Adam Rafferty – Guitar and Spirit

All about music, guitar, spirituality, personal development and being happy

The Pitfalls of Learning Guitar from Youtube


Hey gang, greets from a jet lagged fingerpicker.  I just got back from Singapore and Kuala Lumpur – what a delightful tour it was!

I had the pleasure to meet some excellent young guitar players – and the bizarro moment happened.  Kids who were inspired by Sungha Jung playing my arrangements are playing their little butts off!  Wow…

I was really surprised to see some super talents who’ve been playing only 3 or 4 years.  I met about 3 or 4 young guitar pickers like this and I am sure Asia has a few more than that 🙂

What I found interesting was that all of them have the same “weak spots”  in their playing…and this is the “learn by copying from Youtube”  generation.

On the one hand it is fabulous that the enthusiasm for music is catching fire worldwide, but on the other hand  there is a qualitative “dip”  due to people teaching themselves.

This gave me some ideas about posting some guitar lessons  specifically aimed at self learners.  I plan on doing some videos, but  here are my first “round”  of thoughts.

And please – don’t use the excuse that “so and so  learned by himself so that’s what I will do too”  – because many the so called “famous”  young players on youtube have the exact weak spots I am about to describe.

Pitfalls of Self Learning
I urge anyone out there who is “learning by themselves”  to continue with their passion, keep practicing, and ADD a real live teacher to the mix.  You’ll learn better and be steered away from bad habits before they solidify.

Invisible Technique
A great guitar player from Kuala Lumpur – Az Samad  graciously invited me to one of his gigs and we had a chance to talk before I went on.  He described what he calls “Invisible Technique” which I thought was an excellent way of putting things.

Invisible Technique is all the stuff you don’t “see”, i.e.  it’s the OPPOSITE of a “flashy display”  of chops.

A crazy guitar circus act is fun, but that won’t make a night of music!  That’s not where the substance comes from – it’s simply the cherry on top.

Here are  the top guitar problems I saw across the board – from the students who are teaching themselves from Youtube.

Pitfall #1 – Weak Tone
You need to learn “tone” from someone IN THE ROOM with you who gets a great tone.  Yes, with just their hands and the instrument.

When I studied classical guitar my teacher got a big, luscious sound out of a guitar and when he handed me the same guitar – I heard a small weak sound.  That was the “D’oh”  moment.

Until you experience this – your tone will probably be pale and “lifeless”.  Ouch, that hurts, I know!

Pitfall #2 – Groove
Everyone thinks their rhythm is good.  I do, you do we all do.  How do you know if you really do, though?

It’s not until someone better than you kicks your butt with a heavy groove and points out the problems  that you know where you stand! D’oh!

As well, when you are just starting – you probably try to get all the “details”  of an arrangement and then without realizing it, you can add or take away beats.

I saw a few young students play arrangements by myself, Tommy Emmanuel and Andy McKee – and in each case, their fingers “scrambled”  to play the correct notes  but dropped the groove.

I showed one young student 5 different ways to play the intro to my song – all different “notes”  but with the groove and the musical idea.

This leads to….

Pitfall #3 – Separating the Forest From the Trees, Musically

In playing music, you need to know what an intro, a section, a verse, an interlude and a chorus are rather than just play a string of notes beginning to end and that’s the song.

Without a knowledge of form or harmony – it’s like reading a foreign language out loud and having no comprehension of the meaning of the words.  Imagine how ridiculous that would sound like to a native speaker of the language!

That’s what players who simply “play the notes”  sound like.

So – with “imitation”  which is a good first step, you can only “spit back”  notes.  Understanding will not only help you tell a better more personal story with the music – you’ll be less nervous on stage!

Pitfall #4 – Technique
Many self taught guitarists keep the right shoulder tense, and raise it higher than the left in order to find a usable hand position.  This is a bad bad bad long term strategy, and usually goes hand in hand with a weak tone and neck problems.

A teacher can help you “be patient”  and not get an immediate result – but get you a good result that you can use for a lifetime.

Conclusion – It’s not As Grim as You Think…
Don’t just read this post and nod and say “yes”  I understand.  Do what I did…take lessons from a live person.

Social media does NOT equal a student teacher relationship.  We all need real people, face to face.  Someone who can grab your hand at a lesson and place it properly.

If you put videos up and people like them – that’s a testament to your talent – but…

As my teacher, Mike Longo said….

“Talent is what your START with – not what you end up with.”


Author: Adam Rafferty

Adam Rafferty. Fingerstyle Guitarist. Recording and Concert Artist. Meditator. Philosopher. Lover of Groove.

13 thoughts on “The Pitfalls of Learning Guitar from Youtube

  1. The Best Way To Add A Teacher To The Mix?

    Here’s what I did. I found this New Yorker playing guitar on Youtube, pestered him to come and play in the UK. So I booked a few gigs for him and put him up in the spare room. In exchange I got a bunch of insights on my playing, and a personal lesson on how to play Billie Jean. I am still working on it all 3 years later. Best guitar lessons ever.

    Happy Christmas AR

  2. I’m a self-taught guitarist and have been playing for 12 years now. Thanks to the internet and Youtube, I’ve managed to learn quite a fair bit – till I hit the ceiling of free self-learning about 5 years ago. That was until I met Az Samad (yep the same guy in this article)

    In the weeks to come, Az not only taught me all I wanted to learn; he also corrected the many little errors I had in my playing that I never knew existed, and taught me so much about the guitar that I now have enough practice material to last me at least 6 months.

    I’ve learnt more in those 4 weeks than in my 5 years fumbling around in the dark.

    – Excerpt from my testimonial at

    Excellent article Adam. Too bad I missed you at the Open Mic in Kuala Lumpur. Keep doing what you do best 🙂

  3. Gang – by the way, I am most guilty of self teaching as well. I play some piano and write music, and need to bone down and get a teacher too. It just so happens that I had great guitar and jazz instruction….thanks Mom for paying for all those lessons!

  4. We are eagerly waiting for the videos.

  5. I agree with you! Adding a live person to give feedback can be invaluable. Also, just managing to play the notes does NOT equal copying the feel of the song! There is nothing wrong with playing a simpler version with more feeling, if that’s what your chops are up to! Don’t sacrifice the song for the chops.

    I find that working with a trained singer has done wonders for my playing. She knows when I’m not capturing the proper ‘mood,’ and is brutally honest about things like tone, rhythm, and when I’m just showing off rather than making music. I’d like to think I’m a pretty good guitarist….but I know I have much to learn about being a musician!

  6. Thank you for the post Adam. I think I should also get myself a live teacher 🙂 Appreciate your post, which is always full of honesty!

  7. Thanks Adam. You spoke my guitar symptoms to the tee! Four years ago I got Tinitus real bad in both ears. I put my e-guitar in the closet, bought an acoustic and starting learning fingerstyle from Youtube. I never played anywhere out those 4 years. Just learned youtube songs, one after the other. I realized lately after finally getting with a real good fingerstylist and Uni.professor/teacher that my picking volume is way too quite, tone is weak and that I need to clean up each song I learned big time. You blog is right on!

  8. As always, very insightful. I am mostly self-taught and suffered from the illusion that I was the real thing. Went to a proper course after decades of playing, only to discover how much I had to change just to get a good sound. Not to mention my timing! Ahh, Adam-san, you wise man! 🙂

  9. Hi Adam, nice to meet you. Learning music is expensive. I cannot get good teacher in my surroundings, so, I still agree that learning to play guitar from youtube and video tutorials are ok.

  10. Holy crap, I just read this post and realized you said “your teacher” was Mike Longo! Now I understand where your tone and groove came from. You lucky stiff, I just ordered Mike’s first DVD and bought a set of conga drums on craigslist. I’ll get a little groove, or die trying.
    So many guys here probably don’t know who Mike longo is, maybe you should post a link to one of his youtube master classes. His knowledge changed my outlook from just one video. Can’t wait to get the dvd and start learning.
    Happy Holidays!

  11. Lots of good points here. I must admit I have tried a few youtube lessons in the past, but the only things I tended to look for are things like bits of songs, where playing along with someone in neat bitesize bits is a lot easier than trying to play along with a CD. I know it’s a cliche but i found that the best thing for improving my chops was simply playing with better musicians.

  12. Adam’s ego is inflated.

  13. Unfortunately, we all live with a different set of circumstances. I don’t use YouTube, I agree with you that it is not the best method. But to dismissed self instruction is kind of unfair. If I were a teenager, leaving at home, of course I would love to have a teacher, but that is not my reality.

    I had a teacher once, back in the early 90’s, when I tried to learn the first time. He was the reason why I quit back then, he was useless and didn’t care.

    I am currently using a pretty good course, and I have learnt more in two months on my own, than what I did over six months with a real teacher. Go figure!

    Unfortunately, your line of thought would keep me away from teachers.

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