Anyone Can Play Guitar: Does That Include Me?

Is it actually possible to teach yourself guitar — and is it wise? That's my mission for the rest of the year.

Photo: fmerenda

It has been a long, long time since I was learning a musical instrument. How long? The year was 1987, and I was but a wee school boy, struggling with the only instrument left in the locker for those kids who hadn't already been learning an instrument privately for years.

I'd picked music over art — which should be no surprise to those who have seen my drawing efforts recently — but had to take what I was given.

What I was given was a tuba that I struggled to lift.

It shouldn't be a huge surprise that I didn't last that long with the tuba, and that was (more or less) the end of my musical career to date.

At least until this week, when I picked up a Washburn D-10SCE guitar.

So why decide to pick up an instrument after so long?

Some have suggested it's a mid-life crisis, and maybe they're right. at least part of the impetus came from a meeting a few months back with blokes I'd been to school with, some of whom have had very distinguished musical careers. I could keep up with the conversation as a listener, but not at the technical level. Partly just because I want to step outside my artistic comfort zone, and drawing clearly isn't it for me. Partly because my kids are picking up instruments, and I want to provide a good example to them.

Plus, I figure that music is something I was bad at way back then, but not entirely for reasons within my control. Now I'm an adult (at least legally speaking) and I can pick the instrument of my choosing, apply adult discipline to actually learning, and pick up a talent well outside my current skill set.

So, I've started learning, slowly and (because this is a steel string guitar) somewhat painfully. I'm using a mixed method of self-training, because there's obviously no shortage of guitar training methods available in the real world and online; a tutorial book, because having something physical in front of me is a good way to force myself to practise, supplemented with various YouTube videos to show more technique.

So far, of course, I can make a variety of terrible twangy sounds, and not much else, but it's early days; I'll update with my thoughts on guitar self-training in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, any Lifehacker readers/guitar gods got any worthwhile tips to add?


    give up! been down the same road.. after 10 years... still can't play a decent song.. i'll leave the playing to the experts and i'll expertly listen! :P

    by the way... good luck

    Rocksmith + pick a song you can hear note for note in your head (and love!) and start! Play until you can't quite focus, then take a break - and don't give up :-)

      I've been playing guitar for twenty years and Rocksmith is an excellent way to learn....until you try to play the song without it. It trains you to use visual queues, so learn a song until expert mode.


        I've been teaching myself for two years now. Made slow progress for the first 20 months, using books, websites, tabs etc. Picked up Rocksmith 4 months ago and been playing an hour a day. I've made significant progress since.

        I've mastered a few songs (in that I can play them without the Rocksmith tablature), and others i'm still memorising, practicing and learning. Provides a lot of motivation and an easy way to learn.

        Just remember that with Rocksmith, don't get lazy and rely too much on the visual cues (it is an easy trap to fall into), but try and memorize song sections and riffs and timing. You'll make a lot of progress very quickly.

          I'm glad you guys have been having good experiences with Rocksmith. I've been thinking about getting it.

    Good luck. I made the same decision to learn the guitar about 10 years ago. No teacher (I was a cheap student). It was a great decision. Just learn for fun at the start and eventually you pick up the music theory as you go.

    It's all about repetition so you can develop muscle memory. Then one day you'll be able to transition from easier chords without a problem. Those more tricky chords can be difficult though. B Major took me ages! I still can't do X3221X though. It's probably called C6? I learnt on a classical guitar, so cramming my fingers into an acoustic quite difficult now.

    Last edited 01/02/13 10:58 pm

      Hehe.. a few years back I wrote a piece of music that flowed a lot better if I did a C-shaped barre chord.. lol.. when I first started playing 22+ years ago, doing something like would have been unthinkable :) Over time, impossible things become possible :)

    I've been teaching myself with nothing but youtube for about 6 years now, most rewarding thing I've ever done in my life, couldn't live without it now.

    Great decision Alex. The mashed fingers from steel string acoustic has always been a sore point for me too. A deal-breaker in fact. I recommend an electric or nylon string as these instruments are less harsh on your digits and have much prouder, more 'musical' heritages IMHO. Steel string acoustic is ok for country rock and 'cowboy chord' playing but I feel you could save your fingers and develop your ear better with a different instrument.
    Ten minutes five days a week is better than an hour once a week.

    self taught here... honestly, the guitar's one of the easiest instruments you'll pick up...and one of the most rewarding.
    i had no problem picking it up, and consider myself decent... about 5 years ago though i had a friend pick it up and take lessons for 6 months... the jerk was really talented, and in that time got pretty much on par with me
    my suggestion? take up a few lessons to start with. learn ideas like 'scales' and how what you do on the instrument produces the sound you recieve... once you know this you start to really appreciate the mechanics of it and your learning curve is alot shorter... from there you can do anything else on your own!!

    Sore fingers from a steel stringed acoustic? bah, try picking up a bass guitar then you'll know about sore fingers (and shoulders if you stand up with a heavy one).
    Self teaching guitar/bass is pretty easy in my opinion, there's so many resources available that it makes it quite simple, and is more likely to give you a varied view on different aspects of technique.

      I've never experienced sore fingers from bass. But sore shoulder? HELL YES. Especially those mahogany bodies so heavy o.o

        I find my Fender J (Ash? Alder? Not sure..) to be WAAAAY heavier than my Gibson Tbird (Mahogany)! Like, twice the weight heavier! I think it depends a lot on the tree. I use Rotosound 66's though which do rip your fingers up if you have a fortnight off for whatever reason..

          Fender Jaguar or Jazz? I spose the Fender has a larger body than the Thunderbird (from memory, been a long time since I handled a Fender bass, I only own a Thunderbird). So it'd make sense, I reckon.

          I've been wanting to try out Rotosound strings, especially the Steve Harris signature range. If I can find a local seller of them that is.

            Jazz! Mahogany is a funny wood, I seem to notice a huge difference in weight between guitars. I think it depends a lot on the age of the tree and how well the wood was dried out before it was used.

            I haven't used the Steve Harris ones, but I do prefer the Rotosound flats to the Ernie Ball flats, I haven't tried any other brands. 66's are totally where it's at for me though, they just give you this real top end bite that I love!

              Ah they're a nice bass.

              i'm over Ernie Ball strings, i've never gotten what was so great about them over other brands which do a better job for slightly cheaper. The Steve Harris ones are relatively new, well they're a new revised version.

    A few years ago I did exactly the same thing. Practiced diligently - frequently for short periods - taught myself with similar resources and got reasonably good. The thing that I discovered was that I don't actually like music. I like songs, I like listening to music, but I don't like the building blocks of technique that you have to love if you are going to call yourself a musician. Good luck.

    I have also started learning guitar a few weeks ago.
    If you find anything that is particularly helpful to your practising, let us know!

    I started learning November 2011 after an abortive attempt in my youth. The trick is not having to force yourself to practice - you should actually enjoy it. If you don't, what's the point? I find myself practicing most evenings anywhere from 10 mins to 45 mins depending on my mood.

    I learnt entirely online. You will find and are two of the best sites that make it accessible for beginners. I'm still at beginner level myself but can strum along to some basic songs now, and still enjoying it. I started on a classical guitar (nylon strings) so didn't have the painful fingers so much. Just wait until you start doing barre chords :)

    Start out by making twangy sounds and learning all the basic open chords. You can play stuff that is rewarding even if you only know "G", "E", "C", "D" and "A". Do not bother with the barre chords until you have your open chords totally worked out. There are some good iPad apps to help you learn the chords. It is all about the so-called "muscle memory", which can only be attained through repetitive practice...

    Be warned though, if you get hooked, this particular rabbit hole goes very deep .. :)

    I started a few weeks back. Best resources for starting from scratch are and (as Gareth said).

    Steel-string Acoustics -
    yes, it makes your fingers hurt, but that's a rite of passage for any guitarist.

    Rocksmith -
    highly recommended and it'll help you practice in ways that youtube videos just don't suffice.

    In-Person Guitar Lessons -
    again, recommended as the personal one-on-one teaching method will help you learn the basics properly and enforce correct technique while helping stamp out bad habits.

    And last of all - Practice, Practice, Practice, Practice. Practice till your fingers bleed. Clean out the wounds, and then practice some more. Very few people have a natural talent for it (as with anything else in life). I didn't have a lick of talent, but immense amounts of practice (while a young carefree, poor uni student) helped me get good enough to play in a few bands.

    establish a goal - why do you want to play? what do you want to play? figure them out, be realistic and then just go for it. don't listen to those guys that have told you just to give up - power on towards your goal.

    grab yourself a metronome - get in the habit of playing in time from the very beginning. if you have a mobile or tablet, there are tonnes of apps for guitar - i use iphone/ipad, so apps like jamuppro, ultimate guitar tabs, guitartoolkit are essential - youtube has *tonnes* of lesson material, as previously mentioned, and his videos on 'tube are very good.

    try not to doodle - play with a purpose. relax into it, make sure you are playing 'tight', your want your fingers to be relaxed and glide over the frets, not be tense and gripping the neck. don't expect instant results - but from as little as 15 minutes of focussed practise daily, you will make good progress fast.

    online resources like are also a worthwhile investment.

    mostly, jam along to music you like - find your favorite song's tabulature and learn how to read it. don't be afraid to mess up.

    now go and practise! then practise some more! :)

    look good, feel good, play air guitar!

    Looking at this from another angle, I'm not a guitarist, I'm a drummer.

    Okay, get the drummer's jokes out now all you guitarists, you know you want to. Trust me, I've heard them all :P

    But the interesting story is how I came around to picking them up. I was learning piano privately for about 7 or 8 years, starting at a pretty early age. It's something I never really enjoyed, and to be honest never really got very good at even with a proper teacher. I was playing the keyboard in the school concert band and decided I wanted to try my hand at another instrument.

    At first I tried the trumpet, but as anyone who has had braces will probably understand, playing a brass instrument with braces on isn't the most comfortable of things, so that only lasted about 6 months. One day during band practice, the main drummer and also the backup drummer were not there. The teacher asked if anyone was able to jump on. I decided to give it a go and raised my hand. Surprisingly, I was able to jump straight onto the kit and hold a basic rhythm. That was about 18 years ago now and I haven't looked back since. I've dabbled a little bit in guitar during that time but nothing serious.

    So, the point of all that was that we all have gifts. You may find that you have a natural talent for guitar and that's awesome! You may also discover that playing the guitar is really hard work, or makes your wrists or fingers really sore. Of course give it a red hot go for 12 months and see what happens...but don't be discouraged if it doesn't end up working out because you may have a talent for something else that you haven't realised yet. I do hope this works out for you, but if it doesn't, you may discover you are a drummer instead :)

    "Is it actually possible to teach yourself guitar"

    Definitely. The first 3 months will be the decider for you.. if you're still playing 30 to 60 minutes every day after that, you'll probably be playing for the rest of your life like me. I was self-taught and I started properly playing/learning 22+ years ago. I spent the first 15 years just playing by ear.. I could follow sheet music but couldn't read it fast enough.. then I decided to buy a couple of music theory books and they really opened up a whole new mind-space.

    I'm not an awesome player but I can hold my own in a band situation, these days I have a better grasp of sheet music and I've even written and recorded my own music over the years.

    Here's a video of one of my tracks I wrote 4 years ago.. again.. nothing special.. but yep.. that's me.. playing my own piece of music etc etc :)

    Learn the basic chord shapes first, then perhaps minors and 7th variations. Then move them up the neck with a barre. Some basic music theory wouldn't go astray after this, but isn't strictly necessary.

    Metronome, justinguitar, rocksmith, andrew wasson, caged are all good things to Google after you get past the initial hump of basic chord structure and need to look at more sophisticated techniques, drills and tunes. Multiple sources is better, as it exposes you to various things that you need to think about to get better (see rocksmith issues above). Also, work that pinky!

    Finally, anything you want to play is going to need practice. Be it chord changes, solo work, scales or techniques. So practise, then practise, then practise some more. Follow that up with more practice. Vary said practice between drills and playing songs.

    20 years playing, self taught, still learning every time I pick the thing up.

      Yerp.. learn ya basic chords of course.. and work on the two hard ones, F and B as much as you can.. most people will teach B as being a barre chord.. so that will be your introduction to that.. and at first it will seem impossible to do that.. but with time the strength will come and once you have the ability to do A-shape and E-shape barre chords, you'll be able to play anything, anywhere on the neck. minor chords and even a couple of minor7 (Em7, Am7 for example) chords can be tackled at the early stage too, right after you memorise the major chords..

      But first things first.. you need to play enough, every day to get your strength and muscle memory up to scratch.

      EDIT: Also.. don't let things stand in your way.. on Youtube there's a one armed guy who plays amazing guitar.. myself, I have a double-jointed little finger on my left hand that made it difficult (and still does occasionally) to finger certain chords.. just keep at it, if you're serious about learning and it will pay off in the end.

      Last edited 01/02/13 4:59 pm

    Never ended up learning guitar (as much as I wanted to).
    Taught myself drums though (it's far more than just banging stuff). Tought myself some piano as well. If I can do it, so can you.

    The hardest part is always the first few months. Just like with everything, you learn a lot, but you don't seem to get results. A few months after that, when you really begin to put things together, that's when you realise it was all worth it.

    One of the best things about learning to play an instrument, is being able to compose something yourself.

    Yes you can. I did. Here's how.

    * Go to a music shop, purchase a simple book AND wall chart of guitar chords.
    * Find a song you want to learn to play.
    * Go to a Guitar Tab /Chords site. Print out the Chords version.
    * Look at the chords, realise your in over your head. ;)
    * Go to the beginners chord book you bought in step one.
    * Learn 4-5 basic chords. E, A, G, C, D, Em, Am.
    * Practice, Practice, Practice your new tools. (that's what guitar chords are... tools in your toolbox)
    * Become so you can play these without looking, stopping, so you can just "grab" a chord automatically when you read it on the Chord version of the simple songs in the beginners book
    * Go back to your original song and see what extra "tools" you need in your toolbox to play this song. Learn them. It's all about muscle memory. At first a new chord seems "impossible". After a couple days of practicing and doodling about... your brain "gets it" and it's another one for the tool box.
    * Practice, Practice, Practice.
    * Write your OWN stuff. My (proven) theory is it's FAR easier (and fun) to remember my own songs and tunes, than learning someone else's. And you're not limited by not-knowing a certain group of exotic chords or scale-runs. You write YOUR music using the tools you currently have in in YOUR toolbox. As you add new tools. You can write new stuff. It's very rewarding process.
    * Rinse and Repeat the steps above over your first year of learning.

    Same process runs parallel for learning Lead style playing. Reality is you chop and change as required. Here the scales are your tools. And PRACTICE is your friend. Muscle/brain memory too.

    Always have your guitar with you when ever practical. I taught myself when I was 18-19 and working in a warehouse job, back in the days when we got an HOUR for lunch... I spent 4-5 hours a week practicing my guitar that way. As well as watching TV etc.

    I learnt before the internet and ready access to song-charts and tab/chord listings for songs (in a small country town). If I wanted to know how to play a song it was either find someone else to show me, or sit down and work it out myself with my cassette player. I often wonder which would have been better... todays world where there's an overwhelming fire-hose of AMAZING resources for beginner guitarist. Or the simple no-fuss way I did, with one book, one chord chart and the deep down hunger to be musical.

    Enjoy your new passion...

    I recently started teaching myself guitar as well, and I stumbled across this guy who has a website full of links to his YouTube clips that offers a comprehensive Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced course right from the ground up. I'm a music teacher, and am very impressed by the way he imparts his knowledge. It's all free, and there's no crap/sign up. Check it out :)

    Good luck and have fun! I am so far! :)

    Picked up Rocksmith on the weekend based on the discussion and recommendations here. Thanks Guys. Great tool.

    If you are a Radiohead fan check out warrenmusic on youtube.

    If you want to reduce the strain on your fingers, there are a few considerations for strings. Firstly, you don't want high action "the gap between the strings and fretboard", as that requires more pressure. You might want to get that adjusted by a more experienced guitarist or shop, because it's a little more complicated with an acoustic (sanding down the saddle or adjusting the truss rod). Also, you'll need new strings at some point. As for lighter gauge strings, such as 10 gauge. Thinner/lighter strings require less tension to hit hit the same notes, which means they aren't as tight when you tune them. Like adjusting the action, that means less force is required to press down and fret. It also makes bending much easier if you're doing that.

    Before long, your fingers will be tough and you won't even remember having sore fingers, as long a you don't avoid playing for a week or so. Even, you're better off than when you started.

    If you're planning on singing along, learn to strum properly first (this means up/down strokes with the beat, not down, down, down). It makes it so much easier to multitask.

    Good luck.

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