You're about to make a huge mistake.
That is, if you're about to blindly start learning to play guitar without being clued up. Clued up about how to avoid the common catastrophic blunders many beginner guitar players make. And the crazy thing is, these mistakes affect their chances of getting better at playing guitar in the future.
You want to know the truth?
It's not just beginner guitar players who make mistakes. It's guys and gals who have been playing for years also. I know, pretty bad right?
But fear not fellow guitar player. Because I'm about to share with you what are beyond a shadow of a doubt the seven most important things you need to know about learning to play guitar. Once you learn these seven things your new found insight will help you to reach your playing goals easier and faster.
Put it this way: I wish I'd been told these pieces of advice when I started to play guitar.
If you're wondering what's the best way to learn to play guitar on your own without help, I'd say this:
No I don't mean give up before you've even started, I mean don't bother trying to learn all on your own. It's a minefield. This guide is aimed at you smart guitar players out there who've decided not to take on the herculean task of trying to learn guitar on your own but have instead decided to follow lessons in some form or other.
If you're still wanting to cut corners and are hell-bent on trying to learn guitar on your own, this article is still for you though. Because by the end of reading it I hope you'll realise the easier and quicker way to playing success is to get tuition.
First off, I want to say well done if you're one the guitar players who's made the clever move of starting guitar lessons. As you probably guessed, there are a multitude of players who aren’t brave or motivated enough to take the important step you have. And those players are the ones who inevitably end up hitting a brick wall and never get any better at playing guitar.
But fair warning:
You need to know that starting lessons with a good guitar teacher or following some type of online tuition course is roughly only 30% of the story. You see, how great your playing becomes is ultimately down to you – and not just how much you practice, but how you practice.
Once you find an expert teacher everything they teach you is designed to work. But it only works if you work. Let's stop beating around the bush and get right into the seven critical things you need to know about learning guitar that'll help you avoid total failure...
Learning guitar like any instrument is an intricate skill that relies on lots of practice to hear improvement. Don't expect to get better overnight is what I'm saying.
Never say you're ‘struggling’ at something new you’re practicing either. It’s just the natural process of learning - you simply just have to build up muscle memory which develops easily with determined and consistent practice.
Think of any skill you now possess that once seemed tricky. This could be any sort of life or work related skill; from learning to drive a car, to interpersonal communication with people around you, to tying your shoelace. All of these abilities once felt challenging until you got used to them over time. Heck, it took most of us on average between 14-17 months to get the hang of walking on two feet!
Seems pretty mad when you think about the fact that now you walk without a second thought doesn't it?
So think of learning guitar this way. Be it a chord change, strumming rhythm or solo technique, whatever new thing you're learning that feels hard, you’ll eventually nail it after enough practice. Soon you'll find yourself wondering what all the fuss was about.
Always remember: You need to focus on learning how to play the guitar before you can play songs. This one piece of advice is so important, I'll say it again:
And this is where so many guitar players go dismally wrong. They don't realise (or they do but choose to ignore it) that the bulk of practice should be about developing and honing good playing technique.
What exactly is good technique? In a nutshell 'good technique' includes the proven surefire best ways to play your instrument. You've noticed how pro guitar players from Stevie Ray Vaughan to Jo Satriani make it look so effortless? It's because they're executing good technique they consciously worked on from day one.
No short-cuts. As that wise saying goes: If you want something you've never had, you must be willing to do something you've never done. So if you're tired of never being able to improvise and make it sound any good or fed up of your never improving slow chord changes - do something you've never done: start spending quality time methodically practicing your technique drills.
For many self-taught guitar players, they're plagued with ingrained bad playing habits that are difficult to get rid of. Don't fall into this trap. Be it perfect alternate picking, effortless strumming, or vibrato so earth-shatteringly sublime it could peel an orange, your new mantra is: good technique = great guitar playing.
We've all been there. Aimlessly messing about on guitar, and by the time you put it down you've moved on no more than when you picked it up.
It's time to get a good practice strategy underway. As humans we are predisposed to be goal based. We are teleological organisms. This simply means when we set goals to achieve something, we focus on delivering. And what's even better, no matter how big or small the achieved goal, we feel gratified. So make your practice sessions have a purpose.
If you're finding your motivation to play has stalled, firstly don't be hard on yourself, this is a common problem guitar players come across when they have no structure to their practice. You can overcome this annoying hurdle by establishing some of your playing goals.
Practice goal examples:
a) Are all melody and chord notes crystal clear with no mutes or buzzes? Goal: banish messy muted notes.
b) Are my chord changes and/or note changes clear and flowing? Goal: get chord transitions smooth and clean.
c) Is my timing good? Goal: develop a feel for perfect and consistent timing in everything I play. No speeding up or slowing down. All notes and chords should change consistently and in time (see tip No 4).
Think of the 80/20 approach to practice: 80% of the time make your rehearsal session structured with specific goals in mind, the remaining 20% of the time you're free to noodle. Because one of the most motivating and gratifying things about learning to play guitar is to be able to play songs (who'd have thought), a smart move would be to make one of your primary long-term goals to play your first three songs all the way through.
Good timing and feel are important codependent skills every guitarist needs to master. If you don't work on building up a good feel for timing from day one, playing out of time is a rather difficult affliction to shake off.
Avoid this pitfall by always practising with a metronome.
It's a fact: If you don’t use a metronome, your timing will never improve. And as you know, a guitar player with bad timing who speeds up and slows down doesn’t sound that impressive.
Nobody cares how many different licks you know or how fast you can play them if you're timing is inconsistent and chaotic. It's better to be able to play four notes perfectly in time than forty out of time.
Other invaluable practice tools include a recording device and timer you should be using along with a metronome. Record frequent progress clips during each practice session on your phone or tablet. Watch them back and critique yourself.
Don’t worry if it sounds “bad” or “ropey”, this is the whole point - you want to hear the good, the bad, and the ugly. This way you can quickly improve instead of making the same old mistakes over and over.
To get good at anything, you know the drill; it’s about repetition and practice. So I'm not going to sugar-coat it: practice can sometimes get frustrating or plain old boring.
This is the deal: you have to have the right mind-set to be able to learn guitar to even a half decent standard. In a nutshell, you have to be determined, focused and motivated. And don’t fall into the trap of thinking; “Well, I’m only learning for me… for enjoyment… I don’t want to play professionally or anything”.
Remember this: you only start enjoying playing once you see and hear you’re getting better. So regardless of if you plan on playing on stage or to your dog in your bedroom at home, the more you practice, the better you sound. The better you sound, the more you love playing and banish frustration. Keeping this in mind will help you to seriously improve your practice sessions and guitar playing.
My advice is to stick at it. Sometimes certain things can take longer than others to perfect. I promise you that you’ll get there with proper practice methods. Keep the faith.
It’s not a race! If I had a dime for every time I said “slow down” to a pupil during a lesson, I’d be living on my own super yacht in Monaco by now.
To be able to play your favourite lick or song, you have to build up to it and play slowly at first. Remember, it’s about how clean and clear the notes sound, not just getting all the notes played regardless of how perfect they are.
One of the best methods to follow to help you stop playing too quickly is to use a metronome and practice varying between three different speeds: Slow, moderate, and faster. Most untrained guitar players think it's all about trying to play at blistering fast speeds. It's not.
You need to realise that It's actually harder to play slowly with good technique. This is because you need strength, control and finger independence (the core characteristics of good technique) to play slowly and make it sound any good.
Just think about The Hare and The Tortoise.
Scales are an amazing tool to help your playing improve quickly. Scales are a set pattern of notes and are the foundation to everything you play on guitar – without scales we wouldn’t have solos, melodies, and even chords. You can't get away from it. Scales are an essential part of guitar playing.
There are many benefits to playing scales. They help you build up finger strength, sharpen your ear training, learn songs faster and perfect your timing. But the good stuff doesn't happen overnight. You have to make scale exercises a regular part of your practice sessions.
Practice suggestion: always warm up with scales and have at least one session per week where you're practising only scales and nothing else. This becomes a piece of cake the more consistent you are.
Sometimes if you feel really tired after a hard days work or study and don’t feel like practicing, don’t. You might have had an especially busy family schedule and picking up your guitar after being rushed off your feet all day is the last thing on your mind.
Sometimes is does you better to take a break than to force yourself to pick up your guitar. We all have good and not so good practice weeks. Sometimes life gets in the way. Don’t beat yourself up. Just get right back into it the next day/week and practice a little longer to make up for it if you feel especially guilty.
So there you have it.
The bottom line is, there's lots of common mistakes you can make when learning the guitar. But you don't have to make the same mistakes other guitar players have before you.
Re-read this invaluable list once in a while and you'll be armed with the right winning attitude and mind-set that’ll ensure you get the most out of learning guitar.
So grab your guitar, and let’s get to it.