Skills to Becoming a Better Guitarist


wildwoman1313
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wildwoman1313
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10/11/2012 5:45 pm


Skills to Becoming a Better Guitarist


As guitarists, we all desire to become better players. To excel at our craft is the goal. But whether you're a novice or a seasoned musician, we all suffer one of the most frustrating aspects of playing guitar, and that is feeling that you are not improving and wondering what you need to do to get where you want to go.

Becoming a great guitar player is a long-term process. To rise through the ranks, you must pay your dues. But there are a number of things you can do to help break through the barriers that slow you down in reaching your full potential as guitarist. The first thing you should realize is that you don't need to be a genius, or to have been born with any "gift," to become a great guitarist. What you do need are passion, persistence, and knowledge.

Musical skills are tools. One should want to obtain and master as many of them as possible. Know going in, however, that the guitarist who dares to challenge him or herself naturally risks failing. This is where many musicians simply give up and quit. If you realize that failure is a necessary part of growth, you have just acquired the first skill you will need to become the ultimate guitarist.

And now, here are ten more.

PRACTICE. Well duh, right? Of course we all know that practicing is the main ingredient to success in any endeavor. You can't expect results if you don't put in the time. Steve Vai was said to have practiced up to 10 hours a day. But here's a little bit you may not have known: It's not how long we practice as much as it is how we practice that counts.

Raise the bar. Practice things that are hard for you to play, and in time they will get easier, making you a better guitarist in the process. And don't jump from song to song. Stick with a song until you've mastered it, no matter how challenging. Repetition is not only the mother of all skill, it is the secret to building your hand's muscle memory so that you can not only play well, but fast!

Use a metronome to keep time. It is one of the most crucial tools for a guitarist. A metronome teaches self-discipline and consistency while you work on keeping time. A great musician is of no value if he or she can't keep time.

Practice improvising. Composing music in the moment requires you to be highly adaptable and to have a well-developed ear. A flair for improvising allows you to play more intuitively. Your solos will be more creative, fluid, and uniquely you. Improvising will enable you to play with anyone at all, at the drop of a hat, even if you don't have any songs in common.

Practice changing keys. If a song is in 'E' Minor, see if you can transpose it to 'F' Minor, 'F#' Minor, and so forth. See how often you can get away without using a capo.

Learn your scales and arpeggios. They are the "building blocks" of music. Not only does playing scales and arpeggios provide awesome exercise for the fingers, it helps to develop your ear, familiarizes you with your fretboard, and also helps you understand the relationship between chords and the notes you play. Know your basic scales—like major, minor, pentatonic and blues—forwards and backwards. Start slowly and build tempo.

Work on your speed, but remember this: You can't run before you learn to walk. A fast passage is a rapid succession of musical notes—not the product of a frantic finger flapping. Many times guitarists get frustrated because they are struggling with playing a passage at high speeds. One of the best ways to go about gaining speed is to dissect each passage and learn it inside and out. Play it slowly at first, focusing on technique and getting the song down correctly. Only after you have mastered it at slow speed should you amp things up. Again, use a metronome to help you do this.

When it comes to practice, make your time count. Don't waste time fiddling around on your guitar. Dig in and learn something. Set goals and work towards achieving them. Whether it's technique, tricks, or a new song, you can become better just by using your practice time more wisely.

DEVELOP YOUR EAR. Ear training is just as important as learning to read music. After all, music is a hearing art—the only aural art. As such, the ear acts as the intermediary between your musical ideas and the execution of these ideas. A well-trained ear gives you the sensitivity and ability to play what you hear, and feel what you play, without having to rely on sheet music or tablature (which might come in handy with song requests for one.) Dedicate a little time each day to growing your ear and watch how your playing blooms as a result.

To start training your ear, try playing simple songs by the way they sound. Work them out note for note, chord for chord. Again, start simple before shooting for something more complex. Developing "big ears" will help you recognize chords and melodies when you hear them, and will also help you improvise when need be. Another trick is to play along with songs. This method will allow you to clearly hear your mistakes.

Learn to tune by ear as well for the sake of convenience when a tuning aid isn't available. Tuning a guitar by ear also teaches you to hear intervals between strings and notes.

CHANGE YOUR STRINGS OFTEN. Don't let your strings get rusty! Old crusted strings sound bad, look bad, and they trip your fingers up when you try to perform slides. Always keep a spare set of strings on hand (at least one), and please, learn to change your own strings. It's not as intimidating a task as you might think. Really.

HANG OUT WITH OTHER GUITARISTS, especially those who are better than you. They will inspire you, if you let them. This is a little easier done when you are just starting out and everyone is potentially better than you. But no matter your level, there will always be something you can learn from someone else. Seek out those people who are further along the path and get to know them. Jam with them. Discuss music and guitar with them. You might even look to great bassists, pianists, violinists, drummers, etc. You can learn from them as well. And study your idols. Listen to their riffs and solos, and then learn to play them.

LEARN THE NAMES OF CHORDS. Just knowing how to make the shape of a chord is not enough. Knowing how to translate an "Amaj7/C#" to the fretboard is a required skill for those serious about guitar. Pick up a chord bible and memorize the names. It will serve you well, save you time, and keep you from looking like a complete dummy should someone ask you to play a Gmaj7.

LEARN SWEEP PICKING. Sweep picking only gets easy with practice. It is one of the hardest techniques to learn in lead guitar, but well worth the effort. Once you master sweep picking, learn finger tapping, and then combine the two for ultimate shred guitar.

LEARN MUSIC THEORY. What happens to a triad if the fifth changes? The fifth found in both the major and minor triad is called a perfect fifth. There are three-and-a-half steps (seven frets) between the root and a perfect fifth. If you take an A-major triad and raise the fifth a half step to E#, you have the interval (A to E#) of an augmented fifth, and the resulting chord–A, C#, E#–is called A augmented. Raise the high string one fret in a three-note A chord to hear what it sounds like. If this reads like a foreign language to you, point made.

How many times have you flipped through a songbook and been baffled by something peculiar like A7b13#9? It may seem like these names are more algebraic equations than chords, something invented to deliberately confuse you, but in fact they’re trying to tell you very specific things about what to play. Music theory is designed to help you should you suddenly find yourself being asked to play a I IV V in the key of G. You will know what that means and will know how to play it. And you'll look like a genius in the eyes of the uninitiated.

Learn music theory. You should be knowledgeable of your craft. You wouldn't drive without being able to interpret road signs and traffic lights, so why play guitar blindly? Even a rudimentary understanding of how music works can help take your playing to another level. Theory allows you to know what you're doing, and most importantly, why. Invest in a book on guitar theory and do your homework, or bone up online on one of the many websites at your disposal, like this one. Once you start learning the basics, a light will go off in your head. Warning: You may develop a voracious appetite to know more and more and even more still.

LEARN THE NOTES ON YOUR FRETBOARD. One of the easiest things to master on the guitar is learning what notes are on what frets on which strings. Strangely enough, while learning the notes on your fretboard may be one of the simplest things to master, it's sometimes little more than an afterthought to many guitarists. Some never learn them at all due in part to a reliance on tablature.

If your aim is just to dabble in guitar for your own amusement, then you can probably get by with winging it. But if you want to be a guitarist of any merit, knowing your notes is as important as knowing the alphabet when you're learning to read. It gives you the power to construct chords, scales and melodies with a much deeper understanding. You begin seeing the fretboard in a completely different light. Patterns and scales will jump out at you. Chords will form before your eyes. You will be able to look at the fretboard and play what's in your head.

While it may be true that in the flow of the moment a musician is not thinking about scales or notes but dreaming the music and playing what he hears in his head and heart, knowing the fretboard cold is a great resource for your development.

LEARN GUITAR TECHNIQUES. Lead guitar embellishments are physical moves that impact your sound in a very significant way. We're talking guitar effects here, not external effects like reverb and distortion.

As in all cases, the style of music dictates which embellishments are applicable. For instance, traditional jazz guitar uses few bends while blues music lives on bends as well as the other embellishments. Learn your harmonics and pinch harmonics, your bends and slides, palm muting, vibrato, hammer-ons, pull-offs, and glisses. Then go forth and express yourself in all your sonic glory.

FEAR, FRUSTRATION, AND PROCRASTINATION. The point here is not to try and avoid your particular fears and frustration (they're inevitable if you're out there doing your thing), but to use them to your advantage as your biggest source of motivation. Too often players don't ever reach their potential because they feel they can't measure up to other players or to their own lofty expectations. Why compare yourself to others? Does it really matter if you are, or are not, as good as someone else? Music should not be thought of as a competitive sport. It is an art. All that really matters is how well you are able to express yourself. Therefore the only question should be this: Do you currently have the skills to express yourself fully in music?

Take Kurt Cobain, for instance. Despite the fact that Kurt's musical skills were primitive, my guess is that he probably wasn't very frustrated with himself musically because he wasn't trying to be a better guitarist, songwriter or singer than anyone else. It didn't matter that he was not a good guitarist. It didn't matter that his knowledge of music theory was probably close to zero. It also didn't matter that he played out of tune and had an absolutely sloppy guitar technique. Fortunately for him, what he wanted to express didn't require any of the skills that most musicians generally consider to be necessary. Fortunately for us, his personality and raw talent shone through his limited abilities.

In my own life, the thought of quitting guitar did occur to me, and more than once. The first time was as an 8-year-old locked away in her bedroom practicing from a Mel Bay book as my friends were outside enjoying the summer sun. The second time was as a teenager, frustrated at the thought that I may never become a Jimmy Page or Joni Mitchell. It wasn't until I stopped trying to compete with the rest of the world and focus instead on gaining more skills and experience to express myself musically that things finally clicked.

Many musicians have much greater musical ambitions than did Kurt Cobain and so for you, you will feel frustrated whenever you feel limited by your abilities. The key is to use that as a positive force in the form of motivation and inspiration. Take solace in the fact that masters of all types of art have gone through what you are going through. You are at a certain skill level today. Let your frustration move you further. Set a goal for improvement, and as you hit that goal, set another and then another. One day you will look back and marvel at how far you've come.

While fear and frustration can move you further on down the path, procrastination will stop you dead in your tracks. It is the worst threat to your advancement and getting the results you seek. To combat procrastination, you must remain focused, motivated, disciplined and hungry. Commit to your guitar.


This list could go on forever, but these are some of the more important concepts and tips that I have learned over the years. If you're going to play guitar, it makes sense to know what you're actually doing with your instrument. It's part of knowing the guitar as opposed to just playing it. Most guitarists who are satisfied with the results they are getting, and who are where they want to be in terms of progress, are the ones who are dedicated and who work for it. Who reach deep inside and give it their all. The ones who don't give up when the going gets rough. Ask yourself one question: Where do you want your guitar playing to be in a year? How about in five? Now, roll up your sleeves, grab your guitar, and get down to business.
# 1
haghj500
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haghj500
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10/11/2012 7:43 pm
This is like a beautiful Hand Sewn Quilt that goes over a beautiful bed. It covers everything.

The words chosen to stich the parts of learning together, work so well to connect and cover the emotions and “why’s” people go through as they invest the time to play guitar well.

It would be a great Please Read sticky in the Guitar Basics section for beginners to read.
# 2
john of MT
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john of MT
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10/11/2012 8:09 pm
Some months ago I sent one of the always great wildwoman writings to my brother in law, a well known name in the amplifier world. His response, "I want to meet this woman!"

Now I do too.

Another great one, wildwoman1313. Thank you!

john
"It takes a lot of devotion and work, or maybe I should say play, because if you love it, that's what it amounts to. I haven't found any shortcuts, and I've been looking for a long time."
-- Chet Atkins
# 3
wildwoman1313
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wildwoman1313
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10/11/2012 11:55 pm
Aw, thanks so much for the kind words haghj500 and john of MT. It's very gratifying to know you got something out of the article. :)
# 4
Ribzon
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Ribzon
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10/12/2012 1:23 pm
Awsome post, sometimes when i get stuck im in a position where i forget how much work there is to actually learn to play good in your own way not just fiddle around with tabs and copy other great guitar players... :co

Thanks for the article and i will use it in the future when i struggle again :D

regards
Ribzon
# 5
zalba
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zalba
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10/12/2012 3:40 pm
Ditto others' remarks about a fantastic post. I always enjoy your articles, but this one, like someone else suggested, is special, and could be a great link on the home page or somewhere else on the site that's easily accessible.
# 6
wildwoman1313
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wildwoman1313
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10/12/2012 9:26 pm
Hey, thanks guys! I'm so glad the piece resonated with you, Ribzon and zalba. I hope the information helps you out should you ever find yourself struggling. Good luck on your journey. ;)
# 7
Steve Barrow
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Steve Barrow
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10/14/2012 3:28 pm
Hey Wildwoman, I've been a bit down recently with my own guitar progress -I've always wanted to play the blues but have really struggled with the muting aspects of string bending etc. So your article is very timely - and has inspired me to redouble my efforts. Nice one! Steve
# 8
wildwoman1313
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wildwoman1313
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10/14/2012 6:25 pm
Thanks for your comments, Steve! It does my heart good to hear the determination in your words. Good luck on your efforts.
# 9
paulgregory
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paulgregory
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10/28/2012 1:08 am
Thank you very much!!!! As a "new recruit" to guitar this was absolutely wonderful encouragement! I actually printed it so I can refer back to it from time to time.
Paulgregory
# 10
wildwoman1313
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wildwoman1313
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10/28/2012 5:37 pm
And thank you very much for the comment, Paul! As a "new recruit," welcome to our world. You'll find loads of encouragement here, so do explore the site. Good luck to you!
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alejandrodelarge
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alejandrodelarge
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11/02/2012 2:35 am
this is awesome and i agree completely except that i think you gotta give Kurt a little more credit than that, he played for the most rather simplistically but he definitely knew a bit of music theory
# 12
wildwoman1313
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wildwoman1313
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11/03/2012 12:19 am
Thanks much for your comments, Alejandro. As far as Kurt goes, what he didn't know of music theory he more than made up for in raw talent. I'm a huge fan.
# 13
Schmidtrock
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Schmidtrock
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11/26/2012 5:40 pm
Thanks for the article. It definitely gave me a boost. I'm SO guilty of the procrastination.
Dream as if you'll live forever, live as if you'll die today ~James Dean
# 14
wildwoman1313
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wildwoman1313
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11/27/2012 1:00 am
Thanks for your comment, Schmidtrock. Glad you got something from the article. I'm a pretty impressive procrastinator myself. ;)
# 15
Sgt Tee
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Sgt Tee
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07/02/2013 12:14 pm
I am glad I am not alone. I try and learn something new everyday but then I get jamming and that idea goes out the window. You have to have a certain amount of discipline!. But here's where the no fun part comes into the picture. It brings me back to my school days and then I just go blank. I have been reading all your articles and I would hope you post here or PM me and tell me your history, Do you play? How long have you been at it? What would you have done differently? I am retired and I need to start some where. My mind is in the "CRS" mode. I have to play lead notes over and over to get it down, and then I have to get the timing down. My hands are suffering from RA, so I do what I can. There is going to be a day that I cannot play any more, maybe I will just read about music at that time. I really enjoy your articles. I get like a high from reading them. You have to be a good person to write such nice and informative things down on paper. I will continue to read all your articles, as I enjoy them very much. I have been on Guitar tricks for some time now and never knew of your writings. I think Guitar tricks needs to put a subject on line for you and the rest of new guitar players coming up through the ranks. And yes I remember the Melbay books. I guess they are still being printed. I got through book one and part of book 2, Then I thought I was going to be a rock star, joined a group and the rest was lots of history with fun attached, Have a nice 4th of July............Pete
For What It's Worth
# 16
wildwoman1313
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wildwoman1313
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07/03/2013 12:04 am
I started taking guitar lessons at age 8, Pete, and have been playing ever since. If I could go back in time, I would've paid more attention to theory at a younger age and developed my ear from the start. Mostly, I wouldn't have let anything get in the way when it came to where I wanted to take my music. I'm happy to hear that you're enjoying the articles. Hope they help. Happy 4th to you as well.
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10/02/2013 2:05 am
all i can say,thanks for that artical ,i am so inspired more then ever.really that opened my eyes wide open.thank you for your dedication....axe2
# 18
wildwoman1313
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wildwoman1313
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10/02/2013 10:42 pm
Thanks for your comment, Axe2. You made my day. I'm happy to hear that you're feeling inspired. Now, go for it!
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12/19/2013 12:04 am
i remember the first time i had read this artical and it inspired me so much,to push myselv to learn theory and new technics ect.and when ever i start to get alittle lazy or in a down rut the list can go on.so what do i do to get out of those feelings,do i go listen to sacth boogie by joe satriani ,know i come and read this artical and when im finised reading im pumped to tackle that song i always wanted to play,but thought i wasent good enough,or learn how to sweep pick ect.this artical should be called EYES WIDE OPEN,cause thats what it does for me .it opens my eyes ,inspires me to be the best i can be.i caint thank you enough.MERRYCHRISTMAS....KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK,UR A HUGE HUGE HELP TO ME AS WELL AS OTHERS.
# 20

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