Are you feeling dissatisfied with your guitar playing? Do you wish you could get better, but you’re unsure what to do? If you’d like to make more progress with your guitar playing plus get more enjoyment out of the process, here are nine ways to do it.
1. Be Realistic About Your Guitar Potential
Unless you’re a musical genius, you can forget about becoming the next Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page. Do you have 12 hours a day to practice, or do you intend to go out on the road for a decade to hone your chops? If not, you can forget about becoming the next Steve Vai or Stevie Ray Vaughan.
It’s great to admire the skills of the world’s best guitar players, but it’s unrealistic to expect to achieve the same level of expertise. Instead of setting your sights so high you can never reach them, be realistic, and shoot for something easily attainable. You’ll make better progress when you take the pressure off. You’ll have more fun too.
That said, there are plenty of songs by famous guitarists that you can play with only a modest amount of skill, so being realistic doesn’t mean you need to forgo the music you love.
2. Don’t Get Ahead of Yourself
If you learned your first guitar chords yesterday, now is not the time to try your hand at a David Gilmour solo. Great guitar soloing involves a good amount of physical skill plus an understanding of music and the fretboard. It takes time to get to the point where you possess the necessary experience. If you jump ahead to playing things on the guitar that require skills you have not yet developed, then you’ll struggle and fail to make any progress. So, pace yourself and get on a guitar lesson plan to develop all the skills necessary to move forward progressively. With patience and perseverance, you will eventually get to the point where you’re ready to take on guitar soloing. And you will have learned how to play a lot of other useful things along the way.
3. Know Your Tone
When you listen to your favorite guitar songs, you hear more than just notes on a fretboard. The gear in use plays a significant role in bringing the music to life. Bringing your guitar playing to life begins with a decent guitar and amp. Learn how to adjust the controls on your guitar and amp so you can dial in tones similar to the songs you play. Get to know how overdrive and distortion pedals work. Never play with a dry signal. Create depth and dimension by adding effects such as reverb, delay, and chorus. With the right tones and effects, your playing will have that same singing quality that makes so many famous recordings memorable.
4. Get on a Guitar Lesson Plan and Stick to It
Whether you’re trying to lose weight, build a home, save for retirement, or learn how to play guitar, you need a plan. Don’t let yourself fall into the habit of noodling aimlessly. Get on a guitar lesson plan to develop your guitar playing skills progressively and build a repertoire of real songs.
Don’t allow yourself to get distracted, either. We live in the Information Age. It’s easy to get sucked into scouring the Internet, watching video after video, and signing up for every course offer you come across. These things are a waste of time when they don’t fit into a plan.
Figure out what you need to do to get your guitar-playing skills in order, then do it. For example, if you can’t play complete songs, then put together a list of simple guitar songs that you can work toward playing all the way through. Stick with those songs until you finish them and put everything else on hold. Get help from an experienced player or teacher so you can choose the right songs, and you can break the learning process down into manageable steps.
5. Take Advantage of Technology and Learning Tools
Learning and practicing guitar songs has never been easier to do than it is now. Practically every song in existence is only a few clicks away on YouTube or through a streaming service such as Spotify and Apple Music. If a song is popular, then you can easily find tablature for it too. The guitar tab website, SongSterr.com, has a free tab player, which makes learning tabs easier. A tab player accompanies each tab with audio and automatically scrolls through each tab, indicating exactly which note is being played. A paid account at Ultimate-Guitar.com gives you access to an even better tab player that is loaded with helpful features to make learning and practicing songs easier than ever. You can slow down tabs, loop song sections, isolate tracks, transpose, play to a click, and more.
Other useful tips include slowing down songs on YouTube or using slow down apps such as SongSurgeon and AnyTune. You can slow down any YouTube video by clicking on the gear icon on a computer, or the three little dots on a mobile device. After that, click on the playback speed.
6. Don’t Try to Be All Things
If you’re like me, you admire the playing of several different guitarists, and you love a variety of music. Maybe you’re thinking about setting goals to play blues like Stevie Ray Vaughan, shred like Steve Vai, fingerpick like James Taylor, and so on. I can’t blame you for desiring to do it all, but I’m here to tell you; you’re kidding yourself.
You could spend a lifetime practicing the techniques of just one accomplished guitar player. Where are you going to find the time to master the techniques of all the guitarists you admire? Furthermore, there may be some styles of music you’re not able to play well regardless of how much time you put into them.
On your learning journey, I suggest you take time to explore different styles of guitar playing to see which ones come naturally to you and which ones don’t. You’ll get good and discover your style by playing to your strengths and avoiding your weaknesses. This may mean you’ll need to give up on part of your dream, like playing Eric Johnson’s “Cliffs of Dover” at full speed. I gave up on that dream long ago.
7. Play with Other People
Hands down, one of the best things you can do to become a better and happier guitarist is playing with others. Playing with others is how you take your game to the next level. It’s like riding a bike without training wheels because instead of playing along with music, you are the music. Whether you have jam sessions with a neighbor, entertain at a coffee shop, play in a bar band, or play at church on Sundays, try to find a way to play with others. You’ll enjoy spending time with other people who share your passion, and you’ll grow as a musician in ways you wouldn’t be able to grow on your own.
Playing with others is so important, I recommend you prioritize it over other things. If you only play alone at home because the playing opportunities you have around you aren’t your style, let me suggest you change your style, get out of the house and play with others. Maybe your only chance to play in a band is at church, so you seize the opportunity and do the best job of it you can.
8. Record Yourself
Recording yourself is a great way to critique your playing and track your progress. It can also be a lot of fun and give you a sense of accomplishment.
It’s easier than ever to record. You can record a voice memo or video on your phone. You can use any of the numbers of audio recording apps available.
Record yourself playing songs, playing along with songs, and playing along with backing tracks. Record the jam sessions you have with others, or your gigs, or your Sunday services.
Share your recordings with others by posting them online on YouTube or SoundCloud. Post recordings to a social media profile on Facebook or Instagram. When you post your recordings like this, you create a body of work that you can look back on later. Having a body of work gives you a sense of accomplishment.
9. Set Clearly-Defined Goals
If there’s one thing you can do to ensure your guitar playing never goes somewhere, it’s to not have an end goal in sight. If your only goal is to practice and get good, then you’ll perpetually be driving, and you’ll never reach a destination. You need to set a specific playing goal so you can celebrate the accomplishment when you get there. You need to make sure your goal is realistic, too, so you can attain it. Let me give you some examples of good and bad goals.
Bad Goal: I want to play blues like Joe Bonamassa.
This goal is too general. It’s also not realistic because Joe Bonamassa is considered one of the best blues players in the world.
Good Goal: I’m going to learn how to play the rhythm guitar parts in Albert King’s “Born Under a Bad Sign,” then record myself playing along with the song and post the video on Facebook to share with my friends.
This goal is specific. It’s something you can realistically complete, you’ll have something to show for yourself when you finish, and you’ll get some encouraging feedback from your friends.
Bad Goal: I want to be able to improvise.
Here’s another bad goal that is too general.
Good Goal: I’m going to learn how to play three E minor pentatonic scale guitar riffs from famous songs, then I’m going to practice replaying the phrases from those riffs over a backing track. I’ll work out the phrases in different positions on the fretboard, and I’ll experiment with joining the phrases together in different ways until I come up with lead lines that sound like my own.
Here’s another good specific goal. Learning parts from songs is how you build a vocabulary of phrases to use for improvisation. I would add a recording to this goal. Listen back to your recording to determine what sounds good. Save your recording for future reference so you can track your progress.
Bad Goal: I want to become a good player.
This goal is perhaps the most common. It’s also lousy. It contains no specifics. How are you going to become good? How do you determine when you’ve reached your goal?
Good Goal: I’m going to learn how to play the most popular songs performed at my church. I’ll ask the other guitarists at church to give me pointers. After I’m familiar with the songs, I’ll begin joining the band for rehearsals. Once my playing skills are up to par, I’ll play a Sunday service.
That’s how you do it! You set a specific goal that includes clearly-defined steps. Imagine how much fun it’ll be to hang out and play music with the other musicians during those rehearsals. Imagine the sense of accomplishment you’ll feel when you finally play a Sunday service.