Yes, we know: it’s about making music, not about how hard something is to play. There’s a reason many more people listen to Nirvana than Yngwie Malmsteen, and it’s not because Kurt was better at arpeggios. But still, we couldn’t resist thinking about what the hardest things you can do on guitar are.
After all, the more techniques you master, the more options you have. You can make music that’s great or terrible with three chords. So just imagine how great and how terrible you can be once you’ve mastered this lot.
From shred to country to jazz, we’ve compiled the finger-contorting, tendonitis-inducing, and mind-bending to keep you occupied. If anyone can fit all 30 into one song, please do not send it to us.
30. Trem gargles
If you ever alleviated your boredom by flicking a ruler off the side of a table, you know roughly what this noise is and how to do it. Play any note and smack your floating tremolo arm so that it bounces back and forth for a moment. Jeff Beck has used it tastefully in many circumstances, including his guest solo on Bon Jovi’s Blaze of Glory.
Former Ozzy/Night Ranger guitarist Brad Gillis used it somewhat less tastefully. The technique itself isn’t hard, but picking at the same time is very awkward.
Like so many guitar techniques, this was made famous on a Van Halen record. In this case, it’s Cathedral, an instrumental from 1982’s Diver Down. Eddie hammered each note with his fretting hand and the guitar volume rolled off, and immediately rolled up the volume. The pick attack on the front of each note is cut off, leaving a smooth synth-like swell. It’s harder again if you try pick while you play.
28. EVH elephant noise
Here’s how you do this eerily accurate pachyderm impression: roll off the guitar’s volume knob, and play harmonics on the G string fret 5, B string fret 7, and high E fret 12, leaving them all ringing at once. Reach across to the whammy bar with your fretting hand and depress it. Roll the volume up with your picking hand as you release the whammy bar with your fretting hand, and finish by pushing the bar and the volume back down. Easy!
27. Lizard down the throat
Joe Satriani discovered this trick: If you slide up with your fretting hand while pressing down on the whammy bar, it’s possible to keep the note at exactly the same pitch the whole time. The changing tension of the string and the noise of your finger rubbing over the frets creates a truly odd noise.
It’s hard to do perfectly but it’s fairly forgiving, because even if you don’t keep the pitch spot on, you’ll still get an interesting sound that your school music teacher would hate.
26. Controlled feedback
Hendrix was the feedback visionary, but the single piece of feedback most discussed in guitar shops has to be Gary Moore’s epic held note in Parisienne Walkways.
The key to controlling feedback is to mute all the strings you’re not playing intentionally. If you let the open strings ring, they’ll oscillate at different frequencies and sound horrifically dissonant.
Then it’s down to turning up the volume and gain, and walking around the room until you find the spot where the note you’re looking for blooms into feedback. That’ll be different in each room because of varying acoustics. Joe Satriani’s been known to mark the sweet spot on stage with gaffer tape so he can find it on cue!
25. Pinch harmonics
Zakk Wylde wouldn’t have had a career without his pick squeals, and the '80s in general would have been a much more boring time without them. Pinch harmonics aren’t so much hard as they have a specific knack. Because you have to learn how it feels to produce one, it’s difficult to show someone exactly how to do it.
There are variations in how to produce them, but the most common way is this: Angle your pick towards the string. As your pick contacts the string, the side of your thumb should lightly graze the surface of that string. The harmonic should jump out, but if you graze the string too hard, or in the wrong place, you’ll just get a disappointing click.
24. Two-hand tapping
As a thousand beginners in guitar shops have taught us, the basic principle behind the Eruption tapping lick is not that hard. It’s the same as a hammer-on with your fretting hand, but you use a spare finger from your picking hand.
The problem comes playing with gain and volume: you’ve got to mute all the strings except the one you’re playing, or the open string noise will overwhelm everything.
That means clamping your picking hand onto the neck, gently resting on the other strings to silence them, while driving the tapping movement from the finger only, so your hand doesn’t release the other strings. Eddie figured it all out in his bedroom.
23. Combining legato and picking
Almost all the great electric blues and classic rock licks rely on a mixture of hammer-ons and pull-offs plus some picked notes. Initially, it’s difficult to train the picking hand to pick on some beats and not others, especially if the notes you have to pick fall on offbeats. Once you have it, it sounds much more fluid; picking every note can be a bit robotic by comparison.
22. Sideways vibrato
Classical guitar vibrato is a thing of subtle beauty. Sliding sideways on the string creates a delicate vibrato that really makes a note sing. Perfecting it is a lifetime quest for serious musicians. And then there’s its bastard child, popularized by fret melters like George Lynch and Greg Howe.
On a high-gain electric guitar, you can slide one or more frets either side of the target note, creating a noise like a startled dragon. It only works at speed, and if you don’t slide perfectly symmetrically, it just sounds out of tune. Good luck!
21. Thumb-fretting for wide stretches
Former Ozzy guitarist Jake E. Lee had a cool party trick that’s never really caught on. He’d bring his thumb in front of the neck, using it to barre the first two strings. He then had his entire handspan available to fret notes and pull off, facilitating some wild stretches.
It doesn’t sound too hard, but without your thumb behind the neck everything about playing can feel quite alien, and it’s surprisingly difficult to make the pull-offs work, particularly from your pinky.
20. Odd-note groupings
You can go all prog, playing five or seven notes per beat. Or, following Hendrix’s lead, you can play a five-note sequence in 16th notes to create an unexpected pattern, as he did at 2:19 in All Along the Watchtower.
Either way, you’ll have to develop your rhythmic awareness just to know what’s going on. Then you’ll find new challenges, like the fact that if you pick all the notes, each beat starts with a different pick direction. Whatever you do, you’ll find it almost never sounds clichéd.
19. Fretless guitar
Somewhere, a bunch of classical string players are laughing at us for including this, but if you’ve only ever played a fretted instrument, a fretless alternative is a tough beast to tame.
Your fingering has to be many times more accurate, and your ear has to develop a ton more accuracy to match. The reward is limitless control over vibrato and slides and a bunch of licks you couldn’t play any other way. Hitting a pinched harmonic and sliding it all the way up the neck? Yes please.
18. Tapped harmonics
Eddie Van Halen’s opening lick in his solo on Michael Jackson's Beat It captures all the glory of tapped harmonics. He slides up the G string to fret 7 and taps bang on the 14th fret to produce the first harmonic, an octave plus a fifth above the fundamental note. Then he slides into fret 9 before tapping the 14th fret again, producing a harmonic two octaves higher.
It requires a ridiculous amount of precision – a millimetre out and you’ll just get a disappointing thud. Your tapping finger has to bounce off the fret like a frightened springbok, too.
If you hang around, it’ll choke the harmonic. You don’t usually have to be that accurate on a fretted instrument, and it’s a hassle. It’s weirdly delicate considering what a brutal sound Van Halen produced with it, too.
17. Open chords
Let’s face it, changing chords is a pig. The first time you tried it, you thought you’d never be able to do it quickly. It was probably months before you could strum through any song without having to stop for each chord change, and several more months until you could consistently play the open major shapes without accidentally choking a string.
Frankly, it’s a miracle we ever got past that stage, and if you’re sitting there going “What? Open chords are easy!” then congratulations. You made it.
16. Hybrid picking
This involves combining flatpick technique with fingerstyle, which means it has most of the challenges of both. It does make string skipping much easier, but the flipside is you have to compromise the angle of both your pick and your fingers.
If you angle your wrist for optimal fingerstyle position, your pick ends up almost perpendicular to the strings. Still, it’s the secret of those blazing string-hopping country licks, and if you get your middle and ring fingers working together, you can pull out some ridiculous double-stops.
15. Travis picking
Merle Travis was certainly onto something when he devised that system of playing an alternating bass with his thumb and picking a melody on top with his fingers. Then Chet Atkins showed what could be done with it.
Travis picking is a co-ordination challenge: you have to be able to keep your thumb playing that same pattern regardless of what rhythm your fingers are playing. You also have to palm-mute the bass notes while leaving the treble strings ringing freely, which is an art.
Once you’ve got those things down, it’s just about keeping a nice groove going, but developing that thumb independence until it’s automatic takes a long time.
Flamenco guitar is a whole other world from either electric guitar or classical guitar, and rasgueado is its central technique. Being so important to the genre it’s a huge area of study for flamenco students, and no-one ever masters it for roughly the same reason you never master vibrato.
Start with your picking hand fingers lightly tucked under your thumb, and then flick them out one at a time across all six-strings to arpeggiate a chord. Then repeat for the rest of your life.
13. Allan Holdsworth and Eddie Van Halen’s wide stretch licks
In Ice Cream Man, Eddie Van Halen puts his first finger on fret 12, third on fret 16, and fourth on fret 19, and then played legato across the strings like it’s no biggie. Developing the control, stretch, and strength at that speed without injuring yourself is a monster.
Start by playing similar patterns without the stretch before you go for it, and remember catchy guitar sayings like “Feel the burn? Then stop!” and “No pain, no tendonitis.”
12. Jeff Beck’s pseudo slide
To be honest, “whatever the hell Jeff Beck does” could be entries 1-30 on this list, with his alien picking technique, volume pot manipulation, and total control of harmonics and whammy bar.
But one of the most interesting techniques he employs is imitating slide with his floating tremolo. It’s not hard to see what’s going on, but it’s beyond hard to have the sensitivity, control, and pitch awareness to do it so musically.
The fact Beck will often be using an actual slide at the same makes it harder to separate the real slide from the pseudo slide.
11. Acoustic slap ’n’ tap
This is not really one technique but a whole raft. The late Michael Hedges and Eric Roche were important to developing the style, and Newton Faulkner helped to mainstream it. It involves slap and pop techniques borrowed from electric bassists, and a bunch of percussion on the body similar to how a cajon player might work.
It's now maligned in music shops as the acoustic equivalent of sweep picking, but at its best it can make the guitar sound like two or three instruments at once, deliver immense groove, and showcase enormous creativity.
10. Three-note-per-string pentatonics
The devil on Paul Gilbert’s shoulder suggested playing a 2.5-octave E minor pentatonic run using three notes per string, and Colorado Bulldog was born. Paul wasn’t the first to play three-note-per-string pentatonics, but he started on fret 2, giving a really carpal-tunnel-inducing stretch.
Then he played it at a million miles an hour. Warm up carefully before you try it, or you’ll be in a world of regret and sorrow. Other exponents of the 3 NPS pentatonic don’t make it much easier. Europe’s Kee Marcello, for example, used a five-note sequence that results in one of the most awkward trajectories your picking hand will ever negotiate.
9. Microtonal slide
If you’ve grown up with the chromatic scale and its 12 semitones, you might be tempted to believe those are the only 12 notes in existence. They aren’t. Arabic, Persian, North African, and Indian/Pakistani music are just a few places whose scales have notes that don’t exist on a guitar with 12 frets per octave.
Western guitarists are highly familiar with one microtone: the blues curl, where you bend the minor third up a quarter tone, sounds natural to most of us by now, but many other microtonal notes are difficult to pitch correctly if you’ve only ever listened to western music.
Of course, a slide gives you infinite control over the pitch, so slide maestros like Derek Trucks and Jeff Beck have shown their sublime control and sense of pitch with some excellent microtonal moments.
8. Harp harmonics
If you’ve heard Lenny Breau’s inspiring waterfall arpeggios, or Steve Morse and Eric Johnson creating ethereal melodies entirely from harmonics, you’ve heard this technique.
You have to position a picking hand finger precisely over the fretwire five, seven, or 12 frets higher than the note you’re fretting, and pluck the string at the same time. Getting one to ring clearly is a hassle. If you can use them to play melodies at speed, you’ve definitely gone through an extended period with no social life.
‘Legato’ is just an Italian word that means ‘bound’ – the notes are all connected, with no silences in between them. Technically, you could play legato while picking every note, and staccato (separated) using only hammer-ons, so it annoys other musicians that electric guitarists insist on using it to mean playing without picking.
The basic elements of legato – hammer-ons and pull-offs – are simple enough. But extended runs at high speed with little or no picking (think Joe Satriani or YouTube virtuosos Rick Graham and Tom Quayle) is another game altogether.
The real challenge is not brute strength. Many players imagine you have to be very muscular. That leads to pressing too hard, creating tension and slowing you down. The art is in finding an efficient movement that feels effortless but generates enough force to sound the notes clearly.
6. String bending or joint shifting
Any technique’s difficulty depends on how far you want to take it. Basic open chords are easy (ish); Allan Holdsworth’s chords are not. You could learn to bend a string a quarter tone in your first lesson. Most students master two-fret bends on the unwound strings in their first year. And then there’s what Jerry Donahue does.
As the narrator of a BBC Equinox documentary put it, “To bend one string takes strength and sensitivity. To bend three, accurately and pitch perfect, takes years of practice.”
Donahue’s country licks, bending multiple strings at once by different amounts, represent some of the wildest musicianship you’ll ever see. He’ll bend two strings in opposite directions at the same time, bend behind the nut, and create whole melodies from sequences of bends. If you need proof that technique can be difficult without being fast, this is it.
In 2020, Steve Vai released Candle Power, showcasing bending techniques he had recently developed that he called ‘joint shifting’. As always, Vai’s technique is impeccable, but for our money Donahue did it first and remains the best.
5. Eight-finger tapping
Think of everything that’s hard about legato, and then try and do all of it with your picking hand as well. Yeah.
4. Sweep picking
Sweeping is probably the most intimidating guitar technique, virtually a byword for shred. There are two misconceptions there. First, it was invented by jazz guitarists and has more applications than playing reams of arpeggios at lightning speed. Second, the picking is not actually the hard part.
The picking motion in sweeping is the same as raking, when you drag your pick across several muted strings as a way to add excitement to the front of the note. David Gilmour and Brian May are big users of raking, which is not all that difficult.
The fiendish part of sweeping is the perfect synchronization needed between both hands. Each string needs to be fretted at the precise moment the pick strikes it, and muted immediately before and after. If the timing is off, you’ll get a rake instead of hearing the notes, which defeats the point.
If the muting isn’t there, the notes will blur into each other. If you fret all the notes at once and perform the picking action, you’re just strumming a chord. No wonder shredders do it so much – they have to justify all that time they spent learning it.
3. Alternate picking
Thanks to educators like Troy Grady and Chris Brooks, alternate picking has been massively demystified recently, but it’s still common to find otherwise virtuoso guitarists who hit a brick wall when they try to pick every note at speed.
There are two real challenges: the first is making strict alternate picking a habit, so you don’t unconsciously throw in two downstrokes in a row. That’s most likely to happen when you're crossing strings, which brings us to the second challenge: finding an efficient movement you can play consistently at high speed without tension.
Since changing strings is the hardest part, the pinnacle of alternate picking is playing one-note-per-string arpeggios. Steve Morse is the rock champion of this, but a lot of the tastiest flatpickers are bluegrass players. Check out Andy Wood, who is equally jaw-dropping on mandolin and guitar.
2. Economy picking
Think of economy picking as a mixture of sweep picking and alternate picking: you sweep when changing strings, and alternate pick notes on the same string. That means you need to be pretty handy at both those techniques before you get anywhere with economy picking.
When you change strings, you pick in one fluid movement, not two separate pick strokes. That avoids the awkwardness you can get with alternate picking, but it makes it harder to keep everything rhythmically consistent. It also means that every new lick potentially requires learning a new picking pattern. The pick giveth and the pick taketh away.
1. Barre chords
We promise we’re not winding you up when we say that barre chords are the hardest guitar technique. The reason most guitarists can do them is because they’re essential, not because they’re easy. It’s kind of like how walking and writing are two of the most difficult skills you’ll ever learn, but you probably don’t think of them like that because you learned them so long ago.
John Wheatcroft, blues guru for Guitar Techniques magazine and head of guitar at the BIMM Institute in London, says if you can play a full F major barre on the first fret, you can do anything on guitar.
Moving from open chords to barring has a learning curve that looks like a cliff face, and many beginners simply give up without ever beating it. Even worse, speed is not much of a factor. Most techniques on this list become easy if you slow them down, but learning to hold a barre chord is uncomfortable at any pace.
Wherever you are in your guitar journey, this is good news. If you’re currently struggling with barre chords, don’t worry! Everyone finds them impossible at first, but thousands of guitarists master them every year. You’ll get there. And if you’ve conquered barre chords already, scroll back up this list in the smug knowledge that you can get there. You’ve done the hardest part already.