I remember when I picked up a guitar for the very first time. I’d been waiting for this moment for years, and I was expecting a magical, planets align moment, a feeling of destiny and purpose, but what actually happened was a lot less profound and a lot more… awkward.
It didn’t feel right in my hand, I couldn’t play a note, and my mother had to teach me how to wear the strap properly — it wasn’t exactly the rock and roll genesis I had dreamed about for so many days and nights.
The truth is, this is how it all starts for everyone, from Yngwie Malmsteen to Steve Vai, from James Hetfield to John Frusciante. Well, that’s not strictly true…perhaps their mothers didn’t have to intervene, but you get the idea.
All our musical journeys have a starting point, and they’re messy as hell! Without a seasoned axe player to guide you, it can be a difficult situation to navigate, and not just from a playing point of view either. You’ll also need plenty of advice on the material side of things: what gear to get, how does it work, etc.
Not to worry, though, shredder of the future! I’m going to be your guitar guru today, your 6-string sage, if you will, guiding you through 11 essential electric guitar tips for beginners.
…Ready to get this show on the road? Fantastic, let’s go!
Guitar for Beginners: Here Are the Topics We’ll Focus On Today
- Gear for the Green Guitarist — Figuring out what gear you need can be a stressful job when you’re starting out, so, here, we’ll be discussing all the fundamental bits and bobs you’ll need to start your guitar career in earnest.
- Choosing Your Axe — Okay, so this section sort of overlaps with our first topic, but being that it’s one of the most important choices you’ll make, I think it’s worth focusing on guitar selection independently.
- Learning the Basics — Once you’re kitted out with all the necessary gear, it’s time to get down to business and play. It all starts with learning the open notes of the strings, then you’ll move on to basic chords and scales, forming a robust foundation for your skills to grow like crazy!
- Understanding Amplifiers and Tone — Amplifiers are kind of like instruments in of themselves. Learning how to use them to shape your tone can completely change your sound.
- Hire a Guitar Tutor — Some of the best players in the world are self-taught, but if you really want to fast-track your progress, the wise insight of an experienced guitar teacher will come in handy.
- Go Online and Learn, Learn, Learn — There are more tools for learning guitar online than ever before, and most of them are completely free. This is an absolute blessing, so make sure you take advantage of it.
- Listening to and Watching Your Guitar Heroes — Emulation plays an incredibly important role in the learning process. Listen to how your guitar heroes play, and try to figure out their techniques. If you can’t quite put your finger on how they’re achieving a certain sound, a video will reveal all.
- Practice, Practice, Practice — As is the case with anything in this life, the more you practice, the better you become, but musical improvement isn’t just a numbers game; it’s also about structuring your practice sessions intelligently.
- Invest in a Metronome — We humans may think we’ve got a good sense of rhythm, but alas, we are imperfect creatures, with fluctuating perceptions of time. Unless you’ve got your own personal drummer handy, the best way to hone your timing is to practice with a metronome.
- Jam with Your Musician Friends — Music is a language, by which I mean it’s all about communication, and not just with an audience, but other musicians too. Practicing with your musical friends will help to boost your confidence and cultivate fluency in this language.
- Take the Music Theory Bull by the Horns — Music theory can seem daunting, but it will increase your understanding of the guitar and help you to progress at a much faster rate.
Right! With the topics covered, it’s time to get down to business. Let’s take a look at the gear you’ll need to kick things off the right way.
1.Gear for the Green Guitarist
I know that money is often a big issue when you’re starting out as a 6-stringer, so don’t worry if you really can’t afford some of this equipment just yet. Much like your musical learning, gear acquisition is a journey. Having played guitar for over 15 years, I’m still nowhere near owning all the gadgets and gizmos that I “need”.
Depending on your age, it might be worth considering a part-time job to boost your budget, but nothing too time-consuming. You’ll need plenty of freedom to practice playing.
A Guitar Amplifier
As I’m sure you’re aware, a guitar amplifier is a unit you plug your guitar into in order to make a lovely racket. You can still practice without one, but if you want to truly hear yourself, then an amp is the only way to go.
Although you shouldn’t be forking out thousands of dollars for your very first amp, I’d absolutely recommend investing in a half-decent practice amplifier for a number of reasons.
- It sounds better — Living with a guitarist isn’t easy — we’re obnoxiously loud, completely absorbed in our craft, and touchy about our skills. Choosing an amp with quality (small) speakers will make your practice a little easier on the ears and reduce tensions in the living space.
- Sound sculpting — Better amps offer more in terms of sound sculpting, giving you an opportunity to develop your sound and imitate a greater number of artists.
- You won’t outgrow it as quickly — You’ll outgrow a basic amp in a flash, so it’s best to invest in a slightly better one that you’ll have for a while.
- Performing live — The very basic starter amps simply don’t sound good enough for a live performance.
Remember, big amps don’t necessarily mean good amps. There are plenty of quality small amps available, and as a general rule of thumb, unless you’re made of money, go for a combo amp rather than a cab and head. You can invest in a giant stack once you have a bigger bank account, and you’re more in tune with your instrument.
Here are some of the best amps for beginners to help nudge you in the right direction…
- Fender Mustang LT-50 — Fender is the king of the guitar amp world, but if you’re into heavier stuff, it might be worth checking out the…
- BOSS KTN-50-2 Katana-50 MkII or the…
- Orange Crush 20 RT
A Robust Guitar Cable (or Two)
You’ll need a guitar cable to link your guitar to your amp and make some noise. These are sometimes called instrument cables, or, for the technically minded, quarter-inch jacks.
My mistake when I started out was buying the cheapest guitar lead I could find, thinking it wasn’t an important bit of gear, but boy was I wrong. I must have gone through about 7 in a year.
It’s much better to bite the bullet and buy a decent one right off the bat. Your budget should be between $30 and $50. I currently use this Fender Original Series Instrument Coil Cable. I’ve had it for 5 years now, and it’s still going strong.
P.S. If you plan on using a footswitch to navigate the clean and dirty channels of your amplifier, you may need a second guitar lead.
A Guitar Tuner (Savior of Ears)
It can take a while for your ear to develop to the point that you recognize when your guitar is out of tune, so a tuner is a must. It will tell you when your guitar is sounding whack and help you fix things up before you start a practice session or performance.
You have two options here. If you’re working to a tight budget, a clip-on tuner like the Fender FT-2 is just the ticket, but if you’ve got a few pennies spare, you could opt for a pedal tuner, like the KLIQ TinyTune.
I didn’t invest in a tuner when I started playing, and let me tell you…my cohabitants suffered for it.
A Guitar Strap
Here’s something a lot of people don’t realize before they start playing guitar… playing sitting down feels completely different from playing standing up. If you only ever play on your bean bag, couch, or guitar stool, when you suddenly have to stand up and play on stage, you’ll be completely out of your element.
That’s why it’s a solid idea to get a guitar strap straight away. Practice playing stood up around 15 minutes a day, and you’ll be ready to blow some minds on stage before you know it.
A guitar strap is a great way to accessorize and express your style, so don’t be afraid to shop around for one that looks great, but comfort and security should be your top priority. You’ll need one with sufficient padding to keep your shoulder cozy, and the tab slits should be rigid enough to stop your guitar from sliding out.
A Bunch of Guitar Picks
Guitar picks disappear… it’s just what they do. Sure, you’ll find the odd runaway every now and again, but, most of the time, they vanish for good, so it’s important to keep a stash of backups handy.
Picks come in a bunch of different shapes and sizes, which is confusing at first. You’ll have to do a lot of experimenting before you find one that really works for you, and even then, your tastes are liable to change as your style and skills evolve.
Beginners typically get on best with 0.65–0.73 pick thicknesses, but I quickly moved on to a 1mm. In terms of pick companies, I can’t speak highly enough of Dunlop; I’ve been using their picks my whole playing life. I recommend checking out their 44R-60, their Tortex 462P.73, and their 44P1-0.
A Guitar Case
Giving your guitar a safe haven to rest when not in use is absolutely essential. If you leave your guitar out a lot, it’s far more likely to get damaged, plus, the strings will wear faster, and dust will settle in all the nooks and crannies.
You’re best off choosing a soft case like this Cahaya Gig Bag first, as they’re much lighter. When you purchase a more valuable guitar, you can upgrade to a hard case.
Some people pronounce it kay-po, some say kah-po, but it’s all the same thing: a clamp that fixes to your guitar and frets the strings across a single fret.
Calling a capo essential gear is perhaps a bit of a stretch. I myself didn’t get one for about 5 years, but they can help you explore the higher regions of the fretboard using the same simple chords you’ve been playing around the 2nd and 3rd fret.
2. Choosing Your Axe
Now comes the really exciting part: choosing your very first guitar. My first axe was a gift, so I never got to choose, but if you do have a say in the matter, here are the key factors you should be considering.
Generally speaking, you don’t want to spend too much on your first guitar, as the simple truth of the matter is that it’s going to get pretty banged up. You can try your best to take care of it, but sooner or later, it’s going to pick up some dings.
I’d say $600 should be the very limit of your guitar budget. Mine cost just over $200, and it came with a gear bundle too.
Your guitar needs to inspire you. When you walk into the room, you should find it almost impossible to keep your hands off it. This is the feeling that will drive you to knuckle down and keep practicing.
There are four main guitar body types….
- Single Cutaway — The Les Paul is an example of a single cutaway guitar, as is the Fender Telecaster. The bodies of these guitars feature a large cutaway beneath the fretboard, granting easier access to the higher notes.
- Double Cutaway — The most famous example of a double cutaway is the Fender Stratocaster. These guitars feature a cut both underneath and above the fretboard for even greater freedom of movement.
- The V — V-shaped guitars look super cool, and I’m not saying don’t buy one, but bear in mind that they can be quite difficult to manage.
- Unique — By unique guitars, I’m referring to any that stray from the beaten path — we’re talking Gibson Explorer, B.C. Rich Warlock, and Dean ML/Razorback style shapes.
These spiky 6-strings can also be quite difficult to manage, and you’ll need a specialist case, but if you’ve got your heart set on one of them, and it’s within your budget, go ahead and get it! The important thing is that you love your instrument.
Solid vs Semi-Hollow vs Hollow Guitars
If the typical solid body electric guitar doesn’t appeal to you, you should consider either a semi-hollow or hollow guitar.
A semi-hollow guitar is like a slim-line acoustic, but it has a solid center block that helps to keep feedback to a minimum when you crank up the volume or throw a bit of dirt on your signal. They feel like electrics, but their tone tends to be a lot warmer, which is part of the reason they’re so beloved in jazz communities.
A full hollow guitar is basically just an acoustic made electric. They tend to have thick, creamy, well-rounded tones, but they can be a bit noisy when you kick the gain up a notch or two.
Sound and Genre
Different instruments are suited to different genres, so you should ask yourself if the prospective guitar is capable of making the sounds you want to make. Don’t hesitate to ask an employee in the music store to guide you on this front. Tell them what you’re into, and they’ll guide you to a suitable instrument.
The sound of a guitar is mostly determined by the pickups, and possibly a little by the tonewoods, but don’t worry if that sounds a bit too advanced for you. Just listen closely to the voice of the guitar as you strum a chord or pluck a few notes. If it sounds good, then it’s good!
To Whammy or Not to Whammy? That Is the Question
Guitars with whammy bars can be fun, as you can wiggle your notes about like a warped vinyl record, but they also fall out of tune easier than hardtail or string through guitars.
Floyd Rose Bridges…Yay or Nay?
It’s a big NAY on the Floyd Rose question. These bridges may unlock the door to insane Dimebag-esque squeals and dive bombs, but they’re ridiculously difficult to keep in tune and even harder to restring.
3. Learning the Basics
I know you’re just itching to learn some of your favorite songs, but it’s best if you start with some basics. The notes of the open strings should be your first port of call.
By open strings, I mean the note a string makes when you’re not touching the frets. From the thickest string down, the open notes in standard tuning are as follows…
If I were you, I’d turn that into some sort of acrostic format, such as…
Next on the agenda is some simple open chords. Focus on E, A, G, C, and D first. Once you’re confident with those shapes, try F and B. F and B take a lot more finger strength and dexterity to get right, so don’t worry if you can’t quite fret the notes clearly at first.
As you practice, your muscle memory and finger strength will improve, and what seemed impossible will become second nature.
Next up is single-position scales. Scales are a collection of individual notes that fit into a key and have a certain mood. A very basic example of this would be the major and minor scales — major scales sound happy, while minor scales sound sad.
My advice would be to learn the minor pentatonic scale first, as it’s easy to play and sounds awesome! Follow that up with the minor blues scale and the major scale, and you’re well on your way to ripping your very first solo.
Once you have these nifty basics under your belt, it’s time to learn the notes up the neck so that you can move your scales and chords around without getting lost and playing a bunch of “jazz notes”.
At this stage, you’re more than ready to invite some friends over for a jam, as you’ll have an understanding of what each other is doing just by listening to and watching one another play.
4. Understanding Amplifiers and Tone
You should think of your amplifier not just as a speaker, but as a filter through which all your notes travel. This filter can be fine-tuned to color your tone a certain way. As such, it’s important to learn how to use your amplifier, rather than simply turning everything to 10 and rocking out.
Most starter amplifiers have two main channels: the clean channel and the distorted channel. The clean channel gives a pure, unaffected tone, similar to that of an acoustic, while the distorted channel adds some grit to the signal, giving you that true rock and roll sound.
Depending on the amp, the distorted channel may be labeled as overdrive, dirt, or, as was the case with my first amp…”Beef” (it was not a good amp).
You’ll be able to control the timbre of these channels with the amp’s onboard EQ parameters that usually include Treble, Mids, Bass, Presence, and Gain. Some more advanced amps may even have dedicated EQs for both clean and distorted channels.
To EQ your amp, start by turning your guitar volume and tone knobs to 10. Then set your amp to the clean channel and all the EQs to 12 O’clock. Now you can tweak your tone with small adjustments.
Treble controls how bright and spanky your guitar sounds. If you’re after a sharp twang to slap out some funk lines, crank it to about 2 or 3 O’clock.
The Mids control has the most obvious effect on your tone. Turn it down to thicken out your sound, or up to thin your sound out.
Turning it down is a good call for stripped-down performances or playing in the house, but you’ll need to crank the mids if you want to cut through the sound of a full band.
Bass controls the low-end frequencies. If you want a big, warm sound, crank them up a few notches, but be wary, too much bass will muddy your tone and create an unpleasant booming resonance.
You can think of Presence as a “super treble”. If you really need to boost your twang factor, crank the Presence.
Gain is all about intensifying your distorted sound, which you should only do after refining your clean tone.
Using this information, you can experiment with endless different textures and timbres, something that’s going to help keep your playing sounding and feeling fresh.
5.Hire a Guitar Tutor
I know you can learn a lot about playing guitar from the internet these days (more on that in just a moment), but there’s really no substitute for a professional guitar teacher.
They’ll provide a structured approach to your musical studies, so you don’t get overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the material out there. They’ll help explain complicated musical ideas in a digestible and memorable manner, and even give you simple techniques that will instantly change the way you play for the better.
I still remember when my teacher said that to do the big, stretchy “Message in a Bottle” style chords, all you have to do is drop the wrist from behind the fretboard to beneath it. It was a simple move, but such an “aha” moment.
Furthermore, a guitar teacher shouldn’t only be thought of as an educational resource. You can also think of them as your first industry connection.
The chances are that the guitar teachers in your area have all the hookups for promoters, bands looking for musicians, and any other kind of musical event. They may well introduce you to the people with whom you’ll form your first band!
6.Go Online and Learn, Learn, Learn
The internet is a veritable bottomless pit of awesome guitar tutelage. No matter what you want to learn, it’s only a click away. YouTube is a particularly helpful sphere of the online world. There are tons of amazing musicians uploading free lessons all year round.
My one issue with the internet (and it’s a pretty big issue), is that it’s an absolute mess. It’s fine if you know what you’re looking for, but if you’re not sure what it is that will take your skills to the next level, you just end up… lost.
This is why booking lessons with a professional tutor is such a good idea. They sharpen your focus, so you can use resources like the internet in an effective and efficient manner.
So, in summary, the internet is your friend, but it’s also vast, overwhelming, and impersonal. It doesn’t know what you need, so you have to decide that for yourself before going online.
7.Listening to and Watching Your Guitar Heroes
This one’s a no-brainer. There is no better source of inspiration than your guitar heroes. These players are the masters of the art, so listen to and watch them play every time you get a spare moment.
You’ll pick up loads of handy techniques and ideas for diversifying your playing and sculpting your sound. For instance, you might be wondering how Hendrix can pull off all those insanely articulate hammer-ons, pull-offs, and trills while seemingly in the middle of a barre chord.
Well, watch a video of him playing, and you’ll notice that he’s not barring the chord at all, but hooking his thumb over the top of the neck to fret the top note, leaving his fingers in the optimal position for some flashy noodling.
Listening to your heroes has the potential to completely modify your approach to playing.
When I started out, I was distortion obsessed, but through listening to artists such as Julian Lage, I realized that when you drop the gain, your guitar becomes far more responsive to your touch, enabling a more dynamic, 3-Dimensional playing style.
You can learn a lot from your guitar heroes about gear, too. Say, for example, you really like the way Tom Morello’s playing sounds. Check out what he uses, and you’ll learn how to craft specific sounds.
I would also suggest that you watch plenty of videos of your guitar heroes off-stage, sans guitar. Hearing them talk about their experiences as a player can be just as, if not more, helpful than watching them play.
8.Practice, Practice, Practice
I know it’s something of a cliché, but practice is the only way to refine your skills and become a better guitar player. Unfortunately, outside of heeding the advice in this article, there is no magic shortcut you can take to improve faster than anyone else.
You have to put in the time and elbow grease.
Getting into the habit of playing every day is essential, as smaller, more frequent sessions have proven to be more effective than long practice sessions every other day.
Try to practice for at least an hour every day, but don’t worry if you can’t fit it into your schedule, as even a solid 15 minutes can help you improve.
The trick is to keep practice interesting, so give yourself objectives and structure the time wisely. Having a goal gives you incentive and something to celebrate when you reach it.
Without goals, you may not notice improvement, and if you don’t notice it, it can feel like you’re not improving at all.
I saw this in many of my musical friends. They thought they had plateaued, became discouraged, and gave up playing for good. But the truth is, they just needed to be a little more focused and give their practice some direction.
Before we move on, I’d also like to say that you shouldn’t feel too pressured to practice all the livelong day. Time away from your instrument is important, especially when you first start playing.
The calluses on your fingertips are yet to develop, so listen to your body.
If it starts to really hurt, take some time off. You should try to get plenty of sleep too, as REM sleep is essential to the consolidation of motor skill procedural memories, meaning that if we don’t sleep, the skills we develop during a practice session may never truly sink in.
9.Invest in a Metronome
A metronome is a little device that can be set up to click at a certain BPM. By playing along with a metronome, our sense of rhythm improves, so when the time comes to play with other musicians, we’re locked into the beat, rather than doing our own thing.
A metronome is also a godsend when it comes to speeding up your playing. Say, for instance, that you’re working on a scale. You can set the metronome to a gentle pace, then, as you get better, speed it up. Before you know it, you’re playing at blistering speeds.
If you’re more of a tactile person, a mechanical metronome doesn’t cost all that much at all, but if you’re more technologically minded, simply download a free metronome app to your phone and get practicing.
10.Jam with Your Musician Friends
Playing with another musician for the first time can be daunting, but you’ll be surprised how things mellow after only a few minutes of jamming with one another. There’ll be an exciting chemistry, and you’ll feel that natural musician’s high when everything just seems to fall into place.
I can guarantee that you’ll be learning just as much from your cohort as you will from your teacher. Everything they learn becomes available to you, and everything you learn is made available to them.
This mutually beneficial scenario doesn’t need to be with another guitarist. In fact, it has scope to be even more rewarding if they play the drums, piano, violin, or, well… whatever really.
One thing you’ll start to notice is that music is always better within a context. Other musicians can provide that context. For example….give me a nice big bend on the 10th fret of the B string. Sounds unremarkable right?
But get a friend to lay down a nice juicy A minor chord and suddenly, that unremarkable sound is transformed into the start of a soul-shaking blues solo.
Context is so important to understanding music, that even when friends are unavailable for a jam session, I’d recommend using a drone or loop pedal to establish your own contexts.
11.Take the Music Theory Bull by the Horns
I know music theory can seem like an insurmountable mountain, but here’s the thing… pretty much everything you already know about playing guitar pertains to music theory. All you have to do now is continue learning but in a deliberate manner.
There are a lot of “feel” players out there that don’t know a lick of theory, but this huge gap in their knowledge can be a real limitation: Jamming with others is less fluid, composing takes longer, and you can’t transfer your abilities to other instruments anywhere near as easily.
Remember when I said that music is a language? Well, music theory is like the Rosetta Stone of this language, helping you to become fluent, after which, your musical endeavors will be more numerous and significantly more rewarding.
11 Tips to Playing the Guitar for Beginners — Summing Up
There you have it, my 6-string strumming comrade. I’ve unloaded a lot of information on you here today, but even if you only really take in a couple of these tips, you’ll notice a distinct improvement in your playing.
You’ve got the passion, which is the only prerequisite to greatness. Now all you have to do is use what you’ve learned here today to temper and tame it, thereby forging yourself a logical path to proficiency. If you can do this, you’ll be a formidable player in no time!