It’s humbling to know that at one point, our guitar heroes weren’t so great, most likely earlier on when they first started. But what made them turn into highly functional musicians? Was it their shredding techniques, stage presence, or did they just get lucky?
Most likely, it was a combination of many factors but the truth is that there are some key features and characteristics that make someone stand out from the rest, and some of these personality traits and skills aren’t that easy to guess.
A good guitar player has a good ear, great rhythm, the ability to listen and learn, an understanding of basic music theory, great communication skills, and a solid work ethic. Interestingly, many of the features that make a great guitarist have to do with general people skills, as well.
Working daily on all of these attributes will not only make you a good guitar player but a better musician too. To be in a band, you need these characteristics plus a few more, like the ability to hang and get along with other people. In fact, this last one might be one of the most important, contrary to what guitarists and others will tell you.
When you play with other musicians, you’ll need to be a team player who’s capable of listening to other people and taking feedback, and being able to give out an opinion in a way that’s not dominating or offensive is a big one too. Let’s take a look at some of the other attributes.
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Everything That Makes A Good Guitar Player
1) A Good Ear
A good ear means that you can hear changes in the music, understand the structures as they occur, and know if you are in tune or not. If you’re jamming, you need to know what key you are in, but you also need to know what changes come up.
There are ear training programs available including Rick Beato’s ear training course, which is the one I plan on getting over the next few months. I haven’t started using it yet so I can’t fully recommend it, but there are definitely ways to work on your ear, including by just playing along to your favorite songs and analyzing them.
That all said, having a good ear really comes in handy when you’re playing with other musicians because you’ll have the ability to quickly figure out what other musicians are doing and where to take things next. Think about it. If you know what chords they’re playing and what key they’re in, you have a great idea of what to play.
2) Solid Rhythm
Rhythm playing is a total necessity, even though a lot of guitarists think that they can just practice solos all day. Each instrument contributes to rhythm, some more than others. A great guitarist has to be a great rhythm player, and that’s just the way it is.
If you think about it, most of the playing you’ll do, whether in a band or as part of some kind of orchestra, will be rhythm playing. It’s not like you’ll be ripping into a solo every 5 seconds. A majority of the playing you’ll do will be rhythm playing.
So what’s the best way to practice your rhythm skills? For one, it’s to play songs, whether they are the ones you’ve written or the songs of other people. Play along to them so you can play them perfectly, including when you’re standing up and when you’re sitting down.
Another great way to ensure that your rhythm playing is tight is by playing along to a metronome like this one from Amazon at all times. This is a hard one to implement because metronomes can be quite annoying, but it’s essential, as far as I’m concerned and it’s something I mentioned in my article on how to jam by yourself.
A great book to learn for practicing your rhythm skills is Guitar Mastery – Funk from Joseph Alexander (on Amazon). There are quite a few rhythm exercises in here that are quite helpful to learn. You may ask yourself why it has to be funk, and it doesn’t, but I think funk is rhythm-heavy music and it’s a great genre to practice for rhythm’s sake.
3) A Great Memory
There are many moving parts in music, so having a good memory can make or break your music career. If you learned a setlist and went to play it with a band and then forgot everything, you won’t make a good impression. Seems a bit corny, but the fact of the matter is that you have to be in sync with the other musicians.
Remembering what to play is a big part of the job, along with guessing what you are playing next because you are a musician, not just a guitarist. If you’re constantly asking other people what’s next and you don’t know what you’re doing, other musicians will get annoyed with you and it’ll seem like you don’t care enough to remember.
4) Continously Practicing And Working On Their Technique
Techniques that make you a good guitar player in your genre are especially important to practice daily. If you play rock or blues, you might want to try a slide or some bending and hammer-ons and pull-offs. For metal, some sweep picking or arpeggios.
It would be best to practice anything that will make it easier for you to play your genre daily. Being a great guitarist, technically, is a great way to get interest from other musicians who want to take you in, but you also need a personality type that people want to be around, which brings me to my next point.
5) Patience, Dedication, and Conflict Resolution Skills
Patience and dedication go a long way with a lot of things, and learning guitar is something that will get you far if you practice them. When you are learning a new song, depending on how difficult it is, you may need a lot of patience and dedication to go over the parts as many times as it takes to learn every single note in the song.
Patience, as part of how you approach working with others, is also incredibly important. In fact, it might even be more important than having the patience to learn a song from beginning to end. Most guitarists think that it’s their technique that’s going to get them the job, but really their people skills might be what does it.
If you don’t have the patience to work with people in a stressful setting, maybe being in a band isn’t for you. You’ll have to spend a lot of time with the other members in your hand, so having conflict resolution skills and the ability to wait for others is crucial.
6) Creativity and Curiosity
If you want to be in a band, unless you’re in a cover band, people will probably look to you for various ideas. If you want to make meaningful contributions to the group, it’ll help you to be creative and curious – both of these work together.
Being a curious musician, one that wants to figure out how something works, will help you pick things apart and apply the principles you’ve learned to your songs. Additionally, understanding how the drummer and bassist think will make you more capable of playing along with them.
7) Good Dexterity
Good hand dexterity is essential for playing chords where your fingers are stretched out across several frets. There are a lot of practices you can do to help your dexterity. Daily exercises, stretching, massaging, and keeping hydrated will all help keep your hands from fatiguing and cramping up.
Simply put, if you’re playing long shows, you’ll need endurance. Another thing you’ll need is proper guitar-playing form because if you tend to use too much of your shoulder, rather than your wrist, you’ll get bad shoulder pain and it’ll seriously inhibit your performance.
8) Can Effectively Communicate With Other Musicians
Music is a universal language and the way we communicate with other musicians is through standard notation and music theory terminology. This allows us to speak to each other about things in a way that everyone can understand.
For instance, if you’re working with a guitar player who doesn’t even know what a G Major chord is, you’ll find it challenging to get them on the same page. You also need to be cool-headed when you are in a band setting and not get too opinionated. Or, you should be able to say your opinion in a way that’s not rude or disrespectful.
9) A Good Guitar Player Knows Their Gear
Usually, an amateur-only knows a few things about what they are playing, and a savant will tell you exactly what they are playing and why it sounds the way it does. Your gear determines a big part of your sound, and to a beginning guitarist, it probably sounds like everyone else’s gear.
This is especially important when things go wrong with the equipment. You want someone who knows how to work the gear, because when things go wrong – which they will at some point – you’ll have to be able to fix it. Even just knowing how to string up a guitar in a few seconds is an underrated skill.
If you bust a string in the middle of your set but you don’t even know how to re-string a guitar very well, you’ll be a massive nuisance to other members of the band, especially if it’s them who has to fix your problem. Sperzel locking tuners like these from Amazon are great for this by the way.
How Do You Know If You’re A Good Guitar Player?
The best way to tell if you’re a good guitar player is if other musicians want to work with you. Another way to tell is if the people you’re playing with are really good, as you pretty much have to be at the same level to play along with them.
That said, it’s hard to judge yourself, especially if you are the type who is hard on yourself because you have high standards. If you aren’t as good as them now, you soon will be. If you are auditioning and getting callbacks, that’s a good sign as well.
But don’t take it hard if you don’t get a callback. Some people don’t get a call back because of very odd reasons; not always does it have to do with talent. Just keep auditioning, so you get good at auditioning and playing in that kind of setting where everything is constantly moving and going forward.
How Would You Describe A Good Guitarist?
Simply put, a good guitarist is someone who can learn and play the songs that need to be played, and without being a nuisance to others in the band.
A great guitarist ideally also has a solid personality, they’re punctual, respectful, they have good gear, and they’re flexible in all settings. Every project is different, and you have to be able to adapt and get along with everyone or consider yourself the outcast.
What Do You Need To Become A Good Professional Guitarist?
1) A Good Sense of Timing
Metronomes are one of the first things you should buy when getting a guitar. If you can play to a metronome, you can play with a band or record. Great timing is a desired trait for any guitarist. As a matter of fact, being able to play on time is absolutely critical, it’s more than just a desired trait.
Like I said earlier, you can practice with the metronome that I mentioned near the start of the article, but also playing along to your favorite songs is good too. I play along to Guitar Pro files all of the time (get your copy from Plugin Fox).
Either way, I try to minimize non-timing-based playing at all times. If I’m not playing along with Guitar Pro, I’m using a metronome, but if I’m not using either of those two things, I’m playing along to the actual song or the YouTube video.
2) Great Listening Skills
As a musician, you have to listen, because the music will let you know exactly what works and what doesn’t. A good guitarist develops and maintains these traits to produce the music they want. And like I said at the start of the article, you also need to listen to other people in your band.
If someone tells you to do something less, you should probably take that criticism. The thing about working with other people is that a lot of them don’t want to hurt your feelings, so they’ll often hint at what needs to be changed, and they don’t actually say it out loud.
Listen very carefully when people are telling you about your playing, because the actual message may be kind of hidden from plain view. People work this way because it stops others from being resentful and mean-spirited. That said, everyone has a different communication style.
3) The Ability to Work With Other People and Not Dominate
Not only does a guitarist need to listen to the music, but they also need to listen to the other players without the ego getting in the way. Metallica has a great MasterClass where they talk about some of these principles, and if anyone knows how to keep a band together, it’s Metallica (or the Red Hot Chili Peppers).
Those are two bands that have almost kept the exact same lineup from the beginning which is extremely rare. Many bands don’t even have original members in them anymore except for maybe one person. You’re probably getting the message here.
Communication and people skills are huge and underrated when discussing what it takes to be successful.
4) An Understanding of Basic Music Theory
As stated in number 3, this is the language of musicians, and to overcome most things, just knowing a little bit of theory can help you a lot. Things like the names of the notes on your guitar, basic chord shapes, and a few scales can help you communicate and write with other musicians.
You’ve probably heard people tell you the importance of music theory all of the time, but the weird thing about it is that most people who talk about it have no idea what they’re even talking about. They talk about it as if it’s a set of “rules,” or some kind of super complicated magic that allows you to do superhuman things.
Music theory is just a set of ideas that try to explain why certain things sound good and others don’t, and it’s also a way to communicate with other musicians. That’s all it is. You don’t need a Beethoven-level understanding of harmony to be a great musician. To learn, you just need two things.
The first thing you need to do is sign up for Punkademic’s All-Access Pass (here) which will give you access to their entire site and every single one of their courses. Start with Part 1 of the Comprehensive Complete Music Theory Course and go all the way until Part 6.
The next thing you want to do is you want to get Mark Sarnecki’s Complete Elementary Rudiments including the Answer Book from Amazon. Finish all of the exercises. Once you’ve done that, you’ll know all of the theory you need to be a functional and capable musician.
5) The Ability To Play Different Genres
Sticking to one thing until you’re good at it is a great idea, but to be well-rounded, many guitarists learn different genres to understand music as a whole. Not only that, but if you’re a professional guitarist, different clients will have different demands from you.
Maybe you’ll need to play a jazz standard. Maybe you’ll have to fill in as a funk rhythm guitarist, or maybe you’ll have to come up with a cool hard rock solo to fit in with a stadium-rock type of song. It’s wise to find a niche and dominate it. That’s just good marketing, but having a passing knowledge of other styles will be helpful.
6) The Confidence to Perform In Front Of Audiences
Probably one of the more underrated attributes in this article is the ability to actually play in front of people without wetting your pants. Truth be told, many people get stage fright even after they’ve performed for the 1000th time. But from those experiences, they know they can perform.
If you want people to call you back, you want to have the least amount of problems as humanly possible. It should be totally drama-free to work with you, and you should be able to do the job that’s asked of you without making excuses.
7) Self-Reliant But Also Dependable
What good is a great guitarist if you can’t rely on them to show up on time or even at all? If you’re not going to show up to the studio session or band practice because you have some nagging drug addiction, it’ll be awfully difficult to work with you, purely out of pragmatic reasons.
One of the greatest bass players to ever live, Jaco Pistorius, unfortunately, lost his career due to drug addiction struggles which people claim had to do with mental health issues. What caused his issues, I can’t say, but what I can say is that people won’t want to work with you if you make it difficult for them.
As the story goes, Jaco became so unreliable that no one wanted to work with him anymore because of his behavior and drug problems. Even though he was arguably one of the best bassists to ever do it, certainly the most influential, his personal problems were too much of a burden.
Important Things to Note About Being A Professional Guitarist
1) Many Of The Important Skills Overlap To Other Professions
In case you haven’t noticed already, a lot of the things I’ve mentioned in this article are straight-up just communication and interpersonal skills. They apply to every profession and hobby in life, and not just guitar players. Knowing how to get your opinion across, without being rude or dominating, is something that everyone appreciates, just as one example.
Gear That Every Great Guitarist Could And Should Use
Below is a list of every product mentioned in this article, as well as a few others that weren’t. These are some of the most helpful things I’ve ever purchased, and I’m recommending them to you as well
1) Rick Beato’s Ear Training Course
4) Guitar Mastery – Funk from Joseph Alexander (on Amazon).
5) Sperzel locking tuners (from Amazon)
6) Guitar Pro (from Plugin Fox)
8) Punkademic’s All-Access Pass (on Punkademic)
9) Part 1 of the Comprehensive Complete Music Theory Course
10) Mark Sarnecki’s Complete Elementary Rudiments and the Answer Book from Amazon (from Amazon)