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You Can Learn Guitar: A Guide for Beginners

Updated on October 18, 2017
R Swafford profile image

Two years ago, I started a long journey to learning guitar, and I would like to encourage you and help you learn how to play!

Welcome to Your Guide!

Imagine being able to strum a tune around a campfire with some friends, or play yourself a song while singing to it. Playing guitar is whimsical, delightful, challenging, and rewarding all at once. If imagining yourself playing sounds like a really neat idea, then you are in the right place to make that a reality. You being here means you have a curiosity about learning to play guitar, have tried in the past but it didn't work out, or are a beginner looking for some tips on how to grow as a guitarist.

Well I am here to tell you that YES, you can and will learn how to play if you really want to! This guide was designed to get someone started who has never picked up a guitar before, and my goal is to help you succeed in your musical journey as much as possible. You won't need to learn how to read music, either! I have walked in your shoes and I can tell you that it may not be the easiest thing to learn and it takes a lot of practice, but it is so worth it once you play your first song. Let's get started!

Advice Before Beginning

Since starting a new hobby can be rather intimidating and overwhelming, I want to break up the steps of my guide as best as possible. The goal is to take it one step at a time so you feel confident and prepared for the next one. But remember: Struggle is necessary and natural when first starting out, and guitar is not just for people with a "natural talent'. Truth be told, those people don't exist. It's just that we never saw all of the hard work and practice and persistence they went through to get to that point. So my best advice is, make mistakes, and keep practicing no matter what! Even if it may feel like you aren't doing much, you are actually building up and reinforcing your skills with the repetition of practice. Mistakes are how we learn, and you should embrace them!

Step 1: Pick a Guitar

First, you'll want to decide if you want to play a "left" handed or "right" handed guitar. The strings and some other features will be arranged according to which one you decide to get:

  • Right* - When playing righty, your left hand will be holding down the strings and your right will be strumming. Playing this way means that videos and resources you look up will most likely be oriented the same way, since most people play righty, which will make it easier to learn. I am left-handed, but I play righty because your left hand does a lot of the fine-coordinated work which makes more sense to me. *I recommend this method.
  • Left - Playing lefty means that your right hand will be holding down the strings and your left hand will be strumming. This guide follows a right-handed orientation, so the pictures will make a lot more sense if you do choose to be righty. But don't let me choose for you!

Then, choose the type of guitar you want (or use one you already have):

  • The Electric Guitar - Requires that you also purchase an amp, it is more cumbersome and expensive, but the strings are much easier to hold down which can be more gentle on your fingertips. Keep in mind that the amp needs to be plugged into the wall to power the sound.
  • The Acoustic Guitar* - This guide will be based on playing an acoustic guitar, which doesn't need an amp and is much less expensive than an electric. It can play a variety of beautiful sounds and does not need to be plugged in or have power to use. It is a great, affordable type of guitar which is perfect for beginners and beyond. *I recommend going with this option, especially since you can easily bring it with you if you want to go to a park or someone's house with it!

You can find used guitars in thrift shops, shop online, or look on local sales apps for your guitar. If you are buying used, make sure you check that all five strings are intact and not rusty (this guide does not cover how to replace strings), and that no part of the guitar is damaged. Also, be sure to look at the strings to see if it is left or right handed (the thinnest string should be on the bottom when you hold a right handed guitar).

  • Smaller Option - When I bought my guitar I didn't realize that there are 3/4 sized guitars, which are great for people with smaller hands, stature, (not just) for children, for travelers, or for someone looking for an inexpensive way to learn the instrument. 3/4 guitars are played the same exact way as a full-sized one, and I wish I would've known this starting out since I am not a very large person and it would make it easier to play!

Step 2: Discover the Basics

First, I will name all the parts of the guitar, define them, and then I will orient you to how they all work together and how you will play. As I said before, this guide will be based on playing right-handed, so keep that in mind. Take a look at the basic part names of an acoustic guitar:

Source

Frets - These are the lines that divide up the fret board. Your hand will hold down the strings very close to the frets, but never on top of them.

Chords - The hand placements you will learn in order to play your guitar. They have names, like A, G, Em (the m stands for minor), and C, and have visual maps to show you where to put your fingers. I will cover this more in a bit.

Tuners - These control the tightness of the strings, which are turned in order to keep a string sounding the way it should.

Soundhole - This is what creates the beautiful sound of the guitar.

These are the basic terms you should be aware of, but don't feel like you have to learn them all right now!

Step 3: Know your Strings

Strings have letters, but in all two years of practicing I can still never remember which is which (except the Es), and memorizing them is unnecessary for this guide. However, you will want to pay attention to the numbering system because it will help you in learning your first chords. Each string has a number, so if you were holding the guitar and looking down on it (with string 6 closest to your body), then they would be numbered like this:

String 6 is your low sounding E, and string 1 is your high E.
String 6 is your low sounding E, and string 1 is your high E.

Step 4: Tuning

You should get into the habit of tuning your guitar every time before you play it, including right now! Before you start playing, you'll want to make sure the notes sound right. There are many factors which can put your guitar out of tune, such as humidity, weather changes, or hard strumming. If you have a new guitar, it is probably not in tune. There are two ways to tune:

  • Chromatic - A chromatic tuner will listen to the note, detect which string you are playing, and tell you whether to adjust the string to a higher or lower sound.
  • By ear - This is something that is difficult to do, and you will only get better by practicing. I try to tune by ear first, then use my chromatic tuner app to fix any sounds that are off.


Step 5: Learn Five Chords

These five chords are all you need to play your first song and beyond! There are many songs that use just a few chords for the entirety, which was encouraging when I first started out (I will list those next). The first thing you should do is try these chords on your own. Take them one at a time, and play them until you think you understand how your hand should be placed. The better you are at this step, the easier your first song will be. You can also practice strumming up and down at this point. Note: Always make sure your hands are free of oils or lotions before playing so your strings don't rust!

Pretend that is your hand in the photos and that you are looking down at the guitar as you play; the photos were taken from this perspective to make it easy for you to learn. The numbers are to tell you which string is being held down:

The finger placements will feel awkward and difficult at first, but don't let that stop you!
The finger placements will feel awkward and difficult at first, but don't let that stop you!
You should try your best not to strum the strings that have an X over them, because they are not part of the chord.
You should try your best not to strum the strings that have an X over them, because they are not part of the chord.
You may have trouble maneuvering that ring finger at first.
You may have trouble maneuvering that ring finger at first.
This is written "Em" for short.
This is written "Em" for short.
This is written "Am" for short.
This is written "Am" for short.

Step 6: Your First Song

Here is list of songs that only use the five chords (or less). If you haven't memorized them yet, go back and do that before moving on to this step. Otherwise, you are ready to play your first song!

It is best to pick a song that you like or know so you are motivated to practice it (you will be playing it many times). If you don't see anything you like on this list, you can always look for one on your own; just look for the chord version (it will have the lyrics with chord letters above the words). Here are the songs:

  • Last Kiss - Pearl Jam (This was my first song. It is very sad to play over and over again. You have been warned.)
  • Radioactive - Imagine Dragons
  • Ring Of Fire - Johnny Cash (Fast-paced, but great for pushing your strumming limits to the next level)
  • Royals - Lorde (This one has a challenging strumming pattern, in my opinion)
  • The Writer - Ellie Goulding (usually played with capo - see capo section for info)

Here is a link to more beginner songs, and to the article that inspired me to learn guitar.

Step 7: Practice Makes Progress

  • Get into a routine. Even if you only have an hour a week to practice, it is better than nothing! Pick a micro skill (see below) to work on for a determined amount of time.
  • The best way to learn new chords is to find songs where you already know all but one or two of the chords. If you try to learn too many at once, your practice sessions will be less productive. Take it one session at a time!
  • I use this app to find new songs, learn chords, and practice old songs. It has a huge database of songs and is free. You can search by level of difficulty and if you encounter a new chord while playing, just click on it to see the diagram. It also has built in tuning tools.
  • I also like to look on YouTube to figure out strumming patterns or to see how fast I should be playing a particular song.

Step 8: Micro Skills to Practice

Learn to learn: If you know what to learn, then you will be able to get better at guitar faster. In teaching myself to play, I realized there are a lot of micro skills (skills within learning guitar) which you are learning all at once during practice. Think of them as pieces of a puzzle:

  • Strumming - Keeping a steady beat, using a pick or your thumb, how to hit all of the strings properly, how hard to strum. You can use a metronome app if needed.
  • Strumming Patterns - Are you strumming up-down-up-down? Are you strumming down-down-up-down? Is there a pause between one strum and another?
  • Strumming Tempo - How fast or slow is the song going?
  • Finger Positioning - Holding strings down hard enough, keeping your fingers near frets, learning the muscle memory of awkward finger positions for chords.
  • Switching Chords - Switching your hands to the next chord in time to the song. This will be very slow and challenging at first, but you will get better at it as you build your muscle memory. Trust me!
  • Singing - Keeping your voice in time to your playing (best to get the other skills down first before trying this, unless it helps you to sing along).

Keep in mind that if you can isolate a micro skill you need work on, then you can practice it more easily. For example, if you are having trouble strumming to a beat, just use your strumming hand and practice that alone rather than trying to switch chords and keep your fingers positioned correctly all at the same time.

Step 9: The Capo

Once you have gotten the previous skills down and are ready to learn more chords, it will be useful to purchase a capo. Why, you say? Well, it is necessary for some songs (the author of the song should specify), but not necessary for playing beginner guitar songs.

  • This is a tool which is clamped to the neck of the guitar to hold down the strings for you while you play a song (see below).
  • It changes the key of the sounds, or makes the notes higher-pitched.
  • It is useful if a song is too low for your voice to sing and you want to change the pitch accordingly.
  • You can think of it as a tool that shortens the neck of your guitar. Wherever your capo goes, that becomes your "first" fret.
  • The chords you learn will not change with a capo.

A capo.
A capo.
Capo on guitar.
Capo on guitar.

Beyond the Guide

  • Be persistent! That is the only way to improve the skill.
  • Know when to take a break. If you are starting to loathe playing, then put a pause on practice. This could be for a few minutes, a few hours, or a few days. Then you can come back with a fresh mind when ready.
  • Make time to practice each week and don't lose hope if you forget to (or skip).
  • Use the internet and apps as your resources. If you are confused about something, look it up.
  • Remember to have fun.
  • I believe in you, and I promise you can do it! I truly hope this guide has inspired you to learn guitar, and to learn beyond what is in this guide.

Some more beginner songs to teach you new chords:

  • Lonely Boy - The Black Keys (see my practice video here)
  • Drift Away - Uncle Kracker
  • Good Riddance - Green Day
  • Eleanor Rigby - The Beatles
  • All The Small Things - Blink-182

Thank you so much for reading, and Good Luck!

© 2017 Rebecca Swafford

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