The field of music pedagogy often does not hold itself to the highest standards when it comes to recommended publications. In other words, many guitar teachers (and music educators in general) will often recommend outdated books to their students to use as resources for learning.
Recently (as of the 21st century), publishers have dramatically improved their instructional material by providing additional audio or video content that helps with the learning process (in the form of CD’s, DVD’s, or content that is available online). I must note that some older publications have starting adding audio/video content to the original package, which is extremely useful. When audio examples are provided, I prefer that they are “play-along” tracks, meaning the audio examples are full-band arrangements, rather than just a single guitar part. If the guitar part is separated using stereo splitting or if multiple examples of the audio are provided, that’s even better.
Books that Focus on Songs
There are different aspects to the guitar parts within a musical arrangement, so how each book reviews specific songs should be taken into consideration. Some songs have identifiable riffs (low pitch rock motifs often derived from a scale). Other songs have melodies (slightly less repetitive high pitch ideas also derived from a scale). The background part (rhythm) is typically made up of chords (power, open, barre, etc.). These different parts (or all of them) might be the focus of attention within a particular publication, so choose your book carefully to make sure the parts you want to learn are included.
Books that Focus on Skills
Some instructional books do not review songs. Instead they contain topic matter that covers ideas such as skill building exercises, proper technique, concepts, specific styles of music, etc. Although it can be tedious to work thru these types of publications, they are extremely useful for a person who wants to be an overtly competent musician.
This first group of publications listed below is a selection of books for beginners who want to teach themselves.
Teach Yourself to Play Guitar – Alfred
Category: Selection of melodies. It includes audio examples, but they are not “play-along” tracks.
The Good: This book is written in tablature. There are 10 pages of extra simple melodies, so it moves the student slowly thru the material.
The Bad: The diagrams at the beginning of the book that cover general concepts such as how to hold the instrument or tune the guitar, are not well drawn and in some cases incorrect. About 20 pages into the written exercises, the publisher introduces chords along with the melodic arrangements. This is an added dimension that can be very difficult to follow for the absolute beginner.
Guitar Tab Method – Book One – Hal Leonard
Category: A selection well known easy to play rock songs that use riffs and chords.
The Good: This book is written in tablature and has good pictures and diagrams.
The Bad: The arrangements that use chords are not easy, and even if you played them perfect you might have to use your imagination to recognize the song. The audio examples are not play-along tracks, just a guitarist playing the written part.
Guitar for Beginners – Imagine Publishing
Category: Filled with lots of general information about guitar. It’s a modern version of “The Guitar Handbook – Ralph Denyer” (http://a.co/0ByAmec) which I would recommend to more advanced players.
The Good: Full color pictures describing a plethora of information such as how to hold the guitar, tuning, changing strings, different types of guitar, computers and music, etc.
The Bad: Out of print and it’s an international publication. Difficult material is presented early in the publication, so I would suggest skipping around.
Reading standard notation is not a pre-requisite to be an accomplished guitar player. It is time consuming and it can be a cumbersome way to communicate an idea. There’s a long list of reasons why it might be worth the time, and there’s a long list of reasons why it’s a waste of time. For those who have decided it is worth their while, here’s a list of books that can help a guitarist progress with their reading skills.
Guitar Method – Book 1 – Hal Leonard
Category: Review of standard notation for beginner guitarists.
The Good: The audio that is provided includes backing tracks performed by a full band. Some songs are very recognizable.
The Bad: The difficulty level increases exponentially. You will have to practice every day if you want to move past page 17!
A Modern Method for Guitar – Berklee
Category: Review of standard notation for intermediate guitarists with an interest in jazz music.
The Good: Written examples review notes in the open-position up to the fourth-position, so the student learns to read while performing pieces at various locations on the guitar neck.
The Bad: The audio that is provided has examples of someone performing the written examples; it doesn’t include full band play-along tracks.
Progressive Classical Guitar Method – Book 1
Category: Review of standard notation for intermediate guitarists with an interest in classical music.
The Good: It moves the student at a reasonable pace thru suitable exercises before presenting difficult arrangements. The included audio has examples of a person performing the pieces, it doesn’t include play-along tracks, but that seems more suitable for classical instruction.
The Bad: None!
The options in regards to publications for more advanced players are exponential. Here are a few suggestions, but the choices are truly endless, so of course, this is a list of quality books not the only options available. Listed below are general reference books that review theoretical concepts, skill building exercises, and technique drills.
The Picture Chord Encyclopedia
Category: Chords for guitar written in chart form covering the entire fretboard.
The Good: It’s not too complicated. Descriptions are limited to five examples for each chord.
The Bad: None!
The Guitar Cookbook – Jesse Gress
Category: General concepts of music theory (not jazz or classical/SABT theory) are reviewed in this book.
The Good: Describes music theory from the point of view of a guitar player.
The Bad: Understanding music theory from a book is very difficult. I’m a person who relies entirely on books to do many things in my life, but music theory is not one of them. I’d suggest finding a good teacher, if you really want to tackle this subject.
The Exercise Book – Guitar Grimoire Series
Category: Skill building for lead/solo instrumentalists.
The Good: A very large selection of exercises for improving your technique.
The Bad: Many of the exercises are just the same ideas recycled to a different location on the fretboard.
Specific Styles of Music
Studying different styles of music can greatly enhance your skills as a player. In the western world, we grow up with rock and blues, so it’s typically an easier subject matter to tackle. After we’ve learned those types of music it might be time to move on to Jazz, Funk, Reggae, Slack Key, Celtic, Mariachi, or even some Klezmer! Here’s a list of a few books that review a variety of musical styles.
Stand Alone Tracks – Blues
Category: A collection of blues play-along tracks with scale charts.
The Good: Great quality play-along tracks.
The Bad: This book is out of print. The scale charts can provide the student with an overwhelming amount of information. For beginner students, I would suggest using the basic scale patterns that are described and ignoring the more complicated instructions.
Jazz Play Along – Vol. 04 – Jazz Ballads
Category: Traditional jazz songs written in standard notation. The goal is to follow the chord charts, read thru the melodies with confidence, and improvise jazz solos. Ballads are much easier to play because they are slow, so start with this one.
The Good: Great play-along tracks with a split stereo signal so you can separate the bass from the piano etc. Each track has two examples, one with the melody and one without the melody. The “blank” middle portion is for soloing.
The Bad: Soloing properly with a jazz arrangement is difficult, both conceptually and technically. I would suggest finding a good teacher who can answer questions about jazz soloing (jazz theory).
James Brown – The Funkmasters – The Great Rhythm Sections 1960-1973
Category: Usually I would recommend an instructional book that doesn’t focus on an individual artist to learn a style of music, but James Brown is the godfather of funk, so you might as well go right to the source for this one.
The Good: Great play-along tracks. Sections are broken down into discernable parts. If you are extra motivated, you can also learn the bass lines and the drum parts.
The Bad: None!
World Beat Encyclopedia – National Guitar Workshop
Category: Study of various rhythms that lay the foundation for many styles of music from around the world.
The Good: Covers a very large selection of musical styles. Studying foreign music is a great way to improve your rhythm skills.
The Bad: The audio examples are very short and are not play-along tracks.
Simplified Sight Reading for Bass – Josquin des Pres (http://a.co/2jDsm2I): The first ½ of this book (35 pages) reviews rhythmic notation. Put the audio on and try to tap/clap/play along with these tracks. If you can’t keep up, you need to keep practicing. Any instrumentalist would be well off to work thru this section of the book in order to enhance their skills at playing and reading rhythms.
Signature Licks Series: If you want to learn the general idea of a song, it’s often best to just go online and find a basic version of the chords/riffs on a free website such as http://www.ultimate-guitar.com. If you want to learn a note-for-note arrangement/solo, then you should find a published version of the song. The reason I suggest the Signature Lick Series over other publications is because these books describe the concepts behind the arrangements instead of just printing the notes on the pages. They have released transcriptions for artists such as: The Beach Boys, Nirvana, Pink Floyd, Wes Montgomery, Avenged Sevenfold, Carlos Santana, Etc.
The Song Train – Harvey Reid (http://a.co/9t6VEDu): A selection of extra-simple traditional songs that use common open chords. It includes 4 CD’s with well-played examples of every song.
Reggae Bass – Ed Friedland (http://a.co/dq0Wgqx): The instructional includes a great selection of bass parts taken from well-known classic reggae songs. Play-along tracks are above average in quality. A good reggae guitarist knows how to play the bass lines too!
Standard of Excellence – Jazz Ensemble Method/Guitar (http://a.co/i9umSwB): If you want to understand how to work with a group of musicians in a “big band” setting, as in a classroom jazz program, then I would say this book is mandatory. Make sure you can play thru this entire book before signing up to be a music major with a focus on jazz! Also, you will want to order the CD that they make for the “Director”, as it has recordings of the full band arrangements (the book doesn’t include that audio, it only includes segmented parts of each song).
Certain books have become standards within the teaching industry, but they are not necessarily the best books out there. In other words, we get comfortable with the way we learn to play our instruments – for good or bad – and we often assume the system that worked for us is the best thing available. Some books that are highly regarded, I would argue, often have problematic flaws. Here is a short list of often over-rated books:
Modern Method for Guitar – Grade 1 – Mel Bay (study of standard notation)
The Christopher Parkening Guitar Method – Vol. 1 (study of classical music in standard notation)
Suzuki Guitar School – Vol. 1 (study of classical music in standard notation)
Jamey Aebersold Series (study of jazz music in standard notation)
Topics other than performance are worth studying, but are outside the scope of this article. They might include: Repair, Recording Arts, Live Sound, World-Jazz-Classical Music, Physics of Music, Marketing/Careers, Film Score, Software Tutorials, Music History. Happy studies!