What Determines Your Ability on Guitar?

I recently wrote an article looking at why natural talent on guitar is a myth, and hopefully, debunked several ideas and theories that hold guitar players back. So I thought today, we could look at the other side of the coin, and look at what really determines your ability level on guitar:

1) Daily Time Invested into Practising

This is an important principle that affects nearly every human skill you can think of. It applies to learning to tie your shoe laces, learning a language, and learning how to play guitar:

Your ability level with any skill, is a reflection of the amount of time you invest into that skill every day.


Are you practising a couple of times a week and not getting anywhere? Do you practice a few days then have a day off? If you are not practising very often and not seeing results, then, then maybe it’s time to get serious and start practising guitar every day.

If you need help finding the time to practice guitar, then read this article on finding more time to practice.

If you want to reach the highest levels of playing, then you need to be working on your guitar playing and music for several hours a day. In order to do that, you have to find a way to purposefully structure your life around your guitar playing.

2) The Results From Each Practice Session Are Proportional to Your Focus

In Europe, football is a highly competitive sport, with some of the highest paid athletes in the world. With so much money involved and competition so fierce, a lot of research has been done into why some football academies produce higher quality players than others.

Researchers found that the academies that had players practising the most, did not necessarily produce the best players.

What was the missing factor?

The researchers found that not only was the amount of time important in developing a skill, but also the quality of that time, the intensity of practice and how well the players focussed during that time.

And this applies to your guitar playing.

I think we can all agree that 15 minutes of focussed, structured practice; with no distractions, is going to be more beneficial to your playing than 30 minutes of noodling in-front of the TV with a beer.

We have to put the time in, but that time needs to be high quality, focussed practice time.

3) Your Brain Needs to be Consistently Challenged

This was a huge misunderstanding I made when learning. I thought that if I consistently practiced a scale fragment for an hour, I would make progress with my playing.

Boy was a wrong.

Once you can reliably play a scale fragment, or any exercise, you need to play it in other positions on the guitar. You need some simple variations on the exercise.

You can create variations on an exercise by:

  • Playing it from different root notes
  • Changing the key
  • Changing the scale
  • Moving the exercise through different diatonic positions of a scale

When practising exercises, you want to have several positions, or variations of the exercise to practice. You play each position 3-4 times in a row. Move onto the next variation. Then you increase the metronome.

For beginners, I recommend working on simple linear picking exercises to work on your basic co-ordination, dexterity, stamina and timing. Then moving onto scale based exercises, with more variations.

This idea applies to every possible guitar exercise.

Master the basic idea - then start practising in a handful of other positions and keys.

3B) You Need to be Consistently Pushing Your Boundaries

Progressing at the guitar means you need to constantly push what you can do and what you know.

That often means taking steps into a new area of playing, that makes you feel like a beginner.

For example, once you have the hang of the minor pentatonic scale, it’s back to basics with learning how the major and natural minor scales work.

Once you have a basic technical ability, maybe it’s time to work on your improvising.

It’s often tempting to sit in our comfort zone. We put the hard work in, we achieved the result. We sat with those positions of the minor pentatonic scale, figured them out and now we can play them. We worked on our ability to improvise on guitar and now we can jam to backing tracks.

Keep going. Work on the next thing. Did you work for 5 years learning how to shred on guitar? Awesome! Now start working on your composition skills.

There is always a next level. What’s the next level for you, and how are you going to approach it?

4) How Long You Play Guitar For

If you play guitar for a year, you will only get so far.

If you dedicate your life to improving, you will be amazed at how much you improve every year.

Persevere. Don’t give up. If you want to be a great guitar player, then consistently work towards being a great guitar player, every day, for a few decades. You’ll get there.

5) The Psychological Secret to Consistently Progressing With Your Guitar Playing

We alluded to this in idea 3B with pushing our boundaries, but if ever there was a secret to learning guitar, this may be it:

Embrace frustration.

We often think of frustration as a negative emotion that we want to avoid. Frustration is just an experience we have, when working on something that we can’t do.

Everything we do, comes from patterns in our brain cells. When we learn a new skill, our brain has to find a new pathway through our immense network of brain cells, it has to create a new pattern of neurones that it can fire, so that your body can do the thing you are trying to do.

That feeling of frustration comes from the brain trying to find that pathway. It takes a bit of time for your brain to figure this out.

When we practice a skill, our brain is repeatedly firing that same pattern of brain cells, and gets better at it.

Every single new thing we do on guitar, even if it is composed of things we can already do separately, requires a period of frustration and learning.

For example, if we can play the chords G and C, playing a song with the chords we already know is going to take a period of learning and frustration.

If feeling frustrated makes you angry, you are going to find it very difficult to make significant progress with your playing.

This boils down to how we react to frustration. If you make an identity-judgement about frustration, e.g. “I am frustrated. I can’t do this. I suck at playing guitar”; then you are going to struggle with progressing, because it emotionally destroys you and your identity every time you try something new.

If instead, you viewed frustration as a sign of a break through with your playing being just around the corner, you will find an emotional reserve to help you push through.

Incidentally, I’ve always found that periods of the biggest frustrations with my playing and learning, always lead to the biggest break throughs.

If you view frustration as a challenge, as something to be chipped away at, as something that you are going to over come… so that you can experience it again… you are going to make more progress than you can possibly imagine.


So there we have it. These 5 things will determine how far you progress with your guitar playing. They are all within your control. Keep them in mind, figure out how to apply them, give yourself time… and start watching yourself make serious progress with your guitar playing!