The One Skill That Can Make or Break Your Guitar Playing Journey



What do you think is the most important thing to develop during your guitar playing journey? Your technique? The number of chords you have memorized? How much music theory you know?

None of the above.

The most important ability to develop is: a deep joy for the journey and for the practice. Why? Simple – if you hate the process itself and only see it as a chore that you have to get done, you will not get far. If you have to force yourself to practice every day you will soon run out of fuel, because pure discipline is not sustainable and will always loose to the fuel of fire and passion. If you develop a love for the process you will get better faster and you´ll enjoy every step of the way! So, what can we do to spark the joy for the practice?

Reconnect to your reasons on a regular basis

Why did you start playing the guitar? What specifically made you pick the guitar and not the flute or the piano? Did you see your favorite musician rock out on stage? Did you want to impress your friends or your crush? Whatever it was, write it down and try to re-live that feeling and excitement in your mind and rekindle that fire in any way you can. It might be by watching videos of your favorite players, buying guitar magazines or visiting the local music shop to try out some gear. Whatever it is – do anything to get this feeling of magic back and re-visit your reasons for playing on a regular basis, because they keep you connected to the instrument in a deep emotional way, which in turn fuels how you feel during your practice.

Celebrate small victories and savor what you can play now

Unless you are just starting out yourself, I bet you can already play something that would impress a total beginner, right? It can be a lick, a riff, a little melody or a few chords. If you had heard it as a total beginner, you might have thought: “Man, if I could play that, I´d be happy!” What happened to that feeling? The old saying – “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence” applies in guitar playing too, so whenever there´s something we can´t play, we´re amazed and want to play it, but as soon as we can play it, we take it for granted and off we are to the next thing, never really enjoying what we can play right now. In psychology, the process of quickly getting used to improvements in our life is called hedonistic adaptation and you can easily see how this also applies to our guitar playing progress. To counter this, it´s good practice to add a new page to your practice journal: The appreciation page.

On this page in your practice journal you will list five things that you really appreciate about your playing every week, purposefully take time to enjoy what is working already and celebrate how far you have already come. This will help you take the focus away from what needs fixing to what is working. You are re-training your mindset here, so don´t expect overnight results, but if you are persistent you will shift what you focus on.

Create hands on results

It might be difficult to be excited about your guitar playing, because you might feel that you play for some time (maybe even years) and still have nothing to show for. You might be feeling stuck, because your fingers go to the same place on the neck over and over again every time you touch the guitar or you´ve been playing the same licks and riffs for years.

To combat this feeling, create a hands-on result for yourself: plan a little concert for your friends or family, set yourself a deadline to write a song that you will then record and burn to a CD that you can hold in your hands. Whatever you pick, it´s important to create these results for yourself, because the brain is very reluctant to let you spend huge amounts of energy on something, if you don´t give it proof that investing this energy makes sense. Creating hands-on results and the emotions that arise from that, will make it clear to your brain that the energy is well spent.

Set goals

It´s common to meet beginners who have no goals for what they want to be able to play and the first thing I do is to help them set goals. It does not matter if these goals are super accurate or change over time, but goals need to be set to get a feeling of making progress, moving in the right direction and to create fuel for the journey. To become fuel, the goal needs to stir up some emotion and make the person feel the awesome feeling of: If I could play this, that would be freaking awwwweeesssome!!!!! 🙂

Imagine a basketball game in a crowded stadium. Everything is as it´s supposed to be, except for the fact that the scoreboard is remains empty. The players of both teams run around on the court, shoot some hoops, but nobody keeps score of points made. Would anybody be on fire in this scenario? Would anybody be excited and really be into the game? Not really, right?

Taking the game seriously, keeping score, wanting to win – this is what makes the game fun in the first place! Just like basketball, guitar playing is a game too and we enjoy it most if we have a goal that we want to hit. Without having a goal you will not have any fire for the journey, especially when the going gets tough. So set a goal for yourself. Pick your favorite riff and set a plan that you will learn how to play it. Then create a practice schedule that will move you closer and closer to that goal. When you reach it – celebrate and set the next goal you´re excited about, because we don´t want to retire from enjoying ourselves, right?

Getting better as a player means growing as a person

The guitar is a wonderful tool for self-development, helping you grow as a person and the further along you get, the more important it is to become the type of person that can play the particular piece you want to play. Being a great player goes hand in hand with being dedicated to your craft, being organized and systematic in your approach to practice (among many other factors). If you want a certain ability ask yourself: What person would be able to do that? What character qualities must this person have to achieve the level of skill?

Write those attributes down in a list and ask your teacher for help when you are not sure how to develop a certain ability. Appreciate that the guitar confronts you with yourself and pushes you into becoming a more beautiful person! This insight can lead to a huge shift in your perspective, because then you will not see practice as an obstacle, but as a continuous challenge that is constantly testing you and pushing you towards new growth.

About the author:
Derk Stiepelmann is the owner of Songwriter´s Shed, a guitar school that offers highly effective guitar lessons in Dortmund. Contact him for lessons by clicking the linked text!