The core fundamentals of guitar playing can be many things. Specific topics like alternate picking and slurs (hammer-ons and pull-offs) come to mind. But, then we can also think of broader topics such as fretboard navigation and phrasing. It is all a matter of perspective. What it comes down to is this simple question: What is important to my current goals?
A simple question, yes; a simple answer, not so much. Fundamentals and a solid technical background are truly a major part of playing the guitar. But how do you decide where to start? Let me break it down for you the way I wish someone had for me long ago when I first started asking questions like this.
It really depends on what your current level of playing is; you have to learn to walk before you can run, right? If you are a complete beginner you very likely have a hard time playing a couple of notes or even holding your pick, and you probably have no clue what a hammer-on is or what you would even use it for. In this case, would it even make sense to start learning hammer-ons…?
Absolutely not. It would make no sense at all to learn hammer-ons when you can barely hold your pick, but I’ve seen it time and time again. Not necessarily this particular example, just the fact that beginner guitarists are too focused on the next thing to learn and, without any guidance, begin to learn things out of order.
I’m not lecturing or ridiculing those who have made — or are about to make — this mistake. We’ve all been there at some point, and honestly we just don’t know any better until we reach a certain level of guitar maturity.
The problem is that those who are constantly jumping around and searching for a shortcut are more likely to give up all together before they reach any level of guitar maturity. The reason is that if you are continuously bouncing from topic to topic and always on the lookout for the next thing, you probably aren’t giving yourself enough time on the current topic or technique.
This means that you will drift around for a while, trying all sorts of things, but not actually learning them. And this will lead to frustration and disappointment when it comes time to measure your progress against the amount of time and effort that you’ve put into learning the guitar.
So what should you do about this? How do you avoid becoming just another person who gave up after a few months? You need to have a system. A reliable system that you can commit to and apply in your practice.
Systems will ultimately vary from person to person and will evolve and grow with you as you continue down your path of musical discovery. As always, I encourage you to experiment and adapt your routine to your unique goals and abilities, keeping the core concept of my advice in mind.
Ultimately, if you have even the slightest bit of doubt on what to learn and in what order, its time to talk with a teacher. But be prepared and at least have a general idea of the direction of your musical goals. When you can clearly communicate your goals — at the very least your immediate, short-term goals — it makes it easier to find a teacher that is right for you.
What is your most immediate goal, or problem you'd like to fix with your guitar playing?