Learning to play the guitar is no easy feat. It takes time, dedication, and practice, much like any other desirable human skill. It can be frustrating and overwhelming when attempting to demystify the secrets of mastering the guitar.
Learning to play the guitar is so difficult because it requires muscle memory and knowledge that cannot be obtained in a short period of time. It requires repeated, disciplined practice that can feel discouraging and overwhelming to the person attempting to learn how to play.
Although learning to play the guitar is a difficult endeavor, it’s is not impossible, even though it may feel that way sometimes. I went through the same stage you are currently in. One thing I didn’t do, is quit. And you’re not going to quit either. Let’s take a deeper look into why you may be struggling and what you can do to remedy the frustration.
It may not be what you want to hear, but it just takes time.
It’s just muscle memory. It doesn’t come over night and honestly, it doesn’t come all that easy. But what in life that is really worth doing comes easy? The reason we are all so impressed with watching/listening to our favorite guitarists play through our favorite songs is because inherently we know that it is a difficult skill that takes a lot of hard work and time to master. And you know what, that’s ok.
People love to ask the question “How long does it take to learn to play the guitar?”. I’ll tell you how long, it takes your ENTIRE LIFE. There is always something new to learn, a new technique to master, but don’t let this be discouraging. Remember, this applies to everyone, not just you.
If you can accept the fact that it will be a long journey then you are already walking along the path to success. Though the road to guitar mastery is long, and you may view your own guitar proficiency far off in the distance, don’t fret (get it, a guitar pun), there are many successful milestones to be met along the way.
If you want success in your guitar playing then you need to view the learning journey in a positive light.
Set yourself some measurable goals. Reachable, realistic, but challenging goals. This will help to make the larger, end game you are working toward for your guitar playing abilities not feel as daunting.
What are some good guitar goals to set in the beginner phases of learning? Well, everyone is different and wants different experiences from the guitar, but here are some basic goals to aim toward if you don’t know where to start.
- Memorize the 15 basic open position chords
- Memorize all the notes up to the 12th Fret on one string
- Learn Music Theory Basics (it’s not as bad as it sounds)
- Learn the Barre chord shapes based off the Low E and A strings
- Learn to play an entire song all the way through
- Learn to tune your guitar by ear
This list could go on and on, but let’s focus on these 6 goals that I have listed here and how they will get you through some of the beginner frustrations.
1. Memorize the 15 basic open position chords
These are a fundamental set of chords that once internalized give you the freedom to play the basic structure of almost any song.
- E major
- A major
- D major
- C major
- G major
- F major
- E minor
- A minor
- D minor
Here is a link to a printable chord chart document that you can read to start getting all of these chords committed to memory:
Start by learning a few of these chords a week. If you committed to learning 5 of these a week, it would take you 3 weeks to master them. Once you get a chord committed to memory, it will be there forever. Start looking around at songs that you want to learn. You will no doubt see that many, if not all, of these chords are included in the songs you are learning.
2. Memorize all the notes up to the 12th Fret on one string
When you look down at the fretboard you will notice many different locations to play a single note. On a guitar with six strings and 20 frets (including the open strings), there are exactly 126 different locations to play a note. Understandably, this seems a little overwhelming, so it would be much more practical to view the fret board in smaller pieces. Perhaps, one string at a time.
Start by memorizing the notes on the Low E string (the thickest string). Here is a link to a Fretboard Cheatsheet you can post on your wall and work through to memorize these notes.
One of the only freebies handed down from the guitar gods is that if you memorize the notes on the Low E string, you have also memorized all of the notes on the High E string as they are the exact same. Whoa, two-for-one…. Nice!
Spend a week working up and down each string memorizing all of the notes from the open string to the 12th fret and you will soon notice that the fretboard is not nearly as intimidating as it once seemed. I personally remember feeling overwhelmed with this in the beginning. It gets better fairly quickly if you work at it.
3. Learn Music Theory Basics (it’s not as bad as it sounds)
Oh no, I said it….. Music Theory. The mere sound of those words makes most guitarists start to sweat. Quick, hit the back button right now before you have to learn anything about the dreaded…….Music Theory! In all honesty, music theory is not that difficult to understand and it is extremely helpful when it comes to playing a musical instrument.
There are some minor hurdles in the beginning that you’re just going to have to work on in order to get passed. One of those being the new vocabulary. But, you’ll have to just channel your inner 2-year-old and memorize the meanings of some unfamiliar words. There are some other seemingly confusing topics you will encounter when you’re first exposed to Music Theory such as Scales, Key Signature, and Chords in Key.
Stick with it and each time you put effort into learning, you will pick up something new. Understanding Music Theory may feel a little overwhelming in the initial stages, but if you commit to learning it you will soon find that no single concept is too difficult to grasp.
Music Theory teaches you that all music is based off of scales. Those scales provide you with chords you can use to predict and control the way a piece of music is going to sound. It also gives you a common language to speak with other musicians to describe what you are playing or hearing in a song.
4. Learn the Barre chord shapes based off the Low E and A strings.
Learning to play Barre Chords tends to be a common pain point for aspiring guitar players. This is due to the fact that they are just flat out difficult to play when your hand and wrist have not yet gained the proper strength and muscle memory required. They’re tough, but you can’t avoid them because learning them is an essential skill for guitar playing mastery.
The goal here is to learn both the Major and Minor Barre Chord shapes rooted from the Low E and A strings. I’ve included a link that shows easy to read charts for all 12 notes displaying where to find the major and minor Barre Chord shapes on the guitar neck. The numbers on the charts represent which frets your fingers should be pressing the string down on.
Here is an excellent video from Marty Schwartz about how to get some more enjoyable practice in when working with learning Barre Chords.
5. Learn to play an entire song all the way through.
Learning to play guitar is a progression. This is why we want to learn the basic chords, start memorizing notes, learn some basic Music Theory concepts, and then work on Barre Chords, somewhat in that order. Working through this progression helps us drastically when moving on to the next step: Learning entire songs.
In the beginning of my guitar playing career, I struggled greatly with this step because I didn’t have all the pieces of the puzzle to string it together (another cheesy pun). I could play some parts of a lot of songs, but every song seemed to have some guitar part that was too difficult for me.
It was either the fact that my hands couldn’t make the guitar shapes, or I couldn’t change between chords quickly or smoothly enough. I didn’t understand Music Theory so I was unaware that I could move a capo around the neck to create easier chord positions to play the song. There is a reason for the order of the learning process and what you should be practicing in the beginning.
If you can play all the chords in the open position and know the different Barre Chord shapes you will be able to play through entire songs without getting stuck on some part that is “too difficult” and and requires skills you haven’t yet mastered.
The ability to play through entire songs opens up many doors for your growth on the guitar. Now you can play along with other musicians or play in front of an audience. You can attempt to sing along or record yourself and learn how to improvise over your recording.
It improves your timing and chord changes, as you now have to stay on beat with the radio or other musicians you are playing along with.
Get to this point. Find some songs that are within your playing abilities and learn the entire songs from start to finish.
6. Learn to tune your guitar by ear.
This last discipline has to do with training your ear. As convenient as it is to plug into a tuner (or clamp one on) when you want to tune your guitar, you should put some work into tuning your guitar by ear.
This will help train your brain to understand what you are hearing in a piece of music. Check out this video from Brandon Acker about how to tune your guitar by ear. In the beginning he gives a nice demonstration of how to hear when a string is out of tune, then how to bring it in to tune.
If you put dedicated effort into working on the 6 above listed steps, your guitar playing will no doubt steadily improve. Remember that it isn’t supposed to be easy, but making small gains on a daily/weekly basis will add tremendous value to your overall guitar playing skillset.
Listed below are a few more hurdles that beginner guitar players typically face and some tips about what you can do to get passed them.
In this modern day-in-age we have so many different sources of information. No doubt it is easy to let yourself become distracted by things like endless YouTube wormholes instead of focusing on specific tasks that will improve your playing. There is no magic pill, you have to spend time and effort working on targeted, purposeful practice to get better on the instrument.
Pick one or two learning mediums and stick with them. Go from start to finish in whatever method you choose. Whether that be a Udemy course or specific YouTube channel. Perhaps you learn well from books or by taking lessons in person. Just know that going after a new method or information source every week because it seems fresh and exciting will not be the fastest method for guitar playing progression.
Pick a few comprehensive learning methods and work hard to consume every bit of knowledge that the teacher has to present. Learning to play guitar is a difficult and vast subject. If the teacher has worked hard to put together a start-to-finish resource, work through it completely, start-to-finish. Remember that you learn the most when you are outside of your comfort zone. It won’t help your progression to move on to the next best/newest thing every time something gets tough. Push yourself.
Practice is time consuming (but so is Netflix).
Yes, spending time practicing on the guitar is time consuming, but how many other activities do you habitually participate in that you could give up to pursue something that you truly want? Watching TV, cruising social media feeds, logging in to YouTube and letting their awesome algorithm spoon feed you videos they know you want to click on (this is one of my worst time wasters)? I’m not immune to it, I get it. We live in the age of distraction.
What time consuming activity can you replace with working more on improving your guitar playing abilities? I’ll tell you what, if you have made it this far into this article, you are truly interested in learning to play the guitar. Do you want to learn guitar more than you want to look through your Facebook feed (half of the people on there annoy you anyways don’t they?)?
How much time can you realistically set aside each day or week to pursue a true passion? A 1/2 hour a day? 1 hour 3 days a week? An hour a day? Set aside a dedicated time where you can focus on progressing at the guitar and work though a structured practice routine.
If you really want it, you will make the time. I hope you make the time because learning to play a new song or technique is much more fulfilling than watching another re-run of “Everybody Loves Raymond” (I know, that show is actually pretty funny).
Put in the work, get the rewards.
Other players seem to be more natural.
This is a toxic mindset that can damage a beginner’s progression (I’m definitely guilty of having this mindset early on). No one is born with the ability to play the guitar. At one point everyone was at the same stage as you are now.
Do not take the mental position that other people have some inherent guitar playing gift that you didn’t receive at birth. Everyone starts with no experience.
I honestly used to believe that being talented in music was something that some people were just born with. It definitely held me back, my own mind set.
I can play guitar now, but none of the people who listen to me play were around when I struggled for hours and hours trying to learn a song or riff. Frustrated, confused, wanting to quit. Stick with it. No one is a natural. They just learned to play before you, that’s all.
Keep working at it everyday. Don’t quit. Find a structured learning program and stick with it. The work you put in now will pay off with a lifetime of musical dividends. Someday someone will be listening to you play and will think, “Man, I wish the guitar was that easy for me”. You won’t have to tell them that you once typed into Google “Why is the guitar so hard for me???”.