When you learn to play guitar by yourself, the key is to be resourceful. It means learning songs by ear or tab, using YouTube videos and reading amazing blog posts 😉 to learn the ways of the force.
In my opinion, it’s the most satisfying and enjoyable way to play guitar and it’s actually easier than you think.
Even burning toast is more difficult…
In this post I’ll go over the steps of how you can teach yourself to play guitar at home so you don’t have to rely on a teacher.
The thing with teachers is that they’re expensive and you may end up learning stuff which you really don’t want to learn. And in the beginning, learning what motivates and inspires you is super important.
Otherwise, you get bored, lock up your guitar in a coffin and never dare to open it again. But when you learn to play guitar by yourself, you have the freedom to learn and play what you want. As a result, guitar becomes super fun and addictive as Crossy Road. You’ll soon end up falling in love with it like the rest of us.
As a beginner though, teaching yourself may seem daunting. But actually most people learn guitar by themselves. I certainly have and all my friends have too, so you aren’t alone and it can be done.
The common problem is that most people just don’t know where to start.
You see someone playing something you like and you think, Oh Lord, oh boy, I’d do anything to be able to play like that… I’d even drink the juice left over from a jar of gherkins! Unless you actually like drinking gherkin flavoured vinegar of course.
But today, I’ll share with you the tricks of the trade so you can get from “here” to “there” in no time, saving you from drinking that jar of fermented gherkin juice…
1. Start by Learning Chords
When you learn to play guitar by yourself, this is where you should start.
You’ll probably hear this from everybody but they are super important.
They’re the foundation for everything that comes later in guitar so learning them is basically unavoidable.
Trust me, I was a metal guitarist through and through when I started out so the idea of learning chords repelled me like bug repellent.
But hey, I faced my fears and they weren’t actually that bad.
They’re good because you can start playing actual music quickly, even if you just know a handful of chords.
Learn the basic E, A, D, G, F, C chords and their minor variants and you will find that you can play almost all pop songs.
I have a post entirely centred around how to play the basic chords and the best way to practice them, but I will just show you E, A and D briefly today.
E, A and D are the most commonly used chords and you’re bound to use them roughly a bazillion times in your guitar playing.
To play an E major, you’re gonna want to place your fingers like this:
If this still means as much to you as hieroglyphics, then place your guitar facing upwards on your lap and get a bird’s eye view of the fretboard…
The six vertical grid lines indicate the six strings of a guitar – thickest on the left, thinnest on the right and the horizontal lines represent the frets.
The hollow, white circles indicate the strings that you should leave open when playing the chord, and the black dots indicate which fret of which string you should place your fingers on to play the chord.
The numbers on these black dots indicate which finger you should use to play each note: 1 – index, 2 – middle, 3 – ring and 4 – pinkie.
Put all that together and an E should look like this:
To play an A major, your gonna wanna place your digits here:
You will notice that there is an X above the low E string. This means that you shouldn’t play that string when playing this chord. Lightly touch it with your thumb to mute it or simply avoid playing it to make sure it doesn’t ring out.
And for a D major, this is the way to go:
You can actually leave your 3rd finger in place when switching from A to D to make chord changes easier.
Also, you can see that the two lowest strings are muted so try not to play them.
I’ve got more info on these chords and songs that you can play with them in my post on how to play guitar for beginners.
How to Practice Chords
To get these chords ingrained in your muscle memory, I recommend spending a few minutes switching between the chords you’re trying to learn.
If you’re learning an A and an E chord, just go from A to E to A to E continuously.
It’s a great way of learning two new chords at once, whilst also practicing switching to both of them so you can easily spin them off in a song.
But those fingers will fight back against anything you’re trying to make them do in the beginning so don’t worry about going fast.
Within a week or two and you’ll have tamed them like a dog, except you don’t really put them on a lead and walk them…
And once these feel comfortable, you could develop it into E to D to A instead, and carry that on until you can switch between all three chords comfortably.
Within a couple of weeks they’ll all become second nature and you’ll be able to play them as effortlessly as spreading butter.
And that’s when guitar starts to become fun.
2. Learn Your Favourite Licks
You’ve got good at chords and gained more dexterity in your fingers so it’s time to step it up.
Find the riffs from your favourite bands/artists that you would love to play and spend the time learning them.
They can be as simple as you like, just learn something.
And it’ll be the coolest feeling ever when you hear yourself playing them in a few days time.
It’s really addictive and hooks you onto playing even more.
When you learn to play guitar by yourself, you have the freedom to play anything you choose.
And who doesn’t like that, ‘ey?
So how do you actually go about learning those epic songs you love?
There are three ways and two of them are really easy…
The third one… meh, not so much.
How to Read Tablature
The first one is learning by tab.
If you decide to learn guitar by yourself, then you will probably look at so much tab that your eyes begin to look like it too.
Note: I am not a medical professional and so your eyes may not actually begin to look like tab.
Tab is short for “tablature” and was created as a method to write down guitar/bass music in a way that’s easy to read.
Us guitarists avoid sheet music like the plague, so tablature gets rid of those black dots on staves and instead gives you numbers on strings from a top-down view. Like this:
The six lines with numbers on correspond to the six strings on your guitar.
The numbers on the lines indicate the fret numbers that you should place your fingers on to play the notes.
If the numbers are all stacked on top of each other then you strum all of them at once as a chord. If not, then you play each note on it’s own.
The bottom line indicates the lowest string of the guitar, and the top line indicates the highest string of the guitar.
If you are unsure, then lay your guitar with the strings facing upwards on your lap.
The six lines on the tab are in the same order as strings are when viewed from top down.
Make sure the thickest string is the closest string to your torso and everything will make sense.
Listen to the recording and read the tab at the same time to see this in action.
How to Find Tablature
Luckily for us, there are a number of apps that allow you free access to the tabs for almost every song under the sun.
Now, how epic is that?
They work by letting other guitarists who have learnt the songs by ear upload the tabs of how to play these songs so that other people can learn them too.
Aren’t guitarists nice 🙂
In my opinion there are two amazing apps/websites for this:
And personally, I prefer Songsterr.
It has a modern look, a feature that allows you to “play” the guitar part that fits the tab for any song and the ability to switch between guitar 1, guitar 2, the bass tab and the drum tab all at the click of a button.
This is super helpful and makes learning so much faster.
Ultimate guitar though is also highly successful with more users than you’ve had hot dinners.
It has nifty review ratings for each tab so you can chose the most accurate tabs to learn from too.
It’s been the go to for many years and will serve you well.
However, you do have to pay for extras like a tab player and a cleaner look.
To find the tab for the song you want to learn, it’s as easy as downloading one of those apps/going onto their websites and searching [Song name][Band name].
E.g. Time Pink Floyd. You can then click on the link to the tab that comes up and get learning.
It’s as easy as that.
Learn Via YouTube Videos
Now YouTube is a pretty epic tool when learning guitar.
And ya know why?
Because it’s free!
That means us guitarists can exploit the hell out of it without ever needing to spend a dime.
Type in “How to play Wonderwall on guitar” and you will find 50 million different videos explaining how to play Wonderwall.
And when you learn to play guitar by yourself, this is especially useful because you can mimic the way the instructor plays.
This gives you guidance on how to do things properly and gets you into good habits early on.
(For more on getting into good habits early on, check out my post on the best guitar technique for picking and strumming by clicking here)
The only downside to YouTube videos is that you won’t always understand the fancy terms they’re saying in the beginning.
And so sometimes it might be difficult to see what they’re actually playing.
Occasionally you’ll have to flick back to a tab to understand the notes they’re telling you to play.
All in all though, YouTube videos are a great way to learn guitar by yourself.
All three of those channels are great and you should definitely check them out!
*Apps That Teach You Guitar
Guitar teaching apps can be immensely useful for you when starting out.
The idea is that they give you a path of things to learn, with videos teaching you along the way.
Good apps will guide you through the learning process a way that doesn’t leave you feel lost or bored.
Bad apps will leave you with an urge to toss your guitar out the window.
Fender Play allows you to choose your own genre and path to go on and takes you from beginner to intermediate in that field. It features loads of high quality videos and takes a nice 1 to 1 practice approach. With a 14 day free trial, and a great learning songs section too, Fender Play is here for the long run.
Yousician takes a game-like approach to practicing, which makes playing super addictive. You can’t use it more than 30 minutes a day without the premium version though. I personally used this when I started playing guitar and loved it.
Justin Guitar Beginner Lessons was made by the sacred Youtuber himself, JustinGuitar. *Hallelujah* It aims to get you playing real songs quickly so that you can impress your friends and start enjoying yourself. You also get a large section of the app free before you have to pay anything so you can test it out.
Learn Songs by Ear
This is without a doubt the toughest but also the most baddass way of learning songs.
Just imagine being able to listen to a song a few times and BAM, you can play it.
Annoyingly though, it takes much longer to learn a song by ear than it does by tab/video in the beginning.
But the benefits are great.
You come out the other side with a more musically trained ear and 10x more baddass.
This is particularly helpful for band situations or tuning your guitar without a tuner, which is easy to neglect when you learn to play guitar by yourself.
Picture this… You are with your bandmates jamming and your guitarist buddy makes up a riff and everybody hops on to it. Your drummer comes up with a beat and your bassist plays some root note groove to match.
But you get stuck.
Playing root note chords wouldn’t fit and you don’t really know what you guitarist buddy is playing. You end up having to awkwardly ask your buddy to teach you what he is playing mid jam whilst everyone else keeps going.
It never ends well.
The beauty of learning riffs by ear is that you can deal with those situations.
Your friend comes up with a riff and you can figure out what he is playing just by listening to it. Within a couple of seconds you are playing the riff too. You can then join in seamlessly with your bandmates and everyone can have a bash.
How to Learn Songs by Ear
The best songs to learn initially are those with simple chord progressions/riffs.
The riffs are mostly simple power chords and you can hear them easily in the mix. The Smoke on the Water riff is also a good one to start with.
You want to start by listening to the riff/progression and singing it back to yourself a couple of times. This helps you extract the basic melody from the rest of the band sound.
To find the first note/chord of the riff then on the 3rd time singing this riff, stop and hold that first note for a while.
Keep holding that note whilst you try different notes on the guitar until the pitches match. Once you find it then you can repeat this process with the next notes of the progression.
For faster riffs with little progression, find the key the riff is in first. You can then find the song on YouTube and slow down the playback speed to make the notes more audible. Again, sing the riff and find those notes on the fretboard.
If you can’t find a particular note, then experiment with notes outside the key/scale too. Guitarists are rebels, so they often use notes that aren’t in the key/scale for effect so you’ll just need to play around.
If you learn to play guitar by yourself, I do recommend giving it a go as soon as you feel comfortable with the instrument.
But don’t throw yourself in the deep-end too soon because it’ll feel too difficult and it’ll get frustrating.
Start easy and build up, it’s a good habit to get into.
3. Learn to Play Solos
Once you feel like you’re happy with chords and riffs, it’s time to start the fun stuff.
Guitar solos are undoubtedly one of the coolest aspects of guitar.
And once you can solo, the amount of girls chasing you will increase by at least 0.01%.
Anyway, when you learn to play guitar by yourself, this is something you shouldn’t shy away from because it’s not as hard as everyone makes it out to be.
It’s not gonna bite, and the journey of crafting your own style, learning to improvise, playing your favourite solos and even writing your own solos is just super addictive.
Where should you begin?
You will want to start by learning all the scale shapes for a particular scale (E.g Minor Pentatonic).
These shapes basically give you access to the scale all over the fretboard.
Whether you’re on fret 15, fret 8 or fret 5, you’ll know where all the scale notes nearby are, making improvising feel and sound as free as a free range chicken.
You’ll also want to start learning solos from your favourite guitarists.
The easier, the better. Just anything to get you soloing.
Keep practicing those difficult licks and you will soon have them down.
The trick is to slow the tough parts down to a tempo you can play them at.
From then on, slowly raise the tempo in 2-5bpm increments until you reach full speed again and can play the lick cleanly.
Take as long as you need learning it but stick at it.
You’ll soon be able to play the entire solo and you’ll feel badass.
And from that point onwards, you’re officially a lead guitarist. Congrats!
You can then challenge yourself with trickier solos to keep developing and getting better.
Soon enough, you’ll be playing the solos that initially made you drool down your shirt in amazement.
Woohoo! That brings us to a close today. The key things to take away are that you 100% CAN learn to play guitar by yourself, you should start with chords and build up, and drinking a jar of gherkin juice will not help you play like your idols.
Anyway, you’ve got the tools, you’ve got the plan…
Go get playing!