How The Greats Learnt To Play Guitar

We’ve all heard the phrase ‘every expert was once a beginner’ and it is true, all the greatest players who inspire us started from a few humble notes. Their marathon practise regimes and hours of dedication are obvious and well documented. But, there must be a magical formula right? Something they all did to unlock their potential and catapult them to guitar excellence? Whilst, unfortunately there are no magic solutions or short cuts to bypass good old fashioned hard work, it seems that great players from every genre share some common stories about their earning process.

Here are ten points which are a continuous theme amongst the worlds greatest players and how we can adopt them, hoping some of the magic will make its way into our fingers too!

1. Play the music you love.

Or, allow me to rephrase, play with the music you love. No matter which great guitar player you research there is one undeniable commonality; they all honed their early skills by playing along to recordings of their favourite artists. Wether this was from a strictly ‘learning by ear’ approach or with the modern help of tablature books and instructional material, they found the music which moved them and connected with by playing along with the actual track themselves. This may seem like an obvious and humble starting point but so many guitar players fall into a cycle of playing ‘unaccompanied’ riffs and licks, allowing their timing and all the things which give their playing a musical context to dwindle.

I was quite drawn to the approach taken by Kirk Hammett (of Metallica) when he was learning - he mentioned in an interview that, rather than tackle a whole song, he would start with the part he found most exciting and set that as a mini ‘project’. He then worked outwards, learning the rest of the song. These short term goals and projects are great ways to give you an instant reward and keep you motivated - perhaps you might set your first ‘project’ as that famous lick from the solo for ‘Hotel California’ (we all know the one!), the next ‘project’ might be to nail the whole solo, then the song. At each step you’re getting the satisfaction of recreating the music you love and by playing with the original or backing track you are giving that recreation value and authenticity.

2. Record yourself.

This is a common thread amongst many players who we would instantly recognise for their signature sound and style. Eric Clapton famously recorded himself playing along to records on his Grundig reel to reel recorder; listening for mistakes or simply aspects of his playing which he did not like and took steps to change them. He notes that this was vital contributing factor in developing his skills.

Swedish neo-classical pioneer Yngwie Malmsteen tells how he would record his early rehearsals on cassette tape then study them at home much like Clapton did, playing over the tracks again and listening for any areas he wanted to change. Oddly, the recorder he owned at home played the tapes at a faster speed; resulting in Malmsteen becoming incrementally faster and more technically precise which each new recording he played with.

This is a tough step to make; hearing an honest undeniable rendering of your playing is like looking into a mirror which highlights all your worst features! It can be a very difficult process at first as we are all chemically wired to hear the guitar player we want to be rather than the guitar player we are at that moment. This is the aspirational nature of the instrument and is a good thing, as it is what pushes us forward to improve.

Note, however, that you will be our own worst critic and will hear things within your playing that only you will define as ‘bad’ or in need of improvement. Go easy on yourself and simply listen for one or two areas to begin with, such as timing, your guitar tone itself, or maybe the accuracy of your string bends. Take a leaf from Clapton’s book and work on elements of your playing which result in enhancing your individual enjoyment - aim to like listening to the sound of your own guitar playing. That said, another product of recording yourself is a highlighting of all your strong areas and the sides of your paying which hold the most promise - yeah, so maybe your fast playing is a little off but your slow phrases and vibrato are on point! These are all signs that your are developing your own style and voice on the guitar. Build on them and embrace any changes which come - it might be that your inner guitar player is telling you that you are destined to be a slow blues player, or conversely you are sitting on a potential shred monster which needs to be let out the cage!

3. Watch.

In this age of technical advancement and online resources you will hear many players discuss ‘the good old days’ before videos stripped the mystery and magic from the world of learning the guitar.As already mentioned there’s no denying the important steps all great guitar players take in developing their musical ear but that, alone, is missing perhaps one of the key advantages of our chosen instrument.

Let’s use two of the earliest guitar heroes to back this up. Django Reinhardt notably learnt all of his early skills by visually mimicking the fingers of the guitarists who played within his family and musical community. Legendary Robert Johnson would sit in at a local bar where two blues guitarists, Son House and Willie Brown had a residency and simply watch them in order to copy their finger movements and chord shapes.

One of the identifying characteristics entirely specific to the guitar over many other instruments, is its visual learning form - by their nature, chords, scales, licks and riffs form very identifiable shapes and patterns on the guitar. Plus, consider the way we see guitar; with the fretboard presented and pointed towards the audience/viewer as opposed to a pianist or horn player. The point being that we have such a unique opportunity to copy much of what we want to learn by eye. With such a wealth of players now producing easily accessible videos it seems only natural to use this.

4. Surround yourself with other musicians.

We often view the moment a, now legendary, guitarist joined his first band as the pivotal point for great things. However, one key factor which appears in the back stories of every great guitar player is the influence of other players and musicians who were immediately on hand. Having a family member who also plays features heavily - blues master Stevie Ray Vaughan cited his brother as his chief inspiration and the player responsible for his taking him under his wing and showing him all his licks and tricks. Metal pioneer Dimebag Darrell’s father (country music producer and guitarist) wold learn KISS songs specifically to show the young Darrell and mentor him. Both Slash and Hendrix attest to the first real turning point in their playing being the exposure to other players. In the case of Hendrix it was meeting a fellow group of guitarists who could pass on their knowledge and point out Jimi’s shortcomings. For Slash it was his first band and he recalls developing his skills in tandem with playing alongside other performers.

Modern blues virtuosos Joe Bonamassa and Josh Smith both credit their early introduction to older musicians and live performance as the key to their incredible guitar prowess. For Smith it was his exposure to open ‘jam nights’ at local venues which gave him the opportunity to play with older, more experienced musicians. To give Django another mention - his early years were spent playing ferocious gypsy jazz in his family band as a part of daily family life and routine.

Returning to the mythical story of Robert Johnson for, perhaps, the most convincing case for coupling up with a guitar buddy or two - we’ve all heard the legend behind the disappearance of a young, distinctly average Johnson and his triumphant re-emergence a year later as a bona fide blues guitar maestro. The romantic idea that he stood on the crossroads, trading his soul for guitar lessons with the Devil is, unfortunately, more exciting than the truth. During his year long absence Johnson had made the decision to move back to his home town and spent his timing living with local guitarist Ike Zimmerman and his family. Zimmerman was full time mentor of sorts to Johnson and having the wisdom and musical partnership a more experienced musician on hand everyday produced the legend we now know.

5. Play other instruments and embrace different styles.

A little digging into the musical backgrounds of many famous guitarists, more often than not, turns up the fact that guitar is not their only musical outlet, and sometimes the guitar is not even their primary instrument. Rock and mewl giants Zakk Wylde, Randy Rhoads, Eddie Van Halen, Nuno Bettencourt (to name but a few) are/were all accomplished pianists.

It is also worth noting that many guitarists who developed a new style or sound did so because they were attempting to imitate or replicate the sounds of other instruments with their guitars. Metallica’s James Hetfield grew his aggressive, rhythmically intensive thrash riffing through the desire to approach the guitar as a drummer would. Alan Holdsworth rewrote our entire perception of modern electric guitar playing due to his goal of mimicking saxophonists; he even went as far as saying he didn’t want to play guitar and only did so because brass instruments were too expensive!

Many players assimilate ideas from other genres into their playing - take a look at John 5, who is most famous for supplying guitar duties for metal and shock rockers Rob Zombie and Marilyn Manson, and you will be more likely to discover videos of him playing country guitar and Chet Atkins style ragtime. Dig a little deeper and you’ll notice he is also credited with playing for Rod Stewart and K.D. Lang. Ozzy Osbourne axeman Zakk Wylde is also an accomplished acoustic player and chicken picking country wizard. There are no shortage of unexpected influences to be had too - ask guitar players Josh Travis and John Browne of progressive metal band Monuments about how many of their musical and rhythmic ideas are directly inspired by the music of Michael Jackson.

It is also worth noting that many of your favourite players also sing. whilst this may not be your goal, connecting your voice and your guitar by singing what you play is a superb way to get closer to the music you are producing; wether you’re improvising or simply singing alongside the solo/lick you have just learnt.

The key lesson we can take from this is - keep an open mind, musically.

6. Make sure the basics sounds great.

This is a brief, but important point. We all play the same licks, chords; essentially, the same choice and combination of notes. But some players simply make them sound better; that magical touch or feel, right? Images of Dave Gilmour, Joe Pass in addition to modern guitarist such as Mateus Asato and Guthrie Govan instantly spring to mind. One thing they share is, that at some point in their earlier guitar years, they took the time to create a lot with very little musical vocabulary.

Dream Theater’s John Petrucci could be seen by many as the world’s most technically gifted guitarists, yet his marriage of jaw dropping chops with pure musicality is what places him ahead of other players. It is interesting to learn that, before the development of his virtuosic technique he spent many years perfecting his basic blues and rock licks and they became the foundation on which he built the rest of his playing.

Joe Satriani states that he recognised the appeal of standardised blues licks; people wanted to hear them, however, he wanted to put his own spin on things. A large part of Satriani’s style, which is so hard to copy, comes a result of years of practising the common rock licks we all know in as many different ways as possible - changing up the rhythms, placing accents on different beats or adding different dynamic attacks to certain notes.

It is also important to draw a lesson from the need to prioritise making the simple sound great. Returning to Hendrix and Zakk Wylde for a moment - both players began by getting to grips with songs on a single string (Hendrix famously, on his one string Ukulele) before they gained any formal guidance on how the guitar worked. Whilst non of us would welcome going back to the days of laying down ‘Smoke On The Water’ on our E Strings, there is something to be said for restricting yourself to a single string and using your ears rather than the shapes and patterns which give us safety and structure. It is also a reminder that any song can be simplified and the true goal is to produce something which sounds good.

7. Music theory is not your enemy!

You will find many big name players use the term ‘self taught’ to describe their musical journey and this is, all too often, interpreted as them having more natural ability than any grounding in the more academic areas of the guitar. This is, thankfully, not true. Watch any video in conversation with BB King (when he is holding his guitar) and he readily communicates in terms of scale intervals and has a full picture of every note on the neck and how they relate to the underlying harmony. This is something which he, and the vast majority of blues players spent years developing as a means to understand their craft. Treating theory as a root to give a name and reference to the sounds we, as guitarists, turns out to be the way many of our favourite players view the, often debated, subject of theory.

Fusion virtuoso Frank Gambale refers to his development of theory alongside his playing as a metaphor of a painter with an empty palette - the more colours you add to your palette the more creatively you can paint. Makes sense!

8. Create the best learning environment.

Another common thread thrown up when researching any well known guitarist is the mention of an isolated space or idealised environment in which they practised, more often than not this was their teenage bedroom. The notion is the same however, an immersive space which afforded these players absolute focus on the task of playing guitar receives a mention in every backstory. The afore mentioned Nuno Bettencourt, Randy Rhoads, and Josh Smith all refer, in interviews, to ‘locking themselves away’ too practise. It is also true amongst all pro guitar players that there is always a dedicated space in their homes for all things guitar.

Studies from the University of Washington support this and go further to say that a dedicated practise space should have a good source of natural light, and ideal room temperature of 20-23 degrees C (68-74 degrees F) and (believe it or not) a good selection of house plants.

If this isn’t possible, a good alternative can be to set up an area where your guitar computer and amp are ready to go.

9. Understand that learning never stops.

Looking beyond their early peaks in musical development you will notice that, with very few, exceptions, all the players you admire have recognised the need to continue study. Our ever diverse heavy metal friend John 5 freely admits to searching the internet for new lessons and tips as part of his daily routine despite being seen as one of the masters in his field. Ozzy’s former guitarist Randy Rhodes deserves another mention for his ongoing pursuit and study of classical guitar - it is reported that, when on tour, he would seek out local teachers in the town in which he was performing and take lessons. Prior to his death he had planned to take a long break from the music business to study a degree in classical guitar at UCLA.

10. Enjoy yourself!

It is easy to see that our favourite players all do what they do because of a pure love of the instrument. However, as Hendrix stated, ‘sometimes you will hate the guitar’. So I will offer one final player from which you can gain a constant reminder to keep things fun.

The jazz maestro Pat Martino suffered a massive brain aneurysm in 1980 following a successful career as one of the best guitar players in the world. This resulted in severe memory loss and, you’ve guessed it, everything he knew about the guitar. Effectively Martino regressed to an absolute beginner again and faced the long journey of reaching his former level. His story is utterly unique in that, all of us typically only take this musical journey once. On the face of it, the seems like an unclimbable mountain for any musician. So how did he regain his skills and what did he do differently the second time around? The answer is surprising and gives us our final lesson:

Martino states that, following the inevitable bouts of depression, he changed his perspective. His approach was to reimagine the guitar as a toy and approached it as child would. He explored and learnt without fear making sure he only played the things which gave him pleasure. He also mentions the need for him to only care about the present moment, taking little notice or interest in the player he was the previous day or the next. His only concern was enjoying that very moment with the guitar. A reminder, maybe to us all why we use the term ‘playing’ guitar.

Remember, everyone’s path on the guitar is personal but picking up tips and wisdom from those who have already made that journey can get us where we want to go that much easier.