Do you picture yourself as a rock star on stage shredding guitar solos like the greats, or feel left out around a campfire?
Perhaps you play another instrument and want to try your hand at something new or you are just inspired by some of your favorite music and are thinking ‘I can do that!’.
If so, you’ve come to the right place.
The guitar is the first choice for many budding musicians for a variety of reasons. It’s cool, it’s portable and it’s fairly easy to get started with. But the prospect of committing to learn to play the guitar is scary to a lot of people.
Learning any instrument for the first time can seem daunting, but fear not, this guide is specifically for you. We want to make your journey into the world of the guitar as easy, fun and un-intimidating as possible.
The truth is, there is a lot you have to learn, and it will take determination to get any good, but it is well worth it. You will be left with the ability to coax sweet music out of thin air, impressing your friends, family and most importantly, yourself.
We know it’s challenging, so we’ll start at the beginning, and break it down to the basics to make your journey fun and as easy as possible.
Like mastering anything else in life, you have to start at the beginning and learn the fundamentals before you can move forward. When it comes to playing the guitar, a solid foundation will set you on the right path to mastery.
The Parts of Any Guitar
Understanding the basic components that make up any guitar will help both your playing and benefit you when it comes to buying a guitar. Before moving on to the types of guitars available, it is recommended to know what parts make a guitar the instrument it is.
This is the biggest part of the guitar. It’s usually shaped somewhat like a snowman. On an electro-acoustic/acoustic guitar, this section is hollow, while it is usually solid on an electric guitar.
Sometimes this is called the neck, it has fret lines which make different sounds when pressed at different places. The longer a fretboard, the wider range a guitar has. This means it can reach a higher pitch than a shorter fretboard.
Bridge and Nut
These are the parts of the guitar which keep the strings tight and off the fretboard. The nut is at the top of the guitar on the headstock and the bridge is connected to the guitar body, and it’s where the strings are tied or connected to.
This one is self-explanatory.
These are the twistable pegs on the headstock that are used to tighten and loosen strings, which in turn, tunes the guitar.
There’s the body and then there’s the head, this is the top of the guitar, usually where the brand logo is.
Sound Hole or Pickup
On electro-acoustic and acoustic guitars, this is the hole in the body of the guitar which turns the strings vibrations into booming, beautiful sounds.
Electric guitars don’t have a sound hole and therefore make hardly any sound when not connected to an amplifier. In its place are pickups, these electronically turn the strings vibrations into sound, and blast them out through speakers.
The three main types of guitars
Now that you have an idea of the basic anatomy of any guitar, it’s a prime time to introduce you to the three main types of guitars. Each has their specific pros and cons and which one you will pick is up to you. But it is advisable to know the differences and to know what makes each type special.
If you learn to play one, the skills are transferable to another, but most guitarists have a preference and one kind which they are best and most comfortable playing.
This is a popular option for beginner guitarists. It has a thinner fretboard which makes gripping the guitar easier as well as a longer fretboard, which gives you a wider range when it comes to playing the lead.
On electro-acoustic guitars, the strings are metal, so it may take a bit of time to get used to, but once your fingers callous a little bit, the sound it produces is worth the initial discomfort.
These are highly recommended if you want to be a rhythm guitarist, who enjoys strumming and keeping the melody.
Acoustic guitars usually have a larger body and a thicker fretboard. This may make it somewhat difficult for stubbier hands to handle, but since its strings are nylon, they are softer on the fingertips.
This kind of guitar is recommended if you want to play advanced, classical music, either written originally for the guitar or older lute music.
This is where everything started and you’ll find that if you learn how to play classical guitar first, you’ll have a greater understanding of how music is written, you’ll practice good technique exercises and scales and have a good musical foundation.
It’s a little bit like dancing, many dancers start with ballet because a lot of technique and steps comes from it.
Acoustic guitars are perfect if you don’t want to plug in your guitar, but just want an instrument that works well by itself.
This is the choice you should opt for if you see yourself playing heavy metal or shredding some wild solos. The fretboard on these is thin and long, allowing the greatest range.
Another benefit is that if you live in an apartment or don’t want to annoy people with your practicing you can always lower the volume, or simply plug in headphones while you practice.
One con is that they make hardly a sound when unplugged so jamming with friends while camping (etc.) is out of the question, unless you have a portable amp.
It must be noted here, and many professional guitarists agree, that it is usually better to learn the fundamentals of classical guitar and then move those techniques over to electric guitar.
Which one should you pick?
When it comes to buying a guitar, it is best to go to a music store and try it out in person to make sure you like the look and feel, but most importantly, the sound.
Music store employees, in general, are very kind, super knowledgeable and will be able to steer you in the right direction.
Music – Starting at the Beginning
This is where it starts to get interesting. I highly encourage you to play around on your guitar, even if you have no idea what you are doing, just to get a feeling of the body and the sounds it can make.
But before you can actually start making music, you need to know some fundamentals. I wouldn’t advise you to exhaust yourself on this but try to get quite a solid grasp. You can always double back at a later stage, when you feel like your music needs it, to fill in the knowledge gaps.
Once you have this basic knowledge, we will move on to actually playing the guitar, teaching you about chords and what notes to play to create something beautiful.
A Drop of Very Basic Music Theory
So, this will probably be the most technical section and you may feel you want to skip it over. But try to concentrate for a few minutes, it is important to know this on a basic level and knowing it will make you a way better guitar player.
While it is important to take time to learn on a deeper level, in this guide we will focus on the main factors; rhythm, notes and basic elements of music.
The Basic Elements of Music
Music is made up of three basic elements. They are harmony, melody, and rhythm, and so often these three get confused for one another.
Rhythm is not the same as the tempo, which is if the song is fast or slow, but the length of the individual notes creating something different than the beat.
The beat is the same thing as what you would clap along with during a concert.
The rhythm is different from the beat.
In guitar, rhythm also refers to the underlying sounds of guitar, the strumming and the fingerpicking, anything that is not lead)
Next comes melody, this is the distinguishable tune in any piece of music. Think of the song ‘Happy Birthday’, you know it’s ‘Happy Birthday’ just by the tune, that’s melody, the recognizable tune of the song.
Lastly comes harmony, this is a little bit more advanced. You know when you hear a song and there are two sounds happening at the same time which make it just so pleasing? That’s harmony when sounds overlap each other to make something special.
In Western music, we have twelve notes at our disposal.
Each note has a letter associated with it. ABCDEFG. But wait that’s only 7 letters? Where do the other notes fit in? They fit in between the letters and looks like this
Either: A – Bb – B – C – Db – D – Eb – E – F – Gb – G – Ab – A
Or: A – A# – B – C – C# – D – D# – E – F – F# – G – G# – A
When it’s from one letter to another is called a full step and from one letter to the next fret on a fretboard is called a half step. You can also call it a tone and a semi-tone.
So, what are those little b’s or signs which look like hashtags? Those mean flat (b) or sharp (#). Those are the notes the fall in between the letter notes. A flat is a semi-tone beneath any note and a sharp is the semi-tone above it.
F sharp is the same as G flat, it can be written either way, just know that when it says F# you have to play the note that comes after F, and when it says G flat to play the note that comes before G. They are the same thing.
But you may wonder, if they are the same thing, why are they called different things? It all has to do with the context. The key signature, for example, will give you a hint. If you, for example, have a song in D major, you’ll most likely not encounter any G-flats, but they will be spelled as F-sharps because of the context.
We don’t have to go into detail about that now, but it’s good to know that all notes can be called by different names and there is always a reason for it, for now, that’s all you need to know.
Timing and Tempo
This is how you make sure you play the right note at the right time. You never want to be too quick or too slow, it takes work to make sure your timing is tight.
How do musicians know how to play together? It all boils down to timing. It may come more naturally to some than others, but even the most professional musician, at one stage, has had to work on his timing.
Tempo is the speed of the music. And this is usually timed in beats per minute or BPM. If the timing is 60bpm, this means you play one beat every second in the minute. If it is 120 BPM, you play one beat every half a second.
If you would like to work on your timing you can play along to your favorite songs or use a metronome. A metronome is a little tool that keeps perfect time. It does so with intermittent sounds to keep you playing at the right pace.
Moving on – Time to Rock
Now that you have a basic understanding of the fundamentals of music theory, it’s time to move on to actually playing the guitar.
The first thing you have to do is pick up your guitar and get into the correct posture. This means sitting straight and not slouching.
For the electro-acoustic and electric guitar, that means sitting up straight with your right foot slightly forward, balancing the guitar on the right leg (opposite if you are a lefty).
When you play the classical guitar, you will rest the guitar on your left leg instead, and you will need a footstool that raises your foot up a bit. Sit with good posture and avoid twisting your back to either side.
You can rest the guitar on your right leg as well, but it will make it much harder to play complicated music, although it does look cooler, which is really the only benefit it gives.
Tuning Your Guitar
When you pluck a guitar string without pressing any notes down on a fretboard, this is called an open string. When you tune, you tune this open string.
The most common guitar tuning is E-A-D-G-B-E. This means that the top string of a guitar is an E, and the second string down is an A, and so on.
An electronic tuner
The easiest and most practical way to do this is to buy an electronic tuner. They are fairly cheap and are highly effective. To use them, all you have to do is pluck a string and the tuner will tell you if you need to tune it to a higher or lower pitch.
Without a tuner
If you don’t have one of these, you can either tune your guitar by matching the sounds to a piano, another guitar or even to your own guitar.
To match it to your own guitar, all you have to do is play the fifth note on each string and then match the open string below it to that. This works for all the strings except for the B string which you need to tune to the 4th fret of the G string.
The video below explains how – Mind his wild hair and beard, he does do a fantastic job of explaining it.
A Cool Benefit of Knowing How to Tune
Since you now know what notes all the strings are, you will be able to figure out any note on the fretboard.
Well, now you know all the open notes (E-A-D-G-B-E remember?), and you know that each fret on a guitar is a semitone. All you have do is simply count up the notes.
So, if I ask you, what note is the 8th fret on the top E string, you should be able to count it out and get to C. It goes E, then half a note later F, then F#, G, G#, A, A#, B and finally C.
One more example, what is the 5th note on the B string? E, try counting it out in your head.
If you can grasp this, it will really help you picture the note of the entire fretboard, your music with come more alive. Eventually, with practice, you will know this all off by heart and you won’t have to work it out each time.
Rhythm and Lead
The two main parts of all guitar music are rhythm and lead. These are terms which are thrown around by guitarists and musicians alike, but what do they really mean?
When saying rhythm in this context, we’re referring to the kind of accompaniment commonly used by guitarists which follows a certain pattern.
In guitar, this usually means a progression of chords which are either strummed or picked to create a stable sound throughout the piece. It supports the rest of the song, allowing for other instruments to do their thing to a constant backing.
This is also the best place to start when learning guitar, and we will take a look at it in depth right after this section. We will learn the basic chords, and how to put them together to make music.
Lead is exactly what the word describes, it takes the lead in any piece of music. The lead can be a solo, or purely playing the melody of the song. The distinguishable part that lets you recognize a piece of music (for a reminder, see above).
Playing lead is a little more advanced, but we will get to it as soon as you have mastered your chords and basic rhythm.
What are Chords?
Chords are three or more notes played together and they form the basis for any song. Playing a few chords in a certain order is called a progression. So how do you know how to play chords, and which chords to play and in what order?
How to Play Chords
As you learned above a chord is made up of three notes on the guitar. Like notes themselves, chords also have a letter name, but this time they have additional variations, such a ‘minor,’ ‘major,’ ‘seventh’ and ‘diminished’ chords.
So, a chord will often look like A or Am with the capitalized A signaling a major chord and the letter followed by a small m meaning minor. These are the two variations on which we will concentrate.
Major chords are the happier of the two, they have a zingier more robust sound. Minor chords are more melancholic and sad, they have a more delicate sound to them. But songs are not played in either one, they use both minor and major chords, to make some stunning music.
The first chord we will look at is Em (E minor). This chord is possibly the most basic chord you can play, and it also appears in many popular songs. The Em only requires you to press down two notes on the fretboard at once, making it the perfect starter chord.
To play this chord, you place your middle finger on the second fret on the A string and your ring finger on the second fret on the D string. Press down firmly with the tips of your fingers and make sure you are not touching the other strings while doing so.
Once you have this set up with your left hand, strum down the strings in the middle of your guitar, using your thumb or a pick.
Once you have got the hang of this chord the next two chords you should aim to practice are the G chord, which is an easy switch from an Em and the D major chord which fits nicely with the other two chords you know.
See the diagram below, it shows the most basic chords you should know on guitar (including Em, G, and D) and the numbers show you which fingers should be placed where.
Your First Songs
Once you have gotten playing the individual chords down pat, it’s time to move on to putting them together to make music. Many of your favorite songs can be played using these few chords in a specific order.
For a fun example of this, check out this hilarious YouTube video which sums it up well.
A simple google search can be performed to find the chords for almost any song you can think of. Just be aware that these have been uploaded by people who have figured them out themselves and are often not accurate.
They are a good starting point to help you to perfect the song, if you have the chords, you may just need to change one or two things to get the song sounding perfect.
Here are ten easy songs to get you started:
- Let it be, the Beatles – C, G, Am, F
- Knocking on Heaven’s door, Bob Dylan – G, D, Am, G, D, C
- Call Me Maybe, Carly Rae Jepson – G, Em, D, C
- Riptide, Vance joy – Am, G, C, C,
- Zombie, The Cranberries – Em, C, G, D
- Demons, Imagine Dragons – C, G, Am, F
- Renegades, X Ambassadors – Am, C, G, F
- Let Her Go, Passenger – F, C, G, Am
- Africa, Toto – Am, F, C, G
- Stay With Me, Sam Smith, Am, F, C, C
These can be learned easily. It simply about remembering when to strum up and when to strum down. Eventually it will come naturally to you, but at first, it requires concentration.
Across the internet and different guitar books, people use different symbols to indicate either strumming upwards and downward. In this guide, we will simply use the letters U and D.
For all the patterns below, we will use a 4/4-time signature. Meaning you should strum on every beat, of a four-beat count. So, in your head, count 1-2-3-4, -1-2-3-4 and so on and on each one of those counts, play either up or down.
In order of popularity.
At the same time feel free to experiment, try to get new and interesting sound out of your guitar. But make sure to keep within the time frame of the song you are playing.
Another strumming option is to mute the string as you strum, to get that strumming sound without the booming sound a string. This is done by placing your palm on the end of the sting, close to the bridge while you strum.
Now that you know how to get basic music out of your guitar you are able to move on to playing lead and solos. While solos may sound and look way more advanced than playing rhythm, this could not be further from the truth.
Yes, solos require a deeper understanding of keys and scales as well as quite advanced dexterity but so does playing chords properly.
There is a lot you can do with chords, so once you feel like you have a basic grasp of guitar completely, you should move onto barre chords and learn how to build other, different chords.
They say a rock guitarist plays four chords in front of a thousand people while a jazz guitarist plays a thousand chord in front of four people. This line just shows how much there is to be done on the chord front.
But that’s not what you’re here for, we just wanted to impress upon you the importance of chords. Now on to lead.
The first thing you need to know to play lead is keys and scales.
Keys and Scales
Keys and scales are important topics in the general world of music and not just guitar music. It really just takes a lot of practicing to get these perfect but once you have it you will be quite a formidable musician.
Understanding keys and scales can be a bit confusing, they are quite abstract, and they are present in all music. The best way to comprehend them is with an analogy.
Imagine one of those toy boxes which kids have which they can fit in certain shapes into the holes on the side of the box. That’s kind of like keys and scales. The key is the box and the notes (scales) are the shapes.
So, when we know the key of a song, we know which notes will fit with it while any other note just won’t fit.
Like chords and notes, keys are also named after a letter.
To add on, all minor keys have a corresponding major key. For example, Am and C are corresponding. That means that the same notes will sound good over either key.
Once you know the key of a song, you have to learn scales, which are all the notes that sound good within a specific key. Once you know that, you’ll be able to play the lead in any song, solo and improvise as much as you like.
Think of your favorite classic rock song and there’s sure to be some tasty solo, usually after one or two verses of the song. They may sound impossible, but once you know scales you will understand how the masters are able to do it.
These are preorganized ‘charts’ which tell you exactly what notes sound good in different keys. Once you have these memorized you will be able to solo like a Rockstar and impress everyone with your improvisational skills.
The best way to learn to do this is to follow a scale diagram and replay it until you know it by heart. Once you are at that point, try playing it in different orders to make new and exciting riffs.
Sheet Music and Tabs
Beginner guitarists always ask the question – Do you need to know how to read music?
The short answer is kind of. While you don’t have to know how to read classic musical notation, you do have to know how to read some variant of it. Luckily for guitarists, there’s an easy system called ‘Tabs.’
These are a kind of music notes specifically for guitar. They are a lot easier to learn, and there is a multitude of websites dedicated to tabbing all the most popular pop songs and guitar pieces.
It’s fairly hard to learn guitar tabs by reading about them, so for this section, I have added a video. This video gives comprehensive instructions on reading tabs, I suggest watching it and then trying your hand at a few examples on https://www.ultimate-guitar.com.
Your Small Dictionary of Guitar and Music Terms
Now that you have that down, you are well on your way to be fully versed in the language of guitar. Here are a few terms you may have missed. These are good to know and will help you converse with any other musician or guitarist.
- Strumming -This is when you brush your fingers or your pick across the guitar strings
- Fingerpicking – this is a technique which forgoes the use of a pick and replaces it with your fingers. It allows for more calm and precise note picking as well as for playing lead and rhythm at the same time. Here is a beautiful example of what fingerpicking is – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8tFN902wH0g
- Jamming – this is a term used by all musician to describe playing music with each other, it is a highly effective way to practice and get better at guitar
- Riff – a small lead piece, or a little chunk of a solo
- Lead – solos, improv and playing the melody
- Key – the musical backdrop of the song, what notes we can use
- Barre Chords- This is when you use your index finger to press down all the strings at once and use the rest of your fingers to form a chord. Barre chords can be moved everywhere
Lessons or Self-taught?
This is a big dilemma, lessons are expensive and take up time. Also, finding a good teacher can be hard, and might have time slots that fit your schedule. On the other hand, nothing beats a mentor to trace a path for you to follow.
Nothing really beats the guidance or a truly experienced teacher. They’ll be able to watch your progress and let you know what to try and tackle next. A good teacher will provide you with tabs or sheet music, and make sure you don’t develop any lazy habits and help you maintain correct form playing them correctly, with correct form.
If you want to become a skilled guitarist, you need lessons, it’s just the way it is. But if you’re mostly playing for your own enjoyment, there are other ways to learn a little bit.
There are so many options in this category, reading has a powerful effect on memory, and it can be useful to go through things at your own pace.
YouTube or Online Videos
This platform is more than entertainment, this is a highly recommended option. You can pause and skip to get exactly what you are looking for.
Building Your Skills and Staying Motivated
Sometimes, especially when you’re new to playing the guitar, you may feel like you’ve hit a rut and you don’t have the inspiration to move on. If you get to that point, and you will, come back and reread this section to keep you going.
Every guitarist sometimes feels like they’ve hit the ceiling, and are unsure if they can get better, or even how to get better.
The best way to get these thoughts out of your head is by challenging yourself to learn new songs that you find hard or to simply try to play in a new style to what you regularly play.
When that doesn’t seem to do the trick, we have a whole list of proven methods for getting out of a musical or creative rut.
Play with other people
A surefire way to build your confidence and skills is by playing music with your musician friends. Jamming with them will motivate you by being exposed to the techniques and musical styles.
And musicians love jamming! That’s what we are in it for, to bring beautiful and powerful music into the world.
Backing Tracks on YouTube
If you can’t find any friends to jam with, YouTube is another wonderful option. There are a plethora of backing tracks available for you to play lead and solos over.
Backing tracks are music in certain keys which give you the ease of playing the lead. You can find instrumental versions of your favorite songs or simply find tracks in a specific style that you want to practice.
Try to Figure Out Stuff on Your Own
This one is so important. Science shows that the act of repeating or figuring things out builds skills and abilities.
This is what we suggest. First, gather a list of your favorite songs and listen to them closely, try to pick up on little riffs and small seemingly unnoticeable sounds that make a difference to the overall song.
Next, piece a song into chunks, and try to match the songs coming out of your guitar to the music coming out of your speaker. And repeat, until you are able to play the song completely.
After that, find some friends, or an open mike, and show off.
Everyone knows that practice makes perfect, but really perfect practice makes perfect. The only way to get there is to keep going.
One way to do this is to set aside time every day that you will do nothing but play the guitar. In that time split it into two sections. One that you dedicate to reviewing songs or methods you have learned and to learning new techniques or songs.
The second part of your daily time should be spent jamming freely. Improvise, let your fingers do what they do, and the music flow through you.
This way, you will be practicing, but at the same time, you allow your creative, musical side to shine.
A second method is at the beginning of which, lay out a certain amount of material you wish to get through and make sure you get through it. Have rewards for yourself and keep at it.
With any method, remember to spend time every so often going over what you’ve learned to make sure that you don’t forget anything. Even professional guitarists have to practice their scales from time to time.
It’s hard! Guitarists talk about playing until their fingers bleed. We wouldn’t take it that far, but we do advise following the idea behind it. Work hard, as hard as you can, until it hurts.
This is a surefire way to make sure you get better. Any person can get seriously good by simply practicing.
Inspiring songs, and guitarist to keep you on track
The last tip we have is to listen to a lot of music, and a lot of different kinds of music. This way you’ll be exposed to the whole world of guitar music, which is endless.
But don’t only listen to guitar-based music. You can learn a lot from other types of music too. While you may be inclined to listen mostly to rock and roll, know that there is a lot to be learned from pop music as well as jazz, world, and classical.
Off You Go
Now that you know the basics, you are ready to fly. So, don’t be shy. Play your guitar and play it often. Play it alone and play it with and in front of people.
Always remember that it takes a lot of practice to be excellent, and if you’re willing to put in the hard work you will surely get there.