Can you (quite) easily transition from a C to a D chord but don’t know what scales are, let alone how to use them?
Do you know a few chords and songs but don’t know where you need to go next?
Welcome to an exciting stage in learning lead guitar.
Now that you’ve got the basics under your hand, you can start discovering what you can actually do on your instrument.
The following guitar skills should be developed earlier on in your learning curve, though you may actually master some of them when you’re at more advanced level of playing. (Some of these skills, like improvisation and phrasing, are easy to start developing, but will take time to master)
1. Understand rhythmic notation
Do you think that stuff about crotchets dividing into quavers, dividing further into semiquavers with ties and dots and all that mumbo jumbo of things is useless?
Not only is understanding rhythmic notation easy if you do it step by step, it is also very useful for various reasons.
First of all, it will make it possible to read rhythmic notation, which, together with guitar tab will make it possible for you to learn songs, lessons and exercises, (as we’ll see in skill 3).
Secondly, it will organize the different subdivisions of the beat in your mind, which will help a lot with the next, very important skill.
2. Playing on time
While you were learning your first chords, and changing from one to another, you weren’t bothering about timing at all.
Your goal was to get your fingers obey and go to the right place.
Now you should start to take playing on time into consideration. If you’ve gained Skill 1, and understood the subdivision of the beat, you now have to apply what you’ve learnt by practicing with a metronome.
If you don’t dig this right, nothing else will sound right. Playing on time is a must and a guitar skill that should be developed early on.
Hint: If you’re practicing your timing, give your fretting hand as little as possible to do. If for instance you’re practicing strumming on time, don’t change any chords with your left hand. Your mind should be focused completely on the rhythm.
3. Read guitar tabs fluently
For years, guitar teachers have dwelled on whether guitar players should learn to read standard music notation, or guitar tabs.
The battle still rages on with the music notation purists yelling “you’re not real musicians if you can’t read music” with the rock rebels replying “we can still play great”
And the pacifists claiming we could find a compromise in combining them.
Ok, the war may not be as fierce as I’m making it to be, but I’ve encountered quite a few people who have strong opinions on one way or the other.
What I will suggest to you is the way of the pacifist.
Not only because I hate violence, but also because I believe it’s the one that makes most sense.
Aside the musical puritanism, being able to read guitar tabs but not standard notation, has one major problem: What about the rhythm?
You can exactly locate which note you need on the fretboard using guitar tabs, but for how long are you going to hold that note before you go to the next?
Some guitar tabs come with their own version of rhythmic notation, that makes it easy to understand for how long you should hold the note.
But even to be able to understand these, you still have to know the basics of rhythm (Skill 1).
Let’s recap then, following this way, you will get what notes you’re going to play from the guitar tabs but you get for how long you hold each note using standard music notation as in this example:
If you had to play a piece of music like this, the guitar tabs will tell you exactly on what frets you should put your fingers. The standard notation above them will tell you the rhythm.
You should have noticed there is other stuff going on apart from notes and numbers in this piece of music; lines between notes, curves over notes, and a serpent looking thing above some notes.
Those are the signs of phrasing techniques (slides, legato and vibrato in the above example). Phrasing tells you how you play the notes and we’ll deal with this very important skill separately later on.
4. Memorize the notes on the fretboard.
I realized a bit too late how important this one is. It would have made life easier if I started working on it earlier.
You need to start memorizing where each note is on the fretboard and arrive to the point where if I asked you to find all the C notes on the fretboard you would do so with ease.
You may not fully understand the value of this right now, but as you read what other guitar skills you’ll have to start learning, you will realize how much it will come useful.
5. Barre chords
Barre chords are a hard nut, I know.
But one you can overcome with the right amount of practice, and by using the correct positions, preferably under the guidance of a good guitar teacher.
They’re also something you cannot do without.
On a positive note, barre chords make life easier, because unlike your open CAGED chords, the pattern for each chord remains the same. All you have to do is to move your hand up and down the fretboard and barre a different fret to get the same kind of chord (ex. major to major, minor to minor etc)
For instance, if I want to play say, G major starting on the low E string, I will find that note, barre the whole fret, and play the pattern of (open) E major.
If I want an A major, I’ll play the same whole thing 2 frets higher, so on and so forth.
6. Music theory
Think of music theory as a guide, especially if you want to create your own music, a goal you should start considering at this stage.
The coming two skills are closely related to the study of music theory. You can learn them without knowing the theory, but it would be more like following patterns and not knowing what you’re doing.
There are so many notes on the fretboard, how am I going to know which ones I’m going to use for my solos?
Scales come to the rescue.
Think of scales as paths on the fretboard. A set of notes to choose from, which, assuming you’re using the right scale, (and that’s where music theory becomes relevant) will not sound out of tune if you play after each other, in any order.
You’re playing a solo and following a path (the scale).
Now imagine if, placed in a logical way, on this path, there were benches, where you can sit for a while before continuing your journey.
Though you can hold any note for any amount of time and there aren’t any strict music theory rules that cannot be disobeyed, in general you would want to use the notes of the arpeggio as the benches.
Arpeggios indicate what notes you should linger on, emphasize, and apply phrasing techniques like vibrato to.
Learn arpeggios, their role in music and, eventually, how you can use them in your riffs, licks and solos.
9. Chord progressions
You’ve probably played the transition from the chord G to the chord C many times by now.
What you probably don’t know is that you’re playing a V – I chord progression in the key of C.
While it is music theory that will explain how all this works, a chord progression simply means two or more chords played after each other.
Some chord progressions simply sound better, and thus, are more common in popular music.
Probably the most common progression in Pop and Rock music is the I – IV – V progression. To get its sound, play the chords C, F and G after each other.
Learn some common chord progressions, and at this point you can even start experimenting with writing your first songs.
Improvising means making music up on the spot.
I used to think, how is that possible?
Well, it’s not an easy guitar skill to master. Actually starting to do it is not hard though if you follow these steps as well as learn some music theory.
11. Phrasing techniques
Phrasing techniques used right, are what will make your friends realize you can really play.
If you followed the steps in the link on improvisation in the skill above, you have realized you actually need to know only two scales to start improvising in any major or minor key.
And that the quality of your solos is not directly proportional to how many scales you can play, or in how many positions.
What makes a solo or a lick stand out is the phrasing – how you play the notes.
This lesson on phrasing will show you the nuts and bolts of this underrated, but crucial aspect of guitar playing.
It’s what gets you thinking in terms of melodic phrases, and thus, make it possible to actually create them.
12. Power chords riffs
You’re probably learning other musicians’ guitar riffs by now, but power chords actually make it possible to create your own riffs.
The power chord not only sounds great, especially with distortion applied, but is simple and easy to use.
Start writing your first power chord riffs now!
13. Training your ear
In the section on scales, I told you that you can use them as a path (and arpeggios as benches).
Music theory shows you what path you should use.
And technique makes it actually possible for you to walk that path.
Think of ear training like having a torch to see through that path. Except that your journey is not made of visions but sounds.
Like a torch that helps you see what you’re going to encounter next in your path, a trained ear will know how a note is going to sound before you actually play it.
If you’re playing the notes of a particular scale, you will be able to choose beforehand whether you play the second, third, fourth (etc.) degree of the scale because you already know how they’re going to sound.
Now, every time you’re practicing guitar, you’re actually training your ear – as long as the guitar is in tune, of course.
However, it’s good to start learning ear training, especially the study of relative pitch, separately. Learning the sounds of intervals, scales and triads will make anything you do in music easier and more pleasurable.
14. Playing with others
Once you have got a basic understanding of most or all of the skills mentioned above, start finding fellow musicians to play with.
It’s not only fun, but also a great learning experience.
That said, this should not replace the time you should be spending practicing on your own. Develop your skills by yourself, then try them out with your friends.
The amount of skills mentioned here may seem overwhelming.
However, you need to keep in mind this is a long term process. While skills 1 – 3 should be mastered as soon as possible, the other skills will just grow with you every time you practice.
I suggest that you work on these guitar skills simultaneously, since what you will gain in one will automatically rub over the others.
For instance, the more scales, arpeggios and phrasing techniques you know, the better you can improvise. On the other hand, when you’re improvising, you’re reinforcing and using in practice those skills.
The more guitar skills you have, the better you can play other people’s music, and the sooner you can create your own.
If you would like to learn more about guitar playing, songwriting, music theory and the pursuit of happiness, subscribe here so that you will receive an email with my next article.
You may consider giving a donation, by which you will be helping a songwriter achieve his dreams. Each contribution, no matter how small, will make a difference.