I started playing guitar about 17 years ago, and it’s been a fun journey. I’ve learned a lot on the way, but I wish I learned some of it earlier.
As a beginner guitarist, there are tons of resources to learn from. You can find libraries full of chords and tabs and YouTube lessons for any technique imaginable.
The downside is that it can be hard to know where you should focus. I’ve been there, learning a bit of this and a bit of that, but not really getting anywhere. It’s fun, but sometimes you need direction.
There are some things every guitarist can benefit from practicing, no matter what style they want to learn. If you build good habits for practicing these things, your skills will develop a lot faster.
1. Develop your ear
Your musical ear is a vital part of playing your instrument. While you can learn to play a song by mechanics alone, training your ear will elevate your playing.
I neglected this for a long time and am still paying the price for that. To this day, I find it hard to pick out keys and chords when I’m jamming with others. That’s why I put this point first. But, it’s never too late to learn, and I’m still learning this.
Training your ear to hear tones, keys, and rhythms helps for playing with others. You’ll be able to pinpoint what key you’re playing in and adapt your playing to fit the rest of the music. You’ll also need to develop a sense of pitch if you ever want to learn bends.
A good ear helps with learning songs. You won’t find tabs or tutorials for every song there is. By developing your hearing, you won’t need tutorials. You’ll know how to play a song by listening to it.
Ear training is important, so how should you go about it? There are many ways to practice this, and I’d suggest a mixed approach.
You could do it systematically, starting with intervals. Intervals are the basis for any melody. There are apps and websites dedicated to ear training that will help you learn to identify each interval.
You should also learn to recognize the difference between chord types such as major, minor, or diminished. By practicing this, you’ll be able to pick out not only the melody but all the guitar parts.
The less systematic approach is to put on some music and try to replicate it. This takes a lot of trial and error but is a more realistic kind of practice. Having a foundation of some basic intervals and chords helps you pick melodies and chord progressions from songs by ear.
Practicing both ways is good because each method of practice benefits the other. You can also practice whichever way you find the most fun.
2. Develop your technique
Techniques are specific skills that you can use to make the guitar sound the way you want. Some examples are fingerpicking, tapping, alternate picking, and bends.
These are not music by themselves, but the tools you use to create it. Techniques are the key to everything on the guitar. Anything you want to do musically requires some degree of technique. The quickest way to musical freedom is to practice different techniques.
I’ve spent a lot of time on technique, and as a result, I can play most of what I feel like playing. I’m no technical master by any means, nor do I feel the need to be.
Focusing on technique doesn’t mean you need to become some virtuoso guitar shredder. Think about what kind of music you want to be playing, then look at what your favorite guitarists of that genre are doing.
Techniques should be a large part of your practice at first. As you develop, you can tone it down, but you shouldn’t stop completely. It never hurts to learn some extra techniques, and you need some practice to maintain your level.
I recommend that you practice slowly and correctly. Guitarists depend on muscle memory, so it’s important to get the correct movement into your hands. Once you feel ready, you can speed up and put it into context.
You can practice techniques with exercises or by learning songs that use those techniques. I recommend you do both, but do more of whichever one you enjoy most. Technique practice can be repetitive and take a long time, so it’s important to stay motivated.
3. Learn at least some theory
Music theory is a set of rules and concepts that help make sense of music. Included in this are notes, chords, keys, scales, rhythm, etc. Most guitarists learn at least a bit of music theory, such as basic chords and scales.
Music theory is not necessary for any guitarist. You can learn to play anything by ear, with lessons, or by tabs. However, theory helps a lot, especially with writing your own music or improvising.
As soon as I learned about scales and modes, it felt like a new world of music to explore. Because of this exploration, I can sit down without a plan and improvise a new piece of music that sounds good.
Think of theory as guitar techniques for your mind. Each piece of theory is a tool that can help you create interesting music. You can arrive at the same music without theory, but it wouldn’t be as easy. Music theory is the culmination of our knowledge of music, so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel.
4. Learn to play in time by practicing with a metronome
A metronome is a device used to keep exact time by playing sounds for a certain amount of beats per minute. It’s usually a clicking sound, which is why many people will call it a click.
Playing in time is important for guitarists. If you can’t keep a steady pulse, your rhythms will sound sloppy. And to play with others without sounding like a complete mess, you need to play in time.
When practicing chord changes, techniques, or songs, set the metronome to a tempo where you can play comfortably and in time. You can use the metronome to keep a steady pulse and control your progress by increasing the tempo.
This has helped me a lot with being able to play fast. I’d practice something at 80bpm one day, then 85bpm the next. The metronome can help you make small increments that make progress feel easy.
Practicing with a metronome will also help if you ever decide to record music. The recording process usually involves playing along to a click track. If you haven’t done that before, it can be challenging. I still find it a bit tricky.
5. Have fun playing
The most important thing to remember is that playing guitar is supposed to be fun. It’s a hobby meant to enrich your life. Even if you plan to make a living with it, you won’t make it unless you’re passionate about the instrument.
I’ve had periods where I got super focused on developing my technique and becoming better. I’d practice alternate picking and sweep picking for hours every day. While that has helped me, it made guitar less fun and more of a chore.
I still practice technique now and then, but most of my guitar time is spent improvising. That’s what I enjoy doing. But to enjoy improvising, I needed the foundations laid by the previous four tips.
There are ways to make practice more fun, too, even if you don’t enjoy it initially. Try to make it a game of seeing how long you can go without messing up. Or do what I’ve been doing lately, and practice technique while watching TV. Find a way that gets you to sit down and practice.
Now you know what to practice. As for how to structure it all, find a bit of time every day. Regular short practice sessions are better than sporadic longer ones. A half-hour to an hour every day will get you far.
You don’t have to practice all of it every time you sit down. As long as you practice a bit of everything during a week, you’ll keep developing in all the areas you need to. Before you know it, you’ll be good at guitar.