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So you’re considering guitar as an instrument to learn! Good choice! The guitar is an amazing instrument that is one of the most versatile and dynamic in the world. I have learned some guitar and I asked around to find out what others think about how hard the guitar is to learn
Guitar is considered by many to be one of the most difficult instruments to learn because of its polyphonic capabilities, its abstract representation of the notes, the physical dexterity required to play, and the potential pain and discomfort associated with finger pain and hand cramps.
That’s not the end of the story, though. What does polyphonic even mean? Does that mean you shouldn’t pick up the guitar if you are not musical? Guitar is definitely still worth learning, and conversely, many consider the guitar one of the easiest instruments to learn. How is it possible for two people to think that the guitar is the hardest and easiest instrument at the same time? Let’s find out.
Reasons Why Learning the Guitar is Hard
I have to start out by saying: don’t be intimidated by these reasons. It’s definitely great to know what you’re getting into, but know that guitar has so much joy in it and if you require the most important skill (which is perseverance) you can overcome many of these difficulties.
Furthermore, there’s a difference between learning a new instrument, and learning music–learning music will always lengthen out the process of learning a new instrument.
Complex Note Layout
Probably one of the biggest reasons why guitar is tricky to learn is because of the note layout of the fretboard.
The guitar, with the strings facing you and facing up, has this note configuration with the traditional guitar tuning:
|First String||Second String||Third String||Fourth String||Fifth String||Sixth String|
If you’re coming from another instrument like piano, those notes are not adjacent! So it is genuinely difficult to know where you are on a musical scale!
Furthermore, let’s talk about the amount of notes between each string on the guitar:
- The interval between E and A is 2 and a half steps
- The interval between A and D is 2 and a half steps
- The interval between D and G is 2 and a half steps
- The interval between G and B is 2 steps
- The interval between B and E is 2 and a half steps
Everything looks fine and dandy until you look at G and B! What??? Why is it only 2 steps? Why is it 2 steps everywhere else except between G and B?
There are reasons, of course–and it’s all a matter of practice figuring all this out. But learning the notes on the fretboard is nothing short of difficult. Even though it all follows a pattern, it takes a lot of practice to get the hang of it. In fact, if you already know how to play some basic guitar, learning the fretboard can take a guitar player 2 months!
That is of course, if you learn the fretboard. To be honest, many guitar players don’t, especially if you’re just wanting to play chords. It’s necessary if you want to take your knowledge and skills to the next level.
Guitar is a fantastically rich and deep instrument. The amount of techniques and playing styles to learn is immense. Fortunately nobody expects anybody to know everything there is to know. Nobody expected Jimi Hendrix to be able to play complex classical guitar, and nobody expects famous classical players to “shred” on an electric guitar.
Even with one playing style, there is so much to learn. I’ll list some of the techniques a guitar player is likely to need to learn.
- Strumming: Learning to strum cleanly with consistent rhythm takes consistent practice with a metronome
- Strumming patterns: Learning patterns that fit better with the rhythm of the song. Some strumming patterns are very complex and difficult to get the hang of.
- Open chords: Learning how to play the basic chord shapes
- Barre chords: Using your index finger as a barre to play modified chord shapes up and down the fretboard
- Picking: Utilizing a pick/plectrum to pluck the notes is an art in and of itself and requires knowing how to find each of the 6th strings without looking at them to play
- Fingerpicking: Using your right hand to pluck each of the notes rather than using a pick
- Pitch bending: While playing a single note, using your left hand to bend the pitch of the note by moving the string across the fretboard
- Hammer-ons: Using your left hand to strike a note and hold it to at once pluck the string and play the desired note.
- Poly-Rhythms: Playing multiple notes and rhythms on the guitar at once
- Muting: Muting individual notes or muting all notes in such a way to create different types of sounds
These are just a few examples of techniques that must be learned. And I can say that all of them are difficult. While some you may get a basic learning of rather quickly–it’s a guarantee that there are advanced subtleties in each of these techniques that can take years to master.
For example, playing a basic open chord. While after a couple weeks of practice you can train your fingers to play a chord, you may notice that there is some slight buzzing while you play, or perhaps some of the strings are muted. It can take months to be able to play a basic open chord with no buzzing or muting of strings consistently.
Many of the techniques above require extensive dexterity and training in your hands. In fact, many, many aspiring guitarists complain of the pain in their hands as they are learning to play the guitar.
- Sharp pains in the ends of their fingers from trying to hold down the notes
- Cramps in the hand in trying to hold a chord
These pains are a rite of passage–every guitarist has to go through them if you want to improve your skills.
Your hand does stretch out and play those awkward chords better as time goes on, and your fingers do get calluses, but even after months of consistent (even daily) practice, there are some chord shapes that will almost be impossible for you to play because they are so difficult.
Furthermore, it requires a lot of muscle memory to know where the frets and strings are in the first place! In order to progress your mind has to create a mental map of where all the guitar strings are as well as each fret so that you can play and practice without staring at the guitar strings.
In other words, your hands and fingers have to learn where the notes are, and that’s especially tricky for the guitar since the note and string locations are vertical and horizontal due to the design of the guitar. Unlike, say, a piano, where the note locations are linear.
Reasons Why The Guitar is Easy
Now–after reading that, you may wonder if guitar is too hard for a beginner musician. Absolutely not is my own opinion. It just helps to understand time frames. You may not be able to play your favorite guitar solos for over a year of consistent practice, but you will definitely be able to play chords and jam out with your friends after 6 months of practice.
The following are reasons why the guitar is easier than many other instruments to pick up.
Visual Note Representation
Playing a trumpet, a saxophone, or other wind instrument has a special problem in that you can’t see the note you are playing!
While we can’t see air waves as they vibrate when we play an instrument, sometimes instruments have a visual way to see the note.
When we play piano, a note is always the same no matter how or when you play it. The same is true for guitar. If you pluck the first string on the first fret of the guitar, that note will always be F!
This makes it much easier to understand the layout of notes on a guitar than other instruments where there is no visual reference–and even for violin where there are no frets.
Time Learning to Jam
One of the most appealing parts about the guitar is that if you learn the open chord shapes (which is tricky!) and learn how to transition from chord to chord quickly (which is also tricky!) then you can play many songs that you love.
In fact, many guitarists never seek to go further than this skill level–being able to play several chords and play those chords along with their favorite songs. I know when I was in college I just wanted to impress girls and so I only learned as much I needed to play some songs to achieve that goal. Not sure my plan worked that well.
This is the point, that guitar, relative to other instruments, takes less time to learn to play along with songs you like than many other instruments.
Is Guitar a Good First Instrument To Learn?
Now that we understand a bit more and a bit better of the difficulty of learning the guitar, I can definitely say yes. The guitar is such a rich and deep instrument that learning the instrument and the music theory that can take your experience to the next level can set you up for a life of fulfilling music.
The guitar is multi-faceted enough to be the only instrument you’d ever play and still be satisfying and complex. While it’s simple enough to play your favorite songs early on in the learning process.