Learn Guitar Without a Music Teacher
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Learn Guitar Without a Music Teacher

Author: Caleb J. Murphy

Date: October 7, 2019

Reads: 774

Caleb J. Murphy is a Songwriter/Producer based in Austin, TX. He isthe founder of Musician With A Day Job, a blog to help part-time musicians succeed. He is also a contributor to CD Baby's DIY Musician blog, Sonicbids, and Bandzoogle. His work has been shared by ASCAP, Hypebot, and Music Think Tank.

I’m going to say it. You don’t need a Guitar Teacher to learn guitar.

As someone who taught himself guitar and went on to give guitar lessons, I’m telling you it’s true.

Now, some people may want the accountability of a Teacher. And I’m not disregarding that.

I’m just saying that if you really want to learn guitar, you can teach yourself. There are YouTube videos and blog posts like this one that will point you in the right direction.

To help you learn guitar, follow these steps:

  1. Buy a beginner guitar
  2. Get the necessary accessories
  3. Know the strings
  4. Learn how to hold a guitar pick
  5. Understand proper strumming technique
  6. Use a metronome
  7. Work on your weaknesses
  8. Practice when your chronotype says so

Buy a Beginner Guitar

If you plan to be a long-term guitarist, it’s time to buy your own guitar. Being serious about learning guitar involves investing in the instrument.

The best place to look is somewhere that allows you to play before you pay. Each guitar sounds and feels different in each player’s hands. So online shopping is out.

It should also be a reputable instrument shop, not a pawn shop, flea market, or garage sale. (I once found an electric guitar in the trash and it ended up being a garbage-sounding guitar). You should go to a local or chain music shop where there are quality guitars and experts to help you choose.

Speaking of experts, it would be a good idea to bring a guitar-knowledgeable friend. When my uncle took me guitar shopping, we went to probably three stores in a day. He, an acoustic guitar expert, tuned and played at least two dozen guitars.

This can take time, but when you find the right guitar, it’s worth it. A good acoustic guitar should last you for several years to a lifetime.

When you and your friend are testing guitars, here are some quality checks to run through:

Slowly run your hand along the guitar neck

You’re feeling for sharp edges, splinters, or anything that’s not smooth.

Check the back of the neck where it connects to the body

(This is also called “the heel”). You shouldn’t see any cracks on the heel or between the heel and the body.

Look at the bridge

Grab a guitar pick and try to run it between the bridge and body — there shouldn’t be any gaps.

Press down on the strings to test the height

“The height” refers to the space between the strings and the fretboard.

Pushing down on the first, second, and third fret, you shouldn’t find it difficult if it’s a quality guitar. A good rule is that the string height should be no more than three times the thickness of the string.

Get the Necessary Accessories

When you buy a guitar, you’ll also want to get a couple of accessories. Here’s what you need:

  • Guitar tuner, although you can also use a tuning app. I use GuitarTuna and it’s very accurate.
  • Next, a capo. This ensures you can play any song regardless of the key.
  • Guitar strap, even if you usually play sitting down. Dropping your guitar could permanently damage it.
  • Guitar picks — get a pack because you’ll find they go missing.

Know the Strings

Next, you’ve got to become familiar with the strings. This will help you understand guitar tabs, guitar chord charts, and any guitar lessons you might watch on YouTube.

The strings are numbered 1-6 from the thinnest/highest string to the thickest/lowest string. You’d think that the thickest string would be called 1 because that’s usually the first string you’d hit. But that’s not how it is. From the thickest string to the thinnest string, they’re numbered 6-1.

If you’re more of a letters person, you can just use the notes of each string. You can look at the strings this way (starting with the thickest string): E – A – D – G – B – e. Yes, the first and last strings are the same note, just in different octaves.

It’s helpful to use a mnemonic method to remember the names of the strings. When I was learning guitar, my friend told me this one: “Every American Digs Good Breakfast eggs.” Another often used one is “Elephants And Donkeys Grow Big ears.”

You can make up your own mnemonic device though. Whatever helps you remember the notes of the strings.

Learn How to Hold a Guitar Pick

The first thing to do in the guitar-learning process is to get comfortable holding a pick. Doing it wrong will make the whole experience difficult. It may be a good idea to start with a thinner pick as that makes it easier to play. Shoot for a pick thickness of 0.65 to 0.73 — the instrument store should allow you to test guitar picks.

When you hold a pick, put it between your thumb and forefinger with the small, pointy end toward the strings. The pick should be sticking out from your fingers enough that your thumb is not hitting the strings, so don’t be afraid to hold the pick closer to its wide edge.

Eventually, it may be good to learn to play with your fingers. But for starters, stick with a pick.

Understand Proper Strumming Technique

In my opinion, strumming is the most important part of learning guitar. It separates the okay guitarists with the great guitarists. Most of your time should be spent perfecting your strumming technique.

You can play all the chords perfectly, but if your rhythm is off, it ruins the whole song.

The most important aspect of strumming is finesse. Most new guitarists strum way too hard. You don’t need to play guitar like you’re getting your anger out. Playing in time is way more important than playing loudly.

When you strum, your right hand (your strumming hand if you’re right-handed) shouldn’t be stopping and starting like you’re a robot. It should flow. Keep your joints loosey-goosey. In fact, your right hand should continuously move, even when you’re not hitting the strings.

It sounds weird and difficult, but you can master it through lots of practice.

How Often Should You Practice?

Simply put, you should practice every day. Because the more you practice, the quicker you’ll get better. So it depends on how badly you want it.

Legendary Comedian Jerry Seinfeld is one of the hardest working entertainers out there. One piece of evidence that shows this is his “don’t break the chain” calendar1.

He has a big wall calendar showing a year’s worth of days on one page. And every day he does his comedy writing, he puts a big red X on that day.

“After a few days you’ll have a chain,” Seinfeld says. “Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain. Don’t break the chain.”

Try this exact method for your practice sessions. Every day that you practice, put an X over that day and try to keep the chain going.

This is your guitar calendar. It will show you how committed and passionate you really are about learning guitar.

Slow It Down

Now let’s run through some tips for learning the guitar. Specifically, tips that will make the learning process a bit easier.

When you’re first starting out, you may not be able to play songs at the actual speed on the recording. Most beginner guitarists want to play their favorite song, like, tomorrow. But that’s not going to happen.

So be prepared to slow it down — literally. Slow down whatever song you’re trying to learn. You can do this a couple of different ways.

The first way is to learn the chords of the song but play the strumming pattern at a speed you’re comfortable with. You won’t be able to play along with the actual recording using this method, so this is for after you’ve learned the chord progression.

The other way is to grab the recording, drop it into your digital audio workstation (DAW), and slow down the tempo a bit. You can then make it a more comfortable speed for you to analyze the strumming pattern.

Use a Metronome

Once you’ve gotten to the point of playing a song the whole way through (at the actual tempo or your preferred tempo), you can start to work on your rhythm. A great way to do this is to use a metronome.

You can use the click track in your DAW, a metronome app on your phone, or you could be vintage and buy an actual metronome. If you’re like me and you sometimes have trouble hearing a click track, you can use your DAW or an app to make a simple beat at the tempo you want and play along to that.

This exercise is not so much to help you play the song faster, but rather to help you stay on time throughout the whole song. Good rhythm is what separates advanced guitarists from average guitarists.

Work On Your Weaknesses

In today’s culture, the message is usually, “Love yourself and remind yourself of how amazing you are.” And there is a place for that, even as you learn guitar. It’s a great way to encourage yourself on how far you’ve come.

But you also have to look at your weaknesses. You won’t improve if you don’t see what you need to improve upon. If you don’t see anything that’s broken, you won’t pick up a hammer and do the hard work.

So when you sit down to practice guitar, think about your hangups. What is frustrating you right now? What makes you want to give up playing? What chord or strumming pattern is causing you to plateau?

Focus on that when you practice.

Record Yourself

There’s nothing like a pair of objective ears to help you know what your weaknesses are as a guitarist. If no one is available to sit and listen to you play, you can be your own judge by recording yourself.

Just pull out your phone and record yourself playing guitar. The audio quality doesn’t need to be great, just good enough that you can hear the guitar clearly. After you record yourself, don’t listen to it. Leave it on your phone and come back to it, say, the next day. However long it takes you to have fresh ears.

Then as you listen back to the recording, listen for rhythm issues, buzzing strings (which means you’re not pushing down hard enough or your finger is too close to the fret bar), or anything else that sounds off.

This is a really helpful way to objectively know what you need to work on as a guitarist.

Practice When Your Chronotype Says So

What the heck is a chronotype? Basically, it’s a person’s inclination to sleep at certain times within a 24-hour window. In other words, are you an early bird or a night owl?

It turns out each person’s chronotype has a lot to do with how well they learn at different times of the day, according to a study from the University of Toronto2.

So if you’re part of the 5 a.m Club, you’ll probably learn better early in the morning — and that’s when you should practice guitar. If your most productive time is when everyone else is going to bed, you should practice then.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t practice unless it’s your “chronotype time.” But, if your schedule allows, fit your practice sessions into those more productive timeframes.

Listen to your chronotype. Your guitar playing could improve faster if you do.

Chew Gum

Yeah, this is a real technique that could possibly help you learn guitar. According to a study by Baylor College of Medicine3[3], “Students who chewed gum had final grades that were significantly better than those who didn’t chew gum.”

I know learning guitar isn’t the same as learning math, which was the context of this study, but the focus of the study was that chewing gum is correlated with increased learning capabilities. Why? Because it apparently increases blood flow to the brain, reduces stress and anxiety, and heightens alertness.

So give it a shot — if you like chewing gum, trying chewing while practicing guitar. It may help you improve just a little bit faster.

At the very least, you’ll have fresh-smelling breath.

How to Not Lose Heart

Every beginner guitarist faces “the hump.”

The hump is when you feel like you start to plateau. You’ve learned some chords. You’re getting your strumming pattern down. But then you hit a wall. There’s a chord change you can’t quite get, or there’s a strumming pattern that isn’t computing with your brain.

You will face this hump. And when you do, remember that every guitarist has probably experienced this. I’m guessing Jimi Hendrix, George Harrison, and Eric Clapton all had to get over the hump.

This is where you’ll see if you truly want to learn guitar. If you have the drive to keep going, keep practicing, keep trying, then you’ll know you’re meant to be a guitarist.

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  1. 1Gina Trapani. "Jerry Seinfeld's Productivity Secret". Lifehacker. published: 24 July 2007. retrieved on: 2 October 2019
  2. 2David Goldstein. "Time of day, Intellectual Performance, and Behavioral Problems in Morning Versus Evening type Adolescents: Is there a Synchrony Effect?". National Center for Biotechnology Information. published: February 2007. retrieved on: 2 October 2019
  3. 3. "New Study Shows Chewing Gum Can Lead To Better Academic Performance In Teenagers". Science Blog. published: 22 April 2009. retrieved on: 20 March 2020
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