Teaching yourself guitar is an awesome experience that can give you enormous amounts of freedom and pride. It is not without it’s pitfalls. In teaching yourself you can ingrain mistakes and bad habits as well as missing out on important stuff that you skipped over. You probably will end up catching up with it all at a later date, however in the interests of helping out people who might just be starting out teaching themselves. I thought I would describe a few things that I wish I had learned earlier when teaching myself. Please note that this post is describing mistakes that I picked up with the intention of helping people who might not be aware of potential mistakes, though I will briefly describe solutions to correct these mistakes these are probably better learned through searching for specific lessons elsewhere.
This is the main thing that I am still working on. It’s something that I completely skipped in favour of the more immediate goals of being able to play riffs that I liked or learning some out of context scales. I have an intuitive grasp of certain aspects of theory, however I do not have the knowledge to put it all together. I am still a long way off with this one, but with over 10 years since I started playing it is something I really wished I had learned earlier.
Why should you learn theory? Because it allows you to understand what you are doing and therefore improve it. Knowing the positions of the blues scale for example is one thing, understanding the chords and intervals etc will allow you to go beyond the memorized positions so that you can know which notes to add when, and which non-scale notes will work to add flavour etc. My advice to people teaching themselves guitar would be to find a resource that suits your learning style and dedicate some of your time to learning music theory. You don’t have to become a super jazz nerd or anything (unless you want to of course), but a competent level of theory knowledge will help a great deal.
I’m not even close to a competent level of understanding and I really regret it! Hopefully I will be rectifying this soon.
Bending strings properly
One of the major things that I recently had to work on with my playing was bending notes. The way I initially learned to bend strings was to just bend upwards by pushing the string using mostly a single finger for strength. This resulted in weak, out of tune bends. Once I realised this mistake and corrected it, my playing improved drastically. I made this error because I essentially learned from tabs, which would instruct me to bend strings, but I had no teacher to tell me how to do it properly, thus I simply intuited it wrongly.
First off, lets start with technique. The strength for a bend comes from the wrist. You use your finger to hook the string and hold it during the bend, but most of the strength used comes from the wrist. That is not to say that the fingers do not move, however their movement is not the main force of the bend, this comes from the wrist and hand. Try bending a string using only the strength of your finger, then compare this to engaging your wrist. Engaging your wrist allows for stronger, bigger bends with more control.
Another thing to do is to use more than one finger to support the bend. Essentially this just means avoiding using your index finger to do bends. They are much easier to do if you have one or two fingers behind the fretting finger to support it. There is of course no rule saying you can’t bend with one finger, however you will find that it is much easier and puts less strain on your hand if you support your bend with multiple fingers.
The most important thing aside from proper technique is to learn how to bend to the right tone. More often than not you will bend a note to the next available scale note. For example if you are playing in A minor pentatonic in the 1st position and you wanted to bend the G string at fret 7 you would most likely bend it to sound like fret 9 played on the same string. To practise this all you need to do is find the target note of where you want to bend (in this example 9th fret on the G string), hit that note, then bend on the actual note (7th fret on the G string) until it sounds the same as the target note. You can then reverse this (doing the bend, and then checking if it hit the target note) to make sure you’ve got it down. After a while you will be able to do bends to the proper note without effort.
Correcting sloppy technique
Another thing that can occur if you learn a lot from tabs is that you neglect to learn proper technique when it comes to picking, muting strings, and so forth. I actually became quite advanced (in some respects) with my guitar playing before I thought about correcting sloppy aspects of my technique. Aside from the aforementioned string bends, I was terrible for sounding unwanted strings because I never learned proper muting techniques. Essentially the idea is that the strings above the one you are picking can be muted with your palm, and the strings below can be muted with fingers from your fretting hand. Your solos will greatly benefit from not having unwanted notes ringing out from time to time.
One thing that I still struggle with is using my pinky to fret notes. Whilst it is not essential in that it won’t prevent you from playing well, it does give you more options if you use all 4 fingers. Making a conscious effort to employ your pinky will develop it’s strength and help your technique. I believe that if I had employed my pinky from the start it would be enormously strong by now. Alas it is still a long way off.
That’s about all I can think of for now. Hopefully any guitarists reading this who maybe learned a lot from tabs, written lessons, etc. without any consistent one to one instruction from a teacher will know some potential pitfalls to avoid, or recognise some possible areas to work on in their playing. I wrote this post purely because with each on of the things mentioned I really wished I had picked up on it earlier and corrected it, so hopefully this will help others in a similar position.