If you want to get good at guitar, the best way to go about it is to work toward becoming a complete guitar player. Complete guitar players can perform three main real-world actions:
If you are teaching yourself how to play guitar, considering guitar lessons or even buying a guitar, having a fundamental idea of what all the different types of guitarists can do can save you a lot of time, heartache and money. In this article, we'll explore the core skills you need to practice for each stage.
Breaking up proficiency levels into beginner, intermediate and advanced stages is somewhat misleading because getting good at guitar is really about becoming three different types of guitar players rolled into one, and you don't even have to reach all three levels to be considered decent. In fact, a lot of people are really content being very good — advanced — at stage 1. On the flip side, one can be a beginner at stage 3. In reality, it's best not to get caught up in labels. Just focus on practicing the skills you need to become the kind of player you want to become.
Let's take a quick look at each level.
Commonly known as learning to play rhythm guitar, this is the most essential thing that guitar players need to know how to do because it is the most commonly used skill set at every level. In fact, The reality is that anything you learn before the skills in this level is largely a distraction.
You don't even have to sing if you don't want to, you just have to have the ability to mouth the words correctly over the rhythm so that you can be in the right places at the right times.
To achieve this level of playing you need to know all the basic chords, how to navigate a song chart and how to strum. You also need to learn how to use a capo.
The great thing about this level of advancement is that you can be considered a pretty good guitar player and enjoy a lifetime of playing music even if you stop here and just get really strong at playing songs. You can even play with more advanced players and have a lot of fun.
Plus, it's pretty easy to get started, and the best guitar guides can get you playing real songs in as little as 30 minutes.
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Having the ability to take a guitar solo is the natural next step after you learn how to sing and play songs. If you were playing with another guitar player, why should you both always play the same thing? It's okay, and it works, but it would be better to break up some of the singing with an instrumental break.
Or, you can just trade solos over chord progressions and not sing at all. That's fun, too. The point is, you're playing together in the complementary way that musicians often play when they come together.
To play a solo on a song, you basically need to be able to improvise with single notes, usually using the melody as a reference, while someone else plays the chords.
If you really want to know how to become a good guitar player, the quickest, easiest way to get started with guitar solos is to learn the first position of the major pentatonic scale. Then learn how to move it around the neck so you can play solos in every key. From there, when you want to improve your guitar soloing skills, you need to learn positions 2-5 of the pentatonic scale. These five positions are the secret to lead guitar playing. Learn them well, and you won't have to learn any other scale patterns.
In fact, I never bother with other scale or arpeggio patterns because I look at the pentatonic as the framework for notes on the entire guitar. Then, I couple it with basic music theory. To do this, you want to learn how the scale degrees work in each pentatonic pattern, which will help you manipulate the pentatonic scale so you can add any other scal or arpeggio notes you might want or need.
See, at its core, the pentatonic scale is basically the major scale minus two notes. Those notes sound bad when played in the wrong situation, and since the pentatonic cuts them out, it makes it so you can't really hit a bad note while soloing.
By learning the scale degrees in each pentatonic pattern, you can easily find the two other major scale notes when you need them. From there, you can find all kinds of other scale notes and arpeggios by relating them to the pentatonic scale degrees. All said, you can either learn five patterns and some music theory or hundreds of patterns by rote memory, and still not really know when to use them.
This is a vastly underrated skill that most people never even try to learn. The reality is that most of the time we play guitar, we play by ourselves, and while even alone, it's pretty fun to sing and play songs, instrumental breaks can seem pretty empty when you're just strumming the chords of the break. The thing is though, you can't just stop strumming and play a guitar solo because you need some kind of rhythmic structure to prop up the song.
Enter the Carter Scratch, which is an old country music technique that allows you to play melody notes on the bass strings of the guitar while you strum 16th notes between the notes. Basically, it's a technique that helps you combine scale notes with strumming — exactly what you need to do to take your own guitar solos. Plus, it works for any style, not just country.
The easiest combination for the Carter Scratch is chords from the key of C along with the fourth position of the C major pentatonic. The next best combination is chords from the key of G with the first position of the G major pentatonic. With those two combinations and the capo, you can transpose into any other key.
As you can see, one can get pretty far on the guitar with a relatively small toolkit — anything else you learn should directly improve your rhythm guitar playing or help you expand your usage of the five positions of the pentatonic scale and the Carter Scratch. More scales, more chords and more techniques are all just extra.
The thing is, there's a lot of information out there, and it's really tough to find a straight answer as to which skills are really useful, and which ones are basically just party tricks. I personally feel like I spent so much time just trying to figure out what the crucial skills actually are, and now that I know them, I wish I could've started practicing them sooner. But my time and heartache is for your benefit. If you learn the skills in each level roughly as outlined, you can spend less time searching for how to become a better guitar player and more time actually putting in the work to become one.
Yet, even though nobody picks up a guitar and dreams of being in an orchestra, most guitar teachers still teach the instrument through classical music ideology.
Now, if you want to become a classical guitar player, then you have it easy — you can walk into just about any music studio and find a guitar teacher who will teach you how to play in the classical style.
But if you want to learn how to play more popular styles such as rock, pop, R&B, blues, country or anything else, then there are more efficient routes than traditional, classical-style lessons.
Sure, classical guitar lessons will get you where you want to be eventually, but it's a very slow process because they require teachers to prioritize skills that people don't necessarily need to play in most real-world scenarios. This, of course, ends up costing you a lot of money to learn, when it really doesn't have to.
If you are a beginner guitar player — playing less than six months or so — and your lessons revolve around the following skills, you are probably being taught from a classical perspective:
While these skills can eventually become a strong part of an advanced player's toolbox, the fact is, you need to know different things first to really gain traction with the way most people actually play guitar.
Think about it, if you were around a campfire, and someone shouted out a song for you to play, what do you think they expect for you to do? Most of the time, they want you to strum some chords while they sing along. They are not expecting you to pull out your sheet music and play the tune note for note.
Yet, that's how most beginners are taught, so it's up to you to make sure your teacher is teaching what you need to know or find one that will.
All three of guitar levels take a lifetime to really master; even if you get pretty good at them, there's always more to learn within the level.
It may seem like "more fun" to work on things like guitar licks, among other things, but over the years, I've noticed that the people who go this route always seem to "wish" they were better at guitar.
Now, I may not know "Stairway to Heaven" note for note, but I never have to wish I was better at guitar. If I want to learn something, I figure out what to practice and put in the work. Now that I think of it, maybe that's the key to having success on guitar — simply understanding that the work part is actually the "fun" part.
Once you either have the right guitar teacher or simply the right resources to help you get from point A to point B, it's all about practice. In fact, even the best guitar teacher can only present information to you — it really means nothing without intentional, meaningful practice.
The thing about practice is that most people who are learning guitar, don't know the best ways to practice, so here's a practical plan. First and foremost, pick an amount of time you can reasonably practice for everyday. Even if it's just two minutes, that's perfectly fine as long as you do it everyday. See, practice is more about consistency than the amount of time you spend, and it's okay to start with a small amount of time so you can train yourself to become disciplined without it being so painful. As you outgrow the smaller timeframe, increase your practice time modestly. If you miss a day or even more, just get back on track when you can. No reason to worry or quit over it.
With the time you allot, divide it up so that you can spend a little time warming up, which you can do simply by playing and then a little time working specifically on the skills that are difficult for you. Realistically, students tend to stay away from the things that are hard for them, rather than working on them. For example, if you have trouble with one of the basic chords, such as the F chord, you should spend a little time every day working on it. It may take days or even months to get something right, but with consistency and patience, it'll come eventually.
You'll also want to leave some time to simply play. Playing guitar and working on the things you actually can do is also a major part of the process, but even then, you should always be pushing yourself to improve because that's really how you reach each next level guitar tier.
And, when you reach each tier, the next step is simply to gain experience using your skills while continuing to learn the nuances of each level. It takes a lot of work, but it's fun, and that's what people love about playing guitar. At the end of the day, while there are many different types of guitarists, you want to make sure that you're on the right track to becoming the one you ultimately want to become.
For more information about either how to get good at guitar or reach the next level in your playing, send us a message, and we can chat about scheduling some guitar lessons.
This step-by-step guide starts from zero, so beginners can learn how to sing and play at the same time as quickly as possible. These are the basic instructions that should come with every new guitar, and it's what should be taught in every student's first guitar lesson as well.
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