What Makes a Great Guitar Player Great?

We’re going to take a little break today from the equipment reviews and learning lessons to analyze a question that often gets asked of us here at Guitar Talk.  What makes a great guitar player great?  Every budding young guitarist out there wants to achieve this magical term “greatness.”  What does that mean?  When will you know you are great?  What goes into the soup of guitar playing that will eventually lead you to achieving this dream?  The bad news is there isn’t a concrete answer to this question.  The good news is that the reason there isn’t a concrete answer is because it’s different for each and every single one of us.


Gotta start somewhere, right? Grab yourself a classic Mel Bay book if you are unsure where to begin.

Like a professional athlete, it doesn’t matter what level musician you are.  Maybe you are still in the bedroom kicking it around with a practice amp and making your parents angry.  Maybe you have a band and you are doing the bar scene in your hometown.  Or perhaps you are playing sold-out arenas on a massive world tour with a group that is selling millions of records.  All of these scenarios have one thing in common:  without the fundamentals, they could not exist.

Before you learn the flashy, fun things, you have to learn the basics.  We’re talking scale runs, arpeggios, and of course, chords.  We’re talking good posture and building some endurance in those fingers and arms.  Everyone wants to graduate to the soaring solo, but always look to the fundamentals for a place to start.  Remember, no matter how great a guitarist is, they started in the same place doing the same thing you are doing right now.  That’s a pretty powerful message if you think about it.

Transcending Basic Metrics

Do you know how to finger tap?  You do?  Good, now you’re a great guitar player.  Do you know how to use a whammy bar?  Deep dives?  Great.  Now, you’re a great guitar player.  Wait.  You say you know all the chords in all the positions?  Wow.  That’s really something.

Basic metrics are okay.  Don’t get us wrong.  You need some guidelines to compare your playing to that of others to know how you are making progress.  This section is about how non-musicians perceive guitarists.  Use that as an inspiration.

See, when people that don’t know anything about guitar playing see musicians doing things, they don’t measure things that way.  They don’t understand technical prowess on the instrument the way someone with some experience may.  We all know examples of ordinary folks thinking a lead part is amazing when every guitarist worth his salt knows it’s not even really that hard.  We also all know stories of those same ordinary folks going to grab a beer or to the restroom at a concert while a guitarist embarks on a solo that those that know what’s up realize is one for the ages.

This may seem disappointing at first glance, but it is a great way for you to understand how this really works.  See, this intangible “greatness” we are seeking here transcends metrics.  Great guitar players connect with everyone, regardless of whether they understand how proficient they really are with their instrument.  It’s about a connection that goes beyond the technical aspects of guitar playing, and if you name any “great” guitar player, I promise you that they have this attribute.

What makes a great guitar player great?  More than anything, it’s getting his or her point across through the music.  It’s touching another person and making their spine tingle.  That’s true greatness, and that’s what you should be shooting for.

Creativity Vs. Repetition

Sometimes it depends on your viewpoint on things.  What do you put more emphasis on when you are determining whether a guitar player is truly great?  That they know lots of songs and parts and deliver them flawlessly night after night?  Or because they are constantly trailblazing and creating new songs and parts that will change the game?  There’s no right or wrong answer.

We usually know greatness when we see it, even if we don’t know that much about the subject matter.

Many bands appreciate a good, solid guitar player that nails his parts without fail.  That is the basis of a tight band, after all.  Now, don’t misinterpret what we are saying here, because everyone knows that Jimi Hendrix is a great guitarist.  However, he never played any of his parts the same way twice.  Yes, he would hit the major riffs, but he let his guitar playing breathe, and everyone that ever got to see him live was witnessing his boundless creativity on display from the opening note to the encore.  That’s some true greatness right there.

Great guitar players are solid.  They can deliver over and over again.  They also want to push the envelope and get out of their comfort zone sometimes, even if it is a creative risk.  That’s the price of greatness.  There’s a risk and reward for every choice you make, and this is no different.

Transcending the Rig

We’re all about the gear here at Guitar Talk.  No question.  We can spend hours talking about the latest, greatest effects units or guitar amplifiers.  So, we’re not trying to say that a player’s tone doesn’t weigh into this equation.  It most certainly does.  However, we think that if you want to talk seriously great guitar playing, we think the ability to move beyond the rig is a factor.

Cut the cord.

You probably know the type.  He or she turns the distortion or delay up to a massive level and they sound amazing.  They can do all the runs, all those soaring string bends, and they know how to wield it so they look cool doing it.  Then, you see them doodling around on an acoustic and you realize that those effects make that player.  Without all their fancy equipment, they just can’t deliver on that next level.

The truly great players will blow your mind, because they can deliver just the same with an acoustic around the campfire that they can with a huge stack of amplifiers and effects loops.  No one’s suggesting getting rid of those wonderful sounds that effects can bring, but if you want to to talk greatness, great guitar players can deliver the old-fashioned way as well, and we believe this is worth including in the equation if you really want to have a discussion of what make a great guitar player great.  Broaden your horizons.  Tie one hand behind your back (figuratively, not literally) and try to bring the magic without all the tech gizzmos.  It’s a challenge that can help take your playing to the next level.

The Verdict — Greatness is Hard to Define

Greatness is hard to define, but the beauty of it is that almost everyone recognizes it when they see it.  That kind of says it all, doesn’t it?  Don’t spend so much time worrying about whether you are reaching that level or whether you ever will.  It’s a lot more important to give whatever you are working on at the moment your all, because without that level of dedication, you can be assured that great guitar playing will never come.

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