You’ve got a guitar – now what?
As a fellow guitarist I’d like to start by warmly welcoming you to the fold. Each of us has been where you are now. You have a guitar and you want to learn to play it. You’ll have seen there’s a myriad of techniques and a mountain of information available on the web. I want to try a keep it simple for you so I’m sharing the method I used to start playing all those years ago. The most important thing to remember about playing the guitar is that results are tied to practice. Having said that, there’s no better feeling when you finally nail a riff, solo or even a tricky chord progression. So, what is the best way to learn guitar?
What you’ll need… other than a guitar
You don’t need much to get started playing the guitar. The only essential piece of equipment is a guitar! However there are a few things that will make it easier.
Ok so this is pretty essential. If your guitar isn’t tuned properly you’ll soon notice. It can be really frustrating if you’re playing one of your favorite songs and your high E string is a little sharp. Tuners come with a range of features, but you can pick up a basic clip on tuner that’ll do the job for under $10. They clip on to the head stock of your guitar making it easy to tune up quickly when needed.
Plectrums (sometime called picks)
You can strum using your fingers, but I’d recommend buying some plectrums. They come in a number of shapes and sizes. You’ll need to experiment to find which one suits you. Some prefer very soft picks that you can easily bend. Others prefer hard picks, which don’t have much flexibility. I find that medium (.88mm) works for me, but that’s a personal preference.
A capo is a gadget that changes the entire key of the guitar. You place it over the frets to effectively move the nut (the bit between the head stock and the first fret). You can use it to change the pitch to suit your singer, but some songs are written as standard with the guitar using a Capo. Usually the capo doesn’t go above the fourth of fifth fret, but there are some exceptions.
Tabulature (or tab for short)
You don’t need to be able to read music to play the guitar. There’s an alternative way to learn to play songs. Tab shows you where you should place your fingers on the fret board in order to play a piece of music. It doesn’t give you subtleties like timings, but that’s where your ear comes in. The image on the right shows the standard music at the top and the equivalent tab underneath.
The tab shows you which fret you should place your fingers on to play the correct note or chord. The lines represent the strings of your guitar. The string towards the bottom (near the B of the word TAB) is the low E. The line at the top is the high E. So for the first part of the song you’d place your finger on fret two of the G string. The 0 on the A string indicates that it should be played “open”, meaning you don’t need to put your finger on any fret. That’s all there is to it!
About your guitar
We’ve used an electric guitar to describe the different parts of a guitar, however an acoustic guitar has many of the same parts.
- Headstock – This is the top of the guitar
- Nut – This is the end of the fret board, next to the first fret
- Machine heads – twist these to tune the guitar strings
- Frets – each fret is a different notes
- Truss rod – this counters the tension put on the neck by the strings
- Inlays – these act as markers. Usually there are inlays on the third, fifth, seventh, ninth, twelfth, fifteenth, seventeenth, nineteenth and twenty-first frets
- Neck and fret board – not much to add here!
- Neck joint – this is where the neck joins to the body of the guitar
- Body – in an acoustic this will be hollow
- Pickups – these define the sound produced by the guitar
- Controls – these control the volume and tone of the guitar
- More controls
- Pickguard – this is to protect the body from scratches when strumming the guitar
- Toggle Switch – this controls which pickups are being used to produce the sound
The fist thing I did when I picked up a guitar was to learn some basic chords. The chord on the right is an open E Minor chord. It’s probably the easiest chord to start with. It The thick line at the top of the chord diagram is the nut. All you need to do is put your index and middle finger on the second fret of the A and D strings. You don’t need to do anything else apart from strum. Congratulations! You just played your first chord. Lets move onto another chord.
The chord on the left is an A Major chord. It’s slightly more involved than the E Minor chord. Put your first, middle and ring finger on the second fret of the D, G and B strings. The X against the low E string indicates that you shouldn’t play that string. If you can use your thumb to stop it from vibrating (known as blocking). If not don’t worry, just strum all string except the low E. Well done, you learned A Major! Blocking with your thumb is something you’ll pick up with practice so don’t worry if you can’t do it yet.
The next step it to practice switching between the two chords. Take it slowly at first, it’ll take some time to get your fingers into position. Keep practicing and soon you’ll be switching between the two chords effortlessly! Here are some other chords to learn once you’re comfortable switching between E Minor and A Major.
Learn some songs
Now that you’ve learnt to transition between a few chords lets put your new skills to the test. Here are a few songs that with a little practice you’ll be playing in no time!
- Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Deep Blue Something): A Major, D Major and G Major
- Marry You (Bruno Mars): D Major, E Minor, G Major
- All Right Now (Free): A Major, D Major, G Major
- The Middle (Jimmy Eat World): A Major, D Major, G Major
- Sweet Home Alabama (Lynrd Skynyrd): C Major, D Major, G Major
- High and Dry (Radiohead): D Major, E Minor, G Major
- Copperhead Road (Steve Earle): C Major, D Major, G Major
- Shout (Tears for Fears): A Major, E Minor, G Major
Set some goals
You should set some goals to help keep your focus. This can be difficult because you don’t know what you don’t know. When I was beginning, after learning the basic chords I set myself a goal to learn the solo from the Red Hot Chili Peppers song, Californication. It’s not a particularly difficult solo but it meant that I was starting to practice individual notes and precision. From there I moved onto playing the opening riff to Scar Tissue, also by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Here’s the excerpt from the tab:
As you can see we’re using some of the frets closer to the body of the guitar, but take it slow. It’ll feel good when you can play this riff. The next natural thing to do would be to learn the chords for this song. The chords for the song are F Major, C Major and D Minor. The only new chord here is F Major. The chord diagram for F Major is in the image on the right. This is the beginners version of the chord, so you don’t need to worry about playing the low E and A strings. Those are the only three chords in the whole song!
Once you’ve mastered the introduction and chords, you can move onto the three solos in the song. These were among the first solos I learnt and they’re great for practicing precision. Once you’ve mastered the solos you’ll be able to play the whole song from start to finish! You’ll be gigging in no time!
The bigger picture
You should also think about your longer term goals. Do you want to be a solid rhythm guitarist like The Edge from U2, or do you want to be a standout lead guitarist like Kirk Hammett from Metallica? Your early journey will be similar, but if you want to play lead you’ll need more practice on technique and a deeper understanding of theory (scales etc.). If you have an idea of what sort of guitarist you want to be now it’ll make it easier for you in future. That said, there’s nothing wrong with changing direction, you’ll always learn something valuable. When I was in my early twenties I started to “chicken pick”, a technique to play with a pick and fingers at the same time. I tend to play more metal these days, so it’s not something that I use often. Would I change that I learnt to do it? Absolutely not. Ultimately I became a better guitarist because of it.
Now pick up your guitar
Over to you. Starting to learn the guitar can be daunting, but use the tips I’ve given you and your path should be a lot smoother. Once you’re able to play a few three chord songs, you’ll be feeling confident to take the next steps in your journey. The important thing is to keep going. Sometimes it can feel like you’re not making progress but learning the guitar tends to be a series of “aha” moments. I had one of these when I was learning to play the riff from Under the Bridge by the Chili Peppers. I was getting very frustrated but then one day it just clicked! Enjoy your journey and please do get in touch if you have any questions.