Learning how to play guitar can seem like one of those “I’d love to learn how to play someday, but it seems so hard” kind of mysteries. I can’t tell you how many times I had stared at my guitar wanting to learn but just procrastinating due to feeling overwhelmed at the prospect of doing so. Today we will pull back the vail a bit and give you some beginner tips on how to learn to play the guitar. We won’t go into actually playing songs but by the end of this discussion, you will have enough understanding to begin practicing with some confidence. You don’t need to be as musically talented as Jimi Hendrix to play guitar, you just have to be technically sound enough to find a note with your fingers without having to look down at the fretboard to find it. It’s very doable!
Playing the guitar for beginners is really all about learning how to properly hold a guitar, knowing all of the parts of a guitar and their locations, and how to actually play it. That will be the bulk of our discussion today. We won’t touch on the electric guitars or classical (Spanish) today mostly because this is a beginner’s guide to playing the guitar and we want to make sure the basics of the most popular (acoustic guitar) is covered first. Ready?
Parts of the guitar
What are all those little white dots on the guitar? Have you ever wondered that? Well let’s jump right in. We will start at the back of the guitar and work our way to the front. The largest part of the guitar is called the guitar body. Bodies come in a variety of sizes and each one has a different sound and tone to them. The guitar is not really a one size fits all instrument. If you’re a small framed person, then the Grand Jumbo may not be the best fit for you.
Conversely, if you’re Andre the Giant then the Mini Acoustic will look like a turkey drumstick in your hands. As you can see, finding the right sized guitar is really the first step in the process of learning how to play guitar. Comfort is paramount, mostly because practicing for hours on end with the wrong sized guitar will get very uncomfortable. The body of the guitar has a sound spectrum to it that goes from the small and trebly Parlor guitar to a good mid-sized balanced Dreadnought style, to a larger bass sound like the Jumbo or Grand Jumbo. If your ultimate goal is to be a singer/songwriter, then the Dreadnought will most likely be the perfect fit for you as the other styles are designed to be more band friendly.
Moving on to the guitar bridge you’ll find the big wood or plastic part that sits behind the sound hole (more on that in a moment), it’s usually glued to the body, but sometimes can be bolted on in the case of the electric guitar. On the bridge you will find the saddle, a small white strip that holds the strings in place for the bridge holes. The bridge pins simply hold the strings down and keep them in place. There is some debate about pinned vs. unpinned bridges and for a beginner there’s really not much to say on the matter except that unpinned bridges can have a tendency to separate at the top glue joint and scratch up the top of the bridge if it’s wood.
Next up is the pick guard. The pick guard is located under the sound hole and gives the guitar its’ distinctive look. All it really does is keep you from scratching up your guitar with your pick while you strum. The sound hole is exactly what it sounds like. Although it’s not always in the middle of the body (some don’t even have one) it resonates the sound from inside the guitar. Moving forward is the neck of the guitar. The neck consists of the fretboard and the headstock. The fretboard holds the frets (obviously) which are the small thin metal strips that run vertically all the way down the fretboard. The nut is just like the saddle on the body of the guitar. This small white piece holds the strings in place. Remember those white dots? Well those white dots are called fret markers.
Not all fretboards have them, and some have very elaborate designs for the markers. All they do functionally is to help you keep track of where you are on the fretboard. The last items on the headstock are the tuning pegs and the tuning keys. The tuning pegs hold the strings in place and are connected to the tuning keys. Finally the tuning keys are just used to tighten and loosen the strings so you can tune the guitar.
Holding your guitar
Now before you go all “Guitar Hero” on your family and friends, it would be best to know how to actually hold the guitar properly. First you will need some sort of foot stool or step stool. It could really be anything as long as it’s solid, and won’t slip out from underneath your foot while you play. You can go out and actually buy one for about $20 US, but if you have anything else that you can use then why bother early on. When learning the guitar, there is really only one way to hold a guitar correctly. First, remember that the guitar should always be in an upright position. Avoid leaning the guitar into your body or else playing it will become a real pain in the neck, literally. Looking down to make sure you are on the right frets may seem like a good idea, but after a few hours of practice, you will understand why it’s not. Leaning the guitar away from you is not recommended either because you won’t be able to control it. Aside from having the edge of the body digging into your thigh, the last thing you want is to miss a fret because the guitar rotates back towards your body.
Place your arm over the guitar body and pull it up tight to your midsection. This will make playing more efficient and comfortable. There are three methods for playing the guitar. There’s the classical way, which involves placing the foot stool under your left foot and placing the guitar on your left knee (if you’re right-handed). Holding the guitar in the classical method means that it’s no longer your bicep that rests on the guitar, but more your forearm. This will not only give you a comfortable position for your arm but with the fretboard slightly tilted up it can make it easier to reach the frets with your left hand. That means you can actually lean back in a chair and still be in a good position. So start by resting the guitar on your left leg. Place your right forearm over the top of the guitar body and with your left arm down at your side and relaxed, slowly bring your left hand up to the fretboard and you’re ready to go.
The casual method is a bit different. This is more of an upright position and if you’re planning to play on stage someday, this would probably be the method of choice for practice. The foot stool goes under your right foot and the guitar goes on your right thigh. Wrap your right arm around the guitar body and pull it close to you. This will keep it stable and help you avoid leaning over the guitar to try to look at your fingers. Again, let your left arm hang down and relax, then bring your left hand up to the fretboard.
The third method is the standing method. This is for onstage performances and will involve the use of a strap. Now when you’re first starting out learning how to play the guitar, you will notice that they don’t all come with a shoulder strap. You can get one for about $10 US so they’re not that expensive and they will always come in handy. If your guitar doesn’t have strap lock buttons already, you’ll have to buy them and install them yourself. This is not a big deal or difficult to install, they will also cost you about $10 US. Just follow the instructions on the package and you’re on your way.
Obviously you could buy a fancier strap if you want and pay upwards of $200 US for it, but since this is a beginner’s guide to learning how to play the guitar then the cheap one will probably do just fine. To play a guitar while standing up is pretty easy once you have the straps set up properly and comfortably. Start by sitting down in your casual or classical position. Adjust the straps to a snug fit over your back and tighten the front so that the fretboard doesn’t slide up or down your shoulder. Now remove your hands from the guitar and stand up. The guitar should not have moved or slipped in any way from your seated position. If it does, sit back down and repeat the process of adjusting the straps.
Once you have that all taken care of and the guitar doesn’t slip or rotate, you’re ready to move on. Playing a guitar while standing on stage can be exhausting. If this is how you are planning to perform someday, then you should get used to practicing while you’re standing early on so your muscles can adjust to their new posture and position.
So now your journey of learning to play the guitar has shown you know all of the parts of the guitar and how to hold one. Now comes the hard part of learning where your fingers go, what the frets are and how to count them. Learning the strings and understanding the numbering system for a guitar. This may all seem a bit tricky at first but there is a simple logic to it. Once you understand the logic behind it, then practice will make more sense and you will get more out of each session. Let’s start by counting the strings. The first string is always on the bottom and is the thinnest wire on the guitar. From there it goes up in both number and thickness until you reach the top string which is also the thickest wire. That is the sixth string on the guitar. So from the bottom to the top, first string, second string, third string fourth string, fifth string and sixth string.
Next is the finger count and this is the easiest, it really is as simple as one, two, three, four. Your index finger is first finger, your middle finger is second finger, your ring finger is third finger and your pinky is fourth finger. Frets work simply by placing your finger right in front of the metal bar on the string that is desired. For example if you were told to put your first finger on the first string, second fret, you would place your index finger (first finger) right in front of the second metal fret bar on the first string(bottom string). If you were told to put your second finger on the sixth string, sixth fret, you would place your middle finger (second finger) on the sixth string (top string) and slide back toward you counting up the metal bars you passed until you counted five, the next metal bar is the sixth fret.
Guitar strumming and chords
We know all of the parts of the guitar, how to hold it and how the fretboard works. It’s time to learn how to read a guitar chord diagram and strum. When learning how to play guitar, reading a chord diagram may seem a bit confusing at first glance, but once you know what you’re looking at, it’s pretty straightforward. The way the guitar chord diagram is set up is like a grid. There are six vertical lines representing the six strings and go from right to left, meaning that the far right line is the first string and the far left is the sixth string. Here’s where the musical alphabet comes in. The musical alphabet is A-B-C-D-E-F-G. For the guitar in this case, there are six strings and they are labeled as “open” E-A-D-G-B-E, as you can see there are six letters and there are six strings on your guitar. Why are there two E’s?
Unfortunately, in order to answer that, we have to get a bit technical. There is something called a “perfect interval” that occurs in both minor and major scales. Intervals are the backbone of just about everything in music and the smaller intervals like half steps and whole steps combine into scales. Larger intervals though, make chords and that’s where the guitar comes in. The “E” on the far left side of the chord diagram (or sixth string) is called the “low E” and the “E” on the far right side (or first string) is called the “high E” because the notes sound the same on a basic level. However, the “high E” vibrates 4 times as fast as the “low E” because of its’ thinner diameter. On a fundamental level this means that the lowest string and the highest string are exactly two octaves apart but have the same pitch. Hence, you have two “E’s”.
Where were we? Oh yes, guitar chord diagrams. So there are six vertical lines for the six strings and six horizontal lines for the frets. The top of the diagram has a rectangle or filled in box that denotes the nut on your guitar that is used as a visual que so you know where you’re at. Above that there are dots and perhaps an “X”. If there is an “X” above a string on your diagram, it just means that you don’t play that particular string while you’re strumming. The circles give you finger placement on the guitar and a number inside of a circle (if there is one) tells you which finger to use. A shaded dot indicates a root note of the chord you will be playing.
Speaking of strumming, let’s get into how to use a pick. You don’t have to use a pick if you don’t want to. After all this is about coming up with your own personal sound. Just be prepared because it will take some time to get your fingers used to passing over braided metal at high speed. If you are planning on using a pick, here’s how it works. Hold the pick upright so the pointed end is facing up. You should have the pick between your thumb and the tip of your index finger like you’re holding up a hair to the light. Now bring it down and give it a try. It should be comfortable and there should be no strain trying to hold it as you strum.
If you feel like you don’t have the control over the pick that you would like, try two fingers. Keep experimenting until you feel comfortable and have complete control over the pick without squeezing the life out of it. The angle that you strum is really a matter of personal preference. This is where you get to be as creative as you want. Just remember that you will be doing this for thousands of hours, so it would be wise to make sure it’s comfortable. Strumming should be simple and relaxed. Avoid letting your wrist tense up because carpal tunnel is real. It should just be like you’re shaking water off your hands after you shower, non-violent with mostly wrist motion and a touch of elbow. If you lock your elbow, it will make your strumming inconsistent and probably lead to injury down the road.
Concluding How to Play the Guitar
Learning how to play guitar is really not that difficult, but it is a skill. As with all skills in life practice makes perfect. Find your own sound and run with it. Now that you have the basic tools to learning the guitar, practice and let your imagination take over. Release your creativity and who knows? Maybe you could be the next Jimi. Regardless, we hope this article helped spell out many aspects of learning how to play the guitar!