Guitar Playing/Learning and Songwriting Tips

Many people ask me for help with their playing, but since I am self-taught (aside from a few lessons in the very beginning) I can only relate what worked for me. I don’t believe that there is a right or wrong way to learn to play. I strongly believe that the most important element in learning the guitar is a love for playing. Otherwise, practicing will seem like a chore, progress will be slow, and motivation may eventually be lost. So I strongly encourage you to take an approach that keeps you interested in the instrument. For me, that was learning songs by my favorite bands using tabulature books. I never really practiced any exercises/drills or scales. I loved playing, even when I was terrible, and as a result I practiced 3-5 hours every day during the first few years. I would come home from school and practice all afternoon and evening, stopping only to eat dinner and finish homework. I don’t think I missed a single day of playing in the first couple of years. I even took my guitar on all family vacations. If you have this sort of passion for playing, you WILL become a good player regardless of what and how you’re actually practicing.

I would recommend taking a few lessons in the beginning, if only to learn the proper form and have some basic techniques demonstrated to you. If you like the lessons then continue with them. Otherwise, take your own path.

Don’t get hung up on upgrading your gear. Many beginners mistakenly believe that their crappy guitar or amp is a major impediment to progress. You should be able to learn on just about any guitar and amp, provided that they’re functioning properly. Usually on cheap guitars the main problems are very high string action, which makes it very difficult to fret notes, or very low string action, causing fret buzz or dead notes. You can always take your guitar to a tech at a music store for a basic setup to improve the playability. This usually costs less than $50.

Don’t let people tell you how you should be learning. Instead, gain an understanding of the advantages and disadvantages of different approaches and make your own decisions. For example, many people feel strongly that aspiring electric guitar players should first learn to play on an acoustic guitar. While learning on an acoustic will really strengthen your fingers and emphasize clean playing, which might make electric guitar seem somewhat easier when you make the switch, this approach is not for everyone. If you want to learn to play hard rock or metal, an acoustic guitar is probably not going to leave you satisfied for very long. Again, stick to what motivates you to practice.

Another thing to consider is whether or not to incorporate music theory into your learning (notes, scales, time signatures, etc.). You can be a great musician without being trained in music theory if you have a very good ear; however, it is generally a good idea to learn the basics. I wish I would have spent more time focusing on music theory while I was learning, because now my improvisation skill (ability to play along to or create melody lines and solos “on the fly” just by knowing the scale/key of the backing music) is greatly limited.

Start with songs that you can handle. If you’re a beginner, don’t expect to be able to play most of the songs I’ve covered (or my original songs) until you have at least a couple of years of experience. You might be able to play certain parts, but most of these songs require speed and precision that only comes with LOTS of practice. I started with Nirvana songs, and then progressed to Metallica songs from their first 5 albums. I used “Easy Guitar” series tab books, which gave simplified transcriptions for most of the riffs.

Take advantage of the wealth of knowledge available on the internet. If you’re trying to learn a particular technique, search for it on YouTube. Chances are that someone has recorded a very good instructional video demonstrating the technique. This is actually how I got started with sweep picking. I had never attempted the technique until about 2 years ago, when I found a good video (you can find it in my favorites) called “Sweep picking for beginners”. I then started practicing the technique almost every day for several months. I’m still not very good a sweeping, but at least I now know a few patterns that I can sprinkle into my playing. The same goes for learning songs. Search for a good cover video of a song you want to learn, and you’ll be surprised at how much it might help you.

There are lots of great players out there willing to share their knowledge. If you haven’t seen them already, check out RedSGShredder’s Masterclass Guitar Lessons . He gives a great overview of a wide range of guitar playing techniques and some music theory basics.

Here are a couple of questions I am commonly asked by fellow guitar players:

I’m a decent player, but I don’t seem to be progressing anymore. What should I do to take my playing to the next level?

Learn songs that challenge you—try to transcribe them by ear instead of searching for existing tabs. I’ve improved my playing quite a bit over the past 2 years by learning and trying to perfect the many cover songs I’ve recorded for YouTube. Before that, I had been playing the same old songs for many years and writing relatively simplistic original music, and I wasn’t really improving my skills.

Learn a new technique. Do you know how to sweep pick? How about playing pinch harmonics? If not, try teaching yourself! Search for demonstration videos on YouTube. Learning a new technique may give you a new creative spark.

Discover new bands that give you some fresh inspiration. One of the things that got me back into playing guitar after I had nearly stopped playing for 3 years was the discovery of some new bands. These bands incorporated more technical guitar playing than the music I had been listening to, and it inspired me to learn their music. So, try listening to some bands in a new genre.

Consider taking lessons.

I’m losing my motivation to play. What should I do?

  • Try writing some original material.
  • Record videos for YouTube.
  • Jam along to some of your favorite old songs. You might have forgotten just how fun it can be.
  • Look for other musicians to play with.
  • Get some new gear or create some new sounds using your current equipment.
  • Restring your guitar.
  • Learn how to set up (make common adjustments to) your guitar by yourself. I learned how to do a lot of this stuff simply by doing some Google searching.