Realizing that you’re not the best guitar player is not a great feeling. You practice for hours and study new scales and chords. Maybe you even record yourself playing for your friends and family to see. Then their response is less than enthusiastic.
Did you hit a bad note? Were they into the song? What on earth could you’ve done wrong?
Every single guitar player has been where you are now. Sucking at guitar is not a permanent state. Anyone can progress quickly at this instrument and fix some mistakes that’ll take years off your learning curve.
I’m betting that one of the following six reasons is why you’re not the badass axe slinger of your dreams yet.
Table of Contents
(use the metallica battery riff as an example)
Nearly every guitarist out there will have a different practice routine because they approach the instrument differently than you do. What you need to do is have a specific short-term goal that is attainable at your level of playing. If you’re still playing “Seven Nation Army” you’re probably not going to be able to start learning “Eruption” or “Perpetual Burn” next week.
So you’ve probably noticed that we have the main riff from Metallica’s “Battery” up above. We’re going to use that riff as an example of some of the practice principles and tips we can apply to the routine I’ll lay out.
So ask yourself. What are the steps to take to play this riff or lick? How do I memorize this? How many tries should I attempt before moving on to another riff?
For this riff, you’d need to concentrate on making smooth fret hand movements when changing the chords. You’ll need to slow down the fast 16th notes and get your alternate picking and down picking in sync with the fret hand. You’d also need to break this down into about 4 sections so you can digest it into tiny chunks.
You’ve probably heard this riff before many times if you’re a metal fan. You know it by ear already!
So here’s a problem you’ll face if you jump straight into this riff without learning the necessary right hand techniques. Without knowing how to palm mute correctly, some notes will ring out that shouldn’t. If you aren’t a strong enough alternate picker, you’re not going to play the faster note sequences fast enough. Without being able to tell the difference between downpicking and alternate picking by ear, you’re going to apply the wrong techniques to this riff in certain places.
This same idea is why many struggle with aspects of fingerpicking, lead guitar, punk rock guitar, or nearly any kind of subgenre of learning the instrument. You need to take the time to learn the fundamentals of the instrument before playing anything that’s a little more difficult than what you can already play.
So set goals of learning say how to palm mute correctly, how to palm mute and alternate pick together, and playing each of the 4 sections of this riff slowly and in time. Set goals like this for everything you play!
Besides not learning the various techniques involved in this riff or any riff, it can be very easy to miss various notes or rhythmic nuances of a bar of music because you just can’t pick it out yet.
Other times your ears just won’t be able to match the tabs to what you’ve heard.
The battery riff has some tricky rhythms and quick notes that are easy to overlook, and that I’ve overlooked when I first attempted to learn it. Only after repeated listenings, and viewing it on guitar pro a lot did I finally get this down.
It’s all a puzzle that you must take time to solve. Without this approach, many of your friends and family will notice that your playing doesn’t sound like the record. It’s tough to do with lots of riffs and progressions, but that’s the fun of playing guitar!
This is a very common problem that every guitarist out there still struggles with. A lot of the challenge of learning any riff is deciding where to put each of your fret hand fingers per note. With fingerpicking it can get even more complex as you now have four more fingers to throw in.
This is why learning the fundamentals of strumming basic chords, playing easy riffs like “seven nation army,” and setting specific goals comes in. You must not overlook these steps of learning as they are training you on not only how to position your fingers for lots of songs, but also what to do when you have no information about that available.
Lead guitar playing is a prime example of this problem. It’s why we all take time to play those Steve Vai 1234 exercises all the time so that each of those fingers can best figure out where to go and not go. It’s common for lots of players to use their fret hand ring finger in places where the pinky would be better, for instance.
When learning any riff, make figuring out the finger positionings a big goal!
Another common problem many “bad” guitar players have is that they have bad picking hand technique. Your picking hand not only plucks the notes, but also must stop other strings from ringing out when necessary. This is a problem you’ll have with nearly every single guitar part you’ll play.
Take the battery riff again. The Bb5 powerchords can be easy to mess up by hitting other open strings or not fretting correctly due to the high speed. When you go to the part that starts with 75 on the A string, it can be easy to keep hitting the low E string.
Becoming aware of this problem is the first step. There are many ways to mute the other strings whether it’s by using your free pick hand fingers or fret hand fingers. You can also use parts of your fret hand palm to mute troublesome strings.
Now that we’ve come to the end of this lesson can you see how easy it is to suck?!?!
You’ve got to think about palm mutes, downpicks, alternate picking, string muting, tricky rhythms, and proper finger positionings all at the same time just to get this riff down.
It’s nearly impossible to get all of this right on the very first attempt unless you’ve played lots of riffs like this one before. Slow down. Learn the parts. Make several attempts and correct your mistakes.
Being a bad guitar player is not a permanent state. You can fix any problems you have and try again. That’s the beauty of guitar in that you get unlimited attempts to play a riff. It’s infinite!
So make a set of goals for the short-term, like we talked about with the first reason you suck (for now). Learn some techniques you’ve put off learning. Find some riffs that’ll help you work up to the ones you want to play. Create a routine of practicing 5-10 different riffs per practice session, along with some exercises.