It's been a whole year since I bought my first acoustic guitar and I've only learned a couple of chords, how to read a simple tab and some easy fingerstyle songs. So I'm just wondering whether it's a bad or good way to start learning guitar by just playing other people's arrangements. Frankly, I'm just playing guitar as a hobby and songs arrangement seems to be only for professional musicians who dedicate much time for studying music theory, unlike me who needs to focus on getting my engineering degree at first place. Do I have to give up on guitar if I don't want to learn music theory? I really fall in love with fingerstyle. Please feel free to give me some tips and ideas.

  • My best advice would be to just learn as much stuff as you can. Try new things, learn new songs, try and figure some songs out for yourself if you want... composing and arranging music is just one aspect of playing guitar, just like learning percussive techniques on acoustic or sweep picking on electric. It certainly isn't essential to be a good guitarist. Having a solid grasp of basic music theory is always recommended as it helps you actually understand why you are playing what you are playing, but again it isn't essential when you're starting out. Commented Jun 26, 2018 at 9:40
  • The basics of music (notes, scales, basic harmony) are not that hard (especially for an engineer!), and are definitely not "only for professional musicians". I'm a complete amateur guitarist (see my profile), but I only began enjoying playing (and arranging) when I understood "how it works". It's immensely rewarding to learn how to transpose, arrange, improvise, read a sheet writen for piano and adapt it to the guitar... And, again, it's not that hard. BTW, I'm an electric engineer.
    – leonbloy
    Commented Jun 26, 2018 at 16:02

8 Answers 8


Exactly what constitutes a good guitarist?

If it's someone who can play like some other guitarists, then maybe yes.

If it's someone who can play just about everything, and put his own slant on new stuff, then no.

Being able to play some songs isn't a bad thing, although playing them from tab is similar to painting by numbers, but all it does is give you some songs you can play.

Knowing the theory behind it can and will help - to be able to learn other stuff more quickly as well. I play with a guy who still hasn't clicked that if a song's in, say, A, there'll be some D and E chords too. Every song he's learned - and it's hundreds - has been learned in a vacuum, and patterns only belong to each individual song. Not patterns involving musical ideas - chord sequences which keep on cropping up - but the actual pattern in each song. Which also means it's impossible to change the key!

Consequently, he has to treat each new song exactly as that. Lack of theory - which is an explanation of what keeps happening - must be a burden.

But one can play and become a successful guitarist without loads of theory. I'm just saying that being aware of relevant parts of that great big theory book will make life easier.

With my students, I try very hard to use songs as vehicles. Not particularly to learn a song in its entirety, but to use features which can then be transferred to other playing.

  • You might add that there's a reason there are scale study and etude books for just about every instrument known -- learning basic patterns will make you a more skilled performer. Commented Jun 26, 2018 at 12:12
  • @CarlWitthoft - I'm cognisant of the latter, as used frequently in Oz, but the former? And, actually, I know my place: it's usually in the wrong...
    – Tim
    Commented Jun 26, 2018 at 14:05
  • Let us continue this discussion in chat. Commented Jun 26, 2018 at 17:21

It's not a bad way. Music theory helps a lot but you can become a very good guitarist just by playing other musician's arrangements. After learning a lot of songs, techniques and styles you will also be able to write your own music! You can even try to experiment today with very simple chords.

For now I will recommend that you learn as many pieces as possible just to have an arsenal of known chords and techniques and you will start to see progress in your compositional perception as well.


You need to define your expectations w/r to being a "good guitarist". Do you want to shred like Yngwie, or Gambale? Do you want to master the basics of the guitar in terms of technique? Do you want to develop a repertoire of songs that you can play at family events or open mic nights? You decide.

There are many well known guitarists whose whole career is playing other people's music and they are quite good. By playing other people's arrangements you will learn the techniques (provided they are good arrangements) used in the songs. You do not need to learn music theory to get good at guitar technique. There are many guitarists who play well completely by ear and don't have any theory knowledge. In my experience western classical training on an instrument does not cover theory (either at all or not until many years down the road). You are mainly focused on developing exceptional tone and skills (body+instrument connection) and sight reading skills.

Playing other guitarists arrangements and compositions will help awaken your own creativity. If you were to follow any curriculum with an instructor much of your time would be spent doing this. In short, yes, you can get "good" at many things playing other people's guitar music and arrangements. However you may be limited in breadth of knowledge. As for music theory. Why would you need to give up guitar to learn theory? Theory is meaningless without an instrument to apply it to. You can learn theory on your guitar, but would probably need a good teacher to help. Whatever you do don't give up. I can sympathize with the music love versus engineering school dilemma (I've done it). You'll have have to pick a goal and stick to it for a few years (not just one). Then when your time frees up pick another musical goal. For beginners the goal should be to learn good clean skills and proper habits, posture, etc. Learn songs you like and play them over and over for months or longer. Pick up the other things as time permits.


Do what you want to do. Simple as that.

As for what you need to do to be "good," that depends on your own definition of good. If I may bring in a few other instruments to create some extreme examples:

  • You can be a brilliant classical violinist and never once write a note of music. "Classical music" is a genre that's pretty much written already. Contemporaries who seek to write music in that style do so because they want to. If you want to just play Bach and Beethoven, you can easily be a good violinist without composing. You can be great, even.
  • If you play the hang drum, you are obliged to construct your own arrangements. As far as I can tell, the nature of that instrument has created a community of individuals who value improvisation and going with the flow. As such, every piece is your own arrangement.
  • If you are a good jazz pianist, you may only ever play other's arrangements, but the nature of jazz suggests that every time you play someone elses' arrangement, you play it a little differently. You might do a different solo every time, even though it's the same song.
  • If you play the didgeridoo, there may not be anyone else's music to play. The majority of the arranged pieces out there are not taught to anyone outside of the aboriginal communities of Australia, because they have spiritual and legal meaning attached to them. If you want to play the didge, you go out there and play it. Then you listen to others and try to figure out how they made the different sounds they made.

These are all different instruments. Different ways of life. You play the guitar. How do you want to play it? Do you want to be good at jamming? Do you want to do ear splitting guitar solos? Do you want to be able to entertain a camp full of jamboree kids around a campfire? Do you want to play Flamenco music from the 19th century?

The only time it really matters is if you introduce yourself, "Hi, I'm Luna. I'm a good guitarist." Then, you should probably be using the meaning that they expect.


Most musicians spend most of their time playing existing music, from notation, in bands, orchestras etc. Some will be inspired to compose - their early attempts will doubtless be imitation of music they've already discovered, but originality may emerge. Even if they play some jazz, not EVERYONE in the band is constantly improvising, most are providing a structured background, very likely from written arrangements.

But a few musicians - and it seems largely centered on guitarists - seem obsessed with improvisation. They want a set of 'theory' rules so they can create without experience. Instead of learning to play a wide range of music from a lot of good composers, they want to restrict themselves to material from one bad (as yet) composer - themself. This isn't productive.

OK, shout me down. But it needs saying now and again.


Is this even the right question to ask? Do you play guitar (or any instrument including vocals) because it feeds your soul or do you play for some other reason? Answering this will help for your definition of 'good'. Then you can get some direction as to how you get there. Maybe lessons, joining a band, etc. Only you can answer.

As a joke I would say that started guitar (yikes, 48 years ago) to meet women. Never really worked as when I would play gigs I'd be doing load out after the gig and then talk guitar with other guitar geeks (I'm an IT geek and guitar geek).

Keep on playing!!!


I'm a bit puzzled by your question and by a lot of the answers too. I assume there's something that you are attracted to in a guitar and the kind of music you can play, but unlike some musicians who seem to be in some kind of race to become great guitar players, you need to find a balance between guitar studies and the rest of your life studies. Guitar studies are flexible, you can study what you want on your own time schedule, and learn what you're actually interested in without having to know everything. You can, of course, immerse yourself in it and maybe you'll get to be better than others, but there's no guarantee. The answer is in your own interest level, whatever that may be. Also, there's no deadline for you to meet in your music studies, you can continue to learn what you want, when you want, for the rest of your life. That's how I see it.


Learn as many songs as possible. It will develop your playing, you will learn technique by playing and you will begin to see how common musical ideas fit together. People will want to know that you can play Gemme three steps No one has ever asked me to play harmonic minor scale to get a gig. After learning how a song is built and the process ,you will begin to write your original music

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