Learning to play the guitar takes time, and as many have come to find, it isn’t as easy as it looks. While there are some of us who happen to pick it up quickly, there are others whose learning curve requires a little more effort. While the ease or difficulty of that initial learning curve is simply the luck of the draw, the good news is that by the time a student is at the intermediate level things begin to even out. If you happen to be reading this, chances are that you have already progressed past the beginner phase and are looking to take your playing to the next level.
And since nothing is more inspiring than modeling your guitar playing after your favorite artists, we’ve put together a list of 5 Core Intermediate Guitar playing skills to work on in this stage, along with a track list of songs to learn ranked from easiest to most difficult.
Open Chord Movement and Strumming
When thinking of intermediate guitar playing skills it’s important to recognize that with the guitar you’ve got two hands that are doing very different things. As such these first two core skills are as important to work on independently as they are to work on together. At the intermediate level, students should be able to move between open chords with ease and in time with the music. In tandem with the chord movement students should be able to strum the guitar in some basic patterns in both up and down strokes, and in eight note sequences.
Here are some examples and their ease of playing:
Easy Open Chord Songs for Intermediate Guitarists
- “House of the Rising Sun” by The Animals – The chord changes in this one are easy enough, but what gives this song the intermediate edge is the slightly arpeggiated strumming pattern as well as the 6/8 meter.
- “Let It Be” by The Beatles – Quick and fluid chord changes are your main skills to master with this classic Beatles tune.
- “Heart of Gold” by Neil Young – Pretty basic chord changes, with a quick riff in between one of them along with some cut-in strumming patterns that should help to break students out of more traditional strumming patterns.
Medium-Difficulty Open Chord Songs for Intermediate Guitarists
- “Back in Black” by AC/DC – This song is a great one to master for the intermediate student as it combines both strumming and lead techniques. It is also one that many students tend to play incorrectly. Try listening to the intro slowed down to correctly identify the first lead lick. The final note is a bend from A to Bb to (open)G.
- “Space Oddity” by David Bowie – While most of this song’s chords should be familiar to the blossoming intermediate guitarist, it introduces a few oddities, including the A minor over G and D over F#, the former of which requires some pinky muscle to fret properly. This is a good opportunity to get experience with some of these lesser-known chords and different voicings with known chords. It also utilizes a few 7th chords, which are essential to learning for the intermediate guitar player.
- “Hotel California” by The Eagles – Seamless chord movement and strumming is the key to mastering this song. If you aren’t yet comfortable with 8th note strumming, this is a great place to get your practice in.
Hard Open Chord Songs for Intermediate Guitarists
- “Plush” by Stone Temple Pilots – This iconic 90’s classic introduces players to a couple of unique chord shapes, including using your thumb to fret the low E string for the D over F# chord. You’ll also need to harness some more of that pinky strength for the most difficult chord in the song, the Eb Major 7 played at the 6th (pinky, A string), 5th (ring, D string), and 3rd (pointer across the G, B, and e strings) frets. The song also has a tricky rhythmic strumming pattern on the chorus that may take a few attempts before it begins to click.
- “Pinball Wizard” by The Who – In addition to some new and moveable chord shapes (variations on the bar chord shape), the beginning of this song utilizes a strumming pattern that has the player using the bottom note of the chord as a “drone” while the rest of the chord only being played once per segment. It then progresses into a quick strumming pattern, utilizing 8th and 16th notes strums. Your metronome will be your best friend when attempting to master this classic tune.
Power Chord/Bar Chord Movement and Strumming
While open chord movement and strumming are common in both electric and acoustic guitar playing, power and bar chords tend to be favored and geared more towards the electric guitarist. As such it’s important to recognize that if you’re working with an acoustic guitar, this skill may take a little more time to develop simply because of the difference in action (space between the strings, thus the amount of pressure required to properly fret a chord) between an acoustic and electric guitar.
Similar to open chord strumming and movement, the intermediate guitarist must move fluidly between power chord and bar chord segments of a song and be able to quickly change chords along the neck of the guitar. This includes being able to mute strings that aren’t part of the chord, strumming and palm muting in a variety of patterns, and having some experience playing and adjusting chord shapes for different tunings, such as drop D.
Let’s take a look at some examples:
Easy Power Chord/Bar Chord Songs for Intermediate Guitarists
- “Cut Me Some Slack” by Paul McCartney, Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic, and Pat Smear – A relatively simple chord progression right out of the pentatonic scale at a moderate but still engaging tempo, this is a great place to start for students who are still working on getting comfortable with power chords and bar chords.
- “American Idiot” by Green Day – Though relatively simple, the quick power chord changes can easily throw students that aren’t used to quick switching at quicker tempos. Slow it down, and speed up as needed!
Medium-Difficulty Power Chord/Bar Chord Songs for Intermediate Guitarists
- “Barracuda” by Heart – This classic tune introduces students to the wonderful world of chugging. A simple variation on palm muting combined with a quick up and down strumming pattern, chugging may pose some difficulty at first, but once you put in the time to connect to the rhythm, the power of the chug will be yours!
- “Enter Sandman” by Metallica – While the intro for this song is simple enough for most intermediate students, the challenge comes with the quick chord-changing chugging pattern that follows and continues throughout the song. Playing this one from start to finish will definitely give your fingers and forearms a great workout!
- “Point of No Return” by Kansas – Quick bar chord changes and 1-2 note fills in between some of the chords are some of the challenges to overcome on this classic tune. Bonus points for learning the lead organ lines!
- “Remedy” by The Black Crowes – The proper way to play this song is in the open G tuning, however, it can just as easily be played in standard with power chords. Try it both ways! The open G tuning will give students the experience of playing a song in an open tuning, and how it changes the approach to chords. This is a really great opportunity to learn some interesting chord voicings in a completely new tuning!
Hard Power Chord/Bar Chord Songs for Intermediate Guitarists
- “Everlong” by Foo Fighters – For students not yet exposed to Drop D, this song is a great opportunity to get acquainted with the most popular alternate tuning. In addition to learning to do power chords with just one finger, Dave Grohl’s legendary 90’s ballad also introduces the player to some interesting, power-chord-based voicings in Drop D, including D Maj7 and B and G sus 2. Without a doubt, the most challenging aspect of this song is the strumming pattern. Be patient, as it can take some time to get the hang of, but once you do, this is arguably one of the most enjoyable songs to play on this whole list.
Another key skill of the intermediate guitarist involves picking patterns and fingerpicking. Precision and resonance are key to keep in mind when working on these skills. Precision deals with tempo while resonance deals with the sound of the note being played. The trick to developing precision with your picking patterns is utilizing the metronome.
In truth, the metronome is an essential companion for all these skills but it is absolutely invaluable for picking patterns! For some of these songs in particular (such as “Street Spirit” or “Jolene”), the picking pattern may seem like something rather daunting at first. But, as with much of guitar playing, once you can more slowly break down what’s going on it’s easier to understand what we’re hearing as a relatively simple pattern. Each song example in this section has the tempo listed; once the song is learned, try to play it at its official tempo, and when encountering issues, slow it down by 5-10 bpm and begin to gradually work up. As the old adage goes, “To play fast, first learn to play slow.”
With a better understanding of the importance of precision, let’s now move on to resonance, and this applies especially to fingerpicking. Resonance in this context refers to the ability to play each of the strings at the same relative volume. For many of us who began playing guitar with a pick, this will be a completely new skill to learn from the ground up.
The most common and (arguably) efficient style of fingerpicking involves assigning strings to each of our right-hand fingers. For the E, A, and D strings, we use the thumb while using the pointer, middle, and ring fingers for the G, B, and high E strings, respectively. The key to developing good resonance with fingerpicking is simply acquainting yourself with this style of playing. If your only experience plucking strings has been with a pick, this will be a challenge at first, but with patience and repetition, most find themselves playing just as efficiently as they do with a pick.
Funnily enough, some may end up enjoying the fingerpicking style so much that they all but abandon their use of the pick thereafter. The touch of our fingers is much softer when compared to the more pronounced attack of the pick sound, and thus the sounds coaxed from this style are often more rounded and smooth, which makes for a much warmer tone.
Only two full-on fingerpicking songs are listed in this section, however, the truth is that pretty much any song that can be picked can be fingerpicked as well. Therefore, we encourage the student to apply fingerpicking and plectrum (fancy name for a pick) picking to any of the songs listed in this section and compare the sounds of the two different styles.
Easy Fingerpicking Songs for Intermediate Guitarists
- “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” by The Beatles (Tempo: 138 BPM) – A great tune that utilizes quick shifting chords in close proximity. The intro goes from an A to an A7, to an A6, and then finally to an F.
- “Hey You” by Pink Floyd (Tempo: 112 BPM) – With a relatively simple pattern, this tune is a great place to start for both working on picking patterns, and for an introduction to fingerpicking.
Medium-Difficulty Fingerpicking Songs for Intermediate Guitarists
- “Street Spirit” by Radiohead (Tempo: 69 BPM) – A seemingly difficult tune that, when slowed down, becomes much more manageable. Utilizing a cross-picking technique across three chords with some slight finger augmentations in between, the key to this tune is muscle memory. Train your hands and fingers at a slow, consistent rate, and only ramp up the speed once you’ve nailed the pattern.
Hard Fingerpicking Songs for Intermediate Guitarists
- “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin (Tempo: 82 BPM) – No fingerpicking song list would be complete without this masterful, legendary song. For many, this was the first song they learned to fingerpick, and for good reason! With a moderate tempo and a relatively simple pattern, this is an excellent introduction to the nuances of the traditional fingerpicking style. Comfort with a variety of chord shapes is a must!
- “Jolene” by Dolly Parton (Tempo: 111 BPM) – Though the chord changes are simple enough, the trick to this song is all in the picking. Though it sounds rather difficult, once you’ve had some experience getting used to the fingerpicking style, this one shouldn’t be too much of a stretch to learn. It’s all in the pattern, but as mentioned before, the key to mastery is starting slow and working your way up.
Riffs (Including Bending, Hammer-Ons, Pull-Offs, Pentatonic, Intro-to-Lead Playing)
Guitar riffs come in a couple of different styles and contexts. A really good, memorable guitar riff operates on the same level as a really good chorus. It’s the part of the song that stays with you and gets stuck in your head. Some riffs are integral to the structure of a song, while others are embedded into guitar solos and fills, which together give a song additional melodic qualities that can take listeners on a journey or simply add ambiance. Some key skills that the intermediate guitar player must be working to develop here are hammer-ons and pull-offs, familiarity with the pentatonic scale, and to begin developing their improvisational and soloing ability.
Easy Riff Songs for Intermediate Guitarists
- “Come Together” by The Beatles – Though the main rhythm parts of this song are basic enough, where the intermediate guitarist shines is in the mastering of the solos and bends this song has to offer.
Medium-Difficulty Riff Songs for Intermediate Guitarists
- “Whole Lotta Love” by Led Zeppelin – One of the most iconic riffs in all of rock and roll history is not only surprisingly accessible but incredibly infectious once mastered. A helpful tip for this song is to pay attention to the space between the riff and the palm muted sequence in the verses compared to the chorus. The space is longer in the verses and shorter in the choruses.
- “You Give Love a Bad Name” by Bon Jovi – With lots of bends to work on from this intro, the song’s verses also feature a pentatonic riff that grooves like a bassline and is very fun to play!
- “Black Sabbath” by Black Sabbath – If you’ve yet to master hammer-ons and bends, this song is a great place to get your practice in!
Hard Riff Songs for Intermediate Guitarists
- “Dani California” by The Red Hot Chili Peppers – Between the main riff and two guitar solo sections, the intermediate guitar player has an excellent song to build their skills with hammer-ons, pull-offs, unison bends, and pentatonic leads.
Feel and Style
Last but far from the least is what tends to be one of the most difficult skills to teach, as well as being simultaneously a vital stepping stone to more advanced guitar playing: feel and style. This skill requires the student to be able to dive much deeper into an artist’s songs and begin to break down not what is being played, but rather how that artist plays it.
Not only is this vital when it comes to achieving mastery of guitar playing, but it is crucial for any student who has ambitions to develop their own, unique style of playing. The trick isn’t to necessarily perfect one’s ability to play in the styles of others, but rather to get acquainted with learning different styles and approaches to playing. In doing so, the student’s guitar playing is able to open up to new heights and offer the opportunity for a more expanded repertoire of skills.
Easy Songs for Intermediate Guitarists to Practice Feel and Style
- “1979” by Smashing Pumpkins – This song utilizes both a drone note for the main riff, as well as other open strings in tandem with riffs and chords to evoke its dreamy imagery and theme. To really master the feel of this song, it's important to make everything sound fluid. The additional notes are key. Whether it’s the drone in the main riff or the addition of open notes to several chords, both help to glue the melody to the rhythm to give this song its ethereal, melodic sound.
- “Ramble On” by Led Zeppelin – Similar to the Smashing Pumpkins tune, the challenge with this song is making everything sound fluid. The way this song achieves that fluidity is through Jimmy Page’s ability to slide in and out of chord shapes with ease, giving these otherwise pretty janky riffs a gliding quality. The intermediate student would do well to give special attention to mastering these slide-ins and outs to harness the feel of this song.
Medium-Difficulty Songs for Intermediate Guitarists to Practice Feel and Style
- “Pride and Joy” by Stevie Ray Vaughn – Some would describe Texas Blues as the cleanest dirty sound, and part of what gives it that character is the combination of the swing feel and–especially with the legendary Stevie Ray Vaughn–the power behind every single note. Swing feel is hard to put into words, but what comes to mind is the swaying feeling it evokes. Being able to connect to that rhythmic feel in addition to mastering not only the notes played but being able to play them as loud as they are clear are essential to this tune.
Hard Songs for Intermediate Guitarists to Practice Feel and Style
- “Little Wing” by Jimi Hendrix – When it comes to Hendrix, many attempt but so few are able to truly harness the dynamic nuances of his playing style. Now that being said, if you have come this far you are definitely ready to throw your hat in this particular ring. Utilizing all the skills mentioned above, this song challenges the intermediate guitar player to utilize much of their skillset in order to begin the path of mastering this classic tune. There are not many tricks when it comes to this song other than consistent practice to nail the feel. However, one thing to keep in mind is Hendrix’s sense of dynamics he employs throughout the song. While he’s certainly riffing all throughout, if you pay close attention you’ll notice that all the while he’s playing with the dynamics of each riff he uses. Some are quiet and some are louder, and they perfectly complement the mood and feel of the song.
- “Brick House” by Commodores – Last on this list, but likely one of the first for many players as a proper introduction to skank guitar playing is this Commodores classic. Skank guitar playing is a style that is all about feel. Usually utilizing the higher strings for “chords” and a LOT of muted and rhythmic strumming, this style will be a challenge for many guitarists. The key to harnessing this feel will involve slowing down the song and really zoning in on the rhythmic nuances.
Ready to Take Your Guitar Skills to the Next Level?
The intermediate stage is where playing the guitar begins to feel the way we first envisioned it when we first touched our fingers to the fretboard. This is where many will likely begin to learn the songs that originally inspired them to play guitar. However, this is also the phase of guitar playing that most people end up getting stuck at, and while there tend to be more student drop-offs in the beginning stage, there are many guitarists whose guitar playing progression pretty much ends at this stage.
While staying at that intermediate stage of guitar playing is perfectly OK, School of Rock can motivate students to new heights of their guitar-playing ambitions and help them achieve their next level of musical proficiency. Check out our Guitar Lessons page for more information on how School of Rock can take your music skills to the next level.
About the Author
Nik Sidella is a guitar instructor and Rock 101 director at School of Rock Orlando.