Guitar is undoubtedly one of the most popular instruments of the past century, It’s one of, if not the biggest influences on popular music worldwide – guitars are played in every country, on every genre of music, and have been for many decades. It’s also one of the most fun instruments to play!
However, learning to play guitar can be a challenging, and often daunting affair for many people. Often, it’s hard to know where to start! Don’t worry, though!
This handy guide will teach you what you need to learn as a beginner guitarist – including some things that other guides overlook! Read on to learn more about how to get started playing guitar!
The Right Guitar
One of the most important things to get right early on is to make sure you’ve got the right guitar for you! Now, not all of us get to have any choice over what guitar we play – often, our first guitar is a gift from somebody else.
However, if you’re in the position where you get to decide, here are a few tips to help you choose correctly!
Picking the right guitar is important, as the right instrument can stay with you for your entire lifetime. Not just that – picking the wrong instrument can make guitar harder, and less fun!
But what exactly is the right and/or wrong instrument?
Well, you’re playing guitar for a reason – to play music! And, quite likely, you’ve got an idea of the style of music you want to learn how to play.
For instance, if you’re deeply into metal, and that’s what you want to do, you’ll want to get an electric guitar with a humbucker in the bridge. Likewise, if you want to learn classical, and don’t care for rock or metal, then a classical guitar is the way to go for you.
Getting the right sort of guitar at the start is key. For example, if you don’t enjoy listening to acoustic guitar, and don’t have any interest in music played on acoustic guitar, then you quite likely won’t enjoy playing it!
Therefore, pick an instrument that matches the style of music you most want to play.
Some people will say start on acoustic before going to electric. If you want to play acoustic, sure – but if you want to play electric guitar, get an electric! You’ll enjoy yourself a lot more.
The Right Strings
When you’re first starting out, it’s unlikely your fingers will be very strong. Playing guitar uses muscles that don’t commonly get used – after all, how important is finger strength for most people in their day to day lives?
Not very – you don’t often do much with your fingers that requires them to have any sort of conditioning!
However, finger strength is important for musicians, especially those who play string instruments. Our fingers are directly connected to the important bits of the instrument. We make sound using our fingers – so it’s important that they’re able to manipulate the strings as we want!
Beginners, however, shouldn’t worry about what they can’t do yet – it’s all about developing yourself to that point! With that in mind, it’s usually recommended that new players start off with lighter, rather than heavier guitar strings.
In terms of tone, there’s not really much difference between lighter and heavier strings – although they definitely respond to being played differently. The most important difference between them is really in their feel.
Heavier strings are of course harder to bend – they’re under more tension, so need more strength to bend. However, lighter strings can feel too loose for some players.
Often, players find that heavier strings are more easy to control bends with – for one thing, it’s certainly much harder to overbend a string with heavy strings!
For best results, start on light strings until you’ve got a little more strength in your fingers. You might never want to change from light strings, or you might find after a while that you prefer the response to attack and extra tense feel of some higher gauge strings!
The Right Amp (And Speaker)
Conventional wisdom has always led guitarists to spend more and more money on guitars, in the pursuit of tone. However, a guitar is only one part of getting great tone – and arguably much more important is the amplifier and speaker.
The speaker in particular is ultimately responsible for the sound – it’s the last link in the chain, and the biggest variable.
The same equipment chain can sound vastly different by simply changing the speaker for another – whereas switching two amps or guitars out for each other will often produce a much less discernible change in sound.
As a beginner, you shouldn’t spend too much on an amplifier – but nor should you get something so cheap that it’s a struggle to play and learn on.
Again, matching amps to the genre of music you’re interested in playing is very important – it’s no use getting a great jazz amp if what you actually want to do is rock out!
One great option available nowadays is skipping the amp entirely, and using your computer and software as a guitar amp instead! This requires a different setup – instead of an amp, you’ll use studio monitors – the types of speakers used in music production.
You’ll need an interface box to connect your guitar to your computer too – there are plenty of inexpensive options. You’ll need some recording software – called a DAW or Digital Audio Workstation.
Finally, you’ll need an amp simulator, some impulse responses (essentially, these are pieces of software that pretend to be guitar speakers), and a program to load the impulse responses.
This probably sounds more complex than simply plugging a guitar into an amp, and it is – but it’s a great way to work, and can give you a lot more flexibility than using a dedicated guitar amp, for a lot less money!
How To Hold A Pick
There are actually a few ways to hold a plectrum. One is a far more standard way, and is generally considered “right” – it’s usually best to learn how to hold a pick like this. However, holding a pick in an unorthodox manner isn’t “wrong”, as such – it just might not be ideal for most guitarists!
The normal way to hold a guitar pick goes like this:
First of all, bend your index finger until the tip points back towards your hand. You don’t need to be too tight – you’re not making a fist! Your hand should still be half open.
Next, rest the pick on the side of your index finger, either around your first knuckle, or just between your first knuckle and nail. The pick should balance there pretty much on its own. You’ll want the tip of the pick pointing perpendicularly away from your fingernail.
Now, put your thumb on top of the pick to hold the pick in place on your index finger. No need to grip too hard – you just want to hold the pick tightly enough that it won’t fall out of your fingers, or get knocked away when you strum strings with it.
So, don’t grip so hard your knuckles turn white! As with everything with guitar, you don’t want to be too tense – you should be relaxed, but in control.
This is the usual way of holding a guitar pick – while there are other ways, this is the best way for most people!
Tuning A Guitar
Tuning a guitar is off putting for newcomer guitarists – in fact, it’s often forgotten about. However, experienced players know that there’s no avoiding it – you should tune your guitar every single time you play! It’s not enough to do it once per week and then hope for the best.
Thankfully, it’s not actually that hard at all to tune your guitar. You can tune with a set of pitch pipes – however, in this day and age, it’s not recommended. They’re difficult for beginners to use, and can in fact put you off even trying to tune your guitar!
Instead, it’s best to get hold of an electronic tuner – either a pedal or a clip-on model will do. You can even get apps for your phone that will do the job just fine. You don’t need to spend a lot of money on this! These options are by far the easiest way to get your guitar in tune.
A pitch pipe might be more old-school, but they’re harder to use, and will lead you to a less accurate tuning than using an electronic tuner. There’s no need to make life harder for yourself than necessary – just because they used pitch pipes back in the day, doesn’t mean you’re stuck with them!
You’ll be tuning your strings to what’s called standard tuning. The notes for this are E,A,D,G,B,E – in order from thickest string to thinnest. Remember to tune your string up to pitch from below – not down from a higher note.
Tuning up makes sure that any play in the gears of your tuners is taken out when tuning – giving you a more stable tuning than the other way around.
Although it might sound like something that doesn’t require much thought, it’s actually very important to make sure that you have the correct posture when playing guitar!
Finding the right way to sit with your guitar can take some time, and some trial and error. Ideally, you want to have the weight of the guitar supported by your body (or strap, if you’re using one) when sitting down.
If you’re carrying any of the weight of the guitar in your hands and arms, then they’re not as free to move about, to fret and strum the strings as they should be! Likewise, if you have to use your hands to keep the guitar stable, you’re going to find it harder to fret and play notes!
So, to make life easiest for yourself, find a way to sit that’s comfortable, and lets the guitar rest on you naturally – without you having to use your hands and arms to support it.
It’s often a good idea to raise one of your feet – the foot that’s the same side as your fretting hand. It makes playing a bit more comfortable. You can buy foot stands made for this purpose, but a couple of old books is a quick and easy way to get your foot off the ground.
Try not to play too hunched over – it can be really bad for your back and neck!
If you’re standing, then of course, you’ll be using a strap! Find the best height for you to keep your guitar at – this differs from player to player. Too low or too high can affect your ability to play well – and can make it less fun to play too!
How To Practice
The “how” of practicing is one of the hardest things to master! A common trait amongst guitarists is misusing time when it comes to practicing.
There’s a difference between serious practice, and just playing guitar. To a certain point, yes, all playing helps you improve, or at least maintain your skill level. However, it’s really easy to fall into the common trap of playing only for fun, and unwittingly reaching a skill plateau.
Yes, of course, guitar should be fun – but it’s a skill that takes work and effort too, and that’s something you can’t neglect if you want to improve.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with just playing for fun, of course – it’s why we keep on playing day after day. We enjoy it! However, it’s a great idea to regularly dedicate a portion of your playing time to improvement – and that can mean taking some time away from simply rocking out!
Get a metronome – a phone app will do – and spend some time playing along to it. It can be hard to use at first, and the sound of the metronome can be annoying – but it’s one of the best ways to really tighten up your playing!
Too many guitarists skip out on using a metronome when practicing, and as a result – well, they’re just not as good at playing as they could be.
Make sure that you understand the difference between playing to improve, and playing for fun. Make sure to do both, of course!
What To Practice
For beginners, learning chords and scales is often recommended – and for good reason! With a basic grounding in some simple musical concepts, you’ll be amazed at how much you can understand – and create!
Learning about the major scale is extremely important. After all, most other scales can be described as alterations of the major scale – simply change a few notes to get a completely different sound!
Once you’ve learned the major scale, you can understand how individual notes in it can be raised or lowered, to make other scales. For instance, the harmonic minor scale, a metal and classical favorite, is simple the major scale with the third and 6th notes flattened! Only two different notes, and yet a whole different sound for the scale.
Learning some chords is extremely important too! Chords are typically made by stacking thirds – I.e. going up in thirds on whatever scale you’re in. For instance, a C major chord is formed of the notes C, E, and G – which are notes 1, 3, and 5 of the C major scale.
For a beginner, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with theory – and some teachers can be especially bad at giving beginners too much information. The most important thing to learn is to enjoy playing!
If you enjoy playing, you’ll be all the more likely to want to push yourself to learn more. But if you make playing guitar a chore, you’ll treat it like one – you’ll avoid it as much as you can!
With that in mind, the most important thing to do is to sit down and make some noise! Pick some simple songs/riffs and try to play along to them.
Try to learn as much theory as you can, of course – but always remember, it’s not as important as playing. After all, nobody goes to gigs to see someone read from a theory book!
While you can avoid theory as much as you want, it’s not a smart idea! Too many guitarists choose to avoid learning any theory for as long as possible, thinking that it will only stifle their creativity.
However, even a basic understanding of theory can actually easily help you be a more creative player!
The biggest mistake people make about theory – and the thing that puts people off learning – is the idea that theory exists to tell you what to do – and that you’re better off without these rules. The first thing to be clear of is that this simply isn’t true, in any way at all!
Theory doesn’t give you rules – it gives you explanations and guidelines. There’s no such thing as right and wrong – music is an art! There’s genuinely no right or wrong way to make music.
However, being pointed in the right direction can save you a lot of time spent in trial and error! Music theory is simply a way of describing things that have been done – and in turn, giving guidelines on how to do things similarly.
One way of looking at theory is that it gives you a map and lets you work out how to get to your destination – whereas without theory, you don’t have the map, and you’ll only be able to find your way by blind luck!
No matter what style you play, learn the major scale, and how to play it in different keys. From there, learn the minor scales in the same keys – and see how closely related they are to the major scale, while sounding so different!
Music theory isn’t something to be scared of! Learn enough so that you can understand the basics of whatever you do on guitar. From there, whatever you choose to learn can only help you.
Reading Chord Charts
Chord charts are an important thing for guitarists. They represent information about what chords to play, and how to play them, in a very simple and quick to understand way.
However, if you’ve never seen one before, it might be difficult for you to read. No matter though – it won’t take you long to learn!
Chord charts pretty much all look the same. There might be some stylistic differences, but they’ll be only minor – the point of a chord chart is to share information quickly and easily to guitarists.
Therefore, they’d just slow us down if they looked different every time! That’s why, once you’ve learned how to read them, you’re set – all chord charts will be readable to you!
Reading a chord chart isn’t hard at all! Above the chart, you should see the name of the chord – for instance, Bm, C7, Edim – something like that, depending on the chord. You’ll see a box with a grid of lines, and some dots.
Well, the dots tell you where you should put your fingers! The chart is laid out as if you were standing your guitar on end – the strings are laid out horizontally, with the thickest being on the rightmost side.
You’ll likely notice a thicker line at the top of the chord chart – this either represents the nut of your guitar (I.e. the open strings), or will be labeled with a fret number.
If you see an X before a vertical line on the chart, it’s telling you not to play anything on that string. A 0 or an O means to play the open string – no fretting!
Reading guitar tab is actually extremely easy – and it’s a notation system that’s been around for hundreds of years! Purists may dismiss it, but it’s such a simple and effective system for notating guitar that it’s no surprise that it’s more used for guitar than sheet music is.
Guitar tab is easy to read and write, and can be learned in much less time than it takes to learn how to read standard notation.
Guitar Tab is laid out horizontally. You’ll see a set of lines, each one representing a different string on the guitar. The bottom line is the bottom (thickest) string on your guitar, whereas the top is the top (thinnest) string. Notes on the left happen earlier than notes on the right!
Reading is very simple – your fingers go where the numbers tell you! For instance, if the tab has a 7 on the line representing the A string – then play the 7th fret on the A string!
One feature of tab that has both advantages and disadvantages is that it shows you exactly where to put your fingers – unlike standard notation, which tells you the right notes to play, but not what position to play them in.
Having the exact position is great, of course – assuming the tab is correct. However, as most guitar music isn’t written on paper, but on the instrument, most musicians don’t write either tab or notation for their music.
This means that any transcriptions – whether found online or bought in a book – are interpretations by someone other than the composer.
This means that they can always be a little bit off, even official tab books – which can lead you to trying fingerings for notes that don’t actually work for human beings!
This means that it’s important to always use your ears too – really listen out to see if what you’re playing is how the piece of music should actually sound!
Reading Sheet Music
How do you get a guitarist to stop playing? Give them sheet music.
Sheet music in standard notation doesn’t exist as much for guitar as for other instruments – it’s just not as commonly used. It’s less of an important skill for most guitarists, as much as many purists may disagree.
Most music for guitar isn’t ever notated using standard notation! That doesn’t mean that learning to read sheet music is a waste of time for guitarists – but it does mean that it’s a step that’s easy to skip.
Learning to read standard notation will give you access to a whole world of music that isn’t guitar based, of course. It’s a great thing to learn, and can make learning more easy – it gives you a much broader repertoire of music to learn.
However, 99% of all music ever made by guitarists was made without any thought to sheet music or standard notation – and any sheet music you do see of guitar music is almost certainly a transcription made by somebody other than the original artist.
This is no better than a transcription done in guitar tab – and is harder to read for the untrained!
Therefore, while learning sheet music is a useful skill – it’s hardly the most useful thing a beginner can learn related to guitar. There is so much that you can do on guitar before sheet music becomes relevant.
So, don’t worry if you can’t read it well, or at all! Many guitarists never need it – although, of course, those who do need it, learn it and swear by it.
And don’t forget the other side of the joke:
How do you get a classical musician to stop playing? Take their sheet music away.
You’ll never get a better tool than your own memory – far better to know a piece inside out than to have to always rely on the sheet music. Use your brain wherever possible!
Slow And Steady
Take your time! It’s not possible to master anything quickly – guitar is no exception. One of the best things about being a beginner is that there’s always an opportunity to learn something new!
However, it’s definitely possible to get fatigued – especially when trying to learn a lot of new stuff at once!
Remember, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Take as much time as you need to feel comfortable with whatever you’re doing! And remember, it’s perfectly fine to take a break every so often.
If that means not playing guitar for a few days or weeks, then fine – there’s no point pushing yourself so hard that you stop having fun! After all, if guitar wasn’t fun, nobody would play it!
It can be helpful to try to find ways to track your progress. The easiest way is to make regular recordings of yourself playing! This can be scary at first – for some reason, the record button seems to drain all of our skill away!
Don’t worry, that’s not just you. It happens to all of us! However, regular recording will help you get over this. And, you’ll have a way of checking your progress against your past performances!
This is a great way to see how you’re improving at guitar. It’s one of the best feelings, actually, to listen to an old recording and realise just how much you’ve improved.
It can be hard to realize that the hard work you’re putting in is paying off – so, when you do finally get to listen back to your old playing, the improvement can come as quite a pleasant surprise.
Of course, having said that – even the best guitarists can improve. It’s impossible to run out of new things to learn, and equally as impossible to be so good that you can’t improve your technique, or your knowledge of music.
It’s a great idea to always challenge yourself to do something new, or difficult – or even something that just interests you, even if it’s easy! And, of course, guitarists are notoriously lazy – we often like to stick to playing things that we already know, and that are easy for us.
Don’t be like that! You’ll enjoy things much more if you’re always ready to push yourself forward – it’s hard to get stuck in a rut if you’re always paying attention to what you can do to play better!
If you’re always moving forward, and trying to improve, you’ll always enjoy playing guitar. Just remember, don’t push so hard that you stop enjoying it. Nothing good ever came from hating playing – so if you’re feeling that way, it’s good for you and your playing to take some time off!
There you are – a beginners guide to playing guitar! Hopefully, this guide will help you on your way as a beginner guitarist!