September 6, 2011

Status Update: Beginner, Intermediate, or Advanced?

FB status update

Let’s play a quick game of make-believe, young rock and rollers!

It’s time to update your Facebook status, but that darn Mark Zuckerberg and his evil minions have “improved” your FB experience with yet another change.

Now they will only allow you to enter one word – beginner, intermediate or advanced – to describe yourself…as a guitarist.

No song lyrics. No complaining about what a bad day you’re having. No pics of your dinner or your vacation. Just straight-up, honest guitar assessment.

So what level guitarist are you? Are you a beginner or intermediate? Have you graduated to advanced status?

Good questions.

Look in the Mirror

As with most things, people have a hard time accurately assessing themselves and where they stand. Folks often think they are:

    • Stronger or weaker than they really are.
    • More or less talented than they really are.
    • More or less attractive than they really are.
    • Cooler or nerdier than they really are.

[As for me, I’ve come to realize that I am way cooler than I usually think I am. But I digress.]

Bottom line: we have a hard time keeping perspective when we are talking about ourselves. Our filter is a little out of whack.

So where do you rank on the guitar scale? Are you still a beginner, even after 5 years? Or have you gone straight to intermediate in 9 months? More importantly, how do you know?

Time Is On My Side, Yes It Is

Guitar playing is first and foremost about skill. Given that, we can easily set some objective criteria for beginner vs. intermediate status.

However, musicianship is also part of the deal, so we want to also include a certain base of knowledge into the criteria.

After playing guitar for 35+ years and gigging professionally for 25+, I think I have a pretty good perspective on guitar status. As a full-time instructor, that perspective has only sharpened.

And one thing I can say for certain: Your beginner vs. intermediate status has nothing to do with how long you’ve been playing.

I can feel people wincing as they read this, but deep inside they know it’s true.

You can be “playing” for 5 years, but if you still can’t fret some basic chords without trouble – sorry pal, you’re still a beginner. That inner voice doesn’t lie.

Quality Over Quantity

A lot of time invested in your guitar practice is admirable. But what is the quality of the work you’ve put in over that time period?

One general criteria for excellence often cited nowadays is the “10,000 Hour Rule”. It was most recently and famously discussed in Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling book, Outliers.

According to most researchers in the know, it takes approximately 10,000 hours of subject-related work – in this case, practicing, playing, studying, listening – to achieve elite, world-class status. That’s 1000 hours per year for 10 years.

That’s a whole lotta guitar.

If we do the math for a year, that’s 1000 hours divided by 50 weeks (taking 2 weeks off for vacation), carry the 1…wait, what? 20 hours a week!?! Dude, that’s like almost 3 hours per day

Finally, perspective. :)

The Skills To Pay the Bills


Now you certainly don’t have to practice 3 hours, or even 1 hour per day. But as with most things, you get out of it what you put in.

So if you’re practicing for 10 minutes during commercial breaks of “Saved By the Bell” reruns, then it might take you an awful long time to even reach intermediate level status.

This should go without saying, but we need to make sure we’re devoting a decent amount of quality practice time to the instrument in order to improve and progress. Quality practice time would be time spent actually thinking about what you’re playing – not just going through the motions – and having a goal of improving certain specific things.

Practicing with intensity. Focus. Not with one ear on Screech.

Beginner Fundamentals

We can separate beginner guitarists into the following two categories: early beginner and late beginner.

Early beginners are those who have just begun their guitar studies. This stage lasts from day one until they can demonstrate clear mastery over the very basic skills.

Late beginners are those guitarists who can demonstrate clear mastery of the basics. They are also likely tackling some fundamental music theory. At this stage, you should be able to play in a way that “sounds like music” to the average person.

Below I’ve listed the skills and knowledge – the minimum criteria – that I believe is necessary for reaching late beginner status:

    Know the basic parts of the guitar
    Identify string numbers, finger numbers and fret numbers
    Know the musical alphabet and explain the role of accidentals (sharps and flats)
    Name the open strings
    Own and use an electronic tuner properly
    Exhibit good basic posture
    Demonstrate competency with the right hand when holding the pick, strumming chords and playing single notes
    Demonstrate competency with the left hand when forming chords and fretting single notes
    Demonstrate the ability to make a decent sound with chords and single notes
    Understand how to read and draw a chord diagram
    Understand how to read TAB
    Understand the difference in sound between the three basic chord types – major, minor and dominant 7
    Explain the term “root note” (or tonic)
    Understand and explain basic time signatures, such as 4/4 and 3/4
    Understand and execute basic rhythms, such as whole, half, quarter and 8th notes
    Demonstrate the ability to correctly form basic open position chords and efficiently change between them: A, Am, A7, C, D, D7, E, Em, E7, G
    Own and understand the basic use a capo
    For those learning to read standard notation, know at least 10-12 notes in open position

The Tip of the Iceberg

As you can see, there’s quite a bit of material here for the newbie!

Guitar has a very wide range of skills to learn, polish, and keep current on, even for beginners. I recommend that you go through the list and make sure there are no serious gaps in your knowledge or skills, since each level of playing builds on what came before.

In my next installment, I’ll outline what it takes to move from late beginner to intermediate status.

QUESTION: Have you graduated to late beginner status? Disagree with any items on the list? Leave me a comment below!


  1. […] Guitar playing is based on physical skills AND musicianship, so we included in our criteria some basic theory (understanding simple rhythms, the musical alphabet, common symbols) to go along with foundation technique (good posture, basic chords, making a good sound). I would also suggest that “phase 1″ includes miscellaneous-type stuff, such as knowing the parts of the guitar, effective use of a tuner, and even simple use of a capo. For the full list, check out Status Update: Beginner, Intermediate, or Advanced? […]

    • Person1 says:

      I don’t feel learning how to read music is always a good way to measure level of understanding. I mean, many famous guitarists whom are obviously experts don’t know how to read music. Everything is logical though. Nice list :)

      • jim says:

        Thanks for the comment, but I never said reading music was a good way to do anything. I said, “For those learning to read…” – meaning, if you’re interested in reading standard notation, you’d probably need to learn “x” notes in 1st position to graduate from early to late beginner. Cheers, jb

      • David Fletcher says:

        I think learning to read music is a great way to understand and subsequently measure your understanding of music.
        If you’re reading and subsequently playing your way through challenging guitar pieces say at grade 6 and above then you are already on the road to understanding a lot about music. Way I see it is that learning to read is not too difficult, you just have to do it and do it every day. I never sat down with a chords and scales book, and to me that is not only boring but pointless; work your way through a guitar piece and your obviously going to encounter chords and scales etc etc anyway, and much much more. I tend to think ‘wow what a great player Mark Knopfler is’ but then I also think ‘I wonder how much greater he would be if he learned to read music’!…Of course this is obviously subjective and a matter of opinion but no body could deny this understanding of music would obviously be ‘more’ and open up other doors (not necessarily artistically better doors / musical choices) to him as a musician.

        • jim says:

          Hi David, thanks for the thoughtful comment! I would absolutely agree with you that reading music opens up doors for any musician, but mainly on the “communication” part, that is, reading what others have written OR writing for others to read your music. Same as the written language. But people who are illiterate can still become good “speakers” of their language, if not readers and writers – they just have to be more engaged with it in their own way. Old school players like Knopfler, Clapton, etc. made ear training a big focus, as well as seeing the fretboard well, to make up for their deficiencies in reading.

          Unfortunately, not everyone is interested in reading standard notation, so I don’t force it – after all, they’re taking lessons voluntarily. And since they often know that you can become a decent player – even very good – without it, they don’t feel pressure to learn it. But if you’re not going to learn that piece of the puzzle, then you have to make up for it with great fretboard knowledge, a strong ear, and good memorization/organization skills. As you say, though, reading would complete the puzzle and make one even better, for sure. Cheers, jb

          FYI, working on chord vocabulary or scales is not pointless, as generations of musicians have done it and continue to do so. If you only get your understanding of scales and chords from random occurrences in songs, it’s a pretty inefficient way to go about it. Working on scales by themselves, for example, gives you the overview of the entire note family and where they’re located, so that when you’re playing a piece, you now understand how the notes of the piece fit in context of the musical “big picture”. Same with chord vocabulary. Bottom line: EVERYTHING is going to teach us and move us further towards our goals, so use it all!

  2. sunoy14 says:

    A nicely assessed list of the late beginner guitarist stage. Well done. I think it is a comprehensive guide for level assessment. In my opinion, a late beginner should also be able to play some songs, me thinks? And not all guitar learners learn theory. Though it is essential, some people just learn the other way. I learned it that way too though I’ve started to look into theory lately. To be honest, I can play guitar quite well and I have recently started to understand a lot of theoretical parts but I still do not know the music notation. I learn from guitar tabs. So, I think music notation is not a must 😀 Anyways, well done on the job.

    • jim says:

      Thanks for the comment! Songs were not included because the selection differs with everyone.

      As for the most basic theory – musical alphabet, simple rhythms, how to navigate a page of music at the most fundamental level – I think this is necessary even if TAB is your preferred method, which again, it is for the vast majority of my own students.

      As for music reading, notice that I said “For those learning to read…” Most players do not care to read standard notation, but if you want to, then this is a decent level for a late beginner.

      I guess the bottom line for me is this: You can be an intermediate – maybe even an advanced – player from a PHYSICAL standpoint, but still be a rank beginner from a conceptual standpoint. To be the best all-around player and musician that you can be, it’s ideal to bring along your understanding of musical concepts to match your physical skill level. Cheers!

  3. Thanks for this great list. I’m teaching my children at home but am only a beginner (late) guitar player myself so it’s nice to have an idea of where to take the curriculum! Thanks.

    • jim says:

      Hi Marc,
      Glad the list has been useful! And kudos for teaching your kids as well. I think you’ll find that the process of teaching will only make your own skills sharper – a win-win!
      Cheers, jb

  4. Carlos says:

    This comprehensive list was very useful. I’ve been playing only 5 years now, but have not set sufficient goals. This list will surely help me determine what I have yet to accomplish.

  5. Robert Motzel says:

    I found the list interesting and would probably consider myself a intermediate player. I have been playing for more than 10 years but I only play my own tunes (finger style) as I find it difficult to play other stuff, I am a right hand player and lost my left hand
    (chord hand) index finger. It makes things a bit harder but a lot more interesting.
    Regards Rob Motzel

    • jim says:

      Robert, although the index finger is unfortunate, it’s great to hear that you’re forging your own path. Django Reinhardt and Tony Iommi also had injuries that left them with limited finger usage, and they did just fine – so you’re in good company! :) Cheers, jb

  6. lazamb says:

    The 10,000-Hour Rule Was Wrong, According to the People Who Wrote the Original Study

    • jim says:

      I read the article. Even if Gladwell misinterpreted – or simplified – the “rule”, I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that 10K hours of practice will still make you pretty darn good. :) Cheers, jb

  7. Wow. This was very helpful. I’m buying my second guitar, and all the buying guides I found out there were for beginners. This was the only site that has been helpful to me.

  8. shakthi says:

    I am 27 years old and i have 1 year experience in Guitar. Now i can play any song. But its not enough, i want to be a expert in Guitar. So, now i decided to do Grades in Guitar. I asked many Guitar teachers and they are saying that it will take 4-years to complete all the 8 grades.

    My question is if i enter in this line mean will i see any good opportunities to earn money in my future? because now i am going to invest my money and my precious time. Can you guide me?…

  9. Darnell says:

    Thanks for the list! It is very useful and answered my question. I am considered a late beginner, I have to get two or three of the concepts down before I reach intermediate. I want to be an all-around guitarist.

    • jim says:

      Thanks for the comment and best of luck on your guitar journey. Keep me updated on your progress!

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Jim Bowley is a professional guitarist, teacher and blogger. A native of Baltimore, he has over 30 years of playing experience and an advanced degree in Music Education from Towson University. Jim lives in Bel Air, MD where he maintains a thriving private lesson studio and performs with his band, Remains of Radio.

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