Is Guitar Hard to Learn? (17 Skills Beginners Struggle With)

Have you ever watched your favorite guitarist perform live and thought, “wow, they make that look so easy?” Well I can assure you it isn’t!

Learning to play guitar is very challenging. There are several skills you’ll need to develop before you can even strum a note cleanly. This often discourages beginners from sticking with it, or trying it in the first place. But like any skill, there are ways you can practice more effectively to see more progress. 

What follows is a list of some of the most difficult challenges when learning to play guitar…but also some tricks you can use to master them!

1. Tuning Your Guitar

Before we even get into specific techniques, we have to start here. Any skilled musician will tell you, no matter how good you are, your playing will sound terrible if your guitar isn’t tuned properly. 

This is especially true when trying to learn a specific song. If you’re doing everything right but the sound is so wrong, ensure your guitar is properly tuned before getting discouraged. A simple fix will save you lots of headaches!

However, simple doesn’t mean easy. Learning to tune by ear is challenging. And there are so many different tunings for different songs it can be hard to learn to switch between them all. 

How to Beat It

First things first, if you’re a new guitarist, start with standard tuning: E A D G B E (from low string to high). Most songs will be played in standard tuning, so this is where you should begin developing your ear for tuning. 

To get your guitar tuned at first, it’s ok to rely on some help. Use an app, find a YouTube video, even use a pitch pipe if you prefer old school methods. Just get your guitar tuned perfectly before you play. Then, take some time to really listen to each note. Commit the sounds to memory and practice de-tuning then re-tuning by ear.

With practice, you’ll be able to tune your guitar to standard tuning on the fly. Once you do this, you can venture into alternate tunings: Drop D, Drop C, or any of the open tunings (Open C, E, G etc.). All of these alternate tunings can be achieved by simply knowing your scales. 

For example, want to tune to Drop D? This very common (and very popular) alternate tuning simply requires the low E to be tuned down to D. What’s an easy way to do it? Find a D note on another string (the open D string perhaps??) and tune the low E down until both strings sound the same.  

2. Holding a Pick

While holding a pick may seem straightforward, it actually can be challenging to do it correctly, and it’s something you don’t have to do with piano or other instruments. Learning to properly hold your pick will make strumming much easier and help you progress your playing speed more rapidly.

Hold it wrong however, and you won’t have a solid foundation on which to build those other skills. 

How to Beat It

The proper grip will keep your pick oriented in the right position and at the right angle for optimal picking and strumming. If you don’t have a solid grip on your pick, it’s very easy for it to shift positions, especially when you start playing faster.

To keep your pick pointed where it should be, check out the video below. The grip may feel a little wonky at first, but once you’re comfortable with it, you’ll see how much better and faster you can strum.

3. Picking the Correct String(s)

As a beginner, plucking the correct string without looking can be a REAL challenge.

But getting your fingers oriented on the proper frets is an even bigger challenge, and since our eyes can’t look at both hands at the same time, our picking hand often finds itself free from our gaze. The more wrong strings we pick, the more frustrating this becomes. 

Sure, eventually we want to get good enough where we don’t have to look at either hand while playing, but c’mon, we’re new here, let’s cut ourselves some slack!

How to Beat It

Scales are a great way to practice a multitude of techniques (some of which we’ll touch on later), but first and foremost, scales can be used to practice your picking accuracy. 

Start by playing scales up and down a single string. When you can find the string without looking and play every note accurately, you can advance to playing scales and arpeggios (deconstructed chords where the notes are played individually) across multiple strings. This will test your ability to transition between strings smoothly and accurately. 

4. Alternate Picking

When most of us start playing guitar, down picking is our best friend. It’s certainly easier when we’re still trying to learn a million other beginner skills, but it does have its limitations.

Alternate picking can greatly improve your playing speed as well as produce smoother transitions between strings. But it can be a little tricky to master. 

How to Beat It

Once again, let’s start with a single note on a single string (we’ll worry about string transitions later). The first step is to anchor your palm on your guitar bridge: this will give you a solid platform on which to pick. Then, it’s all about subtle wrist movement. Your whole lower arm shouldn’t be moving when you strum. 

Work slowly, ensuring every note comes through clearly. As you get more comfortable, try out some easy exercises like the ones in the video below:

However, just because alternate picking is faster, doesn’t mean down picking doesn’t have its place…or that it can’t be really fast too. Just watch Metallica’s James Hetfield, who uses his impressive down picking speed to play some pretty impressive riffs, and you’ll hear what’s possible with enough practice!  

5. Hammer Ons / Pull Offs

If you’re an AC/DC fan and want to play Thunderstruck the most awesome way, you NEED to learn hammer ons and pull offs!

Being able to play without using your pick is a pretty cool skill…however, when you’re starting to learn, you may notice your notes get quieter and quieter as you try and sustain the technique. 

So how can we keep the notes ringing and really nail that intro like Angus Young?

How to Beat It

To perform a hammer on, you need to apply force with your fingertip to the desired fret. It helps if that string is already vibrating, so pluck the first note with your pick and then hammer onto the string. As long as you continue to apply downward pressure, the note will keep resonating until the string stops vibrating. 

The pull off is a little trickier. Flick your fingertip off the fret like you’re snapping your fingers, pulling down and away from the string. Do so before the string stops vibrating from the hammer on, and you can effectively alternate between the two techniques indefinitely.  

The more you practice, the better you get. Sounds obvious, right? Well aside from honing your skills, frequent playing will build up calluses on your fingertips. These calluses actually make techniques like hammer ons and pull offs sound better, because they provide a harder contact point with the string. A little extra reward for all your hard work!

6. Developing Finger Dexterity

Guitar requires a lot of finger dexterity. It can be challenging to play certain notes or chords if your fingers can’t reach the right frets.

I’m sure many guitarists can speak from experience: when you’re a beginner, you try and find a way to play everything without needing to stretch too far. Getting your pinky finger to go where it needs to can be especially frustrating!

How to Beat It

Playing better and faster requires your movements around the fretboard to be efficient. Efficiency requires dexterity. This is where finger stretches come into play. Finger stretches can help improve your range of motion and make reaching those seemingly out of reach frets much easier. 

No matter how inflexible your fingers currently are, improving dexterity is a skill that can be developed, just like anything else. Warm up with mobility exercises before you play and watch your movement efficiency and speed improve!

7. Playing a Chord without Muting Notes

A finger solidly applied to a fret will result in a strong, resonant note. A finger lightly applied to a fret will result in a dull thunk. Not what you want when playing a chord, but something that happens all too often for beginners.

For a chord to ring out, every finger has to be perfectly placed on the right fret…and only that fret. If your fingers aren’t applying pressure, or they’re touching an open string and shouldn’t be, some of the chord’s notes will be audible, while others won’t.

How to Beat It

This is one of the areas where all the finger dexterity training will pay off. Developing the ability to properly arch your fingers and stretch for those hard to reach frets will minimize your chances of muting notes in a chord. 

Get up on those fingertips and ensure there’s some daylight between the rest of your finger and the strings. Even though it’s necessary for bar chords, mashing all the strings down with your entire finger isn’t something you want to get in the habit of doing for all chords.

8. Palm Muting

While most of the time you don’t want your notes to sound muted, there are other times when you do. Palm muting allows you to reduce the tone of your strings on purpose. This produces a unique sound that’s great for a rhythm section of a song, before the volume builds to the chorus.

The funny thing is, it’s often easier to get your strings to mute when you don’t want them to as opposed to when you do!

How to Beat It

Palm muting, as the name implies, is achieved by resting your palm on the strings to reduce the tone the strings produce. The tricky part is using enough pressure so that some tone rings out, while not using so much as to effectively silence those notes.

Get set up properly by resting the heel of your hand on your guitar’s bridge. This will serve as an anchor point (like alternate picking) and allow you to apply consistent pressure to the strings with your palm. From there, lightly rest your palm over your strings as you strum. 

Start as light as possible at first, then slowly apply more pressure until you achieve the sound you want. You’ll notice that if you apply too much pressure, the strings will be completely muted. If you reach that point, back off slightly until you can hear the muffled notes again.

9. Transitioning Between Chords

Learning to properly fret chords is hard, but getting good at smoothly transitioning between them is even harder. But it’s a necessary part of playing most songs. So how can you get better at going from chord to chord in less time and with fewer mistakes?

How to Beat It

The first step is learning how to fret each chord individually. Take time to get your fingers moving correctly and ensure the entire chord rings out when played. Commit those finger positions to memory so that, starting with your hand off the fretboard, you can accurately land on each chord independently. From there, it’s about transitioning between them. 

Understand there are often multiple ways to play the same (or a similar) chord at different spots on the fretboard. Based on your hand size and current finger dexterity, you might find it easier to play a chord one way or another. By using economy of movement, you can minimize how much your fingers need to move during transition.

Another key is smoothness. This more than playing speed will make your chord transitions better. Don’t try to move as fast as you can, but rather try to be smooth and consistent. Start very slow, with the goal of keeping to a specific beat per minute (more on this later). 

Slow transitions played smoothly will always sound better than rushed transitions with awkward and varying pauses between chords as you struggle to fret the right notes.

10. String Bending

Bending a string is a great way to add a little flair to a riff. From the root note, a string bend lets you hit a note higher up the scale with a really cool effect. 

However, it can be hard to maintain pressure on the string in order to reach that higher note. Even if you’re able to do this, it can be just as challenging to know when to stop bending. Go past the note you’re trying to hit, and your riff may sound off key.

How to Beat It

Let’s tackle one problem at a time. FIrst up is getting the bend right. When you want to bend a string, it’s easiest to use your third finger on the root note. This way, you can stack your other fingers on that string and use them to help push up. 

Make sure you’re using good technique and solid pressure to fret the root note, because as you bend you’ll have other strings blocking your path that need to be moved out of the way. The more you bend, the more resistance you’ll face, so don’t let those other strings jostle your fingers around!

Now to the issue of bending just enough to get the right note. First, find the note you’re trying to bend to on the fretboard. Play this note, and then perform your string bend, trying to match the sound. This will train your ear and your hands to get to that higher note and then stop when you reach it.

11. Vibrato (Without a Tremolo Bar)

Vibrato is a rapid rocking back and forth of a string, which results in a note changing pitch up and down slightly. Vibrato is a cool effect to add to your playing repertoire, and is very easy to achieve…if you have a tremolo bar. 

But what if your guitar doesn’t have a Floyd Rose bridge? Vibrato is also possible just using your fret hand, but requires a little more technique.

How to Beat It

Vibrato is similar to a bend in that you’ll be initiating some upward movement of that string, but the movement is slight. You’ll also actively be pulling the string down away from you to create an oscillating sound effect. Doing these two movements in sequence creates vibrato. 

It helps to use the weight of the guitar to your advantage. Imagine all of the guitar’s weight is resting on the fingers you’re using for vibrato. As you start moving that string up and down, let the weight of the guitar neck aid you in maintaining that momentum, resulting in a longer, louder vibrato. 

If you haven’t already, watch the video above all the way through to see these vibrato tips in action, and for some cool examples of what you can do when combining these two techniques!

12. Finger Slides

Finger slides are an alternate technique to the string bend for reaching the next note in a scale, but they can be used in many more instances, as string bends have a naturally limited range of notes that they can hit. Want to slide up to a note a whole octave higher? A string bend can’t do that!

Beginners are often plagued with the same two problems as string bends when trying to learn finger slides: maintaining the right amount of pressure, and landing on the right note with the right amount of speed.

How to Beat It

When you’re sliding to a different note, if you don’t maintain enough pressure on the frets, the note will get quieter, and may even die off before you reach the higher note. This is why it’s essential to keep pressing into the fretboard as you slide. 

Have the target note in sight and in mind. Don’t just slide quickly up the fretboard and hope you land in the right spot. Go slow and deliberate at first, making sure you stop on the correct fret. 

As you get accustomed to reaching the desired fret, you’ll want to speed up those slides. A slide that’s too slow will make every note on the way to the target note audible, and this isn’t really what you want. A rapid slide will offer a seamless transition between two notes and sound much better.

13. Reading Music

Reading music used to be an essential skill for anyone interested in playing any instrument. After all, how can you play any songs if you don’t know what notes you need to play? And while reading music is still a difficult challenge many new musicians hope to conquer, is it a necessary challenge? 

Well, that depends on what type of musician you consider yourself.

How to Beat It

Don’t get me wrong: learning to read music will pay dividends, but depending on what type of music you like to play and how serious of a musician you want to become, your time may be better spent on other skills.

If you struggle with reading music or choose not to learn, don’t fret (pardon the pun): you’re in good company.

Many famous guitarists can’t read music, such as Slash, Eddie Van Halen and even Paul McCartney; and I’d say they’ve done pretty well for themselves. It’s not a bad feeling to have something in common with these guitar legends!

While learning how to read music would take many long articles in itself, let’s instead focus on an alternative: tablature. Tab uses the same layout as regular sheet music, but instead uses numbers to denote which fret is to be played on each string. It’s a simpler, more user-friendly way to be able to follow along to your favorite songs without learning to read music.

You can find tabs for almost any song out there on sites such as Ultimate Guitar, so go look up your favorite songs and you can start playing along right away!

14. Playing at the Right Speed

Getting better at guitar doesn’t mean always trying to play as fast as possible. Instead, you should focus on playing a song at the correct beats per minute (BPM). 

This can be difficult to master, but it’s also incredibly important. You can hit all the right notes in a song, but if your playing speed or timing is off, the song isn’t going to sound quite right.

How to Beat It

A great way to train your ear to keep proper time is to use a metronome or an app. You can find the BPM for any song you want to play, but when learning, make sure to cut that number way down. Rather than focusing on playing at full speed, focus on playing the right notes at the right time. Then increase your speed as you get better.

By learning songs this way, you’re more likely to maintain the correct beat. When you do so, the song will sound much closer to how it’s meant to, and you’ll be better able to tell when you’re doing well and what you still need to work on. 

Remember, hitting the right notes is only half the battle: it’s just as important to play them to the correct beat.

15. Getting the Sound You Want out of Your Amp

Have you gotten really good at playing your favorite song, but it still just doesn’t sound the way the original artist plays it?

It may not be that you’re playing it wrong, but rather that your guitar and amp aren’t adjusted the right way for the sound you want. Some amps have a lot of adjustment knobs, and if you’re a beginner, you may be scared to venture past the on/off switch and volume control.

It can be overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be.

How to Beat It

The first tip is to simply play around with your amp’s controls. Pick a short riff you’re very familiar with and play it over and over, adjusting one knob at a time from one extreme to the other. Hear what each adjustment does to your guitar’s tone. Over time you’ll be able to understand how each adjustment impacts your guitar’s overall sound. 

To get you started, you can often do a quick internet search and be able to find out the basic amp settings used by your favorite bands. So if there’s a certain sound you really like, this will get you close, then feel free to adjust things to create your own signature sound!

16. Switching Between Guitar Pickups

While not as many as an amp, a guitar also has several ways to adjust the sound you get out of it. Most guitars have two or more pickups which can be selected using a selector switch. This switch turns certain pickups on and tells them to start picking up the strings’ vibrations.

While the pickups may all look the same, the tone they produce is not.

The more pickups you have, the more options you have to change your guitar’s sound. But these differences can be subtle, and it can be confusing to know why you should bother switching between them at all.

How to Beat It

A guitar with two pickups will have three selector switch options: neck pickup (closer to the neck of the guitar) ON, bridge pickup ON, or both pickups ON. 

A guitar with three pickups will have five options: neck ON, neck and middle ON, middle ON, middle and bridge ON, and bridge ON.

In general, bridge pickups have more output and sound bright and sharp. This makes them great for high gain, lead guitar riffs. 

Neck pickups are lower output and therefore sound warmer and more mellow; great for clean tones and rhythm guitar. 

Experiment with switching between individual pickups or a combination of them to see how it influences your sound. While some pickup selections lend themselves better to certain music styles, there really isn’t a way to go too wrong here. Use different pickups in conjunction with different amp settings and you may just stumble upon a unique sound you really like!

17. Troubleshooting a Guitar that Doesn’t Produce Sound

Getting your guitar to sound like you want is a challenge, but what if your guitar isn’t making any noise at all? Before you chalk it up to a broken guitar or amp and go out and buy all new gear, maybe you can attempt to fix the problem.

But if you don’t know what you’re doing, you can quickly make the problem worse.

How to Beat It

A silent guitar may be caused by a number of factors. However, many of those issues can be fixed with little to no experience and only a few tools. 

For an in-depth look at these issues, along with steps to correct them, check out our previous article, 6 Reasons Guitars Cut Out or Crackle.

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