September 9, 2011

Status Update, Part Deux: The Intermediate Student

Guitar black and white

Greetings, current and future rock stars!

In our last installment, we covered JB’s criteria – the Beginner Fundamentals – for passing from guitar newbie to advanced beginner status.

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 these fundamentals include 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?

In order to consider yourself a late beginner, you should demonstrate clear mastery of this material. Someone of late beginner status should also be able to play in a way that “sounds like music” to the average person.

In today’s installment, Part Deux, we’ll list the skills and musicianship that will take you to the Wacky World of Intermediate!

The Journey

At the risk of sounding completely guitar-biased, I often tell my students that, although it’s relatively easy to make decent sounds on the guitar, mastering the guitar – achieving elite status – is likely more difficult than mastering any other instrument.

Every instrument has its difficulties, of course, and most world-class musicians will tell you that their instrument takes a lifetime to master. All true. But the guitar can take multiple lifetimes to master!


Along with drums, the guitar is probably the most common instrument in the world, and therefore is integral to the sound of…wait for it…pop, folk, classical, country, rock, blues, jazz, and all the SUB-GENRES of these styles!

Think bluegrass, rockabilly, heavy metal, modern rock, classic rock, modern jazz, bebop, Delta blues, punk, new wave, flamenco, etc. We could go on for days just listing the styles that a guitarist could potentially learn. Although there is some common ground between these various styles, they all have their own requirements in terms of musical vocabulary and technique.

What about technique? While the piano has one basic technique, the technical requirements for guitar are wide-ranging and sometimes completely different from style to style. You have your basic guitar technique, but then there is fingerstyle (a whole skill unto itself), slide, tapping, harmonics, various picking techniques, etc.

There is also vastly different chord vocabulary and note articulation depending on the genre; think jazz guitar versus heavy metal. Certain types of guitar music, like slide, metal, and fingerstyle, rely on altered or open tunings.

And the vocabulary requirements get even more intense when we consider that some major genres – rock, blues, jazz, bluegrass, country – depend heavily on the guitarist’s ability to improvise!

So we’d best get crackin’! Our to-do list is hella long… :)

The List

You need to OWN the “phase 1” fundamentals and have decent command of the following material – “phase 2” fundamentals – in order to graduate from late beginner to intermediate status:

    Demonstrate the ability to correctly form and efficiently change between the common open position chords: B7, Cadd9, Fmaj7, Dm, G7, C7
    Understand and execute common open position slash chords: G/B, D/F#, C/E
    Properly change your guitar strings
    Understand next level rhythms – triplets and 16th notes – as well as rhythmic ties and syncopation
    Perform common strum patterns that combine quarter notes, eighth notes and 16th notes
    Understand and execute “partial” barre chords – F and F#m – and “pre-barre” chords – Bm, B and Bb
    Cleanly execute the basic syncopated strum
    Demonstrate competency with alternate picking
    Demonstrate competency with palm muting and left hand muting
    Demonstrate competency with basic slurs, such as slides, hammer-ons, pull-offs and bends
    Understand and execute a basic minor pentatonic scale (usually referred to as “box pattern 1”)
    Understand and explain half steps versus whole steps
    Build a major scale using the correct formula of steps
    Understand how to harmonize the major scale with basic triads
    Understand how to find any note on the fretboard via the octave system
    Understand and instantly recognize notes on strings 6 and 5 (for use with moveable shapes like power chords and barre chords)
    Execute root-6 and root-5 power chords
    Execute root-6 and root-5 barre chords of the major, minor and dominant 7 variety
    Demonstrate proper fingerstyle technique
    Execute simple forward and backward rolls (fingerstyle)
    Execute basic Travis picking patterns – outside/inside and inside/outside (fingerstyle)
    Tune the guitar by ear, using the relative pitch technique (matching strings)
    Understand the 12-bar blues form
    Understand and execute natural harmonics
    Use the capo in a strategic way (find favorable chord voicings for awkward guitar keys)

Welcome to the Wacky World of Intermediate

If you can handle this material, or at least the vast majority of it, then I would consider you to be an intermediate level player. In my own guitar studio, the intermediate players have most of this covered and remember the rest if nudged in the appropriate direction. As we said before, it’s a lot!

And truth be told, most players never get to this point. It takes a serious commitment. If you’re here, you should be proud of yourself, because it’s quite an accomplishment!

In the future, I’ll post some examples of material that the intermediate player should be focusing on. That list will be heavy on chord vocabulary, picking technique, concepts for improvisation, and creating a larger base of knowledge.

QUESTION: Have you graduated to Intermediate status? Disagree with anything on the list? Leave me a comment below!


  1. Fred Demski says:

    Jim, thanks for your time and expertise invested here. This is great
    for a curricular/linear/sequential approach to progress through AND
    identify gaps in our previous knowledge and skills.

  2. […] my next installment, I’ll outline what it takes to move from late beginner to intermediate status. See you next […]

  3. Ian Stings says:

    what about for advanced guitarist? Can you say and post something about that area?

  4. Ian Stings says:

    WOW, thank you very much. Now I know what is my skill level! Youre right though, it takes a lot of hard work and patience. I remember the nights when I stop hanging out with friends just to practice for many months. Its not easy as it seems for me.

  5. Niall says:

    Hmmm . I am half way between late beginner and intermediate

    Does that make me a beginner intermediate or an intermediate beginner ! 😀

    Thanks for the great article . It gives me some goals to work on for sure

  6. Ryan Moore says:

    Hey thanks for this info
    I’m 14 and have been doing guitar for 1 1/2 years and I can do all this stuff except for about 4 things.
    Does that make me an intermediate player, I can do everything else.

    • jim says:

      Hi Ryan,
      If you can do almost all of this stuff in just 1-1/2 years, then that is mighty impressive! It usually takes people quite a bit longer to accomplish all of this. You say you still need to work on another 4 things; get those down and I would say, yes – you’ve hit the intermediate level. Congrats!

  7. jason kesser says:

    JB, I appreciate so much you taking the time to write this and to reply to comment leavers. I was looking around online to try to find the Right instruction to move onto the next step, and you were so accurate in your first piece, we all under and overestimate ourselves constantly. But surprisingly, even though my formal lessons were only a year long, between ages 13-14, i’ve taken that tiny knowledge and hammered through the rest. Now at age 37 (god help me), you’ve helped make it clear that I’ve powered either past or am firmly planted in intermediate (I had no idea, thought i was a beginner really). I’ve got an impression of what to work on next, I want to be able to build chords in my head very quickly, I’d like to have memorized scales in several styles, (strange blues in weird tunings, darker ragtime, some swing, early cuban perhaps, appalachian and early irish kind of pre-bluegrass stuff, etc), and I desperately need to get stronger with slide and hopefully one day have something transferable to lapsteel, my unattainable instrument crush. But I need to understand the basic math of music. I’ve got to go to the beginning. Would you consider writing the next check list for advanced, which seems somewhat undefinable, since mastery can be manifested in so many specific styles. Or perhaps even better, could you make a list that could help lift us from intermediate towards advanced? Something to follow. I thought it was very spot on when you said it is an accomplishment to get to intermediate and most don’t get there. But I would wager far more people get stuck and mired in intermediate forever. In a very specific way, it’s so hard to learn when you’re decent. Because even if your skills are very adaptable, your skill allows you to get by. We fake it well, and nobody notices that we dont really know shit. Well, for me, it’s time to pay the piper. Im done fakin awesomeness. Any next step or your thoughts would be tremendously appreciated and utilized. Thanks for posting so very much.

    • jim says:

      Hi Jason,

      Thanks for reading and for the detailed and thoughtful comment! I’m going to take your suggestion to heart and start putting together a list of items that I think the intermediate player needs to master to reach the coveted “advanced” status (which is, of course, kind of unclear – and “advanced” can mean very different things for different styles.)

      You sound like you’ve got some specific and sort of unique goals (Cuban, ragtime, Appalachian, slide, etc) – good luck with those things. I cannot say that I can competently play any of those – I can fake through some slide stuff. Kinda.

      But like I said at the beginning of the piece, it would take several lifetimes to master everything the guitar has to offer. So don’t worry about “faking awesomeness”. EVERY player out there fakes his way through something. I do this myself with regularity and no apologies. :)

      Learning the guitar is very unique among instruments in that 1) you can come at it from many different angles, and 2) the style of music you choose to focus on – the genre, its “sound” and its repertoire – directly impacts how you view the instrument and, in a larger sense, all music. Then when you change your focus to a different style, all of the accompanying elements change with you.

      For example, if you want to play classic rock, you’ll learn the repertoire and from that will emerge technical elements, ways of viewing the fretboard, common scale usage, chord vocabulary, tonal considerations, etc. Later on you discover Jobim and Brazilian bossa nova, which has completely different requirements (at least superficially). Next up is traditional country – different requirements still. Put all of these things together and you have your own personal and unique skill set.

      You may be advanced at one thing, or perhaps you’re pretty advanced across the board – able to play well in a number of styles, but not necessarily a “master” of any one thing. As you said, “advanced” can be hard to define, although I think you know it when you get there, if you’re honest with yourself. Of course, by “advanced” I mean relative to the general population of guitarists, and confident in most common musical situations – not that you know most everything there is to know. I don’t think I know any “advanced” players, though, who feel confident in everything. They have their specialties, but most of them are also constantly seeking new info like you and me.

      So…I suggest that you pick one thing to focus on – slide, perhaps – and do just that thing for a while to the exclusion of other things. Get your basic technique under control. Learn to play in standard tuning first, which will force you to learn the fretboard. Get hip to players that use standard tuning and learn their licks. Now move on to open E/D, learn the elements of this tuning, then learn the repertoire and licks. Next up is open G/A, etc. I would bet that a couple months of real focus here and you’ll be amazed at your slide improvement. (And your overall knowledge of the instrument/fretboard will have grown as well.) When you’ve worked the slide angle to death and you’re ready for a break, move onto a different goal.

      Sorry for rambling! Hope some of this made sense. Keep a look out for the “advanced requirements” article. Cheers and rock on, jb

  8. jason kesser says:

    JB, touche’ and god bless ya for an incredibly generous response. A lightening bolt of confidence and reaffirmation that was. Can’t thank you enough, and I’m thrilled if I got you back to pen and paper on the next subject. Whatever it ends up covering, I can promise that I’ll be doin the choppin wood and fetching water with it when it pops up. Lookin forward, and I’ll keep you posted if I have a breakthrough and level up in the next couple months. :) !! Cheers

  9. Dana says:

    Thanks for taking the time to write this list. It has sparked an argument between my husband and I on what kind of player I am. I have been playing for 1 year. I practice up to 3-4 hours a day 4-5 days a week. I am learning through rocksmith. I have mastered according to rocksmith all but 3-5 of the late beginner stuff ( I don’t yet own a capo and while I can play the cords I can’t yet play them from memory). I have basic music knowledge of reading music as I played the viola, clarinet, and keyboard as a child. I can demonstrate about 50% of the stuff on the transitioning from late beginner to intermediate list. According to Rocksmith I have 62.4% mastery of Death Leapord’s Pour Some Sugar on Me. I have around 80% mastery of Eye of the Tiger, and easily gain 30-40 % mastery of almost any classic rock song I play for the first time on rocksmith. Where does that put me in skill?
    36 year old mom trying to stay 2 weeks ahead of my 10 year old so I can teach him to play guitar

    • jim says:

      Hi Dana,

      First, let me congratulate you on your incredible dedication! That is a LOT of practice time invested, but it sounds like it is paying off very well.:)

      It’s pretty much impossible for me to offer an opinion on your “skill level” since I’m not familiar enough with Rocksmith to know what skills they evaluate exactly. If you and I were in a private lesson, I could tell within about 5 minutes exactly where you stand. But from what you’ve related, it sounds like you’re kicking ass no matter what arbitrary skill level we would assign to you. Out of curiosity though, you never said what skill level your husband thinks you’re at: is it lower or higher than you think you are?

      No matter your skill, keep doing EXACTLY what you’re already doing – grinding out the practice time and learning songs. I have a feeling you’re on your way to being an AWESOME guitar player. :)

      Rock on – jb

      • Dana says:

        My husband’s boss invited us (my two boys, my husband, and I) to come over to watch a movie in their theater room and for wine and cheese. I said that we should give them a rock concert while we are their house; as my quest to teach my 10 year old son guitar, has some how turned into me teaching myself, my 13 year old autistic son, my gifted 10 year old son to play guitar and my genius IQ husband with zero musical talent to play bass. My husband looked directly at his boss and said we don’t play very well at all and trumped my kind jesture at a thank you for the invite to your mansion ( his wife is a doctor). I was extremely hurt by his actions. I’ve busted my ass to teach the family an instrument that I had previously never played; all because I could not afford guitar lessons for my 10 year old son who desperately wanted to learn to play the guitar. So I set out to put my husband in his place. Using your blog I showed my husband how wrong he really is about my/ our skills. He said that I thought too highly of my skills as I am biased because I am evaluating me. In short, to answer your question, he thinks I’m a very beginner. He basses this on what he saw his sisters going through growing up learning old school. My husband has very little respect for Rocksmith’s ability to teach people to play guitar. Yet their claim to fame is their 60 day challenge: where if you practice every day for 60 days, at the end of it, you will know how to play guitar ( using the basic fundamentals). If you are interested in learning more about what Rocksmith teaches, I will be happy to share.

        • Dana says:

          I forgot to answer the other part of your question. Prior to reading this blog I would have labeled myself as an intermediate beginner to advanced beginner; leaning more towards the advanced beginner label. I thought it was possible that I might be an intermediate guitar player, but I was reluctant to put that label on myself as I know my tremelato is far from efficient, my slides leave a lot to be desired, and I still suck at harmonics! As far as my evaluation before and after reading your lists, I think I was dead honest with myself. There were a few items that took me by surprise as being basic fundamentals as rocksmith puts them in lessons just before it’s master classes lessons or rocksmith just doesn’t cover it ( like reading sheet music or naming notes or strings). In rocksmith they use a moving tablature with color coded strings. Yes I know my string names, but I have become so used to labeling the strings by their color rather than letter name; I actually have to think about what each string’s assigned letter name is.

          • jim says:

            Just a couple random thoughts:

            1 – People can learn guitar in all sorts of ways, including with Rocksmith. And this is coming from a guitar instructor. :) However the fundamental problem with any online instruction, or even learning from books, is that you get no constructive feedback. But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn a lot.
            2 – Learning the names of the strings (E A D G B E) is absolutely fundamental. And even if you never learn to read a note of standard notation, you definitely should work on learning the fretboard. In my opinion, this is the single biggest flaw in just about every student I meet: they don’t understand the layout of the fretboard. If you’re interested in supplementing Rocksmith with my own lessons, look under the category Six String Theory and you’ll find a couple easy lessons on fretboard organization. Learning the fretboard will be critical if you ever want to learn to improvise guitar solos like a pro.
            3 – Also, memorizing the names of chords is part of the deal when learning the chord shapes. You should set out to name them immediately. This will only help when you’re jamming with other people and have to communicate chords. It’s what all professional players would do.
            4 – I actually find that people have a hard time evaluating themselves in both directions – some are much too easy on themselves and some are too harsh. It sounds to me like you’re pretty honest in your assessment. And again, “skill level” doesn’t ultimately matter; what matters is that you’re learning, improving your skills and having FUN. :)

            Best wishes in your guitar journey and please keep me updated on your progress!

  10. Dana says:

    I have also taken the time to read and go through my son’s guitar workbook that I bought him. I do understand how the fretboard is setup. I could find any note on the fretboard if asked to; it just might take me a minute as I would have to count out the frets. I am aware of the spacing of notes through the octaves and for sharps and flats. I finished Hal Lenard’s book 1 of 3 on learning the guitar some time ago. I haven’t touched it in awhile. I have a ten year old who thinks if he can out rock his mom percentage mastery wise in any one song on rocksmith that he is a more skilled guitar player than his mother. I can’t ever let the student think that they know more than the teacher, thus sadly I have neglected my Hal Lenard studies. That is about to change this week or next. Then I will give my son a slice of humble pie when I ask him to play something out of his Hal Lenard book 1 and he can’t. He dislikes the boring practice method; but the kid needs a serious reality check on who is the student and who is the teacher!
    As for my neglect of chord names, that comes with Rocksmith having me play them in songs when I haven’t studied them yet. I will solve that issue putting my nose back to the grindstone with Hal Lenard, and playing Rocksmith’s arcade games return to castle chord dead and starcade ( I think it’s called that). Starcade demands you to remember how to play the chord from memory before the bad guys start shooting down your space ship. After you get whacked by the bad guys damaging your ship for poor study habits they will give you a refresher on how to play said chord, but think fast, if you don’t play the chord correctly fast enough, your spaceship will be destroyed!

  11. JUlian says:

    This post intrigues me quite a bit. I am 15, and have been playing guitar for circa 6 years. Around 2 years ago I started to take guitar seriously (I despised lessons around 12). I have been accumulating these skills for quite some time, but then I quit formal lessons and played on my own. This has worked surprisingly well for me, as I made major strides in reading tab, and song memorization. Recently I learned the entirety of Sultans of Swing, and have started on Lady writer, as well as previously memorizing the solo from Hotel California. That being said, there are some things that I was never taught, more relating to the actual theory and common chord progression. Chords have never been an issue, but I really do not understand their basis. With all this information, where would you class me? I do not have trouble playing a piece of music, no matter what, but the theoretical (and intangible) parts of guitar escape me and have not interested me. Thank you if you respond to this! (I know this post is rather old)

    • jim says:

      Hi Julian! First, congrats on making such strong progress on your own – those solos you mentioned are seriously challenging. :) Remember that the player “classifications” are rather loose lists of criteria just to give people a sense of where they might be in the grand scheme of guitar playing. Regarding theory and such, the music ALWAYS comes first. So if you’re playing at a level that makes you happy and you understand what you’re trying to accomplish, then you’re perfectly fine. And if you can play the “Hotel” and “Sultans” solos, then you are clearly working at a solid intermediate level (at least from a technique perspective).

      Theory is there to explain some of the “behind the scenes” stuff – how chords are built, why certain chords in the same key, how to achieve particular sounds in improvisation (like modal sounds, jazz vocabulary), etc. – but if this stuff doesn’t really interest you at this point, no worries! Maybe at some point you’ll want to explore it. If so, it will always be there. You don’t have to know how the engine is built to drive a car, right?

      If you feel like you might want to dive into the theory waters a bit, check out this category of articles: I would start with The Only Theory Lesson You’ll Ever Need and go from there.

      Good luck and rock on, jb

  12. Dee says:

    I’ve picked up guitar about a year ago and I’ve been checking back with this list every now and then to see what I need to pick up. I had no experience with guitar, virtually no knowledge of music theory, and no ear-training, but I’ve worked hard at all of that this year. I can now do all the stuff on this list (yay) except I still don’t like using a pick so I’m no good at that, preferring to use my fingers for everything. Thanks for the list. It’s been very helpful.

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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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