The most challenging thing about learning to play an instrument is finding the information that you need to learn how to play. Such a rewarding (and potentially lucrative) life skill like playing an instrument is inherently tough, and it’s made more complicated by the vast amount of information out there that - despite some of it being very good - is not exactly really well organized. You might also be navigating the he-said/she-said of your musician buddies, since most people will tell you they way they learned is best. Should you teach yourself? Should you have an instructor? A combo of both?
One thing’s for sure - there are lots of different ways to become a better player, many of which are actually widely available and inexpensive. So if you’ve ever wanted to learn to play the guitar, but you’re unsure where to start, you’ve come to the right place. Learning the guitar is fun and extremely gratifying (and, let’s face it, it makes the girls and guys swoon), and in this article we will give you all the information that you need in order to make the best decision for your needs and your budget. Welcome to the journey!
- What to Consider When Evaluating Ways to Learn to Play The Guitar
- In-Person Guitar Lessons
- Online Guitar Lessons
- Books, DVDs, and Physical Materials
What to Consider When Evaluating Ways to Learn to Play The Guitar
There has never been a better time to learn guitar than right now. Before you dismiss that as hyperbole or a silly motivational statement, consider a few things. Guitars have never been more accessible. If you’re looking to learn, you can pick up a decent guitar for insanely low prices through a variety of outlets. Not so long ago, it was impossible to get a guitar that wasn’t outright garbage for less than $300 at a minimum, and even then, they weren’t great and were very rough around the edges. Now, there are fantastic options for beginners that are widely available for a fraction of that price.
Further, there has been a democratization of information that has greatly impacted music. Not only can you discover new music over the internet, Spotify, or through the app store that will keep you passionate about guitar, you can generally use technological resources to learn music that simply weren’t available even a decade ago. The internet is an amazing way to find a great guitar teacher for individual instruction, find tabs to that song you have to learn the riff for immediately, find like minded people to jam with or a support group in a forum as you learn the guitar. No longer are we simply reliant on the intro to guitar book that was in the closest mom and pop music store, and that makes learning guitar so much more efficient than ever before. So, are you fired up to master the six string? You should be!
The first thing to consider in learning a new instrument is what your goals are. While it can be difficult to know everything before picking up the guitar, the more of these you can answer the better off you will be in choosing a method to learn:
What kind of guitarist do you want to be?
Seriously. Think about it. Are your goals to have an enjoyable hobby that allows you to decompress for a few minutes every night after work, or are you aiming to be the next Hendrix? If you’re honest with yourself about your motivations and your priorities, it will really help you hit your milestones for success and will help you choose the best way to learn guitar for your individual needs. The importance of this can’t be overstated.
What kind of effort are you willing to put forth to learn the guitar?
Many people start off incredibly enthusiastic and eager only to see that wane when they get into the weeds and start practicing on the skills that will make them better players over the long haul. Don’t let yourself be one of them. Think about what kind of availability you have and make a decision on how you are going to improve at guitar the most efficiently within that time.
How much are you willing to spend?
Learning guitar can be an expensive hobby, but it certainly doesn’t have to be. There are great guitarists in history that come from every background imaginable; world-class one on one instruction to self taught. Don’t let the cost intimidate you. Instead think about your budgetary constraints and then select the best option that level. One of the biggest reasons there has never been a better time to learn to play the guitar is because of the cost effectiveness of instruction these days, so no matter your budget, you absolutely can find a way to learn guitar if you’re passionate about it.
So, if you have the answer to those three questions, we’ll walk through some of the more popular options to learning guitar and address the pros and cons of each method.
In-Person Guitar Lessons
When most people think about learning the guitar, an in-person tutor is often the first thing that comes to mind. For many years, this was the only way to learn guitar, and it is still a fantastic way.
A good guitar teacher will put in effort to advance your goals and provide immediate feedback to help you improve. A word of caution from the start; a good teacher doesn’t necessarily teach you exactly what you want to learn when you want to learn it. Too many people think that a good teacher just teaches you what you tell them to. They may or may not incorporate what you want to learn into their curriculum immediately, but their first priority should be developing your skills as a musician and letting you pursue stylistic choices on your own. If you want to learn to play the blues your teacher should still be teaching you things like chord construction and how to utilize a variety of scales, regardless of whether or not that’s going to come up in the majority of what you play. In that way, they can advance your long term success even though it sometimes may feel like you are not learning what you immediately want to play.
As an example for a quick test to gauge how good your teacher or prospective teacher is, think about whether or not your teacher is developing your skills as a musician or your skills as a guitar player. Do you learn about music in general, or do you spend most of your time with your teacher focusing on just playing your instrument? Believe it or not, your tastes are probably going to evolve if not outright change at some point. Your teacher should give you the tools that you need to make sure that you’re capable enough on your instrument to learn how to play any type of genre you want relatively easily. They should not just be handing you tabs and telling you to learn them. Instead, are you building a solid foundation and a skill set that is transferable to your abilities and goals? Keep in mind that this person is a teacher who is supposed to push you, give you best practices (yeah, there are still right and wrong ways to even play rock guitar), and make you better. The point here is, don't confuse someone's ability to teach with simply following your directions.
An experienced musician’s feedback is invaluable if you want to learn to play the guitar. A competent teacher will make sure that you’re not developing bad habits in real time, which can be a luxury. Also, a personal teacher will ensure that you have a good grasp on the material before moving on to more complicated subjects.
If you have decided in-person lessons are for you, here are some questions you should ask when vetting a potential instructor:
How long have you been teaching guitar?: Make sure that this person has some experience with teaching. That will ensure they are effective at communicating the concepts of music theory and have some experience at guiding students who are learning an instrument through the process. If you are looking for someone that teaches children specifically, feel free to ask about experience around that as well, since certain age groups can require more patience and attention.
What style(s) of guitar do you teach?: While starting from zero anyone can teach you a thing or two about the guitar, you ideally want to find someone well versed in the style of guitar that fits with your personal long term goals. Classical and Jazz and Metal are all obviously very different playing styles and skill sets, and when your playing advances to a point, you'll want to know if your instructor can take you all the way to your musical goals.
What does a typical lesson look like?: Since personal tutoring isn't cheap, it is important to understand what you're signing up for and setting expectations on both sides of the table. By asking this question, you're getting insight into exactly what to expect if you can begin learning lessons from this person. Often, instructors will offer introductory lessons where you can experience their teaching styles first hand. This is a great option and it allows the both the student and instructor to get to know each other a little more. Remember, they are also evaluating you.
May I speak to some references?: Preferably, talk to students to get their candid feedback. You want to make sure that this person isn't just a smooth interviewer, but that their students are satisfied and they produce capable guitarists. If no students are comfortable speaking with you, find a peer instructor to vouch for that persons skills.
Otherwise, trust your instincts. The vast majority of instructors out there are good, hard-working people, and you can tell they are passionate about teaching music. Enjoy getting to know them!
How to Find a Great Local Guitar Teacher
Local Universities and Colleges: This is often overlooked, but local schools generally will have talented music teachers who offer lessons on the side. The beauty of this approach is that these folks have opted in to a career of not only a professional musician, but they are also a high level teacher. That, combined with the background checks that most schools require, make this a great place to to start the search for a teacher for yourself, your children, or senior citizens. Head to your local university, community college, or even secondary schools to scout for teachers that are well versed in theory and the art of teaching. You can usually view class schedules online or call the music department and find someone willing to help point you in the right direction.
Local Music Stores: It shouldn't surprise you that when you love music, you often hang around your local music shop lusting after new gear, talking riffs, and recommending new bands to your fellow musicians. Guess what; they discuss guitar lessons as well. These people often teach themselves or know a number of teachers that offer personal instruction. Further, they frequently host lessons right out of the shop. Sometimes nothing beats a good ol' fashion reputation built over years on the local scene.
Also, technology can help you find a personal guitar tutor to come to your house. Online marketplaces are making it easier than ever to find experts and employ them for exactly what you need. For guitar tutors, it means being able to quickly understand their availability, rates, specialities (rock, jazz, blues, acoustic, etc), and location all at a click. Further, many of these sites add an additional layer of transparency in the form of reviews, which can be really helpful in finding great instructors. Right now, there is no one clear winner in our mind, but here are some of our favorite places to start the search. Also, since it costs nothing to search using these services, it can't hurt to use browse several of these sites, and even test drive several instructors, to find the perfect tutor to help you meet your goals.
TakeLessons: TakeLessons.com was founded simply to connect people who want to learn something with qualified teachers. Head over to the Guitar Lessons search page to peruse instructors that might match your needs. They include helpful filters like availability by day of the week, student ages, and even have a verified background check option. TakeLessons also gives out awards like "Student Favorite" to help highlight the most popular teachers. All things considered, it is a very efficient way to browse for teachers.
Reverb Lessons: Reverb Lessons offers a similar offering as Take Lessons. If you say you are interested in guitar lessons you'll head to a user interface that looks like a map, and clicking a guitar instructor's icon will show you the teacher's contact details (like background checked, years experience, etc) and pricing information. From there, you can choose what session length you're interested in and what location you prefer to take your lesson from (choices are from the instructor's studio, in-home, or online via Skype). In short, it is another great platform specialty built for sourcing music teachers.
Amazon: Yes, that Amazon. It might surprise you but Amazon has a marketplace that matches you up with music lessons nearby. And, since they are generally a big player (no pun intended) in every industry it can't hurt to take a look at instructors and reviews listed on here as well.
- Individual instruction that is personalized to the student
- Immediate feedback that helps one avoid developing some bad habits
- Regimented schedule that will help motivate you, much like a personal trainer, when you get frustrated along the way
- Expensive and generally the most costly form of learning the guitar
- Finding a good teacher for your learning style can be difficult
- Scheduling is sometimes a challenge, especially for those in rural geographies or that work non-standard hours
Online Guitar Lessons
Online lessons are very exciting for several critical reasons. They were not available until a very short time ago, but have quickly skyrocketed to become one of the most popular ways to learn guitar. Think of online guitar lessons much like individual in-person lessons, but with a few key differences. Generally you’ll use a webcam to communicate with your instructor, and while it’s not quite the same as having them in the room with you it’s pretty close to what you would experience in a live setting.
One of the biggest advantages of online lessons is they offer people who otherwise might not have access to lessons a fantastic opportunity to learn the guitar. Take for example a 12 year old who just discovered his love for music and wants to explore guitar but lives in a rural area. In this case, this kid may not have had the chance to play guitar because he lives too far away from instruction and his parents work and he has no transportation to on-location lessons. Or, it could be cost prohibitive for his family. Online guitar lessons change that. Thankfully, provided he has access to a computer and the internet, this child can now get access to world class instructors and virtually unlimited lesson content for less than the cost of a single 30 minute in person lesson. For those reasons alone, online guitar lessons is great for opening up learning guitar to students who otherwise would not have the opportunity. However, there are other advantages as well.
Many of the online guitar lesson sites offer formalized programs that will help guide a student through the process of learning what they want to learn. They have different price points and programs for different styles, genres of music, and even bands if your goal with guitar is solely to learn every song of your favorite band.
For many people looking to dip a toe into the water with guitar, but not fully committed to practicing hours and hours per day to hit the road on a world tour, this is the best option. It is cheap, let's you practice when you want, where you want, and what you want, while providing the support of instructor feedback, a suggested structured program, and an online private community if you want those options.
We highly recommend checking out the following online guitar lesson programs if you're interested in learning guitar at your own pace from the comfort of your own home.
Guitar Tricks: This one is a well deserved fan favorite. It features tons of content to help you learn guitar that is intuitively organized and is mobile friendly so you can take lessons with you on the go, even when commuting home from work on the bus. It is pretty obvious why this option is so popular for so many players. Since they offer a two week free trial, there is really nothing to lose by kicking the tires to see if it fits your needs.
*JamPlay:* A well put together program that progresses the student through music theory and then gets tactical with techniques, JamPlay is a very popular option for aspiring players that want access to a vast array of content that is well produced and professionally managed. Additionally, they have a one week free trial and a great reputation for customer service.
Justin Guitar: Justin Sandercoe is an YouTube influencer who teaches guitar. Justin's channel boasts a whole host of subscribers, and it is little wonder why. Justin does a great job explaining guitar concepts, techniques, and even teaching individual songs. Go check out his channels and you'll quickly see the value he brings to the table. Even if you use this resource as a supplement to another method of learning guitar, it is something you should absolutely utilize.
Artist Works: Artist Works is another top tier provider of online guitar instruction. They provide many of the same features mentioned of Guitar Tricks and JamPlay, and also seem popular. However, what really distinguishes them is the emphasis on individual feedback. Not only that, but you are getting individual feedback from legitimate rock stars. For example, Paul Gilbert is one of their most popular instructors and is renowned for constantly giving his personal feedback. No, we're not kidding.
P.S.- We did a full review of each of the best online guitar lessons if you are interested in reading more in depth.
- Access to world class instructors and virtually unlimited content
- Available anywhere with an internet connection, regardless of geographic location
- Available anytime so you can keep rocking at 2am when the mood is right
- Access to private online communities to give and receive peer feedback as well as to stay motivated
- Many offer free trial memberships to try before you buy
- While many services give feedback, it is not immediate like with personalized lessons
- Despite structured programs and lessons, this method of learning music requires self-discipline to advance your playing
Books, DVDs, and Physical Materials
We know that not everyone can afford in-person or even tailored online instruction, and that sometimes the only option you have is to get what you can where you can. There’s no shame in that, and if anything it’s an admirable thing to do and we completely understand and respect that. In those situations, we recommend looking at learning guitar through books, DVDs, and physical materials.
So you’re probably never going to find any one single book, DVD, or magazine that alone is going to turn you into a competent musician. In fact, learning through any of those mediums exclusively could actually be pretty damaging to you as a musician in the long run. They just don’t cover enough to ground to ensure that you’re learning things in a way that is going to be productive to you in the long term. DVDs and magazines will both leave huge holes in your knowledge, and books (especially beginner books) skim over a lot of theory that’s really helpful once you start working on improvisation or writing your own music.
The stumbling block most people run into when they try to learn in complete isolation is that they just can’t get a well rounded education as a musician because they don’t know what they don’t know, and they don’t have enough knowledge to figure out what they should be learning. Most people in that situation won’t stumble across modes or the positions of the pentatonic scale at a time where it’s most useful for them to do so. They’ll usually spend a few months not getting scales whatsoever, then learning the first position minor pentatonic, and then if they’re lucky the might eventually catch wind of the major pentatonic. It’s hard to learn the more complicated pieces of being a musician if you don’t have someone making a curriculum that’s well suited to your abilities.
To circumvent that, the most important thing is that you focus on developing the theoretical knowledge of your instrument and music as a whole in addition to just playing. Theory is kind of boring, but it will make things so much easier in the long run. It’s like trying to build a house with just a hammer and an old rusty multi-tool. It’s definitely something you can try to do if you want, but why would you? Never limit yourself through willful ignorance. The knowledge that you gain by learning some music theory will allow you to understand complicated pieces easier (whether you learn them through tab or by ear) in addition to helping you out if you ever want to pursue a different genre of music. It’s also pretty helpful if you want to write your own music or learn to improvise.
That’s not to say that they can't be a great place to start though. You just have to approach it with a little more knowledge and self-discipline. It is hard to know what you don't know and what you should work on first, but we suggest these books as a great place to start.
- Least expensive way to learn guitar, as many resources can be found at public libraries, used, and other low cost providers
- Very good information is available and you can combine different books to
- Timing is very flexible as you can use these resources to learn on your own time
- No direct feedback about your progress to help correct bad habits/form good habits or on the effectiveness of your program
- It can be challenging to design a comprehensive approach that will sequence the material in the optimum order
- Requires self discipline to stay engaged and practicing
Yes, Rocksmith is a video game that seems to be taking the guitar world by storm. This isn't the most traditional way to learn, but many people who haven't had success with traditional methods have found results through Rocksmith. All things considered, if you have a guitar in your hands and are having fun, you're on the right track. So it was only a matter of time before people stepped up the idea of combining a video game with learning guitar. Think of this as the games Guitar Hero or Rock Band on steroids.
Before you dismiss this as a simple video game and nothing more, even Jerry Cantrell, guitarist for Alice in Chains, speaks highly of it in this review video.
While it is easy to think this is a simple game and waste of time, that would be a mistake. Many guitarists credit Rocksmith with inspiring them to start playing guitar, and we have even heard some experienced players say this rekindled their desire to pick the guitar back up and that it helped to brush the rust off the skills they had decades ago.
- Fun, especially for students that have had difficulties with other learning methods keeping their attention
- Inexpensive, assuming you already have a compatible computer or video game console
- No direct feedback or personalized instruction
- Requires discipline and self motivation to stay on track
There is a quote about surfing that says, “The best surfer is the one having the most fun.” That concept absolutely translates to guitar. However you choose to pursue the instrument, remember why you started. It’s about having a great time and improving yourself. Have fun on your journey!