The Twelfth Fret ~ Since 1977 ~

Five Ways to Improve Your Guitar Playing

Five Ways to Improve Your Guitar Playing - The Twelfth Fret

During the fifteen years I’ve been teaching at The Twelfth Fret I’ve noticed my beginner and intermediate students seem to hit the same road blocks. Students of all ages can get really discouraged that they’re not improving and wonder if learning an instrument is something they have the ability or the time to do. It’s almost always the same things that bog them down and the following five tips can help you overcome frustration and grow your skills as a player.


1.  Grow Your Ears.

Five Ways to Improve Your Guitar Playing - The Twelfth Fret

There’s a difference between hearing and listening. There’s an even subtler level of listening involved in really “hearing” music. Years ago in one of my first bands we were rehearsing in the singer’s parent’s basement. We’d been going over a section of one of our songs for ages when the singer said to me: “Go back to that thing you do, you know that part…” and then he proceeded to sing something that sounded almost nothing like the actual melody I’d been playing all day. I was slightly taken aback and asked him to sing what I’d been playing in that part all day. Again came the gibberish. I realized he only had a vague idea of the actual notes involved, and their arrangement. He didn’t really “hear” it.

I had also noticed my ears had gotten much more developed as I’d become a better player over the years. Things I couldn’t learn a few years ago I now could because I could pick them out clearly when listening to a song. A song was no longer just a wall of music blasting at me, it was also individual instruments and specific notes and rhythms working together. My ears had grown bigger. 

Really hearing what you’re trying to play is a fundamental problem for anyone learning an instrument. If you only have a vague idea of what it sounds like you’ll never play it. When teaching a song to my students, very often I’ll see them fixated on the sheet music with furrowed brow as they struggle with the same section again and again. I’ll stop them and turn the music over. Then I ask them to picture their pets, or children or parents. They can see them in their mind’s eye. Then I explain that your mind has a similar ability with sounds. I play the section and ask them to imagine they have a virtual recorder in their head. After a few repetitions I ask them to play it back in their head. For most people this is the first time they’ve ever thought about hearing music this way and it’s transformational.

You can develop this ability, or grow your ears, even going to school or work, on the bus or in your car. If you’re listening to a song, take a moment to pause it and play it back in your head. Do it again. You’ll find the more you do it the easier it gets.

2. Make A Loop.

Five Ways to Improve Your Guitar Playing - The Twelfth Fret

 If you’re having a hard time with a certain part of a song, or a specific phrase in a solo, break it down into smaller chunks. Find the exact spot that makes your fingers fumble and a few notes after it where you can then loop back seamlessly. Then look at your phone and observe the time. Repeat the loop you’ve created for three minutes without stopping. If you get totally lost, stop for only a few seconds and begin looping again. Ignore the fumbles and fix them the next time. Or the next time…

This three minute routine is also great for managing practice time efficiently. Pick three things and loop them for three minutes each. This way you’ll solve technique problems quicker and improve faster. I used to tell my students to play things 200 times every time they play. They would inevitably give me a fish eyed look. Well it turns out that most things can be played around 200 times in three minutes once you get accustomed to doing it. If you can’t find three minutes to practice, maybe an instrument isn’t for you. Right? 

3. There Is Only ONE Strumming Pattern.

Five Ways to Improve Your Guitar Playing - The Twelfth Fret

Yes I know, not every song sounds the same. There are many rhythmic variations to almost every song.  I agree. But there is only down up, down up, down up, down up.  Every song that strums is only this motion with varying accents and volume changes. “What’s the strumming pattern?” is probably the most often asked question from my guitar students. “It’s always the same”, I reply. It’s always a rhythmic variation based on DOWN UP DOWN UP.  I ask the student to strum a G chord all down strokes, while counting 1 2 3 4 – 1 2 3 4. Quarter notes. Then I ask them to strum DOWN UP DOWN UP DOWN UP DOWN UP while counting 1a 2a 3a 4a- 1a 2a 3a 4a.  Eighth notes. I stress that there can be no speeding up or slowing down. You must fit 2 eighth notes in the same time space as one quarter note. I find that all issues students have with strumming is they don’t yet understand the difference between quarter notes and eighth notes and how they are tied to the motions of strumming.

The numbers, 1 2 3 4 are the down strums, the “ands” 1a 2a 3a 4a are the up strums. This has been established law since the 12th century as a result of treaty between two warring Scandinavian families who battled endlessly for power: The Upstroms and The Downstroms.

4. Don’t Give Up.

Five Ways to Improve Your Guitar Playing - The Twelfth Fret

If you’ve hit that point where this all seems too hard and you’ll never learn to play guitar, then put your guitar down for a minute. Yes I know it’s harder than you thought. Your fingers are sore and your wrist aches. You’ve been playing the same three songs with your teacher for 4 months and you aren’t even sure you’re getting any better.  Maybe you just need a break.  Maybe a few months away from it.  You’re getting busier lately. A few months off and then you’ll be fresh and ready to start again.  Just put the guitar in the closet or under the bed for now.  You’ll pick it back up.

I have seen many students reach this point. They assure me they’re not giving up and they’ll really be back in March, or September, when things slow down at work or school. I get it.

Remind yourself why you love the guitar. Remember how excited and nervous you were to take your first lesson. You even bugged your parents to buy it for you, or bought one for yourself. This can be a crucial moment for your musical aspirations. Should you give up? No. Don’t give up. If you stick with it you will get better. You will learn how to play those songs you love. You will wail that great solo. Don’t give up.

5. Have Fun!

Five Ways to Improve Your Guitar Playing - The Twelfth Fret

Always set aside time to just noodle around and have fun. Play don’t practice. Play as much as you can. Play all the time. This is music and you’re doing it. And music is amazing.




By Ed Bernard ~ Twelfth Fret Music School







The Twelfth Fret

Guitarists’ Pro Shop
2132 Danforth Avenue
Toronto, Ontario  M4C 1J9
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