Right now we have access to lifetimes worth of people who have played the guitar. We can learn what pushed them farther along on the path when trying to get better, and we can also learn what mistakes they ran into.
That’s the whole basis of what Chasing Sound tries to do each and every day. Provide feedback from nearly 20 years of playing guitar, and reading about guitar every single day. The funny thing is, it’ll always be a work in progress, because while we can try and master one part of playing guitar, there’s always something new to learn.
Here are a couple of the things I wish I knew when I first started years ago.
Gear doesn’t matter at first
When you’re starting out, it’s always good to have a decent guitar, but you don’t have to have an expensive setup. What is important is that whatever first guitar you do choose, you get it set up to play well. Make sure the action is low, and you have a new set of strings on there.
I love buying new guitar gear, including guitars, amps, and especially effects pedals. While they do spark new ideas and do kickstart your want to play and practice, you could really get SO many things done with just one guitar, and a practice amp.
Figure out if you want to start on acoustic or electric guitar at first, and go from there. If you’re just getting started, check out the other posts in the Back to Basics series right here on Chasing Sound.
Use what you’re practicing in a musical context
We’re not robots as guitar players. As musicians, we’re as far from that as possible, but I’ve often seen students practice scales up and down to a metronome all day. This sounds like a depressing scene.
When you first start learning a scale, chord or technique, try and use it in a musical context as soon as you can. If you’re learning the Mixolydian mode, choose a key to practice it over. Put on a backing track if you’re learning a new riff and try to see how it fits in an actual song.
If you get on stage, you’re not going to be running scales up and down the fretboard. But you will be playing songs. If you want to not sound so scalar, practicing what you learn in a musical context is key.
Try and jam with other musicians
One of the easiest ways you can try out new ideas and become a better musician is by playing with other people. Find a couple of people you can jam with, find a practice space (whether that be at a rehearsal spot or someone’s house), and see how it goes.
You’ll find early on that you won’t always click with everyone, but that’s part of the fun. A good idea is to come in to the practice space with a couple of cover songs you want to play, and then go from there.
When you’re playing with other people, the biggest thing you’ll develop is your ability to listen. Try and play for the song, know when to take a lead, and know when to lay back. This’ll also help you be able to tell what key a song is in quickly, because a lot of times you’ll have to figure this out on the fly.
Spend time on the hard stuff and break things down
When I first was starting out, almost by accident I started playing more difficult songs right away, because I was in to technical bands. This turned out to be one of the best things for me, because it developed my playing so quickly.
If I tried to learn a difficult song, I wouldn’t get discouraged. Instead, I’d try to break ideas down into smaller chunks, and work on a couple of parts a day. I’d get the rhythm parts down first, then tackle some of the leads, and finally solos of a song.
You can even break more difficult riffs into just a bar or two so they become more manageable. Further, if you’re able to slow the riff down a bit, almost any riff becomes learnable.
Be as efficient as possible
Whether you’re focusing on speed, switching from open chord to open chord, or anything when it comes to guitar, focus on efficiency first. We only have so many notes to work with on any instrument, so you can imagine there are a number of ways to play chords and riffs.
Try and find the most comfortable and efficient way to play with your left hand, and then also focus on how you can work on your right hand. Whether that be economy, hybrid or alternate picking, there’s always a simpler way to play things.
Troy Grady over at Cracking the Code has made entire lessons on how the great guitarists use their right hand, and what goes into their picking mechanics.
If you’re looking to develop speed, be efficient, start slow, and build up gradually.
Know what you’re going to practice
One of the fastest ways you can progress on guitar is to know what you’re going to work on when you sit down. We all have those days where all we want to do is just sit down and jam, and those days are important.
If you really want to see progress though, try and develop a practice regimen where you can work on stuff every single day if possible. Try modes, picking, transcribing, theory, songwriting and more one day, and then switch it up the next.
Setting limits for yourself and knowing what you’re going to practice ahead of time will allow you to grow in leaps and bounds as a player.
Don’t count anyone out and listen to everything
From the person who’s graduated from Berklee, to the guitar player just starting out, we can learn from everyone. When we start out we might have knowledge gaps on our way to playing what we want to play. It’s possible watching a beginning guitar player you’ll find out a new way to play a chord you’ve been playing for years.
Watching someone who’s played for a long time, you might also find out a more efficient way to do something you’ve been playing forever.
When it comes to listening to music, you should try and give everything a shot. Don’t count out any genre. There are great guitar players no matter what style of music you’re listening to. The more styles you listen to, the bigger your musical vocabulary will grow.
Listening to this many styles of music will you give you a big advantage to use that hybrid of genres in your own music. It gives you an opportunity to create something new and exciting.
Don’t get hurt
If you’re just starting out you’re likely to experience some aches and pains while playing the guitar. If something is hurting you, take a break and give your hands a little time to recover.
If you pick your guitar back up and you’re still experiencing pain, go see your doctor to see if you injured your hands in any way. The good news is the longer you play, the easier it’ll get.
You might want to try starting playing out on an acoustic with heavier gauge strings. When you switch over to an electric, you’ll feel lightning fast.
Don’t give up
I remember being 16 and thinking that I’d never, ever be able to play barre chords. I was so upset and almost ready to hang up my guitar for good. I’m here to tell you close to 2 decades later, that I’m so glad I kept going.
Playing guitar and being in the musical community in general has helped me so much in life. It’s great to be able to read and write music, meet and play music with other people, and so many other benefits.
I urge you not to give up, and keep on plugging away when it gets hard. I can assure you playing an instrument, especially guitar, is worth what you put into it.
We put so many hours into learning an instrument to play songs and have fun. If it becomes not fun for any number of reasons, and they’re sure to present themselves throughout the years you’re learning guitar, don’t worry.
Guitar is a very special instrument. Once you play it, you’re likely to come back to it throughout the rest of your life. It’s not horrible to take a break from it every once in a while, and you might find yourself re-energized with a new love for music and playing after having been away from the guitar for a while.
Share your own stories
Guitar has shaped so many peoples lives, and changed them in a dramatic way. I hope these lessons from my own struggles help you on your path. If you think of anything that might help guitarists just starting out, feel free to share your story with me on Twitter or Facebook.