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10 Essential Guitar Tips And Tricks for Progressing as a Musician

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Ten Non-Obvious Obstacles that up and coming Musicians frequently face, and some ideas for getting past them.
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Guitar Tips and Tricks #1: Stop Fretting Over Your Gear

It’s a fact that some of the best recordings in the world have been made with some of the worst equipment imaginable.  If you, like many other beginner musicians are constantly fretting over your gear, you need to read that statement again and let it sink in. 

Guitarists often fuss endlessly over the gauge of their strings, the quality of their cables or the tweaking of their pedals (to get the Nirvana unplugged sound just right, you understand) when in fact, all of these little nice-to-do’s will probably have very little effect on the people who are most influential in your development as a musician: The Audience!
Guitar Tips and Tricks #2: Find and stick to one teaching system.

In my Tips & Tricks E-course I talk about the curse of the Googling Guitarist, and I’m sure you’ve fallen victim to this like I have in the past…  The Internet has unfortunately opened up the entire world to anyone with a laptop, and I specifically say ‘unfortunately’ because, in spite of the myriad of benefits that come from 24/7 online access, it invariably leads to information overload.  Since anyone with a fender and a webcam can now upload their own version of ‘House of the Rising Sun’ it means you may just have access to too many versions of that one hit. 

So the Googling guitarist is the budding musician who learns a little bit from a whole lot of different people on the Internet and ends up trying to take a musical shower in 17 different bathrooms, at the same time.  Learning scales from this blog, chords from that website, strumming from YouTube and Improv from Vimeo.  My experience is that this spaghetti-on-the-wall approach leads to less than desirable results, and it speaks to the fact that it really is better to have a proven guitar system that works, and then stick to it.
Yeah, that’s pretty depressing.  Equally frustrating can be when you, after practicing for days on end and thinking that you’ve made real progress on the guitar, open up a YouTube clip of some wacko in Korea who can play all of Slash’s solo’s at 1.5x speed, with his toes.  That’s equally depressing and you’ll certainly be overcome with the feeling that everyone else has seemingly inherent musical genius, while you obviously suck and should consider swapping the guitar for a hose, to take up gardening instead.
Guitar Tips and Tricks #4: Play songs AND exercises

Among experienced guitar players and teachers alike, there seems to be an ongoing battle between the ‘learn songs’ and ‘learn scales’ camp.  I’m not sure why this is an area of contention since I think it’s safe to say:  Any serious guitarist needs both.  You do need to practice scales and get your finger strength and tempo up.  You do need to master Barre Chords and tricky 7thSus frets high on the neck. 

But you also need to use all of this theory in songs.  So learn exercises AND songs.  Let your practice sessions take both into account.  If you’re looking for songs to play, here’s a great selection of acoustic strumming songs, guitar tabs for beginner players, and solo’s and riffs to master.
Guitar Tips and Tricks #5: Songwriting is Absolutely Vital

I once read an interview with Aerosmith’s frontman Steve Tyler who said that the best feeling in the world is hearing a crowd of 10,000 sing a lyric that you wrote six weeks ago in your basement.  I don’t know if that quote awakens something in you like it does in me, but every time I read that I want to pick my guitar up and start fiddling around with melody and lyrics until I again find something that clicks, so that I can write it down.

For many beginning guitarists, songwriting might be the last thing on your mind, and as you’re mastering the basics of the instrument, that’s okay.  But as you get better at the technical aspects of guitaring you need to start focusing on coming up with your own melodies.  This is especially true for any musician who’s dreaming of eventually earning money with their talent.  It’s great to sing covers, but just remember that everyone else is doing that as well.  One great guitar riff or a catchy melody + lyrics combination can do more for your career than the best emulation of already famous songs.
Guitar Tips and Tricks #6: Noodle, frequently

Noodling is on the guitar what Doodling is on paper:  It’s when you’re not paying a particular amount of attention to your surroundings, but are simply scribbling away in a seemingly incoherent way.  Now while doodling is usually done without any goal in mind (i.e. great masterpieces do not usually start with a doodle), Noodling has more of a definitive goal: Coming up with great personal riffs.

This ties in closely with the songwriting advice above and it’s one of the great ways that musicians use (on all instruments) to come up with catchy melodies.  Sitting down with your guitar, without a particular plan in mind, and fiddling around on the fretboard.  Trying different chords, different picking lines, maybe an interesting strumming pattern or a novel note combination that sounds weird at first, but eventually - after some adjustment - actually seems quite catchy.
Guitar Tips and Tricks #7: Speed is not Everything

Guitarists, especially those in love with the rock/metal genres, often measure skill by how fast an individual can flow around the fretboard.  If you’re the lead guitarist in a Hard Metal band then yes, technical skill and extreme speeds will be vital to your success as a Musician, but even then it’s important to realise that speed is only one measure of a guitarist’s abilities and that things like improvisation, creativity and a well-trained inner ear are likely even more valuable.

So don’t focus exclusively on increasing your speed on the guitar.  Take it from many of the great Blues guitar players who frequently taught on the importance of feeling every note that you play:  Adding depth and dimension to your playing style instead of just parroting incredibly fast riffs.  Remember that many Blues guitarist have become world famous with slow 4-5 note solos!
Guitar Tips and Tricks #8: Play with others, especially those better than you

Growing up, I was at a stage in my teen years where my Electric Cort guitar really kept me going.  Waking up in the mornings to play, learn new songs and practice some old ones is what really kept my passion for life going.  However, I soon (after a couple of months of fast progression) reached a kind of a musical plateau. 

The thing that was bugging me was that I could play better guitar than 100% of the people I met during the week (I lived in a small town ;) and I suppose that - at least subconsciously - I had started to believe myself rather excellent at my new instrument.
Guitar Tips and Tricks #9: You do need some Theory

BB King once famously said that he didn’t have a clue what the pentatonic guitar scale looked like.  I think newer guitarist sometimes read blank statements like that and think that they were right all along… it really does come down to simply playing ‘whatever works’ and what sounds great, irrespective of what the theorists and guitar teachers might moan about.  Perhaps it’s more nature than nurture after all.

Well, that’s kind of like saying you want to learn a new language, like Spanish or German, but refuse to learn any grammar.  Even people who learn purely through immersion do pick up some grammar (often in the way native speakers correct them).  Also, with language learning - like in music, some things are so irregular that it’s incredibly hard to pick them up in a purely natural way, and you occasionally need to sit down with a pen, paper and a list of irregular verbs in order to stop sounding like a clueless foreigner.
Guitar Tips and Tricks #10: Branch out into different styles to become deliberately uncomfortable

It’s easy to fall into a guitar playing rut, picking up your instrument to practice or play, only to realise you’ve spent the last 35 minutes rehashing the same 5 licks and solos that you’ve been playing for six months.  If that’s you, it’s a sign that you’ve stopped being uncomfortable with the guitar and it might be time to branch out into a style that’s quite different from what you’ve been used to up till now.

If you usually play alternative style music, perhaps try learning some country guitar licks.  If you swear by rock or metal, maybe you need to give Jazz chords a go.  I still remember the first time I had a Blues guitarist pick up my instrument.  As he was fiddling away I was amazed at just how versatile my electric guitar could be if only I would not limit myself to the same style, the same licks, and the same genre of songs.
Stop fretting over your gear
Be careful about comparing yourself to that wacko on YouTube
Ten Easy Acoustic Guitar Songs
Writing Song Lyrics
Noodling on Guitar
Play with others, especially those better than you
Learn Guitar Theory
Jamplay Guitar Styles
Where to from here?
Learn Beginner Guitar Tabs
In this article, I frequently spoke about Jamplay and I highly recommend you check out what I've written on Jamplay
Learn Chord Sets
Jamplay is Amazing
The vast majority of your audience rarely cares about the intricate details of your gear setup, they care about you, your skills, your songs, your stage manner and (especially) the songs that you write.  So while audiophiles often keep each other busy with tweaking gear, changing pedals and drooling over new guitars, the audience cares primarily about the skills of the person BEHIND the instrument!
I’m not saying that gear is unimportant.  Of course it plays a vital role, but while many things will limit the success of a growing musical career, bad equipment is almost never one of them.
So stop fretting over your setup and focus instead on your music.  Stop fiddling with your cables, and start writing some licks.  See points #5 and #6 below for the importance of song-writing and growing as an artist.
The problem however, at least for more experienced guitarists, is that the vast majority of online learning tools (the good ones that you pay for) cater to beginner guitarist through to about novice-intermediate players.  The moment you reach the point where you can honestly start calling yourself ‘intermediate-experienced’ (or
whatever label you want to use) many of these programs become obsolete and will not be very helpful.  The exception to this is Jamplay.  It’s the learning system I personally use and that I recommend, not only to my site visitors, but also to friends and family offline.
Guitar Tips and Tricks #3: Be careful about comparing yourself to that wacko on YouTube

For a while I worked in London where the local underground transport has a great busking culture - with many amazing musicians playing in the tunnels leading up to the trains.  The circulating joke though, was that many of these guys would play for an hour, exit the subway to street-level, only to realise that the parking meter right above them have bested their earning during the last hour!
So here are two things to keep in mind during these times of unnecessary comparison:  The first is that there will ALWAYS be people who are better, and worse than you - no matter what level you attain in your musical journey.  The second is that you need to be deliberate about whom you compare yourself to.  If you’re a newer player, looking at all the self-recorded artists with their webcams picking away at 160bpm, will likely not be inspiring (though it might be, depending on your personality).  The best kind of motivation, I’ve found, comes from actually playing - in the real world - with musicians who are better than you.  More on that at point #8 below.
As a side note to this, let me add that the beauty of learning songs is that it’s a great motivator.  Yes, knowing that you know how to decently cover a few of the hits does your self-esteem a whole lot of good, but even more so when you’re able to play these hits to friends and family.  What I mean is that, sometimes, you need to allow yourself to impress those around you with your skills. 

I understand the importance of being a humble musician, and nothing is worse than an arrogant guitarist.  But I also know that for many, when they’re at the learning stage, crowd appreciation does wonders to your motivation, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.  Music is, after all, all about entertainment.
This article has 10 popular acoustic strumming songs.  If you're looking for tabs, riffs and solos then check out the beginner guitar tabs section.
For those who have little or no experience with songwriting, I have a fairly detailed and comprehensive guide to songwriting that you can have a look at.  I’ll also again recommend Jamplay that has an entire section of their lesson guide focused on composition with professional songwriting lecturers from Berkley College of Music (whose song writing courses are insanely expensive, but you can now get on Jamplay for a few bucks a month).
What I’ve just described is the way that many, many of the most famous songs of our time were born.  And there’s no reason why only famous people should have access to this tool.  So Noodle!  Frequently! 

It’s good to have a plan with your practice sessions and learn songs and covers, but you should also put time aside to ‘fool around’ on the guitar and make note of any nice melodies you happen to stumble across.  I explain this process in more detail at the 3rd step of my songwriting process.
This was, of course, until I went off to college and met a young guitarist who played Simon & Garfunkel and Eric Clapton instrumentals like it was second nature.  Seeing my enthusiasm, he wanted to jam together but we soon realised that I had some catching up to do.  I still remember feeling the invigoration when I again picked up my guitar after seeing him perform.  I was enflamed to get just as good and spent the next few days practicing until my already much callused fingers, starting hurting too bad.
The point of this little story is obvious:  Don’t become a guitar castaway, living on your own musical island with your YouTube guru’s.  Meet, greet and play with REAL guitarists in the real world.  Find and seek out those who are good, really good and learn to emulate them, including their style and technique.  This is key for progression as a serious Musician.
So it’s not really accurate to say that great players like BB King knew NO theory.  He probably knew more than me and you, but he likely picked it up in a non-formal learning environment.  Also, I think it’s fairly safe to say that you and I might not possess the natural talent that Mr. King had (at least in the Blues genre), and a good dose of guitar theory will certainly benefit us, as we progress up the mountain to musical excellence.

At the very least newer guitarists need to understand chord progressions (which helps a lot with songwriting), the basic scales (which are great to get you improvising your own riffs/solos), Arpeggios and the CAGED system of barre and power chords.

So don’t fall into the “I don’t need no theory” pit.  Guitar and musical theory can only benefit you as you grow as a Musician.
Again, for songwriting and noodling, being ‘intercultural’ on the guitar will do wonders and whenever you find yourself in a place where you know your stuff too well, you need to put yourself in an uncomfortable place again by embracing a musical style, genre or technique that you’re not familiar with, or that you don’t even particularly like.  Then incorporate some of its elements into your repertoire and own style to see what happens.
If you found these guitar tips and tricks helpful, then please share it with your fellow musician enthusiasts!
Why the Rave about Jamplay? Click play and find out.
The tips on this page are especially relevant for those who've been journeying with the guitar for a while - if you're an absolute beginner, also check out these Beginner Guitar Tips.