How to Learn to Play Guitar

By Mark
Updated on

As a guitar teacher, I’ve had many first lessons with beginner students.  Over the years I would get questions like, “What do I need to play the guitar?” or “How do I learn to play the guitar?”. Today, I’m going to share with you the first steps that every guitar player should take:

Find the Right Guitar for You

Learn to Tune Your Guitar

Learn the Parts of the Guitar

Learn How to Hold a Pick

Learn How to Play Basic Chords

Learn How to Pick Notes on the Guitar

Find a Guitar Teacher or Guitar Program

Other Tips

Beyond the First Steps

Find the Right Guitar for You

The first step to find a guitar that is right for you.  Finding the perfect guitar can be a challenge as there are many different guitars in all shapes and sizes.  But almost any guitar is better than no guitar. The guitar that you decide on can come down to many things including:

  • Buy new, used, or borrow?
    • You can get a decent guitar for around $150 to $250, new or used.  But if you’re not sure you’ll stick to the instrument, you can borrow a guitar or even rent one from your local music store. 
  • Size
    • You’ll want to make sure that the size of the guitar is not too big for you.  That means that you’re not reaching for any frets and that your arm fits nicely over the body of the guitar.  For younger guitar players, they’ll want to start off with a ¾ size guitar that fits their body.
    • The size of the frets also matters.  Larger spaces in between the frets make it difficult to play.  If you have smaller hands you’ll want to get a guitar with smaller frets
    • The weight of the guitar might also be a factor.  Sitting uncomfortably with a heavy guitar for a long time may discourage you from practicing.
  • What music you are interested in playing
    • The acoustic guitar is going to be the pick for most beginners as it is the most versatile instrument.  Classical guitars are a consideration as well, as the nylon strings are easier to play on.  

One thing that you’ll want to keep in mind when looking for a guitar is how well it can stay in tune.  Having a guitar that goes out of tune every time you touch the string can ruin the experience.  

Learn to Tune Your Guitar

Once you have decided on the guitar it’s time to get it in standard tuning: EADGBE.  There are many different ways to tune your guitar.  It can be quite tricky at first but it is important. You’ll want to have at least one of these ways to help your guitar stay in tune. 

The easiest way to do this is to use a tuner.  There are many different kinds of tuners and they work very similarly.  You’ll make sure that the tuner is in position to hear a note on the guitar and you’ll have to turn the tuning peg in the correct direction to get the tuner needle in the middle, green or whatever the correct tune indicator is.  You’ll do this for all of your strings until you’ve tuned them all.

Guitar Tuner

 

Phone apps are the cheapest tuners that you’ll be able to find mostly because they are free.  Just download one from the app store for your phone, open up the app and hold your tuner close to your guitar, play a note and use the interface to tune up or tune down a string.  Repeat until all of the strings are in tune.

Phone apps used to tune the guitar

Vibration tuners are some of the cheaper guitar tuners.  They stick to your guitar and read the vibrations on the headstock or body of the guitar to help figure out whether you should tune down or up.  

vibration tuner

Pedal tuners are the most expensive and are mostly used with either electric guitars or acoustic-electric guitars that can be connected with a cable.  

Pedal Tuners

Learn the Parts of the Guitar

Now that you have a guitar it’s time to learn the parts.  It’s important to understand how other guitar players will communicate with you about how to play the guitar.  If you look at the diagram below you will see a guitar and on the top you will see how the strings are numbered for a right-handed guitar.  You’ll notice that the thinnest string, the high-E string, is numbered 1.  The next string is the 2nd string and so on.  The last and the thickest string, the low-E string, is numbered 6.  It would also be beneficial for you to learn the note names of each string.

Parts of the headstock

Also on the diagram is the nut, which is the piece of the guitar that supports the end closest to the headstock.  When we pick any string without using our fretting hand we call that an open string.  The space between the nut and the fret bar is called the first fret.  The space after that is called the second fret and so on.  

Learn How to Hold a Pick

The next step is to learn how to hold a pick.  You can make an ‘OK’ sign with your index and thumb of your picking hand.  Then squeeze the pick between your thumb and index with the sharper end pointing toward your body.  Hold it tight enough to keep it from falling out of your hand but loose enough to be relaxed.  

Hold a pickHolding a pickPlay a guitar with a pick

With picks, there are also a lot of different styles and also thickness of picks.  When starting out, use a lower thickness pick first to get used to the feel of playing a pick.  When I first started playing I used Dunlop light guitar picks, with under .50mm of thickness.  It allowed me to get used to picking strings without much resistance.  Nowadays, I use Dunlop Jazz III which are 1.38mm in thickness.

The more you play the more you will find what suits your playstyle.  Some guitar players like holding the pick a lot closer to the point.  Some guitar players like holding the pick on the edge.  Some don’t use a pick and use only their fingers.  Some guitarists like to use both at the same time.  It’s all about finding what is going to help you get comfortable learning the guitar.  

Learn How to Play Basic Chords

At this point, you’re ready to start learning how to play some basic open chord shapes. 

Learn to Read Chord Charts

Before we do that, it’s important for us to learn how to read chord diagrams.  Below is a right-handed chord diagram for the chord Cadd9.  You can think of the diagram as a guitar standing on its side.  The left-most line is the thickest string on the guitar, the low-E string.  The line to the right is the high-E string.  The horizontal lines are the fret bars.  You’ll see the numbers between fret bars that show which finger on your left hand to use on that string.  

Learn to play G chord

 

If playing the chord is difficult you can try to use 3 string chords.  For most 3 string chords you will be using one finger and only use the top 3 strings (3rd, 2nd, and 1st string) for a chord.  

While learning to play these 3-string chords, you can add one other finger to the chord to ease your fingers into playing the full chord.  In doing this, you’ll not only slowly learn how to play the chord but you’ll also build strength in your fingers to play the guitar.  

Here are a few other chords you can try.

Learn to strum the guitar chords

Now that you have some guitar chords you have learned, the next step is to strum the chords. With a light grip and a slight angle on the pick, you want to drag the pick over the string to strum the guitar.  Once you are more comfortable with this it’s time to learn a basic strumming pattern.  Pick one of the chords that you have learned and attempted to learn your first strumming pattern below:

Basic Strumming Pattern

You’ll want to work on this until you are confident in your technique.  

The next step is to learn to play a chord progression.  First, try to play progressions with 2 chords.  The easiest to play would be Cadd9 to G.  Play the strumming pattern once and at the end switch to G.  This will be tricky at first but working slowly with the strumming pattern and switching to the next chord will help you determine similar fingers between the chords.  In the case of a Cadd9 to G, the third finger is the finger that doesn’t move while your first and second fingers move one string down.  

Learning how to strum the guitar will help you become comfortable with rhythm and getting your picking hand moving up and down. 

Learn How to Pick Potes on the Guitar

Once you’re comfortable with strumming, you can turn your attention to learning how to pick notes.  At this stage, you’ve become comfortable with the up and down motion of strumming the guitar.  

One simple exercise for you to work on is to use your first finger to play the first fret on the first string and pick that note with the right hand.  Now repeat that with the second finger on the second fret. Repeat this with the third finger.  And finally with the fourth finger.  Now repeat this in the reverse, starting with the fourth finger, and working your way backward to the first finger.  You can repeat this exercise on all strings and not just the first.  

This exercise helps to build up your finger strength and coordination on the guitar.  

Find a Guitar Teacher or Guitar Program

Learning from free youtube videos off the internet is a great method to start off.  But with so much information for you to search and sift through, it’s going to be difficult to find things to learn, practice them, and apply them.  The best way for you to continuously improve is to find a guitar teacher or online guitar program.  Someone or something can tell you exactly what to improve on next and build a roadmap for you to reach your musical goals.  

One misconception that beginners may have when finding a guitar teacher is that all guitar teachers are the same.  Guitar teachers vary in experience and expertise. Finding a guitar teacher that aligns with your goals and your interests can make a world of difference.  You will get immediate feedback that youtube videos will not be able to provide you. This can prevent you from building bad habits in the long run. 

Other Tips

Make a list of the songs you are looking forward to learning

The next step is to make a list of the songs you want to learn.  Nothing makes you quit something faster than learning something that you aren’t interested in.  This means that we don’t have to learn how to play ‘Happy Birthday’ or ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’.  The point is to learn something that keeps you moving forward with the guitar.  

Practice a little bit every day

It’s important, with any new skill that you are trying to build, that you try to practice every day.  You’ll learn a lot more from practicing one little thing 15-30 mins every day rather than practicing everything that you’ve learned in one hour, once a week.  Consistency is going to help you in the long run.  

With newer guitar players, they are most likely to play for 10-15 mins only to have their fingers hurt.  It’s also a good idea at this point to take a break.  I remember this clearly from my first few months of playing the guitar.  I would play a few chords for 10-15 mins until my fingers hurt, do something else whether it be homework, watching T.V., etc.  I would come back and repeat 3 or 4 times a day and get 45-60 mins of practice every day.  You don’t have to take the same route, but I want to show you that you can break your practice sessions into smaller pieces and get a lot of mileage out of it.  

Learn to Read Tabs

The easiest way and cheapest way to learn a lot of songs right off the bat is to learn how to read tabs.  There are many free tabs on the internet. You can have access to learn almost any song within seconds of searching for a song.  

Finding the right strings for your guitar

If you are having a hard time fretting strings on your current guitar or your fingers are uncomfortable, your strings might be the problem.  Switching your strings to a lighter set can help you get accustomed to fretting strings on the fretboard.  If your strings are dirty or rusty, it’s also a good time to get them changed.  

Beyond the First Steps

This is the beginning of your life as a guitar player.  Today we’ve gone over a few chords and how to strum them. But there are many songs, many styles and many techniques to enjoy learning.  Though it may be a slow grind at the start, the more you play, the more fun you’ll have. Learning things you like will make the ride a lot easier.  

Now it’s your turn! Take the first steps and see how far it takes you!

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