First, by you, I mean me. Some of you are doing exactly the right things to become a better player. However, I am not alone in doing less than I should to improve my chops. Second, feel free to replace guitarist with musician or whatever you call someone who plays your instrument (banjoist, mandolinist, bassist, etc.).
Study and Practice.
Most of us know what we need to do to play better guitar. Generically, I can describe the two things I should do more are: Study and Practice. I’m going to try to be more specific and helpful than that. But before I get into specifics, there are some general suggestions you’ve probably heard before.
Practice with a beat.
My timing would be much better if I always practiced with a metronome or a drum track. Learn to tap out the time with your foot. Playing with other musicians is also recommended.
Practice as often as feasible.
I should practice every day, which is different than playing every day when my playing is essentially just noodling around on an instrument.
Repeat and take it slow before you play it fast.
When learning something new, practice it at as slow a tempo as it takes to make it through without mistakes. Repetition is your friend. Repeat each section you are learning until you can play it error-free before upping the tempo. If you repeat a lesson 10 times a session, 4 times each day, you’ll have repeated it 200 times in 5 days and over 1000 times in a month. Chord and note combinations that seemed awkward if not impossible when you began will seem easy (or at least within reach) after 1000 repetitions.
Break it down.
When learning anything new, whether a riff or a song, break it down to manageable chunks. You don’t have to learn it all at once.
Things you should have been told to do to improve your playing.
Learn a new song
How you learn a song makes a difference. Tablature or videos are both great instructional methods. But, figuring out a tune by listening to it will do the most for your playing skills. Ideally, you should try to learn a tune note-for-note, chord-for-chord, exactly as played on a favorite recording of the tune (Apple, Amazon, Spotify, Youtube). See Play-along to learn and practice.
However, you can’t learn a new tune in one bite. Break it down. That doesn’t mean just choosing a manageable length such as a few measures to concentrate on at a time. It also means learning the different components of the song.
Learn the chords
The chords are the outline of the tune. They complement and suggest the melody as well as the rhythm. You will find much of the melody, lead and solo guitar lines within the chord shapes.
Learn the melody
The lead and solo guitar parts are probably extensions of the melody. Pay attention to where the chords are in relation to the melody notes.
Learn the rhythm guitar
The rhythm guitar part is not just the chords. A shuffle rhythm blues guitar part might only be played on the sixth and fifth strings. Or the rhythm might consist of fills on the high strings. Rarely is a rhythm part just the strumming of chords (though, sometimes that is exactly what it is).
Learn the lead and solo guitar parts
One of the most difficult things if you are figuring this out on your own, as opposed to using videos or tablature, is to figure out where the notes should be played. This is true for the chords, melody and rhythm parts too. Playing the correct notes on the wrong part of the neck can both make the solo more difficult to play and make it sound subtly different. Learning to play the same riff in different positions is good, but learning why some positions are better than others is also important.
Learn your scales and arpeggios.
Minimally lear the major, minor, pentatonic, blues, and diminished scales. Learn these in multiple positions (e.g. CAGED). Learn your scales all keys. Learn arpeggios (from harmonized scales).
Combine tunes and scale knowledge.
What chords are under your fingers for the riffs you’ve learned in the tune. Play the arpeggios of the chords Instead of playing the chords. Find the scales underlying the melody. Learn the riffs in different positions (identical notes if possible). Transpose the tune and learn it in different keys
I would be an outstanding guitarist if I only applied all of the above suggestions on a regular basis. I don’t. Yet, even without the skill I would have from following my own advice, playing guitar still brings me joy.
Don’t despair if you’re not playing at the level you want to obtain. You can improve with practice. However, there is something to be said for loving the instrument and knowing there is always more to learn even if you are far from being a guitar god in skill. Enjoy the ability you have and keep trying to improve.