The Guitar/Piano Disconnect

Guitar and piano are similar instruments in a lot of ways. In most modern styles, they are the two main instruments for polyphonic harmony. They cover a lot of the same range, and fill the same types of roles in arrangements. They can both comp chords and play single-lines.

But piano players and guitar players think differently. Where it comes to learning modern music styles, the way piano is taught is a lot different from the way guitar is usually taught.

The market for guitar lessons is different from the market for piano lessons, because piano students often take lessons for different reasons than guitar students. Guitar players prefer a different type of approach from piano players. Most piano students gravitate to reading music. Most guitar students gravitate to playing by ear.

Piano students are more likely to play at least some classical music. Guitar students are more likely to play modern music. Beginning classical guitar is more difficult than beginning classical piano. You can learnPrelude 1″ on piano after a year or two of lessons. To learnPrelude 1″ on guitar will probably take four or five years of lessons. Maybe that isn’t the best example since “Prelude 1” is written for piano, and not guitar.

Guitar players have tablature as an option to reading staff notation. Piano players don’t have any written notation form better than staff notation. The evolution of standard notation is linked to the evolution of the piano keyboard. Also, piano students are more likely than guitar students to take lessons in order to prepare for school or competition. Despite all of that, many young people are learning complex piano pieces from computer-based animated keyboard trainers like Keyboard Mania and Synthesia.

That’s enough to explain why each one prefers a different approach, but I think it goes deeper than that. I believe that people choose their instruments based on their personality. Horn players are one type of personality, violin players are another. It’s the same for guitar players, piano players, drummers, and so on. There’s nothing you can really define, nothing you can really put your finger on. There just seems to be something about birds of a feather.

I don’t characterize people based on what instruments they play, but the fact is that musicians make those characterizations all the time. There are hundreds of “musician” jokes out there, and those old jokes contain a few uncomfortable home truths. Like, What do you call a guy who hangs out with musicians? A Drummer!” or, “How do you know when a drummer is knocking at your door? Because the knock keeps getting faster!” Come to think of it, most of those old jokes are about drummers.

But there is one that goes, “How do you shut up a guitar player? Put a piece of sheet music in front of him!” This is true for many guitar players. That’s why the joke works. But we could make the opposite joke about keyboard players, and taking their sheet music away. You really can stop most keyboard players cold if you take away their sheet music, or turn the pages while they’re reading, or mischievously rearrange the pages while they’re not looking, or dim the lights and turn the ceiling fans up to “high.”

The differences between guitar and piano are enough to explain why guitar players and piano players take different approaches to music when they’re first starting out. But that doesn’t explain why experienced guitar players and piano players are so often at odds.

Here’s a real-life scenario: The keyboard player hears the singer come in two bars late. The rest of the band compensates for it, but the keyboard player doesn’t. He plays the chart two measures ahead of the rest of the band. As far as he’s concerned, he’s right and the rest of the band is wrong. This type of thing plays out in rehearsals and on bandstands all the time. Pro players all know some variation of this story.

Why are so many keyboard players dependent on written music, when so many guitar players rely solely on playing by ear? Why is it at jam sessions, guitar players and bass players can jump right in, while piano players are left in the dust? Why are guitar-players more comfortable with improvising? Why is it so few piano players can arrange a decent-sounding piano part to a song? Another common scenario is where a piano player bombs on his audition with a rock band because his store-bought “rock piano” sheet music doesn’t sound anything like the recorded part in the song they’re practicing.

Most rock keyboard players will tell you their approach borrows from guitar. Rock piano players think in terms of “comping,” “fills,” and “solos.” Every rock, country, blues and jazz keyboard player has to develop keyboard equivalents to a few common guitar sounds including strum patterns, power chords, lead lines, bass lines, and harmonized scales. For instance, rock piano players often imitate common guitar strum patterns like bass/down and bass/bass/down.

The “keyboard equivalents” for guitar grooves that I’m talking about aren’t intended to simply copy guitar sounds. This doesn’t mean piano players should all switch Keytar. Rock elements like power chords and pentatonic solos sound good on piano and organ for the same reasons they sound good on guitar.

The reason for the disconnect between guitar players and piano players is they think about music in fundamentally different ways. Guitar players tend to be natural improvisers. They play by ear, and they look at music in terms of concepts – chord progressions, melodies and drumbeats – which can be transferred, and applied to other songs or other musical instances.

Most non-rock piano players take the same approach to learning music that actors take to learning Shakespeare – brute force rote memorization. Actors don’t mix and match the things they memorize. They don’t borrow lines from Macbeth because they also sound cool when you’re doing Hamlet, but that’s basically what rock musicians do. Nonrock piano players tend to think of songs as fixed works, set in stone, each one tied to a particular key.

In addition to any other approach they may take, piano players need to learn the same conceptual approach to music as guitar players, bass players, and drummers. Rock music isn’t set in stone. Rock musicians need the flexibility to react in real time to the group chemistry.

This is why we should teach the ear-training concepts that guitar players use to keyboard players. It’s possible to apply chord and scale concepts to piano. (That’s the idea behind my rock piano lesson series.) Like guitar players, piano players should learn to think in terms of rhythm, lead and chord/melody parts. They should know how to phrase chords, and they should have equivalents for certain guitar-like textures. They should learn to incorporate chord/scale/number theory into their reading-based learning methods. They should learn chords based on shape, even though those shapes move across the uneven landscape of black and white keys. A good piano player can improvise a supporting chord comp part on the spot, like a rhythm-guitar player, and keep it going for as long as necessary. The call it “playing time.”

Part of the reason guitar players and keyboard players think differently has to do with the instruments themselves. Guitar parts come in two different “flavors.” The first “flavor” is open-position. The second “flavor” is everything else. Outside of open position, moving from “C” position to C#” position on guitar is simple, almost effortless, almost unnoticeable. For beginners on piano, moving from “Cposition to “C#” position is a complicated technical shift.

The grid-like nature of the guitar means guitarists can detach from the concept of note names to an extraordinary degree, compared to musicians on most other instruments. On most instruments besides guitar and bass, you’re completely tied to notes and keys. With most instruments, you’re constantly mentally checking the note names against what you hear in real time.

When I play a piano part from memory, there’s a continuous stream of consciousness, “C major, all white, F major, four is black, don’t play B, E flat major, three is G,” except that it’s in images too fleeting for words. Guitar players have nearly the opposite situation. Guitar players have to make a real effort to learn where all the notes are on the neck. Look at all of the systems and method books for learning the note names on the fretboard. Even advanced guitar players sometimes have to think twice about how to find notes in the higher registers.

Guitar players can detach from note names because they think in terms of moving shapes on a grid, and because there are so few landmarks on the neck to help you remember where you are. Keyboard players are tied to note names because of the uneven spacing of the black and white keys. It takes a long time to internalize any instrument to the point that you move beyond self-conscious awareness, and experience the sensation of becoming one with the instrument. On guitar, this happens fairly easily, once you get out of open position. Only very advanced keyboard players ever reach a level where they can mentally detach from any awareness of what key they’re in. That’s one reason why playing guitar is more fun than playing keyboards.

There is one more factor which probably has an influence on the psychology of guitar players versus piano players. Many piano players were forced to learn their instrument. They had no choice about learning to play, or what music they learned. They were taught from antiquated books by coercive, neo-Victorian teachers. Piano players are conditioned to structure, and seeing things in black and white, no pun intended. On the other hand, hardly anyone is ever forced to learn rock guitar.

Okay, one more. “What do you call a drummer with just one drum stick? A conductor!”

© 2019, 2020 Greg Varhaug