I've known a lot of people looking at teaching themselves to play an instrument. I've also shown a few people a few things to try and help them along their way. There's also a lot of people out there who are getting formal instruction with an instrument, but also want to explore things on their own in parallel.
This quick set of notes is aimed at anyone that is interested in playing an instrument. None of it should be considered the only way of doing things. Take it as food for thought (and potentially fuel for an angry mob of townsfolk).
play stuff you like
Unless Mary Had A Little Lamb really does float your boat, don't bother with it. Find something that you like to listen to. As you get parts of it down, it's going to feel great and push you to get the next bit down. Hell, you'll actually enjoy yourself.
That said, you still need to pick tracks that are within your grasp. You're going to find it difficult to just walk into playing along with Joe Satriani on your first day. Most pieces of music, though, have less complex parts that you can play along with right from day one. Perhaps it's a bit of melody you recognise or a few chords that hold it together and make it what it is. Guitar riffs are great for that kind of thing.
Even if something is a little beyond you to begin with, you can still pick out the stand-out notes or chords and start with those. They'll act as a bit of a framework for you to hang the other notes on when you get that far and a lot of things will still be recognisable.
As you get better and better at those parts, you can start to fill it in with the other notes you left out.
This may actually sound counter-intuitive. Music is a linear thing. It starts at the beginning and keeps moving forward until it gets to the end. As a result, most people assume that you need to start by getting the first note down, then the second, then the third and you never move to the fifth until you get the tricky fourth note right. That's largely crap and is going to be the source of a lot of frustration. There are a lot of notes (often the trickier ones to play) that you can easily put aside until later without a lot of listeners realising or caring.
This applies whether you're learning from sheet music (including tablature and chord diagrams), online tutorials or by ear.
learn using a variety of media
Music notation (of many forms) is great, playing by ear is great and so is learning by watching someone else. Try it all. They each have their benefits and it'll vary the process for you and secretly give you a bunch of skills you didn't know you were learning.
play along with stuff!
Even if you're not trying to learn to play by ear, try playing along with things. Put on the CD or MP3 or whatever and play along with it.
This will help you in a whole bunch of important ways -- all while you're busy thinking about which note to play next:
- Honing your ear for intonation -- if you're playing along with the CD and you don't play it at the right pitch, you'll be able to hear it.
- Honing your timing and fluidity -- in most cases, you won't be able to help but to keep in time with whatever you're listening to. Without even realising it, you'll start to play in time and slide in and out of notes in a way that is hard to pick up consciously. You'll do this because you're starting to anticipate what's coming next and how to get there.
- Honing your ear for aural cues -- you'll be able to hear things in the music that tell you that a particular thing is coming. That's important to know unless you're never ever planning on playing with anyone else ever and probably still important then.
It also feels good and probably sounds a little better. That makes for better confidence.
play things that have a reasonable amount of repetition
Anything with a well-established pattern will be helpful. Whether the pattern is a 12-bar blues pattern or whether it's a typical verse-chorus rock/pop song, the repetition will actually help. Looking at an earlier point about starting out coarsely and playing a few notes that are easy to get to and then filling in the blanks as you improve and gain confidence and fluidity, playing things with some amount of repetition will make it easier to sit and play along with.
This actually indirectly helps you with your overall timing too. If you're playing something and you stumble and miss a note you were aiming for, you can just keep going and catch it the next time around. It helps to preempt things and helps you hone your sensitivity to those audio cues.
The other benefit is if a song consists primarily of the same little passage repeated for three-and-a-half-minutes is that once you get that little piece down, you've got a whole song ;-).
play with other people
An extension of playing along with the song is to play along with other people. You might have all played along with the song before, but you'll have heard it differently and a lot of the specific cues you learned won't necessarily be there. Even if you're a couple of years behind them (or in front of them) skills-wise. Go do it and make it fun.
play in front of people
Don't go looking for a gig straight away, but find ways to play stuff in front of people. You'll screw it up. You'll be scared stupid. Go do it anyway.
Open mic nights are a great way to take a couple of songs out there and play in front of people. Most of them involve people of all skill levels and people are usually really supportive. The best part is that they happen regularly, which means you can set yourself a deadline, like playing the first open mic of each month and having something new to show. That gives you a deadline and something to work towards.
Keep picking the thing up and using it to make sound.