Guitar Beginner’s Tips by SDSSJ102915172927
So it’s been about 6 years since I picked up a guitar and decided to play, and it’s definitely been the best decision I’ve made for how rewarding it’s been, and I’ve never been one to make good decisions.
I thought I’d share some tips and tricks I’ve learned over the years which will hopefully help beginners avoid falling into the pit falls I fell into which dampened my progress
Cleaning, Stretching and Loosening Up
One thing which has really helped my playing has been stretching and loosening up before I pick up the guitar.
Simply do some basic stretches and breathing exercises used for exercising/weight lifting as well as bending back your fingers for 10 seconds, stretching your wrists and arm muscles, and give all your knuckles and finger joints a good crack.
Not only will this loosen up your fingers to improve speed and technique, but is vital for avoiding carpel tunnel and other issues if you like to practice for hours on end like I have always loved to do. Don’t do it so it’s painful, just enough to stretch them comfortably.
In 6 years I’ve been playing I’ve never once had cramp or carpel tunnel despite playing for upwards of 8 hours a day when I literally had no television or internet and so nothing else to do to entertain myself.
Another good tip is getting your hands nice and warm before you begin, personally I play so stiffly when my hands are cold and I haven’t stretched. I like to warm my hands up in hot water for a few minutes except the finger tips to avoid softening my callouses, or a radiator, mug of coffee or special hand warming packs for gigs. Cleaning my hands before playing is also important because it keeps my strings cleaner for longer and saves those precious pennies!
It was a good couple of years before I started doing my pre-guitar ritual and my playing has definitely benefited a lot just from these few simple minutes of preparation. I’ve noticed many players neglect these preparations so if you want to avoid carpel tunnel and play at your best make sure you take these steps before you begin any long playing session.
Strap and posture
One thing I under-estimated for my first couple of years was the importance of your strap height and your posture. For a good 3 years my vibrato was piss poor; no matter how much I practiced I couldn’t do vibrato like the professionals.
By simply raising my guitar higher up to my chest by a tiny amount, it was at the perfect angle to leverage on my hip and finally my vibrato sounded like the professionals. All this time the answer was in something I never payed much thought to but turned out to be so important because without the correct height for me my practice was virtually useless.
Don’t worry about what looks coolest, technique is always the most important thing at the end of the day. So make sure you play around with different guitar heights to find the height which is perfect for you. You’ll know it when you find it!
Posture is also very important. You want your feet angled shoulder length apart with your back straight and no slouching, except when I do vibrato where I angle the guitar outwards slightly, shift my weight onto one leg and leverage the guitar on my hip to get the best angle for my height and vibrato. For my first couple of years I always practiced sitting down, if you do practice sitting down make sure your guitar isn’t resting on an angle.
A rookie mistake is angling your guitar outwards when you are sitting so you can see the fretboard and strings easier, but it should remain parallel and vertical as possible to avoid falling into bad habits; you should always be conscious of your posture and your technique to avoid lulling into bad habits.
A big secret to being professional is taking good care of your strings and guitar. I give mine a good wipe down after every session to prolong life and ward off dust, and every time I get new strings I give the fretboard and bridge a good spring cleaning. It only takes a few minutes but it helps keep your strings full of life for much longer
For my first year I never cleaned my strings or fretboard at all, after finally buying a new pack and learning how to restring as well as cleaning the years worth of grime off the fretboard, the reason why my slides or speed weren’t improving became obvious!
Discovering string lubricant was another revelation for me after a couple of years playing; a big secret in professional playing is string lubricant. No guitarist you see on telly or in concert will be playing without a clean fretboard and greased strings. By greasing up the strings your solo work, sliding, power chord progressions and general technique becomes much more fluid and smooth.
Just a small bit of grime on your strings or fretboard will slow you down and hamper your playing, so if you want to play at your best you want a pristine fretboard and strings nice and slippery
Now I can’t imagine beginning a session without that vital string grease and other pre-practice preparations, wiping it off after every session to prolong life and avoid premature rusting. I pinch each string with a cloth between my fingers and give them a good wipe after every session to clean them thoroughly, pinning them down near the nut with my other hand to avoid snappage.
Making the Most of your Practice
Make a Practice Plan or Schedule
When I first started playing guitar I was on a mission. I just wanted to learn everything, because for the first time I actually enjoyed learning something and enjoyed being challenged. I wrote down a time table focusing on my weak points.
I’d practice 2 hours a day right up to 5 or 6 hours. I’d do an hour of scales, memorising and practicing them, then an hour of chord revision, learning new chords and seeing if I could remember all the different voicings of different chords.
Then I’d do 15 minutes of memorising the notes of the fretboard, 15 minutes of sweep picking or tapping practice, 15 minutes of ear training, 10 minutes of vibrato etc, making sure I’m getting the most of my practice session focusing on the stuff that needs work and really infusing those scales and chords into my brain.
By planning out my practice sessions, working on what needed the most work and changing it as the weeks and months progressed I always got the most of my practice and always woke up better than the day before the next day
This is so, so mind numbingly boring though. The first couple of years of this kind of study wasn’t very fun at all, but it was crucial to becoming a good player, and once you’ve got this boring part out of the way it’s done and dusted, everything is infused and ingrained in your mind and you can enjoy the fruits of this labour for the rest of your days and move onto the fun part
Concentration is also crucial; it’s no use practicing in a half arsed way with one eye on the telly if you want to make progress, you have to concentrate on what you’re doing and really make sure you’re paying attention to avoid picking up bad habits or walking away without improving or memorising anything sufficiently. All those hours of practice will be wasted if you don’t focus!
Music Theory, Ear Training and Knowing What You’re Playing
As well as practicing guitar techniques, I spent a lot of time copying out the notes of scales and chords into a note book and memorising them as well as studying how keys work and training my ear.
A lot of the work needed to get good at the guitar takes place away from the guitar; studying music theory, songwriting and ear training is a crucial reason why I could take my playing and improv to a professional sounding level and is what separates the rookies from the professionals.
The more studied you are in music theory, scale construction, chord construction, songwriting and ear training the better your guitar playing and improv will be. Don’t buy the hype about how learning theory sucks away the soul and other excuses made by lazy folks; no guitarists playing has ever suffered from studying theory, only benefited.
To play at your best you need to know what key you’re in, what note or chord you’re playing, where the other notes or chords of the key are and what the other instruments or voices are playing. Once you get to know a song intimately and know what you’re playing as you’re playing it at all times your soloing, improv and general technique and playing will always be at it’s best. Tabs simply aren’t enough to know what’s going on in a track
If you don’t know what you’re playing, what the other instruments are playing and where to go next, that’s when mistakes and sloppiness happen. Knowing what you’re playing, what comes next and staying focused will ensure you’re playing at your best
Knowing what you’re playing is so important, when I learn a song I don’t just like to know what key I’m in, I also figure out what notes the vocal melody is made of, figure out what chords the synths are playing, the bassline and so on.
The better you know a piece of music the better your playing will be; I always play at my best when I know the music intimately.
I always know what key I’m in, what note or chord I’m playing and what is coming next at all times and this is when I play at my best. My brain is always having to think very fast to stay in the zone, but the more you practice a piece the more second nature it becomes to play
Ear training is a big secret to my playing, to this day I don’t know how to read tabs or sheet music, but I can play the solos in Comfortably Numb or Watermelon in Easter Hay note for note.
This is because from the start I invested my time into learning how to be able to figure out how to transcribe and play any music I ever wanted by ear, and I knew if I could learn to speak the language of music I would never need a tab or a songbook again
I did this with ear training exercises online and transcribing simple melodies and songs as practice and familiarising myself with certain basic intervals, but this would be useless without my studies into key and chord construction, music theory and songwriting also.
In order to get a good ear and strong relative pitch you need to study all of these different branches and they all compliment each other as you progress
The problem with this process is it takes a lot of time and patience and is very tedious repetitive practice and doesn’t happen in a year, but over time as you become more familiar with intervals and recognising certain chord progressions or melody steps you begin to be able to identity certain progressions, and eventually you get to a point where you can recognise all the intervals in a key intuitively.
At first the 5th or octave interval was the only one I could identify for months, but over time I gradually learned how to recognise any note or interval in the scale, and with that I could figure out chord progressions, melodies and songs extremely quickly. It also allows me to tune new strings on my guitar without any reference which is a bonus and a good way to impress a date or make your dad jealous ;)
By learning and practicing my favourite songs and knowing what chords and notes are playing, I would increasingly be able to recognise the same progressions, intervals and melody steps in other songs. Once that happens, the interval or progression becomes fused into your mind and you have it forever.
Eventually this would reach a tipping point, and now you could play me virtually any song within reason and because my relative pitch is so finely tuned I could work it out very quickly, and this means I never need to look at a tab or a piece of sheet music again and is a very valuable asset for me as a musician. No other skill or technique has improved my playing than developing a strong ear for recognising intervals and progressions and understanding how keys and theory works
Past boyfriends and friends were always so impressed by how I could work out any song by ear like a party trick, they’d say I’m a musical genius or have a gift and all things like this, but it’s nonsense!
I simply worked hard to train my ear over the years, and what they can’t see is the hundreds and hundreds of hours I spent training myself to be able to do that, so they attribute it to talent or some genius ability or special gift, when really it’s just practice and practice and more practice, and it’s something anyone can have if they put in the work needed to truly be able to recognise certain intervals and progressions by ear because they are so familiar with them
I started with the most basic of basic melodies; the theme song to East Enders or tunes from Zelda games, then as the years progressed my relative pitch got stronger and my ear better tuned and eventually I could work out difficult things like the solos to comfortably numb and other complex pieces
Learn Your Favourite Tracks and Play Along
This is easily my top tip for intermediates and remains my primary method of practice to this day. The first couple of years of my guitar playing, I stuck to these very tedious exercises. I was bored and had reached an impasse, I didn’t know where to go next. It felt like the end of my journey for a long time
I realised eventually after about 2 years that I never knew how to play any full songs, and if I wanted to improve my own playing and songwriting I would have to start dissecting some actual tracks and seeing what makes them tick. It was time to have some fun!
So what I did was buy a very cheap amp and multi-effect pedal, I tweaked the settings on the pedal so I had a variety of good sounding clean, ambient and distorted tones.
Next I placed a nice and chunky iPod speaker dock right on top of the amp, and then made a playlist of all the songs I wanted to learn or could jam along and improvise to on my iPod. Starting with easy songs to warm up and ending with the more challenging pieces, the playlist gave me a good 2 or 3 hours of solid, non-stop practice that worked on all areas of my playing and technique
I found this so much fun it made every tedious second of boring practice and memorisations over the past 2 years worth it in the end, because only by doing the boring stuff first could I be able to take my practice to the next level in this way
Not only could I learn how to play songs as I went along, some songs were perfect for improvising and jamming over, coming up with my own riffs, solos or progressions. Songs without any guitar were perfect for writing my own guitar parts to compliment the music
I remember one summer evening in 2012 I was so bored I put on Rumours by Fleetwood Mac and by the second time through I’d learned how to play the entire album. That’s how easy it can get when you train your ear. No tabs, no sheet music, not even the internet for tutorial videos; just me, my iPod, my guitar and my ears
Other favourites to play along to on my playlist are Michael Jackson, Thin Lizzy, RATM, Prince, the Weeknd, Pink Floyd, Frank Ocean, Frank Zappa and loads of diverse artists and bands.
Some tracks don’t work for this, but the ones that do really do! It’s amazing how many songs you can play along to and it totally works that you’d never expect, and besides being fun it improves all of your chops; ear training, improv, transcribing, rhythm, timing, harmony… it puts everything to the test.
It’s been 4 years since I started doing this, and it still provides me a lot of joy and entertainment. Today I played along to my favourite songs for 2 hours, and I’m always adding new songs to learn and jam with, it’s still the funnest way to spend my time to me.
So if you’ve been playing for a couple of years and find yourself at a road block or bored, I really recommend learning how to play your favourite songs or jamming along to music in this way.
Once you’ve got 20 or so songs under your belt and are familiar with then, you always have a fun way to kill a couple of hours in the day. Once you’ve learned how 30 or 40 tick you can kill time this way all day if you wanted, and I regularly do just that!
I love to end the day by sparking a joint and spending a good couple of hours jamming to my iPod and after 4 years I’m still not bored of this practice method.
Whether I’m depressed, angry, happy, broken hearted, in a manic phase or whatever, I can always go to my guitar and turn on the tunes and jam away and have that outlet to channel my energy and emotions, and I always walk away feeling relaxed and happy and in a really chill place
To secret to making this fun lies in the effect pedal; without distortion, reverb, delay and a variety of different clean, ambient and other tones it’s no fun playing along to your iPod. By having a variety of tones you can always find one which blends nicely with whatever track you’re playing along to
Use Your Ears, not Your Eyes
It’s so easy to fall into a mode of auto-pilot, randomly noodling in the same boxed patterns and playing too much, zoning out and just playing whatever. But this can spoil a track so easily, you should always focus and focus on the sound; play what the song needs, don’t noodle mindlessly.
Phrasing is so important, and less is more. A simple few notes with good phrasing in the right place will compliment a song much better than mindless noodling and constant shredding with no phrasing
Always focus with your ears and not your eyes and try to avoid staring at your fretboard and staying in predictable pentatonic patterns playing repetitive, aimless wankery which impresses nobody.
Always remember phrasing rules all and less is more. Only play what the song needs, like they say too many cooks spoils the broth! Never play a single note that isn’t needed
Always try to play what you hear in your head and not what you see on the fretboard; this is the real secret to good solos and improvising.
Your inner ear will guide you, and if you develop a strong relative pitch you can play whatever comes into your mind without having to think about it. Once you have that, you’ll never fall into auto-pilot again, and never spoil a track with repetitive and over the top mindless pentatonic noodlage, and your solos and improv will always sound fresh and unique
The secret to quality playing and perfect technique is a constant focus and constantly staying in the zone, constantly focusing on the sound and focusing on your phrasing; playing the right notes or chords at the right time, and not spoiling it with mindless noodling that simply doesn’t need to be there.
To this day I’m constantly having to snap myself out of auto pilot and mindless noodling and phraseless shredding and snapping myself back into the zone and focusing on what the song needs, especially when high!
Staying in the zone and remaining focused and restrained is key to a quality session, as well as being able to snap yourself out of auto-pilot or mindless noodling as soon as you start to drift
Don’t Compare Yourself to Others
It’s easy to put yourself down and feel like you suck when you’re always comparing yourself to others. During my first couple of years I was in constant dismay because I couldn’t play like Hendrix. It took a while before I appreciated Rome wasn’t built in a day, and it’s not fair to compare yourself to people who have a good 5, 10 or 20 years more practice under their belt than you.
It’s not a competition, and you have to be patient with yourself to give yourself the time necessary to get good. You won’t be Hendrix after 2 or 3 years, so don’t get down about how much you suck compared to others because it’s not fair on yourself
For the first few years you’re gonna suck. You’ll sound unprofessional and nothing like the guitarists in your favourite bands. But don’t worry because when they were at your level, they sucked just as hard. They have many more years experience, so it’s always important to give yourself the time needed to improve over the years and don’t get down on yourself because you aren’t on that level. If you keep practicing and working you will get there one day
Other Tips and Tricks
Both Hands Are Equally Important
For the first couple of years I totally neglected my right hand, which he definitely isn’t used to ;) I would stare at my left hand constantly, but both hands are equally important so make sure you don’t neglect your right hand technique and make sure you’re paying attention to your right hand too.
Slow and Steady Wins the Race
Never has the phrase “learn to walk before you run” been more appropriate than when applied to guitar practice. The temptation to speed up before you’re ready is immense, and if you’re not focused it will happen by itself.
The secret to shredding and playing something fast perfectly is starting slow and gradually picking up the pace only when you’ve mastered it repeatedly at the slower speed. If you start playing expecting to be able to shred like the metal heads in a year or two then I have bad news for you. You’ll need a good couple thousand of hours of practice under your belt before you reach that level, but it will happen organically and when it does it will be worth the wait!
Endurance is also important; for the first few years you won’t have much endurance, only being able to play for an hour or two before you run out of steam or start to feel pain.
Make sure not to push yourself and know when to stop and take a break or call it a day once you’ve exhausted your endurance, you don’t want to strain yourself and like most things you want to start off comfortably and build up your endurance and stamina over time in order to play for 3, 4 or more hours without compromising your health and causing injury
All your practice will be useless if you don’t learn to walk before you run. Be patient with yourself and always remember “Slow and Steady Wins the Race”
Make the Most of Online Resources
I would never have progressed at the speed I did without online resources. Websites for ear training were invaluable in starting to develop my ear and recognise basic intervals, and YouTube videos were crucial in making sure I had the right technique. Websites like justinguitar.com were also very useful, and a book called The Guitar Handbook had all I ever needed and was perfect for learning scales, chords and theory on the go
When it comes to being the best player you can be every little helps, so don’t be afraid to experiment with different string gauges, different plectrum gauges, different guitars and mix and match whatever works best for you.
Personally I settled on thinner string gauges, and I always play at my best with a .50mm plectrum. 1mm is too thick to play intricate funk rhythms, and the thinner plectrums are too thin to get a good whack on the strings. So finding one in the middle was important for making the most of my playing style, which often switches between funk and rock guitar. There’s no right or wrong choice; always go with what feels right for you and your style.
Take a Break
It’s important to take a few minute break every hour or so, especially if you do my IPod Dock method where it leaves no pauses in between tracks (although provides a nice gap to play something original and bridge the two tracks like a medley)
If you find yourself getting frustrated because you aren’t getting something, take a few minutes break to refresh yourself and come back ready to tackle the issue with a clean slate
Always remember “The Zone”. If you’re practicing with one eye on the telly, or noodling on auto pilot or over-egging the pudding with stuff that doesn’t need to be there, or you’re making mistakes and forgetting what chord you’re playing or what chord comes next, then you are not in The Zone! Get back in the Zone ASAP!
Make sure you always snap yourself out of it and are always focused focused focused on remaining smack bang in the middle of The Zone at all times if you want to play at your best.
So I hope whether you’re a beginner or an advanced player you can take away something from this post to improve your guitar life and your practice/jam sessions, and I hope you share your tips and tricks in the comments also :)Other Educational Articles
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