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Why being a self-taught guitarist is possible (but not a good idea)

In the title to this article I tell you that it is possible to become a self-taught guitarist but before moving on, it’s important to clearly define what being self-taught on the guitar means.

In this context, a self-taught guitarist is one who doesn’t receive any formal education from a teacher or a school, online or offline.

Informally, you are still using the experience of others through their work in educational books, videos and articles as well as getting advice from friends or band members who are better than yourself.

For instance, though Metallica’s guitarist James Hetfield is widely considered a self-taught guitar player, one cannot possibly doubt he learned a lot of stuff from fellow musicians Kirk Hammet and the late Cliff Burton.

Thus, if you think you can learn the guitar on your own literally – without any information passed on to you from others at all – the answer is no. Unless you have special gifts most of us don’t have, being a self-taught guitarist using this strict definition, is next to impossible.

If, what you mean by self-taught is not attending any formal lessons, but still use information from the Internet, books, friends etc., then yes, learning the guitar on your own is possible, and others have done it before.

Nowadays there is an abundance of information. If you want to learn a particular guitar technique, all you have to do is to Google it. Likewise with guitar scales, arpeggios, music theory, knowledge of the fretboard, ear training and all the other things you’ll need to be able to play the instrument well.

When in doubt, you can always ask a friend for advice, or put your specific question on a site like Quora and have experts answer your difficulty.

Yet, as I will explain in the following points, if you teach yourself the guitar like this, it will take you much longer to learn, you will have less fun and you will develop bad habits and holes in your playing.

Let’s get into some more detail.

1. The information is not organized.

When I write a lesson like this I do my best to teach you the specific topic (in this case arpeggios on guitar) in the most efficient way possible.

What I can’t possibly know though, is whether learning arpeggios is what you need right now.

In what order you learn things on guitar is extremely important and the role of a good teacher is to organize the information and give it to you at the right time, as well as teach you how to use it and apply it in your playing. 

2. It is not oriented towards your goals

Though I teach my beginner guitar students more or less the same things, my intermediate and advanced students are not necessarily having the same lessons.

For instance, if the main goal of one student is to learn songs to entertain his friends, and the main goal of another student is to write his own songs and join a Rock band, the very basic building blocks of learning the guitar are the same.

They both need to learn how to hold the pick, press the notes, read guitar tabs and chord diagrams, learn some easy tunes, learn basic chords, strum those chords in time, so on and so forth.

But after they acquire the basics, their musical journey will not be the same.

The student who wants to entertain his friends will need to learn a lot of songs, and the master the most common techniques found in the genre of the songs he’s learning.

The student who wants to form a Rock band and write his own music, will need more music theory, and build improvisation and songwriting skills.

Once again, a good guitar teacher will give you what you need to reach your specific goals, something the Internet cannot.

3. You’ll develop bad habits

If there is one thing you definitely cannot get if you’re a self-taught guitarist it is feedback from a professional.

You may think you are doing something correctly but you may not be noticing things such as bad finger position, unnecessary muscle tension, bad posture, not being exactly on time, messy vibrato, unwanted strings noise, and many other things that can develop into bad habits a professional guitar teacher will spot in time.

Worse still, you wouldn’t even know you have developed a bad habit, thus you do nothing to correct it.

For instance, when self-taught intermediate guitar students start coming for lessons, they usually see a significant improvement in the first few weeks.

And the reason wouldn’t be that I give them a lot of new stuff to learn, but that I point out and correct their bad habits.  After they practice on correcting that habit, they become able to do what they already know much more efficiently and correctly.

4. There will be holes in your playing

If there is one thing intermediate, but self-taught, guitar students have in common, it is being very weak in a particular crucial area, and way more advanced in other areas.

And that weakness would be making it impossible for them to use use their strengths effectively.

For instance, once I had a student who was really advanced when it came to technique. He could play his favourite guitarist’s solos, some quite challenging, note for note, on time, and correctly.

However, one of his main goals was to improvise, and when I suggested that we start with a basic improvisation in the key of B minor, he neither knew where to find the note B, nor did he know what a key was.

He did know the minor pentatonic scale in one position, but had no clue how to use it in improvisation.

The above is a very common scenario where a guitar student would have reached a pretty advanced level of guitar playing but entirely neglected one or more aspects that are required to reach his goals.

The student in the example above, started to improvise in just a few weeks since he already had most of the required skills in place – all he needed was to fill certain holes in his playing that would make all the rest possible.

Conclusion: What’s worse than being a self-taught guitarist?

I hope that above I have made a solid argument that it is much more effective, fast and enjoyable to learn the guitar with a teacher than gathering random information from friends or the Internet.

However, this should come with a warning: It’s better to learn the guitar on your own than with a teacher who doesn’t know what he’s doing.

I have been playing the guitar for 25 years and have had 8 different teachers during this course.

The quality of those teachers ranges from “incompetence” to “good stuff” to “excellence”.

And guess what?

The “incompetence” was my first guitar teacher. The “good stuff” came in the middle and I’ve only found the “excellent stuff” in the past 4 years.

There is a very simple reason for this.

At first, you have no clue on what makes a guitar teacher good. At best, you will judge him on his level of guitar playing, but that is no guarantee that that person is also good at teaching the instrument.

While experience will show you how to find a good guitar teacher, the following are some clues on whether the teacher you’re looking out for is the right one for you:

1. He cares about your goals: Specifically state your musical goals to your guitar teacher. If he’s a good teacher, he will love the fact that you’re already goal oriented. If he’s not, he will ignore your goals and do his own thing whether it’s what you really need or not.

2. He’s motivated: If your teacher is more concerned with his watch, than excited by your progress, his lack of motivation will be transferred to you.

3. He doesn’t just teach you, he trains you.

Though, strictly speaking, what is expected from a teacher is that he gives you the right information, organized in the right order, what separates the best guitar teachers from the average ones is the ability to help you apply and integrate that information.

4. He doesn’t dodge your questions: You may have questions your guitar teacher cannot answer, mainly for these two reasons.

  1. He knows the answer but also knows you don’t have enough knowledge to understand it yet.
  2. He doesn’t have the answer.

There’s nothing wrong in any of them. 

What you should look for is the way he deals with your question. 

If he’s transparent and tells you something like “I can’t possibly explain to you how to use the modes since you don’t know yet what intervals and scales are”. 

An answer I have given myself at times:

“I can’t teach you Jazz guitar improvisation since I’m not fluent in that genre myself. I can teach you Rock, Pop, Heavy Metal and Blues but if Jazz is your thing, I suggest that you find an expert in that subject”

In both examples, the question wasn’t dodged, but answered.

Be careful of teachers who give you a superficial answer rather than answer your concern in the best way they can, or explain to you why they can’t answer it.

 

The final step after finding a good guitar teacher, is being a good student yourself.

It’s useless to have the best teacher in the world if you don’t do your part, practice what he tells you, and if you’re dishonest yourself.

Because when a good teacher and a good student start working together, the results will definitely be way faster, better and more enjoyable, than having that good guitar student learn on his own.


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