Learning the Guitar: A General Timeline

So it goes without saying that not everyone can pick up the guitar and master it in a couple of weeks. Not all of us have that kind of luck.

Some of us learn quickly, others rather slowly. The varying speeds at which people learn and process new material are almost as numerous as the population of guitar players. In other words, we all learn at different paces. That said, regardless of where you fall in your pace of learning the guitar, the common denominator between slow learners and fast learners is dedicated practice. And while everyone learns at different paces, there are generally only a few classes of different students when it comes to dedication and practicing.

1) The Ideal-The ones who are naturally and incredibly gifted, with equal dedication and drive. They’re few and very far between.

2) The Virtuoso- The very talented ones, who lack motivation and discipline but excel at playing at the level without necessarily working to refine it.

3) The Talented- An average to considerable measure of natural talent, but ability compounds only by regular, dedicated practice and committed effort.

4) The Committed- Players who may lack considerable natural talent, but have incredible drive and love for music that could eventually escalate them to great ability.

Most of us fall within the 3rd and 4th category. This shouldn’t necessarily be a point of discouragement, though.

Major musical contributions, at least in this day and age, are being made without getting signed onto a label, winning awards, and being aired on the radio. In fact, many musicians (if that’s indeed the goal) are finding that the freedom from those avenues is more gratifying than the temporary fame that may have otherwise been achieved.

Saying all that to say, regardless of where you fall in any of these categories, practice is unquestionably the most reliable means of improving your playing. Period. Again-regardless of your natural talent, practice is the best thing you can do to improve your playing. It’s such a common sense point, it’s almost embarrassing to repeat, but it’s worth repeating.

One of the more common questions is “how long does it take to play the guitar?”. This is a nebulous question, because as soon as you strum the guitar, you’re playing it! But assuming that means “how long until I play the guitar reasonably well?” or “how long does it take to play well enough to play in a performance setting?”, these are questions that have potential for more solid answers.

A simple, generalized timeline may look something like this, assuming that you’re (you guessed it!) practicing!

1-3 Months: Very young students can expect to be plucking out simple melodies and can expect to learn a few simple chords to strum along to. Adults and young adults can expect to be taught enough simple chord shapes to be strumming along to music they’re familiar with.

3-6 Months: Kids should definitely be introduced to chords by this stage, and should be learning a few simple and common strum patterns, as well as learning the principles of rhythm in conjunction. Older students should be learning these same principles as well, and can expect to graduate to more technical strumming patterns within a short time. Some instructors may even begin discussing scales and the principles tied to them as well as barre chords and their role in music.

6 Months-1 Year: There’s absolutely no reason that even an absolute beginner should not be graduated to at least a lower intermediate degree with 12 months of playing. It’s at this point that many students can (and in my opinion, depending on the student, should) consider working toward playing out in a public setting, if only for the experience.


This timeline is by no means absolute, and is only based on my conversations with other musicians/teachers, and is in no way scientific. But that said, as I have met only a small, tiny handful of musical geniuses in my lifetime, it’s safe to bet that most of these students also fall in the 3rd and 4th categories mentioned.



The 6 Absolute Essentials for the Beginning Guitarist

As hobbies and activities go, playing guitar is comparatively a low cost/high action pursuit, demanding far less money to get started and progress than other pursuits. As discussed in other posts, music equipment manufacturers have made it seem like there is item after item that will solve all musical woes and no person can advance in their playing without their widget.

This isn’t true. In fact, while there are a handful of things that can be purchased that will simplify or enhance playing the guitar, not all of these popular widgets are necessarily “essentials”. Here, we’ll cover the bare minimum that a mom or dad or new student should consider buying to consider the case closed regarding those essential guitar items and accessories.

1) Guitar tuner-obvious as it may seem, it’s definitely worth mentioning. They’re low-cost, and come in many different shapes and sizes. My personal favorite is called a “Snark” and responds fast and very accurately.

2) Guitar stand-also mentioned in prior posts, a guitar stand will prevent mishaps and falls with your instrument, and also keep it within eye shot, which means it will be played more frequently. They can be found for as low as $8-10 and last forever.

3) Gig Bag or Case– Otherwise, just something to transport the guitar in. This is all the more necessary for any student enrolled in guitar lessons requiring travel. Gig bags are undoubtedly the less expensive option, although a case is a must for any mid priced ($300-$900) or high priced ($900+) guitar. Gig bags can be found for anywhere between $20-50 while a decent hardshell case will run from $60-120.

4) Extra picks– assuming you use a pick, having extra picks prevents the silly excuse of “I’m out of picks so I can’t practice,” specially with younger players. Again, they last forever, and are usually lost long before they’re worn completely down.

5) Chord book/learning material– while it’s ideal to have an instructor providing you guitar lessons as well as your material, it’s possible to be entirely self taught with guitar. If this is your aim, then you can pretty much throw a stick and hit some kind of . In fact, there is an enormous amount of guitar-related how-to stuff out there that it can be overwhelming. Don’t hesitate to invest in more than one resource.

6) Capo– for those of you who are so new that this word doesn’t ring a bell, it’s the “clamp thing” you see attached to the neck of the guitar. This is a simple, and incredibly helpful device that allows a player to quickly change the key that he or she is playing in without necessarily transposing. In other words, you can play in any key knowing only a few chords. While this can be used on an electric, I’d really consider it an absolute essential for the acoustic guitar.

Guitar 101: Lesson 1 Guitar Strings and Their Order

Guitar 101-Guitar Strings and Their Order

The Basics!

 Every song you hear is kind of like a jigsaw puzzle. With music, however, the puzzle pieces are made of sound. Each of these puzzle pieces are known as notes.

 On the guitar, every time you pluck or pick at a string, you are playing a single note. When you hear a song, you’re simply listening to musical puzzle, where there are many notes put together to make musical picture!

Thickest  <———>  Thinnest

(reverse for left handed players!)

 Drawn above is a picture of the upper part of your guitar’s neck. You’ll see a lot of these when learning chords, which are simply bigger pieces of the musical puzzle. Chords are made up of two or more notes, usually played at the same time.

 We know that we’re hitting the proper notes, because each note has its own name. They’re not very interesting names, since they’re named after letters of the alphabet. Anytime you come across musical notes, you’ll only see letters A, B, C, D, E, F, and G.

 On the guitar, strings are tuned to E, A, D, G, B, and back to E. An easy way to remember the order is to remember “Every Afternoon Dad Goes Bowling Early”

Tuning Your Guitar: Guitar String Order, Tuning It (for Free!), Why You Should Tune Regularly, and Common Guitar Tuning Problems

Learning to tune your guitar should be one of the first lessons of any guitar training or teaching program, including learning the guitar string’s order, tuning, and how to keep the strings in tune. It’s important to learn early on for several reasons:

-An in-tune guitar sound far better than an out of tune guitar!

-The sooner you figure out how to tune your guitar on your own, the faster it becomes a habit to do so.

-Especially when playing with other musicians or your instructor, being out of tune draws attention to yourself (and not the attention you want!)

-If you’re out of tune, even hitting the right notes will make you sound like you’re playing incorrectly.

Would you go for a walk without tying your shoes? You could, but it’d be silly and for some, even risky.

If you’re beginning guitar, consider the practice of tuning a necessity. Just like tying your shoes, it’ll take a bit of getting used to, but soon it’ll become second nature. The sooner you make it a habit, the better, as it just happens to be an important practice. There are few things more unpleasant, and certainly discouraging, than thinking you’re playing the right notes without them sounding right.


How to Tune Your Guitar

1) Learn your guitar string’s order, illustrated to the right.

For the sake of clarification, this image is as if you’re looking straight at the guitar. If you were holding the guitar as if you were playing it, the thickest string on the guitar will be closest to you, and the strings will become thinner as they approach your lap.

The numbers will come in handy later, but for tuning purposes aren’t altogether necessary.

The best way to remember them that I’ve come across (or a “mnemonic”, which is a memory aid) is remember (thickest to thinnest string)

(E)ddie (A)te (D)ynamite, (G)ood (B)ye (E)ddie

Pretty clever, huh? It’s not original, I’m afraid.

2) Learn the appropriate “pitch” of the strings.

Pitch simply refers to identifying if the string is a “low” note or “high” note.

For example, your “low” E string (the closest string to you as you hold the guitar) needs to sound more like, say, Morgan Freeman while your “high” string should sound more like Justin Bieber. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

Every string in between your low E and your high E will increase in pitch, or put another way, should get higher in pitch.


3) Bringing each string “up to pitch”. 

If you’ve messed around with your tuning machines (aka: tuners, tuning keys, tuner thingies, etc) you’ve probably noticed that turning them one way or the other changes the pitch, and subsequently makes the string tighten or loosen up. Obvious as it may be to some, I’ll say it anyway. The tighter the string is, the higher the pitch. The looser the string, the lower the pitch.

As a matter of trivial knowledge, each string, once up to the appropriate pitch could be measured according to pounds of pressure which is generally between 14-17 pounds per string on most guitars. Why is this important? Because when you get into guitar maintenance, this will explain a lot about why guitar necks undergo some pretty funky changes- assuming the average amount of tension per string is about 16 lbs, 16 x 6=96 lbs total pressure. This weight is CONSTANTLY being applied to the guitar neck. But more on that later.

Once up to pitch, using the online guitar tuner here, watching a YouTube video, using a piano to tune, or whatever, you are now good to go.


Common Tuning Problems

Having changed well over 3,000 individual guitar strings in the last 5 or so years, I’ve noticed some common things when coming across tuning issues.


How is this best remedied? Well, proper stringing technique will be covered in other writings. If you keep falling out of tune, tug gently 2-3 times on each string, bring it up to pitch (back into tune), and repeat one or two more times. If this doesn’t correct the problem, your strings may be poor quality or simply defective. Drop by your local guitar store and get some assistance if you think you fall in this population.

Other possible explanations may include:

 -Slipping tuning keys (tuners, tuning machines, etc). This is what many people end up suspecting, and unnecessarily spending money to replace when the fact is that the above action could much more cheaply solve their problem. These days, even generic tuning machines are pretty reliable. There are obviously exceptions, but in most cases, even cheap guitars have decent enough tuners to keep the guitar in tune.

-Defective, soft guitar neck. This will invariably cause the strings to go flat (or loosen, bring them below pitch). In one or two cases, I’ve seen guitar with hairline fractures (broken necks) that bring the guitar out of tune.

-Cheap strings. As you might expect, this is also very common. There’s no need to spend $12 on strings every single time, but anything by D’Addario or Ernie Ball will prevent this from being your problem without shelling out more than $6-9 for a set. Many guitar shops will even put them on for a small additional fee of $10-20. Guitars with special bridge systems (namely Floyd Rose bridges) will often cost between $20-30, as the process is considerably more involved. On the other hand, if you’re being asked to pay any more than this by an establishment, you might consider going somewhere else. (They’re asking too much)




What Beginning Guitar and Weight Lifting Have In Common (But really, a post for beginning guitarists)

Chances are good you’ve stumbled onto this page because you have some ambition leading toward the guitar that you’re wanting to explore further. Whether you’ve been playing for 20 years, or you just saw John Mayer’s “Where the Light Is” live DVD and it changed your life and made you say “Oh man I want to do that”…ultimately, it doesn’t matter. The point is that you’re interested in going deeper into something that has proved to be rewarding on so many levels for an innumerable population of guitar players.

For veteran guitarists, you may have hit a plateau years back in your skill development, and that’s okay. Hopefully, if you’re anything like many of us, you woke up and for some reason experienced that renewed passion for the instrument and are desperate and eager to get back into the saddle. The guitar, the music community, gigging, recording, and the life of the musician have that effect.

Wherever you’re at in your playing, the one question that is vital to achieving any further progress is this:


What do you want to achieve in your guitar playing?

Every student I take on must answer this question. Fortunately, there are no right or wrong answers, as long as there is an answer. “To become a better guitarist” is, I suppose an answer, but it’s so nebulous, so abstract that it could mean two weeks of practice and bam! You’re better, but simply “better” is not an definite destination point. It’s part of the journey, for sure, but not the destination.

It can be a loaded question, though, too. And that’s also okay. For beginners sometimes there’s the feeling of: “I don’t even know enough about the guitar to come up with a goal in my guitar playing!”

Which is an answer that is full of appreciated honesty. In these situations, I often ask students to keep the achievement question in the back of their mind as they go throughout their week. Eventually, he or she may happen across something musical (guitar related or not) that strikes a chord (pun not intended, but it definitely was low hanging fruit humor-wise). With most players there are a few key defining moments that motivated us to start playing at the beginning. For whatever reason, they acted as continued motivation to suffer through the frustration, physical discomfort, and confusion that often comes with starting something new.


What’s the point of identifying an anchor point of motivation?

It’s pretty simple. Learning to play the guitar isn’t that different from learning anything else in some respects. What separates learning to play guitar from any number of other activities is the deep personal significance for every monumental achievement. In addition, your achievements can be shared via performance, if you choose to pursue performance opportunities (more on this later, but suffice to say, gigging isn’t for everyone. Many people like to keep it quiet and personal, “playing out” may simply mean taking the guitar to the front porch). This possibility adds a whole new dimension to musical fulfillment that little is written about, even though we see it everywhere we go.

Within the world of weight lifting, for example, goal setting is vital for anyone truly wanting to make progress in their efforts. This approach is something that I believe the musical world would benefit greatly from, but unfortunately is often touted as new age, pop-psyche mumbo jumbo. An anchor point of motivation keeps the student engaged when the feelings of fun and excitement of playing for the sake of playing have started running low.

An example of an anchor point may be:

-The mental image of seeing yourself playing guitar on stage or in a studio

-An image (mental or physical) of one of those gritty-but-oh-so-cool photos of a basement full of gear, beer bottles, cables, and your band working on a project

-A chill-inducing song. We all have at least one of these.

-The idea of writing an album’s worth of songs.

-Dreaming of being able to play every song by Eddie van Halen, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Stevie Ray, etc. (or anyone else for that matter!)

-Seeing an old, beaten up guitar that’s clearly been loved, cherished, and played every day for years. If you see one of these and think “that guitar is beautiful…I want one” then you’re well on your way.

-You feel that you sometimes lack the words to express feelings that you suspect music will allow you to express.


And Soooo… How Does This Help My Guitar Playing?

It’s not uncommon for people to feel embarrassed or sheepish if you try to get them to talk about what got them started playing guitar. I don’t like blanket statements, but I think every serious player has at least one of these. Personally, I don’t remember my original reasons for playing, but as time’s gone by I adopted new points of motivation.

These are important to identify because playing the guitar, albeit fun, rewarding, fulfilling on a multitude of levels, occasionally glamorous, impossibly cool, and generally beneficial… there will come a day where it feels like work. Figuring out that motivating concept, image, or idea keeps you on track and keeps you moving forward.

This kind of self awareness is what takes those of us who are not born with enormous amounts of natural talent into the arenas of people who were born with “it”. And even if you never arrive at that point or don’t even particularly care to, it ensures that you minimize moments of stagnation and complacency!

-Dane Whitley