The ability to track your progress is essential in learning a new skill. As a guitar player, the easiest way to do this is with good coaching from an instructor who can objectively gauge your progress. If you are going the way of the self-taught musician, then you need to be intentional with how you monitor yourself.
I have been both instructor-taught and self-taught at various points of my playing life. The way that I teach students is geared toward having them go out on their own and become their own teacher. I do believe that to be the best course for anyone learning how to play guitar. A good instructor will teach a student to fish rather than just feeding them song tutorials and tabs.
So with that, I have several tips here on how you can see for yourself how you are doing as a guitar. At what point have you progressed from beginner to intermediate? I believe there are six main characteristics and symptoms for those who have crossed that invisible line.
- A chord vocabulary large enough to learn virtually any pop song without instructor assistance
- Stamina to play for extended periods of time
- Ability to consistently keep time
- A sense of internalized rhythm
- Basic knowledge of the major scale and/or pentatonic scale
- Has developed relative pitch (i.e., can learn some music by ear)
Am I Still A Beginner Guitarist?
Before discussing the characteristics of the intermediate player, we have to know the general attributes of a beginner. To start, beginners will tend to have little to no calluses on their fingers, under-developed hand and forearm muscles, and will be a little clumsy when it comes to strumming and changing chords.
In these beginning stages, one is not likely to start learning songs right out of the gate. Songs may be used as examples to develop certain technical skills, but the average beginner probably won’t be learning a song from start to finish. Instead, the beginner is focused on developing unique fine motor skills so that chord changing and strumming become second nature. Once that goal is reached, then the chord vocabulary and song list start to build.
Beginner guitar players are wise to keep things very slow as they develop a sense of rhythm, frequently using a metronome during practice sessions. “Strum patterns” are used as a teaching tool and a gateway to learning more advanced rhythm concepts.
If you want to get a real handle on whether you can play intermediate strum patterns or even advanced strum patterns, then check out our articles here: 7 Best Beginner Strumming Patterns, 7 Best Intermediate Strumming Patterns, 7 Best Advanced Strumming Patterns.
Also If you want to take your rhythm guitar to the next level then you can learn how to determine the strum pattern of any song in our article here, How To Determine the Strum Pattern of Any Song.
Music theory is generally kept to a minimum as that can be quite a confusing language to the layperson. Scales and harmony will take a backseat to basic sheet music and/or tablature in order to learn melody lines. It is not unusual for a guitar student to foregog traditional sheet music altogether and solely use tabs and chord charts.
After some of these concepts are grasped and technical skills have been developed, a beginner guitar student may experience a sudden breakthrough and feel like the guitar is now apart of them, almost like another limb. Other times, the progress might be so gradual that the student won’t realize just how good they have become until a good coach pushes them to their limits.
Every guitarist will be different in how they approach the guitar and how they develop. In over 16 years of teaching, these are the main characteristics I have seen in a student when they graduate from beginner and become intermediate players.
1. Chord Vocabulary
An easy way to track one’s progress is by way of how many chords have been committed to memory. Music is a language and chords are what the guitar uses as its vocabulary. The number of chords, keys, and chord variations that are committed to memory, the further along you will be as a player.
Knowing the main chords in all of the popular keys for the guitar will be the difference between beginner and intermediate. A guitar player will use 3-6 different chords in an average song. For example, in the key of G, a guitarist should know the G, C, D, and Em chords by heart. Know the Am and B7 chords for good measure as these can crop up from time to time in this key.
If you know the three major chords and three minor chords of the keys of C, G, D, A, and E (many of those keys share common chords), then you are on really solid ground.
Another way to order that is C-A-G-E-D, which is the “CAGED” system or 5-pattern system which is a way of learning how to play a single chord in five different shapes. This is another test of a guitar player – how many different positions along the neck can you play a single chord?
If you want to know more about the CAGED system then check out this article here, What Is The CAGED System? A Complete Beginners Guide, as a starting point and that leads a series of articles to help you learn the system.
Knowing the basics of transposing chords (changing chords based on a change of key) is another component to having a good chord vocabulary and is an essential skill when using a capo.
2. Increased Stamina
Stamina for a guitar player has two sides: physical and mental. On the physical end, calluses help a guitarist play for longer periods of time before getting the “ouchies”. The other benefit to thicker calluses is the clarity of the notes. Not only will the player have protective armor on the fingertips, but he or she will also sound better longer.
For a beginner, after just a few minutes, the fingertips become inflamed and the forearm fatigues quickly. This is due to weaker grip strength. The intermediate player has developed the smaller muscles in the forearm that control the fingers and will be more consistent due to having better muscle control in the fingers.
On the mental side of things, the intermediate guitar player’s brain will be able to take in and retain more and more information during learning or practice sessions. The typical beginner can really only process between 20 and 30 minutes’ worth of information at a time depending on age, and that is about all their fingers can take.
An intermediate player tends to have instruction time pushed to 45 minutes if taking private lessons and practice sessions of 30 minutes up to an hour is expected in order to continue progressing to more advanced skill levels.
All of that to say, a noticeable difference in how much time spent behind the guitar will be evident to the player. Practice sessions will fly by and a guitarist will find themselves playing their favorite songs for an hour or more without ceasing and have very little physical issues in doing so.
3. Consistent Timing
I often tell students that speed is not important, but consistency. Speed should not be your goal at this stage of the game, rather the speed is a natural byproduct of repetitive practice and consistently staying on beat.
If you want an instant leg up among most beginner and intermediate players, the key is to practice with a metronome often. Not nearly enough beginner players use a metronome in their practice and that leads to slower growth and development.
When using a metronome for practice, one must use a slow enough speed to be able to keep up, but quick enough to create a slight challenge. Say you start working a chord progression at 65 beats per minute and you can play through the progression with ease (I like to say 10 times through without making a mistake). Now here’s the key: Increase the tempo by only 3 beats per minute to 68.
Gradually increasing the tempo by 3-4 beats per minute at a time will ensure more efficient development of your timing. It may seem tedious at first, but just watch what happens with your time!
Now, the test to see if you have progressed from beginner to intermediate with this aspect of guitar playing is to do the following:
Using a drum machine or metronome, play along with a comfortable speed and have the volume decrease to zero. Do not stop and restart the metronome; let it continue to play at a muted volume. You may need a partner with this if you do not have access to an automated metronome or virtual drummer. Bring the volume back in after several seconds to see where you land on the beat.
Did you speed up or slow down? Make a mental note and make the necessary adjustment to your playing speed until you can be consistent. If you stayed on beat or close to it, then your timing has matured!
4. Internalized Rhythm
This next trait may seem the same as the previous, but it’s very different. It’s one thing to be able to play in time. It’s another thing entirely to play in a groove.
There’s a key question that a guitar player will ask that almost instantly tells me he or she is a beginner student. When asking about how to play a particular song, they will ask, “What is the strum pattern?”
Intermediate to advanced players have learned to stop thinking about strum patterns. Nowadays when I am asked “what is the strum pattern?”, I respond in the style of that child in the Matrix: “There is no strum pattern!”
The intermediate guitar player will start to hear the entire song and all of the instruments involved (including vocals), and almost subconsciously formulate their own strumming rhythm in order to fit into the musical tapestry of which they are apart.
The guitar largely has two roles to play as a band member: melody and rhythm. Start to think of your guitar not just as a stringed instrument for making chords and a melodic bed, but also as a percussion instrument. Follow the natural rhythmic motif of a given song and you won’t need to worry about when you strum up or when you strum down.
Inserting yourself into the rhythmic mix of the song will allow you not just to keep in time, but to compliment what the other parts are doing, thus you begin to groove.
5. Basics of Scales
Western music is predominantly based on the major scale. Knowing the major scale allows you to understand how chords are built, how melodies are strung together, how to transpose keys, and what chords work in certain keys just to name a few benefits.
As an intermediate player, there’s no real need to know the major scale all over the neck and start ripping up solos. Just knowing where the notes are within about the first five frets in the five main keys (remember: CAGED) will be more than sufficient to be able to learn on your own without the aid of an instructor.
Knowing the scale intervals will help tremendously in learning new chords and developing your sense of relative pitch. The intervals being unison, major second, major third, perfect fourth, perfect fifth, major sixth, major seventh, and octave.
No need to go crazy and learn the modes, notes above the octave, or learning how to harmonize the scale. This is just a very basic foundational knowledge of music theory that once this begins to make sense, you can no longer call yourself a beginner.
Usually, the best way for guitar players to start learning the major and minor scales is to start with the pentatonic scale. There are only five notes and it is in a box-shaped formation on the neck that is easy to memorize. The minor pentatonic is usually the one learned first as that is one of the most popular scales that guitar players use to build hook lines and solos. After that, you just need to learn the location of two other notes and you have a full scale.
Knowing the major scale in one octave in the open position of C, A, G, E, and D takes a short time and it starts to really propel your advancement and train your ear. I highly recommend it!
6. Relative Pitch
Speaking of ear training, I mentioned “relative pitch” earlier. Most have heard about the idea of perfect or absolute pitch. It is the ability to recognize the pitch of a particular note without any sort of reference point.
Relative pitch is the ability to distinguish notes based on their relative distance (interval) from a reference note.
An example of perfect pitch is hearing a single note plucked from a guitar and being able to identify the pitch and recreate it without using any other note as a reference. In other words, a musician with perfect pitch hears the note and instantly identifies that note as a C.
Someone with a developed sense of relative pitch hears the note, but may need to compare it to another note first before being able to determine the exact pitch. Once that note is determined, any other note that is played will be identifiable in relation to the reference note.
The biggest difference between perfect and relative pitch is perfect pitch is a very rare ability with less than 1 in 10,000 people having this ability. Relative pitch can be learned and developed by virtually everyone, even individuals who are tone deaf.
Relative pitch translates into the ability to learn music by ear. As a student progresses through the beginning stages of his or her craft, they will be able to recognize sounds and pitches. After playing a C chord a couple hundred times, the ear may start to recognize that chord when it hears it from another source.
I remember this breakthrough very clearly for myself. I was practicing my G, C, D, and Em chords. I had just learned the Cadd9 chord as a substitute for regular C and I began to hear in my mind the song “Good Riddance” from Green Day. I put the song on and sure enough, the chord worked! From there, I was able to put the other chords in place and learn my very first song by ear. I had been playing about two or three years at this point.
Little did I know this was my relative pitch being developed. I have seen this with many students. Learning the guitar causes a student to begin to listen to music a little bit differently with a more critical ear. The repetition of focused practice naturally builds this ability in most students without their realizing it.
Have you played a chord and thought you recognized that sound from a song you know? Did you play along with the song, and discover the chord matched what you were hearing in the song? Congratulations, you are moving up a rung on the ladder!
Not all of these characteristics are required to call yourself intermediate. Chances are you will be stronger at some of these traits and weaker with others and that’s okay. There may not be one defining moment of when you become an intermediate player. It’s usually a series of breakthroughs in the areas I described above that string themselves together gradually, and then suddenly you find yourself to be a decent guitarist!
That doesn’t mean it happens by accident; it takes intentionality and repetition. It might feel like an accident! I know I “accidentally” played something right many times, but that was after trying over and over and over again.
Believe me – when those breakthroughs happen, it’s better than Christmas! Just wait and see.