How long does it take to play barre chords, or bend strings, or switch chords quickly, or…?

I often get questions from my beginning students that fall into the category of asking for tips to help with certain techniques, like how to properly play barre chords, or how to switch chords quickly, or how to do a proper vibrato, or how to bend a string accurately. All of those are excellent questions and there are some great tips out there on how to achieve those techniques. But often the question is accompanied by a comment on how the student has been practicing this technique for a week or a month or even 2 months, and it isn’t getting any better.

To which my response usually is: (comedic pause) “But you’ve only been practicing it for 2 months.”

Get it?

What I mean by that is, many of these techniques require a lot of time and practice to start doing well, and sometimes they take much more time to master than many beginners think. I often compare learning the guitar to learning how to ride a bike, but where that comparison breaks down is that learning to ride a bike is magnitudes easier and faster than learning to play the guitar. To ride a bike, you only need to master one single technique, which is possible in just a day or two for many people. To play guitar well, you have to master dozens or hundreds of techniques and little micro-techniques that you’re not even aware of. Learning an instrument is an incredibly complicated process, that demands the muscles of your hands and fingers perform complex movements that they don’t perform in any other aspect of your life. Rather than learning to ride a bike, it’s more akin to learning how to speak, and you know how long that took you to learn to do well, right?

Years. Years and years.

Actual photograph of what the path to learning guitar looks like.

Now, we teachers don’t usually tell students this dirty little secret, because it could be discouraging to hear that it can take as long as years to learn certain things. But don’t let that discourage you, just let it help you set realistic expectations, and one of those expectations should be that some of these techniques take a lot longer than a week, a month, or even 2 months to learn and master. For comparison, I mastered all of the above techniques a long time ago, and I remember roughly how long it took me for each one, practicing 2-3 hours a day as a beginner during my high school years:

  • Open chords: 1 year
  • Barre chords: 2 years
  • Switch chords quickly and accurately: 2-3 years
  • Good, quick string bends: 3-4 years
  • Vibrato: 5 years

That last one just about killed me. Vibrato didn’t come naturally to me AT ALL. I literally thought it was just impossible for me, for the longest time. I thought my hand just plain couldn’t do it. I felt dejected by it, I loved other player’s vibratos so much and I was so frustrated that I couldn’t emulate that. Now it’s one of my best features, I can pull off any kind of vibrato I want to at will, and I have complete control over it. I love my vibrato and I’m proud of it. And all it took was practice, a lot more practice than I thought it would take, but that’s all it was in the end. (It happened all at once, too. One minute I couldn’t do it, and the very next minute I could. I was overjoyed. My brain just needed that long to build up the muscle memory for it.)

The point is, a great deal of guitar playing takes a fair amount of time to learn to do well. Be patient, and know that it’s worth the time and effort in the end. Keep practicing and have faith. In “The Empire Strikes Back”, Luke was impatient and just wanted to get to the cool part of being a heroic Jedi without putting in all the work and training. Yoda viewed this with contempt. “All his life has he looked away…to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was. Hmm? What he was doing. Hmph!” Yoda is right. Don’t look to the future – focus on the here and now. Practice, and you will reap future rewards. Rush the process, and you will end up putting in more work than necessary, and arrive at your destination later. Trust the process, and be prepared to spend months or years working on your favorite techniques. Not too many famous musicians got there after only playing for a year or two. You can do it, just take things one step at a time and practice patience. “Control, control! You must learn control!”

Yoda: Jedi master, or secret guitar teacher?

Now, go forth and conquer playing the guitar with a solid practice schedule and all the patience you can muster!

All About The Guitar Neck

The guitar neck is long and has a lot of notes – more than most instruments.  On a standard 22-fret Fender Stratocaster, you have 132 notes to choose from – but not 132 different notes. Oh no, this is the guitar, the instrument where the notes climb in pitch going up the neck, and also across the neck while climbing the strings.  You can actually play the same exact note in more than one location.  Why, high E alone (the open 1st string) can be found in 5 different locations on that same Strat. Confused yet?

Fortunately, while the guitar neck may seem indecipherable at first, it’s actually quite easy to learn, and well worth the effort to learn it. By being completely familiar with your musical surroundings, you will be far more articulate, inventive, and intelligent in your guitar playing.  Knowing the names of the notes in the chromatic scale, it is possible to determine what every note on the guitar neck is. Keep reading for a full explanation of how to easily learn, find and memorize every note on the guitar neck.

The first thing to know is that the Western system of music divides the octave into twelve equal semitones, or half steps.  A whole step is two half steps.  These twelve tones are called the chromatic scale, and when we spell it out using only the natural notes of the musical alphabet, it looks like this:

Note that some notes have a half step in between them, and some notes have a whole step in between them.  You will want to memorize this:  the only half steps are between B and C, and E and F.  Every other note has a whole step between them. Memorizing this pattern will help greatly when it comes to finding notes and learning scales.

On the guitar neck, one half step is the distance of one fret and one whole step is the distance of two frets.  A note is sharp (#) if it is raised by one half step, and it is flat (b) if it is lowered one half step.  Many notes have the potential to be enharmonic, a single pitch that can be called by more than one name.  For example, G# is the same note as Ab, and B# is the same note as C.

On the guitar neck, these notes are arranged like so:

Take a look at the 5th string, and notice how it matches exactly with our chart of the chromatic scale up above.  A is the open string, then we go a whole step to play B on the 2nd fret, then a half step to play C on the 3rd fret, and so on until we reach A on the 12th fret – the octave of our open string.  From the 12th fret, the pattern repeats.

If you simply memorize the names of the open strings (from 6th to 1st: Elephants And Donkeys Grow Big Ears), you can find any note on any string by simply remembering that the only half steps are between B and C, and E and F.  Practice by starting with any open string, climbing the string with one finger and naming the natural notes (no sharps or flats) as you go. The first few times, use the chart above to check your work, but after that you should be good to go on your own. Do this for each string once a day, and after a while you’ll start to really memorize which note is which.

Of course, the best memorization happens when we actually apply what we know. So, as you play your normal riffs, licks, songs or what have you, take the time to name the notes that you’re playing as you go. If you do this regularly, before you know it you will recognize note names the instant you put your fingers down. This in turn will help you understand the harmonic and melodic relationships that exist between the notes, making you a more literate player and inevitably more fluent in your chosen genres.

To summarize:

  • 1 half step = 1 fret
  • 1 whole step = 2 frets
  • 2 half steps = 1 whole step
  • Chromatic scale: all 12 tones in the Western music system
  • Enharmonic: when one note can be called by two different names
  • The only half steps are between B and C, and E and F
  • Practice climbing each string and naming the notes
  • Name the notes you’re playing as you play songs, riffs, licks and chords

Practice daily, keep at it, and before you know it the mystery of the guitar neck will be swept away.