You dream of becoming a guitar virtuoso but you don’t know how to learn guitar? This step-by-step guide explains you how to start your guitar journey and become an expert.
I started playing music when I was 4. My mom registered me for piano classes at the Royal Conservatory of Music of Toronto, where I stayed for 14 years. I learned a lot about music theory and practised clapping and ear training. When I turned 14, I decided to start learning guitar in parallel. Of course, I struggled with hand pain at the beginning of my guitar journey. But playing the piano before helped me learn guitar faster, thanks to the dexterity I gained and my understanding of music. I also studied music at University. Ear training, chord progressions, scales and song structure classes helped me improve my guitar skills.
In this article, I share with you all the things you need to know to learn guitar, based on my more than 25 years of experience with the guitar.
This post is all about how to learn guitar.
- Why consistent practice is key to improvement on guitar
- Tips to play guitar consistently
- Staying inspired and motivated by attending performances and workshops
Getting started: choosing the right guitar and equipment
The first thing you need to figure out when learning guitar is the style of music you want to play. Based on this, you can decide which guitar is the best for you and what additional equipment you need.
Types of guitars
When you start learning guitar, it’s essential to choose the guitar adapted to the music you want to play. There are 3 main types of guitars: classical, steel-string acoustic and electric.
Classical acoustic guitar
Classical guitars are guitars with strings made of nylon. The string tension is low, making it easier to play guitar notes without pressing too hard on the string. You are more likely not to have finger pain with this type of guitar. This is why most guitar teachers advise starting with a classical guitar. That being said, your guitar needs to be adapted to the style of music you want to play. A classical acoustic guitar produces a mellow and soft tone. They are used to playing classical music. But they are also adapted to other musical genres like jazz, pop and folk.
Steel-string acoustic guitar
As opposed to classical ones, a steel-string acoustic guitar has strings made of steel. Steel strings require more pressure to play notes, making them more challenging for a beginner. Steel-string guitars produce a brighter tone. They are used to play rock, country, blues, pop, folk and other styles of music.
Electric guitars offer the broadest range of tones, shapes and materials options. It makes them more challenging to choose because the sound and feeling while playing can differ from one electric guitar to another. Some can have a string tension similar to a classical acoustic guitar, making them easy to handle by beginner guitarists. The advantage of an electric guitar is that you can play any style of music with it. They are prevalent in metal, rock and punk.
Note that left-handed guitars also exist, but they are difficult to find. Most left-handed guitar players play a right-handed guitar.
In addition to acoustic and electric guitar, there are other types of guitars that are less common for beginners, such as four-string, seven-string and resonators.
Other considerations for choosing a guitar
Here are a few essentials that will help you choose the right guitar.
Size of the guitar
After choosing the guitar you need based on the music style you want to play, you need to consider the size of your guitar. Steel-string acoustic guitars have different body types that you can choose from: dreadnought, parlour, jumbo and travel. The travel body can be an excellent choice if you have small hands because it’s smaller than the other body types. Concerning electric guitars, so many shapes and sizes are possible. You need to test which one is the most adapted to you.
Presence of a jack and control panel
Consider getting a guitar with a jack if you want to plug your guitar into an amplifier or record your sound. An electric guitar always comes with a jack, but classical and steel-string acoustic guitars usually don’t. If a jack is necessary for your usage, consider buying electro-acoustic guitars instead. They have the same properties as classical and steel-string acoustic guitars but can be plugged into your amp or mixing board.
Some guitars also come with a control panel that can be very convenient. It will allow you to adjust the volume and the EQ while playing. Some of them even include a built-in guitar tuner.
Of course, the budget you have for your guitar is also an essential criterion of choice. You can also consider getting a second-hand to start playing guitar.
Essential equipment for guitar players
When you start tuning your guitar for the first time, breaking a string is commonplace. So I recommend having a set of strings ready in case it happens.
Your fingers are composed of different parts, including the skin and the fingernails. When playing fingerpicking guitar, the sound might be inconsistent since the string can be in contact with those different parts. Even if fingerpicking takes more time to master, it gives you a wide range of effects you can produce with your guitar. On the other side, a guitar pick can help to create a more consistent sound if this is the style you want for your music. Using a guitar pick can allow you to strum quicker and gives you access to various techniques, such as alternate picking or sweep picking, for instance.
Capos are used to clamp down all the guitar strings on a specific fret. It allows you to shorten the area you play on your guitar to raise the pitch of your sound. It’s a must-have to play certain songs.
Guitar amps are not necessarily needed for acoustic guitars. But it’s a must-have for an electric guitar. They are, of course, used to strengthen the signal of your guitar, but they can also modify the tone of your guitar by emphasizing or deemphasizing some frequencies.
Pedals can be used to control the volume and EQ of your guitar. They are also used to produce special effects like distortion, delay and overdrive to enhance your music style. It’s an accessory that beginners use sparingly.
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Building your guitar foundation: tuning, chords and scales
Once your equipment is ready, the first step will be to learn how to tune your guitar. Once it’s done, chords, chord progressions and scales are part of the guitar basics and are the first things you need to practice to start learning guitar.
Tuning your guitar
Before playing songs, your guitar needs to be tuned, and it’s better to tune it every time you play. Many factors, like temperature and humidity, cause your guitar to go out of tune. This is why it needs to be done regularly.
Tuning your guitar ensures the strings are set at the correct pitch. To do so, you will turn the machine heads (the 6 keys on the top of your guitar’s neck) in the clockwise direction to tense the string and make the pitch higher or to the anticlockwise direction to loosen the string and make the pitch lower.
To ensure you are on the right pitch, I recommend using an electronic guitar tuner (built into your guitar) or a mobile app. The advantage of the apps is that they will show you the strings in order, listen to the sound the string makes and tell you automatically if the pitch is too high or too low and when you are on the right pitch. You can find a lot of mobile guitar tuner apps on Google Play and in the App Store.
More advanced guitar players can tune their guitar by ear, which is another guitar tuning method.
Check the beginner online guitar lessons I recommend to help you tune your guitar for the first time.
The first thing any guitar player should learn when starting guitar is to play chords. Chords are combinations of at least two notes. Starting to learn chords is the foundation of playing guitar and the tool you need to start playing countless songs.
The first guitar chords that are easy to learn for beginners are:
When you play guitar chords, the Xs represent the guitar strings that are not played at all. The Os are the free guitar strings. The numbers correspond to the fingers of your left hand that are usually used to press down the string. The index is the finger number 1, the major is number 2, the ring finger is number 3, and the little finger is number 4.
Check the online guitar lessons I recommend to help you learn the basic chords. Learning and memorizing them will help you play a wide range of songs.
Chord Progressions and Scales
Once you know how to play chords, the next step is understanding how to transition between them. This is where chord progressions and scales come into place. Chord progressions are sequences of chords played in a specific order. Scales are sequences of notes played in an ascending or descending order.
Examples of basic chord progressions: Em – C, G – C, G – D and G – Em – C – D – G
Example of scale: E minor pentatonic scale containing the chords E – G – A – B – D – E
Practising chord progressions and scales is fundamental since it will help you build dexterity and strengthen your fingers. Here are the best online guitar lessons where talented teachers will break down chord progressions and scales for you.
Tips to improve your guitar technique
Playing guitar can be uncomfortable at the beginning. This is why having a good posture and a proper hand position is crucial. Also, dexterity needs to be trained, and the tips proposed in this article can help you in this direction.
The posture you have while playing the guitar is critical and has to be part of your learning process. You want to have a good posture to avoid back pain, especially if you are planning on spending hours practising your guitar skills. The sitting position is the one to prefer to be more relaxed and be able to play longer. Here are our recommendations for both sitting and standing positions.
To play the guitar in a seated position, put the bottom curve of the guitar on your left leg. The guitar must be at an angle of about 45 degrees from the horizontal position. Place something under your left foot, so your left leg is elevated compared to the other one to maintain the angle easily. We also recommend using a guitar strap to ensure your hands are free to move while playing. This recommended posture is made for right-handed players. If you are left-handed, you need to reverse it.
The guitar strap is mandatory to play guitar while standing and must be adjusted so the guitar is not hanging too low. Make sure to if you are comfortable playing any chord while adjusting it. The guitar must form a 30-degree angle from the horizontal position. Same here, if you are left-handed, you need to reverse this posture.
Left hand (fretting hand)
Even if you are right-handed, your left hand is the one that will do most of the work when playing the guitar. The proper position for your left thumb is on the back of your guitar neck. It has to be at the same level as your index finger, which will be on the other side of the guitar neck, on the strings. Your thumb and index have to form a C.
The other fingers will move on the frets and strings depending on which chord you are playing. You want your fingertips to be in contact with the strings. It’s preferable to cut your nails before playing to make it easier. Also, ensure your left wrist is straight while pressing down the strings.
Right hand (strumming hand)
Your right hand should be close to your guitar’s rosette (sound hole). Your thumb is the preferred option to strum. It must touch the strings on its outer side, the fleshier part.
You can also join your thumb and index together to up-strum and down-strum with your fingernails.
You can also use your pick for strumming. In this case, you must hold the pick between your thumb and index.
In any case, you must curve your other fingers in a relaxed position underneath the strings. Make sure your right wrist is straight or slightly arched and relaxed. Finger exercises will help you improve your hand position.
The importance of practising regularly and consistently
As a guitar player since I was 14, my only secret to being that good has been the number of hours I put through the years in my guitar practice. I would return from school all my childhood and spend hours practising again and again. So practising almost every day consistently for years has made me a great guitar player.
Why consistent practice is key to improvement on guitar
When you play the guitar consistently, you are improving your muscle memory. Muscle memory is the capacity of the brain to make your muscles reproduce a specific movement without even thinking about it. It is learnt with the repetition of the same movement over and over again. Those repetitions create new connections between your neurons, making the learnt movements innate. So when you keep playing the same chord or sequence of music repetitively, it will become natural for you, and you will be able to play quicker and more smoothly.
Consistent practice doesn’t mean playing a full hour every day, and it doesn’t mean repeating the same guitar pattern all the time. Playing 15 to 20 minutes daily is enough to notice a significant improvement in your guitar skills. Also, it’s important to vary what you are playing so you stay energized with your practice. There are so many different options to practice the same skill: you can play different chords, focus on just one hand to improve your fretting or strumming separately, choose different songs, use mobile apps to help you recognize the chords, watch videos of other guitar players to learn from their technique, etc.
Tips to play guitar consistently
Staying consistent can be a challenge. As a beginner, you will face many obstacles in your guitar practice that could lead you to give up. So here are a few tips to stay motivated and keep practising.
You need to develop a practice routine. Pick a time during the day when you have time to play the guitar for at least 15 minutes. It could be in the morning, just before beginning your day or when you come back from work. Set this dedicated practice space aside for your guitar practice. After a few days, it will become a habit, and you will do it automatically.
You also need to set achievable goals. If your goals are too large or too complex, you might get frustrated because it will be challenging to have the expected results. For example, choose your favorite song and break it down into manageable sections or focus on specific skills you want to learn instead of learning the entire song at once. Reaching those small objectives will help improve your self-confidence and help you stay motivated long-term. Make a list of your goals and mark when you achieved them. It will help you to keep track of your progress.
If you are struggling to achieve one of your objectives, take a step back and analyze what you need to improve to be able to do it. To help you do this, you can practice with someone who will be able to give you feedback. If you are practising alone, use a mirror or film your practice to understand better what is not going well. Is it the transition between 2 specific chords that is not smooth? Is it the position of your fingers on the string that is not correct? Is it your strumming that needs to be more consistent? Based on this, you can break down your goal into smaller steps to help you make significant improvements.
Staying inspired and motivated by attending performances and workshops
To stay inspired and motivated when you practice guitar, I recommend you attend live performances like concerts or even watch videos of artists on YouTube. This way, you will be exposed to new ideas and styles that inspire you. Attending concerts will also allow you to network with other musicians and exchange about your practice and challenges.
Feel free to take advantage of the workshops that are organized in your area. It’s an excellent opportunity to ask questions, be exposed to new techniques and approaches and get hands-on instruction. You can also subscribe to many online guitar lessons to learn new things and improve your guitar skills.
Enhancing your guitar skills
Once your guitar practice is regular, you will rapidly make progress and need more advanced objectives. Same if you are already an advanced player. Here are some ideas to enhance your guitar skills.
Learning songs you love
The main goal of playing the guitar is to learn how to play your favorite songs. Once you master more and more chords, chord progressions and scales, you will be able to play a large variety of songs. Here are a few songs you could learn depending on your level.
5 ideas of songs for beginners
These songs are a great starting point for beginner guitar players because they feature basic guitar riffs, simple chord progressions and strumming patterns that are easy to learn. By practising these songs, you can develop your skills and build a foundation for learning more challenging pieces in the future.
5 ideas of songs for intermediate guitar players
These songs are good options for intermediate guitar players because they are a bit more challenging than the songs recommended for beginners but still accessible enough to be manageable with some practice. They feature more complex chord progressions, fingerpicking patterns, and solos, which will help you develop your skills and expand your musical horizons.
5 ideas of songs for advanced guitar players
These songs are challenging and require a high level of skill and mastery of the guitar, including advanced techniques such as fingerstyle playing, alternate picking, and sweep picking. They will provide a real workout for your fingers and help you take your playing to the next level.
Improving your timing and rhythm with metronomes and drum tracks
Other essential skills to learning guitar are timing and rhythm, which is difficult to apprehend when you start playing because you are usually overwhelmed by the chords. But it’s an essential skill to learn to be able to play with other players and if you want to record your music and add other instrument tracks.
The rhythm of a song is composed of 2 elements: the tempo and the beat. The tempo is how fast the beat moves. The beat is the pulse of the music.
On your music sheet, you will find the tempo marking above the stave, and it’s usually an Italian word like lento or adagio. It doesn’t give you the exact BPM (Beats Per Minute), but here is a table of equivalence:
|Lento or Largo||40-60 BPM|
|Prestissimo||More than 200 BPM|
The lower the BPM, the slower the song and the easier to play, especially if you are a beginner.
On your music sheet, you will also find the time signature. One of the most common time signatures is 4/4. Each measure will contain 4 beats, and each beat will be a quarter note. If you play with a BPM of 60, you will play 1 note at each beat. So you will play 60 notes per minute.
I recommend using a metronome to help you improve your timing and rhythm. A metronome is a device which clicks at regular intervals of time. You can find classic mechanical or electronic metronomes, but there are also many mobile apps or free metronomes online. If you are a beginner guitarist, you must choose a metronome that can click at 30 BPM, which is generally the lowest tempo you can find. It will click every 2 seconds, and it will be easier to play one chord every 2 seconds, in sync with the click. Once you master the 30 BPM tempo, you can slowly go up toward the actual tempo of the song you are playing.
Another way to practice your rhythm is to use drum tracks or organize a practice session with a drummer. You probably want to jam with others or record your music and add other instruments at some point. If you learn to keep time, achieving these objectives will be easier. You can find many drum beats online (on Spotify, for instance). You can choose the BPM of the drum beat. I recommend picking a very slow BPM when you start and slowly increasing it as you improve, like with the metronome. The advantage of drum tracks is that you will have more fun than playing with a metronome. If you have the chance to know a drummer, you can practice with them and make it even more fun.
Enhancing your musicality by understanding music theory
Understanding music theory was a game changer when I was learning guitar. It helped me immensely to speed up my guitar skills by improving my ear and knowing guitar notes, chords, scales and rhythms.
What is music theory?
Music theory is the musicians’ language. It helps in understanding and communicating the language of music. By learning music theory, you will understand the fundamentals of music and be able to interpret musical compositions.
When you start learning about music theory, you will explore the music alphabet, harmony, melody and rhythm.
The music alphabet (A, B, C, D, E, F, G) will help you understand how to read guitar tablature, the guitar chords, the relation between them, the octaves, the scales, the modes, etc.
Harmony is the combination of sounds like notes and voices forming a new sound that aims to please the ear. Chords, chord progressions or the combination of a guitar track and a voice are examples of harmonies.
The melody is a sequence of notes that creates a musical phrase. Most songs consist of several melodies that repeat several times. For instance, verses and chorus. Melodies have 2 primary elements: pitch and rhythm. The pitch is the note’s frequency, representing how low or high a note sounds. As discussed in the previous section, the rhythm is each pitch’s duration.
Why invest time in music theory as a guitar player
As music theory can be tedious, I recommend alternating between practice sessions and studying music theory. I know that many guitar players are reluctant to learn music theory, but it’s an incredible tool that will benefit your guitar practice. You will find a lot of online guitar classes with a guitar teacher who mixes music theory and practice.
Here are the reasons why you should learn music theory:
- Music theory will speed up how fast you can learn guitar. It applies to any style of music, and even tuning is based on music theory.
- You will learn how to read guitar tablature.
- If you are a visual person, it will help you memorize what you are learning quicker by also being able to read the music you are playing.
- Music theory is the musicians’ language. It will help you communicate with your musician community and gain credibility.
- As you advance in your guitar learning, you will need more and more to understand music theory. Music theory is especially required if you want to be creative and compose your own songs or be able to improvise.
I hope this article will help you in your guitar journey and help you understand the steps you need to take to play songs and bring your guitar skills to the next level. If there is just one thing you need to remember: consistency is the key. Start your musical journey today and enjoy your guitar practice!
This post was all about how to learn guitar.