Have You Mastered All 21 of These Essential Guitar Skills?

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A Guitarist

As a guitarist, laying a foundation of basic skills will ultimately save you a lot of time and heartache. It really pays off to slow down, breathe, and practice simple things.

A Guitarist

Music is a complex craft, and sometimes it’s hard to know whether or not you’re on track–especially for self-taught guitarists. You need a way to quickly discover any gaps in your skills so that you can begin filling them in.

Below you’ll find a checklist of skills that’re useful to any guitarist. Once mastered, these foundational skills will allow you to play competent lead guitar, compose your own music, and adapt to just about any musical situation without much trouble.

Go down the list below until you find the first item that you’re not completely sure you’ve achieved. Then begin training on that item using the “Crawl, Walk, Run” method and any teaching materials that cover the topic.

Once you’ve learned that topic well, resume ticking off items on this list. Repeat until you’ve reached the bottom.


  • Be able to recite the musical alphabet backward smoothly and accurately, without hesitation.
  • Understand sharps and flats.
  • Understand musical intervals: minor 3rd, Major 2nd (sir yes sir!), diminished 5th, augmented 4th, etc.
  • Be able to quickly and accurately name the note found on any string at any fret.

Reading and Writing

  • Know how to read and write guitar tabs.
  • Know how to read and write chord diagrams.
  • Know how to accurately read key signatures on sheet music.
  • Understand time signatures.
  • Know how to accurately name any pitch on the treble clef.
  • Know how to accurately name any pitch on leger lines above and below the treble clef. Be able to do this all the way up to three leger lines above or below the staff.


  • Understand the theory behind major, minor, dominant, suspended, augmented, and diminished chords. Know how to extend each of these with sixths, sevenths, ninths, etc.
  • Understand arpeggios. Be able to construct an arpeggio given any chord name, no matter how gnarly.
  • By writing down the notes found in a given chord fingering, know how to identify the name of that chord (even if it’s in a really funky inversion).
  • Know how to play major, minor, and dominant chords in at least 5 different fingerings up and down the guitar fretboard.
  • Be able to tell by ear whether a chord is major, minor, or dominant.


  • Know how to accurately construct a major scale from all of the following root notes: C, G, D, A, E, B, F#, Gb, Db, Ab, Eb, Bb, and F.
  • Understand the modes and the relationships between them.
  • Know the melodic and harmonic minor scales.
  • Know the major and minor pentatonic scales.
  • Be able to play all of these scales starting from the lowest available note on the fretboard to the highest. And back again.
  • Be able to play all these scales in patterns based on 3rds, 4ths, 5ths, 6ths, and 7ths.
  • Understand and memorize the circle of 5ths.

Bear in mind that this list isn’t meant to be complete. Learning never ends; there’s always something new to learn on this instrument. But if you can master all of the above, you’ll have reached a pretty high level of skill already.

What’s key is to be honest with yourself. If you don’t know a topic well enough to be fast and accurate with it, more training in that area is required. Overconfidence will cheat you of opportunities to become a better player.

So. How far down the list did you make it? 😉

Nicholas Tozier

Nicholas Tozier is a book hoarder and songbird from the woods of Maine. In 2012 he made a small cameo in Songwriting Without Boundaries by Berklee professor Pat Pattison, and was named one of CDBaby’s top 10 Songwriting Resources to follow on Twitter.

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