I have been learning guitar for over 6 months at the time of writing this article. I am 40 years old and have no previous musical experience apart from learning a few pieces on the recorder when I was a child, and not very well at that. Think ‘Fried Diaper’ rather than the ‘Pied Piper’.
Although my time now is limited what with having a full-time job, being a father of two wonderful young girls and having no local family support due to not living in my native country, I still find time to play and enjoy learning guitar.
I am writing this post to help those of you who are discouraged about learning, are losing interest, are thinking about quitting or giving up learning guitar and just don’t seem to be getting better at guitar.
I have felt all these whilst learning to play guitar and with some research and reflection, I wanted to share with you how to overcome this and ultimately enjoy your learning and feel encouraged to play. Below I provide some essential tips and motivation for you to change the way you are learning and become the guitarist you set out to be.
So let’s get into it.
1. Learn The Songs You Love
I have been learning guitar from the Justin Guitar Beginner Course, it is an awesome free online resource and if you are just starting out or revisiting the guitar after a long break then I would encourage you to take the course.
On the course, Justin has song tutorials to accompany every stage of your learning so that you can enjoy playing songs that incorporate elements you have been practicing along the way. This helps with your feeling of progression and grows your confidence which is vital as you continue along your guitar journey.
What I did find though is that the songs available to learn along the way weren’t always to my taste and this is normal given that we all have different interests. Don’t get me wrong, many of the songs Justin has covered I love, and I bought both his beginner guitar songbooks because more often than not I wanted to learn from his breakdowns.
However, he can’t cover every song and sometimes I just wanted to learn a new song that he didn’t have covered in his repertoire of tutorials.
When this happened I made sure to look for songs I would like to learn and I created my own private playlist on YouTube for exactly this. Over time I have done exactly that and now I have a fairly large list of songs. This is great and I have started to pick more and more songs from the list to learn and work through on a weekly basis.
I would encourage you to do the same and learn the songs you love, this is generally the reason we all learn to play guitar and it is the fuel that will keep your passion for learning to play guitar burning.
There are two caveats to this though and these would be the following:
Do not learn songs way beyond your current capability: Choosing to learn songs we love is great but choosing to learn songs that are way beyond our current skill set can lead to disaster.
The reason I say this is that learning guitar can be challenging and frustrating which in small quantities is what you need in order to grow. You can take this on and then overcome them, get a feeling of accomplishment and then this can fuel you on.
However, if you choose to learn songs that are way beyond your current level then there will likely be an extreme level of frustration and that could lead you to quit or become discouraged in your learning.
This is another reason to choose a structured course of learning as more often than not you learn chords, techniques and strumming patterns for example which will be captured in recommended to you in a particular song. This way you can quickly and easily apply what you have learned.
Do not just learn songs: What I mean by this is that if you just learn songs you won’t learn about the many areas and aspects of being able to play guitar and really enjoy it. Sure songs will teach you techniques along the way but it will take a long time and you may end up just repeating songs you have already learned.
Make sure to choose a structured course of learning at the beginning. It will help you build a solid foundation in being able to play guitar. Learning the basics this way will ensure that you are learning correctly and accurately.
If your time is limited and you want to learn when you choose, then learn online. This is exactly what I have done and you can too. It is an extremely viable and successful way of learning guitar and if you have any doubt then read my article here Is It Possible To Learn Guitar Online? Yes, Here’s How where I breakdown exactly why and how it is possible using evidence from my learning.
2. Enjoy the Small Wins
Learning to play the guitar the way you want isn’t easy and too often we can get caught up wanting to become a great guitar player without understanding the time it takes to get there.
For example, we may see one of our guitar idols, have some individual songs we would love to learn or see some guitar progress videos on YouTube and think we should be there already.
We caught up in the big picture when we should be focused on the details. Chuck Palahniuk the writer of Fight Club has the perfect quote on this.
The trick to forgetting the big picture is to look at everything close up.Chuck Palahniuk
In reality, learning guitar takes time, focus and dedication but that doesn’t mean that it has to be boring in fact I find the exact opposite when learning because I have learned to ‘enjoy the small wins’.
For example, I recently learned to play Blackbird by The Beatles and this is one of the first fingerpicking songs I have learned. There are many movements around the fretboard to play this and it took me a long time to learn it all the way through, approximately 25 hours just over a month period.
Now, many beginner guitar players may be put off by this amount of time but I enjoyed the experience because I ‘enjoyed the small wins’.
The way I do this is by stripping away a lot of the grandiose expectations and just concentrating on small elements of my learning. So in the song example given above, I would just concentrate on a bar at a time for a practice section and not think about learning more than that. That way if I got the bar understood then I had accomplished what I set out and knew that next time I could move on to the next bar.
This gave me an ‘easy win’ and an overall feeling of satisfaction with my progress. This is vital when learning guitar as too often it can feel frustrating.
So remember, Enjoy The Small Wins.
3. Find A Guitar Yoda
Whether you learn online or with a teacher in person, make sure that their teachings are aligned with your interests.
If you have a physical teacher then make sure they teach you the songs you want to learn or the style you want to follow. If they don’t then they likely haven’t asked you the right questions and if not ask yourself why not. Or maybe they haven’t listened and so will not have your best interests front and center so you will likely end up learning things you never wanted to. This is a sure-fire way of getting little enjoyment and satisfaction when learning to play guitar.
However, if you find a guitar teacher who does listen and ‘guides’ you rather than ‘dictates’ what you need to learn then you will flourish. So when looking to learn don’t just go with the first teacher you meet. Ask them some questions, see what they ask you and try and determine if they are the right fit before you go down the route of committing to lessons.
Learning online won’t give you the feedback that you get from a teacher in person, but you do get to choose different people to learn from and often they will have some free lessons on YouTube where you can gauge their teaching style.
You will also get to see what camera angles they provide and if there will be tabs or any other tips and information that may make it easier for you to learn. Personally, I chose to learn through Justin Guitar’s Beginner Course and stuck with it until I completed it. Can you learn much from it? Yes, you absolutely can and more than just songs, you learn different styles, music theory, techniques and how to practice effectively as a few examples.
If you want to see some visual evidence, below is a video of my progress after 5 months (songs only), having just completed Justin’s beginner course.
I release journey videos every month plus I talk all about my guitar progress here on my blog so if you are learning guitar then please subscribe and hit the notification bell on the video above and join me on the journey. I also share reviews and tips along the way to help other beginners navigate their way and keep on playing guitar.
In my best Yoda voice, ‘A guitar guide you need’.
4. Define A Clear Path
Many a beginner gets caught up learning just riffs or songs from the start and the problem with this is that enthusiasm can dwindle when you come across what to learn next or you find something too hard and not suited to your level.
Don’t get me wrong, there are many who can go down that path just fine but too often than not they lose sight of what to learn because they haven’t defined the path they want to take with the guitar.
Many people I have spoken to often learn something through YouTube which is great as there are so many well explained lessons on there, and it is getting better and better, but so often they don’t finish the lesson or for whatever reason, they get ‘shiny object syndrome’ and click on another video suggested by the algorithm.
This is detrimental to your playing and more so when you are a beginner trying to get to grips with the fundamentals. To avoid this I would advise you to choose a structured course of learning.
Using a structured course of learning you won’t have to think about what to learn next, you also won’t get distracted by some other video that could derail you or misdirect your learning. There are a number of great places to learn to play online. The one I have used is completely free and is available here for you to start your guitar journey on the best foot, Justin Guitar Beginner Course.
So take the hassle out of learning, choose a structured course of learning when you are a beginner and by doing this you will have a clear path defined for you.
5. Focus On What You Don’t Know
‘If you want to play songs then learn the whole song, don’t learn part of it and then move on’.Me! From my learning experience.
I speak from experience when I say this as early on in my learning I was picking up parts of the song and then failing to complete them usually from my own choosing. The reason I chose not to complete them often came down to me wanting to maintain momentum in my learning.
The part that I often did not follow was maintaining a rhythm, playing along with the original song and not using a metronome to get my rhythm closely to how it should be.
So stick with learning a song the whole way through as you will learn so much that it is transferable to other songs. You will learn ‘how to learn songs’ if that makes sense? If we take an example I can further explain this.
If you were to learn the song in the video below which is Mad World the Gary Jules version then there are 4 chords to it, the A, D, Em and G Chord. If you just learned these and used downstrokes you could play the song at a very basic level.
However to really develop the song and increase your ability you could work through the alternate strumming, then play along with the song and use a metronome to help you match it with the correct bpm (beats per minute). Following that you could then try and record it or perform it for others.
This would then really test if you could play the song and it will also make you a lot more comfortable with what it takes to learn a song. This whole process will become easier to understand with each song you learn all the way.
The only obstacle will be the complexity of the song as you look to challenge yourself more and more with the solid skill set you begin to build.
Another point to make is not skipping over areas of a song that you aren’t playing correctly or stumble at and I would refer back to tip 2 for this.
The way to tackle these areas of a song is to break them down into small sections. These will be sections that you will repeat over and over again starting slowly and accurately and building up speed to the desired bpm as our fingers become more accustomed to what they need to do.
6. Think Long Term Marginal Gains
So often we want instant results, instant feedback, and instant gratification. The guitar doesn’t work like that so we have to change our mindset if we want to get the most out of learning and really succeed with playing guitar.
Bear with me while I go off-topic for a minute or two because the following story helps illustrate why thinking long term and about marginal gains can change everything for you when learning to play guitar, and in anything that you do really.
In 2003 Dave Brailsford took over the Olympic Cycling team, prior to this they had only won one gold medal since 1908 and a British rider had never won the Tour De France. Never, not once in the 110 years of the event.
In addition, many of the top manufacturers in Europe refused to sell bikes to the team because they were concerned it would damage their future sales.
Dave brought with him a strategy that would change everything, the implementation of ‘marginal gains’.
The strategy was to break down everything, and search for and work on tiny improvements on every element of what his cyclists would do. Dave and his team looked at bike seats, rubbed alcohol on the tires for better grip, riders wore heated shorts prior to an event or stage to maintain ideal muscle temperature. While riding they wore biofeedback sensors to monitor how each individual athlete responded to a particular workout. They tested riding suits in wind tunnels and the riders ended up changing to indoor riding suits because they were lighter and more aerodynamic.
But he didn’t stop there, they went deep into all areas, many unexpected. They tested different massage gels to find the ones that helped recovery the quickest. They hired a surgeon to teach them the best way to wash their hands to avoid catching a cold. They determined the best mattress and pillow for sleeping and each rider took their own pillow when staying in different locations. They even painted the inside of their team truck in white to be able to spot any dust that could degrade the performance of the bikes.
The result, in the 2008 Olympics they won 60% of the gold medals available, in 2012 they set nine Olympic records and seven world records. That same year Bradley Wiggins was the first Brit to win the Tour De France and since then, writing this in January 2020, a Brit has won the Tour De France 5 times.
This turnaround was phenomenal and the strategy was a game-changer, a true story of a hero to zero. One deserved of a movie but yet to be made.
So what has this got to do with learning guitar? It has everything to do with learning to play guitar!
When you learn you often feel that you aren’t progressing but in fact, you are making 1% improvements particularly if you are following tip 5. Focusing on the areas of playing guitar that are your weakest and working on these turns them into strengths.
Collectively over time, you will make massive gains in your learning with this approach. The more of these 1% gains you make the more well rounded, better understood, more skilled and the more satisfied guitarist you will become.
So every time you sit down to learn and you are stuck on a small element of playing guitar, work on it. Research it, find a resource to help you focus down on it and get your hands used to the change so that it is implemented into your skillset.
By working on ‘marginal gains’ in your playing and thinking long term about what this will bring then you will have a more patient mindset and ultimately become a better guitar player.
Think Long Term Marginal Gains.
7. Play Songs Slowly To Improve Accuracy
The best way that I have found to learn a song or technique is slowly, accurately and with repetition until it becomes second nature.
In the early days of my learning, I would often try and play with the songs intended bpm and not allow myself to play a song entirely accurately because I wasn’t giving myself enough time. By slowing down the bpm of the song, i.e. playing the song slower than the actual bpm, you will be able to make sure that you learn the song accurately.
As Justin Guitar often says in his beginner course ‘Practice makes permanent. This is so true. If you practice without accuracy then that is exactly what the end result will be. Sure you will be able to play a song with some elements correct but others won’t be and it won’t ever sound entirely correct.
Also if you don’t take the time to slow down and work on the micro details before speeding up then you could mislearn a technique and that could forever be in your arsenal and wrongly applied to every song you use it in.
I believe that it is vital to slow down like this when learning, especially when you are self-taught / learning online as you dot get the feedback that you would with a guitar teacher.
So remember, slow down, ensure accuracy and then speed up to the desired bpm.
8. Diligently Go At Your Own Pace
The online world has brought phenomenal change with the way we can all learn guitar. It is more accessible now at this point in history than it has ever been.
The resources available are increasingly extensive as are the number of teachers online which means you have so much choice to find someone that you can get along with or are happy to listen to.
However, what we all need to bear in mind is that we all learn at a different pace and that we should own that. Looking at the progress of others can be inspiring but don’t set your expectations on their results.
For example, I have watched many guitar progress videos on YouTube since I started learning and often they are a lot younger than me and have much more ‘disposable’ time than I do. As a result, I shouldn’t be comparing myself to them and more importantly, I shouldn’t be comparing myself to anyone.
So when you are learning, take time to ‘smell the roses’, enjoy the moments of learning and let it be your focus not how fast or slow you are going.
By learning diligently and at your own pace, with help from the tips above, then your mindset will be one where you will get lost in the enjoyment of learning and really enjoy playing guitar.
I believe these tips will make you stick with learning guitar and give you long term success. If you have some thoughts on this I would love to hear them in the comments below.