becoming a pro is the reason why many of us practice guitar for years. However, as with all arts, not everyone makes it. Learning the right skills you need as a professional guitarist might help you achieve your goal.
In this article, I will share with you what were the skills that helped me get hired as a guitarist and the ones I’m still working on today.
A good guitarist vs a professional guitarist
A good question is first to understand what’s the difference between a good guitarist and a pro. You might be a great guitarist but still, feel like you are not yet a pro and you’re unsure why.
The main difference between a pro guitarist and a good one is that the first is also an advanced musician that has a tight understanding of basic musical skills. A good or even great guitarist that “only” plays guitar well might be a great fit for a band, but not as much for a session or tour where everything needs to be done perfectly and in a very short time.
Think of it as a delivery service. Both the good guitarist and pro one might deliver the same package but the pro does it way faster and is flexible to whatever change in the details you need. In a recording session or serious rehearsal you need to be quick, know how to communicate with other musicians, artists, producers and adapt to situations.
What skill do pro guitarists have
A professional musician’s skills are not only related to his instrument. Some of them are strictly musical skills valid for every genre/instrument etc, while others are related to the musical mindset.
1- Fretboard mastery is a must
To become a pro there should not be any thinking in finding shapes, chords, triads, etc. Your level of knowledge should equal almost that of a keyboard player when it comes to changing the key of a song, finding harmonies, etc.
There is no set limit to how good you can become in mastering the fretboard, but certainly, there are milestones that define it. No song, even 4 chord pop songs are easy if you have to constantly find new fingerings and change keys to adapt to the singer’s voice. Also, knowing where your notes and intervals are, makes it easier to communicate with the other musicians in the stage/room.
2- Known the music lingua
With this, I don’t mean that you have to be a jazz theory cat. You should, however, be able to understand if the session leader asks for the harmony in 3rds or if you need to go a 5th down. Understanding time signatures and how to count them is also essential.
Not only that, some other ‘street’ terms that are only learned while working with others are helpful. Brushing up on some music theory and even taking music lessons for a while could help you. Many pros today don’t read music so don’t feel the pressure to insist too much on the heavy theory side, rather put your focus on the practical side of theory.
3- Know the basics of sound and engineering
Getting a good tone is not enough. Considering your goal is to ‘serve the song” you should be able to adapt any tone into one that fits the track. To achieve that you need to understand how the gear works and how sound works in its basics.
A good example of that is the low end of guitars. Pro guitarists understand that whatever they do 90% of engineers will roll that off the guitar tone as the space is left to the bass guitar. The lesson you should learn from this is to understand how the guitar tone works in context with other instruments, not only isolated.
4- Knowing what to play makes the difference
When covering a song you know what you play as there is a reference. What if you get hired to write the guitar parts for a song, what do you do then?
Writing guitar parts is an art in itself which blends in many skills. You should consider the song in different dimensions, both musically and sonically and make the right decisions. Beyond that is all up to your imagination.
From experience, I can say 100% that having some mastery of the fretboard helps immensely to write guitar parts. Different positions for the same notes make up a new track that could be what the song needs
5- Develop a great ear
If you don’t work on your ears then all of the above doesn’t matter much. The goal of ear training for pro guitarists is to be good enough to not ask questions to other players all the time but figure parts themselves, as quickly as possible.
It’s perfectly fine to ask the keyboard players on some tricky chord or scale, however, most of the time you should just be able to play them. Artists and producers that hire musicians want things done fast – being the one guy that stalls the whole band is a situation you don’t want to be in.
Developing a great ear is connected also to playing on time. Whatever you do, don’t turn off the metronome while practicing. In time you will be asked not only to play on the beat, but also slightly ahead or behind it when working with real pros.
6- Be a genuine musician and person
Nobody wants to work with someone they don’t like, especially in music when a kind of trust is needed in order to play as a band. Be as professional as you can and help others as much as you can.
Final thoughts on becoming a professional guitarist
Everything in music goes back to the basics. The better your grasp of them is, the higher your chances are to become a pro. Aim to become a better musician, not only a better guitarist, and make your practice time count!