10 Tips on Learning to Play the Guitar

Updated on May 23, 2016
Learning to play eh guitar
Learning to play eh guitar

Music has always been a big part of my life and I was lucky in that I was taught to play music from a very early age at school. I began my musical journey, as most of people of my age probably did, playing the recorder at primary school. I then progressed onto the flute and found that I could knock out a tune on just about any type of wind or brass instrument that I could lay my hands on. However, I soon discovered that, whilst I could impress my friends by playing Bohemian Rhapsody on a recorder, I was never going to be a Brian May until I learned how to play the guitar!

I soon found out, however, that being a beginner guitar player was going to be nowhere near as simple for me as switching to another wind instrument had been. I persevered, though, through fingers rubbed raw, and the frustration of not being able to sound anything like a pro, until I finally mastered the basics. Here are ten things that I wish had known then, when I picked up my first beginner acoustic guitar.

Choosing the right type of guitar
Choosing the right type of guitar

1. Buy the right kind of beginner guitar

A guitar is a guitar, is a guitar, is a guitar; right? Wrong! A guitar is a precision instrument and, if your very first guitar is the cheapest one you could find, you could be put right off the idea of playing the guitar for life. One of the biggest problems with cheaper guitars is that the strings are too far away from the fret board and that means you have to apply a lot of pressure with your fingers to get a clean sound and, when you are not used to playing guitar, it will also mean sore fingers from the outset! There are quite a few considerations to take into account when buying the best beginner guitar for you, so do your research first, before you part with your money.

2. Learn the basics before you try to be Jimi Hendrix

Learn the basics
Learn the basics

When you get your first guitar, the first thing you will want to do when you get home is to belt out the riffs from Smoke On The Water, Pretty Vacant, or Paradise City (depending on your age!), and there’s nothing wrong in that. With few basic chords under your belt, you will be able to produce something recognisable, but, to be a good guitar player; you will need to learn some basic music theory too. If you spend a bit of time learning how to read music and some of the basics of music theory, it will make becoming a proficient guitar player a much quicker process.

3. Practice, practice, practice!

I haven’t played the flute for years, but I know that, if someone handed me flute today and said ‘play me a ‘G’; I wouldn’t even need to think about where my fingers should go. To play the guitar well, you need to be able to do the same. That takes practice and there are a lot more finger combinations to learn with a guitar than there are with a wind instrument. Picking up your guitar once in a while won’t be enough. To learn to play properly, you will need to practice daily, for at least half an hour, every single day, and that’s the minimum. The more you practice, the more your fingers will remember where they should go and then, you will start to play naturally and be able to concentrate on rhythm and tone.

4. Use your wrist, not your arms

A mistake that many beginners make is that they use their whole arm to strum the guitar, when you should be moving your wrist and your forearm only. Playing the guitar shouldn’t take a huge amount of physical energy and your arm shouldn’t ache from strumming. If you use just your wrist and forearm to strum, you will find to easier to keep the beat, so leave the Pete Townsend windmills until you are a megastar guitar hero!

5. Find your motivation

Find your motivation
Find your motivation

Whether you want to be a rock star, join a folk band, or play classical guitar, you are going to have find some form of motivation to keep you going in the early days. Like learning any musical instrument, it will take a lot of practice before you can play really well and that can be very frustrating. When you pick up your first guitar, it feels great and you can’t wait to start learning, but, after a few days of sore fingers and not getting very far, you will be tempted to give up. Most people find it difficult to learn to play the guitar to begin with but, if you persevere, you will get the hang of it and it will be a skill that will stay with you for life.

Learn to play in time
Learn to play in time

6. Practice playing in time

Another common mistake that people make is that concentrate so hard on the getting the chords right, that they lose all sense of the timing and, even if they have been playing for a while, you will hear the odd pause as they try to get the fingering right. While the fingering is, of course, important, so is the rhythm, so practice getting both of them right at the same time. To avoid getting into the habit of pausing while you think about the fingering, practice with metronome running in the background. If you don’t have a metronome, and you don’t want to spend any money on one, search on Google and you will find a number of online metronomes you can use.

Use your ears
Use your ears

7. Learn to use your ears instead of your eyes

When you first start learning the guitar, you will have to look at your fingers when you pick out the notes and chords, but you need to learn the fingering well enough, as soon as you can, so that you don’t need to look at all. Make a point of practicing without looking at your hands and you will be surprised at how quickly you develop a much better sense of rhythm and the notes and chords will then start to flow naturally. The more you use your eyes when you are playing, the more you will hesitate, and that will throw you off the beat.

Vary your practice routine
Vary your practice routine

8. Vary your practice routine

You do need to practice your fingering and your chord progressions, but that can get very tedious, to say the least. To keep your practice sessions interesting, vary them sometimes by trying to play something really challenging. It can be useful if you can find a friend to practice with, because that will take away some of the monotony too. You could also make learning one of your favourite songs a part of your practice routine too. Anything, really, that stops your practice sessions being nothing more than a chore will help to keep you motivated.

Listen to music
Listen to music

9. Listen to music

Listening to music is very important when you start to play with other people, so it’s a good idea to get into the habit of listening properly while you are still learning. Listen to other guitar players and don’t restrict yourself to just your favourite styles of music. When you listen carefully to other people playing the guitar, you will be able to pick up how they are playing, whether or not they are making any mistakes, and how they are achieving certain tones. Training your ears to pick up the subtleties of other people’s playing will help you hear where your own playing might be going wrong.

10. Learn to play whole songs

Play whole songs
Play whole songs

No one ever pays to listen their favourite band play just the first few bars of their numbers, so learn to play whole songs, including the boring bits! It is very tempting when you are a guitar beginner to learn a famous riff from a song and then stop there, but that’s never going to make you a guitar player. People like to listen to complete songs, hear how they evolve and unfold, listen to the changes in tempo and key, and they want to hear the whole story. Practicing whole songs will improve your playing and make you a much more rounded musician.

If you are thinking of buying your first beginner guitar, or any other musical instrument, I would highly recommend that you do it. It’s not just the thought that you could one day be a guitar hero that should drive you on, it’s the pure pleasure that you can get out of playing music too. Even if you never do make to the big time, when you learn how to play a musical instrument of any kind, you get a far better appreciation of other people’s music too. So, what are you waiting for?

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