Teach Yourself Guitar: How to Get Really Good in One Year
The Guitar is an instrument that can bring much joy and fulfillment to your life.
When you first picked up the guitar what did you think, what did you feel? Did you feel like it was for you, like you should be able to play music with this thing? If you know what I am talking about then read on.
When most of us pick up the guitar for the first time the main motivation is “get good”. OK, get good at what exactly. There are so many different things to learn on the guitar that it can be a difficult task even just deciding where to begin. We will go through it but first you need some kit.
The first thing you need is guitars. One acoustic that feels good to play and doesn’t destroy your fingers and one all purpose electric that fits your needs and genre of choice.
You also need one amp, something that can give you a good clean tone, nice bluesy crunch and an all out metal scream so you can avoid needing to buy an effects pedal right away.
Keeping your setup minimalist is important especially in the early days of learning, it is too easy to spend all your money on something you are really enjoying. Only to find the the things you spent your money on are distracting you from actually playing the guitar.
Consider each gear purchase carefully and never buy something that you will only occasionally use.
Make sure you always have a few different picks, spare guitar cables, guitar straps, extra strings, emergency guitar repair kit. You never know when something could break, get lost or go wrong and being prepared for these things allows you to ultimately spend more time practicing.
Ok now that you have all the gear you need I think it is the perfect time to give you a bit of advice. If you seriously want teach yourself to be “good” at guitar within a year you are going to need passion, dedication and hard work.
The passion is the most important thing, it will drive you through everything else. Having a goal doesn’t hurt either. Mine was to join a friends heavy metal band, which I achieved because I was willing to give up some of my social life to make the time to do it.
With passion and purpose you can achieve a lot, many people who are considered great guitarists became that way because they wanted to be great, others simply became great just because they were doing what they love.
They are human and so are you, because they have achieved greatness it means you can achieve greatness to. Let this knowledge drive you through your practice. There is no single path to greatness but it always takes practice to achieve it.
First 3 months
The first 3 months are the most painful, literally. You are pressing down on wires constantly and your fingers don’t really like this. Try and take it easy on yourself by not pressing down harder than is needed to let the note ring out.
Spend a little time fretting the strings at different places on the neck just hard enough to get a clear sound. Learn your guitars quirks, you will get to know them intimately.
Start your practice sessions on your acoustic and switch to your electric if your fingers start hurting. I wrote a previous article with more detailed tips to help ease sore fingers here.
Before you start learning songs you should learn how to tune your guitar by ear. This will start training your ear to really listen to the notes and give you the basis of how all the strings on the guitar relate to each other in some way.
Tuning the guitar by ear
The first thing you need to do is tune the thickest string on your guitar to E. You can either use a tuner for this or this handy YouTube video.
To tune by ear listen carefully to the 2 notes in the air simultaneously. Audio travels in waves and you can hear when the waves are lining up with each other or not.
If the notes are out of sync with each other you will hear a distorted rumbling sound. This is the waves interfering with each other.
If the notes are close to being in sync you will hear a distinctive wah-wah-wah-wah. This is the waves slightly overlapping each other.
When they are perfectly in sync the notes will meld together to form one sound or chord. This is the basis of all chords and why you can’t just play anything on the guitar and expect it to sound good.
Once the low E string is tuned to E place your finger on the 5th fret of the E string and play that note. At the same time play the open note of the A string and tune the A string up or down so that the tone matches exactly with the 5th fret of the E string.
Remember to listen for the sound waves, you will also be able to feel them resonating through the body of the guitar and see them if you watch the strings vibrating.
Next, place your finger on the 5th fret of the A string and repeat the same method of tuning the D string to D and again, once the D string is in tune, use the 5th fret of the D string to get the G string in tune.
On the G string things get a little tricky as you will need to use the 4th fret of the G string to tune the B string to B but on the B string things are back to normal and you will use the 5th fret to tune the high E string to E.
It takes a little practice and ear training to be able do well, in the beginning you may even be confused as to which note is higher in pitch and which way to turn the tuning pegs.
Just keep doing it instead of using your tuner and you will be good in no time, eventually you will even be able to find the pitch of low E without any assistance.
Your first jams
Come into your guitar playing understanding that your practice needs balance, it is OK to lean your practicing towards the areas that interest you most and it is also OK to put aside some things that don’t interest you very much.
You must not get stuck on one thing because even if you decide you don’t care about slide guitar and really want to learn sweep picking you still need to practice things like rhythm, playing accurately, memorizing and writing songs.
One technique will not make you a good guitarist but balanced practice that includes learning techniques and learning many songs will make you a good musician. In fact, many of the techniques you want to know will come from learning to play your favorite songs.
Feel free to choose your own songs if your tastes differ but remember to choose songs that are not too difficult. Do you think you can learn to play 4 songs all the way through in 3 months? I know you can!
Once you know these songs try and use the chords that you have learned in new and interesting ways or combinations, try to improvise.
Being a guitarist can be a bit like being a modern artist, Your palette is your techniques repertoire and sometimes you just need to let loose on the canvas and see what happens.
You should spend considerable time on growing your palette to improve your improvisational skill. Ultimately it will assist in songwriting and make you a better musician.
Your improvs may not always sound great but that is OK just focus on your techniques and pressing down on the right notes without muting the strings around your fingers (unless you want them muted!).
3 to 6 months
Your fingers should have stopped hurting now and you can extend your practice sessions from whatever you were doing to 3 hours a day, either all at once or split up amongst the day.
I wouldn’t suggest more than 3 hours a day unless you are fortunate enough to be able to practice a few hours in the morning and again for a few hours in the evening. Never underestimate the power of a day off if you are getting frustrated though!
You should also start looking for a role model from one of your favorite bands, what is it that you like about his/her style? You should learn how to play some of their most famous licks, fortunately many famous guitarists have their own lessons so you can learn straight from them.
Choose a few songs that you like and even if the songs are too difficult for you just learn the parts that you really like and just the rhythm piece where the solo would be.
Don’t be that guy that can just play a ton of intros and nothing else, learn to play full songs from beginning to end. The is key to becoming a good musician down the road because you will understand song structure and memorization from an early stage.
Now that you can play 2 songs on electric and 2 songs on acoustic fairly well (Maybe you can already play more) you should start trying to sing along while you play.
This can be difficult at first especially if the song has a strange strumming pattern.
To be able to play a song properly while singing you should first learn the guitar parts well enough that you don’t need to look at the fretboard to play them.
It is possible to take shortcuts and learn to sing and strum at the same time but if you do this you will find that you naturally play an easy pattern that goes along with the rhythm of the lyrics.
This can become boring very quickly to the listener so you should avoid doing it in most cases. It is OK to alter the strumming pattern to make it easier to sing some parts but you shouldn’t do it to the whole song.
Once you know the guitar parts off by heart spend some time without the guitar just memorizing the lyrics. Write them down or type them out a few times and then sings along to the original over and over again until you have all the words AND how you sing them memorized.
Your voice is an instrument just like your guitar and it takes time to teach yourself how to hit the right notes (essentially “tune” your voice). Learning how to sing well is a very in depth topic which includes proper technique to avoid vocal injury but it is beyond the scope of this article. I recommend consulting with Google for more information.
Once you have dedicated the guitar part and the singing part to memory (different parts of the memory to be exact) all you need to do is put them together. When you practice doing both at the same time they will come together in your mind because you can already do them very well on their own.
You just need to put them together, just like when you are learning to drive a car and you put all the different things you need to do together until you can drive without thinking about it. Eventually it will just “click” when you are able to play and sing together at tempo. When it happens for the first time you will feel great.
As a guitarist it is important to be able to play and sing a few songs. There will come a time where you are given an opportunity to step up. When you do, how great would it be to amaze everyone with a full performance. That is what being a musician is all about.
Soloing is an art form that develops with your playing. The most beautiful thing about solos is that you are able to make them your own in a way that many people will never be able to replicate.
Everything you have learned over the months comes together when you decide you want to come up with your own epic solo. Think about all the different chords and licks you have been playing over the months.
Think about how they relate to each other, when do two notes sound good played one after another. When they are next to each other on the fretboard, when there is one fret between them, or two frets, or three or four?
How about strings above and below the string you are playing, which notes sound good with notes from strings next to them and which don’t?
Experiment on the fretboard with what works and what doesn’t and really listen to what you are playing. Keep in mind what you have learned from other songs and you will get a firm grasp of how the notes on the guitar relate to each other without having to learn a whole bunch of scales and music theory.
I am not saying don’t learn those things, but it should probably wait until year 2 once you are truly comfortable with your instrument.
Now that you understand the fretboard, let her rip! It can be really fun to do speed runs around the guitar neck but just as exhilarating to do bends and pinch harmonics on a single note. Again here it is all about experimentation and improvisation.
You may have an idea of where you want to start and where you want to go, perhaps you want to tell a story or evoke an emotion. I can’t tell you how to solo but I can tell you that the best work comes when you don’t think and just play.
Repeat the part 1000 times if needed and just play what you feel, eventually you will hit the nail on the head. (Sometime what you first thought was a mistake becomes the best part of your solo)
Don’t let excuses like “My fingers aren’t fast enough” or “I’m more of a rhythm guitarist” get in the way of learning how to truly express yourself, an amazing solo is a beautiful thing to create and once you do it will be with you for life to enjoy whenever you pick up a guitar.
6 to 12 month
This is it, you are pulling everything together that you have learned over the past 6 months and by now you should be practicing your full repertoire everyday to work on your accuracy, finger strength and technique.
The singing may have clicked for you by now depending on the songs you have chosen to learn but if not it is OK, some people get it much sooner than others.
If you search around on the internet for songs that are easy to sing and play on guitar you should be able to find something you like that will help you overcome this hurdle.
At this point you may feel like you are not improving as quickly as you once were, it happens to everyone and you will naturally experience plateaus in your guitar playing.
Sometimes progress may feel slow just because at the beginning your fingers learned how to do something new almost everyday but as the techniques become more difficult progress slows down.
Take some time to experiment with styles that you haven’t touched on yet and subscribe to a guitar related blog that delivers occasional free lessons.
It is good to sometimes learn things that you wouldn’t have on your own. It keeps your mind strong and challenges you to push boundaries in your playing.
Enjoy this process and remember to have fun jamming the songs you know and always work on playing clean and with good timing.
Practice playing full songs from beginning to end without any mistakes, If you make a notable mistake then start the song over and try again until you get it.
Spend considerable time writing your own songs. If you have some words then try and lay a guitar part to them and if you have a guitar part in mind then try and add words to it.
Having a way to record yourself will allow you to store the songs you create permanently. It will also give you a place to arrange your songs and try different things in the song.
Some very budget ways are now available for guitarists to record themselves and I would highly recommend you make this a possibility for you.
Having even the simplest way to get your guitar into your computer is going to help a lot. You will need to pay for quality but if you go for even the cheapest option the ability to record your guitar will open up many doors for you.
One option is to mic up your guitar amp or put a mic close to the sound hole of your acoustic guitar. This works but unless you have top of the range studio equipment it will be difficult to get good results. A better way for the home studio is to recording your guitar DI (Direct input). There is a huge array of software effects that you can add to your guitar once recorded.
Expect to pay $50 for a decent entry level ¾” to USB interface that can record one guitar DI and $150 for an audio interface that can record your guitar DI and an input from a microphone so you can choose between micing your instrument or DI, Or you can sing and play at the same time and record that.
Avoid the ¾” to ¼” converter jacks. These have been known to blow onboard sound cards. Rather lay down the extra cash and get an option that is made for recording a guitar.
Once you have the equipment you need you may be wondering, OK record into what? Well you will need a DAW (digital audio workstation). There are a ton of different really great professional ones out there which you may decide to use one day to make your EP.
While you are just starting out though, audacity is a great free recording and editing tool that will get you familiar with how recording digital audio works and if you are willing to shell out $60 there is reaper which is a fantastic professional grade DAW at a fraction of the price of other DAWs.
I would highly recommend reaper because of it’s compatibility with VSTs. This gives you access to many professional grade digital instruments and effects including drum samplers and synthesizers.
The bedroom studio is now a reality for many people and is a fantastic tool for guitarists and songwriters. Even if you are on a budget a few small bits of kit can give you everything you need to record demo tracks or a full album.
The recording studio should be used in your songwriting process, it is almost like having a band in front of you that you can talk to with keystrokes and mouse clicks.
Sit with your guitar on your lap and your drum sampler of choice (Addictive drums has a demo that comes with one full kit.) and see what comes out.
You will be amazed at what you can create when you have control of 2 or more instruments at a time. Have fun with the studio and use it to record your songs so that people can listen to them over and over again.
Record your band, get your demo out there. Use your bedroom studio for everything its worth.
One year and beyond
If you have been practicing hard and letting your passion drive you then you should be pretty good at your instrument by now.
There is still so much to learn, you may feel like you are falling behind but for every person that can play as well as you there are thousands that gave up early.
You are now a guitarist, a musician and although the journey has just begun you are equipped to take the next steps towards your goals.
Getting ready for live
Playing live is what it all leads up to. Whether you are planning to join a band or go solo you will need to prepare for your first shows.
There is a lot to consider. You will possibly need some more equipment like amps, effects pedals or a PA system and you will certainly need to meet some new people.
Doing your first live shows can be intimidating and exhilarating, If you are playing with a band then feed off their energy and just have fun with it. If you are playing solo then you will need to feed off the energy of the crowd and give them energy at the same time.
You need to make the place come alive and feel what you are feeling. That is what a good performance is truly about.
In the world of music your musicianship is your voice. You will be judged by it everywhere you go. This includes your level of professionalism and sound quality but ultimately it comes down to whether your music appeals to the people listening to it or not (It has to be good!).
Don’t think that you will never make it because you don’t want to make pop music. The fans for every genre of music are already there. You just have to make them listen.
Practice standing up and jamming as often as possible. Feel the crowd in front of you, hear them cheering as you are rocking out. You will be on that stage soon enough.
Finding musicians to jam with at this early stage in your music career is a great idea. It will teach you about music and about people. It will also teach you about life.
Once you start a band you will go through many struggles and amazing times with your band mates and you may even form a brotherhood stronger then blood with them.
Working with many people on one thing can sometime be difficult. There are power struggles, jealousy issues and different perspectives but ultimately it is about making music you enjoy with cool people that you can call your friends.
To really be a band you need to practice. If you only practice once a week then you are just hanging out with some buddies on the weekend playing some tunes.
Twice a week and you will be making progress. Live shows at every small venue in your area is a possibility. You might only be getting paid in beer but beer is good.
Three times a week and you are getting serious, the leads of the band probably don’t have full time jobs and are really serious about their music careers. This is a great place to be if you want to get serious about yours.
If you are practicing four times a week then in the words of Kurt Cobain you are now a real band. Your music should be tight, your set list long and your talent overwhelming. All that practice as a group can do amazing things and people will really notice. Prepare to get paid!
Life as a musician
If all this doesn’t work out and you and you don’t feel like your first band is right for you don’t get hung up, move on to the next one. Always remember bands come and go but what you learn stays with you forever.
The journey as a guitarist never ends unless you choose to end it prematurely, many people do and it causes them regret.
Learn from their mistakes and be the best musician you can be. No matter what type of person you decide to be remember that you are always a musician and this is something special in itself.
You can never stop improving or learning new things about the guitar. There is so much to learn and so many greats to compare yourself to. Never stop practicing.
Know that this lifelong journey brings comfort, joy and an amazing life to many people, and you are next.