The top seven things I wish I knew as a beginner guitar player

And how they would have helped me

My PRS SE Custom leaning against the piano

Having played the electric guitar since the age of 15, I have come across leaps and bounds not only in terms of my overall playing technique, but confidence playing in front of other people, and my overall knowledge of the instrument. In recent years I have learned skills that younger me never thought he’d be capable of.

I have also fallen behind in a few aspects of my playing. Fractures of guitar techniques and theory still remain behind me, and ever since I have been made aware of it, I feel as if I have spent too much time going back to dig them out properly.

Although it would be unfair on my previous efforts to say that I have wasted a lot of time as a guitarist, there are still things I wish I mastered sooner that would have made me a better guitarist today.

For those of you who have just picked up a guitar for the first time, it’s not too late. If you’re somebody who intends to pour their heart and soul into this new hobby, then I encourage you to learn from my mistakes before you dare venture any further into the void.

I : Learn “easy” songs

Coming straight from the piano when I started learning the guitar, it was very tempting to get to a similar playing level on the guitar as soon as possible. From watching the sweep picking techniques by the likes of Herman Li to the shredding solos of Slash, the pinch harmonics of Van Halen, it was all too easy to dismiss easier songs once I reached a comfortable level of playing.

Once you reach a certain stage in your guitar journey, you realise just how easy the instrument really is. You don’t need to practice any more because you already know everything. People will watch and cheer as you blast out that 12 bar blues progression you’ve been working on for weeks. The harsh reality is that after you reach this stage, the next stage is realising that you’re actually s***.

But fear not. To those of you who have made it to this point I would like to simply congratulate you. This is where the real personal development comes in, as your third eye has been opened to world of guitar. You will now take a more careful approach to learning the instrument, and focus more on technique than trying to learn the hardest songs you can think of.

The only way that you can truly make the most out of this point in your playing is to learn “easy songs”. These are the songs that you hear and think “I could play that, no sweat”. To that end, I simply ask you to try, because the song that actually sounds easy is a lot more difficult than you think.

When I got to this point, I would hear songs such as the infamous ‘Stairway to Heaven’ by Led Zeppelin, thinking it was much too easy to waste my time on. When the time came to eventually learning it, I quickly discovered that it was a lot more difficult than I originally had anticipated.

Once you have the mindset that no song is easy until you’ve actually learned it, you will begin to take a more cautious approach to your playing. But don’t let this put you off playing more difficult songs — if you fancy learning the solo to ‘Eruption’ by Eddie van Halen, please be my guest.

II : Acquaint yourself with simple chords

As soon as I got an electric guitar, I very quickly abandoned chords in exchange for complex vibrato licks and technical solos; I never really learned how different chords fitted together with one another. As a guitarist it can be a very useful skill to whack a few chords together for somebody to sing or perform over.

The ability to make rapid chord changes in succession to one another is a skill that you will have to master if you aim to play in front of other people, especially with other musicians. One piece of advice that has stuck with me for years is that if you make a mistake in your playing, forget about it and keep in time. Stopping to go back and correct tiny mistakes is unprofessional as a musician, and should be avoided.

III : Play in front of other people

This is a skill that a lot of beginner guitarists, myself included, work towards mastering. Playing something in front of your friends and family for the first time can be intimidating, since the spotlight is on you. You are the centre of attention, and everyone waits in anticipation for your serenade, as you struggle to form the first chord shape.

Everyone has been here, and the first time you ever play for somebody can be scary. You can learn a surprising amount of information about yourself as a musician after your first performance, which you can use to improve your playing. It isn’t until you have felt the pressure of performance anxiety that you know your true strengths and weaknesses.

In my own time, I like to formulate licks, riffs and chord progressions that I can whip out at a moments notice. Being able to play something short and sweet for a group of people is a great feeling, and even more so when they jig along to your grooves. Music is something that is meant to be enjoyed by people, so enjoy yourself, and others will enjoy it too.

IV : Learn the notes on the fretboard

In my personal opinion, this is what separates the strong from the weak when it comes to playing the guitar. Even just by learning all of the notes on the 6th string (the thick one commonly referred to as ‘E’), you’re already ahead of a lot of guitar players.

You will begin to see that once you’ve learned the location of all the notes on the E string, you know how to play any chord — it’s really as simple as that! And for extra brownie points, learning to play the major scale on the E string will allow you to come up with some funky melodies.

It doesn’t end here though. After you’ve gotten comfortable with learning where all the notes are on the E string, you can work your way down the strings until you know where all of the notes are in relation to one another. Shortly you’ll spot a pattern, and not long after that you’ll be rocking out blues licks and solos until your heart is content!

V : Learn some basic theory

Even as a pianist in my early years of playing, my knowledge of music theory was absolutely minimal. I knew plenty of complex pieces that would amaze people, but when it actually came to understanding the instrument and being able to improvise, I was stuck.

This is a mistake that I also made with the guitar, but by understanding how different chords fit together, or how you can quickly play a cheeky lick will boost you miles ahead in terms of your playing ability. There’s nothing more satisfying than a musician who can grasp the attention of others using nothing but the fretboard of a guitar.

The best way to get to this level is to get to know some music theory. The only problem is that not everybody understands it, and I get it. I was once just as confused as you were. There are thousands of resources online that will help to explain various concepts to you. But when you do eventually understand the seven modes of the major scale, how apply intervallic notation to a fretboard, and why bassists love tritone substitution, the sky is the limit in terms of your playing.

VI : Don’t just stick to one artist

There’s nothing wrong with playing songs by artists that you like. After all, if it gets you to pick up your guitar and play, then I would encourage it. But soon you should consider looking at other artists, and aim to branch out your repertoire.

By learning songs from different artists, you will pick up different styles of learning which will shape you as a player. Those who wish to find their own sound will benefit the most from this, as it will give them a fantastic view of what there is to offer.

But you should take it one artist at a time. My playing has always been shaped by the artists that I listen to, so when I went through my edgy-rock phase in high school, I started learning screeching guitar solos beyond the complexity that I was capable of. Now that I am a bit older I have decided to branch out to more relaxed artists, and prefer jazzy-blues progressions.

You will find that your playing style becomes a massive reflection of you as a person, and with time you will start to find your unique sound on the guitar. So go out and play all different types of music, because one day you’ll find that one song that changes your whole perspective.

VII : Don’t be scared of it

This is arguably the best piece of advice that I can give to anybody who has just started playing the guitar. Learning new chords can be scary — there’s a lot of strange notation out there, it can feel like everything is being thrown at you at once and the thought that you’ll never be able to play the instrument will haunt you in the beginning, but if you stick at it, you’ll become greater than you can ever imagine.

When I began my path to guitar mastery, I started completely from scratch. I had no idea how chords worked, how much pressure you were supposed to apply to the fretboard, how to strum, and not even the slightest clue how to play two chords in a row. I knew that it was going to be a touch journey ahead of me, and it haunted me.

That strange thing that sat in the corner of the room was watching me at all times, and it wasn’t until I picked it up for yet another go that it felt less scary to me. But remember like I said before, music is meant to be enjoyed, and not to be feared by. So go out there and make some noise.

I am a Mathematics and Statistics Undergraduate in the UK who is particularly interested in data science and programming in general.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store