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Can I Learn to Play the guitar on my Own?

As I mentioned at the start of my blog post regarding learning music theory (you can find it here), I was self-taught for many years, and only received my first formal guitar lesson when I attended college at the age of 16. 

Many faithful traditionalists believe that there are set ways you should learn, but my opinion is that you should use whatever tools you have at your disposal. My family couldn’t afford formal guitar lessons, so my education consisted of the early days of YouTube, websites and publications that print TABs and learning riffs from friends at jam sessions. However, in retrospect it would probably have been a good idea to work as many different ways of learning a song, rather than rely on TABs or one particular method solely - it would have saved me a lot of hassle down the line!

Learning by Yourself

One of the main benefits of learning guitar by yourself is that there are no expectations; teaching yourself through whatever means has no time limit or pressure aside from what you set for yourself. You can try learning anything you like, take it or leave it whilst picking and choosing what you think is important. There is a certain attraction in that freedom. One of the first things that inspired me to take the guitar seriously a few years after I got my first guitar, was listening to BB King Live at Montreux and just being blown away - I could feel what he felt and wanted to play like he did, especially his bending and vibrato. 

I spent literal months working on nothing apart from bending and vibrato, but not knowing how to actually do this and with no teacher to guide me, I instead relied on my ears with copious amounts of trial and error. As a result, I developed a style that was extremely similar to BB King, similar to Albert King and Freddie King also, and it’s something that has stayed with me until today. Rather than focusing on the technique, I used the sound as a guide which some would consider a superior way of learning; I wasn’t bound by the constraints of the proper way to do things. There is also an issue with a lot of guitar players, in that they are religious with their style and anything that strays from that is rubbish - jumping from blues, to metal and dipping my toes in the pools of jazz, funk and reggae ensured that I became a versatile musician down the line that can view music objectively - something that is incredibly important as a professional musician.

There are some downsides to learning on your own, though. You may not feel inspired to follow something through to the end, abandoning a task because you couldn’t complete it for whatever reason. One of my favorite musicians once said “You only need to be as good to facilitate the ideas that come into your head” - I interpret this in such a way that, if I can think of a song or idea and I can’t play it, there is something to work towards, a goal has been set. As a self-taught guitarist, it’s so much easier to simply give up as you don’t have that external force to inspire you to carry on. 

There is also another risk when using YouTube or other video lessons, textbooks or other material and it’s something I thankfully avoided… somehow! That risk is that you may misinterpret the instructions, perform a technique incorrectly, make things more difficult than they need to be and potentially risk injury. The lack of that extra person telling you that something isn’t quite right and then helping you fix the problem can be crucial to your success. There are apps that “listen” to your playing and provide feedback, but this would not work when, for example, you are holding the picking incorrectly or you are holding the guitar wrong. Popular learning apps can be a good idea for enhancing your learning, but there are by no means a replacement for a good teacher. 

Learning with a Teacher

First and foremost, having the right teacher for you is extremely important. You will always hear teachers advertising their services, claiming that their lessons are tailored to each student - this should be fairly obvious. However, there should be boundaries set by the teacher - if you want to learn this song, we will have to learn this technique while we do it etc. Letting a student dictate every detail of the lesson is not the right way to achieve maximum potential. Also, choosing a teacher based on their expertise is a great way to ensure you get value for your money. For example, I wouldn't suggest coming to me for a classical guitar lesson. The most expensive teacher isn’t always the best, but you may need to pay a premium for someone with the experience needed - this is why trial lessons are so important!

The most important benefit to be received when you have found the best teacher for you, is not the same for everyone. There are two entities when learning - yourself and your guitar. The teacher is the third party, and as such they can observe aspects of your performance and playing that are not obvious to yourself. I had a few private lessons with a well-respected educator and high profile guitarist a few years ago, and he instantly pointed out some flaws in my phrasing which I had no idea existed, but were as clear as day after they were pointed out (he did commend me on my bending and vibrato, though. “Years ahead of my playing” apparently!). 

I once taught a student that had excellent technique, almost perfect in fact. However, due to that student only playing in his room with no amplification of any sort, there were major flaws in his playing. When plugged into an amp there was no control over the sound in terms of muting strings, the tone that was produced was simply terrible and there was no knowledge of how to fix that either. This student stood to benefit more from some advice regarding tone shaping, learning about effects and their uses and how to sit in a mix the best way possible - the point is that they wouldn’t have come to that conclusion by themself.

Another benefit of having a competent teacher is that they know when to stop. The lesson is for learning, not practicing. If you stand to do better from working on something independently, they will let you know. By the same logic, they should also realize when an attempt at something is futile, and change course whilst working back towards the original goal.

The best teachers do tailor the lessons to their students, as I mentioned earlier, but within reason. All too often, an inexperienced teacher or one that simply doesn’t care, will not realize that a student might actually just copy them in the wrong way. The idea is to not create a miniature or new version of themselves, but to foster an environment whereby a student is nurtured and therefore morphs into a new and improved version of themselves. I should point out that this only really happens when you are perhaps taught by a friend that plays guitar and not a professional educator - make sure you choose to have lessons with an actual teacher. 

Most, if not all, guitar teachers are friendly and highly skilled in what they do. There is always a risk that they can be too nice, though. There should be a social aspect to a lesson, and you must enjoy the company of your teacher but the premise should always be that it is a lesson - you are there to learn and they should know that. Some teachers get on so well with their students, that when they give up (which sadly happens sometimes) they stick with it purely for the sake of friendship. You should never get attached to the teacher and feel obligated to learn with them; a student should want to learn with a teacher, to crave the knowledge. 

I must stress that having one teacher is more than enough - too many cooks spoil the broth after all. Wires will be crossed and you will quickly become confused with contrasting information if you have more than one person trying to teach you the same thing. However, if there is something specific that another teacher can provide then go for it - that is your choice and not an issue for your regular teacher to concern themselves with. For example, if you want to learn a fingerstyle piece and your regular teacher’s strengths are in playing thrash metal, maybe you could find someone else better suited to the task. This would be a very rare occurrence though, proceed with extreme caution. 

In conclusion, you should definitely get a teacher if it is possible, but ensure it is the right teacher for you and that everything is in balance. Work with them to guide your playing to the next level, but allow yourself to be put into place when needed. Learning by yourself is also good - learning independently and doing it effectively is an invaluable skill that everyone should possess. 

At various points in your guitar playing journey, you would hopefully have a teacher whilst studying by yourself. Many students find success learning songs, riffs and writing on their own, but focusing on the details of technique and theory with a teacher - or the other way around as everyone is different. 



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