Can You Teach Yourself to Play Guitar?

In a lot of ways, it’s easier to learn guitar now than it ever has been. The Internet has leveled the playing field for anyone without access to a good teacher or the financial means to pay for regular lessons.

The guitar is really a marvel of engineering. It’s configured so anyone with a little patience and dedication can learn the basics and start playing within a couple months. But I’m reminded of an old joke about lawyers—often attributed to Abraham Lincoln—that goes something like this:

“A lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client.”

Perhaps we could rephrase the joke to something like, “A guitarist who teaches himself has a fool for a student.”

“A guitarist who teaches himself has a fool for a student.”

That being said, plenty of great guitar players have been self-taught on the instrument.

You absolutely can teach yourself to play the guitar. Just be aware that without the guidance of a qualified teacher, you are setting yourself up to have gaps and—in some cases—complete blind spots in your knowledge of the instrument.

Teaching yourself any skill begins with a foundation of high quality information, focusing your time and attention where it counts, and not giving up when things seem too hard.

  1. Find Good Information
    1. Consider the Source
    2. Has It Withstood the Test of Time?
    3. Does It Work?
  2. Practice the Right Things
    1. 1. Chord Studies
    2. 2. Scale Studies
    3. 3. Rhythm and Coordination
    4. 4. Music Theory
    5. 5. Repertoire (Learning Songs)
  3. Don’t Get Discouraged

Find Good Information

This is what I remember looking at when I wanted to learn a Jimi Hendrix song as a beginner.
(Source: Internet Archive WayBack Machine, captured February 3, 1999.)

Music is too big of a topic to learn by trial and error. Even if you have an excellent ear for music, you will likely need books, videos, and other materials to answer your questions along the way.

There is more guitar information available today than ever before. You can find reams of information for free on Google and YouTube, as well as social platforms like Instagram and TikTok.

I started playing guitar before YouTube existed. My formative years were filled with ASCII (text-based) guitar tablature from Harmony Central. Most of it was riddled with errors and hindered my progress.

Instructional books and videos sold online and in local music shops weren’t much better. Here is an excerpt from an Amazon review dated July 7, 1999 for the “Guitar Method: Eric Clapton” VHS tape I remember owning:

“This guy obviously made the video in his basement.” — A Customer

Things are different now. Well, sort of.

On the one hand, we have access to more information about guitar and music theory than we can ever use. Unfortunately, a lot of that information is just as wrong or unhelpful as it was back in 1999. Back then, not everyone could make a guitar video in their basement.

Now there is a whole culture of people with makeshift TV studios in their homes. Anyone with a guitar and an iPhone can make instructional videos.

How can you sort through the bad information?

Consider the Source

All professional musicians just want to make a living. So there is a good chance they are trying to sell you something: a book, a course, an affiliate link.

With this fact in mind, be wary of anyone telling you how “easy” or “fast” you can learn to play guitar. Red flags include promises like “You’ll be shredding in weeks!” or “Solo like a pro without learning any scales.”

Has It Withstood the Test of Time?

While guitar playing has evolved exponentially since the 1950s, there are some aspects of the instrument that aren’t really up for debate.

My guitar journey began with an old Mel Bay chord book that belonged to my dad. Believe it or not, a version of that book is still in print (“Mel Bay’s Guitar Chords”). The original copyright is from 1959!

There are only so many ways to learn chords and scales. A book that has stayed in print for decades—such as the aforementioned chord book—likely has something to offer.

“There are only so many ways to learn chords and scales.”

A classic series like William Leavitt’s “A Modern Method for Guitar” has been in print since 1966. These books are mostly aimed at teaching students to read sheet music in combination with a teacher to assist with the lessons.

Another classic, Mickey Baker’s “Complete Course in Jazz Guitar,” has been around since 1955.

It’s fair to say these books deliver the goods. A book published by some random YouTuber doesn’t cary that level of credibility.

Does It Work?

No matter who the teacher is, or how credible the information, any video, book, or article that improves your playing is a good one. Period.

If you learn something that makes you want to practice for six hours, it can’t be all bad. I can’t even count all the times I’ve picked up some new information that sent me running to the metaphorical woodshed.

Beware of collecting too many guitar “tricks” and “hacks” from the depths of TikTok. Some of these lessons can leave you feeling like you’ve learned something. In truth, you’ve simply picked up another bad habit that could take years to fix.

Practice the Right Things

There are certain areas of music that lay the foundation for your musical development. Everything else is window dressing.

If you’re not sure if your study materials are worthwhile, see if they fit into any of these categories:

1. Chord Studies

This includes learning new chord shapes and positions, as well and applying harmonic concepts from your study of music theory.

Caution: Unless you have a good reason, don’t spend too much time learning chords with tons of symbols and numbers in their names. It’s unlikely you will need these chords until you have advanced enough to understand what the symbols mean.

2. Scale Studies

For most musicians, this means improving you ability to visualize and play diatonic scales (major, minor, etc.) all over the neck in all 12 keys. Along with your chord studies, you are learning how to play arpeggios (chords played one note at a time) in every key and position.

Caution: As with chords, it’s easy to go overboard and start learning lots of exotic scales. They have names like Phrygian Dominant, Hungarian Minor, and the Double Harmonic Major. These can be useful for advanced players. Beginner and intermediate players are better off developing a deep understanding of diatonic harmony first.

3. Rhythm and Coordination

One of the most important components of playing the guitar is getting both hands to work together. It doesn’t matter how fast your fretting hand moves if your pick keeps missing the strings. Likewise, fast picking is meaningless if the wrong strings are sounding or the frets are buzzing from poor fretting.

This is where a metronome or drum track can help. Practice new ideas slowly at first. This ensures the right notes ring out, the wrong notes are dampened, and your pick is hitting the strings at the right time.

4. Music Theory

No, music theory is not required to play guitar. But it’s the language of music. It’s not only how musicians understand the inner workings of music, it’s how musicians communicate ideas to one another.

It’s entirely possible to visit a foreign country without learning the native language. If you’re not staying for very long, it’s hardly worth the trouble.

Committing to a lifelong pursuit like a musical instrument is like buying a house in that same foreign country. Refusing to learn the language is a matter of stubbornness at that point.

Learning music theory will ultimately help every aspect of your playing.

5. Repertoire (Learning Songs)

This is an area where I struggled, and continue to struggle, because of the way I learned to play as a beginner.

Tablature was the big thing on the Internet back then. It’s still fairly popular. Learning songs from tablature prevented you from developing your ears. In many cases inaccurate tabs resulted in me learning part of a song and getting discouraged when the tabs didn’t sound right.

Part of your practice routine should involve learning to play songs. Learn them by ear if possible. Only rely on tablature and chord charts if you absolutely can’t learn a particular song by ear.

Don’t Get Discouraged

Too many budding guitarists quit, not because it’s too difficult to learn, but rather they have set unrealistic expectations.

Speaking from experience, I can tell you how easy it is to blame yourself when the music you’re playing doesn’t sound like it’s supposed to sound. Sometimes the real problem is the lesson. Maybe the teacher isn’t very good. Maybe the teacher is too advanced for you.

Whatever the case may be, it’s important to evaluate whether you can do better or if you need to find something else to work on. It’s a good habit to attempt musical ideas that are way beyond your skill level. It gives you a goal for the future.

You might also surprise yourself.

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