If you’ve been learning how to play guitar without a clear roadmap, you might be wondering where you stand when it comes to your level of playing.

In this article we’ll:

  • Help you identify gaps in your knowledge
  • Give you guidance on which skills fall into the beginner, intermediate and advanced categories

Learning guitar is a bit like building a house of cards. Without a solid foundation, you’ll struggle to make progress.

If you’re a self-taught guitarist or someone who has been bouncing from one guitar teacher to the next, you likely didn’t learn guitar via a proven path or move through clear milestones.

That’s ok, no judgment here!

  • When you pick up pieces of knowledge from YouTube, your roommate, a random guitar book, etc, you may end up with gaps in your knowledge.  
  • These gaps need to be filled before you’re able to nail more challenging techniques, concepts, or music genres.

We put together a catalog of skills so that you can self-assess your level and identify gaps in your foundation.

What is considered a good guitarist?

Obviously, there is no definitive answer, but we have some tips about what you can work on to become a well-rounded guitarist.

Generally, these four categories are what you want to pay attention to and gain knowledge in:

  • Harmony – Chord voicings, chord qualities, chord progressions, comping.
  • Melody – Scales, arpeggios, pitch manipulation, lick vocabulary, soloing.
  • Rhythm Note length, subdivisions, strumming and picking patterns, palm muting.
  • Music Theory – Understanding how chords, melody, and rhythm are connected.

It’s very likely that you’re stronger in some areas and weaker in others.

  • You might be an intermediate rhythm player but a beginner lead player.
  • Maybe your sense of rhythm is great, but your music theory is a little underdeveloped.

This is totally expected but as you progress it’s a good idea to balance out your level in each of these foundational categories.

What a beginner guitarist should know

We’re assuming you’ve picked up a guitar before and sound came out! But there’s a lot more to learn, so below is our checklist for beginners.

Here’s what you need for a great foundation:

Harmony skills for guitar beginners

You can play:

  • Open chords (C, G, D, Am, Em, A, E, and Dm)
  • Open sus and 7th chords (Dsus2, A7, E7, etc.)
  • Power chords

You’ve started working on:

  • Bar chords

Melody skills for guitar beginners

You’re able to:

  • Pick single notes on each string
  • Use a pick to play through the C major scale or a simple one-note melody

Rhythm skills for guitar beginners

You can:

You’ve started working on:

Music theory skills for guitar beginners

You know:

  • The note names of each open string
  • The names of the chords you can play
  • How to read a simple chord chart for a cover song

Attainable goals for beginner guitarists

You might not have been playing guitar for very long, but there’s a lot you can do with a few chords and the ability to play single notes.

Learn and play entire songs

Learning songs is one of the best ways you can progress in your guitar playing.

  • Play along with recordings or just play for fun at home.
  • Invite others to sing while you play or even accompany yourself.

No more sore fingertips

Painful fingertips is something everyone experiences but when you practice regularly and don’t overdo it, you’ll be more comfortable in no time.

Testing out improvisation

You can learn a scale or just try out notes by ear but we recommend starting early to improvise melodies over a chord progression.

  • Improvising is less intimidating than it sounds.

Approach it like you would an experiment – it doesn't have to be perfect, just see what happens and try out different notes.

What an intermediate guitarist should know

It’s a good idea to pick a couple of music genres you want to get to know better at this point in your guitar journey.

You can’t possibly learn everything!

  • There’s so much you could be practicing and so many different routes to take.
  • Narrowing down your practice items and having enough patience to achieve long-term goals are two of the biggest struggles of intermediate guitarists.

There are still a few things that are useful for any genre. Take a look at our checklist for intermediate guitarists below.

Harmony skills for intermediate guitarists

You can:

Melody skills for intermediate guitarists

You know:

  • The major scale and the pentatonic scale in all five CAGED shapes
  • A healthy number of licks and how to adjust notes so they can be used in major and minor tonalities
  • The basics of musical phrasing and varied dynamics
  • Some common double stops
  • How to use slides, bends, vibrato, hammer-ons, and pull-offs

You’ve started learning:

  • Arpeggios for all 7th chords starting on the 6th and 5th string
  • What modes are and how to solo using the Dorian and Mixolydian modes

Rhythm skills for intermediate guitarists

You can play:

  • In different time signatures (at least 4/4, 3/4, 6/8)
  • Subdivisions up to 16th notes
  • Through chord progressions using different strumming patterns and fingerstyle picking patterns

Music theory skills for intermediate guitarists

You know:

  • What a major scale is and how to build chords from the major scale
  • What diatonic chords are and how to use roman numerals
  • The CAGED system and how to visualize chords and scales across the entire fretboard
  • Most of the names of the notes on the fretboard

Attainable goals for intermediate guitarists

You might be spending quite a bit of time in the intermediate level and your goals might change over the course of that period. Here are a few things you could be working toward:

Build a repertoire of songs in your favorite genre(s)

Learning songs will never cease to be a good idea.

  • Dive deep into at least one genre and learn common chord progressions, techniques and sound palettes associated with said genre.
  • If you’re still undecided which direction to take, try a few genres on for size.

Play music with others

Find other musicians to play with – either to jam or to form a band.

  • This will improve your communication skills, your timing, and your ability to groove as a unit.
  • You might also want to explore recording or performing music.

Transcribe that solo

Choose one of your guitar heroes and transcribe one of their solos.

  • Be a scientist and dissect every little detail.
  • Incorporate some of those techniques and devices in your own solos.

What an advanced guitarist should know

The line between intermediate and advanced can get a bit blurry, but you should at least have a rock-solid base in rhythm and lead. It’s time to start specializing in jazz, blues, classical, soul, funk, prog — or whatever your preferred style is.

This checklist is a bit shorter, since the skills you will gather as an advanced guitarist are mostly determined by the genre of music you want to play.

Here’s what we think it means to be an advanced guitarist:

  • You can solo in any key with the major and pentatonic scales.
  • You’re familiar with all 7 modes of the major scale.
  • You have practical knowledge of major key harmony.
  • You can confidently improvise as lead guitarist.
  • You can confidently comp as rhythm guitarist.

Attainable goals for advanced guitarists

The sky's the limit. The goals you are able to reach at this level depend on a lot of things and are going to look different for everyone.

The most important factors that play into whether you’ll be able to reach your goals at an advanced level are:

  • The time you’re able to invest
  • Your local music scene
  • Finding the right mentors and fellow musicians
  • Your saviness when it comes to booking gigs, marketing your own music, or finding session work
  • Luck! 🍀

How to get to the next level in your guitar playing

We all get stuck sometimes, but there are a few things that will ensure you’re always heading in the right direction:

  • Don’t forget that being able to play music is a blessing – even when things feel hard, remember to find the joy in playing guitar.
  • Identify which skills you need to play the genre you’re most passionate about and make sure you dedicate a bulk of your time towards those skills.

Get feedback and guidance, so you don’t have to invent the wheel yourself. A great way to do that is to check out a free 14-day membership to Pickup Music.

Author: Julia Mahncke