Well this is awkward.
Here I am, a guitar instructor, with something to say about whether or not you need a teacher. Why would you listen to me??
Because I am a guitar player first…
Because I have had both formal and non-formal instruction…
Because I’ve spent the majority of my time in self-guided education.
And not for nothing, but I’ve literally spent my entire adult life making a living and supporting a family with my guitar. It’s not to brag and it’s not to boast. I’m no celebrity and you won’t find my picture on the cover of Rolling Stone. What I am is a guitar player who thoroughly enjoys his job. I have worked the local and regional scene, landed a full-time creative job in music, and I still teach on the side. My only goal here is to inspire, equip, and educate in the best ways I know how in the written form, so here we go….
Can you learn
You are a student doing research, and that research comes from somewhere or someone. At the same time, your work ethic, determination, and application of your natural aptitudes come from you and no amount of training or education will do anything for you if you don’t put in the work yourself.
Here’s what I hope to clarify: the difference between being self-taught versus being self-guided. I don’t think many folks think that they can learn a trade, skill, craft, or really any other worthwhile endeavor solely on their own intellect. That is either delusional, conceited, or at best naive. Even the great guitar players like Jimi Hendrix may have been “self-taught”, but they had sources from which to pull – and they gave credit to those sources.
In order to avoid getting into the semantics of this too soon, let me address the real issue that this question is after. After that, we can tackle some of the other particulars. You will see as you read on that this is not a simple black-and-white issue. Stick with me and I will explain.
Ways To Start Learning Guitar On Your Own
It’s an old-school approach, but one way to go about doing this without traditional guitar lessons is to get books. There are many books to choose from and they all have different approaches depending on your goals. Even though the internet is a very useful and overwhelmingly popular tool, I strongly urge you to build a very basic library of guitar books. Start with a fat chord book, a beginner song-book, and a method book.
Most people who want to learn how to play guitar set out with the idea of learning to play songs they like. The best place to start with this is to get a chord book and start building your chord vocabulary. This is more of a reference book than an instructional one, but it will be a very valuable tool for you.
The thicker the chord book, the better. Learning the chords is a great way to learn the nuances of the instrument and the notes on the neck. But because there are so many chords and variations of chords, it can be a daunting task if you don’t have a game plan.
The best method that I have found of learning the chords is the “CAGED” system. This is a five pattern system based on the C, A, G, E, and D chords. Start by learning those five chords, and you will find that the vast majority of chords are based on these shapes.
The idea is to start in the “open” position, which is the lowest position on the neck and covers the open strings and the first few frets. After that, those five chord shapes can move up the neck to make different chords. This is a great way to learn a lot of chords fast.
From there, you can start to organize your chords to make easy work of exploring all the variations. You think of a chord in terms of parts. You have a key and a quality. For example, in the chord C major (also written as Cmaj or just C for short), the key is the musical letter “C” and the quality is “major”. You can sort out the chords by the 12 available musical keys, and apply the qualities of major or minor.
Beyond that, there are tensions. These are going to be numbers that apply an added note to a chord giving it a new, unique voice. These will appear as Cmaj7, Em7, G7, Cadd9, and so on. This is a rabbit hole that is quite fun to go down and the best chord books will have these ordered in such a way that make them easy to access and learn.
There are also song books that will have the chords and lyrics for you to play along with. There are so many song-books out there for all skill levels and ages. Artist-specific song-books, style-specific song-books, song-books by decade – the combinations are virtually endless.
It’s recommended that you start with a beginner song-book that will have simplified versions of songs with some instructional aspects to them. These song-books will have chord charts to show you how to make the chords that are being used and will often include a strumming rhythm that is very simply written out.
The third type of book that I will mention is the “Method” book. These books cover a wide range of skills and techniques and are categorized by level such as “Method 1”, “Method 2”, etc. The Method books will start with the basics of the guitar – all of the different parts of the instrument and how to tune it – and the basics of how to read sheet music, tablature, and chord charts.
Method books are a great tool to get you started, especially if you aren’t quite sure of your specific goals or where to start. The trick with these books if you are using them without a teacher’s guidance is to be patient and go slow. I often tell students to just work on one section at a time and really camp out on it. You may need to stay on a single page for a week or more to get the most out of these books.
As an instructor, I have used method books with hundreds of students. Usually what happens is we go through a Method 1 book in about a year’s time, then the student really begins to form goals based on what they learn in the book. From there, we start to really get to the fun stuff of learning songs, advanced techniques, and many other musical applications that appeals to the individual student. I highly recommend these books.
Before you start researching books at Amazon or at your local music store, do keep in mind that there are books out there that are a complete waste of money and energy. I recommend starting with a trusted publisher like Hal Leonard like these guitar method books (click here to check the price of them at Amazon). Warner Bros also has good instructional method books and a lot of song books.
Books from different music schools are also incredibly valuable and are designed with the self-taught musician in mind. Musician’s Institute (MI) or Berklee College of Music (Berklee Press) are really considered to be the very best and I use these extensively for myself as well as my students.
Training your ear to recognize different pitches is easier than most people realize. Most of us do not have perfect pitch, but virtually anyone can develop their sense of relative pitch. The difference with these two is that with relative pitch, you are given a note and are then able to identify other pitches in relation to that starting point. This is a very trainable skill.
Some people have used the excuse of being tone deaf. Besides the fact that only about 1 in 20 people are truly tone deaf, that portion of the population can still develop a sense of pitch with the use of therapy. If you think you might be tone deaf (chances are you are not), don’t let that deter you from developing your ear.
The way to go about this on your own is quite simple. You can get a book that comes with an audio tool like a CD or MP3 with various exercises. You can also find resources online that will allow you to access interactive exercises. You can either use your guitar as an aid, but a simple keyboard might be easier.
Learning to tell the “distance” between notes is known as interval training, and I recommend this practice to any musician, especially if you are wanting to teach yourself effectively. This is taught as a basic introduction to music theory in most books and classes and is very easy to do on your own. You don’t have to get too deep into music theory if you don’t want to, but you really should work on the basics of interval training.
The reason I think ear training is essential to a self-taught guitar player is that without a sense of pitch, you really can’t make it very far. When you combine a basic knowledge of chords with a decently developed ear, you can start to learn songs just by listening and playing along to a recording.
With relative pitch, once you figure out that first chord in a song, you will be able to tell what the other chords are, or at least the basic chord changes. Through interval training, you will be able to pick out smaller details such as the difference between a Dm and a Dm7. Train your ear and you will unlock the secrets of the universe!
ADDITIONAL MUSIC THEORY
As I mentioned before, the depth of knowledge in this area is totally optional. However, if you are going to be teaching yourself, at least a basic understanding is going to go a long way in helping you. I encourage all of my students in this area, but I understand that some musicians are theory geeks and some are not. If you are not, that is okay, but let me make the case for the basics and you can decide from there how far you want to take it.
After training your ear and learning the intervals, you may find it beneficial to learn scales. Even if you are not interested in playing lead lines or fancy fills a la Tim Reynolds, this can be very beneficial to your ability to learn chords, memorize the neck, and further develop your ear.
Learning both the major and minor scale is very helpful, but the more abbreviated pentatonic scale is where a lot of people start. It’s only five notes as opposed to seven, and is a good starting point for learning scales. There is both a major and minor pentatonic scale, but the most popular for guitarists has to be the minor.
My recommendation is to get familiar with the major scale in one octave. I would start with C because it has no sharps or flats. One octave means you will start with the lowest C note and just go up to the next one (C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C). You can go up to two octaves if you want to learn more of the neck. Three octave is for the more advanced player who likes to play across the entire neck.
You can repeat this process of learning scales with all twelve of the keys if you wish, but if you refer back to the CAGED system mentioned before, learning the major scale in those 5 keys is sufficient for most guitar players. A lot of this will be picked up fairly quickly if you are already doing interval training.
Learning exactly how a chord is made rather than simply memorizing the chord shapes will certainly put you ahead of the pack. It’s the difference of learning a recipe versus microwaving a frozen version of a meal. This is not for the faint of heart and does require a certain level of nerdiness to get excited about it enough to bother learning it, but I think it’s a very worthwhile endeavor.
Once you have familiarized yourself with the major scale in multiple keys, you can use those notes of the scale in various combinations to assemble different chords. This process is known as harmonizing a scale. Here’s a quick example of what this looks like:
Let’s look at a standard major chord. The “formula” for a major chord is the first, third, and fifth notes of a scale. If a C major scale is made of the notes C – D – E – F – G – A – B, that means the C major chord is built using the C, E, and G notes. Apply this to G (G – A – B – C – D – E – F#) and you have G, B, and D.
Other chord types may use a different combination of three notes, and more complicated chords will implement a fourth or even fifth note. Suspended chords will be 1-4-5 or 1-2-5, major 7s are 1-3-5-7, dominant 7s are 1-3-5-b7, and on it goes.
The reason I think it is beneficial to learn a scale in two octaves is that it will help you understand chords that use notes past the first octave. An example of this would be the 9 chords. Add9 chords are 1-3-5-9, major 9s are 1-3-5-7-9, minor 9 is 1-b3-5-b7-9, etc. That can be confusing if you haven’t learned the notes of a scale past the first octave.
I should stop now because as you might have guessed, I’m a theory nerd of the first order and I can get carried away. So if I haven’t lost you yet, let’s look at some other tips for teaching yourself guitar!
USE A METRONOME!
Rhythm is obviously an essential part of learning any musical instrument. If you don’t want to learn scales or memorize every single note along the entire length of the neck, fine. But for the love of all that is holy, please practice with a metronome! The biggest mistake I see in those who are self-taught and/or the musicians who learn by ear is not using the metronome.
You are not a machine, you are human. You do not possess the ability to keep absolute, constant time. Your sense of timing, no matter your natural inclinations in rhythm, needs to be developed and practiced almost constantly. I really don’t have any proof to back this up other than my own experience, but being able to play in time and stick to a groove is a use-it-or-lose-it skill.
I’ve had extended breaks where I didn’t perform or even play guitar recreationally for weeks at a time. Not only did I lose my calluses, but my ability lock to a groove had suffered. You don’t need to play along to a metronome or click track every single time you play, but you will need regular sessions with your metronome.
If you don’t learn how to tune your guitar, you will sound terrible forever. Likewise, if you don’t work on your sense of rhythm and timing, you will sound clumsy and you will cause a strange feeling of angst in whoever is unfortunate enough to be in earshot. Two things will cause a person to want to go home and kick their dog – sour notes and shoddy, stuttering rhythm.
To really get the best use out of a metronome, drum machine, click track, etc., the idea is to start at a comfortable tempo and very gradually increase the speed. By gradually, I mean when you get comfortable with a tempo, go up by 3 or 5 beats per minute. This may seem monotonous, but this patience will pay off. Just try it for a week and watch what happens to your timing.
What It Really Means To Be Self-Taught
At the end of the day, you are learning from somewhere, someone, or something. This is where the semantics come into play that I mentioned at the beginning. When the question is asked, “Can I learn how to play guitar without a teacher?”, what you may actually mean to ask is, “Can I learn guitar without formal guitar lessons?”
This may seem benign, but it’s an important distinction. To learn without being taught is an oxymoronic statement. Whether you learn guitar in the form of one-on-one instruction or videos you find YouTube, you still have a teacher. What it means to be self-guided is that you have the discipline and discernment in order to learn at your own pace, with the sources of your choice, and in the manner that you deem to be best.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. It is not arrogant to rely on your own devices and your own judgement to determine how this will play out for you. However, it’s incredibly naive and prideful to think that you are able to master a subject without the use of help outside of your own intellect.
I’m not saying that to shame you for wanting to learn how to play guitar without lessons. I’m just saying that to give you perspective. The mere fact that you are motivated and confident enough to learn on your own speaks volumes about your curiosity and determination, and I applaud your tenacity. For what it’s worth coming from a career guitar player behind a computer screen, you need to know that you can do it.
The best qualities of a self-taught guitar player include inquisitiveness, skepticism, discernment, confidence, discipline, and determination. If you can check those off the list, then nothing can stop you except you. As long as you are willing to experiment with multiple methods and sources, you will be just fine.
The Last 5%
We live in a DIY culture. If you want to cook a rack of lamb, replace your alternator, or start playing the sitar, there is a YouTube video for it. The reality is, humans have always been “DIY-ers”. The difference between our day and previous eras is that our DIY is not the same.
Do-It-Yourself means you can DO it yourself, but someone else is still showing you how to do it.
A YouTube video is a teacher,
A book is a teacher,
A blog post is a teacher,
The trick you picked up from a bandmate…
All of these things are tools that teach you, inspire you, and equip you – and they are all outside of yourself. However, it is up to you, and only you, to apply that knowledge by putting it into practice. I tell this to my students all the time. The reason I do is because I want my students to be able to continue their craft on their own.
This has been my personal teaching philosophy for years. I don’t teach people how to play the guitar, I coach people on how to learn the guitar. This is why I typically refrain from referring people who are interested in learning guitar to the big-box stores or internet behemoths that offer lessons. They are after student retention and their goal is to keep a student in lessons for as long as possible. I know, because I have worked with those companies.
I believe the best way to learn guitar is to have a teacher. However, it is about as difficult to find a trustworthy instructor as it is a trustworthy mechanic. Good teachers are teachers, not salesmen. Good teachers will set you up to be able to set off on your own and they only want to point you in the right direction.
Our day in age is full of knowledge, but it is significantly lacking in wisdom. It will take you 2 seconds to Google an online music instructor, video tutorial, or book. That doesn’t mean it’s a good source. Exercise that part of you that is suspicious and analytical, and you will be able to weed out the bad info from the helpful.
Whether you have a traditional instructor or not, it is still up to you to do the work. As a long time working musician, a huge part of my living has come from giving lessons and I’m 100% okay with telling you that you can learn on your own if you desire. Just remember that no guitar player is ever truly self-taught. If you can admit to yourself that you can’t learn this completely on your own, then that’s a huge step in the right direction. If you are not able to admit that, just remember – you read this article.