Playing guitar is a fun, rewarding, and versatile skill. Whether you want to play at parties and start a band with your friends, serenade a loved one, or if you’re simply looking to play for your own personal satisfaction, learning the guitar is a valuable skill that anyone can pick up.
Since guitar is such a highly popular instrument, featured in numerous genres, it’s what many aspiring musicians pick up first. Some people seem to be born with musical talent, but anyone can learn an instrument if they put in the time and effort. There’s no guarantee that you’ll be the next Steve Vai, but you can definitely experience the joy of making music and expressing yourself on this beautiful instrument that’s been played by countless hands over the ages.
How to Play Guitar – Where to Start?
You make your life much easier as a guitar player when you start by learning the fretboard. It’s often helpful to use charts for a visual reference as you gain familiarity with fret numbers, note names, and string names. Once you’ve memorized the basics and your muscle memory has been sufficiently activated, you’ll start to find your fingers naturally falling into the right place – an extremely satisfying moment for any learning guitarist.
You don’t have to learn everything about music theory, but understanding the basics definitely helps. You probably won’t have to worry about reading standard notation or sheet music – the written music that people play in orchestras and other ensembles. With the exception of classical or jazz musicians, guitar players usually read music in tablature form, commonly just called “tabs.”
While there are some limitations to what tabs can communicate, such as the length of each note, it’s still a simple and efficient way to notate guitar chord shapes and finger patterns, especially if you’re already familiar with the rhythm of the song in question.
The problem with using standard notation for guitar is that sheet music generally doesn’t tell you which string to play each individual note on, leaving that up to the guitarist to decipher. Tabs simplify the process by focusing on fret numbers, strummer techniques, and guitar-specific articulations. Some tabs are combined with standard notation to provide the most specific information possible, but this is rare.
Push Through the Rocky Start
Any aspiring guitarist should know that the first days – and weeks, and possibly even months – of playing are virtually guaranteed to be extremely challenging, and might include some of the hardest moments in your guitar-playing career.
That might sound discouraging, but before you’re scared off by that prospect, just remember that every stage of your guitaring journey will get easier once you’ve muscled through this rough onset. It’s helpful to have this to look forward to when you feel like you’re not making any progress, don’t like the way you sound, and are worried that you might never be the guitar-slinging hero you’ve dreamt of becoming. It should be a comfort to know that every great guitarist started out struggling just to hold down a simple chord.
Guitar greatness can only be achieved by building finger and hand strength as well as developing calluses on the fingertips. This is something that’s physically impossible to develop overnight, so if your intention is to master the guitar in one weekend, you might as well make your way to the crossroads and try to find a devil to make a deal with.
Finger Boot Camp
The best way to build up the necessary strength to play guitar is by sending your fingers to boot camp. This involves running a series of drills or exercises that help you work your way up the fretboard in different patterns.
You don’t have to worry about tempo or following specific scales with these exercises at first. For beginners, it’s enough just to get your fingers on the frets and produce a sound. A good way to start is by going up and down the fretboard chromatically, which means going fret by fret without skipping any.
Guitarists refer to the fingers on their left hand by numbers to make things simpler. Your index finger is 1, middle finger is 2, ring finger is 3, and pinky is 4.
In order to be able to navigate your guitar and be on the same page with other guitarists when you communicate with them, it’s a good idea to know the names of the basic parts of a guitar.
This is the long, flat part that extends from the guitar’s body. The front-facing side of the neck includes the fretboard, and the neck ends with the headstock.
Located at the end of the strings on the opposite end of the headstock, the bridge is responsible for supporting the strings and transmitting the vibrations to the guitar’s soundboard.
Standard guitars have six: high E, B, G, D, A, and low E. Most guitar strings are made from tin-plated steel, but other guitar styles like classical use nylon strings.
These are located on the headstock, with one peg corresponding to each of the six strings. The guitar strings are tuned by turning these pegs.
This the main part of the guitar: the large, curvy portion of the instrument. If you’re playing an acoustic guitar, this part is hollow with a hole in the front. There are also hollow-bodied electric guitars that were more common in the ’50s but are still frequently played by jazz musicians.
Watch Your Technique
Using proper technique is essential to both avoid injury and to make it easier to play. It’s always a good idea to check on your wrist and make sure it’s not bent in unnatural ways. Do your best to keep the fingers arched.
You should also take the time to find a comfortable strap length if you are playing wearing a guitar strap. Even while sitting, a strap is helpful to keep your instrument firmly locked in place to prevent you from hunching forward while you play.
You don’t have to sling your guitar way down low like many iconic rock stars are seen doing. Many players find a higher position gives them more comfort and control. It all comes down to what works well for your particular body and unique playing style.
Make sure that your thumb is firmly placed on the back of the guitar’s neck. This will provide a sort of clamp that will give you the leverage you’ll need to firmly hold down the fingertips on the fretboard.
Be careful not to build up bad habits as a beginner. These will only have to be unlearned later down the line before you can retrain yourself to play the instrument correctly. If you ever want to reach your full potential or enjoy a lifelong of guitar playing without developing carpal tunnel, it’s well worth it to practice good form and technique.
Some techniques are purely for the benefit of your sound and have less to do with preserving your body. One common rookie mistake is to let off the strings with the left hand (the fretting hand) to end a chord or note. It’s much better to cut off chords by muting them with the right hand.
This is done by bringing the palm down over the strings near where they meet the bridge. Master this technique and you’ll have a clean ending to every note. Otherwise, if you use a fret release to end notes, your chords will fall slightly out of tune each time. While casual listeners at a family gathering may not notice, discerning musicians may call you out for it.
These types of form corrections may seem as nonreflexive as patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time, but they eventually become the most natural thing in the world with enough practice.
It’s also crucial not to let your strings get away from you, especially on electric guitar. The more distortion and heavy effects, the more important it is to protect the ears of your audience and bandmates by taking care to mute your strings when they’re in use.
You can also turn the volume down on your guitar if it has a built-in volume knob when you’re not playing – just to be on the safe side. Everyone makes mistakes, and the loudest, most embarrassing ones tend to happen onstage in the middle of a show. All it takes is some dead air between songs when a sudden screeching unwanted note fills the air, potentially killing the vibe of your performance.
What kind of guitarist are you?
You may want to consider ahead of time what type of guitar you want to play. This isn’t referring to the instrument itself – rather, the style you choose to play in. Or, if you want to write your own music, you may want to compose free of genre restraints, perhaps forging a brand-new style along the way.
Still, it’s often extremely helpful to explore existing artists and genres that you like so you can build a sense of what’s already been done. This also helps to give you a sense of what listeners expect to hear from a fully formed song.
The good news is that the world of guitar styles is more versatile and accessible than ever. With some effects pedals and the right amp, you can make virtually any guitar sound any way you want – and from there, all you have to do is learn how to play it!
To pick or fingerpick?
True fingerpicking in country-western and classical guitar styles involves a fair amount of commitment. You have to grow out the fingernails on your right hand and carefully maintain them at the perfect length and shape to use them as part of your instrument.
Many guitarists use metal or plastic fingerpicks that you attack to each finger and one to the thumb, but some purists hold that this doesn’t produce as pure of a sound as genuine human fingernails. However, it all comes down to a matter of taste.
Others choose to use the flesh of their fingertips to fingerpick with, but this is less common because it’s harder to get a full sound from this technique. Consequently, players in this style usually requires substantial amplification when performing live.
Some musicians prefer fingerpicking style because of its added expressivity. However, for holding down demanding rhythms and slamming out killer licks, you can’t go wrong with a good old-fashioned pick.
It may take some trial and error to find your preferred pick thickness and shape; luckily, picks come cheap. It’s usually best to avoid novelty picks because they’re often cheaply constructed and tend to break quickly.
Strums come in two basic forms: upstrokes and downstrokes. In addition, there is also muted strumming, which is when the palm of the right hand is covering the strings to mute the tone of the strings. The strings can be muted in varying degrees, allowing you to either slightly hear the tonality of the chord being fingered or only hear the clicking of the pick on the fully muted strings.
Make Sure to Tune!
If your instrument isn’t in tune with itself, you won’t have a chance of sounding good – even if you’re just playing by yourself.
There are plenty of inexpensive tuner options that will automatically detect the pitch of the string you’re playing and provide you with clear illuminated symbols that show you whether to tune up or down.
It’s important when tuning to always approach the pitch from below, meaning the string should be below the pitch you’re tuning to, and you tune up to it. Otherwise, if you tune some strings down from above, the pitch will be slightly off.
You can also use online resources or free apps that will help you get your guitar in tune. Once you’ve tuned the A string, you can tune the other strings using the A as a reference. As you become more experienced, your ears will become more acutely aware of the subtle wobble heard when a string is slightly out of tune.
How to Read Guitar Tabs
Tableture or “tabs” are preferred by most guitarists because they’re easy to read. The notation includes numbers that correspond to frets. The frets start at one, with an open string (no frets fingered) notated with a “0.” Strings that aren’t played at all are notated with an “x.”
Notice the dots on the neck of your guitar. These are there to help you keep track of the fret numbers. The dots are usually located at the 3rd, 5th, 7th, and 9th fret, with the 12th fret marked with two dots.
This is how the strings are notated in tableture:
You’ll see that there are two E strings – one on top and one on bottom – with the uppermost one in lowercase. This will help you remember that the top string in tableture notation is the high E string, meaning the string that produces the note with the highest pitch.
This may be confusing at first, since this is the reverse of the strings that are physically on top and bottom. But as you get used to reading tabs, you’ll find this makes the most sense: You’re viewing the string layout in the same order as you see them when you look down at your guitar.
Now that you know how to read tabs, here are some of the most basic guitar chords in tableture form. You’ll also find the corresponding finger for each note in the chords to help you find your way.
Open Major Chords
G|1 (2nd finger)
D|2 (4th finger)
A|2 (3rd finger)
e|3 (4th finger)
B|3 (3rd finger)
A|2 (2nd finger)
E|3 (1st finger)
B|2 (3rd finger)
G|2 (2nd finger)
D|2 (1st finger)
B|1 (1st finger)
D|2 (2nd finger)
A|3 (3rd finger)
e|2 (2nd finger)
B|3 (3rd finger)
G|2 (1st finger)
Open Minor Chords
D|2 (4th finger)
A|2 (3rd finger)
B|1 (2nd finger)
G|2 (4th finger)
D|2 (3rd finger)
e|1 (1st finger)
B|3 (3rd finger)
G|2 (2nd finger)
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.