Beginner Progress: What to Look for in Early Guitar Success

When we first start out on guitar, or learning a new style of music, it takes time to hear the desired results. Our beginner progress is often far from our desired abilities.

If we don’t see progress and improvement, motivation can wane and practicing seems less attractive.

In order to improve most quickly, it may help to understand some of the less obvious successes that mark our practices, especially in the early days.

Beginner Progress: Mental Pictures

When we’re beginning classical guitar, it takes time to hear and see the results we crave. If we only gauge success by the ability to do finger gymnastics, we’re bound to find frustration and failure.

But if we begin with the end in mind, we can find success much earlier in the learning process. If we aspire to think and understand like master players, we can have successful practices from day one.

What is a Mental Representation?

A mental representation (or mental picture) is the “map” of everything we know about a subject. Every detail, every relationship and connection.

As an example, if I say “dog”, you have a rich understanding of what I’m talking about, including much more than just canines. You know specific dogs, types of dogs, risks, benefits, people referred to as dogs (affectionately or otherwise), dog smells, dog behavior, any number of colloquialisms, and more.

For guitar, this means knowing where to put your fingers for a particular chord or piece of music. It means knowing how to hold your guitar and use your hands. It means knowing what symbols and markings mean, and guitar jargon. It includes the sounds you like and those you don’t. Everything guitar.

As we progress, we form a richer and richer mental representation of music and playing.

Mental Representations of Guitar

One of the fastest and most effective way forward on guitar is increase your mental representations of the guitar.

Knowing where to put your fingers is a massive success, even if your fingers are still reluctant to go there.

Every piece of new understanding and knowledge brings you forward toward competence, and so should be counted as a triumph.

Just as infants can think and know what they want before they develop the language and vocal cords to express, forming mental representations is an essential and elemental step of learning to play the guitar.


One way we form mental representations is through visualization. “Visualization” is forming mental images. It also includes internal sounds, feelings, and even tastes and smells.

As guitarists, we can speed up our learning and practice mentally by visualizing..

  • fingers
  • guitar grids
  • frets
  • strings
  • musical notation

If you are learning to imagine these, and can mentally identify or practice with visualizations, you are improving as a musician.

Even if your fingers are lagging behind, you can count your increasing ability to visualize a success. Especially if you actively visualize on a regular basis.

Consistency Creates Results

As with any complex skill, it takes time and repetition to improve on guitar.

As we learn complex finger movements and concepts, consistency helps us learn more quickly.

For instance, if we always use the same fingers in the same positions to play a given chord, we’ll master it more quickly than if we use different fingerings each time.

Consistency creates habits, and learning the guitar involves creating new habits that will become fully integrated, unconscious, and automatic, in the same way that writing and speaking do.

Also, one of the most important elements in the beginning stages is simply showing up consistently and doing the work.

Just Show Up

Perhaps the greatest success when first starting guitar comes with showing up consistently.

There is no substitute for time on the instrument, especially at first. Simply sitting down with your guitar on a daily basis is a huge success. The more consistently you can make time for practice, the more quickly you’ll move forward in your playing, and the more improvement you’ll see.

Consistency creates results, and results create the motivation to continue.

Consistency creates results, and results create motivation.

Even if you’re using the least effective system in the world to learn, and doing everything as wrong as possible, you’ll still improve if you show up consistently.

Focus and Challenge for Beginner Progress

In addition to consistency and creating mental representations, focus and challenge are reasons to celebrate.

Focused Attention

When we give our focused attention to something, we learn more quickly and retain more of what we learn. Focused attention makes practice many times more productive than distracted, mind-wandering practice.

Whether practicing switching chords, doing finger exercises, or playing from musical notation, the more focused attention you bring to specific details, the more successful your practice time will be.

The key to focused attention is knowing exactly what you’re wanting to accomplish. It’s crucial to have something on which to focus. This could be working to move your fingers in a particular way, or working to recall something.

You’ll stay more focused if the challenge is appropriate.

The Right Amount of Challenge

The right amount of challenge also engages the brain and facilitates faster, deeper learning.

If the task is too difficult, we get frustrated. If it’s too easy, we get bored. With the right level of challenge, we become completely involved and may even attain flow states.

You know you’re at the correct level of challenge when you can succeed at what you’re doing, but it’s not easy. You have to be completely focused and engaged, or it falls apart.

You can increase challenge by introducing new material (such as a new chord) or physical demands (such as increasing the speed).

You can decrease the challenge by slowing down, or making your work simpler (fewer chords, fewer notes, etc).


To recap, early success learning guitar is more than the end product (play the song, etc.).

Early (and ongoing) successes are also:

  • Mental representations – what you learn and understand. All the mental images and associations. Knowing when you’re right or wrong.
  • Showing up consistently – Perhaps the biggest success, just showing up is a majority of the challenge in learning anything new.
  • Focused attention – Bringing your A-game, preventing distraction, taking it one moment at a time, fully engaged.
  • Appropriate challenge – Riding the razor’s edge between too hard and too easy, constantly finding your practice difficult, but doable.

If you count the above as successes, you’re much more likely to feel victorious in your beginning guitar practices, and have the motivation to continue. As you progress, these same elements will bring you to greater and greater skills.

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.

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