How I wasted 10 years learning to play guitar

If you’re reading this, them I’m guessing you and I have a few things in common:

  1. We both love metal music
  2. We both play guitar, or, are learning to (ideally the learning never stops)

If you are not learning to play guitar, then this is an interesting story for you to read. If you are learning, or you are thinking of learning, then hopefully this story will save you literally years of pain. Maybe decades.

Do I have your attention now?

Good! Here we go

I want to tell you a little bit about my guitar playing journey, so that you don’t make the same mistakes that I did, so you can make progress faster and have the musical freedom that you want with the guitar.


How I started

I started out playing guitar just because I thought it would be a cool thing to do. I think I first played when I was in primary school, so about 10 years old. The school I went to had a guitar teacher come in. So my grandparents very kindly bought me a 3/4 size acoustic guitar from the local catalogue store and my parents paid for lessons. Lessons lasted for about… 5 weeks I think, then the guitar teacher quit.

Hopefully she didn’t quit because of my playing! I think we learned the names of the open strings… and maybe two or three chords.

Then musically, nothing happened for a few years. My family didn’t really listen to music. Sometimes we would go on a family holiday, and on the road trip we would listen to audio books on tape, I quite enjoyed those stories. Going to the library to get a couple of audio books on tape before the holiday was the best bit!

Anyway, I digress

A few years go by, and my mum is working at the local university. She is a PA in the music department. One of the students is trying to make some extra cash and is look for some students he can teach drums to. My mum lets me know, I thought it would be cool (being about 14/15 at this point), so I take a couple of drum lessons. That lasted for a month or two lol. I can’t remember why I stopped. But I do remember taking some bass lessons after that.

I didn’t have a bass or a drum kit so I couldn’t practice either of them, maybe this is why I never got very far? Anyway, I end up taking bass lessons.

I tell my dad about taking bass lessons and he says “Why are you learning bass? Isn’t the lead guitar player the cool guy in a band?” (sorry bass players and drummers ;P). That made a lot of sense to me at the time. So I switch to learning guitar. I still had me 3/4 size acoustic guitar from several years ago so I crack that out and start learning on that.

I seemed to switch between hardly practising at all, to practising for hours and hours at a time. I would capriciously switch between the two depending on my mood. My guitar teacher was a cool guy and the lessons were the standard sort of deal - 1-2-1, 30 minutes (maybe 60 minutes… I think I started with 30 minutes and later moved up to 60 minutes). I made some progress. But… what did happen was that my guitar teacher introduced me to music. AWESOME music. The kind of songs that gripped my imagination when I listened to them and resonated with my very core.

The first song I remember getting that feeling from was Joe Satriani’s Surfing with the Alien. When I heard that, I was totally blown away by what an electric guitar could do!

The next was Yngwie Malmsteen’s record Facing The Animal. Man, I thought that was so cool. It was awesome. Just hearing what he could do on an electric guitar, the way he could make it sound, the emotion he could squeeze out of those notes.

My first electric guitar, a Behrigner, soon followed as a Christmas present one year. I was DYING to play those songs… but they were at such a high level… I was years away from being able to play them.

But I kept trying

I had tab book of some Joe Satriani songs that I kept having a go at. I wanted to play the music so bad but my fingers just couldn’t do it! I didn’t really have a way to approach learning that music, aside from keep trying. Unfortunately, this was the only approach I knew… and it would be nearly 10 years before I learned there were other ways to approach it, things that I could actually do aside from just ‘try’, to get my mind and fingers around difficult pieces of music. Somewhere there is a tape of me butchering Crystal Planet by Joe Satriani hahaha (maybe one day I’ll share it)

So I take lessons with my teacher for a few years, then I leave to goto University. I had made some progress with my guitar playing. I was good at scales, I could play my pentatonic shapes, 3 note per string modes etc. I could get a little it of speed on them. I was a bit like a kid on a bicycle, who wants to ride fast, and figures out he can just go downhill - sure there is some speed, but there was not much control! I was probably reaching an intermediate level…


… and the frustration sets in

This is where I got stuck. Over the next few years I played in a band which was fun, but doomed to never go anywhere. Usual sort of band problems… people not being organised, not having a clear plan… not playing up to scratch. We wrote our own songs, parts of which had potential, parts of which sucked.

Unfortunately, my technique and theory knowledge were pretty shoddy. I was trying to improve by learning from all sorts of random sources, guitar magazines, books, DVDs, websites with exercises and lessons, even a comic book that claimed to teach shred guitar! And I made a bit of progress, some improvement, but not much. Not as much as I could have. I was still pretty much stuck at that intermediate level.

Which, as you have probably experienced, is frustrating. Really frustrating.

The frustration was from attempting the exercises, but not knowing why I couldn’t get them any faster. The exercises by themselves were ok. But how do I actually play them faster, and more expressively?

Everyone said the same thing - slow down, practice the exercise slowly, and gradually build up in tempo

Which works a little bit, but I would slam into plateaus that I couldn’t get past, and the worst part was, I didn’t know why

I mean, the exercise said to just do it, so why couldn’t I just do it?

Have you ever experienced something like this?


It sucks doesn’t it.

So this goes on for a couple of years. Eventually I finished university and decided that I wanted to take music a bit more seriously. So after doing a 4 year long masters in astrophysics, I goto one of the UKs leading (apparently… more on that in a minute) music colleges.


Music College

Firstly, let me tell you how these colleges work. They showcase their best students. The best students (95% of the time) are people who would have been successful and great players without any help from the college. The college gives those who turn up with their skills 99% in place the benefit of their connections, and then showcase that individual, or band as being a successful student of the college.

What the college does NOT do, is take people who could not have been successful by themselves, or would have taken significantly longer by themselves, and accelerate the process.

So if you suck at guitar, it is doubtful that you would be significantly better after attending. If you are already pretty good, then you will do well.

What the colleges don’t tell you, is that the only admission criteria, really, is can you cut them a cheque.

So anyway, I goto this college thinking “This is great, I’ll become a much better guitarist!”. And I did improve… but only from the time I was now putting into it. The way they worked was still the same, still, “here is an exercise, repeat it until you can do it”. I didn’t know any better at the time. So I figured I just had to grind.

We once had a class on sweep picking… which consisted of giving us some arpeggios and telling us to practice sweep picking them. I now teach people how to sweep pick… and this is not how you learn to sweep pick. One person I taught sweep picking to went from not being able to do it, to playing 16 notes per SECOND with sweep picking… in 3 months. Did anyone from that class go form not being able to sweep pick, to being able to sweep pick? Nope.

(The music college never got anyone to do that. The only reason I could get people to do it… was because I applied what my later teacher showed me)

Music college was more of the same - practice until you magically figure it out

Frustrating. In retrospect… music college was not a good decision. Unfortunately, I didn’t know any better.

Anyway, moving on, I leave music college, I’m googling the internet for lessons and things I can try out, and I stumbled across my current teacher. So I figured what the hell, I’ll give it a go.




Finally, a solution 

Did I get exercises? Yes.

Were they the same as other stuff I had tried? To be honest… sort of… but there were a couple of crucial elements that no-one else had ever told me, that no-one had shown me, that where the keystone to making my guitar playing, my practice time work.

The lessons told me know just what to practice, but how to practice

The lessons gave me an exercise, and then went into detail about how I should specifically move my arm and hand to play that exercise. The exercises isolated crucial movements that I had to master.

This was the critical part that was VITAL to improve consistently as a guitar player

The vital part that no-one had ever shown me before


And what happened?

My technique started improving. It started improving very quickly. Soon, I reached the stage where I could play 16 notes per second, do lead runs up and down the entire neck, shred arpeggios left right and centre… you know… do all that stuff that I had been desperate to do for a decade!!

And it came quickly too… in under a year I made more progress than the last 10 years combined


I also had things in my lessons about ear training. Ear training at music college consisted of the teacher playing a note on the keyboard… and then asking us what it was.

What the hell

That is not training… that is an assessment! Our classes were really just assessments. lol.

Ear training lessons with my teacher trained me on how to incrementally and consistently improve my aural skills. What happens from that? My improvising improves, my creativity improves, when I hear a musical idea in my head, I can get it out on my guitar and record it pretty fast… thanks to my guitar teacher.

I had theory classes with my new teacher… and ideas were not just presented to me, but exercises to apply those ideas in my playing were given. So my teacher wouldn’t say “Hey Sam, play this scale over this type of chord”, I would get exercises with different ways to apply that scale over the chords, so that I could learn, so that I could increase my musical freedom and ability.

I know that at this point you might be saying “playing fast is cool and everything, but what about phrasing? Technique with no feeling, no melodic value is worthless”

And I completely agree. It’s a good thing my teacher trained me to improve my phrasing, so that in addition to playing fast, I could put feeling, expression and emotion into the music I was playing and writing. Phrasing was non-existent in my playing before this teacher.

Finally, I was improving as a guitar player and a musician. It was like magic

The best part? I never had to worry, or think about what to do next. My teacher had the 30,000 feet view of what it takes to be a better guitar player and a musician, so every thing he gave me came just at the right time to take me the next step further with my playing.

All I had to do… was what he told me to do… and I consistently improved my guitar playing. I mean… that’s badass.

That’s exactly what I wanted

Finding a good teacher really makes all the difference when it comes to learning music.