Anyone can play guitar... Fewer can play it well.
January 24, 2010 12:34 PM   Subscribe

I'm an okay guitar player. How can I become a good one?

I've been playing guitar off and on for over ten years now. I started out on bass, and am still a pretty competent bass player. I know how to practice, I can tell what I need to work on, and I can usually figure out ways to improve. With guitar, not so much. I picked up the acoustic guitar about a year after I started playing bass, and not long after, I sort of hit a wall and have never really become any better at it. I can play a decent number of songs, as long as they don't have any barre chords or many melodic bits that require any kind of finger gymnastics. (So, basically, I can strum and keep rhythm okay, as long as we're using open chords only.)

What is the best way to improve? I'd love to get lessons but I'm worried about how expensive they are. Sometimes I'll try to learn songs on my own, but usually, I'll just find things that are already in my comfort zone. When I do try to move past that, I seem to hit the same old wall and get frustrated. I also have trouble estimating what I am actually capable of, in terms of online lessons and whatnot. I'm not quite a beginner, but I'm not advanced by any means.

I don't want to become Jimi Hendrix or anything. But, I do have a few friends who love to pull out the guitar and play some stuff that is good to sing along with, and I'd like to be able to join in without having to sit around staring for every other song.
posted by synecdoche to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (17 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
as long as they don't have any barre chords

I get that it can be tricky to learn new things and all, but here's the thing about barre chords: They are really, really, really freaking easy. Way easier than open chords. Can you play an E chord? Em? A? Am? Add one more finger, and hey presto, you can play every major and minor chord.

It sometimes feels like cheating.
posted by Sys Rq at 12:50 PM on January 24, 2010

A few ideas:
1. Do any of your friend play the bass (or at least know bar chords) well enough to help you out?
2. It can be tough learning a second instrument-- I played saxophone for a long time, am learning the piano now, and am stunned at how long it takes to learn simple things. Accept this, don't overreach, and give in to the repetitive practice of boring short sections you can sort-of play until you can play them well. Being good at one instrument doesn't mean you're any good at another. It just takes hours of focused practice.
3. Can you build your skills to earn more money per hour within, say, six months, so you could afford lessons? Do you have other skills you could "trade" for lessons?
4. Do you practice enough? Minimum half an hour most days...ideal repetitive practice for hours out of love.
5. Check out this article that talks about practicing. The blog has some other good advice.
6. Is there another way you can participate with your friends? sing harmonies? your desire to participate seems to be what is driving your desire to get better.
posted by sninctown at 12:58 PM on January 24, 2010

If you've played guitar for ten years, have never taken lessons, and feel like you've hit a wall, the answer seems obvious. Shop around for a good teacher who is skilled in a style that you're interested in and take some lessons. Be clear with yourself and your teacher about what your goals are. I'd also advise you to learn as much music theory as possible, which can be done on your own, but having a teacher to explain it can make things a lot easier as well.
posted by ludwig_van at 12:59 PM on January 24, 2010

I've been playing guitar off and on

There's your problem right there. Constant playing is the key. You will get through the wall with consistent practice, even if it's atom by atom.

Trying breaking out of your comfort zone, too. Play with better players as often as you can. Take T-Bone Burnett's advice and always try to be the worst player in the room!

Pick a song you can't play and learn to play it, bit by bit, slowly at first then at tempo. It's OK if it takes weeks or months to get there!

Lessons aren't a bad idea, too, but you have to do some legwork and vet several teachers to find the one that will help you the way you need helping. Good luck! Remember, it's not the ending, but the journey that's the valuable part.
posted by Aquaman at 1:03 PM on January 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have to head out right now, but if nobody's said what I want to by the time I get back I'll write a more involved answer. In the mean time, one tip for barre chords, because they can seem unreasonably strenuous to someone who's trying to get a handle on them: when you're fingering a barre chord, have your thumb farther up on the neck, as in towards the guitar body, than the finger doing the barre. This puts you in a position to use your forearm strength to your advantage, because you can then twist your fretting arm counter-clockwise, with the thumb as the brace on one side, and the torque will force your finger down with minimal effort compared to if you were trying to do it all with finger strength alone.
posted by invitapriore at 1:04 PM on January 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Barre chords are really necessary not just because they make things easier, but because they give you a better understanding of scales, relative notes, and chord structures. For me, this was essential towards being a better guitarist.

Also, learn some solos. Stuff you like already (don't start with Van Halen, though), but reading the tablature is a great way to see how great guitar players string notes together and will get your muscle memory up there.
posted by Jon_Evil at 1:07 PM on January 24, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for the tips so far. Just one point to clarify: while I'd really enjoy playing with my friends, I also want to be able to play on my own. (I need a hobby and enjoy playing music.)
posted by synecdoche at 1:19 PM on January 24, 2010

1.] Barre chords are essential. Expect discomfort but just do it. You need them to:-

2.] Work out any song that you fancy, in any key.

Working out songs by ear is the best training you can possibly put yourself through, and without Step 1, you'll have no chance.

Barre chords are always a hurdle, but with a little discipline, you may be surprised how quickly they can be mastered. You will look back and realise that it was the most valuable investment you made on your journey to get your playing to the next level.

This exercise is brutal but incredibly effective:

1.) Play 1 downward strum on an open E with the 2nd, 3rd and 4th fingers of the left hand. (reverse if you're a south-paw.) In other words, your index finger is doing nothing. Make sure that all notes are clear and that there is no fret buzz. Hold for about 4 seconds. This "holding time" will decrease as your proficiency increases.

2.) Move up a fret to play an F by barring the first fret with your index finger. 1 strum. Make sure that all notes are clear and that there is no fret buzz.

3.) Continue moving up 1 fret at a time doing exactly the same thing. Go as high up the neck as your guitar allows, and then do the same thing going down the neck.

Just try to be sensible about the amount of pain you put yourself through. Tendonitis is a real possibility in this situation, so I'm told, although I never had a problem and I used to put my hands through hell.

Depending on the amount of time you have available, the above should keep you busy for a week or two, after which minors, sevenths etc. are a cinch.

Please feel free to memail if you have any questions.

Have fun and enjoy the progress!
posted by Zenabi at 1:45 PM on January 24, 2010 [3 favorites]

Get a Gripmaster. I started keeping one in my car and use it whenever I'm stuck in traffic. It doesn't just improve your strength it improves your dexterity too.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 2:45 PM on January 24, 2010

You might check Craigslist for some cheap guitar lessons. I'm paying about $10-20 a week to learn from a guy who lives near me with the understanding that I'm there to pick up some new techniques and then move onto someone else. I keep practicing during the week because I don't want to embarrass myself in front of the person who's teaching me (and it's cool stuff to learn, but fear is generally the better motivator in my case), and it gives me a chance to learn from people with different styles. I don't know how much is too much for lessons in your case, and I'll probably end up paying for some maybe-not-so-great musicians to teach me how to play at some point, but it's been fun so far.
posted by _cave at 4:08 PM on January 24, 2010

Agreeing with everyone else here:

1. Lessons, lessons, lessons. Even if you can't find a cheap teacher in your area, paying one of the expensive ones for a $50 lesson even once a month would work wonders.

My teacher doesn't just teach me songs and techniques - I could get that from a book or Youtube. He watches me play and tells me what I'm doing right and wrong, and having a lesson weekly motivates me to practice.

2. Practice every day. Half hour minimum. Half of your practice should be technical exercises - i.e. the barre chord exercise Zenabi describes above.

3. I don't know what kind of acoustic guitar you have, but some acoustics (especially cheap ones) make barre chords very hard. I suggest you try an electric - you can get a cheap brand new one as low as $99 that would work fine, or a used one even cheaper. Ask your guitar-playing friends for a recommendation.

I've been playing (and taking lessons) for just over two years - barre chords used to be impossible, now they feel like "cheating" like Sys Rq said. But they're still a bit hard on the acoustic.

Good luck!
posted by mmoncur at 5:19 PM on January 24, 2010

I agree with the people who have suggested that you need to incorporate barre chords into your playing, if for no other reason than F and Bb are very useful chords even if you're only playing at the bottom of the neck. Basically, you just have to learn to barre the open E fingering, but the open A and open C fingerings are also useful. Even the open D fingering has its uses as a barrre chord, but they're limited. I know plenty of fairly decent guitarists who get by just barring the open E fingering. You can get a lot of mileage out of that and a sloppy root-5th-root (x-3-5-5-x-x) until you're comfortable with the more difficult (x-3-5-5-5-3) barre chord. Learning how the different chord fingerings intersect and fit together up the neck was a big breakthrough for me, and it took my playing to the next level when I was stuck where you are now.

I've also found that a lot of songs are recorded up or down a half step from where they can be played along with using open fingerings. It's nice to be able to play along with them without having to use a capo or retune the guitar. Below are some fingerings for major chords. Be mindful of where the roots of the chords are (in bold below) when you're playing them, and how they relate to the other fingerings. Once you get those fingerings down it's not that difficult to work minors, 7ths, etc. into your chord vocabulary (that's where the open D fingering becomes really useful as a barre chord).

C (x-3-2-0-1-0) = (x-3-5-5-5-3) = (8-10-10-11-8-8)
D (x-0-0-2-3-2) = (x-5-4-2-3-2) = (x-5-7-7-7-5) = (10-12-12-11-10-10)
E (0-2-2-1-0-0 = (x-7-6-4-5-4) = (x-7-9-9-9-7)
F (1-3-3-2-1-1) = (x-8-7-5-6-5) = (x-8-10-10-10-8)
G (3-2-0-0-0-3) = (3-5-5-4-3-3) = (x-10-9-7-8-7) = (x-10-12-12-12-10)
A (x-0-2-2-2-0) = (5-7-7-6-5-5) = (x-12-11-9-10-9)
B (x-2-4-4-4-2) = (7-9-9-8-7-7) = (x-14-13-11-12-11)

Once you start to feel comfortable with those fingerings, try playing some of the songs you already know, but play them in different positions on the neck, avoiding open chords as much as you can. It will sound funny at first, but eventually you'll get a feeling for how the different chord voicings sound, and which ones work best in which situations, and that will open up a bunch of other expressive options for you down the road. Best of luck!
posted by Balonious Assault at 5:53 PM on January 24, 2010 [3 favorites]

posted by CharlesV42 at 7:33 PM on January 24, 2010

C (x-3-2-0-1-0) = (x-3-5-5-5-3) = (8-10-10-11-8-8)

Dangit, I checked them twice and still screwed one up. That last C fingering should be (8-10-10-9-8-8)
posted by Balonious Assault at 7:40 PM on January 24, 2010

This answer that I gave to a previous question may be helpful.
posted by tdismukes at 2:17 PM on January 25, 2010

I'd like to chime in with the folks who recommended that you look into lessons. I've been taking lessons for a couple of months after years of looking up tabs and chords. Even though we get go over a lot of music theory, ear and rhythm training is something very difficult to pick up from books or dvds. I don't have perfect pitch or rhythm, but being able to focus on these aspects of my training has really helped me in learning the guitar and my appreciation for music.
posted by onich at 12:44 PM on February 1, 2010

I've really enjoyed the song lessons by David Hodge on Guitar Noise. He teaches songs but each lesson also includes new techniques or ideas with each one to make it a learning experience. If your musical tastes match his then I think this would help.
posted by doctord at 7:25 AM on June 10, 2010

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