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How To Play Guitar | The Ultimate Guide To Becoming A Self-Taught Guitarist

You may want to learn how to play guitar for any number of reasons. It's possible you have a burning desire to be a rockstar or to impress your friends, or even to improve your singing.

In any case, it can be a monumentally daunting task when you start out. Where do you even begin!? You could start with an online course like JamPlay. I would highly recommend doing this but I understand some of you would rather learn on your own.

I have created this guide to help you get started and guide you in the right direction for your first few times picking up a guitar.

The main piece of advice I can give you right off the bat is to not be afraid to be terrible.

Nobody picks up an instrument for the first time and sounds amazing.

It’s a slow and, at times, frustrating process.

Don’t compare yourself to others, stay committed, and be positive. You’ll be rocking out in no time.

 

Which Type Of Guitar Is Best For Beginners?

There is an important decision to make when you pick out your first guitar. Do you want an electric guitar, a classical nylon string acoustic, or a steel-string acoustic?

You could borrow a guitar, to begin with, but it is definitely a good idea to get your own guitar at some point.

I have put a few points about each type of guitar so you can make an informed choice if you’ve not bought a guitar already.

 

Electric Guitars

Ibanez Mikro Product Image
  • You can practice with headphones so as not to annoy your family and neighbors
  • The strings are a little softer on your fingertips than steel-string acoustic
  • You can play with distortion or on a clean channel for a variety of sounds
  • They are less portable as you have to play with an amplifier

 

 

Nylon String Guitars

Cordoba Protege C-1M - Product Image
  • The thinner strings are the most gentle on the fingertips of beginners
  • The fretboard is often a little wider than other guitars. This compensates for inaccurate beginners fingers
  • Available in a large variety of different sizes to accommodate many different sized players
  • The posture for these guitars is a little different from the “standard” playstyle
  • There are a lot of terrible nylon string guitar on the budget end of the price spectrum

 

 

Steel String Acoustics

Ibanez AE275BT - Product image
  • The most common type of guitar used in popular music genres
  • A solid foundational guitar. They Encourage strong hands and fingers early on in the learning process
  • No amplifier needed to play loud
  • Perfect for fingerpicking or playing with a pick
  • They have the toughest strings on beginners' fingers

 

You should be able to learn all the foundational aspects of playing guitar no matter which type of guitar you choose.

It’s a good idea to consider what types of songs you would like to learn as you progress.

If you want to learn a lot of solos, lead lines, and rock music an electric guitar is probably best.

Want to strum chords and sing along? One of the acoustic styles of guitars would be the smart choice.

 

Knowing Your Way Around A Guitar

Regardless of which type of guitar you decide on, there are certain parts of a guitar that you need to become familiar with.

Learning the parts of the guitar will help you a lot with future lessons. It will help you to know what the teacher/website/video is referring to.

parts-on-an-acoustic-and-electric-guitar

Imagine these guitars are people. The head is at the top and the body at the bottom with the neck connecting them.

Looking at that picture makes it seem a little complex so let’s break down what each of these parts is and what they do.

 

Head/Headstock

This is the term for the end of the neck. It holds the tuning keys and begins after the nut.

 

Tuning Keys

These are the machines that are responsible for tuning the guitar. You wind them in one direction to tighten the strings and the other direction to loosen the strings. Doing so will raise or lower the pitch respectively.

Tuning keys go by a number of different names including, tuning pegs, machine heads, and tuners. Familiarize yourself with these names to avoid confusion later.

 

Nut

This is a small piece of plastic or bone at the end of the frets that holds the strings in place horizontally. It makes sure that the distance between the strings is even and has a role to play in the action of the guitar.

 

Neck

This long thin piece of the guitar connects the body to the head. It has the frets and fingerboard on top of it. Necks can bolt onto a guitar or be permanently built into the body.

 

Frets

These are the small bits of metal that mark where notes are on your guitar. You will use the frets to identify where to put your fingers while you play.

Tabs and chord diagrams show where to put your fingers between the frets. Although you place your fingers between the frets, not on them.

 

Fingerboard/Fretboard

An easy one to remember. It’s where your fingers go or where the frets are. It is often a separate piece of wood that sits on top of the neck.

 

Position markers

These are the little dots (or other shapes) on the fingerboard that identify the 5th, 7th, 9th, 12th, 15th, 17th, 19th, and 21st fret. They exist to help you identify frets faster and be able to get your hands to the right place with a simple glance. 

They're there so you won't need to count the frets from one end of the guitar.

 

Body

This is a pretty self-explanatory one. The main part of the guitar before the neck starts. It houses the electrical parts of electric guitars. For an acoustic guitar, it has a chamber for the sound to resonate in.

 

Pick Guard

A small piece of plastic fixed to the guitar to protect picks from scratching the body.

 

Soundhole

The hole in an acoustic guitar that allows the soundwaves from the strings to enter the body of the guitar and reverberate. This process is what gives acoustic guitars their volume.

 

Pickups

Electric guitar parts that pick up the signal of the strings and send them to the amplifier through a cable.

Acoustic guitars often have pickups too. They look a little different on an electric guitar though

 

Pickup Selector Switch

If a guitar has more than one pickup there will be one of these switches that lets you choose between them. Selecting different pickups will change the tonal output of the guitar.

 

Saddle

A small piece of bone or plastic that keeps the strings of an acoustic in position. Luthiers can file them down to adjust the playing height of the guitar.

 

Volume/Tone Control

Controls for the volume or tone of an electric guitar. You should fiddle around with these to figure out exactly what they do. You can greatly impact your overall tone with these controls.

 

Vibrato/Whammy Bar

These aren’t on every guitar and are for specific techniques like dive bombs or providing vibrato.

You won’t need to use this when starting out. In most cases, you can even screw it out of your guitar without any tools.

I would recommend this to begin with and you can put it back in when you need it later down the track.

 

Bridge

The bridge is whats holds the strings on the body end of the guitar. There are many different types of bridges. You will need to familiarize yourself with the particular type your guitar has the first time you have to change strings on your own.

Output Jack

This is where you use a cable to plug your guitar into an amplifier or PA system.

 

All The Gear And No Idea

You may think all you need to get started is a guitar. I mean, I guess you are technically correct, but there are a few other bits and bobs that will significantly help you along your way.

 

A Tuner

Chromatic-tuner-example

Learning how to tune a guitar is an essential skill for any guitarist. Doing so by ear is great but takes a lot of practice.

An electronic tuner is a fantastic intermediary product while you learn this skill.

Even when you are able to tune by ear, you won’t always be able to. It very hard to do in noisy environments. Having a quality plug-in or clip-on tuner will help with this.

A tuner helps you keep the guitar in tune. Playing with the strings out of tune sounds absolutely horrible so you should buy one.

If not, you could download an app on your smart device. Those types of tuners work surprisingly well through the microphone of your phone or tablet.

 

A Capo

Planet Waves Capo - Product Image

You may not be familiar with what a capo is as a beginner. They are a wondrous little device that allows you to change the key of a song using the same chords.

Having one of these will increase the number of songs you can play early on in your learning tenfold. The ability to use a capo makes the guitar one of the most rewarding instruments to play as an intermediate player. You can learn “new” chords way quicker than on piano or other instruments simply by moving the capo.

They work by pressing down over an entire fret. Whenever you move the capo up a fret it raises the key of the song by a semi-tone. If that last sentence was too full of musical jargon, don’t worry. You don’t need to understand how they work yet, just that they are an all-but-necessary addition to your guitar. 

 

Picks

Picks Featured Image

You don’t technically need picks to play guitar but I have mentioned them here as they are a prevalent method of playing guitar.

There are a few things to consider when using a pick. One of them is how to hold one.

You also need to consider the thickness.

Thin to medium picks are best for beginners but I would recommend getting a mixed pack so you can figure out what is comfortable for you.

Once you have decided on a thickness you like buy your picks in bulk. They get lost and end up god knows where.

It’s always nice to keep a few in your wallet and in a safe place at home so you know you’ve always got one.

 

How To Read A Tab

Before continuing with this section I recommend reading my guide on tuning a guitar. It will help you understand the starting notes for each string which is very important for reading tabs.

Maybe you know how to read sheet music already. In this case, you are at a huge advantage. However, it is actually much easier to find tabs for your favorite songs than sheet music.

Tabs are reasonably easy to wrap your head around once you understand the basics.

Stairway to heaven tab

This is a tab for the intro of stairway to heaven. It certainly shouldn’t be the first song you learn but I wanted to pick something a little complex to give you a taste of what tabs are like.

I know it looks very intimidating but the basic concept is you have to put your fingers on the designated frets for each string.

For instance, the first note you would play for this intro is the 7th fret on the D string, followed by the 5th fret on the G string, then the 5th fret on the B string, and so on.

You may have noticed that there are some notes stacked horizontally on top of each other. This means you play all the notes at the same time to make a chord.

The letters h and p in the above tab represent hammer-ons and pull-offs. There are many other symbols that can be present on a tab too. There will usually be a key to explain what the symbols mean with the tab so don’t stress about it too much.

 

Fretting

So now we know that the numbers on a tab indicate the frets on the guitar but how do we actually play them?

You don’t press down on the actual fret. It’s the space behind the fret and toward the head that you press down on.

So, when a tab says “1” you put your finger in the gap between the first fret and the headstock. If the tab says “2” you put your finger between the second and first fret. The same applies all the way up the fretboard.

A “0” means you play the string without having your other hand on any frets.

 

Chords

Learning chords is a difficult but necessary task when learning guitar. When you start out your transitions between chords will be very sloppy and slow.

It will make you uncomfortable to make the shapes with your hands and it can be very frustrating. Don’t let it get to you though.

You’d be surprised how well you progress if you sit for a few hours at a time digging away at it.

Getting a good night’s sleep and trying every day will help you progress extremely quickly. That progress will keep you excited about learning the guitar and snowball your interest, hopefully.

 

Reading A Chord Chart

Chords for guitar are often demonstrated in diagrams like this.

C Chord

To understand them, imagine that you have a right-handed guitar flat against the screen with the fingerboard facing you.

That would mean the line on the left-hand side of the diagram would represent the low E string, next along would be the A, D, G, B, and e strings.

The circles represent where your fingers should sit on the fretboard. If there are also numbers in the circle, they indicate which finger you should use to make the chord shape.

 

Power Chords

Also known as 5ths, these are the easiest chords to play. They are easy because you can keep the same shape with your hand as you slide your hands up and down the fretboard.

They are a good starting place for beginners and actually help later when you have to learn barre chords which are much more difficult.

To play a power chord, you use your first finger to play the root note and your third finger to play one string down and two frets up. Check this image for examples.

Power chords example

As you can see in all of those shapes above the shape you put your hands in is the same shape, just in a different place on the fretboard.

Once you are comfortable playing those chords you can put your 4th finger directly below your third on the next string. This will make the chord sound a little beefier by adding an octave of the root note.

Some examples of songs that you can use power chords for are:

  • Sublime - What I Got
  • Rick Springfield - Jessie’s Girl
  • All The Small Things - Blink 182

There are plenty of others. Even if the original version of a song did not use power chords you can get a “close enough” sound out of these chords as they are neither major nor minor.

 

Open Chords

Open chords are the most common chords used. Especially on acoustic guitars.

It will take a while to learn the shapes and to form them quickly. You will be relying a lot on muscle memory so there is nothing to do other than make the shapes over and over again until it becomes easy.

There are a bunch of different open chords, but with your trusty capo, these are the ones I would learn first.

 

Barre Chords

These are slightly more complex than power chords although they form a similar shape.

They are difficult as you must have enough strength in your hand to press your first finger completely flat against the fretboard.

You also have to have the rest of your fingers in a shape that will feel incredibly awkward at first.

You should avoid barre chords when you first start out.

If you see your chord chart has a Bm or F use the transpose function on ultimate-guitar and capo to change the key.

 

Strumming

You will of course have to learn to use your other hand too. Strumming a guitar is going to feel awkward as heck when you first start out. There is no avoiding it. The more you play, the more natural it will feel.

You may start out by playing down strums. This is a good way to get a feel for making chords with your fretting hand but sounds very plain and boring. You will need to learn some strumming patterns. Here’s a video demonstrating a few common strumming patterns.

Once you nail a few strumming patterns it will feel more natural while learning new songs.

 

Picking

While you are picking individual strings with a pick you should pick down to begin with.

You will eventually need to learn alternate picking in which you pick both up and down but it’s not a focus area when first starting out.

You should worry about strumming and your fretting hand mostly as a beginner.

 

How To Play guitar Using Fingerpicking Technique

If you choose not to play with a pick you can use your fingers. In my opinion, it is much more difficult but is a very important skill for an acoustic guitar player.

Use your thumb on the thickest string of your guitar, or even for all the strings when you start out. Over time you should incorporate your first finger, then when you feel comfortable your second, third, and fourth.

 

Final Word

If you choose to be a self-taught guitarist there are many possible routes to take.

It is always a good idea to check with a website like ours or a youtube video to make sure your technique is correct as you go along. Doing this will help to prevent you from forming detrimental habits.

I will repeat again that it is okay to be bad. Nobody is going to judge you but yourself. Practice consistently and you will move forward in leaps and bounds.

 

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Hi, I'm Chris, the owner, creator, and head writer for InciteMusic.com 
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