It’s said that the game of chess takes a minute to learn and a lifetime to master, but isn’t that true of almost everything? When we talk about technique and facility on an instrument, the guitar is generally the first instrument we discuss. The basic idea is simple: put your left hand here, grab the pick with your right, and make some noise.
The beauty of the guitar is that it’s not too difficult to reach level one. In fact, plenty of good music is made by folks who lack great facility. But those of us who play usually aspire to be better and blow people's minds. Here’s my basic summary of the 10 levels so you can gauge your progress. Who occupies the top levels, and where do you think you fall?
- Three-chord strummer: You can strum a three-chord song, more or less on the beat, without making any major mistakes.
- Campfire guitarist: You know most of your root-position chords and can play through them at moderate tempo without mistakes.
- Second guitarist in a folk band: You can strum your chords well at any tempo, can read a lead sheet (playing the chords to an unknown piece in real time), and can play simple single-note melodies and chord arpeggiations. You're starting to write your own chord progressions to create original music.
- Garage-rock guitarist: You can play arpeggiations and rhythmic figures. You know most commonly used chords. You can play at different tempos and in different styles. You have some ability to improvise lead lines and are writing music regularly.
- Rock 'n' roll guitarist: You can cover most classic rock songs, playing practiced rhythm and lead parts with flair and attitude. You're capable of locking in with a rhythm section to create the unforgettable sound of a tight, practiced band. At this point, you can carry the guitar section in a band and consider yourself a lead guitarist.
- Progressive-rock guitarist: You're comfortable with difficult meters, unusual chord voicings, and can play chords, riffs, and single-note runs at high speed. You can improvise lead lines over all of this material. You're comfortable sight-reading chords and single-note parts.
- Rock-star guitarist: You're such a strong soloist that you're happy taking an improvised lead at a live show while your entire band goes for drinks. Your lead work is tasteful, appropriate, and fluid. You can both play and write in odd time signatures. You're so comfortable with your playing that you can focus on performance, showmanship, and feeling.
- Virtuoso guitarist: You can handle anything that any band throws at you and have developed a recognizable style that's fully your own. You write high-quality, interesting music in your own style and consistently impress listeners with your technique and facility. You're a very strong improviser in different styles.
- Stunt guitarist (this term was coined by the great Frank Zappa, who used it to describe Steve Vai): You're capable of playing music specifically written to impress listeners with your amazing speed, fluidity, and technique. But you're also an outstanding musician and only deploy this form of showmanship when appropriate. You're an excellent songwriter with a strong, unique voice.
- Monster: You have a powerful, influential style and can play effortlessly in different genres. You learn music almost instantly, both by ear and with sheet music. You can solo with fluency and soul in many scales, time signatures, and keys. Your playing is consistently excellent and tasteful within the style you’re working with, and you’re capable of making jaws drop at any time. But you remain a student of guitar, still learning and striving to improve.
Jesse Sterling Harrison is an author, recording artist, and part-time farmer. He lives in Massachusetts with his wife, three daughters, and a herd of ducks.