by Asher Black
available on Amazon
The Guitar Decoder Ring by Asher Black and Barry Gilman: Meet SIGIL
“The Decoder Ring: Unlocking the Guitar and Music Making” is a revolutionary guide for beginners, advanced players, and music instructors alike. The book is a treasure trove of novel tools and techniques meant to demystify the process of learning to play the guitar, as well as other stringed instruments. Rather than serving as a lengthy narrative, the book dedicates only 5% of its content to stories and anecdotes, with the remaining 95% consisting of groundbreaking pedagogical material, all of which is presented in an easily digestible format.
One of the most significant points the book makes is a critique of the conventional learning method, which often overwhelms students with countless scale patterns. For example, the traditional method involves learning five separate patterns for the major scale, five for the minor, five for each of the five pentatonic scales (bringing the total up to 20), five more for each of the other five modes (now we’re at 70), and then five more for a few other scales such as blues, jazz, harmonic minor, and melodic minor. To say the least, it’s a daunting task, and the author of “The Decoder Ring” calls for a radical departure from this approach. Instead, the book proposes a single, universal pattern that covers the entire guitar. The author encourages readers to tear down the convoluted scale charts from their walls and embrace this new, more streamlined method.
To illustrate this novel approach to learning music, the author introduces the concept of the ‘Decoder Ring,’ drawing upon a sense of childhood nostalgia. The ‘Decoder Ring’ represents those precious moments in our youth when the complexity of the world suddenly unraveled before our eyes, replaced by an exhilarating understanding that enabled us to master new skills. The author likens this process to learning to play the guitar or any other musical instrument, effectively debunking the notion that this task needs to be filled with frustration, endless work, and the memorization of arcane formulae.
The book dismisses two common perspectives on learning music. The first perspective insists that music theory is complicated and abstruse, suggesting learners should resign themselves to a painstaking and arduous journey. This viewpoint often justifies the difficulty of learning music with references to its historical development, the evolution of Western music, and the influence of the piano. The second perspective, on the other hand, is more optimistic but no less misleading. It claims that learners can master music overnight with the right system, only to offer rehashed versions of conventional methods like the CAGED system, which many find confusing and uninspiring.
“The Decoder Ring” suggests that the reason why learners accept the “no decoder ring” theory is rooted in historical practices within the music industry. The book refers to musicians’ roles in earlier times as akin to workers in a pit. Just as pit workers were expected to follow instructions from their superiors without question, musicians were told to play exactly what was on the sheet music in front of them, with no room for improvisation or creativity. This hierarchical setup meant that musicians often had to suppress their artistic instincts and ambitions, focusing instead on delivering a standardized, made-to-order product.
The author highlights that this outdated model of instruction is not conducive to learners who aspire to compose or improvise. Unfortunately, these learners often find themselves bogged down by abstract music theory and massive amounts of rote memorization. The author criticizes several aspects of conventional music theory, such as the seemingly arbitrary order of modes, the non-intuitive nomenclature, and the undue emphasis on the piano as the foundational instrument for all music learning. This emphasis on the piano, in particular, is problematic for guitar learners, as it forces them to navigate their musical journey based on an entirely different instrument that was originally designed to entertain royalty in pre-electricity eras.
The author argues that the crux of the issue lies in the way music learning is structured. Rather than encouraging rote learning, which often leads to rote playing, music instruction should foster a more intuitive approach. The author believes that creating music should be akin to speaking a language, requiring a similar level of understanding and personal expression. Just as we use language to communicate our thoughts and emotions, we should be able to use music to express our creativity and individuality.
In this vein, “The Decoder Ring” calls for a new “language” for music learning, one that values creativity and personal expression over rote memorization and standardization. This new language would enable learners to create their own music, rather than simply replicating existing pieces. As famed musician Eddie Van Halen once said, “We aren’t born knowing how to do this stuff.” We need to learn how to make music just as we learn to speak a language.
The book challenges the conventional belief that understanding the development of Western music is a prerequisite to mastering an instrument, composing, or improvising. This belief often results in learners being bombarded with outdated rules and conventions that limit their creativity and hinder their progress. Instead, “The Decoder Ring” proposes a more modern, accessible approach to learning music that does not rely on historical context or stringent rules. This approach focuses on empowering learners to compose, improvise, and create unique interpretations of songs, thereby enabling them to truly enjoy the process of making music.
“The Decoder Ring: Unlocking the Guitar and Music Making” is a groundbreaking book that calls for a complete overhaul of conventional music instruction. It proposes a new method of learning music that is streamlined, intuitive, and in tune with the needs of modern learners. This book promises to be a valuable resource for anyone interested in breaking free from traditional pedagogical constraints and unlocking the joy of making music.
Excerpt from Interview with Author Asher Black:
Why is it so hard to self-study the guitar?
I keep hearing you can learn a lot from Youtube videos, but ‘a lot’ is relative. I find the process extremely frustrating. Sure, you can learn a lot of songs, or versions of them, but the important stuff is failing. Besides, you can’t ask questions. The videos are full of errors. The approaches are deeply idiosyncratic and not really aligned. I really value instruction, but Socratic in style. People think that means the teacher asking you questions. It doesn’t. It means you asking the teacher questions. That’s what I value: self-study with a facilitator who will focus on what I’m interested in today and the questions I have or problems I want to solve—the things I want to work on. I think of that as a guitar coach.
That said, there are so many crap books out there and so much rehash of other stuff that it’s frustrating and wastes a lot of time and money. But it’s not just the materials. It’s built into the way we learn music at the DNA level.
Even the terminology seems a little nuts. Play a minor third. Go ahead. Do we mean the interval called a minor third, making it part of a minor scale? Or do we mean the third in some scale is minor, meaning that we’re actually in a major scale? Do we mean simply the distance between some note and some other note, like the minor third between a perfect 5th and minor 7th? This is just the beginning of terminological confusion.
Even just limited to the physical guitar, when we say look at the fretboard vertically vs. horizontally, do we mean physically or tonally? They’re opposite things, and we collide over them all the time when collaborating.
What are we ancient scribes with the secret knowledge of how the temples are built and their relation to the stars? That’s cute and all, having it locked up in the academy or in the factory for classical music production, but why can’t the tools for making music be available to everyone?
What is SIGIL?
SIGIL is a language for understanding the guitar. You’ll memorize it in minutes, and see it forever after, even when you look away. It’s not another chart. I got sick of charts. SIGIL is a 5 letter alphabet that forms the basis of a language for navigating the entire fretboard, all strings, all intervals, all modes, and all chord progressions. Once you see it, you won’t be able to forget it. Like any really simple language, it’s contagious. And once you have it, you can begin playing it—yes, playing it, immediately, and the only question is how deep and far you want to go. In Star Trek terms, it’s also the universal translator.
Look, if we were just going to repackage the same mediaeval sh*t you get anywhere else, we wouldn’t be using SIGIL primarily to study, compose, and improvise music ourselves. It would just be a product. We made this, my co-author and I, to use for ourselves. We wrote this book to get it in front of other people as a basis for learning the instrument. It’s frankly Promethean. We wrote the book we wish we had all along the journey, not a flavor of the existing ones. We wrote it so anyone could easily learn this information and these insights.
Why do you call SIGIL a Promethean Moment?
I fully expect to hear criticism about how SIGIL is not the ‘ultimate’ tool and we’re not ‘gods’ of guitar and by the way where are our TikTok videos featuring tasty licks to prove we can rock? First, use it or don’t use it. For me, this is still a Promethean act. In intention (for others) and practice (for myself).
Prometheus, you’ll remember, stole fire from the gods and gave it to the rest of us. That’s what I want to do with guitar instruction and music theory. I want to steal it from the fog of ancient rubrics and the rarified prison of control represented by the academy. I want it liberated from the pulpit and the throne, the pit and the stick, the piano and the composer who sits at it, though of course you can use this for piano too. It’s adaptable to single stringed instruments, horns, whatever. But I want anyone to be able to pick up a guitar and with a little work begin to create something new.
You have a background as educator and storyteller, with study in history and philosophy, but no background in music theory. Did those other things help with this book?
Everything helps. A liberal education helps. Music and history and philosophy helps with storytelling. Philosophy and teaching helps with studying music. I’ve gotten the music theory as I go. What wasn’t there, I tried to invent. Polymaths invent things. Mostly tools.
That’s what SIGIL is for my music practice. It’s a tool that frees me to improvise and compose the way I want to and pursue my art. Hell, martial arts goes into the mix too, man. I dig how learning something in karate, learning music, and learning to write fiction fit together so neatly. Sales, too. My business is helping enterprise sales teams bring home more from the hunt, and that’s an art too.
Bottom line, SIGIL frees someone up to let their feelings fly across the instrument, to express the world as they see it, if they have the heart. For me, it’s an expression of how I approach the world and a tool to express how I see it.
As with many things, I learn by experimenting, innovating, reflecting, teaching, writing and communicating, all of which interact with and order information more effectively. The natural thing is to express that in the form of some conclusions, insights, or a tool. SIGIL is that tool.