So you’ve decided you want to learn to play guitar? Good move. You won’t regret it. But like any new endeavor, it’s going take time and patience to get anywhere.
In this article, we’ve mapped out the basic steps you need to take. Some are perhaps obvious, others maybe not so, but either way read through this guide and make sure you’ve got it all covered.
Buy a Guitar
First things first, you’re going to need an ax (you’ll often hear the term ‘ax’, which is slang for guitar).
Acoustic or electric, that’s entirely up to you, but I recommend you start with an acoustic.
They’re easier to set up (i.e. get in tune) and generally more pleasing to the ear for the beginner. They’re not the best for playing solos, but you’ll be focusing on chords and play songs to begin with (not soloing).
It’s also easier to grab the acoustic and have a sing-along with family if you’re self-isolating and they need a lift.
You’ll also want to consider which style of music you want to play. Certain genres of music, e.g., blues or fingerpicking, sound better on particular models. It’s worth considering this before you make the purchase.
If you fancy going straight for the electric, especially if you’ve already learned the basics such as open chords, go for it! You’ll have to buy an amp of course (there are many guitar amp types to choose from), and it will help to buy a few effects pedals.
- Our pick of the best fingerstyle guitars
- Our pick of the best short scale guitars
- Our pick of the best travel guitars
If you buy an electric guitar, you’ll need an amp. The preference is usually a tube amp because they sound so freakin great. They usually sound better than transistor-based amps (but they sound great too – for a further geek about that, see => types of amps.
Related links: Our list of the best tube amps available right now.
You can get pretty far with a decent guitar and a good amp, but pedals are a great addition. You’ll want to begin with a decent overdrive pedal like the Tube Screamer (see our Ibanez Tubescreamer review for more on that). For a Jimi Hendrix vibe, get yourself a univibe pedal and a decent fuzz pedal.
You’ll also want to make sure whichever one you use has a decent 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 fact, a new set of strings (or well-looked-after ones, thanks to regular cleaning) can make a very ordinary guitar sound great. Even the best guitar out there with an old set of strings will sound truly awful.
- How to restring a guitar (essential).
- Guitar strings order (the order of strings, both ascending and descending and some ways to remember them – helpful).
- Acoustic guitar string gauges chart (know your string guages)
You can play fingerstyle (without a pick or plectrum), and many people do (Mark Knopfler, for example), but to grasp the basics, it’s worth starting with a pick, even if further down the line you decide you move to fingerpicking.
Make sure you experiment with different types of guitar picks until you find one that feels comfortable.
Remember, when starting out your fingers will be really sore. Don’t worry, the soreness will go away in time. Calluses (hardened fingertips) will naturally form, and these fingertip calluses eliminate the pain, but they take a while to build.
Tune it Up
Like singing in tune, tuning is one of the biggest challenges for a beginner, and while many seasoned players wonder what all the fuss is about, many beginners are put off because their guitar is always out of tune.
Alternatively, you can use our online guitar tuner – it’s completely free.
Note: If there’s nothing you can do to make your guitar stay in tune, or if just sounds plain awful, it may need a setup. A setup involves making fine adjustments such as altering neck relief so that it plays better. If your guitar hasn’t been looked after very well, it may very well need some professional care. Doing so will help it not only play better but also stay in tune better too.
Learn the Basics
Ok, how do you play the thing? Let’s take a look:
First of all, learning the notes on the fretboard will help.
In fact, memorizing the notes on the fretboard is a lifelong endeavor! Notes are laid out in a very logical fashion though, so once you’ve grasped the fundamentals you can quickly work out where any given note is.
For beginners, it’s important to appreciate that 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’).
Start by learning to play these easy open chords – there are eight in total (well, nine if you include the F chord), and once you have them in muscle memory you’ll be able to play thousands of songs.
Then these minor chords…
Learn to Strum
There are many strumming patterns, but to begin with just focus on the core pattern which is pretty straightforward.
On every beat, play a downstroke:
Then add an upstroke in between each downstroke:
Remember, some of the best campfire songs are only three chords, so you can create music with just a few basic shapes.
There are of course millions of songs transcribed for you all over the internet, for example:
- songs about coming home
- songs about friends
- songs about unrequited love
- songs about freedom
- songs about peace
You can find many more on our playlists page.
Of course, one of the first songs you should learn to play is Happy Birthday. Knowing it will come in useful for the rest of your life! Here are the guitar chords for happy birthday, it’s pretty easy.
Build a Daily Guitar Practice
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.
We’ve covered the basics, but how do you take it to the next level?
Normally I’d say find a good music teacher who can coach you. In these times of self-distancing, that’s not an option.
You could cruise around Youtube, trying to ignore the ads popping up every 2 minutes. Good luck with that!
The best option, in my opinion, is to subscribe to an online music school. For a relatively small monthly fee, you get a huge amount of guitar instruction. No ads to bother you.
The ones I recommend are:
- FenderPlay (Fender’s own online guitar school)
- Truefire (great for technique) which both have a ton of guitar lessons and resources
- Guitar Tricks (a ton of great courses, especially good for learning songs)
While not as personalized as a teacher, they all let you track your progress, so it is a bit like a virtual trainer. For convenience and cost, they both provide a great experience.
We hope this has given you insights into which order to do stuff in. Playing an instrument is one of the most rewarding things you can do, don’t give up too early!
There are a ton of health benefits attributed to doing it too, and as instruments go, the guitar is one it’s one of the easiest and most fulfilling to learn 🙂