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Does playing guitar become natural at some level of expertise, or is that extremely uncommon? Do you always have to do mental calculations and memorize things in advance, or does a moment come when you can play what you want mostly intuitively?

I mean, when I want to sing a song, I don't think "Okay, I think I will take it in C, then sing this and that interval". And if I want to transpose it up or down a step, that doesn't require any mental effort, either. And I can sing / hum along with some song or melody, improvising or following, without thinking about any musical terms. And thinking about physical details, like specific muscle effort or air flow control, rarely if ever enters it.

Is it the same with the guitar for advanced players? Or is it completely different by nature?

There is a related question with some useful replies here: How can I produce any melody on my guitar as effortlessly as I do with my voice? But I wanted to ask about the more general case, not limited to reproducing a single-voice melody you think of.

From my limited experience, I can only report one example. Picking up song chords by ear was unimaginable when I was just starting out. Now, after playing through many songs, I remember some common patterns, and recognize them intuitively. A little theory knowledge also helps. But still it all takes a lot of trial and error, and occasionally some calculations. I cannot imagine doing this in real time, for example, to play along to a new song. Does it get much better with more knowledge and skill?

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    I would say yes, mostly, although I have to think about transposing. The other side of it is that intonation is much easier on guitar - you mainly have to get the right fret, you don't have to find the right along a continuum the way you do with voice. – Todd Wilcox Oct 5 '15 at 18:44
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Basic answer is yes, it does get easier. But - it's very subjective. Some people have a very well developed sense of what's going to come next in a piece they've never heard before, others , even after many years playing, will still struggle. Patterns make themselves known, like, for example ii-V-I in so many jazz tunes (and others!), but they may or may not be picked up on by players.

Playing with others will help incredibly, at open mic nights, etc., rather than rehearsing numbers to death with a band - which won't really help this sort of skill at all. You may well reach the point where you could be playing along and your hands just magically go to the right places, without any apparent mental effort. That mental effort probably happened in the 20 years prior to these moments!

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I have discovered that after many years of playing guitar, things do come naturally now, whereas in the beginning, I had to think about it, or find the right notes through trial and error, or read tab.

Now whether I am playing a familiar song or writing a new song, the notes I hear in my head automatically translate to guitar much the same way I can sing those notes. I just instinctively know where to fret and which strings to play in order to generate the notes I am hearing in my head.

You might say that I play by ear, which is the way some have described my playing. With piano it was easier to learn to play simple melodies by ear because of the very logical layout of the keys in ascending tone order. In other words to play a note a fifth or third or semitone higher on keyboard is simply a matter of moving the appropriate distance to the right on the keyboard.

Guitar is not so intuitive because the higher note may be located in more than one place on more than one string and the movement on the fretboard could go in either direction. But with experience playing over many years, I began to memorize where the notes were which allows me to find them at will now.

Having said all of the above, that is my own personal experience. Not everyone may be able to develop the same sense of playing by ear to the same extent.

If I were starting all over again and it was important to quickly develop the skill set you desire, I might work on practicing playing scales forwards and backwards over and over. Personally I never enjoyed playing scales so my learning curve was probably greater and it probably took longer to reach my current ability to play any note or melody without thinking about it.

But over time I did achieve the natural ability to translate what my brain wants me to play into the actual notes on the guitar. So, at least for me and many others I have met, it is in fact possible to reach that level of proficiency. But it does not come over night.

Good luck - and mostly enjoy the journey.

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