We all remember picking up a guitar for the first time. You have this dream of holding it and suddenly you're a rockstar. Sadly, reality is often different.
For most of us, the first month of guitar is a bit of a chore. Holding the strings down is hard. Your picking hand doesn't seem to know which string to hit. Maybe you're not even sure how to hold the guitar properly. And after just 5 or 10 minutes, your fingers begin to hurt.
But for those with persistence and determination, we fight through the pain, put in the hours, and eventually our guitar actually starts to resemble a song we know. You learn a couple riffs, a few chords, maybe you even have the courage to show your new skill to a couple of friends, and before you know it you have the guitar bug. That's how it was for me anyways.
But unbeknownst to me, teenage Alex actually came up with a few tricks to improve faster than he should've. It's not rocket science. In fact it's deceptively simple. But small things add up over time. Not all practice methods are equal in result. And so for those who want to get the most out of the time they put into their practice, I'm going to share with you the three things that helped me get good quick in my first year playing guitar.
1. Quality Over Quantity
The very first song I ever learned was a song called "Iron Man" by Black Sabbath. It's kind of a stereotype in the rock world when it comes to first guitar songs. It's iconic, simple to hear in your head, not too hard to grasp the chords. It's perfect for a beginner guitar player.
One of the things I had going for me at the beginning was the fact that I didn't have a teacher. To some, this might seem like a disadvantage, but that just depends on your mindset. You see, because I didn't have a teacher, there was really only one way to know if I was doing it right. That was to play it with the recording. Playing with the recording is completely unforgiving. Either you play it right or you play it wrong. "Do or do not. There is no try." as Yoda would say.
Because of this high standard, I was forced to work on the song for a very long time. About 12 weeks actually. Now to some that might seem ridiculous. Who wants to work on a song that long? But a mistake many beginners make is in thinking that the number of songs they know equals how good they are. This just isn't true. The quality to which you can play a song will always be more important. Especially at the beginning when you are trying to create good habits and learn basic skills. By focusing on these skills early, you will make every song that comes after it that much easier, and you will be glad you took the time earlier to save yourself the headache later.
2. Practice Smarter Not Harder
This advice will come off as a cliche to most but I assure you there are a large number of ways to practice other than "Play this song a bunch". When I was in high school, I watched a lot of TV. Probably more than I should have. But in this case, it actually helped me out with this skill. Every weekday, comedy central would play reruns of my favorite tv show "Futurama". During these episodes, I would have a guitar in my hand. I wasn't always playing a song or something specific. In fact, most of the time I was just noodling around playing random patterns that I had slowly picked up on. It was only during commercial breaks that I would actually "practice" what I was working on.
Now to some, this might seem like a strange thing to recommend to people, but let's stop and do some basic math. If I did this every weekday, that gives me five hours of guitar playing per week with one hour and forty minutes of practicing my song and three hours and twenty minutes of just messing around. For a beginner, that can be a long time.
Many of us listen to podcasts or radio while we do other activities. Whether we're driving, working out, or doing household chores, it's a way to passively learn, and this idea is no different. One of the biggest hurdles in the beginning is just getting comfortable with our instrument. Playing guitar while watching TV might not be the way for you, but I'll bet there's other ways you can think of to passively work on your guitar skills while engaging in other activities. Find ways to make the work easier so you're not thinking about the early growing pains of guitar playing.
3. Play With Others
This one is probably the hardest for most people. The idea of playing in front of other people in the early stages is scary. We're self-conscious creatures and don't like being embarrassed in front of others. But if we can put our pride aside for a second, let's look at the advantages of learning to play with others.
First, music is by its nature a team sport. Every song you hear on the radio was created and produced by a team of people. It is a skill we all must develop to truly call ourselves musicians and the sooner you can tackle that mountain, the better you will be for it.
Second, working with other musicians allows you to get additional outside perspectives on your playing. This is especially true when you're playing with someone who is better than you. A lot of beginners think they will be a burden on the other musician(s) and think "I don't want them to get frustrated or mad at me." But often the truth is quite the opposite. Many people who develop a skill at something enjoy passing on that skill to other people. They get great joy out of it (It's why I became a teacher myself). Don't let your fear stop you from trying or asking someone if they'd like to play with you.
Third, that fear of embarrassment that we talked about, will make you work harder at your instrument than you've ever worked before. Fear can be a powerful thing. In my case, when I had my first live performance with a band, I worked so hard for a month that my guitar playing quality probably tripled in that 30 day period. I was so determined to not embarrass myself and to sound as good as the other guys that I don't think I'd ever worked that hard at anything in my whole life. Confront that fear, do it voluntarily, and then conquer it. You'll feel better for it and will improve your skill at the same time.
I hope this was helpful to a lot of newer guitar players. This was a part of my early journey and I thought it might be fun to share some of the tips and tricks that I developed from my early days of guitar playing. If you have suggestions on other tips, tricks, or problems you'd like help with, feel free to send me a message and I'd be happy to put together a blog post about it. Thanks for reading!