Introduction to Guitar - Expert Guide

So you want to learn to play guitar? You’re in the right place.

But here’s the thing: many people have a guitar, but the guitar is more of an ornament than a real instrument. It get’s dusted now and again, but not played. That’s sad. Taking the time to learn the guitar is well worth it.

But hold up. It’s time for a bit of harsh reality.  To be any good at playing the guitar takes…years doesn’t it?

Of course it does. Or everyone would be able to play like Jimi Hendrix.

But here’s the good news. If you persist, and learn the right way, you can save a lot of time and make the whole process enjoyable.

We’re so lucky to be living in a time when learning is made SO easy thanks to the internet. 

What You’ll Need…

Guitar

First things first, you’re going to need a guitar. Acoustic or electric, that’s entirely up to you, but people often start with an acoustic guitar then move onto electric. There’s a certain logic to doing that. Starting on an acoustic means you can focus on basic chord shapes and learning simple songs. Once you’ve got the basics sorted, moving to electric guitar is relatively straightforward. Many players never move to electric, sticking with the awesome sounding acoustic. 

You’ll also want to consider which style of music you want play. Certain genres of music, e.g. blues or fingerpicking, sound better on a particular type of guitar. It’s worth considering this before you make the purchase.

It’s also worth learning what things are called on a guitar – what we call the guitar’s anatomy.

Strings

You’ll also want to make sure whichever guitar you are using has a new (or relatively new) set of strings on it. When starting out, we need all the encouragement we can get, and a set of old, rusty strings isn’t going to help to inspire us. In actual fact, a new set of strings can make a very ordinary guitar sound great.

Even the best guitar out there with an old set of strings will sound awful. So fitting a new set of strings is a must. 

Plectrum (or ‘Pick’)

You can play guitar without a plectrum, many people do (take Mark Knopfler for example) but for the purposes of learning the basics we want to get ourselves one, even if further down the line we decide finger-picking is our preferred method. Taking time to learn how to hold a pick is important too. 

Guitar Tuner

Tuning a guitar is one of the biggest challenges for any new learner and while many seasoned guitarists wonder what all the fuss is about, many beginners are put off the guitar because their guitar is always out of tune. So grab yourself a cheap tuner and learn how to tune your guitar properly.

Some semi-acoustic guitars have tuners built into them but you can pick up an affordable guitar tuner or just use an online guitar tuner.

Further reading:

Guitar Set Up

When George Orwell wrote “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”, he could just as easily have been talking about guitars.

Even the same model of guitar, from the same manufacturer, often sounds wildly different. Often your guitar will sound great straight off the shelf, but it’s worth remembering if your guitar sounds awful, even though you’ve put new strings on and tuned them properly, the guitar may need to be set up properly.

Take your guitar to a local reputable guitar shop and ask them to take a look. It’s likely some elements of your guitar are ‘misaligned’ and a few tweaks will see it right.

Further reading:

Tips for Playing Guitar

The difference between a good or bad golf swing often comes down to how well you hold the golf club. The same can be said about the guitar. Holding your guitar correctly means you’ll be more comfortable (meaning you’ll more likely practice longer) but you’ll also end up playing it better as you’ll be literally in a better position!

You want your guitar to sit comfortably on your knee (right hand knee if you are left handed and vice versa).

The thinnest string should be pointing towards the floor, and the thickest string should be pointing to the ceiling. Don’t make the mistake of leaning the guitar into your body to see the fretboard.

This is a common mistake for beginners, as not seeing where your fingers are going can be a confusing experience, but try and train yourself not to look at where your fingers are. ‘Luke, feel the force’ as Obi-Wan Kenobi would say 🙂

Sitting Comfortably

Just as important as how to hold the guitar is your seating position. Ignore the footage you’ve seen of Keith Richards slumped on a sofa lazily strumming ‘Wild Horses’!

You need a guitar chair or stool with a back for a start (avoid playing on a stool) and the straighter the back of the chair the better. Try to keep your back as straight and tall as possible, even if it feels a bit unnatural at first. It will make it easier to reach the guitar with both hands and give you a mental boost too.

As a beginner it’s common to experience some discomfort with your posture. Expect some level of discomfort, and like anything appreciate that in time you’re body will get acclimatised to it (make sure you don’t over-do it though) and take regular breaks).

Further reading:

Finger Placement

Let’s take a look at how to position to our fingers. I’m going to use a right handed player for this example. For the lefties out there, just switch them around.

So your fret hand (your left hand) is doing a lot of work when you play guitar. It’s responsible for finding the notes up and down the fretboard and pressing them down in various different combinations to make music. It’s important to make sure you end of your fingers are arched to you make a clean contact with the string. This is challenging when you are learning to play guitar, as your fingers won’t naturally want to arch in this way.

And let’s not forget about the thumb! While the fingers are doing a lot of the heavy lifting pressing down notes on the fretboard, the thumb isn’t just along for the ride! The thumb needs to be placed at the back of the neck serving as a counterpoint for the fingers. A common mistake for new learners is to allow the thumb to slip around.

Again, it’s not a natural position for the thumb to be, so the slipping around is quite natural. Do you best to correct it when you see yourself doing it. 

To get the optimal sound (and to stop that annoying fret buzz) you need to place your fingers just above each fret, but NOT on the fret. If you’re told to play something on the fifth fret for example, it means that you place your finger on the string in the gap between the fourth and fifth fret.

The left hand alone isn’t generating any music per se, the right hand (the rhythm hand) actually makes the sound. Your fore-arm and right hand should hang over the front of the guitar in a relaxed fashion, with the hand resting somewhere between the soundhole and bridge. Make sure your elbow doesn’t move too much.

You generate different sounds according to how close to the bridge you are, so experiment a bit with the sound you like.Just avoid your right hand being too near the neck. Also use your wrist to practice smooth up and down motions.

The name given to generating friction from your right hand is called ‘strumming’. There are many ways to strum, but let’s not get distracted with that just yet. 

First of all, common to all types of strumming pattern is the importance of using a loose, relaxed strumming motion. Strumming involves playing downstrokes and upstrokes in a rhythmical fashion over the sound hole.

Guitar Fingerboard

Having a basic appreciation of where the notes are on a guitar’s fretboard will put you good stead for the future. In fact, mastering where the notes on the fretboard are is a lifelong endeavour and rarely something that you just learn and then be done with!

Notes are laid out in a very logical fashion though, so once you’ve learnt the fundamentals you can quickly work out where any given note is. For beginners it’s important to appreciate the following things.

Notes of the Strings

Each string is tuned to a specific note. The most common notes they are tuned to is E, A, D, G, B, E – but remember that the same six strings can be tuned to whatever note you like (it’s just that most popular music uses this one – what we call ‘Open Tuning’).

Notes on the Fretboard

So now we know the notes of the strings, we’re one step closer to knowing what any note is on the fretboard. So how do we work out the notes on the fretboard? 

Well, let’s take the E string (the first or the sixth string, they both have the same notes). If we strum the open string we get an open ‘E’. So far, so good.

Now, if we press the first fret on that that string, we get the next note up. As the open string is an E note, we’ll get a F note.

How do we get find the next note? Simple, we just jump two frets.

So if we press the third fret, we’ll get a G. Press the fifth fret, the A note. And so one. This goes for all the strings. In between each note, we have what are called ‘half tones’ or ‘half steps’. So between F and G we have F sharp (actually, it has two names. F sharp or G flat). There is one exception though. Between E and F, and between B and C there is no half-note.

See this visual of the fretboard below:

Chords

So now we’ve covered all the basics we’re in a really good place to start learning some chords. Chords are the bedrock of any guitar playing and you really can’t do without them. In fact, chords are so useful that many players just learn some chord shapes and don’t bother learning much else. A few chords can go a long way.

We have greater aspirations than just stopping at chords, but it’s worth you knowing how powerful chords are. A large percentage of pop music’s most famous hits (for example The Beatles’ Twist and Shout) are made up with as few as three chords!

What is a Chord?

Put simply, a chord is a group of at least three notes played at the same time. Some chords can have many more notes, and there are literally hundreds of combinations of any given chord, but at it’s most basic level a chord has three notes.

There are two main categories of chords, what we call open chords and ‘barre chords’ or ‘movable chords’. In the case of the ‘barre’ chord (often abbreviated to ‘bar chord’) the first finger on your fretting hand bars all the notes so that you can move the chord up and down the fretboard. These chords tend to be tricky to play, not recommended for the beginner guitarist.

The first chords we need to learn are the ‘open chords’.

How do I Learn Chords?

Fortunately, there are tried and tested methods for learning every element of the guitar that you need to just learn and incorporate into your playing. 

For learning chords, you should start with the CAGED system. In a nutshell, CAGED stands for five of the most basic major chords that you need to learn. Now all we need to do is learn each of these five chords and we’ll unlock a whole treasure trove of possibilities and our guitar playing will come on leaps and bounds. 

We also have three more chords to learn and they are called the AED system. Like with the CAGED system, they correspond to chords, but because they are ‘minor’ chords we write them slightly differently. So AED stands for Am, Em and Dm. 

By learning each chord, and how to move from one chord to the other smoothly, and then learning some songs with those chords, we’ll be well on our way to learning how to play guitar.

Easy Guitar Songs

A great way to make chords come to life is to learn songs. Once you have grasped the shapes and are kind of familiar with moving between them, start looking for easy songs to play. Remember some of the most memorable guitar songs are only three chords so just with a few basic shapes you can create music.

There are of course millions of songs transcribed for you all over the internet. Just type a song you like plus the word ‘chords’ into google and you’ll see a whole list of links show up.

For the beginner guitarist it can be a bit bewildering how to read these chord charts. There are two types you need to be aware of, chord charts and tab charts.

Practice, Practice, Practice

We’ve covered a lot in this guide to how to play guitar, but one thing we must get right is a decent practice routine. With all the best will in the world, if you don’t have a good practice routine you’ll quickly stagnate and it will take you twice as long to improve.

The good news is a good practice routine can put your learning into hyperdrive – even 30 minutes a day spent in the right way, ideally using a metronome, can bring you on leaps and bounds. Like physical training, just remember to warm up properly.

It’s also worth considering joining an online guitar school such as Guitar Tricks which has some great practice apps (such as the Fretboard Trainer)

Summary

Playing an instrument is one of most rewarding things you can do. In today’s always-on, super-connected world there is something very calming about spending time with a piece of wood, some strings, and your imagination!

Best of luck, and keep learning.

Further reading:

5 Tips for How to Build Guitar Calluses