Is It Possible To Teach Yourself A Musical Instrument?


in Learning Instruments

There is something special and unique about being able to acquire a new skill or achieve something yourself from scratch.  Becoming a self-made millionaire, building your own business, or being a self-trained sportsperson are all things that will make you stand out as elite against many other people.

Becoming a self-taught musician is another attractive sounding thing to do. Given the accessibility of music for people around the world, it is perhaps the most appealing and widely pursued thing mentioned thus far. Part of the reason music is so widely loved is that it takes away prejudice, and because there are very few barriers to stop someone from becoming involved with it.

Why do We Love Music?

Almost everyone around the world will have an affinity with music at some stage of their lives. There are many reasons why this is the case.

  • Music can help us remember a time when we were happy, or sad, and help us to get a perspective of life.
  • Music can mean specific things to each of us, depending on the memories we attach to each song.
  • Music can remind us of friends and family.
  • Music motivates us, whether that is in the gym, while working, or simply trying to get out of bed in the morning!
  • Music can be an escape from problems in our life

We’re going to leave it at five reasons, but the reality is that the list could go on and on. While music means different things to different people, and will be more important to some than it is to others, there is no doubt it is a big thing.

For some, this manifests itself in wanting to learn an instrument, sing, or become involved with music in any other manner.

We’re going to explore what you need to do in order to try and become a self-taught musician. We’ll also explore the pros and cons associated with this, before eventually concluding whether it is possible to do it.


Defining Self-Taught

Please note that we’re not considering a person who can pick up a guitar and play three or four chords to be a self-taught musician. That might be good enough to start a Status Quo tribute act, but it isn’t going to make you a master of the axe by any means.

Choosing Your Instrument

The instrument that you choose will likely be dictated by the type of music you like, or the specific elements of music that you enjoy listening to and visualise recreating.

If we look at it from a traditional band set up, rhythm setting instruments such as the drums and bass guitar can both be fairly basic and easy to pick up and play. The regular guitar is harder to learn, and it might be a good idea to learn bass first before moving on to the more demanding instrument.

Wind instruments, both brass and wooden, can be straightforward in terms of learning notes and sounds, however teaching yourself great breathing techniques might be difficult. Other string instruments such as the violin can be easy to pick up but difficult to master, so think carefully about what you choose.

Approaching Music Learning Realistically

If you’re passionate about something, it is difficult to start pursuing it as an activity and working through the early days of not being particular good at doing it. This is true in things such as sport as much as it is in music.

Whatever instrument you decide to learn, it is crucial that you accept and understand that you aren’t going to be a master player right away. Yes, we all want to play guitar like Jimi Hendrix or saxophone like Andy Sheppard, but unfortunately this is real life, and no amount of playing on Rock Band or Guitar Hero is going to prepare you for the real thing.

Why is this important? Well, getting over frustrations early on, especially when you’re teaching yourself and don’t have someone to reassure, motivate, and support you, is crucial to you carrying on.

Creating an Objective

Your quest for realism will be easier if you have an objective to your musical learning. Whether that is to become proficient enough to play a particular style to a good standard, or you want to start a band with your friends, or even just learn to play one song, having the end goal in mind will help when you get frustrated early on.

Make sure that your objective is something that is going to challenge you but also one that is realistic and achievable. You’re not going to be headlining Glastonbury in two years’ time, perhaps, but you could be playing to a reasonable standard within six months, and touring with a local band in a year.

Getting Down to Learning

With the boring stuff thought about and out of the way, you can start to experience the joy of learning to play your chosen instrument. We’re going to use a guitar as our instrument for a point of reference, but the information and advice that we’re going to share is relevant to any instrument you might choose.

Don’t Spend Fortunes

Avoid the temptation to spend a small fortune on a top of the market guitar right off the bat. We’re not saying get a cheap one, but ‘value for money’ should be your line of thinking.

You might genuinely tire of doing it in a few weeks and decide you have had enough, and the last thing you want is an expensive Fender or Gibson sat in your house gathering dust.

Pick It Up and Play

When you’ve been out and got an instrument, before starting to teach yourself, just pick it up and have a play around. Using a tuner to get the strings right on a guitar is a great way to start understanding the sounds.

Just take a few minutes to make up some random notes, see how quickly you can travel up and down the fret board, and understand the effects that you can create with each dial, any pedals you have bought, or your amplifier.

Exploring Your Options

It is unlikely that you are going to be able to become ‘self-taught’ by simply sitting and playing an instrument repeatedly. Unless you have a great ear for music and you are looking to produce a specific sound for an arrangement or band, it just doesn’t happen that way. You can ‘learn by ear’ by taking what leading musicians do and attempting to replicate it, although we’d suggest you do this as part of ‘picking up and playing’ rather than using it as a long term strategy for learning.

The very notion of being self-taught can be a little misleading, however we’re talking in terms of not having a dedicated tutor or teacher. You can use a variety of resources at hand and still be self-taught. We have some suggestions.

Audio Recorders

If you feel like you’re on the verge of starting a journey to musical superstardom, then using audio recorders to follow the strictly self-taught with no other resources route is a great idea. It’s simple enough, you simply record yourself playing, listen back, and make any adjustments you need to.

We’d suggest you put this one on the backburner until you’re a reasonably proficient player, as once you start having a real appreciation for music this will be helpful.

Music Books

There is a fabulous range of music books available that will help you to begin honing your guitar playing as well as suggesting basic drills to continue building your competence. The best of these will feature a combination of sheet music and tablature so that you can learn one while using the other as a guide.

Of course, it isn’t in dispute that you don’t need to be a genius when it comes to reading music in order to be a great musician, so don’t feel like this is a requisite thing to do.

Learning Online or With DVD’s

Using an online video tutorial or buying DVD’s for guidance is an excellent alternative to books, especially as they are far more interactive and allow you to play along at the same time. A book is informative, but you have no idea of what sound you should be producing, therefore could be teaching yourself guitar for months and be getting it all wrong without realizing.

This way isn’t for everyone, but we’d imagine that seeing it and having a visual representation, as well as obviously the sound, lends itself to a far richer learning experience than simply lifting something lifeless from a black and white printed page.

Positive Aspects of Becoming a Self-Taught Musician

We already know that becoming self-taught and proficient in the field of music can give you a real ‘feel good’ factor, but what the most positive aspects we can associate with doing this.

  • A self-taught musician is likely to have their own distinct style, and not be inhibited by musical rules, trends, or things they have been taught
  • When learning, a self-taught musician is more likely to explore a variety of playing styles and techniques, and will probably take pieces of all of these for their own repertoire. The self-taught musician is arguably a better-rounded one.
  • You can learn what you want, whether it be a particular style, song, or range of notes

Those all serve as strong reasons why you’d want to learn an instrument yourself. What about the other side of the coin?

Downsides of Being Self-Taught

  • You don’t know what you don’t know. Many self-taught musicians think they’re great players because they’ve reached their own learning limit, but are actually still at a very basic level.
  • It is easy to develop bad habits when no one is helping or giving you direction; are you missing a note that’d be easy if you made a simple adjustment to your technique, for example?
  • You might find yourself struggling for motivation, especially if you feel you’ve reached a plateau.

Is it Possible to be Self-Taught?

Based on what we know and have discussed thus far, it is clear that there is a huge opportunity available for anyone who wants to become a competent, self-taught musician. Is it a good ideas and something worth exploring? Absolutely, yes.

However, it is perhaps worth consulting with someone who already plays your chosen instrument so they can help you with fundamentals such as your technique and approach to the instrument. If you are unable to access such assistance, look for this online before moving onto a book, online video tutorial, or DVD collection.

Our general feeling is that the best guitar and other instrument players will be those who are able to have a little of each element we’ve discussed within their musical education. Have someone to consult yet the freedom to go away and learn your own style at your own pace, for example. This will be the surest way of meeting your objectives and dreams.

Robert is a passionate musician who fell upon his love many years ago when he chanced upon a guitar lesson. Since then, Robert has developed himself into a competent, self-taught guitarist who plays with a number of bands around his town.

Featured Music Resources

Learn Guitar Online with Videos: JamPlay Guitar

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