How to Play Guitar: a Step by Step Beginners Guide

Want to learn 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.  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 it takes years. 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. So why have we called this the Ultimate Guide…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.

Here’s what we’ll cover…

Equipment you need

Guitar

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).

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.

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.

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.

Further reading:

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 you’re 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.

Learning How to Play

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 🙂

Sit 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.

Left Hand

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.

Right hand

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 sound hole 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.

Learn the Guitar Fretboard

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.

Understanding the Fretboard

Learn 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!

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.

Types of Chords

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.

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.

Learn 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.

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.

Where to Find Chord Sheets

Ultimate Guitar is the grand-daddy of guitar chord search engines with over 800,000 tabs! – for chord, guitar tabs, bass tabs, ukulele chords, guitar pro and power tabs.

Another good search engine for finding guitar chords, guitar tabs and lyrics is Chordie; the site also includes facilities for transposition, and for developing personal songbooks.

Soundslice is a relative new-comer and claims to be ‘the Internet’s finest music learning experience’. It’s pretty good actually, combining sheet music with audio/video, for fast learning and fun practicing.

Songsterr has guitar, bass and drum tabs & chords with a free online tab player with a decent selection of 500000 tabs. The interface is a bit clunky though.

Song Tutorials

Your first port of call when wanting to learn a new song is no doubt You Tube. Sites like JustinGuitar.com have stacks of song tutorials and they’re ok. But often you better off going for a paid solution: you get much better quality, both in terms of instruction as well as audio visual and controls.

As good as many of YouTube videos and free guitar lesson sites, the people behind these sites usually don’t have the scale or budget to make them super comprehensive, covering all genres at all skill levels. Paid online academies do.

With paid resources you get the best instructors. Paid online guitar resources are massive sites with huge budgets behind them that attract some of the best instructors out there. These sites have also had thousands of dollars spend on designing them with the user in mind, so they’re easy to navigate and fast as anything.

Market leaders are Guitar Tricks, the world’s largest online guitar school, with well over 11,000 lessons covering most styles and skill level. If you are looking to invest in your guitar playing, and the monthly fee doesn’t put you off, you should check out Guitar Tricks. Here is an in depth review I did about Guitar Tricks that is worth reading before you sign up.

Jamplay has fewer lessons at just over 5,000 but what sets it apart is the sheer number of 80+ professional instructors!  It’s great if you’re a fan of a particular musician who teaches in Jamplay. I’m a big fan of Kaki King who teaches lessons on Jamplay – awesome!

Truefire.com is another personal favourite of mine, with superb tutorials from expert guitarists such as John Jorgensen, Tommy Emmanuel and Pat Martino.

If you want to go deep into a particular genre, often specific online academies are better than generic ones like the above.

If you’ve seen a wonderful acoustic version of Stevie Wonder’s Superstition on YouTube, chances are you’ve already see internet sensation Adam Rafferty. His online guitar school Study With Adam is a wonderful place to learn acoustic / fingerstyle funky guitar.

If you are a fan of the music of Django Reinhardt then Yaakov Hoter’s Gypsy and Jazz school is well worth taking a look at. Learn the basic strumming technique (called ‘La Pompe’), arpeggios and a load more. Rather than a monthly subscription you pay per lesson too with is nice.

For some of our fave songs to play on guitar, check out these articles:

Apps

With the explosion of tablets and smartphones in the last few years, it’s opened the door to guitar based apps. Due to the portability of these devices you can be learn guitar pretty much anywhere you can take a guitar – plus they’re pretty cheap as you already have the hardware. The functionality of these apps improve year on year too.

Yousician is a new breed of app that lets you plug your guitar into a device (phone, tablet) with the Yousician app installed and you’ll be able to play along to songs. Yousician gives you feedback on accuracy and timing too, using ‘gameplay’ to keep you motivated, similar to Rocksmith (see above). Allows you to upload your own songs too which is a nice touch.

Jamstar is another app that is really fun. Install the app on your device, plug you guitar in to your device and start playing. The app senses your strumming pattern and lets you move on or asks you to repeat the notes – giving you feedback as you play. offering pointers. This form of computer aided learning is quite novel and will only get better in time. Worth checking out. Here’s a good review of Jamstar.

Establish a Practice Routine

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 (see our in-depth review here) which has some great practice apps (such as the Fretboard Trainer)

Ideas to Fast Track Your Learning (Optional)

Find a Guitar Teacher

Most of us appreciate that having lessons is the best way to get started. Not just in guitar, in pretty much any discipline.

How many golfers have gotten bad habits by not having lessons when they started out? Plenty. The same can be said for Guitar. A few lessons early on can build the right foundations throughout your playing career. If you’re a parent and you’d like your kids to play guitar, you know what to do.

That’s not to say you can’t end up with a rubbish guitar teacher, so make sure you look for someone with ample teaching experience and preferably someone who has recorded stuff you can listen to.

Also consider what style you want to learn. Don’t hire a rock guitarist when the style you’re most fond of is fingerstyle guitar.

A good guitar teacher will hold you to account of the duration of your time together, identify your areas of weakness and help you develop much quicker than by yourself. I was terrified of my first guitar teacher, a Welsh jazz teacher who’d played professionally, he didn’t take any nonsense.

Online Guitar Lessons

This is relatively new thing of course, but it’s amazing who you can get lessons from over the internet. Location not being an issue any more, you can learn any style you fancy.

Yes, you may get some delay issues over Skype, and it pays to have a good connection, but with the quality of broadband so good these days (in the UK and most western countries at least) then connection isn’t really an issue.

And yes, it’s preferable to be face to face, but really if you want to learn Gypsy Jazz and one of the the only teachers who gives lessons lives in Israel (true story, his name is Yaakov Hoter) then Skype is awesome.

You can also record the Skype too for viewing later, that’s pretty awesome.

Get Lessons at a Local Music School

Another alternative is to find a music school (yes, a physical one) near to where you live. You’ll be surprised how many of these exist. Certainly if you live near a big city there’ll be dozens to choose from.

There are several benefits:

  • Music schools will have courses they run (often leading to accreditation) that are well established programmes of study.
  • You’ll be taught by a guitar teacher (or several teachers) and you’ll have a good mix of individual and group exercises.
  • You’ll meet other students at varying levels of proficiency who you can practice with.
  • Courses often have some element of playing in public too at the end of the course, giving you a huge boost of confidence (and experience playing in public).

If you don’t have a music school in your proximity try finding an evening class in a further education college (or similar).

Go on a Guitar Retreat

You’ve heard of yoga retreats right? Well the same exists for guitar. They’re called guitar retreats, and they’re all the rage.

The format tends to be a anywhere from a weekend to a whole week of group guitar lessons during the day followed by gigs in the evening. Many packages include accommodation, meals, even trips to local tourist spots and often include rates for bringing your partner (the locations tend to be tourist spots so the idea is they would be out sight-seeing while you’re jamming).

A massive amount of study in a short space of time, they aren’t cheap, but they are fantastic for speeding up your learning curve. Also a great way to make new friends and have a great experience.

Legendary jazz and fingerstyle guitarist Martin Taylor puts on regular guitar retreats that by all accounts are fantastic. Held in California, New York, Scotland, Singapore, London and Italy, these multi-day experiences are a great way to travel and improve your guitar playing at the same time.

martin taylor guitar retreat

Jam with Friends / Form a Band

How could a beginner join a band? Sounds ridiculous right, but it’s a very good way of learning by absolute immersion.

I did this at the tender age of 16. I joined a band and ‘played’ (in it’s loosest sense) rhythm guitar. I remember playing the chords to the Pixie’s ‘Where is my mind’ and not having a clue what I was doing. “Just put your fingers there” I remember my mate telling me. Can’t have sounded that bad as they didn’t kick me out!

So how do you find a band? Well, if you’re still at school then see if there’s a school band you could join or form yourself. If you’re a church-goer, see if your local church band need a guitarist. You can hook up with other like minded people on websites like Join My Band in the UK. There will be an equivalent in your part of the world too.

I recently hooked up with a French Gypsy Jazz guitarist on Join My Band who was over in the UK for a year with his family. I wanted to learn the Gypsy Jazz style from someone who knew what they were doing, and he agreed to jam together. After three months my gypsy jazz playing had improved on massively. Thanks Geoffrey!

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!​

 

Featured image by Quinn Dombrowski / CC By-SA 2.0

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.

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