Common Questions from People Learning The Guitar
This is a series of in-depth conversations between me and many students over the years about the difficulties that they have faced on their journey of learning the guitar and how we have overcome them. Note: this is quite a lengthy page so please use the navigation for locating questions most relevant to you.
Unless they all are?!!
we’d better have a chat
Table of Contents
- I’m a complete beginner and have spent a few months trying to learn using online resources but I get confused and don’t seem to make much progress. I feel like my time could be used in a better way. What should I do?
- I’ve played for X years but I don’t really feel like a “real” guitar player. It seems that there’s so much I don’t know and my playing doesn’t have “that sound” of the professionals.
- I feel stuck in a rut and keep playing the same things all the time. I’m not sure what I can do about this, can you help?
- Why can’t I stay motivated? I always seem to lose it.
- I’m 50, 60, 70, 100 years old…is it too late for me to learn?
- I’m a singer-songwriter who started playing guitar to support myself while I sing. I can do it to a certain extent but my rhythm is a bit boring and it gets affected by what I sing. How can I make my playing more interesting while I play and independent of what my vocals are doing?
- Is it possible to learn how to improvise? Really? How do I start?
- Do I have to start by learning Mary Had A Little Lamb or can I learn to play the music I love?
- What’s the quickest way to get better?
- I can’t seem to play with other people. I’m alright on my own but it just seems to fall apart when I’m playing along with other musicians.
- How can I make my solos more expressive and musical? It’s like my fingers just go over the same old things all the time. Or I get lost and feel like the music is running away from me. I want to make the guitar sing and hit the ‘right’ notes!
- Will the finger-pain ever go away? How about feeling so clumsy?
- I keep dropping the pick and find it really annoying, can’t I just not use one and use my fingers instead?
1. I’m a complete beginner and have spent a few months trying to learn using online resources but I get confused and don’t seem to make much progress. I feel like my time could be used in a better way. What should I do?
When you first start playing it can be really tough to make your way through the maze of instructions out there. Even though a lot of it is really good, when you have zero concept of how the guitar works it is dicey to rely solely on videos and articles.
Firstly, any online resource is made to teach ANYONE rather than made to teach YOU.
Secondly, you are likely to pick up on the parts you are looking for, which may not be the part you need.
Thirdly, and most importantly, there is no roadmap to navigate through the maze.
It’s rare to find an online resource that has a clear developmental pathway mapped out, let alone a map to navigate the huge number of such resources out there. Different people communicate in different ways and emphasise different aspects of the learning process. These resources will one day be a huge help, but only once you know enough about playing the guitar to see how they all fit together. As you become a better player you also become a better learner and tend to know what resources are appropriate for you and your needs/desires.
So what should you do in the beginning?
Rather than guess your way through the maze or hope to find the magic resource, use your time well. Firstly, you want a teacher. Find someone who you connect with, who is passionate about teaching, has clear and simple communication skills and really listens to what you want to get out of the guitar. If I’m booked up or not a perfect fit for you, feel free to get in touch for referrals to other great teachers.
The truth is that in the beginning we should keep it simple. Excess conceptual baggage at this point is a waste of time and so are the 101 beginner songs out there to learn. What you need most is to start training you hands, first one at a time and then both together. Specifically, your right hand needs to learn how to hold a pick, how to strum and how to do some very basic fingerpicking. Your left hand needs to start tackling individual chord shapes and how to change between them.
My advice is always to break chord shapes down into no more than two actions. This means that you learn to move finger combinations. Over time, the lag between the 2 actions will diminish naturally as neurons grow and muscle memory develops. Before long you will be able to place down the whole chord shape at once and be able to do this for any open chord shape. Aim to gradually build up to 1 chord per second. This is a milestone and represents the point at which you can play any basic song without needing to pause the tempo for chord changes. Once you have this basic physical ability you can then go on to the other elements of music.
2. I’ve played for X years but I don’t really feel like a “real” guitar player. It seems that there’s so much I don’t know and my playing doesn’t have “that sound” of the professionals.
Usually, “that sound” of the pros is the sign of a well-rounded approach to practice sustained over time. If you aren’t happy with your progress after a long period of time, I’m willing to bet that one or two key elements have been skipped over in your practice over the months and years.
As I talked about on the Method Of Learning The Guitar page, I like to think of playing the guitar as a collection of many sub-skills coming together. When we practice specific skills like strumming a rhythm, changing chords, improvising a solo etc. we need to focus on one thing at a time. This is important because training your brain and body requires deliberate repetition of just one intention for a period of time in order for that intended skill to become an automatic action.
After enough conscious repetition we’ll notice that the action we are trying to perform is getting more refined, taking less mental focus to perform and happening more regularly. Eventually it is effortless (hopefully!). All of that conscious effort and repetition programmed an action to happen automatically. Now we have a sub-skill – like playing a rhythm, or a scale or a certain technique like string bends or slides. And guitar playing requires that the various sub-skills we have practiced can work together as a collection of skills.
What I have seen many times is that when an intermediate player is getting stuck, it is because they are failing to recognise ALL of the sub-skills that need to be coming together. Often, overlooking just one will cause problems in your playing!
A few examples…
Player #1 has learned a lot of songs, scales and riffs over quite a few years but as soon as he tries to play with another musician he finds he just can’t do it. After a particularly awkward situation where he was asked to join his friend’s band at rehearsal, he came for guitar lessons. To begin, we picked a song of his and I set up a metronome for him to play to. He started playing his song… completely out of time as though the metronome doesn’t even exist.
I asked him to pause, listen to the beat and to try again. For about 2 seconds he was closer to the beat but then he was completely off again (without even realizing).
So what was happening?
Player 1 had never recognised the importance of the additional sub-skill of listening to two things at once – the song and the beat. Every time he practiced anything he would become so absorbed in it that he wouldn’t realise what else was going on around him.
The solution? I developed targeted exercises for him that demanded listening to the relationship between his parts and a metronome while he played the songs he’s played for years. It was tough at first but player 1 was admirably persistent and humble which led to fast results. He began to improve and then noticed how his whole relationship to guitar was changing. All of a sudden this new dimension of playing guitar was opening for him and he began to experience the joy of playing along with music, both recorded and played by other people. He realised that all his efforts to improve in the past had been limited by just not recognising this extra sub-skill which was fundamental to playing guitar well.
A QUICK NOTE: the same rules apply to training combinations of skills as for individual skills. If you never practice combining skills, like listening and playing simultaneously, then the skill won’t develop, regardless of how good you are at either one seperately.
Player #2 came for lessons because he had been self-educating in music theory from multiple sources for a few years but really felt that he didn’t “understand the guitar” in the way he thought he should. When he started playing it was as though he “went blank” and couldn’t really apply what he knew. This is actually fairly common and usually arises when theory is more “in the head than the hands”.
The solution? I think it’s important to apply any theory as soon as you learn it. If you learn a scale, make sure you apply that scale in a way that is musical. This is what player 2 needed help with: he had never practiced the sub-skill of using scales to target chord tones when he soloed. He would simply run up and down the scale without really knowing how his playing related to the chords of the music.
I developed an exercise for him with the clear task of playing a scale while mentally keeping track of the chords he was playing over and targeting relevant notes of the scale as he soloed. We started off very simply, using just 2 chords. As his skill developed it became easier and easier to keep track and improvise naturally at the same time. Player 2 began to notice that his note choice was becoming really tasteful and that his ideas were new, fresh and exciting for the first time in a long while.
There are many, many ways in which failing to recognise or practice bringing sub-skills together can lead to feeling stuck or limited. If you are an intermediate player with similar frustrations there’s a good chance that finding out what sub-skills you may be lacking is the crucial piece of the puzzle you need.
3. I feel stuck in a rut and keep playing the same things all the time. I’m not sure what I can do about this, can you help?
Absolutely. What I’ve found is that there’s always a motivation behind how we practice and play but very often it’s just not clear enough what it is. However, by practicing with a deliberate motivation to learn new things and explore new sounds we’ll always be growing as musicians. When we feel stuck, bored or unimaginative, our minds aren’t really engaged in what we are doing. We tend to become engaged either by new experiences or by challenges. When we don’t have enough new experiences or challenging goals, we lose some of the mind’s engagement and our playing loses its spark and spontaneity. It can be surprising how often we can be in this state for too!
The solution: Firstly, you always need fresh input. This is where having a good teacher or being part of a group class or band can be very beneficial, if not essential. Sometimes we can’t quite see what it is that we need next when learning the guitar and require a 3rd party to point out what else we could be exploring, listening to or working towards.
For example you might not have explored the full range of guitar techniques before. You might be ready to tackle a more complex song or solo that you have not felt ready for yet. You might even be simply not noticing how much music you already have access to under your fingers.
Another dimension to fresh playing is called Divergent Thinking. This is actually a skill that we have to practice and cultivate. As in the previous question, sometimes it’s just one simple sub-skill that, when not present, can cause problems. Divergent Thinking is a cognitive ability to see or express a variety of possible solutions to a problem. In our case, the problem is I’m supposed to play music and the solution is ‘how do I do that’. What you want to do is make sure that when you play, you are actively looking for new ways to play music.
This will make a lot more sense with an example:
A student called Matt wanted lessons because he felt stale when he improvised. He knew the fretboard well however didn’t feel that his playing had much depth. Together we set up a scenario where he could improvise while I provided rhythm. What I noticed straight away was that while Matt had quick fingers, his mind couldn’t really keep up. He also repeated his phrases quite a bit and didn’t have a huge amount of variation. You could say he lacked (and wanted) more creativity in his playing and Divergent Thinking is a foundation of creativity. Luckily it can also be cultivated.
I gave him a new challenge. I wanted him to improvise again but this time only using 3 notes. He could play whatever he wanted but only had 3 notes available and 2 minutes to fill!
Not surprisingly, after 20 seconds he ran out of his usual choices and trademark moves. But then he was forced to think, what else can I do here? How can I make this interesting?
He started to think of new combinations of techniques, he sped up, slowed down, used space, used repetition. After just 2 minutes he had found new phrases that he liked and could use in his ‘lick library’. Since his fingers had always taken over without specific exercises to work on his creativity, his playing had felt increasingly stale over time. This exercise targeted the very important mental faculties of creativity and expression.
4. Why can’t I stay motivated? I always seem to lose it.
Unfortunately, consistent motivation often requires helpful, external influences acting on us. We see a concert, have a great lesson, look forward to playing live one day soon and feel the urge to get to work! But if we don’t have the right external conditions in place it can be really hard to get yourself to even pick up the guitar, even if you really love it! (Yes this still occasionally applies to me). I’d say the importance of setting up a supportive structure for the learning the guitar can’t be overstated.
“If you can’t be disciplined, be clever.” – Shinzen Young
If you have real problems with motivation, it probably means that you need to think about what you can set up on the outside to help you feel more motivated on the inside. I will say that it’s different for everyone and you will be the best authority on what helps you to get motivated. For me, playing guitar needs to be easy to do – I have them lying around the house and near my desk. I also feel really motivated to practice when I know I’ll be playing live or recording.
Here’s a list of ideas:
- if you are new to guitar, find some more experienced players or a teacher to play with.
- consider learning in a group and meeting other players. Music is definitely more fun together.
- set up a small performance somewhere. It doesn’t have to be daunting – it could be for your partner, or youtube or your labrador. Or it could be more challenging like an open-mic or jam night.
- consider doing a band
- go to a guitar camp
- don’t leave your guitar in its case, under your bed. How is it going to compete with Instagram from under there?! Leave it somewhere easy to access. Preferably somewhere you get downtime or often like to procrastinate.
5. I’m 50, 60, 70, 100 years old…is it too late for me to learn?
No way! Some of my most committed students have been 65+ years old and the majority have been 40+. In many ways it’s actually much easier learning later in life because you (finally) have time! Plus you grew up when music was better too so you have an advantage!
Your brain will keep on re-wiring itself for your entire life so be confident that you can improve. And if you discover that it’s not as fast as you would have liked, keep in mind there’s no destination, just the journey. It’s the learning process that feels good so jump right in. As long as you are always a bit better relative to where you were at a few weeks ago, the rest will take care of itself.
6. I’m a singer-songwriter who started playing guitar to support myself while I sing. I can do it to a certain extent but my rhythm is a bit boring and it gets affected by what I sing. How can I make my playing more interesting while I play and be independent of what my vocals are doing?
I think you should just practice rhythm guitar for a while without singing in order to expand your repertoire first. You’ll want to start paying attention to dynamics and more complex patterns and this is going to take more attention.
When you try to sing over your playing before you are ready, you end up compromising yourself.
Singing takes a LOT of attention. In order to be able to sing while raising the level of your rhythm guitar playing you’ll need to raise your guitar-playing baseline. This is the level that you play at when you’re not really trying to lift your game. Skills go on autopilot only after they have been repeated enough times consciously. Therefore, you need to allocate time to practicing just rhythm while deliberately elevating the degree of sophistication.
This involves learning muting/percussive sounds, volume dynamics, faster strums, picking patterns and so on. Starting to “think like a band” will be helpful. Check out how bands can build the energy and interest in a song with their dynamics. We want to start learning how to do this too, but just on the one instrument. It is this energy and rhythmic variation that really excites people. With continued practice, this style of plying will become more your ‘baseline’ for rhythm. This means that the skills have become more automatic (ie unconsciously competent).
You know this has happened because you find that your mind is more freed up and it takes much less effort to play. It’s only at this stage that you should try to sing while you play again because you need that freed-up attention to sing properly!
Beforehand, your conscious power was required to keep the strumming going but now, that is being taken care of by unconscious processes, meaning that consciously you have more room to move without compromising your playing. At this point your new exercise is to try some simplified singing while deliberately maintaining awareness of your playing, making sure that by singing you are not affecting it. Over time you want to gradually work towards returning to singing naturally while keeping your playing at this new level of expression, groove and freedom.
I like to think of it as growing two brains!
7. Is it possible to learn how to improvise? Really? How do I start?
Yes, absolutely, although it can seem like a daunting thing to try. You know what though? I bet you already do improvise but you just don’t know it. Do you ever tap out a rhythm? Or hum a melody? Or whistle something random? Where do you think that comes from? Improvising is really just another form of being creative and, while it takes some practice to understand the framework and the ‘tricks of the trade’ it’s really quite a natural thing to do.
I’d say the real question is “Do you feel drawn to it?” In my experience, there are people who just are and people who simply aren’t (although the majority are, at least to some extent). If you are drawn to it then it’s really just a matter of removing obstacles and learning some strategies. The biggest obstacle early on is self-judgement.
It’s so common to dislike the music that comes out of you and then to get so wrapped up in the negative reaction that you want to stop giving it a go! Instead, try to approach improvising as a form of play. Sometimes it’s great and other times… not so much. But with the right attitude you’ll keep on seeking out ways to sound better and your improvising will keep on becoming more and more musical.
At an intermediate level, the two main obstacles are not really understanding the relationship between chords and scales and the disconnect between your mind and fingers. Understanding how chords and scales work together is crucial for being able to choose what notes to play while you improvise. Without much knowledge of this relationship you tend to play the same things wherever you are on the neck and your playing can lack deliberacy. With targeted exercises you can learn how to choose what scales to use and then how to pick out key notes in those scales to play against the chords you are improvising over. As this understanding builds your ‘musical vocabulary’ becomes much greater.
Our fingers usually start out as the bosses because they are more capable than our minds of keeping up with the music. However, this leaves us in a guessing game scenario where we don’t really know in real-time what our playing is going to sound like and as a result it tends to be a little chaotic.
Remember how our parents used to say “think before you speak”?
The main exercise you want is to restrict yourself to short and deliberate phrases followed by long pauses. I want you to use the pause to think of your musical phrase and be clear about how it should be played. Then play it. I guarantee that you will experience resistance to doing this. Your fingers have the habit of running off without you and you are holding them back! But if you can stick with it, what you’ll notice is that the gap between what you hear in your head and what comes from the guitar starts to close. It can close so much that your experience of improvising will slowly become more like being person listening as your hands automatically play exactly what you hear in your head as it comes to you (I know that can seem fairly unattainable but I assure you, glimpses of it are much closer than you think).
8. Do I have to start by learning Mary Had A Little Lamb or can I learn to play the music I love?
Otherwise, I would be in a different career. I have always thought that the duty of a teacher is to lead someone who is learning the guitar to where they want to go. Based on this belief, I originally wanted to know if a beginner could still get great results by starting with content that isn’t necessarily recommended for beginners. What I found was that, YES, great progress can be made, as long as it is deconstructed properly by someone who has the big picture of their guitar playing in mind.
With skilful guidance, 10 different players at different stages along the way could play the same song but be individually working on slightly more sophisticated versions of it.
The trick is knowing what you should currently be trying to achieve. Of course, if you try to run before you can walk you will fall flat on your face. Or at least get really frustrated. And rightfully so! However, I found that I could lead beginner students through the stages of learning guitar just by using a couple of songs that they loved. Because they were playing music that inspired them, they were motivated to learn and because they had proper instruction, without getting ahead of themselves, they could still focus on appropriate development.
This led me to adopt two rules for my guitar-teaching:
1) There are achievable milestones for any song or goal. A good teacher should be able to recognise what level of engagement you can realistically aspire to and lead you to practice accordingly.
2) You need to play music you love. Flings will come and go but true love lasts… well at least quite a long time anyway (I don’t still love Kylie Minogue in the same way but I did for quite a few years there!). If learning guitar is tied in to the music you have always loved, it’s no surprise that you will find it easier and more exciting than if you don’t.
9. What’s the quickest way to get better at guitar?
Ahh I love it when people ask me this (sort of). I’m usually torn between two answers: one is to suggest a series of exercises, strategies and a practice schedule. The other (somewhat facetious) answer, is to say “don’t be in a rush to get better!!!” So let’s look at both answers here, starting with the second one.
Impatience, frustration and doubt are surely our biggest enemies when it comes to learning guitar. They are emotional responses that are completely natural when we want something but can’t have it yet. However, all of the work we need to do is pretty simple really. When you know what to practice and can sit down to do this on a semi-regular basis, results are going to come! But they come at their own pace as your muscles, neurons and understanding mature. This neuronal rate of development is affected by how you practice, how often you practice and what you practice.
It is especially good to practice the same thing in the same way on a regular basis rather than to chop and change your routine
The problem with these emotional reactions is twofold. They tempt us to take shortcuts and they cause us to feel like doing something else. Basically they take us away from sticking with the slow and simple repetition that is going to lead us to learning the guitar in the fastest way possible. And I am not demeaning or belittling these feelings either! They are a very real hurdle and a huge component of my role as a guitar coach is helping people to work with their feelings about practice and staying on track over the long run. Be on the lookout for the urge to take shortcuts. I work with people every day who got stuck because they tried to take a shortcut. If they could go back in time to when when they decided to find a shortcut and decided not to, they would have overtaken their current progress in leaps and bounds.
At the mental level, patience and persistence really does win the race so watch out for those feelings.
Now, that said, the first half of the answer is a more practical one. Yes, there are many exercises you can do to learn guitar at a faster rate. What you want are targeted exercises that build up the sub-skills and muscles that are foundational to playing guitar. There are many of these at the Beginner Guitar Lessons and Intermediate Guitar Lessons pages.
The best exercises for you are the ones that work on areas of weakness and the ones that work on the fundamentals. See if you can make friends with feeling clumsy. Seek out exercises that make you feel it and embrace them until the feeling becomes one of dexterity. Having a guitar coach can be especially useful when it comes to knowing what exercises are best for you.
10. I can’t seem to play with other people. I’m alright on my own but it just seems to fall apart when I’m playing along with other musicians.
Ok, this is an extension of what we talked about in The Method of Learning Guitar and also in Question 2. The sub-skill of listening while you play is so fundamental that it can’t be stated enough. It is why I always encourage people to do their guitar practice to the actual music they are learning- at least on occasion.
This forces you listen and respond to an external source…
The same can be said of playing to a metronome. If you don’t do this at least occasionally, you are never working on arguably the most essential skill to good musicianship: listening.
As a guitar teacher I like to start incorporating this very early on because it does tend to develop and mature at a slower rate than the physical side of playing. And it is also overlooked by beginner guitarists as being trivial or something “I can work on later”. I know this because I was like this too! However, the intended destination for someone learning guitar is really to play music with others. And when you start to do this it will be really disheartening if you haven’t ever played along to an external source of music. If, however you started doing it from the beginning, it will feel completely natural and really fun. It is actually the biggest joy of being a guitar player.
The crucial skill to develop is listening to everything at once including your playing within that context.
See, all along you were actually listening while you were playing. But you were likely only listening to what you were playing. It’s the relationship between your guitar and the music that is so important. You’ll start to notice where your timing is off, what the chords are doing, and any differences between what you play and the original.
This noticing gets stronger and important changes happen as a result, leading your playing to respond to what is happening. Like any sub-skill, it starts off deliberate, conscious and slow. But with time and repetition it becomes automatic, unconscious and fast! This means that your ability to play with other people will be effortless by comparison!
11. How can I make my solos more expressive and musical? It’s like my fingers just go over the same old things all the time. Or I get lost and feel like the music is running away from me. I want to make the guitar sing and hit the ‘right’ notes!
This is a big topic and one you will probably spend quite a bit of time with. It is actually one of the areas that I spend most of my practice time in these days and it seems to get increasingly more subtle and refined.
Learning the guitar is all about making patterns.
We are given specific instructions to practice and over a period of weeks or months we work on forming a new pattern. But then what happens if we want to continue to grow is that we need to break that pattern in order to rebuild it as a more complex and refined pattern. And the cycle continues, make/break… make/break and so on.
After you have made enough patterns you can start to do things like solo and improvise. Soloing is almost always the skill of creatively using and combining our patterns… that’s it! Occasionally we will do something that we have never done before and that always feels fresh and exciting. As our internal ‘library’ of patterns gets bigger and bigger the edges of them will start to blur and it will feel and sound more and more like “just playing music”… which is great! If you get enough patterns you can make lots of wonderful music with them.
It might be useful to refer back to the main theme I like to teach by. Since we can consider patterns to be sub-skills, once they are practiced enough, they happen unconsciously. In the same way that driving a car can become quite an absent-minded process, eventually so can playing guitar and improvising, as our patterns become more ingrained and automatic. The problem? As our sub-skills become more automatic they also become more unconscious! Meaning, we tend to become more unconscious while they happen (just like driving).
However, being fresh and creative when we improvise requires us to be conscious.
This means we need to practice exercises that keep us conscious while we solo! Otherwise the habitual force behind our fingers will always get out of control and the music will inevitably “run away from us”. This is a perfect example of breaking our patterns. In the moment that our trained actions arise, our job is to catch them and make them different and unique!
There are 2 exercises that are incredible for this and I strongly urge you to incorporate them.
- Sing what you play, as you play it
- Practice soloing in short phrases, with longer pauses of gathering your thoughts in between
Singing what you play is NOT easy, especially if you aren’t a great or confident singer. However, I guarantee you that every guitar player that ever became really good learned how to do it. Even doing this occasionally is great practice because it starts to force your mind to exercise some restraint. The best guitarists and musicians have a lot of restraint. Their playing is thoughtful and engaged, as opposed to mechanical and unimaginative. Singing what you play builds restraint because it counters the urge to “let your fingers do the talking”.
It gradually makes your fingers servants to the music you hear in your head which is a really crucial part of properly learning guitar.
The other component is practicing solos using quite short phrases (maybe 4-6 notes) followed by intentional space or “taking a breath”. In these spaces you have a chance to recollect yourself, to listen to the music and to anticipate another phrase. You also have some time to really “dig deep” and play a phrase that is as expressive as you can make it. Without this pause, it can be really hard to achieve this because the momentum of your patterns can take over. This also gets worse when we play fast because there is even less time to be conscious and fresh. Ever listened to shredders that make you feel bored and “tuned out”? It’s because they aren’t really that conscious either! The best are though. For a perfect example of being able to play something incredibly expressive and creative while also incorporating speed, check out the video below… And I know for a fact, Guthrie insists on singing what you play as well!
12. Will the finger-pain ever go away? How about feeling so clumsy?
Yes it will, I promise. But how long will it take? Well it depends on a few factors but really what it comes down to is how accustomed to playing you become. You certainly don’t have to play for hours every day to make progress and to develop your finger strength and flexibility but what I have found is that, if you can manage it, playing on a regular basis is far more beneficial than sporadic, intense playing.
Your body responds to the demands placed on it. The more regularly you demand that your hands perform new actions that require the limits of your strength, flexibility, agility and skin toughness, the more it is going to respond protectively. While it’s definitely risky to generate expectations of finding hours a day to practice guitar, I would strongly recommend that you consider how you might be able to set up your lifestyle so that picking up a guitar is really easy to do.
Keep this in mind: If, on 6 out of 7 days, you played once for 10 minutes each day, you would make much better progress than if you did the exact same practice for one hour on the 7th day. It is regularity that you want to prioritise, but not in an intimidating way.
Sooner than you think, you will start to see that your guitar-fitness is improving, your fingers are becoming calloused, and techniques like bends and slides don’t hurt nearly as much as they used to. Eventually you will be able to play very vigorously for hours at a time and it won’t hurt a bit. In fact, it actually feels quite fantastic! As you become less concerned with the initial awkwardness and discomfort, you also naturally become more involved in the activity of “just playing music”. THIS starts to feel really good.
So trust your body and it’s ability to grow and adapt. Just keep gently knocking on that door and emphasise regularity when learning the guitar. Leave the results to nature. And in the meantime, keep having fun! Time will do the rest.
13. I keep dropping the pick and find it really annoying, can’t I just not use one and use my fingers instead?
Ok, let’s look at this from two angles. Firstly, I totally get your frustration! The pick is a fiddly thing and for quite a while it is hard to keep it securely in your fingers while strumming and picking patterns. The harder you try, the more stiff your technique becomes and the worse it jumps around. Pretty soon you start to blame yourself, then your guitar, and eventually your childhood.
You quickly think “damn, I wonder if I really need a pick, I know guitarists A and B don’t use one and they are great players…
But if you decide to bail every time you encounter a difficult technique, your journey with learning the guitar won’t be a very fruitful one, not ultimately. The future “you” might just find themselves wishing that they had access to more sounds and techniques. The problem being that by then, you will have developed your habits for quite some time and it will be very challenging to change them and introduce a new way of doing things.
Even though it is initially tough, my opinion as a coach is that it is very important to learn the full range of techniques right from the get go and then as you evolve as a player and naturally become more authoritative, you can make decisions about the techniques that really work for you and what you like to play on the guitar. But you won’t be stuck in the corner because things were frustrating in the beginning!
Keep in mind that I speak as a player whose area of expertise is Blues and Rock Guitar Lessons. If you are interested in just fingerstyle, or classical or flamenco guitar, then my advice would be different. However, since blues and rock guitar-playing encompasses such a broad range of styles, songs and genres (even ones that aren’t technically blues or rock but where the guitar is played exactly the same way), this advice definitely applies to the majority of people wanting to learn the guitar. With that said, our challenge still remains and the pick still feels quite offensive to the untrained hand. So what can you do? There are two useful things to know.
Firstly, get used to holding one. Just get used to it. Have one in your pocket and hold it during the day. Tap on things with it, air-strum with it, scratch your itchy nose with it! There are so many hours in your week that contain moments that you could bring to mind what you are hoping to achieve on the guitar and do something to help you along.
When you do mental practice, even without a guitar present, you are activating all of the same neural pathways that you do when you actually have a guitar in your hands. If you are holding a pick and can imagine holding a guitar and imagine playing it, yes you might feel like a goose but you are working on our skills. (For the record I look like a goose in public all the time. I even catch myself air-strumming when I dance in public. To my wife’s absolute horror, it’s just how I feel rhythm now!)
Anyway, this all adds up really quickly and the mind-body connections related to picking, strumming and controlling a pick will get stronger and stronger. This is something I still do ALL the time and I believe it is a real secret of the pros.
Even when you put your guitar down, you never truly “put it down”.
Secondly, there are some targeted exercises that force your fingers to develop a better grip on the pick. Specifically, you want to practice single, heavy strums while paying attention to your grip on it. Just do one strum at a time because the aim here is to catch the moment that the pick is jerked out of position. If you strum too quickly you’ll miss this important moment.
For your hands to really “get” how to compensate for the jolting caused by hitting the strings, you need to realize what your grip felt like just before this happened.
So pay attention to this moment one heavy strum at a time and you will very quickly start making corrections to how you brace against the force of the strings. Stick with this for a few weeks and these corrections will become automatic (noticing a theme here?). Then as you start to strum faster and continuously, you will have built in an auto-correcting action that prevents the pick from bouncing around while you strum up and down. Hang in there!