Common Guitar Challenges

Lack of a Clear Plan – It is important at the outset of your musical endeavors, or if you are an intermediate player who has hit “the wall” then right now is the time for you, to determine exactly what it is you wish to accomplish. Determine what kind of music you most want to play and identify the technique and knowledge you need for that style. Then don’t squander precious time on things that do not apply to your goal. You can branch out later, but trying to tackle the whole field of musical endeavor from the outset is a sure plan for catastrophic frustration. Study the music you enjoy, work with a good teacher, master the basics, and practice well.

Prioritizing Songs Over Fundamentals – “I want to learn songs … now!” This sentiment is probably the number one reason that most people who pick up a guitar never make it past a very minimal level of musicianship. It is part two of the opening sentiment – “… now!” – that provokes many aspiring guitarists to pull their aim off target and instead shoot themselves in the foot. Learning songs involves a number elements that can present challenges. If you haven’t done the preliminary work in knowledge and technique, forget playing songs. Before even beginning to approach this, you need to know the required chords and scales, be able to finger them instantly, have a well-developed picking/strumming technique that is well-coordinated with your fretting hand, and have a sufficiently developed sense of rhythm and timing to be able to keep up with the song. 

Many an aspiring guitarist prefers to go straight to playing favorite songs, attempting to bypass the fundamental skills that are essential to play them. This is a sure-fire plan for failure. In the early stages of learning guitar, practice should focus less on songs and more on learning technique, the notes of the fretboard, common chords, common scales, scale pattern key notes, the Major and Minor Keys, the Standard Harmony Rules, Interval formulas for Major and Minor Keys, and fundamentals of rhythm/meter.

Playing Instead of Practicing – Playing is no substitute for practicing. Practice with a deliberate strategy. To devise a master plan you should look to the music you wish to play and find out what kinds of chords, rhythms, and scales/arpeggios arise in that music. You need to master those things to play that kind of music. Define goals for every practice session. If you practice with no particular goal in mind then you will get exactly where you planned to get – nowhere. Focus on specific aspects of knowledge and technique during practice. Playing licks that you already know, or mindlessly wandering up and down through scales, is not practice. That is playing and it will not help you improve nearly as much as practicing.

Push yourself to do better than yesterday. Profitable practice does not come from merely repeating what you did yesterday. It comes from making it a point to do better than you did yesterday. Maintain your attention on the details. It is very easy to allow your mind to wander off when you are doing repetitive aspects of your practice routine. Choose to keep your mind focused on the details of what you are working on. Finally, it is pointless to pursue music if it is going to mean nothing but practice. Allow yourself time within each practice session, or at least weekly, to just play without being overly concerned about the perfection of the details.

Failure to Cultivate Critical Habits – Set up a designated place and time to practice. Set aside some time each time you practice to target some area of the fretboard for note memorization. Chord changing is one of the keys to making really satisfying music, so it is important to get this under control as quickly as possible. Be there on the 1 count! Cultivate a habit of starting each downstroke at the top of the guitar body and follow through to the other side of the guitar body. Then reverse this for the upstroke. Perform the pick stroke with a lively snatch of the forearm, allowing the relaxed hand/wrist to follow along, and drag the pick quickly and lightly along the top of the strings. When practicing scale patterns always allow the previous note to run into the next note with no silence in between. To get started with solo phrasing, always play scale notes on the beat and resolve on the first beat of the underlying chord change.

Stopping short of Automaticness – When you know how to do a thing so well that you can do it automatically, you will be able to do it well even under duress. This applies to making music in the same way it applies to walking, and the stages of development are similar. You start by crawling, then by holding onto the couch while you experiment with standing. Next you try a few steps, next thing you know your Mom is yelling at you for running through the house, followed by your Coach yelling at you for not running fast enough or long enough. By that stage the mere act of walking is long since a given.

So how do we develop automaticness in guitar technique? The same way we do with walking. We start with simple chords and pieces of scales and arpeggios and then we progressively work our way up to more complex tasks, with an occasional bloody knee so to speak. For the guitar player this means beginning with simple exercises played very slowly and deliberately, and then chords, scales, and arpeggios, all with slow and deliberate repetition of efficient fingerings along with a metronome until they become automatic. That takes more than two weeks or two months. Speed will grow naturally out of good technique perfected at much slower speeds. There is a time and method to develop speed, but it is pointless to do so until achieving a basic level of automaticness in each of these basic skills. 

Lack of Attention to Detail – Don’t sweat the small stuff! So goes the old saying, and within its sphere this is a sage piece of advice. When playing guitar the ability to cruise past mistakes without getting derailed is critical.  However, we need to keep in mind that playing guitar and practicing guitar are very different things. When practicing guitar we very much need to sweat the small stuff. Practice does not make perfect unless it is perfect practice! While doing our best is not a bad ideal, in practical application this kind of ambiguously defined goal leaves us a lot of room for actually not doing our best.

It is important to understand that people do not deliberately set out to practice in ways that are less than productive. Rather, focused concentration for extended periods is not our default mode of thinking, such that errors creep in just under our notice despite our general intent to “do our best”. So it is important to make a conscious effort to pay attention to the details!

Unrealistic Expectations – Consider whether or not you have any expectations of your progress rate. If you have any other basis than experience or the counsel of someone who is thusly experienced, then your expectations may be unrealistic and not helping you in any way. If so, then you will serve yourself well in discarding them. Be fair to yourself in measuring your progress. Do not allow yourself to evaluate your overall progress as musician solely on the one or two areas where you struggle the most. Give yourself time. There is no way around this, so when you see an ad on the Internet offering overnight skills you can know that you are gazing down a dead end road. 

Succumbing to the Deadly Trifecta: Boredom, Frustration, & Overwhelm – The process of learning to play guitar involves some basic training exercises that are designed to increase knowledge and physical skills in numerous areas. Most of us are impatient to play at the level we envisioned when we started this process. The repetition of basic concepts and physical exercises can be tedious at times, especially when we do not feel we are seeing any measurable results. This is quite normal. All musicians go through this, and the truth is that it never ends. Once we master some new skill or technique, there is always another one waiting in line to challenge us again.

It is critical to learn to maintain motivation in working through our inevitable emotional responses to long term processes and get on to playing as we wish. We must employ realistic & effective short term goals, avoid comparisons to other players, and follow the instructions of whatever course or resource we are using. Give yourself due credit for small victories. Use frustration to identity areas that need attention. Avoid perfectionism, and employ objective measures of progress.

Misunderstanding Creativity – Creativity is neither an unknowable mystery, an accident, nor a fleeting peek into the ethereal mists. It is rather a predictable result of a process involving mastery of the fundamental elements of an endeavor, and then applying those fundamentals in such a way as to generate beauty of function and form. Notice that I did not say anything about creating something from nothing, or even something totally new. Creativity does not mean creating something from nothing. It means assembling the known into that which effectively solves problems or manifests beauty. It is well within the reach of anyone willing to apply themselves to the process.

Now let us consider how this applies to music, and specifically to guitar. Music is fundamentally two objective phenomenon: pitch relationships and time relationships. Musicians assemble these relationships in such a way as to create the more subjective phenomenon of an emotionally satisfying flow of tension and release. This does not require the creation of anything new, but rather a well-developed awareness of how pitch and time relationships work together to create a satisfying flow of tension and release. This can be learned!

Lack of Focus – A prevalent obstacle to maximum progress among developing guitarists is lack of deliberate focus during lessons and practice. Repetition is a potentially powerful aid to recall and technique, but repetition without deliberate focus can actually cultivate less than optimal mental and physical habits and thus hinder progress. Contrarily, repetition combined with deliberate focus will enable your mind and hands to progress at their maximum rates. It is important to understand that deliberate focus is not the default mode of the human mind. Our tendency is to let the attention wander around to different things, and thus sustained focus on one thing requires some conscious effort.

Lack of Balance – Fluency in guitar is ultimately the result of cultivating a range of individual musical skills. It is important to seek an appropriate balance across this range of skills, and very common for aspiring musicians to get out of balance in favoring one component over another. Common mistakes include playing too fast, prioritizing speed over articulation, neglecting to include space in solos, inattention to dynamics, and inadequate development of vibrato.

Ineffective Management of Stage Fright – You and I are going to make mistakes in our playing. Just accept it, and more importantly just learn to play past the mistakes.  Do your thing and forget about what anyone thinks of it.  Master the material you intend to play for others. Understand that stage fright is a normal response to stress and that it is possible to control it, no matter how powerful it may seem at first.  Play in front of others. Eventually stage fright will fade to something far less powerful, and thus you will find it easier to manage.

Ineffective Management of Memory – One of the greatest areas of struggle for most guitarists is remembering the numerous chords, scales, chord progressions, and other odds and ends that we must employ to reproduce our favorite songs or to improvise. While there is no way to make memorization of large amounts of information easy, there are things we can do to make it more predictable and consistent, and thus produce better results and faster progress in our playing. 

For us musicians, we need to focus specifically on two components of memory: procedural memory and declarative memory. Procedural memory, for our purposes, refers to that aspect of recall pertaining to executing physical tasks. In musician lingo we often refer to this as muscle memory. Declarative memory is that aspect of memory that allows us to recall facts and figures, such as chord shapes, scale patterns, and the intervals of the root notes of chord progressions. Both types of memory respond best to organized practice routines that include the critical elements of repetition, consistency, focus, testing, relation, and isolation.

Succumbing to Common Traps – Many aspiring guitarists tend to attempt exercises at speeds that are beyond their capabilities. Remember, you are going to play what you practice. Sloppy practice = sloppy playing. Practice slowly with good note articulation, two-hand coordination, and mental focus. Review is an essential part of learning, but it can become excessive and even predominant if a student is constantly forgetting previously covered material. If it is on your practice schedule or in your lesson materials, make sure you know it by routinely reviewing it during your practice time. When it is time to play you will need all of your mental focus on playing. If you are struggling with simply remembering the next chord, the timing of the next chord change, the next phrase in the solo, or getting your hands to make the required movements, then you will be distracted from the constant application of finesse that you need to make great music.

For intermediate level guitarists one of the most common areas of weakness is the tendency to want to throw everything they know, and at supersonic speeds, at every solo. When developing your solo phrasing do not strive for maximum speed. Instead, strive for maximum impact of every note.

Trying to Force Woodshedding to Substitute for Consistency – Make no mistake: the more time you spend engaging in effective practice, the better you will get. However, it is quite realistic to expect to achieve a satisfying level of functional musicianship without practicing five hours a day every day of the week. For a hobbyist musician, a half hour to an hour of effective, goal-oriented practice per day for five days a week will deliver meaningful results.

When learning the fundamentals of music, woodshedding is NOT a productive substitute for consistency. Not only does it rob you of costly skills in the areas that you are neglecting to practice, it also doesn’t work well for the one area that you have focused on. It may deliver a temporary sense of satisfaction in that over a few days of woodshedding one thing you may see a visible improvement in that one thing, but here is the dirty secret about woodshedding: the gains disappear as soon as you stop woodshedding that one thing. If you are situated such that you have time to woodshed everything on your highly effective practice schedule, then by all means go for it and we will look forward to seeing you on the Billboard charts soon. However, if this is not you then don’t despair. The tortoise wins the race most of the time. Consistency is the key.

Self-defeating Attitudes – Early on in teaching I observed that a lot of people were suffering from the “Why Me” syndrome, an idea that the challenges they were facing were unique to them, and either insurmountable, or else some else’s fault – such as their teacher or program.  They were misunderstanding the facts in both cases, because their expectations had no basis in reality. I couldn’t help them because they were evaluating their playing skills according to unrealistic criteria.

Learning guitar is challenging, and it takes time. The loftier the goal, the harder it is, and the longer it takes. That’s the way it is, despite common claims from some web marketers. There are shorter and longer paths, and a great teacher can cut many years off the timeline, but it is still going to take substantial time, effort, and commitment.

I observe that very few students of music at the hobbyist level take full advantage of all the learning tools I offer. Some do the minimum (or less) they can to fulfill the practice schedule I provide. Some do a little more than that. A few go after every learning outlet I point them to, and it is evident in the results. Those who utilize all the tools I provide, plus doing their own research and study in addition to my lessons, which I fully encourage, those are the students who achieve the fastest and most significant results.

I’m eager to assist clients who fit any of the above descriptions. People have jobs, school, and family obligations competing with their time for music. I well understand all that because I share in the same struggles. If you are truly doing all you can do, then that’s all you can do and I do not intend to beat you over the head about it. If that’s you then I encourage you to stick with it and be patient!

However, I encourage all to consider the following hindrances in attitude from my own experience and my observations of many music students …

(1) Give Me the Giggles! – I have observed many instances, particularly with kids and their parents, of music students or prospects who approach learning music purely as entertainment, similar to sports where a few minutes of training is sufficient to get started, and one can enjoy it without being very good at it. This is not so with music. While making music can and should ultimately be a very satisfying experience, reaching this level of musicianship is a process more along the lines of learning math, science, or language. For whatever reason, many people who have an interest in music lessons, and this is the worst with guitar in particular, seem to have some idea that it is something along the lines of an alternative to sports or watching TV, something that is purely a form of entertainment.

Let me be clear here that I am not suggesting it isn’t possible to learn to play some great music without submitting to twelve years of education. I am addressing the other extreme, where someone feels that the whole process should be an experience similar to sports – giggles out of the gate, with the real work required only for the elite. Well, it isn’t. For a typical hobbyist level musician with a good work ethic and a good teacher, and pursuing fluency in popular music styles, it is going to be a multi-year process to reach a point of functioning predictably and comfortably in a group playing setting such as a band or open jam session. Up until that point, it is going to be like school. Go to class. Do homework. Repeat. It is a process consisting of many small steps, and if anyone is advertising otherwise, be sure to keep an eye on your wallet until you get clear of them.

(2) Show me the Low Road! – We speak of “taking the high road” as a colloquialism for doing the right thing or doing the better thing. The idea is based on the understanding that taking the high road will be harder, but there will be a reward for it at the end of the road, so it will be worth the trouble.

This sort of thing comes up in numerous ways, anytime there is a decision to be made over doing the harder thing or the easier thing. There are a hundred ways in any practice session that we can take the low road. I won’t take time to present an exhaustive list here, but generally you probably know if you are doing this. Are you avoiding the harder thing and doing the easier one instead? If so then you are taking the low road. Though it might make your practice seem more entertaining, it is slowing down your overall progress rate by multiples.

(3) I Can’t! – Yes you can, if you are willing to persist in an informed approach to working at it. There is no “I can’t”. There is only, “I haven’t yet”. It is a process, and the desired results are inevitable. It is just something that you have to work at until it works.

I was once teaching a teenager who was struggling with her chord changes. She came in for her lesson one week and went through the exercises. She kept fumbling the chords, but I knew she had been working with them long enough to get them right. So we kept going over them with me leading her through a series of steps to get her reservations out of the way and let her muscle memory take over. Toward the end of the class she started playing through the exercises smoothly, to her great amazement and delight. However, what I remember most is the look of surprised understanding on her face when I pointed out to her that she was able to do those exercises well when she walked in the door that day. The only thing that was preventing her from peak performance was that her mind was closed to the possibility that she could do them well, and so she had been unconsciously choosing to perform habitually sub-par execution in fulfillment of her expectations.

Attitude is critical.



Are your musical endeavors suffering from any of these challenges? Then you need three things to get moving in the right direction: a great program, a great teacher, and the accountability of being involved in an affirming fellowship surrounding the love of learning & making music. You can have all three plus many more all wrapped up into one convenient package, and at a competitive price. Are you serious about getting this done? Then contact us here to set up an appointment for a FREE introductory consultation …




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