Have you always wondered about how to learn to play guitar by yourself when you don’t have the money for private lessons? Well, thankfully there are tons of resources for teaching yourself guitar at home…
When you were growing up did you ever dream about becoming a rock star?
The lights flashing, the fans screaming, the music pounding you to your core.
I know I did.
As a teenager, I really wanted to learn to play guitar, so I bought a cool looking one from Guitar Center and fiddled around with it for a while, jammed with friends, and picked away at tablature from Black Sabbath, Metallica, and others.
I never took guitar lessons (beyond one classical guitar class that was offered at my high school), never learned how to read music, and never really even learned to play chords.
It was always a fun little hobby though, you know, trying to teach yourself guitar.
Like many things in my life, it sort of fell away with time. By the time I left for college it was a distant memory.
But I’ve still got my old BC Rich Warlock stashed away in a case back home…
After leaving Colombia a few years ago, and before heading out to drive through Central America, I headed home to visit my mom. During that time I picked up her acoustic guitar and found my way back to that old familiar fretboard.
I became enamored once again picking away on those strings as I sat on the couch or was otherwise relaxing. Though it felt familiar, I had pretty much lost whatever little skill or coordination I had as a teenager.
I was basically starting from scratch again. Zero. Zilch. Nada.
Fast forward to today and I hadn’t touched a guitar for a whole year, not since leaving Seattle.
Buying a Cheap Acoustic Guitar
Even before we finished driving to Medellin, I knew I wanted to go pick up a cheap acoustic guitar when we settled down again…
The other day I finally went out to the Medellin Centro and visited a few music stores near Carabobo Street (which translates as Silly Face Street, ha). Where I found a cheap classical guitar (three nylon strings, three steel strings) made locally in Bucaramanga, Colombia for just 107.000 pesos ($33) with a nice padded case.
For a $33 guitar it sounds pretty good and plays great actually.
Awesome! Back in business.
I’ve been talking a lot lately about building new and more productive habits, things like reading every day, exercising everyday, starting to run, and more.
I’m adding teaching myself guitar to that list.
Not just randomly picking about for a year, but actually LEARNING how to play the guitar.
Of course, there are nearly an infinite amount of things to learn and now unlike learning a language like Spanish, one never really finishes but is always learning something new, something more, and improving. It is a lifetime pursuit.
My goals are not to become a rock star like I daydreamed when I was younger. But something more modest, perhaps feeling confident enough to play a handful of songs for friends.
Why Teach Yourself Guitar Now?
So why bother learning to play guitar? Especially now that I’m no longer young…
1) Personal Growth: I believe we should always be pushing ourselves in order to grow, whether that is learning a new language, pushing yourself physically, or whatever the case might be. Music is great because it is a universal language.
2) Relaxing: Sure your fingers hurt and it can be frustrating at times, but it is also quite relaxing to just sit back on the couch and strum through some chords or bust out a familiar riff. Studies have shown that playing music releases dopamines and reduces stress.
3) Creative Outlet: It is always good to have some sort of creative outlet in life. I have writing, which I enjoy… But which can also feel like a chore at times. I like being able to pick up the guitar beside me while I am struggling with writer’s block and find another outlet.
4) It’s Fun: Most important reason of all, right? It’s just a good time, and fun to watch yourself improve and progress (as with any other challenging thing).
How to Learn to Play Guitar by Yourself
One thing that I’ve really noticed is the sheer amount of amazing resources out there to help you learn guitar.
I remember the days of my Metal Method VHS tapes and pricey Black Sabbath tab books… Nowadays there is this thing called the internet with endless tabs and chords, YouTube videos with free lessons and song breakdowns, and even apps for your smartphone.
It’s a brave new world.
I’m using a few really awesome resources right now to learn the guitar:
While I was messing around last year, I stumbled across GuitorBots, a free online resource that was sort of like Guitar Hero, but with a real guitar in your hand.
The program would run off of any computer and use your microphone to pick up the notes or chords you are playing. It was a lot of fun and I really could see myself progressing while using it.
Here’s a video of me last year rocking out El Condor Pasa using GuitarBots on my mom’s acoustic:
After picking up my cheapo guitar, I was disappointed to see that GuitarBots was no more!
It has since converted into Yousician. It’s pretty much the same thing, but this time as a downloadable program instead of a webapp.
They have also made changes to the structure of the program by providing two different tracks: one for rhythm guitar and one for lead guitar.
Most significantly, they have also added actual instruction in technique throughout the program, including short video lessons throughout.
They have taken a solid program (GuitarBots) and expanded upon it to make it something even more awesome.
I downloaded the program right away and after messing around with the free version (which limits your practice time per day), I decided to go ahead and purchase the premium version which allows for unlimited playing time.
Here’s how it works:
I looked into private guitar lessons here in Medellin with Rock Solo and even though things are quite cheap here in general, one hour still runs about $13-15 for 1:1 classes.
Note: I did end up deciding to supplement my learning with a guitar teacher here in Medellin. It’s once per week for an hour for about $15, and he comes to my apartment, so classes are very convenient for me. Though in Spanish, of course.
Yousician premium costs $10 per month, but considering how awesome the program is and how cheap it is relatively speaking, I figured it was a no brainer.
Yousician doesn’t have licenses for well-known music but rather uses original compositions from a number of genres to learn the guitar. The music is pretty good, and it’s always fun to play.
The breadth of musical styles exposes you to new techniques and helps you become well-rounded, instead of just endless pounding out power chords.
The program functions by basically scrolling through the tabs or chords, providing backing music, while you play along with the music.
It rates your timing and playing to give you a score by the end, and an overall point score, like a video game. You can see how your score compares to other Yousician users around the world.
You can enter in practice mode and slow down the songs and set to repeat the parts that are giving you trouble.
The program also features an extensive collection of user uploaded tablature from popular artists, allowing you to master the licks of your favorite songs.
It uses the same familiar interface as the lessons, and also allows you to slow down the songs in practice mode.
I’m trying to work through Wish You Were Here, right now…
They also have weekly challenge songs with new original content of various difficulties, so you’ve always got fresh material.
Obviously, having just started I still have a lot of material to cover, but it looks like the lessons get up to some really, really complicated playing… Just check out this video!
As mentioned though, you can check out Yousician for free. It just has limited playing time and without access to the full song library of tablature for famous songs, but being that it is free, it is one of the BEST resources to teach yourself guitar.
Learn and Master Guitar with Steve Krenz
Yousician is pretty fun and educational, and while they have some great educational videos, it isn’t a totally comprehensive source to teach yourself guitar.
If you search online for learn guitar instructional courses, you will invariably see Learn and Master Guitar with Steve Krenz mentioned at the top of the list.
Among the Amazon reviews are statements such as these:
“As I researched the course, I found it nearly unanimously praised and I eventually decided to bite the bullet and spend the $150. I am so glad I did, just wish I’d had this course 20 years ago!”
“With the solid foundation provided by the “Learn & Master Guitar” course, the student will be able to move on (with the aid of a guitar teacher) to intermediate and advanced training in the genre(s) of interest. With the basic skills & knowledge covered in the course, you should be able to play in a garage band.”
“This course is (by far) the best video instruction course for guitar. According to the Learn & Master website, this is intended to be a two year course of study.”
Alright, I was sold.
The course includes 20 hours of instruction, additional workshop sessions, workbooks, and jam along CDs.
I’ve only started working through the material and know that it will take me a long time… After all, it’s one thing to hear the material and digest it, but another to make your fingers cooperate and do what you know they should be doing or to really internalize the teachings. The process of developing the fine motor skills and hand eye coordination takes time.
Here’s a sample of the style of content and teaching in the course:
The full extended course costs more than $100 on Amazon, but again, when compared to the cost of private lessons, it’s a real steal.
Through this course, I will be learning everything from the basics to how to read music, scales, different strumming patterns, and more.
I’m actually already starting to learn to read music, amazingly!
I’m excited to work through the materials and see how far I can take my guitar playing in a short amount of time.
Steve Krenz is an excellent instructor with tons of experience taking people from absolute beginners to competent guitar players.
I highly recommend his course to teach yourself guitar—check it out on Amazon.com, where you can see a ton more unbiased opinions.
Guitar Tuna is a nifty guitar tuner (get it?) for your smartphone… Which it works great for. But it is also much more than that!
Best of all it has some fun games to play to help you learn guitar chords and proves beneficial to teach yourself guitar, even when you don’t have a guitar in your hands.
Each game has a limited amount of time and trying to answer as many as you can within that timeframe.
Initially it just starts off presenting the shapes of the chords with the corresponding name, you then get presented with the finger positions and have to select the proper chord name. You don’t need a guitar for this, it’s just helping you master the chord shapes.
The second game has you touching each of the finger positions for each chord and strumming the proper strings.
The third game is to train your ear by trying to recognize the chord name based on the sound.
You can play all of the above games in a few minutes of free time with no guitar.
The following need you to have your guitar in hand. Like Yousician (it’s from the same company), Guitar Tuna uses your phone’s microphone to recognize the chords you play to say whether you are right or wrong.
The fourth game shows you the finger position and chord names and has you play them on guitar.
The fifth game is playing from memory and only presents the chord title with no finger positions.
The free app has all the basic chords, including some power chords.
Here’s a video that better shows how the games function:
You can also buy the full app which unlocks many alternate tunings, and the full selection of chord games which gets much more complicated!
The full app is a steep $12.99, but thanks to doing lots of Google Opinion Rewards surveys, I had ample and unused credits available in the Google Play Store, and got it for free, essentially. Highly recommend the Google Opinion Rewards app so you don’t have to shell out money for smartphone apps.
RockSmith to Learn Guitar
More recently, after dedicating myself to learning fundamentals with my cheap acoustic guitar, I got my hands on an awesome travel guitar so I can keep up my practice no matter where I am.
Since it is an electric guitar, I can actually plug my guitar into my laptop and use it to learn songs via RockSmith, which teaches you how to play real, popular songs.
Admittedly, I did not lock the format that RockSmith used to teach the songs, because it isn’t like traditional tablature. I had to wrap my head around it, which took a little while by itself.
But once I got used to the little bars flying by, I found it to be as good a resource as any. I like the fact that it teaches you the songs in parts, rather than starting at 100% difficulty, it has you playing along with little bits and pieces and then continuously adds more notes as you play.
In fact, after you are playing 100% of the song, the notes begin to disappear, and you are actually, finally, playing the song from memory, not just reading along. This is HUGE, and something that no other software offers.
More Guitar Learning Resources
There are so many resources to teach yourself guitar out there, it’s crazy.
Songsterr is a cool tablature website which features all your favorite songs. It has a player which scrolls through the song as you play and features the full band.
You can also isolate instruments from the band to more clearly hear the role you are playing.
The interface isn’t “pretty” but it gets the job done. The site is free, but to get advanced functionality like slowing down the song, you have to pay.
Get a two-week trial of Songsterr premium.
Marty Schwartz YouTube
YouTube has tons of guitar lessons, especially for specific songs. One name that kept popping up was Marty Schwartz of Guitarjamz.com
He has tons of videos for hundreds of different songs where he breaks down the chords or tabs, strumming patterns, and more.
Marty really simplifies the process and tells you what tablature can’t tell you.
Check out Marty’s YouTube channel.
Justin Sandercoe is another YouTube based guitar teacher. He started filming lessons back in 2003 and has since amassed a huge library of lessons covering learning the guitar all-around and is an excellent resource for how to teach yourself guitar.
What is great is that he has organized his videos on his website in comprehensive courses, like his beginner’s course or intermediate course, which are also accompanied with extensive written instruction, level-appropriate songs, and more.
The best part is that all of his instruction is absolutely free.
I’ve only just started digging through, but it looks really comprehensive.
Check out the JustinGuitar beginner’s course.
No need to buy a metronome in this day and age… There are tons of online metronomes for free. Instead of an irritating digital beep, I sometimes prefer the drum truck metronome available here. If I do want just a simple metronome, I tend to use this one or the one built into the Guitar Tuna app mentioned above.
Learning to Read Music
One of the most important fundamentals is learning to read music, something I never put much thought into when I was a teenager. Reading music at first is somewhat difficult, but I’ve downloaded a few apps that have helped me out.
MusicTutor SightRead is a nifty little app that shows you the bars and lines of music with a note and you’ve got to hit the corresponding letter for it. The mini-game has a time limit and you try to properly guess as many music notes as you can.
It’s a simple silly game, but it really helps you to more quickly identify the notes and improve your reading.
Learn Guitar Notes is another little mini game, this time to quiz you on notes on the fretboard. It displays all the fretboard up to the twelfth fret and then asks you to identify all of the E notes on the fretboard, for example. It will go through all the notes. It’s a challenging game, but the idea obviously is to not only know the strings, but deep into the fretboard as well.
There is also an excellent guest post on Tim Ferriss’ blog titled How to Finally Play the Guitar, by using the 80/20 approach.
Dan over at the Tropical MBA has also taken an 80/20 approach to getting started with a guitar.
Do you want to teach yourself guitar? Do you have some favorite resources or tips and tricks for learning to play? I’d love to hear more!
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Metal Method VHS tapes! I forgot all about those but it is where I started too! Guitarists starting out now are missing out on these!
Hey Ryan, I just want to say I have a similar background. I never took any lessons or did classical playing. I also never learned to read musical notes I just learned to read tabs and learned chords either from other people or from the internet, listened to music and played by my heart 🙂 Thanks for this nice article, it really gives courage and hope to anybody that wants to learn how to play and not spend a ton of money!
Thanks so much Paul, glad to hear about your background and experience… Learning an instrument is one of the most fulfilling things, and it’s great to hear that the path you followed has turned out well for you.
nice post man! love your blog name. already signed up. I want to do what you do.. 🙂
I’m pleasantly surprised to see such an informative text on this topic. Not a lot of people give an effort to share a personal experience of starting al over again with playing guitar in older age. This is really useful. Love it !!
Very informative! I appreciate how you put all your effort to bring all those information your blog. It’s great to see someone so passionate about playing guitar and trying his best to share it with people like me who loves music and is thinking of playing a music instrument real soon. With all you shared here, I think I’llbe picking acoustic guitar to start my journey in playing musical instrument. By the way, how many hours did you get to finish this blog?
I really enjoyed the tips will help me a lot thanks and congratulations for the site
Thanks Mark! Glad it was helpful.
Thanks for sharing valuable and detailed guide for beginners . Guitar players today are absurdly lucky. Not only they can find great quality guitars cheaper than ever before, but they can find a wealth of resources on the web . I’ll be sure to forward some of my students here for something different. Thanks again.
Great blog, good to see someone so dedicated to what they love and trying to help people through music.