Guitar Basics Expert Guide
So you want to learn guitar? Awesome. Here’s our basic guide to getting started. Remember to check out our guide to guitar theory and technique for more advanced lessons once you’ve nailed these basics.
Parts of the Guitar
One of the first things you should do is to familiarise yourself with what things are called on the guitar. The fancy name for this is ‘guitar anatomy. You aren’t required to know what a headstock or bridge is to play the guitar, but it will help down the road was you get more into learning the instrument.
Tune Your Guitar
The ability to tune your guitar is an essential skill.
You can use electronic tuners with built-in microphones or jacks, vibration-based tuners or apps to electronically tune in guitar. These usually have a small arrow which points either side of the centre of the built-in screen, to tell you whether you’re high or low. When the arrow is in the middle, you’re in tune.
To tune by ear, you can use pitch pipes, another instrument or the fifth fret method. Keyboards, pianos and other instruments with stable tuning can also be used to match the pitches of your strings to.
Hold Your Guitar Pick Correctly
Like tuning, holding a pick (or plectrum) correctly is also something to nail early on before bad habits set in.
There are a few different ways to hold a pick, as well as several types of guitar picks. If you’re playing rhythm guitar, the pick should be gripped between your thumb and the side of your index finger, with the remainder of your fingers closed in a loose fist. If you’re playing lead guitar, it’s often better to hold the pick a bit closer to the tip of your index finger, with the rest of your fingers sticking out rather than following it.
A loosely closed fist can make strumming easier and stop your fingers from getting in the way of the other strings, whilst sticking out fingers can give you more control over single notes and encourage faster speed.
Getting your pick-hold right in the early days can save you from inefficient practice as well as the inconvenience of changing bad habits later on.
Guitar Strumming Patterns
Learning a variety of strumming patterns are among your essential skills as a guitarist.
Getting a few different ones up your sleeve is imperative to learn a variety of songs in multiple genres. Some strumming patterns use only down-strokes, whilst most use a combination of downs and ups.
These are often notated as arrows, with the beats 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + above, so you know when to strum. More complicated strumming patterns might have 1 e + a 2 e + a 3 e + a 4 e + a above the arrows, to cater for syncopated beats.
As well as arrows, you sometimes find little crosses on strum pattern notation. This is to signify a mute, which is achieved by loosening your finger off the strings and striking them to create a percussive sound.
Most songs have just two or three different strum patterns throughout. There’s usually a pattern for the verse and another pattern for the chorus. Both of these patterns will be repeated many times in the song.
Simple Guitar Riffs
A selection of simple riffs is another thing to get up your sleeve as a beginner guitarist. There are some classics like, ‘Smoke on the Water’, ‘Seven Nation Army’ and ‘Iron Man’, to name a few, that are a part of almost every guitarist’s repertoire.
Nailing down these riffs develops skills such as finger stretching, fretboard knowledge, string jumping and keeping good time. Learning riffs can also be a way of developing your musical knowledge, as you become familiar with songs you wouldn’t have otherwise listened to.
Riffs are a good thing to learn on guitar, as they are often easy to play and they always sound cool. Getting a collection of them perfect and in time with the music is a rewarding part of the guitarist’s learning journey.
As you learn riffs, ensure to use appropriate fingers. If you’re playing fret 7, then fret 10, for example, you should use finger 1 for fret 7 and then either finger 3 or 4 for fret 10. Don’t use the same finger for both, as you’ll get in a bad habit that will be difficult to correct later on, when you need to use more than one finger in order to achieve the speed of a more advanced piece.
Calluses are a guitarist’s best friend. They’re the hardened bits of skin on the ends of your fingers, that stop playing from being painful.
In the early stages of learning, pushing down on strings can be incredibly uncomfortable as it causes stinging sensations in your fingertips that remove some of the fun from playing. However, it’s never too long before calluses develop, removing this discomfort from the guitar experience.
There are ways you can encourage calluses to develop more quickly, including rubbing vinegar on your fingertips after playing and avoiding hot water before and after playing. These are reasonably effective, but the main way to get these calluses is to keep on playing the guitar. As they get more and more used to pushing down on strings, the skin will harden and become desensitized. Playing will no longer sting at all.
Before you can properly play, you need to know how to effectively practice. There are some aspects to practising that are essential to efficient progress. Warm-ups, routines and using a metronome are all elements of good practice.
Guitar Warm Up Exercises
Warm up exercises are an often overlooked element of guitar practice sessions. However, they’re essential if you want to ensure that you don’t injure yourself and that your fingers are prepared to progress whilst you practice.
These exercises are essentially ‘pre-play’ exercises which stretch your fingers similarly to how athletes stretch their limbs before running. These technical exercises also improve your finger speed and dexterity and can increase your awareness of rhythm, melodic intervals and improvisation.
Before you pick up your guitar, making sure your fingers are warm – literally – will really help to loosen them up. After that, stretching them out before trying some four finger exercises on your guitar will get you ready to practice at your best. You can also try jumping between chord shapes you know so that you’re ready to do so when it comes to playing the songs you’re learning.
An effective warm-up can mean the difference between a practice that’s great and one that frustrates.
Guitar Practice Routines
There are step by step routines that you can follow to ensure effectiveness in your practice sessions.
After starting with a warm-up, these practice routines involve scales, chords, pieces and improvisation. This is to ensure that you develop multiple skills during your session.
Practice routines are designed to be undertaken daily. This is to enable to best possible chance of developing strong muscle memory as well as a broad set of musical skills that progress together. Although they’re designed to be done this frequently, they’re still effective when followed 3 to 4 times per week.
Having the guidance of a routine in practice sessions suits a lot of learners as they are new to the different aspects of musicianship.
How to Play with a Metronome
Learning how to use a metronome whilst you play is an important part of developing a consistent rhythm.
There are real, old-fashioned metronomes which are pointed, often wooden blocks that you wind up. After winding the metronome up, you set the small weight on its ticker to the BPM you require and release the ticker. It will sway from side to side, making a ticking noise at each beat of your BPM.
More modern metronomes look like small guitar tuners. You can also get a free metronome app for your iPad or smartphone.
Using this aid will help you to keep a steady time and ensure that you don’t fall into unstable timing. You can use them to keep time for your scales, chord exercises and even the songs you’re learning. Just make sure to set it to an appropriate BPM.
A good technique to do whilst practising is to set it to a BPM that’s pretty slow, to start with, then gradually speed it up. This is rewarding as you can easily see your improvement as you get faster and faster.