Learn how to play guitar - beginners
How to play the guitar step by step:
Introduction: Parts of the guitar
One of the hardest parts of any endeavour is taking the first step and the fact that we can’t make this step twice indicates its importance. Before browsing online to find information, most probably you have already written down all the activities you’ve ever wanted to explore on a piece of paper, had your list of dreams and after a period of consideration, you picked guitar playing. Maybe you visualised the end result and already know what do you want to accomplish with this new hobby.
As the old wise saying goes: the seed always contains the fruit. Although the success of your guitar journey will not entirely be based on this moment, the initial motivation and guidance are still crucial.
Guitar parts diagram
There are at least 20 parts of a guitar for a beginner to learn and the terminology could seem to be a bit confusing at first. Let’s keep it simple and be focused on the most important parts. Once you know a few names for things, and what they do, it’s all surprisingly simple.
There are 2 basic functions:
All parts of the guitar are related to one of these functions. The guitar neck represents the playing function: the tuning keys on the head help you to wind the string, making it tighter or looser. We press the strings on the fretboard to create notes and chords. Along the fretboard, we have those metal frets and can play notes or create chords by pressing the string(s) down just behind the fret.
The guitar’s body’s duty is amplifying what we play: the strings are attached to the bridge and the whole instrument starts resonating when we hit a chord. The hollow body of an acoustic guitar allows sound produced from the strings to be amplified.
The electric guitars’ pickups are mostly magnetic parts and are responsible for picking up the string/body vibrations and translating this into sound through your amplifier. By using the pickup selector switch you can choose which pickup(s) to activate.
1- How to hold: Guitar Body Positions
“A guitar is a very personal extension of the person playing it.” – Eddie Van Halen
We should be fully aware of our posture while keeping our back as straight as possible and the guitar perpendicular to the ground. It’s fast-train to back pain, poor technique and unexpressive playing if we are tilting the guitar back while practising so we can see the fretboard. Check your body posture regularly and ask yourself: is my guitar really a natural extension of my body? Are we happily united together? Is it really a happy journey right now? Keep your learning process effective, but also healthy and comfortable .
Rest the guitar on your leg and stabilize the guitar just a very little bit with your picking hand’s arm, hold it in tight to your body with the elbow. Your fretting hand shouldn’t play any role in balancing the instrument. That hand’s duty is pressing down the strings, only! Make sure your guitar is properly stabilised without using your fretting hand. You should be able to move and reposition your playing hand quickly!
Have a guitar strap and adjust it: slide the buckle up or down to make it longer or shorter. If the guitar is in a too low position you’ll struggle to use your picking hand effectively. If the guitar is too high, holding your arms up that high will not be too comfortable in the long term.
The length of the guitar strap will become part of our self-expression and playing style at the moment when we stand up. Some players keep the guitar in a higher position to allow easy access to the fretboard, while others release the guitar down as low as possible because it looks awesome and feels good.
Playing in a standing position requires more awareness from the player. The way how we move our body is also part of the process: moving and dancing together with the music could help to release the stress and reduce the mental interferences while playing, but lack of self-discipline could also ruin our skillful playing potential.
Learning how to use our body from bottom to top (aka body-mind-spirit balance) is a form of art in itself: how to eliminate unnecessary tension, using only the specific muscles, keeping good body posture that serves the purpose of efficient and accurate playing and health of tendons/nerves in your fingers and arms. How to be rooted confidently to the ground and also connected to the audience. Playing music is a form of self-expression which demands a degree of mastery over our full body.
2- How to tune: Guitar App
‘Eat A Dead Grasshopper Before Everything’ is one of the funny sayings we can use to memorize the string names of standard tuning. The 1st string is the high E and the low string is the 6th string. ‘Elephants And Donkeys Grow Big Ears’ could be an even more visual memo.
A fast and accurate electronic guitar tuner could be the best option to accomplish this task or optionally, we could also use a free or paid smartphone app. Basically, all tuners are broadly the same: we pluck a note and the tuner shows you the note we played. A needle or light will show you how far away from the note you are, the tuning is done when the needle or light is in the middle: you can see how it goes in the ‘Why didn’t Frusciante tune his guitar?!’ video, at 1:00.
Once we find it challenging to stay in tune while playing or our strings start to sound dead, we have to replace them with new strings. When you are changing strings, be sure to stretch your new strings by gently pulling upon them. Take care of your guitar: don’t expose it to big fluctuations in temperature or humidity. When you are done playing, wipe the strings down with a cloth and then store your guitar in its case or bag.
Alternate tuning on the guitar
“When you tune your guitar in a different way, it lends itself to a new way of looking at your songwriting.” – Sheryl Crow
Although, the most popular tuning by far is ‘standard tuning’, there are several different guitar tuning profiles. It’s important to learn the standard forms first and then we can slowly deviate to special solutions that suit our artistic vision more.
A good example is Iris, the beautiful song written by Johnny Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls.
“I’d broken two strings on my guitar, so I’d started winding all the strings up and down in these weird configurations, and that song just came out. It was like a gift – like: ‘Oh, thanks God!’”
If you want to start exploring the reality of alternative tunings, then you will find Jim Goodin’s Encyclopedia to be a good starting point.
3- Guitar technique: Left Hand/Fretting Hand
We already mentioned that our fretting hand isn’t holding up the guitar while playing. The most important task of the fretting hand is feeding the picking hand. The synchronicity of our 2 hands and the process of ‘feeding’ is crucial. The notes first should be fretted on the fingerboard and then ‘fed’ to the right hand: our technique will improve quickly if we are aware of what is happening. If our fretting hand feeds the playing hand poorly (especially at high speed) the result won’t be fluid.
Relaxed hands will enable our music to flow easily (fluid playing on an extreme level, check the video), our coordination will be improved and we could increase our speed more easily. Correct and flexible thumb placement (moving and adapting to the fingers’ position) supports the greatest ease of motion and comfort in the left hand and also allows for maximum reach across the fretboard.
The well-positioned fingers are naturally curved in the middle of their range of motion. The exact part of the fingertip that should contact the fingerboard may be slightly different for each finger, it is that not all of the fingers need to contact the string on the centre of the fingertip. The exact position will depend on the size and build of your hand. Keep your wrist as straight as possible. A straight wrist allows maximum movement of the fingers.
4- Guitar technique: Right hand/Playing Hand
We can stabilize the guitar with our picking hand’s arm a bit while keeping our shoulder and forearm relaxed.
Using a plectrum is probably the most common right-hand technique favoured by many guitarists. Techniques such as alternate picking, sweep picking, economy picking are hard to achieve with other right-hand techniques.
First, we should find the pick that suits the best to our playing style and sound. Experiment with different plectrums, each one produces a different sound, so see which one you like the most. Relatively thicker plectrums produce sound with a wider dynamic range.
The actual movement of your picking hand should come from your wrist, so keep it in a relaxed state always. The most effective and economical way of using the plectrum in a way when we are drawing or writing is by using our thumb and forefinger in a ‘writing’ motion. Try drawing something with your plectrum and you will feel the correct wrist movement and plectrum placement between your fingers. The only difference is that our right hand should be anchored to the guitar in some way and we have to find the proper angle and depth for the pick while touching the strings.
There are advantages of abandoning the pick as a guitarist. There’s a special connectedness about playing with your fingers – it feels like you have more control and it also produces a purer-sounding note. Finger pickers like Mark Knopfler, Jeff Beck or Wes Montgomery are able to create a vast range of tones with a pure fingerstyle approach and even well-known shredders as Richie Kotzen decided to stick with it.
It’s a more natural way of picking if we learn how to use our fingers, first of all, our thumb. Using the thumb produces a warm sound that can’t be achieved with a plectrum: anchor your palm on the guitar and hit the strings with the flesh part of your thumb.
Similarly to plectrum playing, we could play up and down strokes, while we can also play faster lines by legato. Even if we prefer using the pick using the thumb could be a tool to provide a different texture and effect.
Fingerpicking was always the default method for classical guitar players but the approach became very popular in solo jazz guitar too. A basic starting position and simple, efficient way to begin is placing our index, middle, and ring fingers lightly on the treble strings respectively, while the thumb can rest comfortably on any of the top three bass strings. We don’t have to move much: light pressure with the fingers is all we need. Pluck individually with the fingers to play melodies or multiple notes simultaneously to play chords.
Players attached to their pick might like a combination of pick and fingers to get the best of both worlds. This playing style is normally associate with country or jazz-rock, common amongst ‘chicken picking’ guitarists such as Greg Koch or fusionist like Greg Howe. Hybrid picking is simply combing the fingerstyle and plectrum approach, usually by holding the pick with your first finger and thumb and using your other fingers independently.
5- Learn guitar chords
There’s a guitar chord system that allows us to visualize and connect the guitar fretboard. It’s called the CAGED system and it introduces the guitar fretboard in a logical manner, allowing us to easily recognize chords shapes and transpose the open chord shapes quickly according to our needs by using the barre technique.
By using the barre technique, we are basically creating a new, temporary nut and using it as a reference point while transposing the basic chords. You can do it by pressing your index finger barred across five or six string at the same fret.
For novice players, holding down all six strings with one finger could be extremely challenging. The chords could sound muted turning down the novice player’s motivation. To avoid frustration, we can share a few ideas.
6- Learn how to read guitar tab
Sight-reading (performing of a piece of song in by reading it off of a page of music sheet) is a less natural process for guitarists than for keyboard players. The stave can tell us which notes to play but not where to play them. The Tablature or Tab system is designed for string players and is an effective tool that helps guitar players to easily learn how to play chords, melodies, and songs by visualising strings, fret positions and also passing information about how to use our fingers.
The Animals: The House Of The Rising Sun -Songsterr Tablatura
Songsterr is one of the easiest free tablature websites to use with a clean and simple design. It helps novice players with full demonstation and interactive guidance how to play your favourite songs and their collection of songs is enormous.
The chord progression of The House Of The Rising Sun could be an ideal starting point to have your first CAGED practice while learning how to switch between C, E, D shapes, trasposing E shape to form an F major chord plus you can also learn the A minor chord.
Goo Goo Dolls: Iris - Video demonstration
There are many tutorials available online to teach guitar players how to play this song, only a few are accurate. This video demonstation helps you to practice the tuning process on your instrument, to experience the creativity of alternative tunings and the beauty of simple things. Follow the instructions and you will have a catchy song under your belt effortlessly.
7- General guitar tips for beginners
1. "If your practice is easy, it’s not helping" – Joe Satriani
We tend to choose technical solutions that we can do flawlessly, without really challenging our fingers and in most cases that’s acceptable, especially for beginners. But, if we always choose the easy way to play and it becomes a habit then it will lead to a boring musical experience. Don’t let the technique decide what and how to play or determine your sound. We should hear the sound of our music first in our mind, then we have to find the proper technique to manifest that music with meticulous details.
2. "It’s more than theory" – Guthrie Govan
If we are not able to play what we hear in our head then our music could be based merely on textbook information so it will sound uninspired. It’s crucial to ‘feel’ what we learn as theory, the knowledge (e.g. simple intervals or intricate exotic scales) should be linked to some quality that we would like to express in our music.
3. "Figure out how to make the most important statement with the least amount of notes" - Larry Carlton
Less is more (Yngwie Malmsteen would heavily disagree, but let’s give this approach a chance for now)
Playing just the few right notes with the perfect sound in the perfect way where they fit properly is far more satisfying for the listener or player than throwing everything at it all the time.
4. "Rhythm needs precision" - John Petrucci
The great virtuoso’s advice is important even for players who do not want to follow the hero approach: most professional guitarists make their living playing rhythm guitar and play solos only a few per cent of the time. Music is based on time so our feel is everything! Learn how to practice with a metronome, then analyze your recorded playing while working on your inner feel of rhytm.
5. "Being able to block out everything except the music and essential info is a good skill" - Adam Goldsmith
The moment when we decide to play music we decide to dedicate our time to create something. The more dedicated the approach, the more focused the effort, the better the chance we can succeed.
Keep this equation in mind: (P=p-i)
A good guitar teacher is vitally important at the beginning. Your tutor could help you to set short and long term goals, to identify what you really want, to find the proper learning material and master it.
After laying down rock-solid (or jazz-solid ) fundamentals, we can start our self-study independently. First, we can search for free and accurate online material (e.g. Youtube lessons we shared in this article) then paid lessons or subscriptions (JTC Guitar or LickLibrary.com) could finely hone our skillset.
With proper guidance, motivation and support the progress could be really enjoyable.
It depends on your age and interest.
Classical background is always helpful, so there's a lot of benefit in it if we start playing the classical guitar as young students.
Many great and influential electric guitar player started playing the electric guitar as a teenager so there are no strict rules here.
It's possible to make lots of progress in 2 years, your technical ability and understanding of music could be improved in a way that you probably can't imagine at this moment.
Consistency, daily dedicated practice, focus, willpower, awareness and trust/self-belief are the keywords here.
To illustrate this point, it's not uncommon that after 3 years dedicated practice, with the guidance of a skilled mentor/teacher) a student could play pop/rock songs flawlessly, with great expressive power and ease.
There's no shortcut here: "You’re either willing to put into the work and the time or you’re not. It’s as simple as that. How good you wanna be is up to you” - Tommy Emmanuel
The best guitar players reportedly practiced 3-5 hours on daily basis, but it's not only a question of time, but also dedication and focus.
First you have to identify your goal (playing for friends/your beloved one could be just as perfect goal as performing live in stadiums. Your goal will dictate the needed amount of effort), then go for it. It’s as simple as that.
Rule of thumb, regardless of your goal, 30 mins dedicated practice on daily basis is the bare minimum to make any progress.
If you are able to find your flow in music, then you will smile frequently. We have only relatively limited natural ways to erase smile lines around our mouth and eyes. That's a disadvantage, for sure.
It could be really frustrating if you are not able to find your flow in music. Albert Einstein's 3 rules for work could help to find your flow by unexpected discoveries.
1. Out of clutter, simplicity.
2. From discord, find harmony.
3. In the middle of difficulty, lies opportunity.
On top of a creative crisis, Albert Einstein himself could appear in your room and start advising you with his German accent. It could seem to be a disadvantage.
If you become very popular, it's a real challenge to learn how to say 'NO!' to your real target audience (namely: attractive girls or boys). The lack of proper sleeping cycle is a trap, for sure.
Otherwise there are only advantages
The acoustic guitar mostly requires a simple, purist approach: it's really just you and the guitar body's resonation. Articulation and playing are a bit more difficult on the acoustic guitar (wider neck, thicker strings etc.)
We could easily lose in details if we choose the electric guitar: lots of options gear-wise (amps, pickups, effects etc.) and techniques to play (tapping, legato, harmonics, arpeggios etc.). It's a bit easier to play on the electric guitar, but it's actually just an illusion: making our dreams true is the real task, always. Regardless of the chosen instrument, we will have to overcome some challenges that the process throws at us.
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