The Eternal Rut of the Self-Taught Learner: Why Teaching Yourself Guitar Will Only Get You So Far
“I don’t need guitar lessons, I’ll just teach myself.”
“The internet can be my guitar teacher!”
“Guitar lessons are too expensive – I’ll manage on my own.”
Do any of these sound familiar? Funnily enough, when you decide to start learning guitar, how you’re actually going to learn isn’t always the first thing people think of. Many people jump in without even thinking how they are going to progress, and that can be a sure-fire route to giving up.
Our modern world offers a huge variety of routes when it comes to learning guitar, with the internet seemingly becoming a god-send for self-taught learners all over the world. Chord charts, scales and exercises can be found in seconds with a quick google and if you’re looking for a tutorial on a certain song, you can bet good money that someone will have posted one on YouTube.
Don’t get me wrong, YouTube and the internet can be awesome learning tools, but they work best as supplementary resources to your actual learning. So, in this blog, I’m not trying to put you off learning guitar on your own entirely, but instead, I want to show you why self-taught learning can only get you so far, whilst real tuition will accelerate your progress, get you out of the rut and make you a better guitarist in the long run.
Now before you go pointing out all the guitar gods who were supposedly self-taught (Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Kurt Cobain, Anna Calvi…), no, they might not have sat down with a teacher every week for an hour, but there is no doubt that they will still have learnt from other guitarists, even subconsciously. Simply watching or listening to other guitar players is learning in one format or another – you pick up on certain sounds and techniques, and whether you try to replicate them or just acknowledge and appreciate them, you can’t say you haven’t learnt anything. Essentially, what we’re trying to say is that no guitarist is exceptional without the influence of others, so just because there are a few anomalies to the rule, it doesn’t mean that’s the best way to go about it.
The Pitfalls of Self-Teaching
For the record, there is a time and a place for self-learning: it can work in parallel with expert tuition to yield the best results, but going it alone often means encountering a lot more obstacles in your learning – obstacles that you don’t necessarily know how to overcome.
Lack of accountability and structure
For a lot of people, learning anything is drastically improved with structure – just like going to school, taking driving lessons or taking up a new sport – you need to keep doing them regularly to notice the improvement. When you’re taking one-on-one lessons, you might be going once a week and this dedicated time helps you focus better on your learning. Plus, if you’re being set homework and exercises, you know you have to practise these by your lesson time, and so you schedule that focused guitar time into your weekly routine. However, when you’re going solo, it can be really difficult to allocate the time specifically for practice and even if you do, you might find yourself at a loss of what you should actually be practising. Inevitably, this then leads to a lack of motivation and sometimes, giving up playing guitar all together.
Not only this, but when you try to teach yourself, who is there to measure your progress? Of course, you can gauge your progress to some extent, but you don’t have the expertise of a more experienced guitarist to put your learning into context and demonstrably show you how far you’ve come. The only person responsible for your learning in this situation is you and some people will find it easier to have someone guide them.
This leads nicely onto one of the biggest potential pitfalls: procrastination. I spoke about this topic in depth in the last blog, and it’s like a disease for guitarists everywhere, not just self-taught learners. However, with so many distractions just a click away on platforms like YouTube, your well-meaning ‘practice’ session can often turn into an hour of funny cat compilations and gear review videos of things you really don’t need.
Tuition can’t stop you procrastinating when you’re on your own, but it can at least provide you with a solid piece of dedicated guitar time.
YouTube: friend or foe?
YouTube is amazing: It is a hive of entertaining and educational material, but it’s also the procrastinator’s best friend. Not only this, but the guitar community on the platform is huge, meaning there is a phenomenal amount of content out there for guitarists of all abilities.
You’ll find a lot of great guitar tutors on YouTube who offer quality free ‘lessons’ and videos, but relying on these alone is another potential pitfall of self-taught learning. Sure, you can search for pretty much anything guitar related and you’ll probably find a relevant video, but just because you watched the video, it doesn’t mean that you’ve properly learnt something. It’s easy to feel like you’ve been productive watching a ton of videos, thinking you’ve taken everything in, but have you really ingrained that information into your brain? Do you understand the musical theory behind it? Have you applied it in a practical guitar playing situation? These are the things that you can really only get with expert tuition.
Knowing when you’ve gone wrong
Wondering why your chords don’t sound clean and crisp? Are you finding certain positions and shapes difficult? As a self-taught learner, knowing when you’ve gone wrong is almost impossible as there’s no-one to point out your mistakes and steer you down the correct path. Instead, you end up persevering with your own method and when you do find out the right way, it becomes twice as hard to correct.
For example, without tuition at the start of your guitar learning, it’s easy to pick up bad habits, even with seemingly trivial things like holding a plectrum correctly or ‘tucking’ your unused fingers underneath the neck when playing chords.
One major bad habit which often occurs as a result of self-taught learning is not learning whole songs. Sometimes you just end up learning a riff or basic chord structure, but not all the other parts that tie the song together. It’s easily done, especially as a beginner guitarist, but this is something that tuition can definitely help with.
If you want to find out more about typical bad habits that beginners often pick up, we covered this in a previous blog, plus how you can remedy them.
Take it from someone who’s been there… and now takes lessons
Alex is one of my students who experienced a lot of the pitfalls of self-taught learning:
“I started playing guitar aged 12 with exactly this attitude – I knew about the famous guitarists who never had lessons and I thought ‘I don’t need lessons, at least not yet – I can do it on my own’. I probably thought it was much cooler to not have lessons and I’d begun reading tabs to get me started. I didn’t think I needed anything else.”
“My ‘practice’ consisted of sitting in front of the computer, learning riffs and bits and pieces from tab websites until I got bored. I had absolutely no structure or meaningful practice routine that could show me I was getting better.”
“Guitar didn’t feel so much like a hobby, but something I did occasionally to stave off boredom in between doing other things. Looking back on it, I am entirely convinced that it was this combination of factors that got me stuck in the ‘rut’ – it was though I had completely plateaued because I didn’t have the foundation of skills to build my guitar playing on. Instead, I’d just tried to ‘wing it’, picking up techniques here and there without any real direction. For example, for a long time I didn’t even know that pressing your fretting fingers closer to the fret wire resulted in a better sound, and still to this day, I prefer to hold a pick with my thumb and middle finger, rather than the traditional method of thumb and index finger. It’s not a huge deal, but these are exactly the kind of things a tutor would have picked up on if I’d had tuition.”
“It wasn’t until I went to University that I started to play guitar more seriously and I thought it was about time to seek out some professional help, which is where Chris came in. As far as it goes, I guess I was pretty late to the game in terms of starting to take lessons (10 years down the line!), but it wasn’t long before everything began to ‘click’. Whilst I couldn’t begin my guitar learning all over and build that solid foundation of skills from the get-go, instead, I was filling in the gaps and gaining a better understanding of how guitar works overall.”
Still don’t think tuition is for you?
So, if you’re reading this and thinking “that’s great, but what if I can’t afford a lesson every week?” – that’s where Guitar for Busy Beginners comes in. You get a tried & tested structure, and feedback from a real teacher, without the full expense of private tuition.
What you can expect from Guitar for Busy Beginners:
What Guitar for Busy Beginners offers is a happy medium. You can build all the foundational skills that will help you become a competent, successful guitarist without the price tag and you can do it all at your own pace. Plus, you’ll have me on hand to ask any questions and help you with anything you’re getting stuck with.
The course uses a combination of videos, diagrams and play-along exercises, taking you from the absolute basics to playing your first full songs. The intuitive module interface allows you to easily measure your progress and you can always go back and redo a lesson if you feel like you need to cover something again.
Sound like it might be for you? You can find out more about Guitar for Busy Beginners here.