How to Assess Your Guitar Playing | Hub Guitar

How to Assess Your Guitar Playing

It’s As Easy As 1, 2, 3

How exactly should you go about assessing your guitar playing skills?

Know the Territory

The first thing you should do is make sure that you understand each of the areas of guitar practice, and each subcategory belonging to them.

In previous articles, we talked about the importance of prioritizing your guitar practice as well as the question of whether it is best to focus on improving your strengths or reinforcing your weaknesses.

Broad Categories of Guitar Learning

The primary categories of guitar learning can be grouped in any number of ways. Everybody has a different way of approaching learning the guitar and organizing practice content.

For the sake of this article, let’s consider broad categories from the viewpoint of a player who wishes to understand and learn as many aspects of the instrument as possible.

We will start with those categories that are essential to all guitar players, and move towards the categories which may be considered by some players to be optional.

Repertoire: Your List of Tunes

Repertoire is the cornerstone of all musical learning. In order to play a musical instrument, one must play some sort of music with it.

Learning repertoire is different for each guitar player.

If you sing, your repertoire might just be playing and singing popular songs.

If you write music, your repertoire might consist primarily of your own original music.

If you play instrumental music, your repertoire might consist of complete arrangements revolving around a chord progression, a primary melody, and improvisational sections, intended to be played with a live band or along with a backing track.

If you play solo guitar, your repertoire might consist of complete arrangements for fingerstyle guitar and the like. You might play classical music by reading standard notation, or solo guitar arrangements written out on tablature. You might even create your own arrangements.

Whatever type of music you play, you will certainly spend a good deal of time learning repertoire.

Fretboard Knowledge: Understanding the Neck

Another essential area of study is fretboard knowledge. All guitar players need to learn the shapes and patterns which create the musical statements executed on the guitar fretboard.

No sooner then one instant after opening any songbook, you will encounter musical statements which, in their simplest form, correspond to at least one identifiable fretboard pattern (such as a chord, arpeggio, or scale). But speaking this musical statement without understanding the fretboard patterns which underlie it is something like speaking a language by reciting phrases—without ever understanding the meaning of the words which compose it.

Take, for example, a song that begins with an Amin chord. Not understanding the fretboard dooms you to you playing everything on the instrument in the most repetitive and unoriginal fashion possible. Learning the dozens and dozens of related Amin chords and arpeggios will give you the freedom to inhale the musical notes off of the page, breathe life into them by adding colors and shapes to musical statements that were once mundane, and exhale them as true music.

Technique: Controlling the Instrument

All guitar players must develop good technique.

Technique is the physical ability to take command of the instrument.

Think of technique as your overall physical fitness as it relates to guitar. This includes your speed, strength, flexibility and overall dexterity.

Technique is not something that you’re born with or doomed to live without. Like physical fitness, each of us can push ourselves to higher levels. Some of us are gifted with a higher aptitude for it. And a person of average endowment who struggles to improve every day is worth 1000 times the value of a person with idle gifts.

Technique is the aspect of your guitar playing that will give it the appearance of "ups and downs" over time. While your knowledge and musicianship can increase slowly over time, your technique can build up and deteriorate in shorter periods of time. Playing every day for 3 months will make you very sharp. A summer abroad without any practice will dull you back down—temporarily.

It is very important to understand these “ups and downs”, because if you ever suffer a setback in your playing from deteriorated technique, you need to know that you can get back in shape relatively quickly if you really try, and the feeling that you have "lost it" is a form of discouragement that is best ignored.

Musicianship: Understanding Music

Musicianship skills are the fundamental skills that all musicians study. They include ear training, improvisation, and rhythm.

Structured study of music will tend to emphasize some of these skills—especially ear training and rhythm, which no player can do without. Going through a program of formal music education, for instance, will likely expose you to these skills in greater depth than if you learned music only on your own.

The reason the skills are taught at all of the best institutions of higher learning in music is simple: these skills really work. They offer a tremendous advantage.

Ear Training: Converting What You Hear into Notes

Ear training is the discipline of learning to recognize musical events and structures by ear.

The vast majority of people can, with sufficient practice, learn to:

  • Identify a string of notes (i.e., a melody) and play it back on their instrument
  • Identify by ear a chord’s root note and quality, and then play the chord

In other words, the vast majority of people can learn to recognize musical events so clearly that they can teach themselves to play very complicated music.

This is not a gift of genius, but a result of practice.

Ear training helps you understand exactly what notes you are playing and whether they are correct.

Have you ever heard someone sing a song that sounded out of key, in a way that made you feel chills and goosebumps? Your body was reacting to poor intonation and pitch. And just as you react strongly to big errors in intonation, you will also feel very subtle negative feelings towards small errors.

Think of bad intonation as a kind of poison. Too much and you get sick, or die. But even a little can harm you (whether you know it or not.)

Conversely, sometimes the pitch being a little off even tastes good—in sublethal doses.

Ear training can help you hear if your notes have correct intonation. Each note has a subtle variation in pitch. But if this variation is too far from the correct pitch, your notes will sound wrong. An average listener may not pick up on it consciously. But with training you can teach yourself to be highly sensitive to bad intonation—and keep your intonation clean.

Ear training is crucial for learning to play and transcribeTranscribing is the process of listening to music and writing down the chords, rhythms and melodies, note-for-note, on paper. It also refers to the process of simply figuring out how to play the music on an instrument, as this is a pre-requisite for writing the notes down. the music you hear.

And transcribing music is one of the best ways to absorb and digest it.

So ear training is a crucial skill.

Improvisation: Real-Time Music Composition

For guitar players, improvisation is usually thought of as the ability to freely compose melodies along with live music.

Improvisation is a window into true musicianship.

Put simply, improvising is usually the act of "making stuff up"; the rest of the band plays rhythm, bass, and some chords, and you invent a melody to play on top—usually coming from sort of scale.

We learn to improvise by listening to improvised music we like, transcribing the music with our ear, understanding the music theory that demonstrates why the improvised part sounds good with the chords.

Improvisation is composition sped up and composition is improvisation slowed down. Wayne Shorter

Improvisation is one of the most fun and rewarding things you can do on Earth, and everyone deserves to give themselves a chance to try it.

Rhythm: Playing In Time

Rhythm might just be the most important thing you could ever practice. Without good rhythm, every thing you play will sound bad.

Rhythm is one of the most neglected areas of musicianship, especially for those without professional or rigorous training. Don’t let yourself be a victim. Devote some time to building good rhythm. Or everything you play will sound wrong.

Almost all guitar players could benefit from improved rhythm.

Sight-reading: Turning Paper into Music

Sight-reading is the ability to read notated music. This ability is enormously useful because, if developed highly enough, you can use it to extend your repertoire by dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of songs. That means you can pick up some sheet music and perform something you’ve never heard before—and if you’re good enough, nobody will even know it’s your first time.

Tabs: A simplified notation system for guitar

Tabs are all over the place these days. Reading tab is great because it relates directly to the buttons you push on the guitar and it is therefore the most accessible type of music notation available to guitar players.

Some drawbacks: tabs in general tend to be fairly inaccurate due to their crowdsourced nature. Tabs tend to omit very important musical information. Unless supplemented with rhythmic notation, tabs are not a complete language for musical study.

Standard notation: the most widely-used system of music notation

Learning to read standard music notation allows you to read the widest range of music, from popular songs to masterpieces by Bach. By reading single line notation, you can sit down in an orchestra and play along, creating beautiful music that you are only then hearing for the first time.

If you learn to read this kind of music, your comprehension of music will increase and you will expand yourself to the possibility of playing a vastly greater range of repertoire than ever before.

Lead Sheets: 100% Music Concentrated (Just Add Players!)

Learning to read lead sheets and chord charts will enable you to accompany any singer or soloist quickly and efficiently. you’ll be able to play the chords along to the lead musician, support their role, and back them up. And if you'd like to perform, good accompanists who don’t care for the spotlight are always in great demand.

Music Theory: Understand How Music Works

Music theory will teach you everything you need to know about the binding principles that hold music together.

Music theory will help you understand what musical structures (chords, arpeggios and scales) work in what situations.

It will help you decide what notes to use when you improvise.

When you write music, music theory will help you to understand what you are doing and help you come up with more resources to create music with.

When you find something that works, music theory will help you understand why it works, and use it again, or in different ways.


Understand your guitar skills and know what’s holding you back, and you’ll make better and more consistent progress on the instrument.

Pick an area you’ve been neglecting, and starting today, dedicate yourself to making improvements.

As the creator of Hub Guitar, Grey has compiled hundreds of guitar lessons, written several books, and filmed hundreds of video lessons. He teaches private lessons in his Boston studio, as well as via video chat through TakeLessons.

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