Why Aren't You a Better Guitarist?
by Tom Hess
If you are like most players, you are desiring to become a better
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 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 in the past. A long time
passed before I began to understand the answers.
Like you probably have done, I have read a ton of interviews with
great players and articles written by many of these same players.
I often found it frustrating whenever the subject of learning
to play guitar came up or when advice was offered on improving
one's playing. With a small number of exceptions, very little
time and space was offered on this. Its not uncommon to see the
player's 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 player
and to help my students do the same I carefully took note of what
worked and what didn't. What parts conventional wisdom is accurate
and what parts are (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 teacher
is not helping you enough in reaching your goals) I strongly recommend
looking for a new teacher. (I have written an article on this
exact topic titled: Choosing a Teacher ) I can't stress enough
how important it is to find the teacher that is right for you!
Your teacher (or music program) should always be Goal Orientated.
If its 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 goals are.
B. Cares about helping you reach your goals.
C. Knows how to help you reach your 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 here based on your preferences, its 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. Its 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 guitarist 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.
6. Surround yourself with better 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 guitarists 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 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 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 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 you are going to reach your 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 - its worth it believe me.
If you can't find a 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 its 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. Its 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 AND STUDY 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 player to start learning about this
business!!!!!! I can not tell you how many players make this mistake
(I made it myself at first and have studying it intensely for
the past few years to get my own career where it is today.)
13. Find out how your favorite 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:
1. Practicing is not goal orientated.
2. 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 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 on yourself tape or 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, creativity,
improvising, etc. Some musical styles will rely more heavily on
certain aspects than other styles, regardless, its 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 guitarist. Here are a few things
that are often NOT true.
1. 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 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 focussed on. They are masters of
their 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. Its very hard to be REALLY good at many
2. 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 William's 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 or 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
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 practice time from the things they needed to focus
on to reach their goals.
3. Teaching yourself is the best way to be original.
This is so obviously false its 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
4. 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).
5. 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 through a 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
Jorden (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 its 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
along 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 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 reaching your goals:
There are only two real players in this game
....You and Time.
© 2004 Tom Hess
All rights reserved. Used by permission.