Determining whether you’re a beginner, intermediate, or advanced guitarist is not an exact science, and it cannot be answered based on what specific things you know (for example, if you can play barre chords, you’re an intermediate player, if you can sweep pick, you’re an advanced player, etc).
The reason for this is that different guitar students learn in different ways and specialize in different areas (for example, many advanced players, even virtuosos, never learned how to sweep pick because sweep picking technique is not what they need to express themselves musically).
Thus, rather than focusing on specific musical elements or techniques, this article will look at some indicators related to how you think and practice that suggest you’re approaching advanced levels of guitar playing.
- Mistakes no longer frustrate you
Beginner guitarists are often fearful of making mistakes. They believe that making mistakes is bad and that making a lot of them indicates a lack of potential.
Intermediate guitarists typically recognize that mistakes are a frustrating but unavoidable part of the learning process.
Advanced guitarists use their mistakes to determine what they need to practice.
Some mistakes are one-time occurrences caused by a momentary loss of focus. Advanced guitarists understand that we are all human, and that this will happen from time to time.
Some mistakes, however, are repetitive; for example, you always mess up the same three notes in a lick or solo.
Advanced guitarists appreciate these mistakes. They practice the three notes separately and slowly to uncover the weakness in their technique, and create exercises to address it. As a result, they will have solved that problem not for just that lick, but for every time they encounter a similar situation, in different contexts and variations.
If mistakes are your friends, you’re probably getting close to advanced levels of guitar playing.
- You’re playing faster with ease
Playing the guitar is not a sport, and being able to play fast is only a small part of what defines an advanced guitarist.
Also, playing the guitar at a high speed, known as shredding, may not be your goal. If playing at such speed isn’t necessary to express yourself musically, you can become an advanced guitarist without ever shredding.
That being said, being able to play faster and more easily as you improve on the guitar usually happens as a byproduct of other things, such as:
• Mastery of techniques that allow you to play fast, such as legato.
• Better two-hand synchronization
• More efficient use of your hands and fingers
• Better picking techniques
• Better ear (you must hear fast notes in your head to play them correctly)
• Playing on time
Whether you intend to play fast or not, the examples above must be learned or improved. Even if playing fast isn’t your goal, improving in each of them will help you gain speed.
As a result, even if shredding is not their goal, advanced guitar players can usually achieve decent levels of speed.
- You have a clear plan
When you’re a beginner, you have dreams, goals, and aspirations but no plan for how to achieve them.
You don’t know what you will need to know.
Most beginners try to figure out a plan by searching for lessons on the Internet and in books, or they delegate the plan to a teacher who has been through the process and has experience creating plans for others.
When you reach intermediate level, your plan becomes clearer (the goal of my workbook, the Intermediate Guitar Audit, is to assist you in achieving this required clarity).
Advanced players have a clear picture of what they don’t know and what needs to be done to gain that required knowledge.
This is not to say that advanced guitarists do not take lessons from more advanced or virtuoso guitarists. Though they can still achieve their objectives without a teacher, it will take them longer to figure things out on their own.
- You can cross genres with ease
When I first started playing the guitar, I was into Punk Rock, which is a relatively easy genre to learn.
If you play Punk, you don’t need much musical knowledge to join a band.
This made it simple for me to begin playing in a band and writing songs.
After a few years I felt I had mastered the Punk genre and wanted to broaden my horizons, so I began taking lessons from a teacher who was proficient in a variety of musical genres.
One of the first things he said to me was, “If you only listen to Punk and only play Punk, you will only know Punk and miss music. Listen to and learn how to play from the best guitarists in every genre of music.”
He then made a list of different genres and the best musicians and bands in each.
This liberated me from being a Punk guitarist who could only play Punk riffs and introduced me to the wealth of music I had been missing.
However, as an early intermediate guitarist, I found it difficult to play these other genres.
Nowadays, I can easily switch from one genre to another (with the exception of genres of music that are not among my favorites and require a great deal of specialized knowledge, such as Jazz and Classical guitar)
If you’re looking for ways to expand your musical vocabulary outside of your favorite genres, you’re probably in the later stages of intermediate guitar.
- You trust your ear
“If it sounds good, it is good”
I’d heard it many times, but for a long while, I had doubts about whether what I was playing was good – even if it sounded good.
For example, if I used a note that wasn’t in the key, I used to worry that it was a “wrong note,” even if it sounded great when resolved.
These fears will begin to fade as you progress. Your ear has matured and you have learned to trust it.
If you improve your knowledge of music theory, you will also understand that lack of understanding of something doesn’t make it wrong. For example, notes that are not in key are called chromatic notes, and they sound good when resolved carefully. If I had known more music theory at the time, I would have realized that the wrong note was not wrong at all, even theoretically.
- You can understand why something sounds wrong
Beginner and intermediate guitar students frequently ask, “I’m playing the right notes at the right time, why does my lick sound bad?”
Advanced guitarists can listen carefully, identify what sounds wrong, and then fix it.
Some of the reasons you may be playing the right notes at the right time but sounding bad are as follows:
• Unwanted string noise
• Inaccurate string bends
• Messy vibrato
• You’re slightly off time and aren’t aware of it
• Weak pick attack
• Slightly bending the strings with your left hand fingers
Advanced guitar players have weaknesses as well, but when they appear, they can identify and correct them, whereas beginner and intermediate players notice something is wrong but are unable to identify what it is.
- Your skills are integrated
Most of the time, beginning guitarists must learn new skills.
Intermediate guitarists must learn new skills as well as master those they have learned on a more basic level.
Late intermediate and advanced guitarists not only master each individual skill, but can also integrate them together.
This is the distinction between a) knowing how to play the minor pentatonic scale, string bending, vibrato, and rhythmic patterns and b) combining these four areas of knowledge to create a lick or solo.
In this intermediate guitar lesson, I show you the process of integrating skills you have already acquired.
Though there is no clear definition of what makes a guitarist intermediate or advanced, if you notice some or all of these signs, congratulations – you’ve come a long way in your guitar playing journey.
If you don’t notice any of these signs, it’s a good idea to start adopting the thinking patterns and practice habits they imply, so you can reach the level of guitar playing you want sooner.
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