From books to magazines, YouTube videos to DVDs, there are no shortages of readily available materials to keep the self-taught guitarist occupied for several lifetimes. However, there are important areas that can be overlooked, such as technique and practice routines, by using those sources. Without the observance of a teacher, for example, it can be fairly easy to develop inefficient habits that you’re entirely unaware of, habits that can impede your playing and even endanger your health. Remember that learning to play the guitar can be a lifelong endeavor, so take your time to master the fundamentals and pay attention to your technique—and make sure to enjoy the journey.
Here are five tips that can help alleviate commonly overlooked problems for the advancing self-taught guitarist:
1. Learn to hold the guitar properly
The guitar, while beautiful in its shape and symmetry, can be cumbersome to hold. Figuring out a comfortable way to play the guitar can be one of the more frustrating elements when starting out, but it’s worth spending some time on, because how you hold the guitar affects how you play the guitar. I encourage students to make sure the neck of their guitar is angled away from, not parallel to, the floor. You can use a foot stool (a hard-shell guitar case or stack of books will do in a pinch), a guitar support that rests on your leg (if you’re unfamiliar with these, a quick internet search will yield many choices), or the tried-and-true method of sitting with your legs crossed. Although sitting with the guitar in a new position might seem awkward at first, you may eventually find it easier to fret certain chords and scales. The same idea can be applied when standing with the guitar. Of course, when you watch videos of your favorite players, you may find that their technique doesn’t look anything like what I’ve just described (remember, they might be doing it wrong). Experimentation is key—be willing to put the time into finding a way of holding the guitar that seems comfortable to you.
2. The answer lies in barre chords
I believe barre chords are simply too much work for beginning guitarists. Nothing can be more frustrating than getting all four fingers in what you think is the correct shape only to be frustrated by the sound of muffled strings. However, in terms of moveable chord shapes, barre chords can prove valuable—they can be a helpful way to start learning about the fretboard beyond open-position chords and scales. Please note, I’m speaking of the shape of the barre chord, and not physically fretting the chord. As you get further along in your studies, you may recognize that playing just fragments of the shapes will suffice. Of course, there will be situations where the use of a barre chord is inevitable, so it’s good to know them, but be patient with yourself if you’re having a hard time getting them to resonate fully.
Learning to play the guitar can be a lifelong endeavor, so take your time and pay attention to your technique, and make sure to enjoy the journey.
3. Engage in mindful practice
Advancing guitarists often ask, “How should I practice?” In time, each player will be able answer that question on their own, hopefully, but what follows are just a few suggestions. As few people have the time to practice for several hours a day, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with the amount you want to practice and the demands upon your available time. The list of items to practice grows long and unwieldy, so it’s a good idea to break your practice into segments or themes—and set a timer to help keep you on track. If you want unobstructed focus during your practice time, make sure to keep your devices (phones and laptops) out of reach. Also, ensure that your practicing is fun, and not monotonous. For example, if you’re practicing scales, try to find familiar melodies, and don’t be afraid to make up your own melodies.
4. Don’t believe what you think you sound like
With the ubiquity of smartphones, most people have an easily accessible recording device nearby. If you haven’t yet done a quick recording of yourself playing the guitar, I recommend you give it a try, as this is an invaluable method for working on your tone. You may hear elements of your playing that you didn’t even know were there, such as the sound of the pick hitting the pickguard, strings buzzing, or even heavy breathing. If you’re learning to solo, first record yourself playing a rhythm track. Of course, there are programs and looping pedals that can do that for you, but again, it’s all about increasing your awareness of what you actually sound like when you play.
5. Don’t mistake your foot for a metronome
Contrary to popular belief, tapping your foot is not the same as playing along with a metronome. Establishing a good relationship with your metronome is undoubtedly one of the best things you can do to improve your musicianship—it’s important to not be intimidated by the mechanical honesty a metronome offers (again, a smartphone app can provide the right tool). For some, just the mere mention of a metronome can be a stressful moment, and trying to play along can be exponentially more stressful. If this happens, take time to clear your head of worrisome thoughts, and give yourself a chance to just sit and listen to the metronome. And relax. After awhile, you may find inspiration in the metronomic sounds of your everyday life, like the sound of your automobile blinker while you’re stopped at a light.
This article originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.