Learning to Play the Guitar in 4 Weeks.

It is very seldom that a golden opportunity manifests itself that allows you to practice what you preach. [Side note: I am aware that this post feels a little bit self-indulgent. Please bare with me - it was not my intention.]

As a blogger and aspiring writer, I read and write about a lot of topics that interest me, but many of them are purely theoretical.  I can sit high on my soapbox and wax lyrical about policies and issues that are so multi-faceted that I could never be held responsible to those thoughts - because nothing will ever come of them.  It's delightfully simple and while I can astutely recognise the hypocrisy - it is very different to do something about it.

However, in December 2013 - such an opportunity knocked on my door and now it is almost ready to be unleashed.

Let me fill you in...


Over the last 6 months or so I have become increasingly fascinated with the concept of accelerated learning.  In simple words, accelerated learning aims to circumvent the normal learning curve associated with learning a new skill and produce results in a fraction of the time than thought possible.  For example, I was striving to understand how someone could learn to speak a new language such as Mandarin, Chinese in 6 months or less.  These accelerated results seemed too good to be true for me and I had to find out how people were doing it.

Through my research I came across various frameworks - all of which contained the same basic principles - but the one set of techniques that really resonated with me were those of Tim Ferriss.

These techniques were simply hot air at this stage though because I had no tangible skill to pour them into - mainly because of all the usual excuses: "I don't have time to learn Mandarin." or "Is learning to juggle really the best use of my time?"  It was destined to become another interesting piece of knowledge that I could claim to know about but never really prove.

Until I got the phonecall.

As luck would have it: a good friend of mine (studying Drama and Performance) called me up and invited me to come and audition for a part in a stage production they were putting on during Orientation Week and also taking down to the Grahamstown Arts Festival in July.  Now this was extremely unusual, because I had not been in a production since high school and I was sure that there were lots of suitable actors in the Drama department itself - but nonetheless, she convinced me to come through and audition and I was delighted to take my chance.  Performing on stage was something that I missed dearly and I saw this as my one last opportunity to get involved.

Cutting the story short, after I auditioned - they offered me the role and I accepted with tremendous enthusiasm.  Only for the producer to then ask:

"By any chance, do you play the guitar?"

I replied "No."  My musical experience was limited to some tinkering around on the piano, but my role (which was a musical one) required me to play the guitar.  And so it was that I needed to learn to play the guitar.  In 4 weeks.

Accelerated Learning.  It was time to put my research into action.  To put my money where my mouth was.

Here's how I went about it...

Tim Ferriss' Techniques for Accelerated Learning

1. Deconstruction

Deconstruction of the skill involves taking something very large (learning the guitar) and breaking it down into smaller pieces.  In addition, it includes identifying why you might fail before you start - and aim to avoid those situations for the first few sessions.

For me, 'learning the guitar' was extremely vague and overwhelming.  So to break it down, my goal became 'learn the necessary chords.'  I didn't have to learn everything, just the chords that I would need to play during the show.

Then I started to identify the possible reasons for failure and how I could avoid those:

  • Blisters on my fingers from my skin being so soft. - Play as much as possible as early in the process as possible to make my hands callous before I started learning the melody for the show.
  • Lack of commitment to daily practice. - Add a habit to my Lift App and track my progress there.
  • Nervousness/Lack of Confidence in my guitar playing. - Play for people at every opportunity I had and carry the guitar around as much as possible to get used to it.

2. Selection

Selection is the process of identifying the 20% of inputs that produce 80% of results (as per Pareto's 80/20 law).

I realised that strumming the invididual chords themselves were not the most important part - it wasn't the end of the world if they weren't entirely clean.  What did make the difference were the changeovers between chords because this is where the melody was built.  So if I could just master the changeovers, the melody would come through - even if the individual chords weren't perfect.

3. Sequencing

Consider whether you could reverse the order that most consider best practice.

This was absolutely crucial in my case.  The best practice for learning the guitar is to start from individual notes and simple one-note melodies and work your way up.  For me, that would be unnecessary and would waste valuable learning time.  Instead, I worked straight from the songs that I would have to play on stage and learned through that.  Therefore cutting out all the fluff and foucusing on exactly what I would need.

4. Stakes

Build incentives into the skill that you want to acquire.  By adding consequences it has a huge impact on your willpower to push through the obstacles.

The stakes that were set in front of me were extremely blunt.  I would be performing in front of an audience for 4 days in a row and there was no way I was going to make a fool of myself in front of everyone.  There is only one acceptable result - and that is for me to do the guitar playing justice when I perform.  It was great motivation to push myself to keep practicing.


And that is all there is to it!  By using the principles for accelerated learning, I am confident that I am at a stage where I can comfortably pull off the musical complexities that I need to and that I look relatively natural when doing it.

Of course, as I write this, I still don't know for sure - the stakes haven't yet kicked in.  So we will have to see!  But hopefully all my hard work will have paid off and I can knock it out the park!

All I know is that I would not have had the willpower to practice as hard as I did without the principles above.  Try it for yourself with a skill that you want to acquire and I assure you - you will be mesmerized by what you can achieve.