After years of teaching guitar, I’ve noticed many recurring issues that crop up with beginners trying to figure out how to start playing. If you haven’t played guitar before, it can be daunting and confusing to know what is the “right” way to begin.
I’ve seen many people buy all the latest equipment and goodies, purchase method books and music, and yet still not go anywhere with the guitar. By the same token, there are many musicians who only had a beat up, cheap instrument, and little access to instruction, but managed to develop a sound, style, and presence that knocks the roof off the venues they grace with their guitar playing. Why?
It’s tempting to say it’s due to natural ability or talent. That’s the easiest, lowest-effort rationalization for why things are that way. But in my experience seeing hundreds of people start at the same place and improve, it is NOT the real reason. It’s a much simpler one: Those who practice consistently, improve consistently. I’ll say that again: Those who practice consistently, improve consistently.
Yet as I know from teaching hundreds of people to play guitar, not practicing is the most common obstacle people encounter on their roads to becoming better guitarists and musicians.
I believe that it’s important to set up good “practice hygiene” right from the start, and I’ve been developing several simple techniques over the years to make people more likely to follow through on practicing.
For beginners, I have a piece of advice so simple that it might seem trivial or nonsensical to you at first, but I encourage you to keep an open mind and just try it out: Commit to holding the guitar for 5 minutes each day. Schedule the exact time and place you will do it each day, and commit to doing this for 30 days. Do not do anything else during this time (no outside distractions). If you start to interact with the guitar, let yourself go ahead, but you are not obligated to do so.
Sounds too simple, doesn’t it? But that’s why it works so well.
One reason people don’t practice is garden variety procrastination, caused by overthinking, anxiety caused by too many choices, not enough urgency, and lack of specificity of what do or what the reward will be. Keeping things short and simple ensures that you know exactly what to do, AND the simple, short task tends to feel so easy to do that it doesn’t spook your unconscious, as opposed to trying to make a huge change right away.
The second reason why this technique works well is because in order to get good at anything, you have to enjoy the process of doing it. I’m a big fan of the philosophy that there is no such thing as “practice”, only “doing” an activity. Thinking of “practicing” conjures up associations of “work”, struggle, drudgery, and things one has to endure, rather than enjoy. But remember, we don’t “work guitar”, we “play guitar”!
I’ve used the word “practice” commonly, including in this post, to avoid confusion. But when I sit down with my guitar, I do not think of it as “practice”; I think of it as “I’m going to have quality guitar time now, and it will make me a better guitar player.”
What does this have to do with holding the guitar for 5 minutes a day? Simply holding the guitar takes the pressure off having to do the “correct thing”, and lets you actually be present with the instrument and get comfortable holding and touching it. This isn’t emphasized in most guitar instruction books, courses, and so on, but think of this like the home field advantage. If you practice a sport on the same field for days, weeks, and months, then just playing on that field feels comfortable, familiar, and a place where you’re free to relax and concentrate more. The same is true for just sitting and holding a musical instrument—especially when you’re just starting out and everything about the guitar feels foreign to you.
Third, sitting with a guitar for 5 minutes without distractions often leads to a curious result: You start playing with the guitar. This is a way to leverage our limited attention spans, and desire for novelty and contrast. Sitting with the guitar, with nothing else going on around you, you often start to think, “I might as well pluck a string while I’l sitting here.” Other times you won’t consciously think anything, you’ll just suddenly notice that your hands have found their way onto the instrument and are exploring away.
Sometimes we tend to get caught up in doing the “best” thing, and paralyze ourselves from doing anything at all. I’ve found this to be particularly true with left-brain-dominant people, and musicians who are adept at musical instruments very foreign to the guitar.
I recently spoke to a saxophonist who said he “just couldn’t get” guitar. After talking to him for a while, I found that the main reason why he was struggling with the guitar so much was that he was so adept at the saxophone. In his mind, music worked in a certain way, which he visualized in his head somewhat linearly, as in the keys on a saxophone. This schema is not very useful for visualizing music on the guitar, but he didn’t know that, since he hadn’t yet had much experienced with the guitar.
He also felt that he needed to conceptually understand the guitar first, but since he had no experience with the guitar, he didn’t know how to create a structure or schema for conceptually understanding it. He was stuck in a catch-22.
I suggested the same solution to him (sitting with the guitar for 5 minutes a day, with the option of noodling around), because it would allow him to do something different: To learn unconsciously first. This may seem counter-intuitive, but largely unconscious “playing” learning is exactly how we all learned to speak, walk, write, and do most things we now do with mastery every day. Sometimes it’s best to have the experience first, and then to go about understanding it a deeper level.
Finally, sitting with the guitar for 5 minutes, for 30 days starts and solidifies a habit. When playing guitar becomes a habit for you, then getting good at it immediately switches from an “if” to a “when”. After 30 days, you’ll find yourself wanting to go sit with your guitar without having to consciously remind yourself to, and that is a fantastic place to be.
An added bonus is that you also ingrain the emotional habit of approaching the activity of playing the guitar as play, rather than something that needs to be difficult or like “work’. When you can have fun with it, you’re using your own neurological reward system to train yourself to love playing, which makes playing more and getting better and better easier and easier.
From my own experience I can tell you that it’s often much more effective to start by creating a simple habit or ritual, and to later add complexity, volume, or variety of content to create your ideal practice session. Start with the simple, small habit first.
So commit to becoming a guitarist who loves to play right now. Write down a specific time when you can sit and hold your guitar, free from outside distractions, for 5 minutes, every day for 30 consecutive days. Write a commitment statement saying what you intent to do, and sign it. Then take action—it’ll only take 5 minutes.
Even if you just sit for 5 minutes without making a sound, you’ll be able to stop and feel good knowing that you really have taken a powerful step towards becoming a better guitarist and loving it.
Don’t be surprised, though, if while you’re sitting there, you find yourself strumming and plucking away. And don’t be surprised if 5 minutes turns into 10… or 15… or 20…