do it again, as if you meant to do it, then move to a sound you like better. Maybe this will be the first song you’ve ever composed.

To end it, you can repeat that first pattern, hold the last note and maybe do one last bass note. Breathe in, breathe out, close your eyes, and you will feel the music, plus look cerebral and cool.? Let the pedal up now and then or it will sound too murky, maybe when you change bass notes… Just to prove my point when someone is skeptical, I have played on the black notes with my fist, forearm, and even my elbow, and can make it sound like it goes together.

Try googling 1-4-5 and blues scale for more. There are tons of music lessons out there. Learn the circle of fifths, learn the scales and the chords, major and minor. You will never run out of things to learn with music.

“80/20 Flute” by Kaylin Johnson

Here are some key points for applying the 80/20 principle to classical flute, designed for someone who can already read music:

(1) When playing solos and other pieces, flute players rarely benefit from re-playing the portions they can already play well. I see a lot of students who are so determined to play perfectly from start to finish. They end up wasting a lot of time playing the portions they have already mastered, when instead the majority of practice time could more efficiently be spent focusing on the parts that are causing them difficulty.

(2) All etudes and exercises are not created equal. I once had a teacher tell me that if I could master the exercises in the Taffanel/Gaubert 17 daily exercises book, I could play almost any solo. This is true to some degree, but I would recommend focusing on the portions you need for each solo as you choose to focus on it, unless your goal is accurate sight-reading in an orchestra or other performance group.

(3) I completely agree with Tim that consistency is key when it comes to practicing. My first band teacher said to practice eight minutes a day (about an hour a week), and that actually got me into the practice habit because it was achievable. I worked up to two hours a day, but, looking back, I’m not sure that playing past an hour was worth it. I got through more content (etudes, exercises, solos, etc.) but I don’t think it was necessary based on the 80/20 principle. I’ve also heard of many serious musicians who develop problems in their hands or other parts of the body, which seems like a huge motivator to practice smarter, not longer.

(4) A private teacher can be an immensely powerful motivator for practicing and designing a plan for advancement. If you are looking to do something unconventional, such as following the 80/20 principle, it may take a few teachers before you find one who supports you. For example, I play with an unusual embouchure (lip placement) and all but one teacher out of five was determined to have me learn “proper” embouchure if I studied under them. I went with the one who wanted to work with me as I was, and still found success without undergoing a lengthy re-learning process. To note, a teacher can also serve as a mentor and a friend, so I recommend scheduling shorter lessons and getting right down to business if you want to get the most for your money. You can even warm up ahead of time if possible to save a few minutes.

(5) Having the right tools, such as a tuner that can detect notes or a metronome, eliminate guesswork and save you a lot of time and effort.

(6) When working with other groups, such as small ensembles or piano accompanists, listen to recordings ahead of time, if available. When you are paying someone like an accompanist per hour, you don’t want to be paying to learn how each part sounds together. Instead, you should be focusing items such as cues, tuning, and entrances.

Some of these principles may apply to other instruments as well, especially woodwinds.

The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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343 Replies to “How to Finally Play the Guitar: 80/20 Guitar and Minimalist Music”

  1. I’m a self taught guitar player currently rocking out on stages all over Denver ***Shameless Plug***(if you want to see what a self taught guitar player eventually can do check out my band ) ***/Shameless Plug***

    This is exactly how I started learning. Find about 4 basic chords and learn to switch between them. This part SUCKS and you will sound terrible, but trust me, it gets better.

    Then learn about the almighty power chord (throw the guitar in drop d tuning to make this super easy). This will let you learn just about any mainstream punk/pop or rock song and play the shit out of your favorites. Keep this simple. Nobody starts out playing Stairway to Heaven….instead try Smoke on the Water.

    The most important part is to push through the month or so that you aren’t very good. Focus on learning songs you love to stay inspired.

    If you want to take the band route (this was the fastest way to catapult my playing to a new level) find some guys that want to learn bass/drums/keys etc and go at it. Sitting around in high school and saying to my friends (none of which could play any instruments) lets form a band was the best decision I’ve ever made.


  2. Shouldn’t the headline be ‘how finally learn 4 chords on the guitar’ – hasn’t got quite the same ring to it I guess….

  3. Haven’t used it but I just saw Chord Buddy on Shark Tank (that got a deal). It might be helpful for beginners just learning the basics.

  4. As a guitar player (~4 years) I would like to counter the argument on getting an acoustic guitar first. Acoustic guitars are larger, oddly shaped (digging into your sides) have larger necks and thicker strings (increasing pain). Most people learn the guitar to play their favourite songs which most often will be rock songs, so without that amplification they are not going to hear the sound they hear in the song coming from their guitar and will get bored and stop.

    I really recommend an electric because you can get the crunchy/screaming electric sound straight away and have a more comfortable time playing. Even better get a hollow body guitar or an electro-acoustic like a Fender Telecaster (or cheaper copy) and have the best of both worlds. Playable without an amp, but has the rock sound when you want it.

  5. Tim, your awesomeness is unparalleled.

    I’ve had a guitar for ten years, since I was 15, and have spent the last ten years struggling, starting and stopping, giving up and coming back and giving up again.

    But when I saw that fingering for the C chord…it instantly clicked with me. Just that one degree of shift/nuance, and It all suddenly made sense. The movement between the C-G-and-D just feels RIGHT, now. I read this post, picked up the guitar, and it finally WORKED.

    People will debate about the minutia of the music theory, and whether your C is really a Cadd9 or whatever, And that’s all well and good, and I hope people read the comments if they want to learn more. But the fact is- It’s not just 80/20 on the chord you’re using; you showed me the 80/20 in relation to finger placement OF those chords. In terms of transitioning and getting up and playing, that made all the difference.

    In FIVE MINUTES, I read this article, picked up my guitar, and was playing AC/DC’s “Back in Black”, with smooth chord changes for the first time.

    Literally- 5 minutes total.

    Thanks again!


  6. Ha ha finally a post I can comment on propertly. Been playing guitar for over 25 years (man and boy) and so I’ll add something (whether you read it or not it up to you!).

    First of all a joke: How many guitarists does it take to change a lightbulb? – 5

    – 1 to change it and 4 to say “Yeah great…but have you tried like this..”

    Okay I think that the 80/20 above can actually be broken down further. So here is a “Slow-Carb” like summary:

    1) You only need to learn 3 “shapes” rather than chords and use a capo. With these shapes and use of a capo (to change key) you can play 95% of songs out there.

    2) Most shapes (and all for starters) consist of two fingers bunched and one stretched. Sometimes it is just two bunched.

    3) You don’t need to play full chords – learn how to use 3 fingers first (index, middle and ring) by using the shapes.

    4) DO NOT play all the strings at once – 80% of the time play the lower (base notes) and play the upper strings as highlights. Less is more. It is the difference between teen angst and lounge cool.

    5) The chord shapes are: the C/G (as above but don’t need the pinky unless you want to); the A/D – (like D but only index and middle, A is one underneath the other); and Em7 shape (like G but with index and middle on 2nd fret A and D strings – two lowest but one)

    That is it. Too much time is spent with learners trying to play full chords and having all the strings ring out. That will come in time. For now, stuff that. Dexterity with minimum movement is what you are after. Combined with only playing groups of strings will make you sound more experienced then you are!

    Yes this is more geared for rhythm guitarists but then that’s how we all start.

    So just 3 “shapes” – the key will depend on where you put the capo.

    3 exercises to try: Do the fret walk (as above)

    Play the MTV game.

    The MTV game (so called because I played it back when MTV actually played music videos) is to try and play any song on MTV by using these 3 shapes and your capo.

    It doesn’t matter if you have to put the capo on the 7th fret and it sounds like a mandolin. You’ll find it possible to play all manner of tunes. But also this will build finger strength as the strings are tighter and you’ll look like a rock god.

    Tuned bar chords:

    Practice your bar (it should be barre) chords by downtuning your guitar so that the open strings make a scale:

    As in D A D F# B D – Then just put your index over all strings and press. Away you go.

    Now I’m sure people will disagree with some of this but the fact remains that you need build finger strength and dexterity without doing loads of things. It’s hard enough learning the D to G crossover. Let’s not make it anymore difficult than it is.

    It’s a bit like Pavel’s post on just doing deadlift, squat and bench. Your index is your deadlift (powerful); squat is index and ring (you can cover a lot of ground); bench is using 3 fingers – adds lightness to your music/looks good.

    Remember Toni Iommi played a lot of music using just powerchords and 2 fingers. And we can’t argue with Iron Man, can we?

  7. The best advice I learn for soloing is to concentrate on the up strokes of the pick, not the down strokes. You will get faster and more proficient twice as fast.

  8. Wow great post Tim.

    I’ve actually been working on an 80/20 lesson plan for guitar to add to my site after watching a few interviews you did.

    It’s going to be a year long program similar to CodeYear. In fact it will be called GuitarYear.

    This gives me alot to work with for the first few modules. Any other thoughts you might have on learning guitar would be awesome!

    You’re my hero, thanks for the great stuff.

  9. I’ve learned much more on my own than with guitar lessons. My teacher always wanted to teach me things like scales and never a whole song – which made me feel unaccomplished.

    I do much better grabbing an chord tab online. Usually starting with the chorus (it tends to be the easiest, most repetitive, and often the most fun.) and slowly learning the rest. I find taking these baby steps let me learn faster and not give up on songs. Learn the more difficult parts last. You’re more likely to finish if you’re already 3/4 of the way there! 🙂

  10. I’ve been teaching guitar for about 7 years now. about 30 students. Now finally know what to call my teaching style. You described perfectly the way I teach. Pretty cool man! Hope you have fun with it.

  11. I have a guitar and always wanted to learn. Tried 3 times. 3 times I put it aside.

    May try it a 4th time using these tricks. 10 minutes a day… sounds doable!

  12. One thing many of the critics (and helpful “Also do this…” posts) are missing is that this is really a jump-start, Mr. Miyagi type exercise. Everyone who mentions learning any amount of music theory or pentatonic scale exercises is exactly correct, but they are also the reason most beginner’s eyes glaze over and they give up quickly.

    The hardest thing for me (and I’ve tried starting several times) is the “simple” mechanics of getting my fingers to learn where to go, how to navigate over the fret board, how to switch between chords, the right pressure, not muffling other strings, etc. I can memorize chords all day and I already know music theory, I just can’t switch between them and play anything.

    So I think these exercises sound perfect for teaching the muscle memory required to do the real stuff while giving you just enough skill to be able to strum along with a few songs you like. I’m pretty sure that if I can comfortably do chromatic runs up all the strings and smoothly switch from C-D-G without missing a beat I can pick up whatever other skills I want to from there. At least I’ll know in a few weeks if I keep my guitar here by my desk…

      1. OK, five days in. Sore fingers. A few ten minutes sessions per day. Having fun. I can walk up and down the strings noticeably better (I wish I’d taken the advice of recording/videoing to compare progress). Chord changes are still rough, but much better. Playing around with strumming patterns. Picking out song melodies note by note. Producing something more close to music than I’ve ever accomplished so far, so I think it’s working.

        Any advice/warning on switching back between electric and acoustic? I have a crappy acoustic with really high action (the capo helps, though) and a slightly less crappy electric that’s easier to play, but inconvenient from anywhere except near the amp (yes, I do have two guitars that I can’t play – is this normal?).

        One other piece of beginner advice (although no one else may have this problem) – play loud and confidently. Trying to strum softly so that you don’t bother anyone or so that no one can hear you sounding bad as you learn makes it harder to hear the chords and identify muffled notes. Screw ’em. I’m not talking Pete Townsend windmills, but play as loud as you would to play to a room full of people. Dynamic range can wait.

  13. Great post – kudos to Charlie.

    I’d also suggest cutting the tv watching from practice time. Find a quiet spot, pour a glass of red or a cup of tea or whatever. As you begin to improve you’ll come to value these times so much more than whatever is on the tele.

    Stick to the songs you know and love and be patient!

  14. Tim,

    I’ve a guitar practice method that doesn’t require your guitar at all. You can practice chords, scales, and work on building calluses anywhere. Walking down the street, sitting in class, riding the bus, during a dull meeting, taking a flight, or anywhere else your pants’ pocket will fit, but your guitar won’t. It’s meant to help rookies (or rock stars) who need help with Charlie’s 3 ground rules. PocketStrings is a sleek practice tool that contains the first 6 frets of a guitar, but then compacts down and fits in your pocket. Real strings, wood, guitar-like feel. It’s not meant to replace a guitar whatsoever. It’s just a supplement to help you become guitar genius when you’re away from your guitar. Then when you pick up your actual guitar at night, you’re that much better. And you can use those precious practice minutes to build something other that calluses. Keep jamming! Thanks for inspiring.

    Gavin Van Wagoner

  15. Is there any local 4HC forum to jump onto where I can personally give some people advice/personalised piano practice plans here?

    It seems the people here are in much more a head space of the students I’d want to interact with

    Note: I’m not trying to secretly get students over skype and use this blog as a marketing platform. I don’t have any products to sell or anything

    It seems this post has sparked some awesome discussions and I’d love to be a part of it in more of an interactive way in any way that I can

    If anyone is interested in some basics of Piano vidoes (80/20-style), reply to this comment so I know and I can try and get some things online within the next week or so

    I hope I haven’t massacred any blogging etiquette here – If I have, I apologise

    1. Not only is the blog post a great start, there are so many excellent responses and additional ideas!

      Dan- I’d be interested in some piano basics (80/20 style of course). Along with guitar, it’s another instrument I’ve always wanted to learn

    2. Dan, I would absolutely love some personalized piano practice plans, and tips on getting started. I have a small 25 key midi piano I use now for electronic dance music production but I’d love to learn more about the theory of music and the piano to take my productions to the next level.

  16. Big fan of yours Tim and now working on my muse after moving from London to Australia to give myself more free time to enjoy this great country! As I was reading this post, I thought ‘this sounds a bit familiar’ and then when I read the resources section i see that you referenced Justin Sandercoe. About 6 months ago I had some time off work and dusted off my guitar (a 21st birthday present – I’m now 30!!) as I became mesmerised as I always do when watching a live perfomer in a pub in London and determined to try and pick it up again. I came across Justins website and it has made me (finally) a legitimate guitar player in 6 months!! He is a great teacher.

    I think the biggest tip for new guitar players is to structure your practices (like justin recommends) and to spend time selecting carefully the songs you enjoy playing. Ive got a long list of songs but as I’ve gone through them I’ve found that some that i didn’t think I’d enjoy playing as much, I actually love and others that I was excited to learn, when I actually play them it doesn’t seem to suit me…

    Greta post though thank you for all your inspiration and advice. All the best, David

  17. Japanese horseback archery seems intimidating to me but I can understand why guitar seems overwhelming.

    Not only is there the physical challenge of making sounds come out but there’s the musical aspect of making those sounds pleasing. Then you have concepts of melody, harmony, rhythm, dynamics, and articulation all coming together to form your sound.

    Not only for acoustic but throw in electric guitar and you have pre-amps, speakers, power amps, pick-ups, the resonance of the guitar body, string gauge, etc! Even the pick you use, or fingers, affects your sound!

    The AWESOME thing though is that you don’t need to worry about any of this when you’re first starting out.

    Trust me.

    I started playing guitar as a hobby because I was influenced by my brother who plays mainly guitar and a few other instruments. I was mostly listening to 311, Incubus, and Rage Against The Machine, but when I first heard Led Zeppelin I was done! I then eventually worked my way to Jimi Hendrix and jazz.

    It wasn’t until I finished college that I decided I wanted to take the guitar more seriously and I was interested in figuring out the best way to learn.

    After reading Tim’s 4HWW, I was EXTREMELY excited to learn that I could maximize learning out of the time spent practicing.

    Before I go into what I learned I want to add to what Tim wrote here.

    -The Ground Rules

    I do agree that you need to lower your expectations of how well you’ll play otherwise you’ll be disappointed and quit.

    1. Yes you will feel AND be clumsy but that’s why it is important to practice VERY slowly and with full concentration. When I say slowly I mean slow as molasses. If you want to improve quickly, ironically you have to practice slow enough that you make the least amount of mistakes even if it means placing one finger at a time when forming chords. If you don’t do this you’ll play faster but there’ll be mistakes all over the place because you “practiced making mistakes”. In the beginning DO NOT use a metronome. You’ll just feel rushed and it won’t help.

    2. A capo is normally used to change the tuning of a guitar. I don’t know of anyone who used a capo to keep their fingers from hurting but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. I personally would buy a lower gauge of strings. You can ask a guitar tech at any store to replace the strings or learn yourself. Be prepared to break the high “E” on the first try ?

    3. Consistency of practice works wonders. It’s better to put in 10-15 minutes a day than 2-3 hours once a week. However I strongly recommend that you DO NOT watch TV or divide your attention in any way while you practice. Don’t multitask. The reason is that the more intense concentration you give the more growth you’ll see. You need the “brain bandwidth” to be able to focus on relaxing shoulder muscles, tension in the left hand, and you need to be listening to the sound that comes out because LISTENING is your chief learning tool.

    Okay now here are some things I’ve learned:

    -First answer the question of why you want to play guitar. Is it for personal enjoyment or to impress friends or loved ones? Do you want to be a simple songwriter or a blues guitarist? Do you want to improvise jazz or play power chord rock? Are you serious or a hobbyist? The answer is going to be the guiding light for all your decisions when learning guitar.

    -Get an acoustic guitar UNLESS you want learn lead guitar, then get an electric. I know it’s a little more money but it’s not that much. I spotted a Fender Squier (my first guitar) on Sweetwater for $129.99 and a Fender Frontman 1×6” for $59.99! Acoustic is more difficult to play and will harden your fingers but there’s nothing like being a member of the Electric Church.

    -For a tuner I recommend the Sabine Metrotune MT9000. I’ve had it since 2006 and is still running. It also doubles as a metronome. Don’t use the metronome until you gain some facility.

    -Sit up straight in a hard chair preferably with no arms. Scoot up to the edge, feet flat on the floor, legs straight down, and relax your shoulders. When forming chords or pressing down any string use the weight of your arm in addition to squeezing because it will cut fatigue. Keep your thumb on the back in the center of the neck. It’s good technique but once you develop a strong hand you won’t necessarily need to. I don’t always do it, as well as other players, but that’s because I use my thumb to mute the lower strings when playing chords. You also have to wrap your thumb around the neck to bend or to play certain jazz chords. Because of Hendrix my thumb is often out now ?

    -Nothing will help you learn faster than getting a great teacher. A great teacher must have the qualities of patience, enthusiasm, empathy, professionalism, and preparedness. Not every great guitarist is a great teacher so you don’t need the most incredible guitarist in town to teach you. He or she just needs to be a step ahead of you.

    -Otherwise when learning I think it’s best to immediately pick a song you love as a goal. Ask around for help finding one with easy chords or go with the list Tim provides. This is THE BEST motivator.

    -Spend the majority of your practice time working on learning songs and not exercises. The only difference between the two is that one is more musical. Exercises are for learning rudimentary technique so don’t over do it or you’ll get bored. Practice for 15 minutes and spend 10 on songs.

    -Don’t be embarrassed if takes a long time to learn a new song. You’ll spend most of your time on a plateau where you feel like you’re not getting better. Trust me when I say you are. It’s just hard to have a big picture perspective when you’re there every day. I spent close to 6-7 months to learn Midnight Lighting by Jimi Hendrix because it was an extremely challenging song to learn but I LOVE that song. I didn’t have certain techniques worked out and at the end I still sounded only half as good as him!

    Hope this helps anybody here and if you have any questions or need any more help don’t hesitate to ask!

  18. I’ve been playing guitar for close to 6 years now. I have to say that your post is fantastic in getting hold of fundamentals to help you learn faster. However I just wanted to point out something that I saw that could hopefully make your learning method even better..

    In this photo of yours.

    I noticed that from the second knuckle downwards your fingers are virtually straight. Ahhhhhhhhhh! This is not good technique.

    It means that you get into bad habits so when playing bar chords or Whole fretboard chords such as G Major, the underside of your fingers may deaden strings and so produce a ‘dude’ note. However it doesn’t matter too much with these simple chords that you are playing and since there aren’t any strings beneath the ones you are playing in this version of D I wouldn’t worry if your not that serious about guitar. However I will concied that some of the greatest guitarists ever have terrible technique but they work around it with awesome music!

    Great Post Tim!

    1. Hey Sam, thanks for pointing this out. You’re spot on but this isn’t actually how I hold the D chord when playing — I was just trying to make each of my fingers and their positioning easy to see for the viewer!

      1. That’s fine then, I just thought that with a post on something that covers fundamentals that I should point that out.

        I wish that when I first started learning guitar that this had been around then. Even with a teacher I was still frustrated. However once I mastered the basic chords and changes, guitar became a lot more fun.

        Note to everyone reading this post; Stick with it until you get the basics, You can play 90% of famous songs with only a few different chord shapes.

  19. Tim, as a life-long music enthusiast who has fooled around with various instruments over the last 40 years (classical and jazz guitar, flute, saxophone, piano) I hoped that at some point you would do a post on the development of musical skills, because to me this really shows the limits of your “anyone can learn anything in quite little time, if only done right” approach. I am all for the 80/20 approach, deconstructing a task into the relevant primitives, etc., but I just don’t see how this gets you around the unbelievable time required to play an instrument properly. Sure, anyone can learn within a reasonable amount of time to bang out a few chords on a guitar, but look at something more complex. For instance, learn how to play medium-level classical piano (say, Bach’s three-part inventions). This is something that usually requires perhaps 10 years or more of instructions, but loads of pianists below a “master” level (whatever that might be) are able to do it. In other words, you don’t need to have extraordinary talent and devote your entire life to it, but if you want to pull it off, LOTS of practice is required.

    BUT, the big question is, can this path be short-cut, perhaps by the principles of learning outlined in your recent book? I am open to the idea that the *right* kind of instructions can reduce the amount of practice time, or conversely, that if you don’t practice right, you can spend a lot of time going nowhere. But still, I don’t see any way around the notion of investing thousands of hours of practice into a skill of real difficulty. I am at the moment fooling around with learning the basics of jazz piano, and I find the sheer amount of legwork required to automatize the basic skills just staggering. And it’s not that there isn’t enough instruction material around – but it’s always like: take this left-hand voicing, see how it works? NOW PRACTICE THIS IN ALL TWELVE KEYS. And this little sentence implies MONTHS of dedicated work to put into practice. If your principles of learning facilitate this process, I would be the first in line to apply them!

    1. I agree totally, but I think this article is for hobbyists that just want a little motivation to get started.

      For serious guitarists there are other critical skills you need to have that you won’t get from guitar exercises.

      Think about ear training. That’s a whole other ball game and when it comes to jazz you have to develop the ability to instantly play what you hear in your head as it comes. Very tough!

    2. Hey MD,

      I’ve also been doing a lot of thinking about the idea of cutting the length of time it takes to learn a very complicated skill like music. And I’ve also had a healthy degree of skepticism. I’ve been playing guitar for a long time, studied music in college and now play professionally and have wrestled with Tim’s philosophy of cutting that time down. However, I actually have come to the conclusion that he’s right! You truly can cut down the time drastically.

      Tim says you can become world-class as most skills in 6 months or less. Emphasis on most 🙂 To me music is not one skill, but world of possible skills. The key is to pick one musical skill and do some important beforehand leg work using Tim’s DSSS before we spin our wheels for months.

      For example you mentioned many teaching materials state: “take this left-hand voicing, see how it works? NOW PRACTICE THIS IN ALL TWELVE KEYS.” To me this is not good instruction because it doesn’t have a clear goal and may not be on of the most effective uses of time. A better approach might be: Here are the 3 concepts of jazz chord voicings that will work 90% of the time. To me that where the true power of 80/20 lies.

      I wouldn’t know how to exactly answer that question for piano, but for jazz guitar, I absolutely could articulate it.

      If the skill you’d like to master is jazz improvisation on piano, I actually do believe you can reach an astonishing level of proficiency in 6 months. I’m not saying I have the exact formula, but if that was my goal, I would follow Tim’s DSSS formula:

      Deconstruction (using Reducing, Interviewing, Reversal, and Translating), Selection, Sequencing, and Stakes. I would ask a lot of questions and find those “outliers” as Tim suggests.

      Example: There are a lifetime of of chords/voicings in jazz to learn. But 90% of it boils down to: ii7, V7, I?7. So if you were to learn as little as 3 or 4 voicings and use 10 of your favorite jazz tunes as the vehicle to get there (which could easily cover all 12 keys by the way), I believe that would be a considerable better use of time.

      Instead of 1000 chord voicings x 12 keys = 12,000 things to learn…

      …it might become 4 voicings x 3 chord types x 10 songs = a 120 one-pager that would allow you to play 90% of the rest of the Real Book. Much more doable and effective and fun!

      Would love to hear your thoughts!


    3. Must say I agree…Playing an instrument, especially classical piano, with all that repertoire, is a lifetime challenging task, requiring only thing: practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. So this means time. And destrying your nice ass and back on the pianobench.

      Obviously there are ways to cut out old useless teaching methods and focus on what is useful. But go play Beethoven late sonatas to an average level.

      If you just want to impress friends, follow what’s written here, and learn the Circle of Fifths.

      Tim, I always hope you crack it and teach me how to surf 🙂 one of the most difficult thing I ever made

  20. Another option for a great first guitar: Loar LO-16. Very easy to play, small body so much easier for beginners to hold, good tone, and cheap ($380-ish). I own one and wish it had been my first acoustic.

    Nirvana’s songs tend to be very beginner-friendly, and are good enough that you’ll actually be happy to listen to them. “Come As You Are” was my first song ever.

  21. I’d say this article describes more of the 20/20 principle. You left out 60% of what will make you a good musician. PRACTICE THE EXERCISES WITH A METRONOME. Slowly increase your tempo as you get better. Buy one, and use it, for all your practicing. Good rhythm will get you 10 times farther than being able to play fast. Playing without rhythm will get you nowhere, and nobody will want to listen to you, or jam with you. If you think you have good rhythm, you don’t, you still need to practice with one of these. I’ve played with guys who can whip out lightning fast arpeggios, but they are no fun to jam with because their playing is out of time, and sounds terrible. Sad part is they don’t realize it, and bad habits are hard to correct down the road.

  22. great post Tim! A trick I use for accelerating guitar learning is to play while watching TV on mute, which gets your eyes off the instrument and speeds up memorization of the chords

  23. Haha I love Lights – this post is brilliant. This is pretty much how I learned to play guitar except I didn’t systematize the learning process with the 80/20 principle. I just found some songs I liked, learned the basic chords for them and practiced. Overtime, I found similarities between songs and recognized familiar chord structures which made it easy to learn new songs. I love how you applied 80/20 to the E, B, C#, A songs – brilliant!

  24. Thank you so much for writing this!! I’m a little sad that I just gave away my guitar because I thought I would never pick it up again. I was so frustrated with it. But this gives me hope! Literally, you have -all- my interests covered.

    Well, almost.

    If ONLY you would tackle, say, figure drawing! Or cartoon drawing. I’ve been trying to figure out how to apply the rules in T4C to these disciplines and can’t figure it out for the life of me. *sigh* Oh well. Keep doing what you do, though!

    …But, does anyone have any ideas?

  25. I think this is great, and applaud anything that gets people into playing. However, I have two comments.

    First, the C chord you give isn’t a C chord. C9 is a more harmonious and sexed-up C chord which doesn’t always fit where a C major does. It’s really not much harder to do a real C chord, and in fact we all remember how slow we were changing from G to C and D and ya da yada. It’s part of learning, and to a learner it’s perfectly understandable.

    So learning the correct chord a) is reinforcing speedy changes; b) sounds right more of the time and c) doesn’t mean a degree of unlearning needs to be effected later on.

    Secondly, I was somewhat surprised by your suggestion to play acoustic guitar first off on the grounds of cost. Here in the UK a mass-produced electric guitar and amp bundle is cheaper than a straight and playable acoustic guitar. It’s easier to play by far, and much louder. I sincerely think I may have given up on guitar all those years ago without being being able to play along at high volume to AC/DC and Rush. Having a loud guitar that’s easy to physically play is motivational and compelling. Having an acoustic that chews up your finger ends and sounds like folk music isn’t.

    Other than that, great article!


  26. Hi Tim

    You mentioned somewhere that you once thought about becoming a comic book penciler. Have you taught yourself skills related to that? Any pointers on how to go about DiSSSing drawing skills?

    P.S. Effortlessly 15 kg lighter and feeling healthier thanks to you and 4HB.

    1. Learning drawing hacks (not to skimp out on time, but to learn more efficiently) -particularly- for the aspiring comic artists=dream come true!

  27. I noticed a lack of comments from flutists, so I have a few items to share. I played classical flute for over eight years and studied under a variety of teachers.

    Here are some key points for applying the 80/20 principle to classical flute, designed for someone who can already read music:

    (1) When playing solos and other pieces, flute players rarely benefit from re-playing the portions they can already play well. I see a lot of students who are so determined to play perfectly from start to finish. They end up wasting a lot of time playing the portions they have already mastered, when instead the majority of practice time could more efficiently be spent focusing on the parts that are causing them difficulty.

    (2) All etudes and exercises are not created equal. I once had a teacher tell me that if I could master the exercises in the Taffanel/Gaubert 17 daily exercises book, I could play almost any solo. This is true to some degree, but I would recommend focusing on the portions you need for each solo as you choose to focus on it, unless your goal is accurate sight reading in an orchestra or other performance group.

    (3) I completely agree with Tim that consistency is key when it comes to practicing. My first band teacher said to practice eight minutes a day (about an hour a week), and that actually got me into the practice habit because it was achievable. I worked up to two hours a day, but, looking back, I’m not sure that playing past an hour was worth it. I got through more content (etudes, exercises, solos, etc.) but I don’t think it was necessary based on the 80/20 principle. I’ve also heard of many serious musicians who develop problems in their hands or other parts of the body, which seems like a huge motivator to practice smarter, not longer.

    (4) A private teacher can be an immensely powerful motivator for practicing and designing a plan for advancement. If you are looking to do something unconventional, such as following the 80/20 principle, it may take a few teachers before you find one who supports you. For example, I play with an unusual embouchure (lip placement) and all but one teacher out of five was determined to have me learn “proper” embouchure if I studied under them. I went with the one who wanted to work with me as I was, and still found success without undergoing a lengthy re-learning process. To note, a teacher can also serve as a mentor and a friend, so I recommend scheduling shorter lessons and getting right down to business if you want to get the most for your money. You can even warm up ahead of time if possible to save a few minutes.

    (5) Having the right tools, such as a tuner that can detect notes or a metronome, eliminate guesswork and save you a lot of time and effort.

    (6) When working with other groups, such as small ensembles or piano accompanists, listen to recordings ahead of time, if available. When you are paying someone like an accompanist per hour, you don’t want to be paying to learn how each part sounds together. Instead, you should be focusing items such as cues, tuning, and entrances.

    Some of these principles may apply to other instruments as well, especially woodwinds.

  28. DRAWING— Drawing with Children, by Mona Brookes. Second book, Drawing With Older Teens and Adults.

    Break it down: 5 shapes are all you need, line, circle, wavy line, angle, and dot. She teaches 2-year-olds and up. Amazing stuff. Got the book and in 2 weeks I was drawing figures like I had been doing it for years. Have recommended it and given away multiple copies over the years.

  29. Tim,

    Great article on the 80/20 on playing guitar. A few small suggestions that I personally recommend to make your guitar experience more enjoyable is to buy good strings.

    Elixir guitar strings for acoustic guitars are fantastic. These strings can be found standard on all Taylor guitars.

    Also, I saw that you suggested the Taylor 110. A better guitar for half the price and more convenient to travel with is the Baby Taylor. It’s great for beginners and those with small hands thus allowing you to push on the strings easier.

    Best of luck on your guitar playing Tim, and I look forwarded to seeing a youtube video of a song you’ve learned.



  30. Tim – I’ve seen a number of “Escape the 9-5” sponsored ads on Facebook, even some with your photo on them. The ads point to a fan page, but clearly someone is using your name to try to earn a profit (I don’t know how, but why else would they pay for ads?)

    Why haven’t you shut this down?

  31. Excellent article, Tim. I’ve been playing guitar for about 35 years now. Never pro, but just for my own enjoyment and to play with a few friends.

    I’m not sure that I would necessarily agree that one should start with an acoustic guitar, though. When I was young, the acoustic would hurt my hands and fingertips badly, and I wound up quitting shortly thereafter every time I started.

    But then I had a chance to play an electric guitar, and a whole new world opened up to me. It was easier to play, the pain was minimal, I could actually reach frets, and I could do a LOT more with the sounds from an electric than an acoustic.

    I have to admit though that, to this day, I still can’t play an acoustic guitar very well. With an electric guitar, though, that’s easy to get around because I can also make my electric sound like an acoustic guitar. Yes, you can get an electric/acoustic, but you’ll never get the sounds you hear in most rock songs that are full of distortion and other effects.

    But if you can handle the pain, I would highly recommend starting with an acoustic. You’ll fingers and hand will become much stronger, much quicker, and you’ll fingers will develop a greater reach.

  32. BTW, an awesome site for beginner or advanced to help figure out chord patterns and tricky parts of songs is They use tablature, which is much easier forbeginners to learn than sight-reading notes, and the selection of songs is HUGE.

  33. Has anyone been able to use the 80/20 principle with computer programming?

    Or be able to explain it in a computer programming aspect. I know basic concepts just trying to get better at it. 80/20 Style.

  34. 29 year old American wanna-be pro singer songwriter, currently in Denmark playing shows and co-writing with friends. Love your stuff Tim.

    This article might be a good start, but thats about it. I would add the following suggestion to people attempting guitar.

    1. Get clear on what style, band or genre you want to play and stick to it.

    When you narrow your musical focus, it gives you a feeling of progress faster.

    2. Find songs that you can reasonable learn in two weeks.

    This is not the time to attempt the “Stairway” solo or Satch boogie.

    3. Find songs that are completely unreasonable for you to learn.

    Take these at extremely slow tempos with a good teacher, and don’t even think about being sad if you don’t get it in a week. This is the taking your medicine side of learning guitar.

    4. Start “performing” as soon as possible.

    The more stress you put your fledgling skill under, the better. Think about pro chefs versus homemakers. The former become great because they HAVE to. Performing can be as simple as annoying the people you love on a one on one basis with “hey man, watch this”…

    5. Find a guitar mentor. Get someone who will make sure you don’t sign up for gimmicky crap online or buy finger strength builders and such. Someone who can help guide your choices and help console you through the first hurdles you experience.

    6. Learn from BJJ, “guitar spar”.

    If you have ever been to a BJJ class, you know that the format is simple. 1. warm up 2. presentation of new material 3. drills of new material in a timed format, 4. drill specific sparring 5. free sparring. In the sparring, you inevitably end up with people who are a little better than you, and people who are a lot better than you. If you want to get good at guitar, start seeking out those friends who you know are better than you. Give them beer, buy them coffee, but do what it takes to get them to play with you. Its in playing and performing that the skill acquisition speeds up.

    7. Don’t be an idiot, get a teacher.

    Just do it

    8. Learn to hear notes by ear.

    Look a program called “Interval phobia” its like 5 bucks and three weeks of effort and you will have a better ear than the average struggling guitarist.

    You are welcome

  35. Tim, unbelieveable timing with this post…

    I bought a guitar a couple of years ago with the plan to learn a few sing-a-long songs to strum at the New Year’s beach bonfire.

    Never happened.

    Guitar is still sulking in the corner of my room.

    I bought the Four Hour Chef with the intention of using the learning sequences for the guitar, but I haven’t got around to the book yet.

    This is an invitation for me to get started over the Christmas break!

    Thanks Man!

  36. This is exactly how I learned to play the guitar. Some artists are more skilled and use more difficult arrangements but on the whole you can play most of what you want. So don’t get discouraged if the song you want is too difficult choose another and come back to it later. I love Ultimate Guitar.

  37. Excellent article. I especially agree with the point you made about focusing on making the early stages enjoyable instead of trying to cram a lot of theory into your head.

    I’d just like to add that aside from being cheaper, starting with an acoustic is also better because you don’t have to set up an amplifier to play, giving you fewer excuses to avoid practice 🙂

  38. If you combine an electric guitar with a Vox Amplug and some headphones/earplug, you can have the same result as an acoustic guitar. Plus, you can even practice at any hour!

    Amplifier and all sort of effects may come later…

  39. I love the 10 minute a day practice rule. I accidentally fell into that pattern when I was first learning and it absolutely works. For those that are just starting. The ten minutes a day is to train your subconscious mind how to change chords and strum. Our conscious mind is terrible for most things and can only do one thing at a time and slowly at that.

    Your subconscious on the other hand can maintain all of your bodily organs and walk you gracefully down a flight of stairs.

    Those that can type 80 words per minute would probably have a hard time telling you where the letter “J” is on the keyboard even though it is under their right index finger. They have relegated typing to their subconscious and don’t even think about typing while they do it.

    That’s what practicing 10 minutes a day will do for your guitar playing.

    Love the article Charlie, love the blog Tim

  40. Tim I know you’re not a programmer, and you tried to explain the 80/20 rule to the google guys, but what are like 3 good questions to ask when trying to get the 80/20 on computer programming? BTW yeah the 80/20 on BJJ would be noice!

  41. I’d recommend a nylon string (classical/flamenco) style guitar for beginners. Nylon is easier on the fingers then steel for newbies, lots more space on the fretboard for finger movement, and the tone is warmer or “sing-song”, making it resonate more melodically in the ear.

    Once the fingers start working on the guitar, I suggest these books: ‘The Music Lesson’ by Victor Wooten. ‘Inner Game of Music’, ‘Zen Guitar’.

    And any video with Bob Brozman. And the guitar duel from Crossroads featuring Steve Vai and Ralph Macchio!

  42. Lots of helpful comments here by everyone & great tips.

    Here’s a collection of the 11 most common chord progression that you guys can have fun with.

    They only use open chords (cowboy chords) so you can move them around the neck using the capo.

    Keep on pickin’ ya’ll

  43. I’ve played guitar for almost 50 years. Most of the time I use the same rock-n-roll chord progressions in different keys. A few chords and a few riffs will take you a long way.

    The 4-50 Rule

    Pareto’s 80/20 may be too broad. Pareto’s Rule is a Power Law–it applies even within the 80/20.

    I have found that 4% of any subject will give you over 50% of the bang-for-the-buck. I call this the 4-50 Rule (e.g., 4% of Americans hold 50% of the wealth). 4% of customer’s produce 50% of the revenue. 4% of any business causes 50% of the mistakes, errors, waste and rework.

    In the 4-Hour Body, Tim says that 2.5% (less than 4%) of the knowledge will produce most of the gains.

    Find the 4% and you’re half the way to success.

  44. I have tried learning the harmonica in the past and would still love to learn. Any tips from those of you who have been successful?

  45. I actually play guitar,have for over 20 years. I also play drums, piano, mandolin, banjo. ukulele, and harmonica. I’ve written and recorded dozens of songs. I’ve taught guitar. I appreciate your interest and encouragement to motivate people to learn to play guitar and other instruments. But for crying out loud, for all who are going to take up an instrument, please, learn more than four chords. If you want to play, you have to practice. Don’t be another person who “thinks” they’re a great musician because they can play a few chords. And don’t forget about rhythm.

  46. Thanks Charlie for this awesome article, it is such a great application of the 20/80, DiSSS and CaFE principles that it is a perfect example that explains the theory by showing how to implement it.

  47. Here’s a few more practice tips good for any instrument including just learning music theory away from the instrument:

    1. Black & White Skills Vs Grey Skills

    Black and white skills are those that have only 1 correct answer (rhythm is a good example & note reading). Working on these areas first will give you a foundation for working on the grey skills (dynamics, musicality, speed) later.

    2. Repeat Extremely Slow & With High Precision

    Choose 1 thing to work on at a time. Only move on when it is truly mastered.

    3. Three Good Ones in a Row

    Pick 1 problem and repeat it until you can get “3 good ones in a row”. If you make a mistake after the first or second repetition, the count goes back to zero.

    4. Chunk It Out

    Look for patterns & relationships in your music (chunks). Repeat small chunks to master and add them to larger chunks.

    5. Practice in Layers

    This is what I do:

    a) Only work on the notes first

    b) Add in rhythm next

    c) Work on articulation (slurs, staccatos, etc.)

    d) Throw in dynamics next (loud, soft, etc.)

    e) All other grey areas remain last

    Master each layer before adding another layer to work on.

    These are just a few practice techniques I use and teach that help people get a lot done in a short amount of time. Enjoy!

  48. One thing that’s heartened me during frustrating guitar practice is recalling a Jimi Hendrix quote I read in the book “Jimi Hendrix: an Illustrated Experience.” Hendrix said, regarding mastering the guitar, “Sometimes you’ll hate your guitar.” Even Hendrix felt that way sometimes.

  49. You should try the Rocksmith game. It’s like Guitar Hero, but with a real guitar. Fantastic game to build up dexterity, techniques and finger speed and it’s super fun too. It’s even got a chord library to finish the details.

  50. Hi Charlie, Tim and every other reader.

    Very nice post.

    It kinda shook me up, because after graduating from the Amsterdam Conservatory (Pop-Piano) last year, the past year I’ve been busy writing my own pop-piano-course and building a website/blog/community to support it, which is entirely built with the 80-20 principle in mind.

    I learned how to play the piano at age 17 on my own and by ear and got accepted into the Conservatory 5 years later, with not a single piano lesson taken and without being able to ‘sight read’ (read musical notation).

    This might sound very ‘wowing’ to many people, but it’s not to me. Sure, I might have a good musical ear and maybe even some talent, but personally I mostly ‘blame’ my ‘musicality’ on the fact that I managed to figure out how to ‘hack’ the piano (and actually, music in general).

    As this post perfectly illustrates (or at least, gives you somewhat of a sneak preview of), music, especially pop-music, the music that 80% of us prefers over more ‘classical’ styles, isn’t all that difficult.

    Ok, ok, before anybody get’s mad: it CAN of course be very difficult, but it’s -almost- always very easy to strip down to a basic, simple form -> harmony.

    Guitar players already figured out a long time ago that harmony (chords) is the wisest and best place to start learning music. This post perfectly illustrates how many many aspiring guitarist, first learned how both music and the instrument ‘work’.

    For piano players and teachers, unfortunately there is a very strong myth going on, that music and piano should be learned the ‘classical’ way: first learning melody (single notes) in stead of harmony (chords), by learning how to ‘sight read’ and often even by starting with classical songs.

    Let me tell you this from vast personal experience:

    Piano can be learned in this ‘Pop’-way too.

    That’s exactly what I try to show and learn to anybody interested on my website.

    Just like many starting guitarists do, by fist learning chords and what I like to call ‘patterns’ (different rhythms, just like guitarist have different strumming techniques, so to speak), you can tackle the piano with this 80-20 principle. Minimum effective dose, eh?

    If you’re interested in learning how to play pop-music on the piano, or want to read more in-depth posts about this subject (in the style of this post), I’d be very happy to welcome you to my website (currently still partially English and partially Dutch, but we’re working on fully translating everything), where you can learn a lot of the basics for free, get a free lesson / tutorial video of a pop-song / blog post every week for free by subscribing to my newsletter and read many more of my thoughts on hacking the piano: Pop-Piano and how to play it.

    Love the post Charlie. Tim, keep up the great work, you’re an inspiration, after getting starting this dream project after reading the Four Hour Workweek, getting (and currently being) in the shape of my life after reading the Four Hour Body, I received the Four Hour Chef on my doormat. Very curious.



    P.s. A bold question to end with: Tim if you’d like me to write a similar post on learning pop-piano some time, I’d be more than pleased and happy to do so (hope you can appreciate my English :s).

    1. Coen – Would you mind updating your comment with the address of the site you’re working on I would love to check it out. Thanks.

  51. I was surprised not to see Capo from SuperMegaUltraGroovy mentioned. No affiliation, I just like it and have used it to slow down and transcribe saxophone solos, create guitar tabs, etc.

    The author happens to be a guitar player so there’s a lot of handy guitar specific features that have grown over time like chord detection, alternate guitar fingers, etc. Check out the videos on his site.

  52. Guitar is a great place to start your musical journey.

    Before you know it you’ll be jammin with your buddies & can truly

    move forward by learning to play Bass, forever changing your life!

    I got great gains from reading a fantastic magazine, ‘Guitar World’

    It has very accurate song tabs & interviews with the greatest guitarists

    on the planet.

    The neighbours will soon be saying, “He/she used to cut the grass”

  53. Just beginning the lessons, don’t know anything about music. I noticed that the 3rd finger on the C chord above brings in the D note. But I’ve been looking at chords in a guitar book and it the C chord they show just has C-E-G in it. So, does the D note fit in here?


      1. Yeah it’s not a real c chord but the majority of songs that play full 6 string chords in G use this c chord instead. The concept is you leave the d and g in every chord (obviously all subjective) you can because they work with everything and make chord progressions super smooth giving each chord something in common with the other.

    1. Tim mentioned that it’s not a ‘real’ C chord, but a more accessible substitute. The chord Tim gives is actually Cadd9. Yes, learn the proper C chord.

  54. The 4 Hour Voice. You’ve helped me lose 30lbs and start a business. Now I want to teach you to sing. I can break it down into simple steps, but because so much of our brain is devoted to analyzing voices it’s not quite as simple as guitar. Let me hear what you’ve got; Skype is fine, and we’ll get started. Email me if you’re interested. Please don’t tell me you’re initial reaction is that you can’t sing, it will break my heart. You? Can’t learn something? That’s just like saying “I can’t lose weight” or “I can’t start a business”.

  55. I’ve been playing for about 8 years, I write all my own music played all over the western US and am on iTunes and stuff, blah, blah, blah. I like to think I’m pretty awesome. Granted I’m obsessed with it so I’ve been playing hours a day for years and that helped. And all these tips above are awesome ways to be a decent guitarist FAST. Also, check out guitar pro. It’s a software for like 30-40 bucks I think and you download all your favorite songs and it plays them and you can look at each track and it plays it alongside the tablature and music and you can slow it down or whatever and break down all the songs. Awesome stuff

  56. The next part to this article would be to learn what is called CAGED. or The C A G E and D chords in the five positions up the neck. When you learn each of these chords in each of the five positions you can pretty much play any major key song and expand your playing from your lesson above to all the way up neck….Awesome article as always Tim!

    What do you think of doing a Kickstarter for an American Idol Like compeititon for musicians over 29 which had the dream but for some reason ( had a kid had to support family etc) never got to live their Musician dream?

  57. I am currently in the process of teaching a coworker Ken how to play guitar so I am happy to add what I have learned. I am currently 35 and picked up a guitar in my early teens, and was really disappointed with the early stages of learning to play. First off my own parents bought me a right handed guitar when I am left handed so the first guitar I ever owned, had to be returned. While I enjoy being in rare company with some of the greats, my trips to guitar center generally suck due to being left handed. Imagine going to a grocery store and only being able to purchase 2 items…I could go on…

    My first learning experience was in a music shop in the bay area at the store where the guitar was purchased I have since forgotten the name, and this predates the domination of guitar center and musicians friend that have made playing more accessible. I sat in front of what I thought was an expert and he showed off all he could do. He got into the perfect posture, his timing was great, he moved gracefully up and down the neck…. but he was also a tubby guy with over grown facial hair, breathing problems, and an odd twitch / facial expression when in deep concentration. He told me since I was left handed I could mirror his manipulations and he tried to sell me like it was some kind of advantage. Little did he know that I didn’t want to mirror anything he did, I wanted to be Hendrix or Clapton, not some overweight douche bag showoff at a dinky guitar shop. I had maybe a couple of lessons with this guy since my parent though I should get the basics from a pro? He wanted me to do all of the things like him such as scales etc. when all i wanted to do is play the songs I was into at the time. I had enough and had to fight my folks to keep away from this guy. Luckily I persisted and my journey into self exploration with the guitar and other things blossomed.

    My number one goal was to produce the sounds of my walkman or stereo out of this odd contraption. The journey was long but today I can say I am truly better for it. Knowing now what I didn’t know then, I am offering my pupil all of the things that I didn’t get. He is in his 50’s and oddly enough he almost has the same musical taste I do, that is a big bonus. The main points that I am focusing on since we just started are:

    1. Buy a quality instrument, though you can get something out of a cheapie, you can also find something good on Craigslist if you try. I happened to be out of the office for Kens first transaction and when I arrived to see the piece of shit in his hands I took matters into my own hands. Luckily he was able to sell the guitar to a vendor who was more interested in the piece as a novelty at a $10 profit. If nothing else Ken is a great salesman. So I set off into the world of craigslist and with a budget of $100 bucks was able to find Ken the perfect guitar. Luckily Ken is right handed which made my quest much easier. When it came down to it I went for tone and the instruments ability to stay in tune.

    2. I recommend a nylon string classical guitar, simply for the space you have on the fret board and the comfort you have with nylon vs steel strings. I remember the pain when I first started as I would hit the high notes on that thin little wire, and often with my least developed finger my pinky. Trust me I am right about this.

    3. You need to provide instant satisfaction so you get something out of it right away and you are encouraged to practice. I accomplished this with Ken by alternate tunings allowing Ken to play chords with minimal effort. Fingering takes time but anyone can lay down a couple fingers straight and flail away and get a recognizable noise.

    Since the early lessons I have turned Ken onto tuning apps on his Iphone and the ultimate guitar app that allows him to get chords and lyrics of the songs he wants to play. I feel like a better person for properly equipping him for his journey and when he needs help or has a question I am there.

    I hope this helps your readers, and allows them to rock sooner than later.


  58. Hey everyone,

    I’ve been playing guitar for almost 14 years now. Loved the post! Just wanted to add in a few things that have helped me over the years. These can apply to any guitar player, regardless of skill level.

    1. Train each hand independently:

    Whether you are performing exercises, or learning songs, training each hand independently helps your brain to get used to what each is doing. Once you have each hand’s part memorized, incorporate them together. You’ll find that your playing will be a lot smoother, and your learning time will be cut down significantly.

    2. Pick grip is important:

    If you are playing with a pick, take the time to find a comfortable grip. Traditionally, players position the pick between their thumb and index finger, while some players (such as Metallica’s James Hetfield) use their thumb, index, and middle fingers to hold the pick. The amount of the pick that is exposed is equally as important. While strumming, allowing half an inch of the pick to protrude from between your fingers allows for a smoother, flow like strum. Around a quarter inch of exposure is better suited for individually picking each string.

    3. Find a comfortable anchor point:

    Finding a place to anchor your arm, and or wrist greatly increases your accuracy, and makes playing a lot more comfortable. If I’m strumming, I tend to anchor my arm just below the elbow on the body of the guitar. This creates a pivot point, allowing my arm to only move up and down. If I’m picking I’ll anchor my wrist on the bridge of the guitar, but far enough back so I’m not palm muting the strings. I’ll move my hand only at the wrist, and this keeps me from striking unwanted strings.

    4. (Optional) Alternative Warm Up:

    This one has really helped me. If you primarily play an electric guitar, warming up on an acoustic guitar, bass guitar, or piano(keyboard) is a great way to exercise your hands. Before playing, I used to ritualistically stretch out my hands and do chromatic exercises (as Charlie recommends), to warm up before I’d play my electric. I’ve since moved on to doing stretching exercises on my acoustic, and runs on my keyboard. Using any of these other instruments (especially a bass guitar), requires your arms muscles to exert more effort, and gets blood flowing to them faster than just warming up on an electric. Believe me, after trying this, you’ll feel like you’re 10x the guitar you were before you warmed up.

    Hope these help!

    -Mark Greenia

  59. Thanks for the post – loving the Axis of Awesome vid 🙂

    What’s the best brand to go for if you’re buying your first guitar? (As in total newbie NEVER played!) Spoken to someone who recommended Yamaha?

    Thanks again – great read 🙂

  60. Don’t forget about the strumming side of things too. So many beginners focus all their concentration on chord changing and the guitar courses are guilty of it too.

    The great thing is that you only need to learn 3, what I call “Universal Strumming Patterns”, to really get going. These are power strums which will cover you for literally 100’s of popular songs on guitar, so start by learning them first.

    Once you learn a strum you should be able to ‘internalize’ it and hear the pattern in your mind. With a few “power strums” learned in this way it becomes very easy to instantly recognize which strum you’d use for most of the songs you hear before you even pick up your guitar.

  61. Hey Tim,

    As a pro guitar teacher here in London, I just had to add to the conversation. I can’t stress enough how important it is to work on rhythm as much as chords/notes. A very basic sweeping statement I tell my students all the time is that rhythm is “half” of music. If you ignore rhythm, you’re ignoring half of music. I don’t remember who said it first but “the right note at the wrong time is the wrong note.” I spend a lot of time with my students doing rhythm exercises.

    The best thing you can do to foster good rhythm is to tap your foot as you play along to a metronome/drum machine. The sooner this becomes habitual, the better. It needs to become something you do automatically so that when you become more proficient you won’t need to think about it. The last thing you want to think about when you’re ripping out an awesome solo is exactly which beat you’re on. (By then you’ll just “know”)

    I would also like to add, “Learn SOUNDS, not shapes”. I’m a very visual person so when I taught myself as a kid, I focussed on the visual aspect of learning. Although this is helpful, it’s also of prime importance to internalise the sound each chord makes.

    Here’s a good example to illustrate. Play an E Major chord. Now play an A Minor chord. They’re essentially the same shape on different strings so logic would dictate that they are in some way related. Not so true. Major and Minor chords have very different “characters” so it is these that should be internalised.

    There are just three main “families” of chords that a beginner needs to internalise: Major, Minor and Dom7. (ok, you will see Aug and Dim but lets leave them to the jazzers for now). You may see a curious amount of numbers in a chord name, like C6, Em7, E7#9 but they still come under the main families (Maj, Min, Dom7 respectively) and have added “ingredients”.

    Ok, I could go on but better stop there. If you’re ever in London, feel free to drop by for a lesson!


    1. One last thing…. biggest myth of all: You have to begin on Acoustic guitar and then somehow “graduate” onto Electric at some point when the gods of shred deem it acceptable. Total bulls****.

  62. This is great article. I have been teaching guitar for over 15 years-and this is pretty much the method I use-including the Axis of Awesome video to demonstrate to students what three chords can do. I usually teach E A and D first. I also tell my students they will feel very awkward at first and their fingers will hurt. You are right on with your assessment. I think it is important to play and have fun first-then learn the details later. However, the key is to practice practice pratice to really make progress. Thank you so much for the post. Another great demonstration of what a few chords can do is the Pachelbel Rant by comedian Rob Paravonian.

  63. Hi Tim,

    As a guitar teacher, I definitely agree its one of the ways I get beginners to cover loads of new songs. To help, the 4 chord trick of E, C#m, B, A can be transposed to G, D, Em, C which is really easy for new beginners. Heres some more pop 4 chord trick songs for you, some are very recent ones:

    In E, C#m, B, A or G, D, Em, C

    Dont Stop Believing – Journey

    Payphone – Maroon 5

    Hall of Fame – The Script

    Call Me Maybe – Carly Rae Jepson

    Viva La Vida – Coldplay

    Im a Believer – Monkees

    Titanium – David Guetta

    Love the way you lie – Rihanna

    Chasing Cars – Snow Patrol

    The list could go on forever.

    Anyway, thanks for the info in the 4 Hour Week, looking forward to reading the others.



  64. Add the Yamaha F310 to the gear list. ~£130GBP and plays great straight out of the box. Sounds pretty nice, too.

    I personally don’t believe learning chords first is the best method. It’s more cumbersome for the fingers as requires multiple notes at once. This can also make your fingers hurt more, as they’re all being used at the same time, increasing likelihood you’ll stop practising more quickly. Using boxed chords doesn’t really give you much sense of the melody, either. Fine if you can sing or know someone who can but otherwise, things can be a bit unrecognisable, especially until you’ve honed your timing.

    Try starting with melodies, instead. Learn them by the note names, not just what fret you’re playing at. Melodies are more recognisable and relatable. When you’ve learned one melody, you can chop it into chunks of 2 or 3 notes and rearrange these to make your own melody. It’s not cheating, just developing a musical vocabulary. You don’t need to use every chunk, either. You can keep dividing and rearranging almost infinitely.

    Use one finger per fret when playing, i.e. 1st finger at 1st fret, 2nd finger at 2nd fret, 3rd finger at 3rd fret, 4th finger at 4th fret. You’ll be able to move between notes more quickly and smoothly that way and your fingers won’t tire as much as they’ll have a break between notes.

    Try starting fingerstyle (not using a pick) as well. You’ll develop facility with them so that if you drop or lose your pick, you’ll still be comfortable playing the material you know. Similarly, try to use on finger per string: thumb on the 5th string (from the ground), first finger on the 4th string, 2nd finger on the 3rd string, 3rd finger on the 2nd string, 4th finger on the 1st string.

    Hope that helps a bit, guys. 🙂

    1. For the G, strum all six strings. For the C, strum the bottom five strings (not the low E). And for the D, strum the bottom four strings (not the low E or the A). Hope that helps.

  65. Hi Tim and fellow guitar friends,

    My someday maybe list has had writing a music book on it since the day I discovered such a wonderful thing as a someday maybe list. Since you have such a great track record of writing excellent books, I would be honoured if you contacted me re a guitar or song writing book should you ever get around to it. Since I can’t see myself making any money from a book like this myself, and money is tight, it is on the back burner for now. But your new chef book has truly won me over as a fan. If I get going first, then I will put my cold calling skills to the test.

    Another little side note that isn’t quite so positive, I listened to the audio version of four hour work week and the guy reading it speaks with just a bit too much authority in his tone, if ya know what I mean? 🙂

    Tim, in short, you are a legend and inspirational! Scrambled eggs with lemon… who would have thought????

  66. Great article Tim! 🙂 I think a good elaboration on the exercise that uses the first four frets is that this exercise works more in isolation than in an actual musical context. It is useful to build up some dexterity; however, when the guitar player learns in this manner, he/she does not learn how to musically apply what is being learned. This aspect of learning is crucial. Setting up your personal musical goals is the first step to knowing what you should practice on guitar. I included a link with more information in case you guys are intrigued by this.

  67. I was just looking into picking up guitar and was thinking of taking a class for it. But before i did anything I bought 4HC, and now I want to learn guitar AND programming. Is there an 80/20 method for learning to code? I want to make mobile apps and websites.

  68. Wow. So this has to be one of the most comprehensive short guides to playing guitar that I’ve seen. The beauty of the guitar (in my opinion) is that it really can be learned by almost anybody, even if it’s simply learning only 4 chords to play a ton of different songs.

  69. This is seriously the most cohesive and informative all-in-one posts/articles about learning guitar I have ever read. I really hope that whoever stumbles upon this and is looking to learn how to play takes this info to heart. It could save them a lot of headache with the learning curve!

  70. This is a fantastic guitar learning methodology. I’m over 2 months into practicing now and have improved rapidly — way beyond my wildest expectations starting out. I followed Tim’s post advice to the letter for the first month, and then also incorporated Justin Guitar as recommended in the post under “Tools, Tricks, and Resources”.

    The minimum of 10 minutes a day helped to build a solid habit when I committed to it. Now I do 20 a day but that’s after building up to it. Starting smaller was helpful in the beginning. I think if I’d pushed for more than ten at the start I might have given up early because it can be extra frustrating in the beginning (my hands were not dexterous at all – doing my first chords felt like trying to thread a needle while wearing oven mitts).

    One resource I have to recommend to anyone who travels a lot like I do is a Traveler Ultra-Light Guitar. They offer a few options but I got the acoustic-electric one and it’s been great to carry with me and not have to stop practice just because I’m on the road. It only weighs 3 pounds and it fits under the seat with me on airplanes. The only problem is carrying it you get super scrutinized by airport security — I think the shape looks somewhat sketchy on their luggage scans.

    Tim, thanks so much for this great informative and motivating post that finally got me to pick up a guitar. It’s been a lifelong ambition and now I’m actually doing it. Feels great man!

  71. In the picture of a ‘C’ chord, it should be labeled as C9. The 3rd finger is playing a ‘D’ note above “middle C” This make it the 9th in the scale…

    Nit-picking is a side effect of my insomnia…

    1. I can’t recommend enough. About 18 months ago I made a decision that I needed to get more involved with my daughter’s love of music. I was going to learn the guitar. I now consider Justin and his site my guitar teacher. He tells you what you need to know, what mistakes to look for, and gives you a structured course you can look back at over and over! All of this for free!

  72. Hi guys! My name is Francis and 2 years ago I decided to learn music. Inspired by Tim Ferriss’ post, I made a blog entry on how to learn the 7 basic chords in the piano in any key. It’s not as extensive as this post, but for people who’d like to learn how to play the piano, this is a good way to start:

    I hope somebody finds this useful!

    Thanks 🙂

  73. the photo diagrams you use have your fingers much too close to the frets, when they actually should be in between the metal frets for an easier and fuller sounding note or chord

  74. For years now I have given the guarantee

    to beginning students that we will be making

    music together, (playing the blues) first lesson.

    And it does work.

    I think the gradient is too deep the

    way the guitar is taught.

    Start very simple in a way that

    cannot fail.

  75. This is a really great article. The 80/20 principle absolutely applies. Music is a language and there are certainly things that are more useful to learn than others. Starting with those is a good way to become “fluent” in music quickly.

  76. Tim, good post. It’s good to see you going into the field that you have inspired me to conquer! I actually own my own business teaching guitar which was inspired into action from 4HWW. I use a 90/10 approach to teaching (music is a universal language!). I have put together an approach where the focus is on patterning their nervous system while learning the basics, and all of my beginner students have been getting much better, much quicker. I’m basically using your DiSSS model and putting it into action! I am working on videos and a book that I hope to have out by the end of the year.

    Rock on!

  77. Good advice. Many people set themselves up to be rock stars in a week and get frustrated when that doesn’t happen. Lower your expectations and concentrate on having fun. The deadly serious practicing can come later.

    1. That’s a good approach. You can’t start with boring practicing because you will abandon the guitar quickly when you discover that it’s a really long way.

  78. This is too cool. I’m waking up my old guitar and shaking off the dust! No time like the present to start thrashing around again! 😉

  79. Here’s to posting in long dead thread!

    I wrote a in-depth piece on applying meta-learning to guitar skills (albeit at a more advanced level). This goes quite a bit beyond what Charlie’s talking about and will make more sense to already proficient guitarists. That said, it shows the versatility of the DiSS-CaFE method.

    The rabbit hole begins here 🙂

    P.S. Tim, sorry for including a URL. Thought I’d be relevant for your audience.

  80. There are quite a few guitar teachers who have commented on this post. I’d be quite interested to hear a few brainstormed ideas about how you’d flip learning the guitar on it’s head (i’ve taught/done session work etc). Ideally i’d want results based evidence rather than your reasoning

    In this post

    Chords and strumming is learning two fairly complex things at the same time

    – chords involve moving multiple fingers in unison v single note riffs

    – rhythm* is a simple concept but really hard for beginners to get the hang off

    I’ve just borrowed a left handed guitar (i’m right handed) to effectively re-teach myself how to play and hopefully learn something about teaching the instrument (i have the knowledge but my fingers are completely wonkaloid).