Great Guitarists: self-taught or formally trained?

I’m fairly certain that all of the best guitarists of all time have been self taught no?

What makes you certain of that?

We know, for example, that Vai took lessons with Satriani.

And that’s just the one that came to mind off the top of my head.

Well Steve Vai can be seen as an exception rather than the rule. Shawn Lane, Allan Holdsworth, Guthrie Govan, Jeff Beck etc… all self taught and some of the best players to have ever lived in my opinion.

The statement that self-taught players tend to be bad and those that took lessons are usually good is just ridiculous and goes against all of my own experiences, both locally and on the international scale.

Everybody is self taught to some degree. I started with a teacher but it’s not like I stopped learning new things after I stopped taking lessons with him.

As for famous players who’ve taken taken formal lessons for an extended period, there are a lot more of them.

Richie Blackmore took formal lessons. Randy Rhoads took formal lessons. Paul Gilbert isn’t entirely self taught either, he had lessons with multiple teachers when he was younger and he attended GIT. Scott Henderson and Frank Gambale both attended GIT an went on to teach there. There are many more.

Then, there are many more players who learned through informal mentors, or come up through traditions like gypsy or bluegrass.

Even the players who we usually consider to be “totally self taught” rarely are. They learn from family, friends, more experienced band mates, other local musicians, etc. Even some of the players you’ve mentioned fall very much into that category.

Eric Johnson came up in the Austin scene, guided by several local mentors. Shawn Lane very much came up in the Memphis scene and under the wings of his Black Oak Arkansas bandmates. Eric Johnson visited Shawn Lane’s home multiple times to share ideas.

Jeff Beck’s playing developed hugely when he started getting involved with the Fusion scene in the 1970s. Even in the London Blues scene where he first came up in the 1960s, there were older musicians from the London Jazz scene who mentored the younger up and coming players, and the younger players collaborated and shared ideas among themselves.

The picture some people have of their idols locking themselves in a room with their records and their guitars and emerging a few years later having developed fully into the players they are is romantic idea, but it’s not how it happens.


Well if you consider being in a band with musicians, having friends who are musicians, or otherwise having contact with other musicians in any way shape or form as “not being self-taught”, then sure.

However if we approach it from a place of common sense, I think it’s pretty clear as to what is meant by “self-taught”… IE; not having received formal tuition.

I don’t see why “common sense” is the correct way to proceed here, when we can just…find out if a musician had any “formal” lessons, where that information is available?

If we just stick to people who’ve been interviewed on cracking the code I can already see that Mike Stern went to Berklee, Gambale went to the musicians institute in LA, and I don’t know how much more time I want to invest in looking this stuff up.

I think the only thing we can say for certain is “some of the best guitarists of all time are purely self-taught, and some aren’t”.

Then the question is “Am I already one of the best guitarists of all time?” and if you already are, then great, you don’t need to do anything.

If you’re not, and you want to be, and you’ve already tried the self-taught approach for 1/5/25 years, it might not hurt to seek out a lesson or two.

But it also is ok to accept aiming for less than being one of the best guitarists of all time.

You might call it common sense, I wouldn’t.

Everybody receives some form of tuition, formal or not. Some are lucky enough to have access to friends and mentors who give it to them freely. Others pay for the privilege.

This is a distinction without a difference. Everybody learns from others and everybody learns for themselves.

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The common sense aspect is referring to the utter semantics of inferring that anyone who has ever communicated with another musician is suddenly not “self-taught”.

By that logic we can just go wild and claim that anyone who has read a Wikipedia article on Max Planck is suddenly a trained theoretical physicist.

The accurate use of language is vital for clear communication, otherwise who knows what on Earth anyone is referring to when it all becomes so vague and subjective?

I consider myself self-taught, yet at school we had “music” as a subject, I guess that makes me no longer “self-taught” by this bizarre logic.

Semantics is the accurate use of language. The problem is that “self-taught” is a vague and subjective term in itself.

If you ask whether a person has learned for themselves the answer is always yes. If you ask whether a person has learned from others the answer is always yes.

If you want to know if somebody has received any formal training, you should ask if they’ve received any formal training.

Moved the discussion to its own topic, feel free to change the tentative title and obviously please be excellent to each other :smiley:


I would hope that most people would understand;

Self-taught = not having been taught by a teacher.

From the Cambridge Dictionary;



uk /ˌselfˈtɔːt/ us /ˌselfˈtɑːt/

Someone who is self-taught has taught himself or herself a particular skill.

“a self-taught musician/furniture maker/cook.”

“Most of these [artists] are self-taught.”

Many people learn through experimentation, experience, trial and error etc… myself included. Some through study of literature or other external sources of information, then others through the direct tuition of another person (a professional teacher/instructor for instance).

Only 1/5 of my favourite guitarists of all time have had formal tuition, that being Steve Vai. If we expand it to my top 10 then I believe it is only 2/10 (Scott Henderson being the other one).

Shawn Lane

Allan Holdsworth

Steve Vai

Guthrie Govan

Jeff Beck

Yngwie Malmsteen

Pat Metheny

Eric Johnson

Michael Romeo

Scott Henderson

Obviously it’s a subjective list, but I think that many could argue that from an objective stand-point Allan Holdsworth and Shawn Lane were easily two of the greatest technicians on the instrument, unparalleled to this day.

I’m pretty sure BB King and Jimi Hendrix managed to say with two notes what Shawn and Allan could say with 1,000 between them. Those guys are the objective best. It’s all about emotion. Shredding isn’t real.

This discussion is making me irrationally angry, an activity at which I am most assuredly self-taught to an exceptionally high degree.


Perhaps you need to learn the definition of technician? Don’t make me whip out the Cambridge Dictionary again please :stuck_out_tongue:

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This forum really is filled with boomers. How do you guys not recognize a shitpost when you see it. It was a joke.

Actually unreal LMAO. So self-serious around here it’s mindboggling.

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Hey All,
it appears this discussion is not going in a very constructive direction.
I won’t close the topic yet but I’d ask all the future posters to please not escalate it further.

PS I think one vaguely related topic worth exploring in this context is: what things do you think are better learned with a teacher, and what with individual study (or jamming with others, or whatever other musical activity).


OP made a vague and mostly useless thread and then tried to go Mr. Cringeworthy Dictionary Guy on Tom when Tom responded in kind. I can’t be held accountable for shitposting under these circumstances. I maintain my innocence. Thanks guys and enjoy your Sunday.

I didn’t make the thread mate, I just made a response to someone claiming that self-taught players are generally bad and that formally trained players are generally good, which I found absurd.

What is with the personal insults and attitude problem?

Hey @guitarenthusiast, it was not my intention to accuse you of single-handedly making the thread go in the wrong direction. Sorry if I gave you this impression.

I think it is true that the OP initial statement was vague and at risk of generating controversy. But I wanted to give a chance to the discussion to generate some useful info. Tom’s kind response was a great example of how that could happen.

I agree with you that @AJD_Music’s quoting of the dictionary could be easily interpreted as a provocation so I’d prefer if people in general didn’t do that. Maybe that was not the intention, I’m happy to give him the benefit of the doubt for now.

Our general rule Re: provocations is that it’s better to just stop responding than to fight back. I know it can be incredibly frustrating to just leave a potential provocation unanswered but I think it’s the best way to keep the forum civil. Of course if you feel like a line has been crossed don’t hesitate to use the flag function so the moderators can review and take action if necessary.

Here’s a link to the guidelines:

For now I’ll lock this thread, because all the main points people wanted to make have been made as far as I can see. But of course people can PM me if they feel like this could be continued in a useful direction and I and the rest of the CTC crew will review.

PS: just as a personal note, I don’t enjoy conflicts and feel uncomfortable trying to resolve them. But it’s part of my job now so please bear with me as I try to do my best :slight_smile: