Improving as a player
At some point, every guitarist wonders whether they'll ever unlock the mysteries of the guitar. Players who are just starting out often wonder whether they'll ever be able to play by ear, or to improvise, or to understand music theory, or to master some technique or style.
The good news is this: everyone goes through it. The bad news is: everyone goes through it. Many times, in fact. Be patient and have faith; your playing will improve. Improvement never comes all at once, but you will make progress over the long term. By the time you get to where you thought you wanted to be, you'll have another goal to strive for. Good news, bad news...
After I had been playing for several years, a very good (in my eyes, at least) guitarist told me something like this about the guitar: "You can learn to play the guitar in a day. Then you'll spend the rest of your life trying to master it."
There's no single path to improvement. You have to figure out what works best for you given what you already know and how you learn most effectively.
Here's the advice that I wish someone had given me early on:
- Get your theory from books, not a teacher. The book is always there, ready to be consulted when you have a question. Basic music theory isn't that difficult to pick up, but it does take time and effort to relate it to your instrument.
- Definitely work on picking up tunes by ear. If you have any inclination at all to be in a band, jam, play covers, etc. it's a skill that will serve you well. It also goes a long way toward helping you play what you want to hear. If you want to become a studio musician you'll also need to read music.
- Tablature is a crutch. Avoid it. You'll find that you won't need it at all if you learn to hear the differences between the same note fretted at different positions on the fingerboard and to relate intervals to fingering patterns. Yes, this all takes time... However, the time that you spend learning tunes from tablature is time that you're not really learning the instrument, IMO.
- Find a teacher when you need one. Don't expect a teacher to lead you. Rather, seek out a teacher who can help you with whatever it is you need help with at the moment. Take needed direction from the teacher, then spend your own time refining the teacher's advice as it applies to your playing. A little bit of instruction can go a long way if you know what you want to learn.
- Take care of your gear, but don't let gear issues dominate your time. Stick with one guitar and one amp that are comfortable for you. Make sure your guitar has fresh strings, is in tune, and is properly intonated. If you play in a style that requires effects (including overdrive or distortion), don't overdo it; effects should add color to good playing, not compensate for lack of skills.