Many of us have been to at least one concert where an amazing guitarist dazzled us. How can his hands move so fast? How can she play so beautifully without even looking at the instrument? How did he know that melody would harmonize so well with the rest of the band? We ask these questions completely awestruck… struggling to understand how a very normal looking human being can be so proficient at something that seems so alien as their fingers fly all over the guitar fretboard at warp speed. After taking in such a musical spectacle, many of us become inspired to learn how to play the guitar. We may even go as far as to order a guitar and perhaps a few books to begin our journey to guitar virtuoso. We happily receive the guitar and the books when they finally arrive at our doorsteps, filled with excitement at the prospect of eventually mastering the guitar. After a month or two of practice, reality sets in… you realize that you suck at it. You realize that making the guitar sound as melodically beautiful as that amazing lady on stage did a couple of months ago isn’t as easy as it looks. As if all that wasn’t enough, your fingers hurt like crazy and might even bleed because you haven’t yet built up the calluses to endure the constant stress that playing places on the tips of your fingers. Some of us give up because we figure we just don’t have the magical talent that good guitarists must have. What is going on here? Where does the truth lie? Are people who can play the guitar just born with supernatural abilities, or are their otherworldly skills developed through relentless and tenacious application to their craft? Can “regular” folks ever improve on their guitar playing, or are each of us permanently confined to musical mediocrity for the rest of our lives? Well ladies and gentlemen, if I may, let me invite you to follow me on this literary journey in search of the truth.
Having talked to a number of amazing musicians in the flesh, I was surprised to learn that exactly none (zero, zilch, nada) of them exclusively ascribed their brilliance to some sort of natural magical talent. While they all mostly agree that they were born with a fundamental sense of rhythm and a love of music, they all readily confess to being relatively inept when they first picked up the guitar. You might be thinking… “OK so you’re telling me there was a time when James Marshall Hendrix wasn’t Jimi Hendrix?” Yep… that’s exactly what the best musicians around are saying. The truth seems to be that talent alone does not a great musician make. Rather, the right alchemical mix of a primitive inclination to music which may be as simple as the ability to follow a beat, in addition to supreme tenacity seem to be the secret ingredients that make great musicians. Alright so assuming you can keep time with your favorite songs and hum to them in rhythm, how then do you transform yourself into a skilled guitar player? Let’s discuss some of the very practical techniques that you (your son, your daughter, your cousin, your brother, your sister, your whomever) can use to become a great guitar player in the most efficient way.
Buy a good guitar and guitar tuner
Find a guitar hero who inspires you
Find a good mentor who is much better than you are
Make yourself a practice schedule and practice regularly
Learn how to read music
Find a good support system
Be patient with yourself
Listen to yourself often
Visualize your success regularly
This point might seem moot but you’d be surprised at the number of people who want to learn how to play the guitar but can’t seem to get round to buying one. Perhaps such folks have a subconscious fear of failure which makes them come up with all sorts of excuses to avoid the guitar purchase. If this is you who’s wanted to learn the guitar for a long time but you’ve just never gotten around to buying one, you might want to look in your rolodex for a friend who is already a pretty good guitar player and ask for help. This friend will probably know all the good guitar stores and the best places to get guitars online. He or she may even help you select a good guitar to begin with. The quality of guitar you get is many times directly proportional to the amount of money you pay for it. In my opinion, you rarely go wrong with springing extra cash (within your budget of course) for a high quality instrument except if you never use it. This is why the best thing to do is to probably start off with a “cheap” guitar in the $100 – $200 range and then upgrade to a nicer guitar when it is clear to you that you want to actually stick with your new hobby for the long haul. The following are some great guitar brands that have offerings at a variety of price ranges: Fender , Gibson, Takamine, Yamaha, Taylor, Martin, and Seagull.
In addition to your new shiny guitar, you may also want to pick up an electronic guitar tuner. You can buy these from pretty much any music store that sells guitars or the ever faithful amazon.com. Although experienced musicians can instinctively pick out guitar notes and tune their instruments by ear, you as a beginner won’t be able to. It is important to note that this does not in any way say anything about your talent or lack thereof. Rather, it is just a sign of your temporary musical weakness that will go away the longer and harder you practice. In the meantime, a guitar tuner will help you get and keep your guitar in tune. The notes of the guitar from the thickest to the thinnest string are as follows: E – A – D – G – B – E.
It is very important to find your own personal guitar hero who inspires you because heroes give you an idea of the limits of human potential. After you watch your guitar hero play a song live or somewhere on the internet, it will probably fill you with the fire to go home and practice harder because you realize just how much better than you they are. It can be a humbling experience to watch a much better musician play the same instrument before your very eyes but please don’t let this totally discourage you. You shouldn’t get discouraged when you see a video of Stevie Ray Vaughan going absolutely nuts on a “Texas Flood” solo or John Mayer silkily sliding into “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room”. Rather, it should inspire the heck out of you to work harder on your craft. Perhaps one day you’ll also be on some random stage somewhere in the universe inspiring a young man or woman to pick up the instrument in the not so distant future. Selecting guitar heroes is a very personal thing so please take all the time you need to do thorough research and find a few whose music truly lights an eternal fire in your soul. My personal guitar heroes are Jimi Hendrix, John Mayer, Derek Trucks, and Eric Clapton.
A lot of people think that being self taught is somehow more authentic or impressive than learning the same skill or craft from someone else. The truth however is that learning something on your own is inefficient and unnecessarily difficult. As a rule of thumb, please avoid going the self taught route unless you have absolutely no choice in the matter. The reason for this is simple… life is short and amongst your other responsibilities, you’ve only got so much time in the day or years in a lifetime to learn and accomplish the multitude of things you would like to. Having a great experienced mentor will drastically reduce the amount of time you need to devote to your craft in order to achieve mastery. While your mentor won’t necessarily provide you with a shortcut to guitar mastery, he or she will streamline the process and prevent you from wasting time. It might take you 20 years to master the guitar on your own. With a great mentor, you can cut that down to 9, 8, or even 7 years.
It is worth emphasizing the importance or spending some actual face time with your mentor. I still don’t completely understand why, but something very weird happens when you consistently put yourself in the presence of someone who has mastered something, and are completely open to their influence. It is almost like you start to literally absorb their power. There are many aspects of guitar playing that cannot be explained in words but can be readily learned if you see them in action over and over again. If you can humble yourself, put your ego aside, and be open to your mentor’s influence during your lessons or practice sessions, you will surprise yourself with your progress. It should also be noted here that although things like video conferencing are better than nothing, they still don’t compare to real life interaction when it comes to learning the guitar. Please strive to find a guitar teacher that lives relatively close so that you can actually go see him or her every week.
A word of caution here… please avoid egotistical mentors because they will eventually try to stifle your progress. People with big egos don’t like it when someone who once had an inferior skill set starts to approach or even surpass their own skill level. Learning how to play the guitar is difficult enough… avoid complicating your life by bringing an obnoxious mentor who always insists on controlling you.
You can have the best guitar in the world and Eric Clapton as your guitar mentor but you’ll never get better if you don’t practice religiously. Sorry to be the bad guy here, but all those stories you might have heard about someone who dropped acid or snorted cocaine every day for a month and magically got transformed into a guitar virtuoso as a result just aren’t true. The truth is a lot less sexy and a lot more boring. The truth is that like every other skill, you have to work hard to get really good at the guitar. Music is like a beautiful respectable woman… she won’t let you in unless you prove your worth. You have to be responsible, dedicated, and loyal to her if you want to get anywhere in terms of positive progress. In return for your commitment, you’ll get fulfillment like you’ve never known and a place of solace you can always go to regardless of how annoying the outside world gets.
Please note that it is not enough to just idly practice the same three songs over and over again for the duration of your guitar playing career. If you really want to get better, you will have to keep challenging yourself to learn new songs and techniques. It is usually best to break your practice up into short 10 minute bursts because sitting down for giant blocks of time will tire you out much more quickly. Below is an example of the guitar practice schedule that I use. It is a simple spreadsheet that anyone can copy and modify to suit their own specific needs.
Okay so perhaps you have accepted the fact that you’re going to have to practice in order to get better. The next question that usually follows that realization is: “For how long each day?” Well, the amount of time you devote to guitar practice each day will be proportional to how good you want to get. If you want to be able to entertain a group of your friends around a campfire, practice for 30 minutes a day 5 days a week. If you want to be a decent amateur guitarist that can play at the local coffee shop, practice for 1 hour a day 5 days a week. If you want to be a pro level guitarist, practice for 2 or more hours a day 6 days a week. If you follow those guidelines while practicing effectively, you will probably start noticing a tangible transformation in ~2 years if you maintain discipline.
You will probably start learning how to play the guitar by learning how to read what we call guitar tabs. A guitar tab is a sort of schematic that shows you exactly where to place your fingers on the fretboard and in what sequence to do so in order to play the guitar. Guitar tabs are awesome and you should definitely learn how to use them because you will come across them time and time again on your journey to guitar mastery.
If you want to be a really good guitarist though, you must learn how to read music because that will help you understand and internalize the written and unwritten rules of the music language. Good guitarists are a dime a dozen… what you should really be aiming for is to be a great musician who just happens to play the guitar. It won’t be as fun as learning to play the “purple haze” solo but learning to read music will make you a much more well rounded and competent musician in the long run.
I read something a while ago that went something like “you are the average of the 5 people closest to you” and that seems to ring true in the lives of many. Becoming a good guitarist is hard enough on its own… you don’t need to keep envious people and naysayers around you who will make it even more difficult. Truth be told, although it is probably impossible to completely avoid the jealous idiots who will try all sorts of things (insults, shaming tactics, guilt tripping, etc) to get you to stop your personal development, you can severely limit the amount of time you spend with such people and do your best to put them completely out of your mind when they aren’t physically in your presence. Take it upon yourself to find and spend the bulk of your free time around people who encourage you and take an interest in your quest. These people will lift you up when you are down, and encourage you to keep going when you feel like quitting because you don’t think your substantial efforts are getting you anywhere.
A lot of folks romanticize the idea of being a musician and it is easy to see why; after all, there is something seemingly magical about people who can play music really well if we’re being honest. The truth though is a lot less sexy because being a musician involves a ton of serious dedicated hard work with very little magic or glamour. As a matter of fact, some of the hardest working and most disciplined people I know are great musicians. All this should clue you in on something which goes something like the following: it will take a long time to get good, so be prepared to be patient with yourself. The human mind wants success to be linear, and by that I mean we expect to be twice as good after two months of practice as we were after one month of practice. The reality however is quite different and follows the same general form as the graph below.
At the very beginning, you’ll be putting in a ton of time and seeing very little progress. This is largely because your brain needs time to adjust to this new weird thing you’re trying to make it do without any prior experience. Once you get to the first inflexion point of the curve, you will start to see improvements really quickly. You’ll continue to improve until you reach the next plateau where you will start to struggle again. If you are able to stick to it and accept the ebb and flow of this dynamic while you valiantly struggle through the numerous plateaus you’ll inevitably encounter, you’ll just keep getting better. You’ll soon notice that your friends and the other people around you will start to marvel at your dexterity with the instrument.
I started playing the electric guitar in late September 2012. The video below is me playing the “Little Wing” solo in May 2016. Hopefully you get inspired by this.
During the early phases of your guitar career, you might play something for your spouse or friend that you think is quite beautiful only to get a lukewarm reception from him or her. This can be very demoralizing especially if you played a well liked song. With a well liked/popular song, you won’t have the poor quality of your song choice to blame for the lukewarm reception to your guitar playing. The likely cause of the less than stellar reception to your playing may very well be an underdeveloped ear for rhythm and timing in the music. In a piece of music, there are times to play, and times to leave “sound gaps”. After you’ve gained some experience, you’ll come to understand that the gaps you’ll leave in the music you play can actually be more profound than the sound of you plucking or strumming the guitar’s strings. It is very difficult to hear yourself accurately while you play your guitar at the beginning stages of your career. If you develop the habit of regularly recording yourself and listening back to what you play, any rhythm miscues will become fairly obvious. With this feedback loop, you can steadily improve your sense of rhythm with the passage of time which will make you a much better guitarist. The scarlett solo is a pretty good starter home studio kit that will plug right in with garageband on your apple desktop or laptop. Don’t worry… very little technical expertise is required for this setup.
Take time to regularly picture yourself playing your favorite type of music to your ideal audiences in your mind’s eye. Your ideal audience could be your parents at home, your boyfriend and his group of friends, or a 16,000 capacity stadium… it really doesn’t matter. Something almost magical happens when you consistently picture yourself being in a particular position. There might be a lot of bumps and bruises along the way, but you’ll just wake up one day and realize that you’re living a life that matches up with your visualizations. A word of caution here… visualizing your ideal scenario of guitar mastery will do you no good if you neglect all the other steps listed here. Visualization only works when there is solid thoughtful action behind it.
Well then boys and girls the above are some solid tips to help you get started on your journey to guitar virtuoso. You are also encouraged to do you own research outside this article and learn as much as possible from as many sources as possible in your quest for musical mastery. If you’ve got any questions, feel free to reach out directly via email, facebook, twitter, yada yada yada… we’d love to help. The more awesome musicians we have in this world to deliver music that soothes the soul, the better off we’ll all be. Godspeed my friend, and please get to work because the world needs you! Till next time friends, take care of yourselves and each other.
Oyolu B.C. Ph.D.
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