How To Avoid Mistakes As A Self-Taught Guitarist

By Kailash Pate April 20, 2015

I used to really suck getting better at guitar. Actually, that's a pretty blatant understatement. I was a terrible self-teacher and progress was agonizingly slow. Back in high school, I lived and breathed rock music, so naturally I wanted to become a great guitarist. Unfortunately, I had to stop taking formal guitar lessons at age 16 and it didn't take me long to develop some pretty terrible and unproductive habits when it came to practicing and teaching myself. The worst part about it was that I didn't even realize I was doing anything wrong. After playing guitar for a couple of years, I knew I could play... Just not particularly well. I wasn't what you'd consider a complete novice - I knew my blues scale positions and I knew how to play a handful of classic rock tunes by the likes of Nirvana and AC/DC. I also delved into music theory a bit, although I admit I didn't really understand what was going on with it. I was no Randy Rhoads, but at least I wasn't a hopeless case. Thus, the hubris of my sixteen-year-old self led me to believe that I could get better on my own by winging it. In those days, a typical after-school "practice" session would go something like this:
  • Pick up guitar and fiddle with effects for a few minutes;
  • Noodle through a few chromatic warm up exercises;
  • Sit for a few minutes and figure out what I should work on;
  • Decide to learn sweep picking because that's what shredders seemed to do;
  • Scour the Internet for a decent sweeping lesson;
  • Plow through the best lesson I could find but struggle with an overly-complicated exercise;
  • Grow bored/frustrated/no longer "feel like" sweeping;
  • Switch gears and pick a Metallica song to learn;
  • Learn half of the first riff of "Master of Puppets" but get interrupted by mother calling me for dinner;
  • Decide to watch "Seinfeld" reruns instead of resuming practice after dinner.

How's that for productivity? Expand this unfocused "practice" regimen over the next few years and you had yourself one extremely average guitarist. Realizing my limitations really hit home when I saw younger, less experienced players surpassing me. Goddammit.

When This Really Started to Suck

So what did I do once I realized I was taking the slow train to Suckville? Very little. Instead of nipping my bad habits in the ass, I started to feel more and more self-conscious about my playing. I grew increasingly frustrated and uninspired to practice. My inner self-critic seemed to dominate every guitar playing situation I found myself in. I knew I couldn't play songs accurately. I knew I wasn't cutting as a songwriter and guitarist in my band. I would routinely biff improvised solos whenever I was in a jam situation with friends (that one really felt like sh-t, by the way). "Oh, sad, young Zach... You had no idea how terrible you were." - Current Zach I was rusty and feeling increasingly self-conscious about my playing abilities. Sometimes my guitar would stay in its case for weeks. But I still wanted to be a sick guitarist! Every now and then, I'd get a burst of inspiration, usually after going to a show. "This time I'm gonna buckle down and get back into it!" I'd declare to myself. Then I'd get my hands on a ton of learning materials and commit to developing every area of my guitar playing - scales! Technique! Improvisation! 2 hours every day! But once my motivation wore off and I realized my self-imposed rigorous practice routine was a completely unrealistic commitment, I'd stop after a few days at best. Ultimately, looking back, the saddest part about this experience is the gradual loss of the joy I felt when I picked up my guitar. Guitar seemed more like a chore as the months moved on, and although I still wanted to get better, deep down I looked at guitar like an adversary rather than a friend.

How I Turned This Disaster Around

Something clearly had to change if I wanted guitar playing to become a positive thing in my life again. So what ended up working? I wish I could say the ghost of Jimi Hendrix hit me upside the head one day and I woke up with a savant-like virtuosity for the guitar, but alas, that wasn't the case. What ended up working, ultimately, came from a gradual shift of some deeply rooted assumptions I had about guitar playing. This led me to refocus my priorities so that I wasn't taking random stabs at improvement. Once I did that, the positive results started becoming surprisingly apparent. Today, I'm happy to say I've never been playing better than I am now. I play with killer musicians and am able to play guitar and bass professionally. My skills are recognized by musicians and audiences alike, and most importantly, guitar is fun and I look forward to playing it every day. I no longer feel like a hack and I generally feel confident and challenged as I continue to grow as a player. Guitar became my friend again and it feels fantastic. I'm not saying this to brag, by the way - I merely want to illustrate that it's possible to improve in great strides and receive all the gifts that guitar can give you, even if you aren't able to commit to formal lessons or have a ton of time to practice per day. If I can do it, you definitely can. It took me while to come to these conclusions. A few years, in fact. But you don't need to take that long to turn things around if you happen to be in a rut, lost, frustrated, or pressed for time to practice. If you feel like you might be a crappy self-teacher, keep reading to learn the 3 biggest takeaways that helped me turn my guitar life around and become a better teacher for myself. This is what worked for me and it just might work for you.

1. Make Learning Songs Your No. 1 Priority

In other words, refocus your efforts and learn as many songs as you humanly can! That's it. This is a fairly straight forward concept, but it can be a game changer. I think that most players would agree that playing along to their favorite songs is one of the most enjoyable and satisfying pastimes while playing guitar. Often, learning new songs deeply connects with the initial excitement we feel we first learned the instrument. Virtually everyone who picks up guitar gets that unmistakable rush of excitement when they learn enough fundamentals and can jam along to their favorite tunes. The guitar legend Slash, for example, reflected on how important learning songs was to his early development as a guitarist in his autobiography: "Simply understanding that I could mimic the songs on my stereo was enough to imprint the guitar on my reality forever." How's that for a powerful sentiment? So if learning songs is so deeply rooted in our enjoyment of the instrument, why don't many players prioritize it when trying to improve on guitar? My guess is because we equate learning and playing cover songs as "fun," we therefore feel like we shouldn't be doing it as much as rigorous and technical guitar practice. It's a form of guitar guilt! I won't deny that fully-dimensional, focused and consistent guitar practice has massive benefits. But, if you don't take frequent one-on-one lessons with a teacher, you know how much of a challenge it is to come up with an appropriate practice routine based on your current skill level. Plus, if you don't have a teacher, there's the added challenge of having enough self-discipline to stick to your routine. This was a huge problem for me. I felt like I should learn X, Y and Z on guitar, so typically I'd try to learn complicated techniques and prioritize scale practice. Not only would I not have fun with that approach, but also I had difficulty applying what I learned to real musical situations. When I decided to say screw it and just focus on learning the songs I liked, a lot of things changed:
  • I looked forward to playing more, often fantasizing about coming home at the end of the day and diving into practice;
  • I didn't take guitar as seriously, which, counter-intuitively, helped me improve;
  • I would see the practical musical applications of the different techniques and scales used in the songs I was learning;
  • My playing became more "musical" and my ear got more critical through the process of transcribing riffs and solos and mimicking the phrasing of my favorite guitarists;
  • The songs I learned often inspired my own musical ideas. My songwriting improved as a result.
All in all, the benefits of prioritizing song learning greatly outweighed any success I had with more traditional self-guided practice.

Action Step for You

Make a list of all the songs you've ever wanted to learn. It can be as long as you want. Include songs at any difficulty level and any genre. The more variety, the better. Consult this list each time you practice guitar and build up your repertoire of cover songs! "But what about songwriting, scales and technique? You can't just ignore those!" you might be wondering/rolling your eyes at your computer screen. Well, with this approach, you won't completely ignore these aspects of guitar practice, you'll just approach them differently. Which brings us to Step 2.

2. Use Your Song Study to Inform What You Need to Work On

The more time you spend learning songs, the more you'll naturally work on different areas of your playing. Over time, you'll also become more perceptive to what areas of your playing you need to work on. With this approach, your song study is the overall main focus, but you can use the songs you learn to address any apparent and immediate weak spots you have. I realized how beneficial this can be a few years ago when my old roommate - a brilliant, classically trained guitarist - casually noticed I was struggling with David Gilmour's solo in "Time." I had always wanted to learn the song, so I was naturally having fun learning it, but as I got deeper into it, I knew I has having trouble making the solo sing like Gilmour. I was playing the correct notes, but we realized my bending technique was underdeveloped. My roommate recommended I try a few simple bending exercises so I could practice bending up to pitch and applying steady vibrato at the top of the bend, like Gilmour. I spent a few days working on full and half-step bends on different areas of the guitar neck. Once I returned to the solo, learning the rest (and sounding more like the record) became much easier. In this case, I was developing the technique for a very specific purpose and practical application - to play a solo I was learning. I wasn't practicing technique for technique's sake. In this example, I had some help from an expert (it's always a good idea to surround yourself with great musicians if you can), but, over time, I became much better at self-diagnosing my areas of weakness and tending to them accordingly. Approaching exercise-based practice this way is not only more enjoyable because you get the more immediate payoff of being able to play your song, but it also makes progress happen much faster because you become better and faster at addressing and correcting your problem areas. The same thing applies to scale study. Instead of randomly deciding you should memorize the harmonic minor scale in all keys (a.k.a. learning and forgetting them), you might decide you want to learn more about the composition of a guitar solo you're learning. Try searching online for a compositional analysis of the solo, noting what scale it's in and how the scale relates to the underlying chords. This is much more practical to your overall playing than learning scales in isolation because you can immediately see the musical application. To recap where we are at this point:
  • Priority No. 1: Learn as many songs as you can;
  • Priority No. 2: Use what you're learning to dictate your technique, scale and theory practice.

Action Step for You

Think about the songs you do know but can't really play flawlessly. What could you do to fix your weak areas? Come up with 3 problem areas you want to improve and use those songs as a springboard to improve them. Search for lessons online and nip those problem areas in the ass. Now for the icing on the cake - the next step may seem obvious, but it can help you save a ton of time.

3. Eliminate Small-but-Frequent Time Wasters

I'm tempted to say just be more productive, but that's actually a terrible way to say it. I'm not talking about taking an ultra-productive and no-nonsense approach you your guitar playing, but if you're someone who doesn't have a lot of time to play or feels like your practice sessions meander into random acts of noodling, a simple solution to keep you on track is to eliminate time wasters during your practice sessions. If you find 30 minutes in a given day to practice guitar, wouldn't you want to maximize the time you have and not spend 5-10 of those minutes searching for an online lesson, fiddling with your guitar tones or even choosing what you want to practice? Although they may not seem like a big deal, those little activities add up over time and can eat away at your focus and motivation. This set me back quite a bit when I would manage to set aside time to practice - I'd spend too much time addressing time-wasting tasks like searching for a good tone or guitar cables. Worse even, if my practice space was a mess and I knew I had a broken string and no replacement, I'd use that as an excuse to not practice. You can cut down on those small time-wasting activities with some simple organization. Here are a few recommendations:
  • Make a song list to consult every time you sit down to play your guitar;
  • Organize your learning materials (for example, bookmark your favorite sites; organize your notes and instructional books; make an iTunes, YouTube or Spotify playlist of all the songs you know and want to learn);
  • Strip your practice surroundings of clutter and make sure you have everything you need - strings, cables, tuner, metronome, etc. - within arm's reach;
  • Dial in and save your favorite tones on your amp or digital amp simulator so you can quickly select them when you sit down to practice;
  • Take a less-is-more approach to your practice space. What are the main elements you need to have a productive session? What can you get rid of?

This might sound like a no-brainer, but you'd be surprised at how must time is wasted due to a lack of direction and organization.

Action Step for You

The next time you have a free afternoon, take an inventory of what you currently have in your guitar practice space setup and what you need and what you don't. Spending a little time getting rid of distractions and creating a comfortable practice space will encourage you to get into the practice chair and get the most out of your time.

All of This Sounds Pretty Simple, Right?

It is simple!... Not that there's anything wrong with that! With a virtually endless amount of information we can consume as guitar players, it's no wonder why it's easy to get off track or lose direction as a self-taught player. Even though at face value it can seem laughably obvious, the simple framework can help you get direction, stay on track and enjoy practicing guitar. I wanted to share my experiences with you to help you realize that if you want to get better, you can. There's really nothing stopping you. Share your own experiences as a self-taught guitarist in the comment section below. What do you struggle with? What have you tried to overcome your struggles? TL;DR: If you suck at being a self-teacher and are disappointed with the results of your efforts to get better, refocus your approach to learn as many songs as you can. This can help you determine what skills you need to work on and give you constant practice applying musical concepts in real songs instead of exercises. I used to suck as a self-teacher, but by applying this framework, I was able to see massive results and enjoy the process of improving on guitar. You can too.

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