4 Thoughts That Hold Back Guitarists

We are human beings. What distinguishes us from animals, is our ability to think. That fact that we have language, and thoughts, are a unique feature to the human race, which empowers our mind to accomplish great things – such as learning guitar! However, we are not taught how to use our mind -we also have the power to spectacularly sabotage ourselves.

We have to train our mind to work in a way that helps us, rather than works against us. Part of that training involves some introspection, questioning our thoughts, and seeing if they are an accurate reflection of reality, or not.

Just because we have a thought, does not mean that we have to accept it as a fact.

Sometimes, we find ourselves having self-limiting or negative thoughts, which have no source in reality. There are a lot of potential sources for these thoughts, but that is an article for another day.

Let’s just look at some self-limiting and negative thoughts that we have as guitar players, how they hold us back and what we can do to start getting past them, so that we can get more enjoyment from playing guitar.

1) “Learning Guitar Is So Much Easier for Everyone Else”

We love to turn ourselves into victims. We love finding excuses as to why we can’t do XYZ. We’re addicted to thinking that it’s so easy for someone else.

Sure, it might be easy for someone else to play that cool solo or riff. But was it easy for them to learn that solo?

The short answer is, we don’t know. We can watch a video of Van Halen tearing it up on stage, but we don’t see the hours and hours of practising he put in to reach that level of playing. We don’t see the frustration that he had to endure not being able to do something, and having to figure out how to play it properly.

This thought stems from a logical fallacy: we are comparing two things that cannot be compared – one person’s performance with another person’s learning.

Who knows… maybe Van Halen actually took longer to learn that lick than you?

One thing I’ve experienced teaching over the years, is that people tend to learn at pretty much the same pace.

And even if you are a slow learner, if you just keep going, and just keep making tiny daily improvements, you’ll be surprised at how far you can go with your playing.

Consequences of This Thought

A negative thought that goes unchallenged will have consequences. This thought will cause you to feel demotivated, and eventually ask yourself, “what’s the point?”, and you quit playing guitar, or even worse, you accept mediocrity and stop improving.

Overcoming This Thought

  1. Think about what we talked about above, and reach your own conclusion that this thought is not logical, and that it is in fact, silly.
  2. When you have this thought in the future, pinch yourself, say out loud “who knows how slow or fast XYZ learned – I’ll just focus on practising”
  3. Then focus on practising, and achieving your small daily improvement.

You’ll find that, with time, dismissing thoughts like this becomes a lot easier.

2) “I’ll Never Be XYZ On Guitar”

Have you ever thought any of the following:

  • I could never write songs
  • I could never play lead guitar
  • I could never play as fast as that player
  • I could never improvise like that

Since when did we become so afraid to dream?

If we think that we will never do XYZ or said, then we will never put in the work required to do XYZ. This type of thought becomes a self fulfilling prophecy.

The truth is, everything on guitar and in music theory, can be broken down, studied, analysed, trained and learned.

Do you want to play the sweep picking section in Liar by Yngwie Malmsteen? You can break it down. You can learn how to sweep pick on guitar. Do you wish you could improvise? You can have the basics of improvising on guitar broken down into small, easy steps, and then work on improving your improvising on guitar.

And if you go through that process (or have someone guide you through it), you can improve your skill and understanding with any area of the instrument.

You can apply this to anything, from mechanical guitar playing skills, to understanding how to use neoclassical pedal points in your solos, to analysing classical music and learning from it.

So why do we have this thought?

It could come from a variety of reasons. We might believe that guitar skills are some sort of “divine ability” rather than being the results of hard work.

Maybe we believe guitar skills are genetic?

A lot of the time, it stems from a severe misunderstanding about how we, as humans, learn and acquire skills. It’s a process we rarely tend to consciously acknowledge, even though we use it every day.

We learned skills at school. At our job. We already learned some skills on guitar. We have already proven to ourselves that we can learn new things.

Sometimes it’s because our mind struggles to comprehend the amount of material and practice that we have to cover. For example, if you are learning your first chords, and you want to write songs, there is an enormous amount of music theory and technical skill that you have to first develop (especially if you want to write an awesome metal song).

Merely comprehending all the pieces of the puzzle can be daunting, let alone putting it into practice. It could be argued that, as a beginner, it isn’t possible to really understand what it takes.

But, you can focus on taking the step, and continuously working on that next step with your guitar playing.

Consequences of This Thought

This sort of thought will set you on a path where you never explore the idea of doing XYZ on guitar. You feel it is not possible for you, so you don’t try, and you don’t seek out the resources and knowledge necessary to have a go. Ultimately, you will be left feeling unfulfilled and bored by the instrument.

How to Overcome This Thought

  1. Listen to your inner child.
  2. Disregard any perceived challenges your brain brings up.
  3. Set yourself on a process and get to work. Figure it out.
  4. Allow yourself to suck at that process for several months – or even years.

When you think about what you want to achieve with your guitar playing, you never, ever, thinking about what is “realistic”. Because as soon as you start thinking like that, your brain will find a million and one reasons to justify why you are being “realistic” and your brain will make a big list of all the things that you could never do on guitar.

Instead, think what would be cool. Would it be cool to improvise with other players at a jam night? Would it be fun to write your own songs? Would it be a laugh to play guitar to 5000 screaming girls (one of my students once said this to me haha!)? Would it be cool to play 18 notes a second?

Whatever it is, go with it. Get yourself a teacher, or a book, or a course; and start having a go. People before you have done it, and someone will know how to help you achieve the goal. You may have to work through a few teachers before you get there. It took me a few teachers to find the way to play the way I wanted to, and after that, I had to leave that teacher behind and find others to help me reach the next level.

Give yourself a period of time where you will work on the process and allow yourself to suck at the result.

Give yourself permission to suck at writing songs for two years, and crank out dozens, or even 100s of songs.

Research the topic. If you think someone is full of BS, or going for a hard sale, or makes you feel bad about your playing; move on, find someone willing to help you.–

Focus on taking the next step to where you want to go, and stop worrying if you will get there or not.

Michael Angelo Batio devoted two years to relentlessly working on his picking skills. Many high level players have similar stories of dedicating years of their lives to attaining certain skills.

What are you willing to spend two years working on with your playing?

Write down an answer… and get to work on it.

3) “I’m too… <insert ‘reason’>”

This one is common:

  • I’m too old
  • My hands are too small
  • I don’t have any talent
  • I have kids
  • etc

None of these things matter. Your age does not matter. The size of your hands does not matter. Your ideas about natural talent do not matter.

None of these things matter.

All that matters, is that you learn a little bit more today, than you did yesterday. That you practice and progress a little bit more, than you did yesterday.

Yes, life can get difficult, but there are ways that you can find more time to practice guitar. There are teachers that will help you overcome difficulties.

As soon as you catch yourself saying something along the lines of “I can’t do X because of Y”, you need to confront the thought for what it really is – an excuse you make so that you can justify mediocrity.

Once you face that thought like that, you have no option but to get better.

Consequences of This Thought

Like the other thoughts we looked at, if you allow yourself to take this thought seriously, you will never invest the time and take the action that you need to, in order to become a better guitar player.

You will do some practice, you will have a go at some things, but you will never take it seriously, never get serious results… and you will never get results that give you a deep sense of satisfaction and pride.

Overcoming This Thought

Say out loud, “Stop being silly and get back to practice!”. Find some way to verbally ridicule this false idea, say it out loud, feel a bit better and get back to work.

4) “I’ll Never Reach XYZ Level”

Progress in any field, with anything that we do, is slow. We, as humans, are slow learners. The progress that we see day by day is almost unrecognisable sometimes.

One thing that can be frustratingly difficult, is to manage our perception of time. When we are learning something new, it is almost impossible to ‘see’ how we progress day by day. As such, we find it very difficult to see where we could be with our playing in a year… and it is mind boggling to see how we will progress in 5 years and almost beyond the reach of imagination to picture where we will be in 10 years… if we just kept working at it.

There is a Tony Robbins quote I like:


and nowhere is this more true than when it comes to playing guitar.

For most people, you will be staggered at how much you can progress in 5 years at playing guitar. The improvements you can make to your soloing, your ability to improvise on guitar, music theory and composition skills will blow you away.

I have a few students that I have been teaching for 3-5 years now, and they sometimes compare their skill level to when they started lessons. They all say the same thing – they could not even consider the possibility of playing the way they do now, when they started.

What Do All These Thoughts Have in Common?

These thoughts all come from a similar place – a fear of ambition. A fear of achievement. Rather than think about how awesome it would be to write music, play crazy guitar solos and have fun improvising to backing tracks all day, we can find ourselves worrying about failing.

Worrying about what other people might think about our guitar playing.

Worrying about people judging us.

Worrying about the expectations that people might have of us, if we started practising more often.

Worry about what people might say when we tell them we need that 60 minutes of undisturbed practice time.

Worrying if we are really capable of achieving something.

We’re scared of what it takes to really learn something like the guitar.

The way we think is a habit, which takes time to change. It takes effort to change the way we think, but it can be done. The ideas outlined above will help you to think in a way that is more productive to your guitar playing.

A lot of it simply comes down what we choose to focus on. If we focus on “what if” scenarios, we will struggle. If we focus on continuously working towards that next step, we will make progress.

Stop focussing on where you are, and focus on where you are going, and taking the next step to get there.

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