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“Can’t I just go on YouTube to learn? I don’t need any lessons do I?”

The truth is: yes, you can learn a lot on YouTube, but learning how to play guitar is not one of them. I’m about to tell you why, from personal experience. Not just from my own playing, but from playing with guitarists who primarily rely on online videos to learn how to play.

Learning to play guitar

The Master Guitar Guide can take you where you want to be

Like Jimi Hendrix said: “I know what I want, but I just don’t know how to go about getting it”

Have you ever tried and tried to improve your guitar playing, only to realize that your progress resembles that of a snail or slug? You know what you want to play and how it should sound, but, no matter what you do, it seems to take forever.

So, you start wandering around on the internet and, like a kid with ADD, you bounce from one video to the next, hoping that there is some kind of magic method or technique that will get your playing going.

Before you know it, you know riffs from a bunch of songs, pieces of your favorites, some cool licks that impress people who don’t know any better; but you still can’t really get to where you want to be.

Nobody Is A Self-Taught Guitarist

I hate it when I hear guitarists say that they are “self-taught”. That’s usually total bullsh*t. What they really mean is that “I am cool because I learned how to play by myself and didn’t need anyone to show me.” Sort of like they are extra special or something.

In reality, everyone is self-taught and nobody is self-taught! What’s that mean? It means that the only way anyone is going to learn how to play guitar is by picking up a guitar and playing it. They might have an instructor sitting across from them, but they still have to take time alone and figure out what they just learned and make it their own. You still have to teach yourself, even when somebody shows you how to do something.

Everybody Is A Self-Taught Guitarist

When I say that nobody is self-taught I mean the bedouins in Sub-Saharan Africa who are not allowed to play Western music because of their religion. These guys rock and are self-taught, except for the fact that they were taught by listening to a Hendrix cassette somebody discovered.

They actually had to go out in the literal middle of nowhere and practice until they developed their own distinctive styles. Check out Tinariwen or Amar Sundy for a real treat. Even though they had to figure out almost everything in secret, they obviously drew from the blues and rock and roll, not to mention traditional music.

So, yes, the person who takes formal lessons is also “self-taught” and the bedouin in the Sahara is also “self-taught”. Not only that, but neither one is truly “self-taught” because each of them learned from others.

People who lay claim to the title of “self-taught” love to mention great guitarists who say they never practice and are “self-taught”. Believe me, you don’t become amazing at anything except laziness without working at it, a lot!

Jimmy Paige may not practice now, but can you imagine how many hours he played when he was young! I recall Mark Knopfler saying he used to fall asleep with his arms around his guitar! Doc Watson said that when he started fingerpicking it took him “20 years” to be able to combine the bass lines and melody. Hopefully he was exaggerating!

If you REALLY want to learn, use the Master Guitar Guide


The Big C—Make a commitment

The first and most important thing is to make a commitment to stick with it and actually learn to play the guitar. Seems obvious, but just consider how many people make a half-hearted attempt and just give up after a short time. There are dozens of excuses: it hurts my fingers, my hands won’t work right, it is too complicated, I don’t have time, I’m not musical, I can’t figure it out, I can’t afford lessons, etc.

Get Geared Up—Invest in a decent guitar

Sure, Eric Clapton might be able to make a crappy guitar sound awesome, but you won’t be able to. Trying learn on a bad guitar is a recipe for failure. You don’t need to go out and buy a brand new Martin acoustic or a Fender Strat, but you do need one that you can play. I have a friend who bought a $125 acoustic that sounds good and is easy to play. You can find deals all over the place, just find one that stays tuned, one whose neck is not warped or twisted, and sounds good to your ears.

Believe it or not, but my first years playing Bluegrass were with a hand-me-down nylon string classical guitar. Eventually someone gave me a steel-string acoustic and I gradually upgraded from there. Once I had a proper guitar I was amazed at how much easier it was to play. I only wish I had known then what I know now (at least about guitars).

My Music Room—Figure out a time and place to practice

This is important because you need privacy to learn. You also need a distraction-free environment to help you focus. If your friends and family are right there chances are you will either be self-conscious or distracted; maybe both. Find a place you can freely make noise in and where you can be left alone. That’s why colleges have music rooms and you need to have a similar place to practice.

My wife used to consider my guitar playing as her cue to remind me of chores I needed to do around the house. It was as if playing guitar was a waste of time and there were always responibilities looming. Not exactly a good atmosphere for learning. I wanted to play badly enough that I figured out how to make it work anyway.

My Style Compass—Choose a style or styles of music that you want to play

I took two guitar lessons when I was 15, with visions of Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and Doc Watson, all rolled into one. All I really learned was how to hold a pick, play a G chord with my little finger on the 1st string and play “Go Tell Aunt Rhody”. I was so scattered with my style choices that I got confused and just ended up trying learn by myself.

Choosing a style of guitar to learn is not like getting married; you can change your mind and play a different one later. But this is part of the commitment that will prevent bouncing around and learning a little of a lot. Besides, the guitar is a guitar and one style often is related to another. Once you learn the blues, for example, it is an easy step into Rock music.

The Opening Box—Pick an online guitar course and stick with it

There are numerous online guitar courses out there. Obviously some are going to be better than others and some are not very good at all. I have tried most of them and can easily make a recommendation to help you decide which one is right for you. I realize a lot of people can’t afford to pay for an entire year, but if you can manage it, do it. This is also part of the commitment to stick with it, plus you save quite a bit of money by paying for a year instead of one month at a time. This is not an overnight process, it takes time and effort.

Here are my top two recommendations:


Gibson Learn & Master

Play Well With Others—Find out where local jams are

Most areas have informal jams taking place weekly or monthly. If at all possible, make going to jams part of your life. This is one of the best ways to improve your playing. Plus, you will meet new people, make friends with similar interests, maybe find a date (seriously, this happens all the time), and have a blast.

You can often find where people are jamming by looking online, asking at a music store, asking other players or you could even begin one of your own! If you have a space and like to host low-key events, this is a great idea.

Jamming teaches you many things about playing the guitar: strumming, rhythm, listening skills, tone, tempo, song structure, song chords, improvisation techniques, and so much more. I can’t recommend jamming with others too much. You can start out just listening and gradually start playing along and eventually become part of the “band”. Typically the atmosphere is not intimidating (higher level jams are a different thing altogether) and most players love helping out newbies.

The Slowpoke Approach—Go slower to get faster

Everyone who tries to learn to play guitar soon runs into the same obstacle: how to play faster. It’s not that you are trying to play like Steve Vai or Tony Rice, you just want to be able to play fast enough so you can play the songs you love.

Thankfully, technology has come to the rescue with slower-downers. Online courses include them with each song and there are free online apps as well. The free ones are OK, but a bit awkward. I used one to learn Russ Barenberg’s beautiful solo to “Drummers Of England and it worked enough to help me learn the tune. The courses provide it along with each song, and the sound quality is much better, plus you don’t have to download a song and install it in the app.

The Slowpoke Approach is something I learned from a guy who taught me “Cottonpatch Rag”, a fiddle tune with a million notes. He was from the South and could talk r-e-a-l s-l-o-w, which really drove home the point. I can still hear it in my head today. You play the section you want to learn slowly, then more slowly and more slowly until you think your brain will pop. You then work your way back up in tempo until you reach your crashing point. Use a metronome to keep your tempo steady, you will find it difficult to play so slowly, but this is where muscle memory and ear training come into play.

I promise you: if you use the Slowpoke Solution you will never forget the song, it gets embedded in your muscles and mind. You need to use this method for difficult passages in tunes. When you practice mistakes you learn mistakes. Slow down, play it correctly, very slowly again and again and gradually speed up; it works.

The Sounding Board—Now for the best part

You need feedback. You need somebody to watch you and listen while you play so they can help you. Without feedback you are playing in a vacuum of sorts. There are 3 ways to get a knowledgable person to critique your playing.

  1. Find a local guitar teacher who knows the style you want to learn and is affordable
  2. Go to music jams and get involved
  3. Take online lessons from a program with teacher involvement

ArtistWorks has an unbelievable video exchange program that is rather unique. Personally, I love it. Here is how it works: once you have learned a song or tune you record yourself and email to the instructor. He listens and watches you play and sends a new video back with him showing and playing the suggestions to improve. I actually prefer this over private lessons because I can watch the video as many times as I want. Check out the free sample music lessons.

Another cool feature of the video exchange program is that you can watch and listen to other students recordings and the instructor’s response. Since we are all more or less in the same boat, these videos can be really helpful.

The Cherry Picking Blues—Here is the worst part

Whatever you do, DO NOT rely on YouTube to learn how to play guitar. Nearly everyone who learns this way picks up some bad habits that can be difficult to break later on. Of course you can learn a lot from these free videos, and I confess, I’ve learned a few songs in their entirety from YouTube, but I already know how to play fairly well. The point is: why invest your learning time in a haphazard manner when, for a small amount of money you can follow a path that has a destination?

If you are just starting out or are a budding beginner, just avoid the random video approach and get serious about a commitment to propel your playing to the next level, whatever that might be.


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