When do you become good at playing guitar?

There was a time when I thought I had become pretty good at playing guitar.

Then I got a bit better and found out that the things I knew were far from enough.

So I practiced more, got better, only to find out that the horizon was even further away than I had thought.

Until I realized I was approaching the whole thing in the wrong way.

That reaching the “horizon” to becoming good at playing guitar (or any other instrument) is not something written in some old book of musical standards.

That, as in a real-life horizon, the horizon is never reached because as soon as you learn and internalize new things on your instrument, you realize there is a new array of possibilities you can utilize in your playing you didn’t even know existed before.

Let me give you just one specific example.

When I was learning how to bend strings on the guitar, and how to actually use string bending while improvising on pentatonic scales, I felt that I could play “real” solos.

I was making these improvised solos which my friends liked, and which I was quite proud of too.

Yet I always felt that there was something missing in my solos, something that made them sound mediocre compared to the solos from my favorite guitarists.

I blamed it on simplicity, so I focused my practice on gaining speed on guitar and learned more techniques assuming it will do the trick.

For sure my technique did improve as did my speed but still, there were some things I couldn’t really put my finger on, that were telling me “this is a pretty good solo played by an amateur guitar player”.

I would have kept doing the same things achieving the same results had I stumbled upon articles by guitar virtuoso Tom Hess and from what I learned, I understood exactly what the two main problems with my solos were:

  1. An unwanted buzz from the strings I wasn’t playing
  2. Mediocre phrasing

Thus, what I had to do to take my solos to the next level was not to learn more technique, copy more solos and play faster, but solve those two specific problems.

Once I discovered this, I spent a while practicing both right and left-hand string muting, to stop the unwanted noise.

I also realized that how I played the notes was as important as what notes, I played.

That, for instance, I should have been playing more long notes with vibrato in my solos, rather than sequences of notes with bent strings in the middle.

After a while focusing on these things my solos got so much better that I felt like printing “I can play REAL guitar solos” on my t-shirt and actually wear it.

Which felt great – until it came to recording the solos!

The first thing I realized at the studio was that the guillotine of the metronome was not as merciful as my friend’s ears. That, being on time, meant – being exactly on time. That those little inaccuracies that I had been ignoring all the time, actually mattered in real-life musical situations.

Do you see where this is going?

As soon as you learn something new, and internalize it, the horizon just moves further.

Since the horizon is always moving, the question “am I good at playing guitar?” – would be too subjective to answer. Thus I will attempt at giving it my own definition. This is what I believe makes the difference between a beginner and an advancing guitar player. 

By this definition, you become good at playing the guitar, when you have enough tools and knowledge that you are able to steer yourself towards a horizon of your own choice.

What does this mean?

If your goal is to be able to play guitar in the style of Steve Vai, it’s going to take you a lot longer to reach your horizon than learning to play in the style of Kurt Cobain. This is one of the reasons why defining “good” is hard. (Guitar players have different goals and what may be good to reach someone’s goals, may not be good enough for someone else’s).

When you’re just starting out though, the basics are more or less the same.

However, irrespective of what your long-term guitar playing goals are, you should reach a point where you know exactly what you want, and have a clear idea of what it takes to get there.

It’s the point when you start asking questions like “what chords and techniques do I need to learn so that I can create riffs like Smells Like Teen Spirit?” rather than “how am I going to get 3 fingers to stay on the same fret to play the A major chord”, that you can say you really are on your way to take your playing to a higher level

However, I cannot emphasize enough that it’s not really important to answer the question “am I good at guitar”. You’re not getting good, you’re getting better on the guitar every single time you practice as long as that practice is goal-oriented and focused.

And that’s how you become good quickly. When you just want to get better, thus put in the hours, and more importantly, practice correctly, becoming good at playing guitar is practically guaranteed.

The higher the quality of your practice and the more time you put in, the sooner you’ll get to the point where you say something like “I’m going to master Blues guitar, emotional solos with a lot of string bending and vibrato. I’m going to make the guitar sing like Chuck Berry and BB King”.

When you reach a point like this, when you’re able to decide exactly where you want your horizon to be, when you have figured out how the guitar basically works and are at the steering the wheel of your own progress, “Am I good at guitar” doesn’t matter anymore because you’re comfortably sailing through a journey that never ends, where the only thing that matters is that you don’t stop.

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