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In my capacity as a guitar teacher I hear lots of excuses, including the time-worn “I don’t have the talent.” Talent, schmalent. While we can’t all be Hendrix, you can get pretty damn close if you follow these basic guidelines:

1. Learn the notes on the fretboard

There’s a lot of them but you don’t have to memorize them all at once. Start with the open strings – EADGBE (top to bottom) — and use a mnemonic trick. I like “Eddie and Dave Got Bad Eggs.” If you go from bottom to top, try “Every Bad Girl Deserves an Eggplant.” Once you’ve got that, move on to the first four frets on each string. Play each string slowly and say each note out loud, from the top (bass) string to the bottom. After those are memorized, you can move to the next four frets. This chart will help:

Why learn the notes? For a myriad of reasons, Grasshopper.

  • You can communicate better with other musicians.
  • You’ll understand theory better.
  • Most importantly, you’ll play in tune.

If you’re playing an F note in your solo and the song is in the key of G, your audience’s ears will bleed. If you know the names of the notes, you’ll know where that pesky F lives so you can avoid it and save the hearing of millions of people.

2. Learn the sound of chord types

Start with the difference between a major and a minor chord. You can hear the difference between an A minor and an A, right? Without diving into too much theory, I’ll tell you that a minor chord has a flatted third. That’s what gives it that dark sound, perfect for a change in mood. Other chords have their own associations. A seventh chord has a blues feel. They also sound great at the end of a phrase, especially if you go to a major chord after that. Ninth chords are perfect in jazz and sometimes as a transition in other styles.


If you usually play a minor chord in a song, what happens when you substitute a major? Ninth? Becoming familiar with different chord types will help you figure out the chords to a favorite song. It’s also a great tool for songwriters.

3. Listen to a variety of styles for inspiration

Okay, you’re a metal head. Did you know that Randy Rhoads (Ozzy Osbourne) studied classical music? Maybe you’re into classic rock – did you know that in the early days the Beatles were a skiffle band, a form of folk music? That’s where that picking pattern in “Blackbird” comes from. So, raid your little sister’s music collection and play along to that Shawn Mendes tune. You don’t have to love it and I’ll bet you’ll learn something. Or see what your girlfriend’s Bob Marley mix has to offer you. What happens when you play a reggae strum for a pop song?

Magic, that’s what.

4. Learn how to hum and play simple melodies

Ignore the advice you got for grade school choir. Ear training is possible for even the most tuneless singer. Start by playing one note and singing it. Once that sounds pretty good – and it may take a few tries — try for two notes, then for more. Record yourself and see how you’re doing. Have someone with a good ear listen to you. Once you’re better at singing a melody you’ll be able to look at that challenging section of a guitar solo. Hum it slowly and match the notes on the guitar. It can also help you compose an original lead part or figure out what chords go behind a melody. I once worked with a record producer who sang the bass player his notes (albeit in a different octave); we ended up with great arrangements. Keep in mind that being able to sing doesn’t mean you have to be your band’s lead singer, it’s simply a tool.

5. Play music and not just scale exercises

If you’re a soccer player, you don’t want to spend hours kicking the ball into the net. Yawn. Same thing for guitar. Find a song you really want to learn and even if you can’t yet play all the riffs, slow it down and figure it out. Or learn from one of the great teachers at JamPlay. Or, if you’re a songwriter, write a song you can hear in your head but can’t quite play. It’s one of the ways I became a better guitar player — I kept writing songs I couldn’t play. Scales are still good but learning within the context of a song will make you remember why you picked up the guitar in the first place.

6. Learn to play slowly and in time

If I had a nickel for every time a student came to me and played too fast and with lots of mistakes, I could retire to a villa in the South of France and fly in Bonnie Raitt for private lessons. When you play too fast, you’ll make mistakes. Guaranteed. And muscle memory is a pesky thing — your fingers will play those mistakes over and over again. Play the piece slowly and correctly. Play it with a metronome on snail speed. Once you’ve mastered that, kick it up a couple of notches. Play it again. Keep playing it at increasing speed until the mistakes start to creep in, then stop. The next time you practice, do it again, starting at something slightly above the snail setting. While I’m yammering on about rhythm, I’ll tell you that it’s important to play with a metronome. No one wants to hear a guitarist who speeds up and slows down. Your fans will love you and your band’s drummer will quit throwing her sticks at you.

7. Learn songs in different keys

I once wrote a country song in the key of F, unusual for that genre (unless you’re playing with a capo). While I hated myself for the first few weeks, I got really good at a barred B flat. Expanding your chord knowledge will make you a better player. No one wants to jam with a guitarist who can only play in C.

8. Don’t compare yourself to others

Everyone’s seen that video of the little Korean kids playing the complicated classical piece. Don’t look at that and throw up your hands. You don’t know what torment those kids endured. And likewise, don’t watch a great Jeff Beck solo and think, Why even try? Maybe you should start on something more accessible. There are lots of JamPlay videos that can help you with that. At some point, maybe you can tackle that Beck solo and if you don’t, the world won’t end. Pardon me while I give the special snowflake speech but you are unique. No one plays exactly like you.

9. Record your practice sessions and listen back to them

What we hear in our head is not always what actually comes out. If you’ve ever been in a recording studio, you’ll know what I’m talking about. I once recorded with a guitar player who was a half beat behind everyone else and we didn’t notice it until it was time to mix. Expensive mistake. If you record your practice sessions, especially if you can do it with a metronome, you can better evaluate your timing. It’ll also help you remember that improvised solo that was so good in the moment. And you can mark your progress. Listen to that recording from six months ago and pat yourself on the back because you finally mastered those Stevie Ray Vaughan licks.

10. Learn something new every day

If you’ve been playing the Beatles for thirty years, it’s time to branch out, even if it’s learning one new chord. Are you mostly a country player? Look up ninth chords. They’re fun and who knows, they might sound good in that Dolly Parton song you just learned. Are you a rocker who can’t fingerpick? Learn one fingerpicking pattern. Just one. Practice it every day and soon, you’ll be playing “Blackbird.” And yeah, I’m back to the Beatles but maybe it’s time to try that new distortion pedal — what would “Blackbird” sound like with that? All right, Hendrix Junior, follow these tips and quick coming to me and whining about talent. With enough sweat and stellar attitude, you’ll master whatever you want on the guitar.

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