The Best Way to Learn Guitar in 2021: In-Depth Guide

best way to learn guitar

There are many ways to learn the guitar, but they all boil down to you and the instrument. 

At the end of the day, you’re the one who’ll have to practice, and eventually, you’ll need to be able to teach yourself, so why not get started right away?

In today’s world, the possibilities to learn anything new are endless. Luckily for guitarists, the lesson content available at our fingertips is akin to a vast ocean of awesomeness. 

Enter Guitar Tricks, JamPlay, and TrueFire. These online guitar lesson platforms are giants in the guitar lesson game, leaving us traditional teachers to gaze in wonder as they efficiently educate the masses on our favorite instrument. 

If you’re looking for a good place to start learning guitar, any of the above platforms can offer everything you need, but there are some things you should know when it comes to learning the guitar, and I’ve outlined them below. 

Best Way to Learn Guitar in 12 Simple Steps

1. Set Some Goals

The first step in any endeavor is setting some goals. Before you ever touch a guitar or start looking for lessons, decide what you want to get from playing the guitar. 

Setting guitar learning goals.

Your first guitar lesson will almost always start with your teacher asking some variation on the question, “So what would you like to play on the guitar?” 

Everybody’s goals are different. Maybe you just want to learn to play some songs with your friends, maybe you just need an outlet to help you relax, or maybe you have dreams of playing professionally one day.

Whatever your intentions are, know them, and don’t be ashamed to share them!

If you’ve already started learning to play the guitar and haven’t set some goals, stop what you’re doing and decide on something. The best part is that your goals can change over time, so there’s no reason to feel trapped or limited by them.

Your goals simply give your learning some direction. For example, if you want to play folk or fingerpicking music, make sure you incorporate some right-hand technique into your lesson plan. If you want to play jazz guitar, make sure you’re able to read music, understand theory, chords, and modes. 

2. Get a Quality Instrument to Last 

This might not make sense right away, but make sure you learn the parts of the guitar and how they function before you ever purchase one. This will help you avoid overspending on a guitar. 

brown acoustic guitar

Just because a guitar is for sale doesn’t mean it’s in optimal working condition. Make sure the neck and heel of the guitar are sturdy and don’t have any signs of cracks or bending/warping. 

A rule of thumb when it comes to acoustic guitars is that cracks are bad, and will usually only get worse. Be on the lookout for cracks anywhere on the guitar (neck, body, top, headstock). 

Test out the tuning machines. It’s pretty easy to throw a set of cheap tuners onto an old guitar and call them new. Tuning machines should turn smooth and easily, and the pitch of the string should change proportionally to the motion of the tuner. 

There’s no need to overthink this little detail. If you don’t notice something significantly wrong with them, they’re probably good to go!

What’s most important is that you choose a guitar that inspires you. Whether you pay $100 or $1000 for your first guitar, seeing it should make you want to sit down and play it. 

If you have any doubts about a guitar, ask an expert from the shop for some suggestions and select one that you think will suit you best.

3. Spend Time On The Basics

If you’ve taken some lessons before or have any experience playing guitar, it’s easy to want to skip the beginner courses. A lot of them might seem pretty boring and rudimentary, but trust me when I tell you to take the time to go through them. 

11 Basic Guitar Chords for Beginners (Easiest Ones)

You might miss something important or miss the chance to begin developing your skills right away. The truth is, learning the basics really well will only enhance your experiences later on. 

Overall, skipping lessons will begin to create a habit of cherry-picking what you find easy and only learning that. This is a pitfall a lot of beginners fall victim to, and will cause your progress to plateau at a very early stage. 

Devote the time necessary to master your beginner lessons (or all of them for that matter).

Here’s a good rule to follow no matter what you’re working on: If you can’t play it seven times in a row perfectly, then you haven’t mastered it!

4. Read About Guitar 

Learning how to play the guitar is more than just plucking or strumming strings attached to a wooden box. It involves mastering the mechanics and coordination between both hands in a musical way. 

There’s a whole world of information beyond the fretboard for you to dive into, and you should read all you can about it! Read about guitar history, different famous guitar players, and how the guitar fits into different genres – the list goes on!

Develop a healthy obsession by reading practical books about guitar like The Guitar Player Repair Guide by Dan Erlewine. This book will give you everything you need to know about how to take care of your instrument, how it’s made, and how it works. 

You can also check out Zen Guitar by Philip Toshio Sudo, and dive into the mystical world of guitar (or music in general) as a way to practice mindfulness, express your inner self, and connect with other musicians. 

Reading books on guitar will always enhance your perspective, and ultimately your playing.

5. Learn To Read Music 

Learn to read music! Don’t shy away from learning how to read music, especially not early on. The quicker you begin to learn, the quicker you’ll be fluent. Like anything else, it just takes time and practice. 

How To Read Guitar Sheet Music

It will be frustrating sometimes, but it’s all part of the process, and necessary to go through. Everyone who’s ever learned to read music has had trouble with it early on. Don’t let that keep you from it.

Reading music might not seem necessary since most guitarists just read tablature and nothing else, but if you ever want to play with other musicians in any serious capacity, reading music will only help you.

There are countless resources online to help you learn to read music, including some lesson series on platforms like Guitar Tricks, JamPlay, and TrueFire. 

Too many players get stuck on reading only tablature. I’ll admit, not all styles require you to be able to read, but it’s one of those things that comes in handy if you want to play a song, but there’s no tablature available! 

Being able to read music will enhance your rhythmic ability, knowledge of the fretboard, and ability to play with other musicians. Plus the added bonus of bragging rights!

6. Listen To Tons of Music 

Get on Spotify, Apple Music, SoundCloud, or any other music streaming platform you use, and hit shuffle. Listen to anything and everything!

woman laying on bed near gray radio

Of course, everyone has their stylistic preferences, but if you’re a developing guitarist or musician, it’s important to know what’s out there. Listening to loads of music will help to broaden your musical horizons. 

It’s easy to get trapped in one genre early on. Playing the blues, for example, comes with a lot of emotion and soul, but only playing the blues will hurt your ability to play the blues in the long run. You need many perspectives. 

Learning jazz, blues, rock, fingerstyle, classical, and more will make you a more versatile player, and help you discover new music you can be passionate about. 

To top things off, you’ll have the knowledge to borrow from many different styles and create your own unique sound. It takes a lot of leg work, but opening your mind to new styles will take your playing to a new level.

The more inspiration, the better!

7. Make Guitar Friends

This might be the most underrated point on this list. There’s no replacing the value of having friends who play guitar (especially if they’re better than you). 

two men playing guitar

Making, “guitar friends,” gives you the opportunity to play with each other and for each other. When you’re teaching yourself how to play guitar, you miss out on the direct feedback you’d normally get from a teacher, but when you have friends, there’s no telling how many tips and tricks you’ll pick up along the way. 

It’s one thing to play for yourself in the mirror or to record a video to post on Instagram, but another thing entirely to play for other guitarists (or real people in general). 

Performing under this natural pressure will help to test how well you really know your music. It will reveal what things you need to work on, and what things you’ve learned well. 

If you want to know how well you can really play something, ask your guitar friends to sit down and listen to you perform for them because playing for a live audience is the ultimate exam!

8. Use a Guitar Lesson App or Website

This is difficult for me to write, as I’m a private teacher, but after doing my homework on several online guitar lesson platforms, I can say with confidence that you might be better off showing yourself around for a little while at first. 

Guitar Tricks guitar lessons.

At this point in time for beginners, signing up for an online lesson platform is the best way to learn guitar. 

The first major disadvantage to hiring a private guitar teacher is the cost. 

Without a doubt, you’ll be paying at least $80 a month for weekly guitar lessons, and easily twice that for lessons from someone with any credibility. Online guitar lessons from a platform like Guitar Tricks, JamPlay, or TrueFire will cost you somewhere around $20 per month.

You’ll save time from the commute, and be able to learn from the comfort of your own home, at your own pace. After some time spent developing your skills on your own, you’ll be much more prepared for in-person lessons (if you even want them by then). 

The fact is, lesson apps and websites like Guitar Tricks, JamPlay, and TrueFire are way more affordable than in-person private lessons and give you more flexibility. 

These platforms offer lessons in a wide range of musical styles, as well as fundamentals courses for complete beginners, so it’s almost a no-brainer if you’re looking to begin guitar lessons. 

For as little as $15-20 per month, you can learn from some of the best guitar teachers out there, and use all of the interactive practicing tools these sites offer to enhance your learning experience. 

The number one thing to keep in mind is your level of commitment. Some people might need a teacher to remind them to practice every week, which is the bane of every guitar teacher’s existence. On the other hand, you might be totally motivated and disciplined enough to take the world of the guitar on by yourself!

9. Design Your Own Lesson Plan

It’s understandable if you’re hesitant to create your own lesson plan, especially if you’re a beginner. It’s easy to get complacent once you learn how to play some chords, a few songs, and maybe some technical exercises.

black headset on white printer paper

Even the most experienced players can get complacent from time to time, but having a plan (and some goals!) will help you stay consistent and continuously make progress.

Here’s an easy example for you to use if you’d like. 

Monday: 1-2 Guitar Tricks Lessons, 15-minute review, 15 minutes practicing chords

Tuesday: 30 minutes practicing materials from Monday lessons, 15 minutes practicing technique (scales, exercises, etc)

Wednesday: 1-2 Guitar Tricks Lessons, 15-minute review

Thursday: 30 minutes practicing materials from Wednesday lessons, 15 minutes practicing technique

Friday: Learn a simple song from YouTube or from the Guitar Tricks library, read for 20 minutes about the history of jazz guitar

Saturday: 30 minutes practicing materials from Wednesday lessons, 15 minutes practicing technique

Sunday: Break, or just play whatever you want!

If you decide to create your own lesson plan, what’s always helped me out is dividing everything up into three categories: new music, polishing up old music, and technique (more on that later)

Simplify your practicing by setting a timer and using a metronome!

10. Train Your Ear

Learning by ear is one of the best ways to discover new things on guitar. Sometimes you get it right and learn a cool new guitar trick, and other times you get it wrong, but still learn a new guitar trick! Happy accidents are the best ones. 

How to Include Ear Training in Your Daily guitar Practice

Starting to train your ear is as simple as picking out a song you’d like to learn, listening to that song from the beginning, hitting pause, and trying to sing the first note. 

Record that first note and play it back to make sure you got it right, and you’re on your way! Then just hold that note in your mind while you figure out where to play it on the guitar. 

Repeating this process over and over again will develop your sense of where things are on the fretboard. 

Aside from developing your sense of pitch, you’ll need to learn to pick up on things like rhythm, dynamic, key signatures, and more. Don’t worry though, as time goes on, you’ll get better and better!

Having a good set of ears is essential for all musicians, and the better you are at picking up on these things, the quicker you’ll be able to learn new music. 

11. Supplement your lessons with YouTube videos

You might be well on your way through an online lesson platform like Guitar Tricks, but sometimes questions arise that need answering. Sometimes lessons simply don’t cover what you might be wondering, and when that happens, it can be helpful to turn to YouTube. 

Youtube in smartphone

This shouldn’t be your first choice, because you never really know what you’re going to get when you search for video lessons on YouTube. 

As long as you use good judgment and keep your reliance on YouTube to a supplementary level, you should be just fine.

12. Practice Like a Pro

If you want to get good at anything, you’re going to have to practice it and practice it consistently. It’s one thing to practice for a few hours twice a week, but it takes a whole new level of commitment to practice just 20 minutes every day. 

Guitar practice.

What’s amazing is that if you’re practicing well, the latter of those two will turn you into a much better guitarist than the former would. 

Make sure you have a good practice environment. Eliminate distractions like your computer or cell phone. Make sure whoever you’re living with know that your practice time is sacred and that you shouldn’t be disturbed when you’re in the midst of it! 

Hang a sign on your door or just let them know. Either way, having devoted practice time will also get you in the right mindset to focus on just that!

Any professional guitarist will tell you that practice does not make perfect – perfect practice makes perfect. Part of having the right mindset when you’re practicing is understanding that every movement you make with your hands creates muscle memory. 

So every wrong note you play and every time you squeeze too hard, your hands remember, and it will take an even higher number of perfect repetitions to erase that bad muscle memory. 

So here’s your ultimate guide to practicing guitar:

“Practicing is making decisions, and mastering those decisions through mindful and controlled repetition.” – Dr. Stephen Robinson 

You decide to play a note or chord with your hands relaxed and postured the correct way, you play that note or chord with good technique in both hands, and you master that by repeating the process until you can do it seven times perfectly. 

Once you’ve mastered that, try learning your music backward! That’s quite a bit more tricky, but it’s a good way to challenge how well you really know something! 

Lastly, any professional guitarist will tell you to divide your practicing between learning new songs, polishing up old songs, and practicing your technique. 

If you hit each of those categories at least three times a week while practicing every day, you’ll have your bases covered. 

Whether you want to become a professional musician or not, this is the way practicing is done well, but the choice is ultimately yours!

5 Things to Avoid When Learning to Play Guitar

Here are some things you should be on the lookout for if you’re new to the guitar. 

1. Jumping around from one lesson platform to another

I mentioned earlier that it’s easy to jump around a lot when you’re just starting out. When lessons get hard, beginners tend to look for the easy route and end up skipping. 

This makes you miss things and develops a bad habit of laziness, which will only hurt your playing. 

Learning to play (or teaching yourself) the guitar is challenging in many ways, and being the best player you can be will only happen if you challenge yourself more than you ever have before.

So take every challenge you come across in stride. If a lesson gets boring, pause it, take a quick break, and come back to it refreshed. If it’s too difficult to understand, rewind and rewatch as many times as it takes to get it.

Use YouTube to help clarify things if you have to. Just avoid skipping around looking for something easy to play because you’ll never improve that way!

2. Limiting your musical tastes

I think I covered this well enough earlier, but to reiterate, don’t get stuck in a genre hole. Even if your goal is to become a metal guitarist, only playing metal music will limit your perspective and ultimately your ability to contribute valuable music to the genre itself. 

Explore as many styles as you can handle, but take them at a pace you can handle. 

If you’re a complete beginner, as soon as you’re able to play chords, songs, and scales, start exploring new genres! 

3. Skipping music theory

Not taking the time to learn music theory is a mistake. Imagine moving to a foreign country and never learning to speak the language. Even if you pick up some words and common phrases, you’ll never be able to construct full sentences and speak for yourself because you’ll have no knowledge of the grammar required to do so. 

Music theory is the exact same thing! It’s literally the language of music. So many people (guitarists especially) see music theory as rigid and limiting, but in fact, it’s the study of how you can deviate from the norm. 

You might’ve heard someone tell you to wait to learn music theory because it’ll only slow you down in the beginning, or change your “sound.” The former is only true if you don’t want to learn how to speak and read the language of music, and the latter is just a myth from the movies.

The truth is, learning music theory in any amount, a little bit at a time, will help your understanding of music tremendously and will make it easier to learn new music in the future. Imagine not being able to learn something because there isn’t a tab or good recording of it…

5. Inconsistent Practice

I’ll be honest. I’ve fallen into this before and getting out of it always feels great, but it feels even better when you don’t fall into it at all! Everyone is human and life happens, so don’t guilt yourself if you miss a day or two of practice, but playing any musical instrument is a perishable skill. 

A great pianist and composer from the 19th Century was quoted saying, “If I miss practicing one day, I know it; if I miss two days, my friends know it; and if I miss three days, the public knows it.”

The nuances of playing guitar become more and more difficult to maintain as each missed day passes, so don’t miss it if you can help it.

Playing well comes down to muscle memory, and the only way to develop that is through repetition. It’s better to practice 15 minutes every day than to practice 7 hours one day per week.

If you’re not feeling motivated enough to pick up your guitar and practice, try listening to some of your favorite music for inspiration, or set a timer for five minutes and just see how much you can get done in that short amount of time. 

If you’ve got a busy day, try taking ten minutes between classes, when you wake up in the morning, or before bed. The bottom line is consistency and focus. 

Make sure you’re practicing well too when you do, and your playing will skyrocket!

5. Going too fast too soon

Every single guitarist has fallen victim to this at least once in their playing career. It’s easy to get excited about a new song or technique you’ve learned and want to take off with it. 

In reality, though, your hands may not be prepared to do what your brain wants them to do. 

Maybe you’re trying to learn too many different songs at once – this will result in things falling off, leaving very little information in your long-term memory, and wasting a lot of your time. 

Trying to learn too much at once makes it impossible to practice well, so try taking things on one or two at a time, and gauge how well you remember things. 

If you literally go too fast too soon, like in a scale passage, you’ll create tension, resulting in bad technical habits that are incredibly difficult to undo. 

The best way to avoid this is to have patience with yourself. Developing speed takes time and meticulous practice. If you’re not using a metronome, you’re not doing it right! 

Final Thoughts on the Best Way to Learn Guitar

If you’re just getting started on the guitar, you’re at a pivotal point in your musical career. There’s infinite potential for you to progress, and endless possibilities for you to explore. 

If you’re still undecided on whether to purchase in-person lessons or to purchase a lesson subscription with Guitar Tricks, JamPlay, or TrueFire, let me help you out – go with the online lesson subscription. Right now, it’s simply the best way to learn guitar, and nobody is paying me to say that. 

In the worst-case scenario, you’ll be out $20 one month, which might not even happen because of the free trials they all offer!

In the best case, you’ll find a system and program you love, and can afford!

At the end of the day, as long as you set some goals, give yourself a sense of direction, stay disciplined, stick to your practice plan, and remember to practice well, you’ll be playing music you love in no time. 

Of course, always remember to avoid the pitfalls mentioned above!

If you make some guitarist friends, learn music theory, train your ears, and keep an open mind, the possibilities for you will remain endless, and you’ll continue to develop into a unique musician to contribute a valuable voice to the world of guitar! 

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