How I ‘ultralearned’ the guitar in eight months

If you must focus on two skills, my suggestion would be to focus on these: emotional intelligence, and learning how to learn. For the former, I’ve dedicated an entire podcast. This post is going to be about the latter.

I read Scott Young’s Ultralearning in 2019. At the time I was learning salsa and bachata, and the book helped accelerate my progress. More importantly, it left me thinking, “I should start an Ultralearning project of my own!”

Ultralearning is a strategy to learn difficult skills, one that is self-directed and intense. It is learning on steroids. In the book, Scott gives stories of ultra-learners and their projects. He describes his own feat of mastering the entire curriculum of MIT’s four year computer science degree in one year. How about another man’s journey of 5 years to learn how to make a video game, which eventually made him millions. Or a woman’s attempt to replicate an entire PhD in computational linguistics by herself.

All through my schooling years, everyone around me thought that skills are innate. You either have a knack for music or not. You either are an arts or a maths person. Or even worse, you are either talented or dumb.

As I’ve learned more and more about our psychologies, I’ve realised that such stories are neither true nor helpful. I’ve called them “egoic fictions” in my podcast. So when time came to choose what I wanted to learn, I went after something that many of my well meaning teachers thought I was not made for: music.

And so, I picked up the guitar. The rest of the post outlines how I went about learning it. How about we start with a little performance!

Ultralearning comprises 9 principles: meta learning, focus, directness, drill, retrieval, feedback, retention, intuition, and experimentation. I will talk about my guitar project through the lens of these principles.

Metalearning – First draw a map

If I want to learn the guitar, I should pick it up and start learning, right? No. What are my goals? How long will it take to reach my goal? Why do I want to learn the guitar? Is it just show off? How will I learn it? How much time can I devote? Am I going to learn it in-person, or choose online classes? Without answering questions like these, which is to say without having a map, it is easy to get lost, lose hope, and give up.

For me there were two main drives to learn the guitar. One is the music itself. I like listening to music, and would have loved the ability to express myself through music. I was also beginning to appreciate rock music at the time, and I wanted to use the guitar to explore more about the culture of rock. I also imagined how knowing the guitar would be a way to have fun with people.

The other drive was to understand and experience the process of intentionally learning a difficult skill. I wanted first hand experience of the grind. I wanted to actively challenge my limiting stories, handle moments of loss of motivation, and eventually come out victorious.

Of course, parts of me also wanted to impress people, women, and look cool. I believe these motivations should not be shunned as ‘bad’ or ‘superficial’, but instead be acknowledged and accepted. Doing otherwise creates an emotional tension that comes from suppressing your parts, which may obstruct the learning process. More on this in my podcast episode, “Acceptance is the foundation of emotional intelligence”.

Based on my research, I decided to aim for an “intermediate/early advanced stage” as my goal (this video was helpful for outlining the stages). I defined “intermediate/early advanced” as the ability to play open chord songs, barre chord songs, basic lead improvisation, and intermediate knowledge of music theory. Note all of these goals were not set on day one, but instead I kept refining them as I understood more and more about the instruments.

I thought I could get to my goal in about 6-8 months, if I dedicated 2 hours a day. In the months that followed, I practiced anything between 30 mins to 4 hours a day. Looking back, I think I would have averaged 2 hours a day, which was my initial estimate.

At first, I decided to learn with a teacher, and supplement my learning with Fender Play, an online guitar learning platform. However 2 months into the project, the coronavirus hit in Mumbai, and I had to turn to learning online as my main source of material. I primarily used Fender Play, JustinGuitar.com and AndyGuitar, all of them I am immensely grateful to.

Focus – Sharpen your knife

The quality of learning depends more on the quality of focus than on the quantity of time. I blocked off set times during the day for the guitar, and my family knew not to disturb my during those hours. While I practiced, I refrained from checking social media, or doing anything else guitar unrelated.

The best way to get focus, though, is to learn something that you find enjoyable. Cutting distractions helps, but if you are emotionally drawn to what you’re learning, then focus is automatic and sharp. Whenever I noticed I was losing focus, I used to take that as a sign that I am not enjoying something, and that needs tweaking. Sometimes that meant refining and updating my goals in the meta-learning document, sometimes it meant learning something different, sometimes it meant I need to diversify what I was learning (eg. Rather than practicing 1 chord for 30 mins, I could do 2 for 15 mins each).

Directness – Go straight ahead

If I want to learn the guitar, it is not sufficient to practice the chords. Or learn the theory. Ultimately, I need to be able to play songs. Fender Play had a good emphasis on learning songs, which ensured my learning was direct. I also learned songs which I liked directly from Youtube.

Toward the end, I also started an Instagram just for posting guitar videos. It would be my virtual “stage”, and would force me to apply this principle of directness!

Drill – Attack your weakness

When you are faced with blocks in your learning, it might be tempting to think that you are not getting the “song”, or the “routine”, or the “choreography” etc. But in reality, what you might not be getting is a particular chord change in the whole song, or a particular dance move in the entire choreography. It’s hardly ever the whole, it is mostly something specific that you might be weak at.

To counter this, you need to go right to that bottleneck, and practice it hard. Drill it in. Devote most of your time to practice your weakest point, and not the whole thing which may include many things you already get. For me, getting the Bm chord was a long journey. It took me at least a month of constant drilling to get that sucker! Once I could play that chord, many of the Beatles’ songs opened up to me!

Retrieval – Test to learn

Unless you are testing yourself, you don’t have feedback on whether you’ve learned. Testing also helps the learning process itself, by straining your brain to remember what’s important. Especially if what you’re learning is more academic, and question-answer oriented. This was relevant for the music theory aspect of my course. I used the worksheet at JustinGuitar to test and solidify my knowledge of music theory.

Feedback – Don’t dodge the punches

Feedback is fundamental to learning. If you don’t know what’s right and what’s wrong, you might be strengthening your weaknesses. A lot of us grew up fearing low grades in school, and therefore developed a dislike to getting feedback. In school, low grades implied low worth.

That should change. Feedback is good. Feedback must be sought. No one gets everything right in the first go, so the successful learner is a successful feedback seeker.

For the guitar, my in-person was a good feedback source in the beginning. Later in the lockdown, I started to listen more while I was playing, which highlighted many of my shortcomings. I also played with recorded tracks, that gave me feedback on my timing. And finally, I filmed myself quite often and visually inspected how I was fretting the guitar. The videos gave me a lot of understanding of where I need to be smooth, and what I need to “drill in”.

Retention – Don’t Fill a Leaky Bucket

You can be learning many new things, but it is equally important to keep practicing what you already know. This principle is more relevant for memory based learning projects, and since the guitar is more reliant on muscle memory, it is less likely that you lose it. But regardless you can lose it, so I ensure I keep learning songs with the basic “open chords”, because I always want them in my memory!

Intuition – Dig deeper

At some point, you need to go beyond just replicating other’s work, and understand how things work and connect on a deeper level. In the guitar world, why do certain chords sound well together? Why do so many songs use the same chords? Why do certain notes go well with others? In my journey, learning music theory was vital in making these connections. This is what unlocked improvisation and fun in my playing.

Experimentation – Explore outside your comfort zone

And finally, play. Explore. Enjoy. I remember I learned some Indian classical music theory while I was in college. Why not play some Raag Yaman on the guitar? Should work in theory right, because the notes are the same, be it western music or Indian music! I also played with different genres. The latest genre I am exploring is the blues, and here is a blues performance before we wrap:

Thank you for reading this article. I hope it serves your learning endeavours.