How to get better at playing guitar (and get better at learning anything)

You’ve got your guitar in the rock-out position. Your bad-ass pick at the ready. Amp and gain to the max, then strum, and bam, Wonderwall again…more like brick wall.

We’ve all been there. Whether it’s the Oasis classic or another tired-out tune, every guitar player has found themselves playing the same thing on loop, feeling stuck, and left wondering how to get better at playing guitar.

Fortunately, by simply adding a few new behaviours to your guitar playing, you’ll develop habits that will set you on the path to guitar greatness.

Make a list of songs and techniques you find difficult to play. Plan your practice sessions and lay out your implementation intentions. Work on getting into the flow state. And not only will your guitar playing and enjoyment improve, but your learning in any number of disciplines. 

Learning to play guitar is difficult

“If you wanna be a singer, or play guitar man, you gotta sweat or you won’t get far”

God Gave Rock ‘n’ Roll to You by KISS

Before we get into how you can get better, just stop for a moment and appreciate that learning to guitar playing is incredibly difficult. It takes years of practice and many people seeks the help of a guitar teacher for some guitar lessons. Even the pros were once where you are now and needed help getting to the next level. It can help to see how well others learning the same song are doing online through social media by using Guitar Scout

The way to get unstuck is to figure out the level you are currently playing at and seek to just exceed your level each time you practice. The worst thing you can do is aimlessly repeat the same things over and over again. Each time you pick up the guitar you should know exactly what it is you want to achieve. 

Follow these helpful steps:

  1. Find or create a playlist that gets progressively harder and includes new techniques the further you go. Identify where you can currently play to and where you start to struggle. What gets difficult? Can you even identify the things that make it difficult? If not, invest the time in finding out why you get stuck. Start to ask yourself these questions each time you listen to a song.  You can make a start with our playlist, or take a look at this list, before making your own. 
  2. Once you know what level you’re at, write down a list of things you want to practice next that are a struggle to do each time you encounter them. This can be as granular as learning a particular technique, all the way up to trying a new style that you’ve never tried before. 
  3. Each time you practice, be honest with yourself. Are you paying attention to detail? Are you achieving the clarity of expression required to honestly say that you’re playing the song to the required standard?
Make a plan for how to get better at guitar

By the end you should have a list of specific technical or theoretical aspects of guitar playing that you’d like to improve your playing upon. They could be things like: 

Basically, whatever it is you identify as being hard for you. Order this list by difficulty and aim to make those items the focus of your practice. 

One way to rigorously enforce this is to find a course or guitar teacher that follows a grading structure such as the ABRSM exams. For more details, WKMT have a great article on finding guitar lessons that help you prepare for exams.

Getting through being stuck

“I start a lot more songs than I finish, because I realize when I get into them, they’re no good. I don’t throw them away, I just put them away, store them get them out of sight”

Johnny Cash

Embrace the flow state mindset

The learning process is most effective when our current skill level falls just short of the challenges in accomplishing the next thing we want to achieve. 

When we try to achieve something too far beyond our capabilities we end up feeling irritated, anxious, and disappointed. When we do things that fall below our skill level we end up in a rut and get bored.

The happy space in the middle is what neuroscientists call the flow state. Or what is more commonly known as “being in the zone”. Not only is this the most effective place in which we learn, but flow gives us a much greater sense of engagement and fulfilment. In this state, you’ll feel like your fingers just seem to know how to play.

You won’t be thinking about playing, you will just be playing.

Commit to taking actions that help you learn to get better at guitar

The problem for most of us is that we struggle to practice skills and techniques that are just beyond our current playing level, and thus struggle to get into the flow state. By listing the things that we find difficult, we make sure that we are always giving ourselves the best shot at getting in the flow state.

But simply stating that your goal is to practice is pretty useless. Instead, you need to figure out what it is that makes you act. Psychologists call these implementation intentions. These are rules that you create for yourself in the format of: if situation X arises, I will perform action Y. In short, they make you act, often. This helps with with habit forming. 

Together, these two techniques will keep us from getting stuck and put on a steady path to getting better at playing guitar. 

Make getting better at guitar a habit

“Practice every time you get a chance”

Bill Monro (father of Bluegrass)

In order to make progress over the long term you’re going to need to habitually practice. Repeating something many times creates habits. No matter what else you’ve got going on, you must always make time for practice time for guitar playing. It’s therapeutic, it’s a way to be creative, and in time, the act reinforces itself. Moreover, long-term muscle memory is created when a task is repeated over time, eventually allowing it to be performed with little to no conscious effort.

The best ways to make your practice habitual is to include it within your everyday enjoyment of music. Have your guitar at the ready and create implementation intentions for yourself such as:

  • “Each time I’m listening to music I will look up the tab”
  • “Each time I view a tab that I can’t play I’ll see how it’s sung”
  • “Each time I can’t find a tab or I’m not happy with a tab for a song I’ll create my own”
  • “Each time I see a song in the key of C I’ll transpose it”

Get creative with it. Use habit and productivity app ObjektivApp to effortlessly create implementation intentions to habitualness your playing. In fact, see more apps that can help you here.

Practice, practice, practice

Practice schedules are essential to get better at playing guitar. A practice schedule specifies exactly the what (techniques, songs, theory etc), when and where (the day and time), how (the resources, books, tabs, etc) and why (you enjoy it, you want to play X style of music).  Use this example template to help you schedule in your practice time guitar playing:

What will I practice: Practicing hammer-on’s and pull-off’s by learning Thunderstuck by AC/DC

Why will I practice this: I want to get better at hammer-on’s and pull-off’s so I can start to play solos

When: Saturday afternoon

Where: In my bedroom

What do I need: Guitar, amp, tuner app, plectrum, laptop, Guitar Scout

Structure your practice schedules to include variety. Find and practice techniques such as picking and dexterity patterns, rhythmic patterns, reading, and theory. Keep a journal of your practice and know what it is you’ve learned and regularly review it. This will help you keep motivated and to know what it is you need to practice next. Use a tool like Guitar Scout to keep track of the songs you’ve learned so far and their difficulty levels. 

Learning to learn more than guitar

 “The beautiful thing about learning is nobody can take it away from you”

B.B. King

Learning how to effectively learn is a more beneficial shift in thinking that simply stating a desire to “become unstuck” or to “be better at guitar”. Goals like this are ego motivated. They are no more than the expression of a desire.

They are empty words. 

By adopting a flow state mindset and creating implementation intentions you’ll instead concern yourself with your current ability level, the level just beyond you, and how you’re going to move towards it. These are actionable goals. Focus not on the destination but on what you have to do as guitar players to move in that direction. 

Developing this personal autonomy and responsibility is the only way to get out of feeling stuck in the long run. Push yourself out of your comfort zone and into the flow state regularly. Habitualise this exercise by creating rules for yourself that means every day you will force yourself to live and act like the guitarist you want to become. And lastly, here’s one free implementation intention:  

“Every time I begin to play Wonderwall I will come back here and read this advice again” 

So to round things off, here’s a checklist that can help you get out of your guitar-playing rut. 

  1. Buy a guitar
  2. Learn Wonderwall
  3. Realise that you need to get better at guitar so that you can play something other than Wonderwall
  4. Make a list of songs that get progressively harder to play
  5. Identify where your current ability sits on that list
  6. Identify a list of techniques, songs, theory, etc are beyond your current ability that you want to practice
  7. Use our template to plan your practice sessions so you can more easily get in the flow-state
  8. Create a long term goal for your playing
  9. Break that goal down into implementation intentions that are based on your practice list
  10. Adapt implementation intentions so that they become part of a daily routine. 
  11. Set up a specific practice schedule 
  12. Each time you encounter a trigger, practice
  13. Be honest and self-critical with yourself about your progress
  14. Keep a journal of your progress over time 
  15. Add to your practice list over time
  16. Become a more effective learner and develop personal autonomy and responsibility for becoming the guitar player you want to be
  17. Come back and read this advice every time you even think about playing Wonderwall

Getting better at playing the guitar is difficult. So make it easier on yourself by learning using Guitar Scout, your own personal, online guitar assistant. Let it handle finding you the right tab and its lyrics for you, playing along to songs with you and keeping track of what you’ve learned so far. Get unstuck by trying Guitar Scout today.

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