Before you read this, I don't want to waste your time. This column is for a beginner who has recently purchased an electric guitar and is starting to develop into a musician instead of a hobbyist. If you are an expert, feel free to read on, but nothing in here should be news to you. I bought my first guitar, an Epiphone SG Special, about two years ago. I did so after picking up an acoustic guitar at work one day and recalling how much I wanted to learn to play when I was a kid, only to be discouraged.
So now the box is open, I'm plugged in, and now what? Here's some things I found along the way to help me as a beginner get much better.
There's any number of sites out there that have people doing covers of songs. There are even several free sites that have on-line tutorials to different songs. There's no substitute for lessons, but this is as close as you are going to get to the real thing without paying someone your hard earned coin to learn to play. Ultimate Guitar has been a great website, and my just recently added PowerTab application (which is free) has been great also. PowerTab even lets you tab your own music and hear it played back to you, which is something I am just getting into now.
I never try to play anything I don't care for, even if it's supposed to be a standard. If I don't like it, I'm not going to be interested in playing it, and I'm going to get bored. As an example- I never cared for "Stairway To Heaven." I love Zeppelin, just don't care for that song. By playing what I like, it makes me enjoy what I'm playing, which is what this is all about. Don't make me play "Greensleeves" but ask me to play "Back in Black" and I'm there with a smile.
How and where you practice makes a huge difference. I used to practice in front of the PC, so I could play along with the internet video. Over time, I began playing in my room, without the PC. This allowed me to do a few things differently.
I was now able to mess around with volume and tone to get different sound without deafening my children for life. Also, I was able to have the song playing on the radio and play along with it. This helped me more than anything, not for the sound, but for the timing. A metronome is great, but having the song playing along while you keep time helps a lot. I have also found that as the song plays, it's easier to improvise something if you get off track a bit. I have improvised about 4 versions of the solo portions of "You Shook Me All Night Long" only because in the beginning I couldn't keep up with the sheet tabs and ended up doodling along something that fit. This helped me out a lot.
Also, since some of us are memory challenged and can't recite a song verse for verse, it helps you to hear how a song flows. Try playing "Since I've Been Loving You" without hearing the song once, you'll see what I mean. You need to hear the soul of the song.
I started out as cheap as I thought was necessary, and upgraded. I changed stock strings for Ernie Ball's, junked the Epiphone practice amp for a Fender. Small, cheap upgrades so far, I agree, but both were important ones. Nothing makes as big a difference as an amp. Changing the strings made the guitar much easier to play, cost me about 8 bucks and 5 minutes. Both of these changes drastically change the way I am playing- a muddy sound amp is hiding a lot of the trash you are playing. I used to be able to be quite sloppy with certain songs and the amp would cover it up because it was sloppy. Now I hear when I'm muting strings I shouldn't or when I pull off too quickly. I would recommend an amp upgrade to just about anyone. A tube amp is next for me (which will probably be clear enough to really let me know I suck).
Also, visit a local music shop and have your guitar given a once over. Often, someone more experience than you can do some minor adjustments to the guitar that can make the playability of the guitar much easier and thus, more enjoyable.
If you really want to get better, and I mean noticeably better, you need to devote time to the music. You can't expect to go pick up your guitar on Saturday in your garage and learn "Eruption" by the afternoon. If you can do that, you are most likely a prodigy, and don't need to be reading my sorry ass article.
You should be ready, willing, and able to spend about 5 hours a week practicing to get noticeably better. I'm sure more would be better, but most of us have to balance the rest of our lives with our love of the guitar. You (and anyone who listens to you) will notice when you let up on practice- your brain will "de-synch" with your fingers and you will not sound good at all.
Also, I would recommend anyone to go out and support your local musicians. Go see live events, you will most likely learn something. I am not really into the Blues, but we had a musician play locally who blew me away, and inspired me to start moving towards that kind of music. Don't lock yourself in your room and get frustrated, chances are the guy on stage started just like you.
Check with your local music shop to see if there are jam sessions they hold after hours. Ask if there is a beginner group, or if not, attend the advance group to hear them play. Hearing musicians jam together will give you a good idea of how far along you are musically. Maybe you will have the guts to sit in with them.
Don't be afraid to ask questions, it's how we learn. I was quite ready to purchase a new guitar before I learned that an amp makes much more of a difference. I learned by asking. The UG forums are a great place to ask questions, and so far I can tell you I haven't been bludgeoned on the forums for asking "noob" questions. Most everyone is polite and sincere.
Hopefully this article will assist the beginner guitarist to enjoy playing more. I am writing from real experience that helped me enjoy my music a lot more.