Why Aren't You A Better Guitar Player?
by Tom Hess
If you are like most people, you desire to become a great guitar player. Through my own learning experience and through teaching well over 1,000 students, I have learned a lot on this subject. Students often ask why they are not at the level that they desire to be and what can be done about it. I have asked myself this same question many times over the years. A long time passed before I began to understand the answers. Like you probably have done, I have read many interviews with great guitar players and articles written by some of these same people. I often found it frustrating whenever the subject of learning to play guitar came up or when advice was offered on improving one's guitar playing. With a small number of exceptions, very little time and space was offered on the topic. It's not uncommon to see the advice be summed up in a grand total of three words: Practice! Practice!! Practice!!! Well of course we all know that practicing is the main ingredient. But rarely are we told much more than that. In my long quest to become an excellent guitar player and to help my students do the same I carefully took note of what worked and what didn't. What parts of conventional wisdom are accurate and what parts (at least in my opinion) are not. I believe the twenty concepts that have proven to bring great results to those who use them are:
1. Educate yourself! No matter what level you are at today, you can be and should be learning more. If you are currently studying with a teacher or enrolled in a music program at a high school, college or university, you are on the right track. If you aren't doing this (or if you feel that your current guitar teacher is not helping you enough in reaching your musical goals) I strongly recommend looking for a new guitar teacher. (Download the FREE guide on How to Choose a Guitar Teacher) I can't stress enough how important it is to find the guitar teacher that is right for you! Your guitar teacher (or music program) should always be Goal Orientated. If it's not, look for another teacher or school to study with! You don't need a teacher to simply give you information or things to practice - you can get those things anywhere, what you need is a teacher who:
A. Knows what your musical goals are.
B. Cares about helping you reach your musical goals.
C. Knows how to help you reach your musical goals.
2. Listen to more music. Find more of the same music you already like. There is a lot of music out there that you haven't heard. I am sure you can find something you really like and that would inspire you. Look on the internet if you can't find it on the conventional radio. Check out internet radio, you can customize what you hear based on your preferences, it's a great tool! Check out web sites that you know feature a lot of the music in the style you like.
3. Turn your musical frustrations into an asset in the form of a motivating force. I wrote a whole article called Musical Frustration. I don't want to repeat here everything that I wrote in that article, so read it if you haven't already. If you have read it, it may be worth your time to read it again now.
4. Believe in yourself. You have probably heard that phrase many times before. It's unfortunate how many people still refuse to invest their own beliefs into themselves. I wrote an article on Perseverance which deals indirectly with believing in yourself. Please read it if you have a problem believing that you can reach your goals.
5. Understand that becoming a better guitar player means becoming a better musician as well. When developing your musical skills, make sure to think beyond skills that are specific to guitar. Of course you will be working on many guitar skills: various guitar techniques, chords, scales, soloing, etc., but don't neglect other skills that are not guitar specific like, ear training (also called aural skills), songwriting, improvising, creativity, reading, music theory, etc. Check out this page full of free guitar resources and assessments to help you learn what musical skills you need to work on right now.
6. Surround yourself with better guitar players (or at least with those on your same level.) When you started out playing guitar, everyone was better than you, but now you have grown and there are less people better than you than before. The better you get, the harder it will be to find others who are superior to you to hang around or jam with. But no matter how good you get, there will always be something you can learn from someone else. Seek out those people, get to know them, jam with them, discuss music and guitar with them. Be willing to give as much (or more) as you want to take. If you are fortunate enough to be above the level of other guitar players in your area, seek out great bassists, pianists, violinists, drummers, etc. You can learn from them as well. (Even if you are not better than your guitar player friends, seek out musicians that play other instruments as well anyway).
7. Find out what inspires you and soak yourself in that. For me, going to concerts to see great guitar players or bands inspires me to practice more. Listening to great singers inspired me to refine my vibrato and phrasing. Listening and studying the music of great classical composers inspired me to study music composition. I wanted to write great music. Watching the movie Star Wars when I was a kid, reading Lord of the Rings, etc. inspired me as well. There are lots of non musical things that have been inspiring to me. The greatest source of inspiration has been my own personal experiences in life and within myself. The desire to express that was (and still is) a constant burning desire and powerful force that thrusts my desire to improve forward. Know what truly inspires you, seek it out, surround yourself with it and soak there.
8. Define your purpose. What is your definite purpose? Do you really know what it is? If I were standing in front of you right now and asked you this question, could you give me specific answers and explanations? Can you write it on paper in specific terms? This is critical to setting musical goals, planning strategy and monitoring the results, etc.
When all the enemies of progress start to creep into your mind, you will need to bring your definite purpose to the forefront of your thinking. I have seen procrastination, fear of failure, self doubt, lack of motivation, temporary setbacks, and other negative things bring people with great potential to a halt. Knowing your definite purpose and reminding yourself of it when a negative thought comes into your mind will help you overcome it.
9. Define exactly why your purpose exists in your mind. I specifically choose to list this separately from defining your purpose because I did not want you to let the why get lost in the act of defining. Trust me, this is important.
10. Create a strategy! You need a strategy that will layout exactly how to reach your musical goals. Dreaming alone won't take you anywhere. Telling yourself that you are going to play your guitar everyday isn't enough. There is a lot more that goes into being an excellent player than simply playing your guitar. Ultimately you should work backwards. State your ultimate goals (on paper) then make a bunch of short and medium range goals. Think of reaching your goals as a relay race, not as a marathon. Each short term and medium term goal is the end of one segment of your plan and the beginning of the next segment (just like a relay race.) There are many benefits of looking at things this way as you will discover for yourself in your own way.
If you clearly know what your ultimate goals are, you can do this yourself. But if you need help in planning out the short and mid term goals to plan your strategy, consult a teacher whom you trust and believe can help you with this - it's worth it, believe me. If you can't find a guitar teacher who can do this for you, pay someone (yes, I said pay) to help you develop a specific plan to do this. The best person to approach for this is someone who is already doing whatever it is that you want to be doing.
Remember that it's OK to daydream and fantasize about where you are planning to go, but it can't stop there. Don't wish without planning! Don't dream without doing! And always, always, have a strategy. You may need to revise certain aspects of your strategy as time goes on and that's OK, but don't try to go forward without one if you want the maximum results in the shortest amount of time. In my early days learning to play guitar, I wasted a lot of time aimlessly desiring to get better without having a clue as to how to plan for it. Sure I practiced a lot, but without direction and without an efficient path to follow. Most of my substantial progress as a musician came only after I developed a strategy and worked with it. If you are wondering why I haven't given you a detailed explanation of the strategies I used in the past, it would be pointless for me to tell you what my strategy was, because it was specific only to my goals. Chances are, your goals may differ greatly from mine in many different ways. That is why you need your own strategy for your own personal goals. One last piece of advice before we move on, write everything on paper and read it everyday! It will keep you focused and on target.
11. Imagine yourself having the skills that you desire. Focus on that and concentrate. Convince yourself that you can do it. Convince yourself that you are already on your way to reaching your first goal - because you are. It's easier to manifest your desires when you can imagine yourself already in possession of it. Keep your positive mental attitude always.
12. Define what you plan to do with your musical skills once you have them. If you plan on releasing your own CD or making a living in music, learn how to get into the music business right now! The fastest way to do that is to actually take music business lessons at a college and take private lessons from a pro (or at least a semi-pro guitarist) Yes you can take lessons in this just like you can for learning guitar, songwriting, etc. Do not wait until you are a great guitar player to start learning about this business! I cannot tell you how many players make this mistake (I made it myself at first and have been studying it intensely for the past few years to get my own career to where it is today.)
13. Find out how your favorite guitar players reached their goals. Often times this is hard to do since you can't always sit down and talk to some very famous musicians. But interviews exist as well as a few biographies on some musicians (especially dead ones). Despite the fact that many successful don't really talk much about this, you can find some that do. Believe me, becoming successful is a lot more than just practicing and luck! Remember that their strategies won't necessarily work for you because your goals may be different than theirs were. Still you can learn from it.
14. Don't compare yourself to others. There is no need to do this anyway. Music should not be a competitive sport among people, only within yourself. Compare yourself only in relation to where you are in your strategy! Are you on your way to reaching your next short term and medium term goal towards your ultimate goals? Are you on schedule, does your strategy need to be revised?
15. Make sure you are practicing efficiently. Do you really know how to practice the guitar? Are you focused on setting daily and weekly objectives and then practicing in such a way that you will be working towards those goals? These are questions you should ask yourself. The two biggest practicing mistakes I have seen in students (besides not practicing enough) are:
A. Practicing is not goal orientated.
B. Not understanding the difference between playing one's guitar and practicing one's guitar.
If you are having any difficulties with practicing, talk to your teacher about it. He/she should be able to help you.
16. Play with others in a band or some type of ensemble. It is important to have experience playing with others. It can be in a band or some other ensemble setting. Formal or informal. The main thing is to be doing it. (at least once a month). Some things you just can't fully practice alone. Besides the fact that this can be really fun, it will also help you overcome musician's stage fright if you have it.
17. Measure your progress. Document your practice time. Keep a record of how much you practice each day. For technique things, use a metronome to see how fast you are able to play a particular scale, exercise, lick, arpeggio, etc. cleanly. Write down the result, practice it all week and see if you can play it one or two beats per minute faster by next week (or next month). Keep a record of all the technical things you are currently working on. You will clearly see if you are progressing and at what rate. For other items that are not so easily recorded with a metronome, paper and pencil, record yourself on tape or on your computer each week. Keep the tapes for a long time. Listen back in 1 month, 3 months, 6 months, 1 year, 2 years, 3 years, etc. Listen to how much you have grown.
18. Do not pander to your strengths while ignoring your weaknesses. It is not necessary to be able to play all styles of music or every technique to be a good player, but certain aspects are universal, such as: technique, ear training, knowledge of theory, musical expression, improvising, etc. Some musical styles will rely more heavily on certain aspects than other styles, regardless, it's important to be balanced. If you are a heavy metal guitarist, chances are sight reading won't be as high on your list of priorities as technique. Likewise, a strict classical guitarist won't have much use for improvisation (unfortunately). But make sure you don't avoid weaknesses that you should be paying attention to because if you do - you will be sorry, sooner or later.
19. Discipline yourself. Unlike a sport, you do not have a coach or a trainer to work with you all the time. Nobody is there to make sure you are practicing the way you need to, when you need to, and how often you need to. You need to be totally self reliant. If this is not a normal part of your personality, fortunately there is help for you. Only you can stop yourself from procrastinating. Take the initiative now to go forward.
20. Never give up! Never say can't. Never say I can't. Never say someday. Never say if. If your IQ is higher than room temperature, if you have all of your fingers and if you really want to succeed, you can.
It seems strange to me how many incorrect assumptions and teachings there are about becoming a better guitar player. Here are a few things that are often not true.
A. You should be a well rounded player and learn lots of different styles of music to become a good guitarist. This is one of the most ridiculous statements I have ever heard on the subject. Segovia (the classical guitar master) wasn't well rounded - he didn't waste his time to master jazz or bluegrass for example. Yngwie Malmsteen didn't study intense jazz guitar. Most great jazz guitarists don't study classical guitar or heavy metal guitar. Stevie Ray Vaughn never learned to play fusion or metal. Great country players usually don't study Progressive Rock. Of course there are examples of guitar players that do learn and play in more than one or two styles, but most of the really great guitarists are known for the style they focused on. They are masters of their musical style, they are specialists, not a jack-of-all-trades type of player. Don't listen to people who say something like, "You must learn blues before you can learn heavy metal or classical guitar." You do not have to be well rounded.
The only time one needs to learn lots of different styles of music is because your goals require it. If you truly love a lot of styles and want to learn them all, then go ahead and do that. If you want to be a studio musician or a jobber, then you will need that versatility. It's very hard to be really good at many styles.
B. You should be able to play all the techniques of the guitar. Van Halen did tapping but not with all his fingers as others have done. He didn't play finger style much either, but we still regard him as an important guitarist, the same thing can be said for Vai and many others. Classical guitar master John Williams probably doesn't play well with a guitar pick (I am assuming this to be true, I have no proof of it), but he is considered one of the greatest classical guitarists alive today. Skills like improvisation, songwriting and playing with a guitar pick are not going to be high on his list of skills to acquire. This is because classical guitarists generally don't do those things - and don't need to be great at what they do. These players are great players in their own ways and they have spent many years developing their skills. Learning everything about guitar playing would have taken away precious guitar practice time from the things they needed to focus on to reach their goals.
C. Teaching yourself is the best way to be original. This is so obviously false it's hard to believe that anyone could actually believe it - yet some people still do. Don't fall into the trap of thinking this is the best way to learn. This is the most close-minded philosophy I can think of. Musical skills are tools. One should want to obtain and master as many of these tools as will be needed to reach your goals. Doing that alone won't work well and even if it does eventually work, it will take 10 times as long! Besides, how will you know if what you are trying to do is original if you don't learn about what has already been done?
D. To be great means I have to be better than everybody else. We already touched on this one above, but it is worth mentioning again here. What matters is reaching your goals, not someone else's goals. Who cares if you are or are not better than someone else? This is not the Olympics. Music is the art of expression (or for some people, the science of entertainment).
E. You need natural talent to be a great (or even a good) musician. Don't believe this. It is true that some people possess more natural abilities in one or skill or another. For example, some athletes are naturally fast sprinters. Others are great marathon runners. Others can swim faster or longer. Others can jump higher. Others are stronger. Others are smarter. Others have faster reflexes. Others can throws football better. Others can shoot a basketball better, etc. The point is athletes with great abilities have them usually in one area. For example, Michael Jordan (arguably the world's greatest basketball player of all time) was not very successful when he tried to play baseball (or golf for that matter). Think about athletes in the Olympics, they are specialists. They have found their natural ability and developed it to it's greatest potential, but that natural ability is usually limited to one skill.
Music is very different from a skill or a sport. There is no such thing as musical skill. There exists only a large set of musical skills. Think about some of the very different types of skills a musician needs to have: a highly developed ear, good physical technique on his/her instrument, heightened creativity, the ability to improvise well, songwriting/composing skills, the ability to play in time, the ability to play with others, the comprehension of music theory, a good memory, the ability to read music, etc. The list goes on and on. Some players have a natural ability to play fast, some have naturally good ears, some have good voices, some are naturally more creative than others, some are natural improvisers, etc. Nobody has natural talent in all of the necessary areas to be a complete musician.
Think about the masters of music. Mozart was probably most naturally gifted in only three of these areas: technical skill, a great ear (perfect pitch), a great musical memory. But he had to work hard at all the other areas of music just like everybody else.
Chopin's natural ability was his ability to improvise. He was the master, but he worked very hard to become the virtuoso pianist that he would later become. Chopin also was the master at small forms, but struggled with large scale forms.
Beethoven probably had no natural ability known to himself for a long time. He didn't even begin composing much until around the age of 30! He was not a child prodigy like Mozart and Chopin were. Beethoven was, of course, a master, but did not enjoy the fruits of any natural talents. He constantly edited his works over and over, trying to perfect them. Mozart, by comparison, very rarely ever edited anything he wrote.
Each of us has some natural ability of some kind. You may already know what yours is or you may not have yet discovered it. If being a better musician is not coming easy for you that simply means you are like the rest of us.
In the game of reaching your goals, there are only two real players... You and Time.
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