If you’re a late beginner or an intermediate guitar player, congratulations, you’ve survived the hardest stage of all – being a complete beginner.
Many people think the beginner stage of guitar playing is the easiest, because the things they’re learning, actually are easy compared to what more advanced players are doing.
But the truth is that while pressing an A chord is way easier than playing fast legato technique, by the stage you’re practicing fast legato technique your overall guitar playing skills, from hand coordination, to muscle memory, among many other factors, would have been developed and at that point, it wouldn’t be any harder than it was when you were learning A major.
Not just that.
As you gain more experience in guitar practicing, you will start getting more out of your practice time. You would have trained yourself to be more focused and goal oriented, you will know what you need to learn to achieve those goals as well as in what order.
You will also be more motivated because playing a song, or getting creative with a scale, is way more interesting than getting your fingers to obey you and press the notes of a chord.
You can learn all this stuff about correct practicing, goal setting and motivation by trial and error as you go along in your guitar progress. It works, but it takes a long time, struggle and the risk of quitting.
These guitar playing tips are aimed to help you avoid common mistakes and inefficient ways of practicing guitar and march straight on to your clearly defined musical goals.
1. Be prepared for plateaus and use them to your benefit
There will be times where you will practice for just an hour and say “Wow, I can’t believe I’ve improved so much in just an hour”.
There will be breakthroughs, when you finally figure something out and using in your music it suddenly becomes as easy and fun as eating soft candy.
However, there will be days, weeks or even months where progress will be slow, or seem to have stopped altogether.
These periods of time are called plateaus. They are part of the learning curve and we all have them at times!
Because they don’t know this, many intermediate guitar students quit during a plateau. Their motivation goes down because they think they have reached the maximum of their abilities on their instrument, or that it will take an eternity to get unstuck of the rut they’re in.
Guitar students who quit for this reason, also don’t realize another thing: Plateaus are temporary.
And if you use the plateau well, you can even consider it as a prelude to a breakthrough.
How do you use a plateau well?
By asking questions.
Quality questions about your strengths and weaknesses, your teacher (or lack of), the books and sources of information you’re using and other things that are either causing the plateau, or can get you out of it.
Then, take one or more decisions that will change the direction away from what you’re doing that’s causing the lack of progress.
These decisions can include anything from changing the quantity of time practicing, buying a book, getting a teacher (or getting rid of a teacher that doesn’t care about, or isn’t able to get you to reach, your goals), practicing more slowly, preparing a practice schedule, using a metronome, changing the order of the items you’re learning, and many other things.
The more quality questions you ask, the sooner you get out of the plateau, and the bigger will be the breakthrough that comes after it.
But the most important thing is that you don’t stop, even if it takes some time to get out of the plateau.
Reaching a plateau is a normal part of the learning curve and should never be mistaken for an inability to get better at playing guitar.
2. Set specific musical goals
What do you intend to learn in the next month, the year, the next three years?
That would be pretty hard!
Set goals and make plans so that you can focus on the topics that you really need, rather than learn things that come up at random.
If you don’t do so you will spend a lot of time learning things you don’t need that much, and less time on things that are vital to achieving your goals.
When you set goals, the more specific you get, the better. “I want to become a good guitar player” is too vague for instance.
How about something like “I want to become a Heavy Metal guitar player who could play both rhythm and lead guitar as well as write songs. I want be able to record and perform my own music. I also want to become a complete musician, learn the theory behind what I’m doing and experiment in songwriting in other genres than Heavy Metal”
(Guess whose goal was that?)
What I want you to notice though, is not what my goals were – yours may be entirely different – but how specific they were.
Don’t you think it’s way easier to actually become a recording and performing Heavy Metal guitar player if you planned to do specifically that, rather than planned for something generic like “becoming a good guitar player”?
3. Apply what you learn
While you were learning the A minor chord, and building your finger callouses there wasn’t much you could do with that chord except for learning the exercises or songs that were given to you.
Now that you’re beyond the basics, if you’re learning a new chord (or scale), find ways how to use it. Write a simple song or a melody with it.
If you do so, you will not only memorize that chord forever, but would have started training yourself in the crafts of songwriting and improvisation.
4. Learn the notes on the fretboard
First, learn the name of the notes on the low E and A string. You’re going to use them a lot in playing moveable chords and scales.
Then there is a freebie, the high E string. Since it has the same notes as the low E, you don’t need to learn the note names again!
Finally learn the notes on the remaining three strings: D, G and B. Though you will not use these as frequently as those on the low E and A, learning them will make life way easier when you start improvising.
5. Start improvising on guitar
This lesson on guitar improvisation, will show you exactly how to get started in the craft.
In order to start improvising as explained in the lesson, you will only need to know the name of the notes of the low E string. It cannot be emphasized enough though that learning the name of all notes on the fretboard is very important if you want to take improvisation further.
6. Learn scales in context and use them
A big mistake many intermediate students make, is to start learning a ton of scales without knowing:
- Where to use them
- How to use them
If you just know one position of the minor pentatonic and can create licks on it when someone is playing in its equivalent minor key, you can do many more things on guitar than someone who knows a lot of scales but has no clue where and how to use them.
7. Take care of tension
One of the most common bad habits nearly all beginner guitar students catch, one that may keep hurting them until advanced levels, is using a lot of unnecessary tension.
I have realized through time that telling students to relax doesn’t really work. It’s a word that’s used so often, that it’s likely of pass over you if your guitar teacher is telling it to you too.
What I tell my students to do is to stop and consciously relax the tension in their muscles before they start playing and, and will remind them of it every time I see them getting wound up or “fighting” the guitar.
Don’t just tell yourself you’re feeling relaxed. Stop and consciously think about releasing muscle tension and take deep regular breaths before you start practicing something and try to catch yourself up if you start accumulating tension in any part of your body.
8. Playing fast, comes last
There is nothing wrong with measuring how fast you can play say, a scale or a lick, and watching your speed go up over time.
Actually that’s healthy because when you see something measurable, such as a metronome marking, your motivation to practice will increase.
That said, do not spend a lot of time on increasing your speed at this stage.
- You’re going to learn a lot of things that will automatically increase how fast you can play along the way anyway.
- You don’t need to play fast to write great solos. Think of playing fast as an option you would like to have, but not one you can’t do without before you start creating music.
- If you can play something only sloppily even at a slow tempo, if you play it faster it will just be sloppier.
9. Consider guitar phrasing earlier on
Techniques such as string bending, vibrato and hammer ons and pull offs are vital for us guitar players
These techniques are not only important if you’re learning songs, since you’re going to encounter them a lot in the songs you’re learning, but will also help you write great solos.
It’s also good if you start thinking of guitar phrasing as a concept rather than a set of isolated techniques.
10. Frequent other musicians
Making friends with people who play, or are seriously learning an instrument, has many benefits.
These are a few:
- People who are like each other tend to like each other. If you’re serious about your instrument and you find someone you like who is also serious about music, you’re very likely to get along and your friendship may end up being lifelong.
To be honest I don’t think there’s anything on earth that has earned me as many good friends, as music in my life.
- They will keep your level of motivation higher since when you’re not talking about girls (or boys) you’re likely to be talking about music.
- You will learn a lot from them through sharing information and discussing ideas.
- You can learn a lot from jamming with them
- They’re perfect candidates to form a band with since they’re your friends and also serious about music
- They may eventually succeed in the music industry and help you find opportunities if you’re trying to build a music career yourself. (Works the other way round too. If you succeed in music and your old friends are working hard but struggling, lend a hand when you can. Karma works!)
11. Take care of your mindset
What you think and how you feel while you practice, matter as much as how much you practice.
In my short ebook 5 Steps to an Ideal Practicing Mindset I show you how to cleanse your brain from negative thinking and fill it with empowering thoughts and quality questions instead. A mindset that will speed up your learning curve and make the whole process more fun.
12. Record yourself on video
You should do this mainly to
- Detect mistakes and bad habits earlier on
- Get clues as to what you should be focusing on
- When you watch the videos after time, you will tangibly see the progress you have made. This will keep your motivation level high. And motivation is key if you want to develop a healthy mindset.
13. Don’t spend a lot of money on gear unless you really need to (or have a lot of spare cash)
I’m not an advocate of spending a lot of money on gear earlier on, unless you’re already recording or performing your music.
It’s not worth it if you’re just practicing, either by yourself or with a band that won’t be performing anytime soon.
There are some reasons for this:
- It doesn’t matter much whether the sound is that great if you’re just practicing. You may want to develop a sound of your own as you become better, but I would leave that for the later intermediate and advanced levels of playing
- As you get better you will make more informed decisions on which gear to buy and be less likely to fall for a “shiny object”.
- Your needs may change as you improve. You will start getting opportunities for recording and performing (if you look for them). Isn’t it wiser to buy the (possibly) more expensive gear then, when you know exactly what you need and what specific sound you want?
What I’m saying here is not that you shouldn’t buy gear. If you fell in love with an expensive guitar at the store and want to go for it, go for it. But make sure you’re doing it for the reasons other than the “cool factor” of the guitar.
14. Use a metronome, but not all the time
Not using a metronome, is a bad idea. You will develop a bad sense of timing and you won’t even know you’re out of time because you aren’t used to practicing with a beat.
However, some students go to the other extreme and use a metronome all the time.
This is not a good idea, either.
Let’s say you’re learning a song. Playing exactly in time is not the first thing you should focus on. First, you need to find the notes, the fingers you will use, the techniques, and to figure out the rhythm itself.
It’s impossible to work on these things and focusing on keeping the beat at the same time.
It gets even worse if you’re learning something complex, where, in order to learn it, you have to turn the speed very, very slow, below the minimum tempo your metronome can play, as you’ll see in the next guitar playing tip.
15. Zoom in, Zoom out formula
Slowing down the tempo is only one way of making what’s difficult feel easy.
The other trick is to zoom in on the specific notes or chords that are giving you trouble. These could be as little as two notes/chords
Isolate that chord change, slide, pull of, or whatever is giving you trouble and very slowly (without using a metronome) fix it.
Repeat the action many times at this slow speed to develop the muscle memory.
Then start putting it in a wider context, say the two bars around that part, depending on the situation.
Once you get that perfect, start increasing the speed.
If you do the above, no matter how slow you have learnt that little piece of music, and no matter what tempo you need to reach, gradually increasing the tempo will be easy since your fingers know pretty well where they should go since you have developed the muscle memory at a slow speed.
After doing this, go back to the whole song. That part will probably not give you more trouble.
If it does you may need to repeat the process, until you fix it. You may need to do this a couple of times to get something you find very difficult right.
But each time it will be a bit easier.
16. Start building a repertoire
You will be learning songs for multiple reasons, most of them related to your guitar progress.
However, it’s not a bad idea that you also start building your music repertoire right now. Songs you know very well from start to finish that you could play in front of others, whenever you would want to do that.
This will, among other things, give you more self-confidence when playing with other musicians.
17. Form a band
Some people wait until they’re advanced musicians before they join or form a band.
I did the exact opposite and I don’t regret it. I’ve played in amateur bands before I could call myself a guitar player.
Even if it took a very long time to play the first gig, which was a complete fiasco, it was the start of a learning process, as well as fun and motivating.
Since you’re not an advanced musician yet, do not search for advanced musicians to play with. Search for musicians who are more or less on your level and serious about music.
That way you will grow together.
Now, armed with this knowledge, your task is to set your musical goals, make a plan towards reaching them, grab up your axe, and practice yourself to greatness!
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