So you want to learn how to play guitar? Cool. 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. There are so many ways like I discussed in this mega post about all the different ways to learn guitar.
So why have we called this the Ultimate Guide (Kind of)...because learning the guitar is a massive undertaking, and there're no one article that's ever going to teach you everything!
Ok let's get started with the basics of how to play guitar.
What you are going to need...
Bit obvious right, but you’ll need a guitar to get the most out of this guide.
Don't make the mistake of procrastinating for too long over which guitar to get, for beginners you are better off just picking up an entry level guitar - no need for any pricey Gibson’s just yet.
Or better still borrow one from a friend. One word of advice though - the guitar doesn't need to be amazing quality but it needs to be good enough. Having a sub-standard guitar will have a detrimental effect on your learning process, making everything sound out of tune or just plain horrible.
Most people tend to opt for an acoustic guitar as their first guitar as they tend to be easier to learn with, plus you don't need to plug them in to an amplifier to get any sound (like you do with an electric guitar).
A decent set of strings
You’ll also want to make sure whichever guitar you are using has a new (or relatively new) set of strings on it.
Again, 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.
Conversely even the best guitar out there with a old set of strings will sound awful. So new, or recently put on strings is a must.
A 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.
It’s a bit like learning to drive - you are better off learning to drive a manual first even if you end up opting for an automatic.
A 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 learning how to play guitar ALTOGETHER by the tedious, unfathomable thing we have to do to get our guitars in tune.
An out of tune guitar is horrible. So grab yourself a cheap tuner and learn how to tune your guitar properly.
Some semi-acoustic guitars have tuners built into them (even better!) but you can pick up an affordable guitar tuner or just use an online guitar tuner.
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, are often 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.
Tips for playing
Hold the guitar properly
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 🙂
Find a comfortable place to sit
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).
Know where to put your fingers
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.
A plectrum or ‘pick’ is a small, tear-drop shaped object you use for generating rhythm with your right hand. Available in many different materials, shapes and sizes, as a beginner it’s important you understand how to hold them
Learn the 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.
The 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').
The 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:
Get to grips with 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.
What are the different types of chords on the guitar
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, like you’ll find in most parts of learning the guitar, there are tried and tested methods for learning every element of the guitar that you need to just learn and incorporate into your playing. I’ll serve up the systems that I recommend here, which you’ll find tend to be most accepted and trusted ways of learning.
Familiarise yourself with the CAGED system (for major chords)
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. These are chords C, A, G, E, D...see how simple that was! 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. Note that I said these are for ‘major’ chords. Let’s not worry too much what major vs minor means for now, just know that there is a difference in sound.
Familiarise yourself with the AED system (for minor chords)
We 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. Not so hard was it?!
With these eight chords (from the CAGED and the AED systems) we have plenty of options for the beginner. 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.
Learn some 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 songs in existence 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 + 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.
Reading guitar chord charts
The chord chart represents the fretboard of the guitar. Those vertical lines are the strings and they go from left to right, E, A, D, G, B, E. The numbers on the dots represent the finger you should use.
A good explanation can also be found below:
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 5 maybe 10 times longer to reach your goals.
We all have the same 24 hours in the day, how we choose to spend them is entirely up to us. Some of us are fortunate to have an endless amount of free time, others struggle to carve out 30 minutes a day to dedicate to playing guitar.
The good news is a good guitar practice routine can put your learning into hyperdrive - even 30 minutes a day spent in the right way can bring you on leaps and bounds.
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)
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!
Ged is Founder and Editor-in-chief at Zing Instruments. He’s a guitarist for London based gypsy jazz band ‘Django Mango’ and a lover of all things music. When he’s not ripping up and down the fretboard, he’s tinkering with his ’79 Campervan.