How these famous guitarists learned how to play

Have you ever wondered how your favorite guitarists learned to play? No professional guitarist starts out as an expert – some of the world’s most famous guitarists were self-taught, some took traditional lessons, and some had other musical backgrounds before picking up a guitar. 

Here’s how these famous guitarists learned how to play their instruments.

Kurt Cobain

Nirvana frontman and guitarist Kurt Cobain was born into a musical family. His uncle played in a band called The Beachcombers, his aunt Mari played guitar in bands, and his great-uncle was an Irish tenor who was featured in 1930’s King of Jazz. According to Mari, Cobain began singing at the age of two and was singing and playing the piano at four. For his 14th birthday, Cobain’s uncle let him choose between a bike and a used guitar as a gift, and he chose the guitar. He learned songs by Queen and Led Zeppelin before starting to work on his own songs. Cobain was forced to write with his right hand, but he played guitar left-handed.


Legendary Guns ‘N Roses guitarist Slash originally planned to learn the bass before picking up a guitar.

Slash told Marshall Podcast that he didn’t have either instrument when he showed up for his first music lesson at age ten. His instructor showed him some guitar licks by Cream, and Slash said he realized that was what he wanted to play. The young Slash didn’t enjoy taking lessons, but his teacher promised him that if he learned the basics, he would teach him to play whatever he wanted. The instructor kept his word, and showed Slash how to learn by ear. Slash quit after a few lessons and continued to learn by ear.

Learn Slash’s signature style with the Slash Player Study.

Brian May 

Queen guitarist (and astrophysicist) Brian May’s enthusiasm for guitar started early, when his father taught him a few chords on the ukulele. At seven, he was given a Spanish guitar and also started taking piano lessons. 

The family didn’t have a lot of money, but Brian’s father had a background in engineering. When Brian was 15, they built an electric guitar together from scratch, creating the “Red Special” that May still uses today. The process took about 18 months, using an 18th century fireplace mantle for the neck, oak for the body, and pearl buttons for the fret markers. 

Learn Brian May’s style with the Brian May Player Study.

Jimi Hendrix

According to a 2010 biography about the guitar legend, when Jimi Hendrix was in elementary school, he had a habit of carrying a broom with him and pretending it was a guitar. After a year of this, the school’s social worker took note and requested funding from the school to buy young Hendrix a real guitar. However, the school and Hendrix’s father both refused. Young Hendrix did get his hands on a one-stringed ukulele after finding it in the garbage he and his father were removing from a home during a side job. He was able to teach himself Elvis Presley songs by ear. The next year, at age 15, Hendrix bought his first acoustic guitar. He played for hours every day, listening to blues artists like B.B. King and Robert Johnson.

Learn Jimi Hendrix’s trademark style with the Jimi Hendrix player study.

                                                           John Mayer

"Crossroads Festival 2010 - John Mayer" by aaronHwarren is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

According to an LA Times article, young John Mayer became infatuated with the guitar after watching Marty McFly’s performance in Back to The Future. Mayer’s father rented a guitar for him to play when he turned 13, and a Stevie Ray Vaughan cassette tape gifted to him by a neighbor helped Mayer develop his affection for the blues. Mayer took guitar lessons from a guitar shop owner in his Bridgeport, Connecticut hometown. His preoccupation with the instrument concerned his parents so much that they took him to see a psychiatrist, who assured them he was fine.

Learn John Mayer’s technique with the John Mayer Player Study.

Jack White 


White Stripes lead singer and guitarist Jack White had older brothers who were in a band, and he played their hand-me-down instruments, including a drum kit he found in the attic. White told 60 Minutes in 2005 that he had planned to become a priest, and was even accepted into a Wisconsin seminary, but he had just gotten a new amplifier and wasn’t sure if he’d be able to bring it with him. Instead, he went to a technical high school and played drums and trombone in a band, and began playing guitar in a band while doing an apprenticeship with a family friend. 


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These are the hardest courses to learn with Fret Zealot

You’ve mastered chords and scales and you’re well on your way to being a guitar star – so what’s next? You can take on a new challenge with one of these advanced skill level courses on the Fret Zealot app!

John Mayer Player Study 


Learn the “continuum” of John Mayer’s unique playing style with the John Mayer Player Study! This course will take you through Mayer’s signature fingerstyle patterns, favored chord shapes, and percussive elements to help you nail his catalog in style. 

This complete course will walk you through Mayer’s bluesier styles, his lead guitar approach, and how to add licks, chord inversions, and bends to master his style. 

Jimi Hendrix Player Study 

If you want to play guitar like a legend, this course is for you! 

The Jimi Hendrix course will take you through Hendrix’s trademark chords-with-lead style, breaking down his licks and favored chord shapes, so you can incorporate elements of his style in your own playing. 

Jimmy Page Player Study

Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page defined the band’s sound by blending traditional blues music with new progressive guitar styles! This course covers Page’s legato skills, chord shapes, and use of full scale. 

Steve Lukather Player Study 

Steve Lukather is the sole continuous founding member of Toto – but he also is a virtuosic guitar player and has contributed licks to albums like Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and Boz Scaggs’ “Middle Man”. This course will take you through Lukather’s techniques, including fast mixolydian runs, hybrid picking, and “liquid playing”.

Joe Bonamassa – Player Study

American blues rock guitarist Joe Bonamassa got his start at age 12 opening for B.B. King, and is famous for his fast runs and melodies! This course will teach you Bonamassa’s pentatonic shapes, signature licks, and legato-style playing. 

B.B. King Player Study 

You can’t learn the blues without studying The King of The Blues! This course takes you through King’s legendary style, including combining the major and minor pentatonic scales, string bending, and staccato picking.