You want to know how to learn guitar properly, right? I mean, you already know you want to be able to play well. But you also know there’s no point starting if you’re just going to quit after a few weeks, or even a few days.
You might have even started learning previously and given up.
Now you’re not sure if it’s worth the investment. What if you quit (again)? What if it gets boring? Or too hard?
These are good questions to ask. So how do you know if you’ll stick with it?
It all depends on what ideas you have in your head as you start learning, and what learning approach you take.
Learning guitar is easy, fun and rewarding when you start in the right place. Let me show you how to learn guitar using the best learning method to suit your personality, learning style and aspirations.
How to learn guitar basics
To learn how to play guitar, you’re going to have to get a grip on the basics.
First you learn the absolute beginner stuff – how to hold a guitar, where to put your hands, how to hold a pick properly, the string names, and so on.
You don’t need to pay for lessons on this. You can learn these basics just about anywhere online. The trick is to find good instruction. You don’t want to waste your time going down the rabbit-hole of YouTube guitar demonstrations – it shouldn’t take more than a few minutes to learn each beginner step.
To make it easier for you, I’ve put the basics together in a 10 Day Guitar Crash Course for you. But before you get started…
Why people quit learning guitar
There are three major reasons people quit learning guitar. They either find it difficult, get bored, or start out with no real direction.
Let me explain what goes wrong and how you can avoid it.
There’s a real misconception floating around that it’s hard to learn to play guitar.
You might’ve heard the notion that it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill – that’s 90 minutes per day for 20 years. It’s a well-known rule, but it’s completely wrong. It’s been disproved, debunked, and destroyed. And I couldn’t agree more. It definitely doesn’t need to take long to learn guitar.
Learning guitar has its challenges, for sure. You’ll find certain skills development quickly and easily, while others take a bit longer. But learning guitar is not hard.
People don’t give up guitar because it’s too difficult, they give up because the instruction method they’ve used isn’t the most effective for them. I’ll cover different guitar learning methods later in this article.
When you don’t love what you’re learning, boredom kicks in.
The current state of guitar instruction is appalling. The average guitar student never gets to learn basic performance skills like how to sing and play at the same time. It’s so damaging. Without this skill development, they can’t properly share music with others, play on stage, or write their own music.
Most guitar teaching revolves around theory, scales, exercises and songs students are embarrassed to play. It’s no wonder 90% of guitar students give up before they get any good.
Without a reason to learn, it’s hard to stay motivated. I’ve found that students are sometimes shy about their musical aspirations. The phrase don’t give up your day job has been used on musicians so often that it can almost seem pointless pursuing music.
But whether you’re keen to play guitar as a social thing, a private hobby, or a serious career, your aspirations are important. In fact, your reason for playing will keep you going when you might otherwise give up.
So let’s dive in a bit further and figure out why you’re here…
Clarify your guitar playing goals
Let’s take a minute right now to think about why you want to learn guitar. Give yourself a little bit of time right now to process this before you continue. Consider your gut responses to the following questions:
- What do you want to be able to do with music?
- Where, and when do you want to play it?
- With who? For who?
- Do you want to play gigs and festivals?
- Do you want to write your own music?
- Do you want to join a band, or sit around jamming with friends?
- Does the idea of performing start a little spark in your soul?
- Where do you want guitar playing to take you?
Really give yourself permission to dream a bit. Don’t crush yourself with fears or worries. You get to choose where this life takes you, so why not get brave and dream as big as you honestly want to?
Go on, take out a pen and paper, or open a new document on your computer and write whatever flows freely from you in response to the following prompt:
I want to learn guitar because…
Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Why you want to learn guitar matters
Did you write something down? I really hope so.
Because knowing the reason you want to play guitar makes all the difference to your success as a student.
Now, whatever you wrote, don’t go mocking yourself for it. Any answer is a good one. It might feel a little embarrassing. That’s ok. You don’t have to show it to anyone.
But when you allow your shy dreams to speak through you, you honour yourself. You give yourself permission to try something new. And you give yourself the much needed motivation to fly through challenges.
You might be starting small and simple now. Maybe guitar is something you just want to try, and that’s fine. But I encourage you to be courageous and let yourself indulge in a little fantasy of where you might like your musical journey to take you.
Allow yourself to become the singer-songwriter, the rockstar, the beloved acoustic campfire musician, the film score composer, the astounding cover artist or phenomenal performer you’ve got hiding inside of you.
You have no idea yet what you’re truly capable of. Don’t squash yourself with limiting beliefs!
Should you learn acoustic or electric
Once you’ve tapped in to the reason you want to play guitar, it’ll be easier to find the best learning path forward.
The first premise we need to establish is whether you should learn on acoustic or electric.
97% of the time, I recommend acoustic guitar for beginners. Even if you end up playing electric later on. Learning how to play acoustic guitar is a smarter move in the long run.
Unless you’re one of those self-indulgent noodlers (you know the ones) that abuse your ears with tortured renditions of once-popular lead riffs and solos.
Most people want to play music, but there’s a few who just want to make egotistical noise. I think the world might have had its fill of such guitar players. But good luck to ya.
Find your best learning method
If all you want to do is play Thunderstruck on your electric guitar, you’ll find plenty to learn from random YouTube videos.
For the rest of us, music is an exciting creative outlet.
It’s something we aspire to have in common with our favourite artists, something that allows us to share what’s in our heart and souls with our fellow humans, something that feels good and joyful and worth doing well.
If this is true for you, the best path forward is to learn in a dedicated way. Your main options are books, one-to-one lessons, YouTube videos and online courses. Let’s explore them.
Option #1 - Guitar Instruction Books
I don’t love books for learning guitar, there’s really none comprehensive enough to teach you all of the basics.
Their best use is as a peripheral learning for very, very academic students who want to learn theory and how to read music. You’ll get bits and pieces of information, but it’s not a wholistic approach – music is essentially aural, and best taught as such.
It’s different for advanced players. If you’re already a technical player who can read music proficiently, check out William Leavitt and his Modern Method instructional books. They’ll get you understanding chord voicings, position playing, and complex chord progressions. It’s especially good for becoming an advanced jazz guitarist.
But for beginners? No. In my 25 years of teaching, I haven’t found any entry-level guitar book I’d recommend to get you playing properly.
Option #2 - In-Person Guitar Teachers
Guitar teachers can be fabulous, as much as they can be terrible. The key is to find a teacher you click with, both personally and in their teaching style.
I’m not a suitable teacher for students who want to learn insane amounts of theory or those who just want to play rock solos. In the same way, I’ve heard of students quitting learning guitar because their teacher was too old fashioned or too serious.
And the unfortunate truth is that guitar teaching doesn’t pay all that well – which means that many guitar teachers are overworked with such full student loads that it’s hard for them to give whole-heartedly to each student.
This is especially true for teachers working from music shops and music schools, where a hefty cut of the lesson fee goes to the umbrella company – I used to earn just 65% of the lesson fee when I worked through a music school, before tax!
Option #3 - Online Guitar Teachers
Online guitar teachers are just as good, if not better than in-person teachers.
When I made the change to teaching exclusively online, I saw huge improvements in one particular set of my guitar students. Some very smart students can coast along, hiding under the sound of the teacher’s guitar, and deferring to the teacher instead of using their own noggin to develop music skills. Not so with online lessons!
The distance created by online vs in-person learning is surprisingly effective at getting these students over bumps on the learning path.
But online guitar teachers have a similar problem to in-person teachers. They’re overworked and often underpaid. They’ve increased their student capacity far beyond their geographic region, often teaching outside of their timezones, and exhausting themselves in the process.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m still a one-to-one guitar teacher, and I LOVE my work. But frankly, in order to do enough of it to pay the bills, I’d be just as overworked as the rest of ‘em. So I keep my teaching schedule very limited, and earn my keep in other ways. That way I can give 100% to each of my students.
Option #4 - YouTube Tutorials
One thing I don’t recommend is YouTube learning.
Yes it’s free. Yes there’s heaps to choose from. But that’s exactly why it doesn’t work.
YouTube guitar learning is disorganised, unstructured, and distracting. You have to skip ads and waffling introductions regularly. You have unproductive recommendations popping up all the time. YouTube is designed to make you click away to other videos. It’s not a dedicated learning path.
What’s worse, YouTube is free and easy to upload videos. I know it sounds like a positive, but what it means is that literally anyone can claim to be a guitar teacher.
There’s a load of incorrect instruction out there. Loads of it.
A phenomenal guitar teacher will have created a phenomenal resource for you to learn from. Sure, they might have taster YouTube videos you can watch for free, so you can get a feel for them, but it’s not a profitable or viable teaching tool on its own.
The best learning material will always be made available as a paid course. After all, guitar teachers need to eat too.
Right now, there are 484,000,000 guitar videos on YouTube. Sifting through the good and the bad is a waste of your time. You’re certainly not going to get the same learning impact as you would taking a structured course.
Option #5 - Online Guitar Courses
Online courses are incredible. I love them as a learning method, and I’ve invested in a plethora of them for myself, covering everything from business management to fitness to photography.
Online learning means instant access to the best teachers, and lifetime access to the comprehensive course materials they’ve laid out for me.
The instructors don’t have to wait for me to catch up, and I don’t have to pay for regular lessons over the next five years until I’m ready for the more challenging stuff. It’s all right there in the course, whether I want to study on a Saturday night or a Monday morning.
When I started teaching over two decades ago, there was no such thing as online music lessons. Nowadays, with the click of a button, you can purchase an entire online course and learn how to play guitar at home instantly.
Online courses are by far the best way to learn guitar, and there are courses for every level and specialty interest group. It’s become such a popular teaching method, there are quite literally thousands of beginner guitar courses to choose from.
Choose your learning style
The best way to choose the right guitar course for you is to align yourself with a teacher you love.
Find someone whose personality is a good match for yours. One that teaches the stuff you care about.
While I’m inclined to push my students into challenging material, my delivery method is pretty casual and encouraging. If you want strict discipline and seriousness, I’m not your guy.
Most courses are based on a music model that holds theory as king. I don’t love it, but it works for some. To me, the teaching is soulless. The exercises are boring – designed not to get you playing songs, but to prepare you for a learning path based on written tab or theory.
Do beginner guitarists need theory?
I know it’s controversial, but you don’t actually need to learn theory to play guitar.
So many of our best guitarists can’t read music at all.
Theory is a fine path for guitar students destined to play in an orchestra or for session musicians who’ll need to read charts, but for the vast majority of guitar players, it’s just not necessary.
In fact, music theory can be a hindrance.
Imagine if we tried to teach infants to read before they could talk! Music is the same. You should learn to play before you learn to read music.
What’s more fun is learning easy to play guitar songs right from the get-go.
Why learn a bunch of chords, scales, riffs and strums if you’ve got nowhere to apply them, right? Instead, you can be learning techniques and applying them to songs immediately. That’s much more satisfying.
Learning guitar through great songs
Mary Had A Little Lamb, Aura Lee, Skip To My Lou, When The Saints Go Marching In – these are not exciting songs to learn. And yet, this is the kinda stuff you can expect to find in ordinary guitar courses.
How are you supposed to stay interested when you’re playing that dribble?
I know I couldn’t. I teach both adults and kids, and I’ve never found any students excited to play this stuff.
The easiest way to learn guitar is through songs you love, styles of music you enjoy, artists you look up to. I grew up listening to punk and grunge, so that’s what I wanted to play.
For you it might be acoustic folk or indie, or maybe country or blues. Of course, you should expand your repertoire, but try to choose a beginner guitar course that covers genres you’re into.
I start my guitar students on songs by The Cramps, Iggy Pop, The White Stripes, Moldy Peaches, Johnny Cash, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Ramones, Tom Waits, Nirvana, Elvis Presley, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Cold War Kids.
When you know why you want to play, and you know how you want to learn, you can get started on the right track immediately.
Learn guitar for the fun of it
At the end of the day, music is always going to be about enjoyment.
Playing guitar gives us a way to express something that we care about – whether that’s fun, love, sorrow or passion. Music becomes our language. Guitar is how we can connect and share with other human beings.
I think it’s important to remember that you can thrive at each stage of your guitar learning adventure. From complete beginner through to advanced legendary genius, you can be finding joy and excitement each step along the way.
Yes, there’s things you’ll get stuck on, things you’ll find challenging, but only for a moment. And when that moment passes, you come out the other side more skilled, confident and in love with music than ever before.
All you have to do is start. One tiny step at a time. Today, learn how to hold a guitar. Tomorrow, learn your first chords. All it takes is time, and skill development.
And now you know the best path forward for that. When you’re ready, take a deep breath, smile, and get started.
I love the musician you’re about to become.