my music syllabus is not the only way a person could look at learning to play, but it is a possible overview. this outline could be adapted for mandolin, banjo and other fretted instruments.
the concepts given here lay out a good practice routine. sit down and warm up with scales, look at some chord stuff, work on some reading, and then all three of those go together to make the repertoire. some other things i would add on page two, so to speak would be an examination of the cycle of fifths, and arpeggio study. but this will get you going. obviously there's an infinity of things left out, what i've given here is a possible version. also this syllabus is western in concept, i have no experience with other musics and can't comment on that, though i am certain there are like methodologies and pedagogy for those realms.
if you are just starting out, this might seem like a lot of complicated topics. start with one thing at a time, and remember it's a good idea to learn what defines the basic unit. example, okay we are working on scales. what's a scale? if you dive in and start learning a ton of fingerings, you might get lost as to the purpose of the exercise. though i guess on one hand, anything you learn is good, it's application may elude you, but eventually, if you forge ahead, this will get clearer.
two things that won't lie to you are a tape recorder (or some recording device) and a metronome. they are handy to have around.
a little more info:
learn how to figure out the names of all the notes on the neck. they don't have to be memorized per se but just so long as you can deduce them, you're alright. then study what a half step and a whole step is. then you can learn the formula for a major scale. how would that lay out on one string? this will help us see why it's so cool that we have more than one string to play, we can carry on up the scale with another string which saves us from having to jump all around on one string. though that's kind of fun and musical also.
the next step would be to work out the fingerings, or learn them from a teacher or a book, the common first position scales for your instrument. roughly they would be named after some of your open strings. for example, on guitar the E, A, D, and G scales are common. different methods group them in different ways. the way i was taught on guitar was to remember the word CAGED. those five letters give you the five common fingerings for guitar in standard tuning.
then next idea is to turn these into moveable ideas, where you can play each fingering pattern chromatically up and down the neck in all the keys. again a teacher or book can help, and perhaps i'll expound on this on the site if folks were interested.
the end result is that the student can play a major scale in each key, in several different fingerings based on the geometry of the particular instrument they are playing. for instance, on the guitar, there are roughly five, C,A,G,E, and D forms. those five fingerings can be played in first position and then moved all over the neck up and down. for banjo, there are roughly three,
A,F, and D forms.
you can pick a scale name, like Bb, we can play that scale in five fingerings for the guitar. using c form, a form, g form, e form, and d form, scooted to the right fret, with the starting note on a Bb. for banjo we can play a Bb scale in three places a form, f form, and d form. there are others but this gets you going on the logic of how the neck is laid out shape-wise.
the next conclusion that the student can work on is playing all the fingerings in this system, in a certain key and studying how they relate. the cycle of fifths is a good list of keys that keeps us working on all twelve keys.
then you can work on connecting them together.
then you can work out other types of scales, which can still be based on these fingerings.
one of my teachers long ago, demonstrated to me how he could play all the E minor information on the guitar from the lowest note all the way up to the highest note. this system was how he visualized the neck. as a series of interconnecting patterns. i was dying to learn how he did that.
learn how chords are built, and the formulas for major minor diminished and augmented, and how these fingerings lay out on your instrument. these are three note chords. the next step would be to study the four note chords and memorize the formulas for them. this information is all over the internet and various places so i'll leave it up to you to turn that particular rock over.
if you then look up and learn the harmonized major scale, and develop that in every key, you will be a long way down the road of studying how chords work and how they relate together and how they relate to scales. this is a lifelong process so enjoy it.
a teacher can be of enormous help here, but a book i like for guitar is a modern method for guitar by william leavitt volume 1. for banjo a good one is mel bay's banjo method c tuning concert style by frank bradbury. for mandolin (i don't play this instrument so here i'm guessing) the student could learn from beginning violin books since the music is the same.
i don't know of a good reading method book for mandolin plectrum style, though i'd guess mr. bay has some. plectrum means with a pick.
here is where you put all the stuff to use playing actual music. the scales, chords and reading will be combined to work out the list of your tunes that you play, your repertoire. the idea is to get five or ten pieces that you really like and learn them inside and out. play them over and over and figure out as much as you can about them. typically this would be a list songs or pieces that the student really likes and therefore would be motivated to really practice. however i would add a codicil to this and recommend that we study pieces that other people might know. standards in other words. the reason is that eventually you are going to want to play with others, and learning music that other people are likely to know will save you a step. if you learn obscure pieces, it's harder to do this. a teacher can really help or you can do some research and ask some folks. it's cool to learn the obscure pieces also, it's just harder to jam with others if that's all you know. also the standards are standards many times because they contain elements that other music is based on. we get a lot of bang for the buck learning standard pieces.
some things to remember:
don't worry about sounding bad. have fun.
don't listen too much to what one person says, unless they are some really badass guy, and even then....you know sometimes the language we have to use to describe music is incomplete. usually what a good teacher says in context is probably pretty close to being right. there are different opinions about all this stuff, and that's okay.
listen to what you are doing. i know that sounds kind of dumb but if you have been playing for a while you will understand what i mean.
learn to think in phrases.
don't put yourself down. it's going to take you ten years of hard work to get anywhere, really. so if you've only been playing for a year, guess what?
it's really fun to take lessons. i take them, and i recommend that you do too. most folks have their own way of learning. figure out what yours is and capitalize on it. but work on the other ways of learning as a way of stretching your brain.
if you are new, a good thing to work on is leaving your left hand fingers down long enough to make a nice round sound. most of the students i have had in the past, would lift their left hand fingers up too soon. let the instrument do the work for you. if this is unclear, ask your teacher to explain the term legato.
if you can get the tuning and time really together, even very simple things sound great. we don't have to extract the music from the instrument as though we were digging a hole in the ground or building a house, the music is already in your instrument, you just have to let it go at the right time.