What skills do you need to play guitar?

by Jake Willmot

This may be a question that is on your mind. This is true whether you have never played before, you are at the beginner level, you have been playing for a couple years or you have been playing for a decade or more.

This is a question you would probably ask if you haven’t been playing too long, and that is “what do I need to learn to play guitar” or in my words “what skills do you need to play guitar”?

Here’s the answer: it depends.

There are some skills which are universal. There are some skills that almost every single guitar player needs. Regardless of what styles of music you like, your skill level or your goals, there are some things you just need to know.

For example, open chords. There are not many artists or styles of music that don’t use open chords (except for technical death metal perhaps, but even in a style like this they can be useful). Assuming you want to play songs you like, figure them out by ear, or you want to go further and learn how to write songs or improvise, open chords are important.

Another universal skill is playing in time and playing basic rhythms. It doesn’t matter what you want to do with your guitar, if you can’t play in time nothing else matters. Have you ever looked at a tab online or in a book, played the notes or chord in the tabs but It doesn’t really sound like the song? That’s because you are either were playing the wrong rhythms or you are playing out of time.

If you are more advanced have you ever wanted to jam at an open mic night but the whole thing falls apart when you try and join in? If this is the case you likely have timing issues. Have you tried writing a song and have it be a total trainwreck? There are multiple potential reasons for this, but a big reason for this could be that you have no idea on rhythms or playing in time.

Some skills however, are not universal to everyone. There are skills that you MAY need depending on the genres of music you want to play or what your goals are. An example for this is reading music. If you want to play classical music, you can’t learn to do that until you have at least basic reading skills. But if you want to play rock music then you don’t need to learn how to read standard notation.

Another example is sweep picking. For those of you who don’t know what this is, this where you move the pick through the strings in one motion, while the fretting hand moves the fingers on the notes. This is usually done on arpeggios but not always. This is very popular is styles like Neoclassical/shred, styles of metal and even can be done in jazz. But if you are playing pop music, then you are not likely going to need to be good at sweep picking.

What about music theory? Well again, some theory is fairly important for everyone. Unless all you want to do is play simple songs and you don’t want to figure them out by ear, you are going to need to learn some simple theory, but you don’t need to learn all of it necessarily.

If you want to write songs, an example of some useful music theory would be knowing scales and keys and what chords are in those keys. Learning this would be helpful in writing chord progressions for songs. This is also useful for improvising, although knowing what scales you can use over chords is more helpful here if you are playing lead guitar. Whereas if you just want to play songs you don’t need to know this.

“How do I know or figure out what skills I need to play guitar the way I like?” well there are 3 main ways.
1- You figure it all out by trial and error: this is the long hard way.
2- You semi figure it out by trial and error. Meaning you go on Youtube and hope you stumble upon lessons that will help you improve. This is still trial and error really but you are not on your own fully.
The problem here is there’s a lot of bad lessons online, there’s no way of knowing what you need to learn if you are just getting started, you also can’t ask for help. This is only marginally better than the first way.
3- You find a great guitar teacher who has done what you want to do and has helped others to do so. This is way faster than trying to do it alone.

About the author: Jake Willmot is a musician and guitar teacher in Exmouth who is also big on metal music.