In my experience as a listener, a teacher, and a musician, what characterizes sounding like a beginner guitar player is a lack of certain core skills which includes solid rhythm and timing, having a good ear, and displaying comfort and ease playing songs from start to finish. It really doesn’t have much to do with how complex the music is, or if you’re playing beginner guitar songs. There are great players we all know and love that just play a few guitar chords and very simple riffs, but they do so with complete command and a great feel for the music. So how do we get there?
Tip # 1: Develop Your Ear
There is no way around ear training if you want to get to a professional level of playing. Music is first and foremost sound, just like language. As kids, we learn to speak and have conversations with our parents long before we go to school to learn the alphabet and to learn about grammar and how to spell and read. By the time we get to school, we are already well-established improvisers within the language and can put together full sentences that make complete sense and that don’t just mimic what we’ve heard from speakers around us, but that expand on it, and make it unique to our own selves and our own experiences.
In music it is often backwards. We think we need to know everything from a technical perspective about the instrument or how music works before jumping in and immersing ourselves in the sound, instrument in hand. The only way to build a deep connection between what you hear and what you play, is to play what you hear. Almost all professional musicians can put on a recording in their preferred style of music and figure out what’s happening. What are the chords? What key? What are these riffs the guitarist is playing, etc?
The way to be able to do this is to start simple. Take some easy guitar songs, or simple riffs, and slow it down. Try to hum the phrases you hear. Then try to find the notes on the fretboard. Don’t concern yourself at first with whether or not you’re playing it in the right spot, since we have many options on guitar. Use plugins like “Transpose” or apps like “Amazing Slow Downer” to loop little sections from milliseconds to complete phrases. Go as slow as you need to recreate the sound. With chords, try to hum the most fundamental note, which is usually your root note, and then figure out if it’s a major or minor chord after you find the root. Listening for clues from the bass player who usually plays the root note really helps. The benefits of this are immense. You are now drawing a straight line from what you hear to where your finger goes. This means that you will begin to sing through your instrument. This makes all the difference. Also, anything you learn in this way you retain on such a deeper level than just reading it off a page. You experience that melody or song or riff or chord progression in all parts of your brain – especially if you take the last step to define its context (What scale is this riff from? What intervals? What key? What’s the structure?). However, defining the context for yourself requires some theory, and isn’t necessary to get started here! This is how I learn pretty much everything I play.
Tip #2: Prioritize Rhythm and Timing
Unless you’re playing free jazz or experimental music, the beat is the king. The beat is what hold everyone together, and it’s also what binds you to your listener. From a very early age we become accustomed to feeling the beat in the music. Rhythm is the most primary musical element. Even babies can dance to the beat – but often when people learn music, they get lost in trying to play the right notes and lose site of the beat that underlies the song and all the notes in the song. Like Duke Ellington said, “It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing.” If you skip a bit, or even get sloppy with a beat, everyone gets uncomfortable – your bandmates, your audience, and anyone listening. It’s like having a heart palpitation. It’s uncomfortable, and unsettling, and not fun. So the goal here is to maintain awareness and reverence for the beat that underlies all of the rhythm that happens in relation to the beat. How do you do that? Always practice what you are learning IN TIME. If you’re learning a song, practice the song with the actual recording. Slow it down if necessary. Then practice with a metronome or drum track. Never go faster than the speed at which you can play perfectly in time. Learn to tap the beat with your foot while playing at the same time. This is the physical manifestation of being able to play rhythms while maintaining awareness of the beat to which all the rhythms you play are in relation.
Tip #3: Play With and For Others
Playing with others takes care of everything. If we think about tips one and two, playing with others will let you know how good your ear is. Invariably you will find yourself trying to figure out what someone else you’re playing with is doing…what chord? What key? What notes? And that will make it crystal clear why you need to develop your ear. Playing with others requires you to be 100% locked in to the same beat that the others are on. If you miss a bit, or get sloppy on a rhythm, the whole train wobbles, and very well might go off the rails. Playing with others is also why we are doing this – it’s the goal. Music is something to share with others – both as an act of co-creation, and as an act of sharing and connecting with an audience. From my experience, in the act of playing with others there is an adrenalin and a heightened awareness that takes hold, and in that state deep learning and deep creativity can happen. You almost become a little bit superhuman. My teacher used to say that 1 hour on the bandstand is better than 10 hours in the practice room. This feels true for me too.
The other thing about playing with and for others is that it imposes structure! You are going to meet at a certain time on a certain day to play certain songs. Now you have a deadline and you know exactly what you’ve got to practice in order to be responsible for what you’ve agreed to do with those other people (and not make a fool of yourself). However, if you do make a fool of yourself – brush it off, and take a moment to figure out what you need to do, so that it doesn’t happen again next time! This still happens to me all the time. I play in a wedding band with a very deep repertoire and invariably I mess up something on every gig – and then take note that I have to work on that thing before the next time. The only way forward in music is to fail forward. Growth happens through making mistakes. You can make the vast majority of those mistakes in your practice room, but know that they will also happen live, and that’s ok! That’s part of the process.
Tip #4: Build Up Your Repertoire & Vocabulary
One thing I often see with beginner guitar players is that they know a lot of chords, they’ve learned many different shapes and scales, but they can’t really play any songs straight through with complete ownership. For those that are wanting to improvise, when they go to solo, they are not working from any musical idea, but are just kind of meandering aimlessly. This is backwards. Like we talked about in Tip #1 – the sounds (the music) should come first. The theory and technical studies can support that, but should take back seat. Don’t let the tail wag the dog and don’t but the cart before the horse. Through the process of learning and mastering songs you are automatically learning a plethora of skills. If there is something in particular in that song that you feel you should explore in an isolated manner (for instance, triads), then do so, but give most of your time to the learning of the songs – the application/use of the language.
Regarding vocabulary – it is a fallacy to think that creative ideas come from thin air. It’s actually an impossibility. Everything we do is informed by our experiences with the external world. So the best thing to do is to very consciously and intentionally go out and learn to play some of the musical ideas of your favorite players, and then incorporate those ideas into your own playing. The best way to do this is to learn a phrase by ear, figure out its context (how is the player using this phrase? Over what chord? What key? What are the intervals?), and then WORKSHOP the idea by changing it up, maybe starting it the same, but ending it differently, changing the rhythm, playing it in a different octave, key or shape, and then it will start to come out as an influence in your own playing. All of our favorite players had clear influences. There is a difference between being influenced by someone and imitating someone. The more you transcribe other musicians you love, and then workshop their ideas, the more you will be able to improvise with compelling ideas of your own – influenced by the sounds you love from others that came before you.
Tip #5: Aim to Be a Well Rounded Player
Many people begin playing guitar with one certain skill in mind like “I want to shred” – or “I want to strum and sing” – or “I want to solo on the blues” – but no matter what kind of guitar player you want to be, there are certain fundamental baseline skills you should have so that you can play in the most common of situations with and for others. I often meet beginner players that have only been practising one thing and have skipped over some of these fundamentals. You should be able to play any basic chord progression using open chords and barre chords when necessary. You should be able to do so by keeping solid time through strumming, whether it’s with a pick or with your fingers. You should be able to play some melodic lines, and maybe even switch off with someone that wants to jam, by playing both some lead and rhythm guitar.
One way to develop this skill is to always learn both parts of a song – the basic chord progression, and some of the embellishments and lead line on top. Another way is to always have a looper hooked up in your practice room where you can lay down chords, and then add other layers on top, or take a solo over the chords. Being a good rhythm guitarist will make you a stronger lead guitarist. Being a good lead guitarist will give you ideas to add to your chord playing, or in-between chords. The two really help each other!