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Beginner’s Guide to Starting Guitar: Learn to Play Guitar Today

The author is a guitarist and bassist with over 35 years of experience as a musician.

Get started playing guitar today!

Get started playing guitar today!

How to Become a Guitarist

The guitar is the greatest instrument in the world and among the most important inventions in the history of mankind. Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration. And I may be a little biased. I’ve been playing guitar for over thirty years, and I can’t imagine my life without it. Long ago I made the choice to learn the instrument, and I have never regretted it. It has opened doors for me and gotten me through some really tough times.

My personal feelings aside, any way you look at it the guitar is a pretty significant instrument. Few other musical devices have so captured people’s imagination across such a broad range of music styles and genres. From Metallica to Django, from Zeppelin to Segovia and all points in between, the guitar has played a pivotal role in shaping the sound of our world.

If you are reading this, you are probably thinking of taking the plunge and learning to play guitar. So, what’s stopping you? Nobody ever looks back on their life and wishes they didn’t bother to learn an instrument! It certainly isn’t easy, but it is so worth it.

But I understand it can be confusing when you are first starting out. That’s why I wrote this guide. It will answer many of your questions, and it may bring up a few things you haven’t even thought of. My regular articles on this site cover many deeper aspects of guitar playing, and I’ll link to them where I can. And, if I don’t cover something you need to know, feel free to ask in the comments section.

So let’s get to it! You need to get started playing guitar today!

When Should You Learn Guitar?

If you are worried you are too old, too young, too busy, or too (insert other excuses here), I can tell you there is a good chance you are worried over nothing. I started playing when I was twelve, but many guitarists picked up the instrument much later in life.

There are no limits, and there is no reason to impose illogical rules on yourself. Whether you are a youngster thinking of learning to play, or an older person who wants to fulfill a lifelong dream, don’t wait another minute!

Starting guitar as a teen obviously has its advantages. Kids have an easier time learning just about anything if they are willing to put in the work and be disciplined in their approach.

But there are advantages for adult guitar students as well. As an adult, you likely have a stronger work ethic and a much better idea of what you want than you ever did when you were a teenager.

If you put off starting guitar, thinking you are waiting for some perfect time, you may find that months, years, and even decades have passed before you know it. Many people look back and wish they had picked up the guitar years ago, and they are filled with regret. Don’t let that be you!

So, when is the right time to learn to play guitar? The right time is now!

Your First Guitar

Your First Guitar

Choosing Your First Guitar

One of the most confusing things about getting started is picking out your first guitar. If you don’t know much about the guitar, things can get murky in a hurry. There are hundreds of choices out there, so how are you supposed to know what to do?

Firstly, I always recommended going with a quality brand rather than some unknown guitar from a big-box store. Here are the three biggest reasons why:

  1. Solid brand names have proven themselves over the decades with thousands of new guitar players. If they didn’t make good gear, they wouldn’t still be around.
  2. Higher-quality guitars are easier to play and more likely to stay in tune. This is important for a beginner who is struggling to fret their first chord. A crummy guitar just makes the learning process that much harder.
  3. Quality guitars from reputable brand names also tend to sound a whole lot better. A guitar that sounds good will inspire a newbie to sit down and play, and the more you play, the better you get.

So, while you may be tempted to go the ultra-budget route for your first guitar, I really recommend against it. Choosing a solid beginner instrument from a quality name brand gives you a much better shot at success.

Resources to Help You Choose Your First Guitar

Should You Choose Electric or Acoustic for Your First Guitar?

Should you start out on acoustic guitar or electric guitar? My recommendation: Whichever lights your fire!

Some newbies think they need to start out on acoustic guitar and master it before moving on to electric guitar. You can do that if you want to, but it’s not necessary.

In fact, in some ways, it is easier for beginners to start with an electric guitar. Electric guitar strings are usually lighter, and the action is a bit closer to the fretboard. This makes it easier to play, especially when comparing budget models. Newbies may find them less stressful on their fingers when first starting out.

Electric guitar amps can be turned down for quieter practice. They also often feature headphone jacks. Both features come in handy for parents who grow tired of their budding Jimi Hendrix wailing away in the next room.

On the other hand, acoustic guitars come with a cost advantage. Because you don’t need an amp and some of the other accessories, you can get into the guitar for less, or you can afford a better starter instrument. You can also practice and play an acoustic guitar just about anywhere. They are easy to tote to the studio for a lesson or to a friend’s house for practice.

There is no right answer here between acoustic and electric guitar. The bottom line is you need to choose whichever guitar gets you excited. That’s the one that will make you pick it up and play it.

Recommending guitars and giving my opinions on gear is one of the main things I do around here. I could name a couple of dozen guitars that are great for beginners, but for the purposes of this article I’ll cut to the chase and offer up my favorites.

My top recommended electric guitar for beginners is the Epiphone Les Paul Special. This is an instrument modeled after the legendary Gibson Les Paul. Of course, it comes in a package that’s affordable for newbies!

With a solid Tune-o-Matic bridge and stop-bar tailpiece it will stay in tune well, an important point for beginners. Like the Gibson Les Paul, it has a pair of humbucking pickups that can handle any genre or style. The LP Special is a versatile guitar made by a quality brand. It sounds good, it’s affordable and it makes a great first guitar.

More Electric Guitars for Beginners

  • Electric Guitars for Beginners
    Read this shortlist and discover the top ten guitars that are best for beginners, all under $200 and from big names in the guitar world.
  • Electric Guitar Starter Packs for Beginners
    Compare and review the best electric guitar starter packs for beginners, affordable kits from the most respected names in the guitar industry.
  • Les Pauls for Beginners
    Get advice on choosing the best Epiphone Les Paul electric guitar for a beginner and learn why Epiphone is a top brand name for newbies.
  • Stratocasters for Beginners
    Get advice on choosing the best Fender or Squier by Fender Stratocaster electric guitar for beginners for your budget and style.

Epiphone Starter Packs

When it comes to acoustic guitars for beginners, my top choice is the Yamaha FG800. This guitar, and the Yamaha FG Series in general, has a reputation for sound and playability at a budget price. It has a basic dreadnought body shape that’s great for projection and sound clarity and is made from quality tonewoods.

It’s also important to note that both Epiphone and Yamaha offer starter packs with similar instruments as those listed above. Starter kits contain the guitar plus all the accessories you need, including a strap, picks, extra strings, learning materials and, in the case of electric guitars, even an amp.

Choosing a starter kit for your first guitar is smart. It is more cost-effective, and you save yourself much of the hassle of hunting down each piece of gear individually.

More Acoustic Guitars for Beginners

The Yamaha FG Series

Learning Guitar

Learning Guitar

How to Learn to Play Guitar

Once you get a guitar in your hands you have to learn to play the thing. There are many approaches here, and no one-size-fits-all answer. You may need to experiment with several learning styles until you find what is best for you.

Before I get into ways you can learn guitar, I’m going to pass on the two most important things I ever learned as a guitarist. They are, I think, the foundation of everything else. Think about them, meditate on them and let them sink into your skull. For me, these realizations were turning points in my career as a young guitar player.

  1. Anything another guitar player can do, you can do too. Legendary guitar players aren’t aliens from some other galaxy, playing instruments heretofore unknown to mankind. They’re people, just like you and me, playing instruments just like we have. You can find any note they play on your own guitar. There is nothing mystical here.
  2. Hard work is the path to getting good at guitar. Period. You have to put in the hours. Just like anything else in life, the harder you work the better you get. This may sometimes mean making sacrifices and setting priorities. Instead of wasting time playing video games or staring at the TV, practice. You don’t have to make guitar playing your life, but if it is important you will find the time.

But there is no point in working hard without a plan. So, how should you go about learning this guitar thing?

Should You Take Guitar Lessons?

In my opinion, there is no substitute for a good guitar instructor and mentor to guide you on your path. If you can hook up with a teacher who understands your goals and is ready to help you explore them, by all means, this is the way to go.

That said, there are many reasons a teacher may not be the right method for you to learn guitar. Just as a great teacher can guide and inspire you, a poor teacher can be damaging. That is the situation I found myself in when I first started playing. After a few months, I quit lessons, and from there out I was self-taught.

A teacher who isn’t interested in your goals and aspirations and just wants to force their method down your throat can really kill the joy of the guitar. Remember, this is supposed to be fun, right? In the worst cases, they can drive newbies to quit.

Cost is another factor when considering lessons. A good teacher (or even a bad one) doesn’t come cheap. For this reason, you may opt for an alternative learning method.

Learning Guitar Online

Unlike when I was first learning guitar, newbies today have a massive resource at their fingertips when it comes to lessons and general advice. That is, after all, how you ended up here!

While I offer up a lesson on occasion, there are many other sites purely dedicated to teaching guitar. Some of them are based on membership, and others are totally free. You can learn just about anything you would have from an instructor from these sites, but you do have to be self-motivated.

YouTube is another great resource for learning guitar. Everyday guitar players and experts alike post videos on what they know, and you can really learn a lot. One word of caution though: Remember that just about anybody can post a YouTube video, so consider the source when taking advice.

If you are highly motivated and unable or unwilling to spend any extra money, learning guitar from online resources can be a solid plan.

Software, Video, and Book Learning

Aside from online learning, the computer itself is a great tool for learning guitar. There are many software packages that can guide you through the beginning and intermediate stages of learning guitar. While they might cost a good chunk of change, in the long run, you’ll spend less than you would have on weekly lessons.

The Rocksmith Method is probably the most popular software for learning guitar today. It’s a solid, logical way to progress as a new guitar player. Users claim a high success rate, and it doesn’t hurt that it is put together in a fun way.

Books and DVDs are a more old-school way for sure, but I don’t think they should be discounted. In fact, I think it is smart for new guitar players to start building up a library of songbooks, lesson books, and reference materials. It doesn’t need to be your primary method of learning, but these resources can be very valuable in a pinch.

Once again, to do well with any of these learning methods you need to be highly self-motivated. Otherwise, you’re just going to end up collecting a bunch of stuff that you never look at. Before you jump into one or the other, put some thought into which seems to fit your personality and learning style the best.

The Rocksmith Method

Do You Have to Learn to Read Music?

Really, whether or not you learn to read music depends on your goals.

If you intend to be a rock, country or blues guitarist you are probably wasting your time learning to read music. Most of the songs you’ll play are available as tablature, a simple shorthand way of notating music. It is easy to pick up in a few minutes and requires no specialized reading skills.

However, even if you don’t read music it is still very important that you understand music. You still need to have a firm grasp of music theory, and there is no substitute for this no matter what kind of music you play.

If you intend to be a jazz or classical guitarist you will need to learn to read music, and you’ll probably want to get good at sight-reading. These genres are more demanding in a traditional sense, and in some cases, you will need to be able to play a piece of music without ever hearing it. That’s the point of musical notation, in its purest form.

Remember, even if you choose not to learn to read music, there is no excuse for being musically stupid! All guitar players need to have a solid understanding of how music works, and that means taking some time to learn about music theory.

Learn More

Learning Songs on the Guitar

Once you get a few chords under your belt it is time to start learning songs. There are easy songbooks out there, or you can jump right in and try to learn some of the songs by your favorite bands.

It’s not as daunting as it may seem. Many rock and country songs are based on very simple chord progressions. While the complicated stuff will still elude you for a while, there are many, many songs appropriate for beginners to learn.

Learning songs you like makes practice enjoyable and productive. Don’t wait until you are an intermediate player. Learning songs has a few major benefits for beginners.

Firstly, it gets you playing music in a practical way. This is a lot more fun than strumming random chords all day. You can work on what you know, and actually play guitar instead of just practicing.

Secondly, it helps to expand your skills. Songs notated in tab are easy to follow, and usually feature diagrams at the top for each chord used in the song. You’ll learn new chords, and force yourself out of your comfort zone.

If you start to get frustrated, you may have chosen a song that’s a little too difficult for your current abilities. Put it aside and move on to something that seems a little easier. While you want to push yourself, trying to master songs that are well beyond your skills will only lead to aggravation and failure.

Time to get out there!

Time to get out there!

Jamming With Other Musicians

Next to learning songs, getting together with other musicians is one of the best things a beginner can do to expand their horizons. Ideally, you want to partner with another guitarist who is a little better than you. You can learn a lot, and they will inspire you to improve.

Hanging out and trading ideas with other beginners isn’t a bad idea either. Everyone comes at this guitar thing from a different angle, and gaining the wisdom of another perspective can only help you.

I don’t even think it’s a bad idea to form a band as a fairly new guitar player, as long as you are partnering with other newbie musicians. You’ll be pretty terrible in the beginning, but you’ll learn a lot, not just about the guitar and music but about how to get along with other musicians.

Jamming with others is another fun way to work on your skills, and very important to your development as a guitarist. Don’t think you need to put it off until you’re better. Odds are you can find other guitarists of a similar skill level to get together with. If you are seeing a guitar teacher he may even be able to hook you up with somebody.

How to Write Music on Guitar

If you know two different chords you can write a song. Maybe it won’t be a good song or even a song you want another human person to ever hear, but it will be a song nonetheless.

If songwriting is on your radar as part of what you’d like to accomplish as a guitarist someday, you may as well start as soon as possible. Like other aspects of playing guitar, songwriting is a skill that takes time and practice. In other words, you have to write a whole lot of junk before you get to something good.

It’s a process, and the sooner you start the better. You’ll begin to understand how different chords work together, and how songs are constructed. You’ll improve your ear, and get a better feel for music in general.

Songwriting isn’t for everyone, but if it is something you want to do there is no reason to wait. Creating your own music is one of the most wonderful things about being a musician. Just like playing other people’s music, once you know a few chords you can get started!

Tip on Writing Music

  • How to Write a Song on Guitar for Beginners
    Learn the basics of how to write a song on guitar! Even beginners can create a basic song outline and start making their own music today.
  • How to Write a Guitar Solo
    Learn how to solo on the guitar and write your own leads, plus the importance of scales, improvisation and self-evaluation.
  • How to Beat Songwriter’s Block
    Learn about five important concepts that can help you beat songwriter's block. Creative blocks occur for many reasons, but as musicians there are a few things we can do to keep on writing songs when times get tough.

Graduating to Intermediate Guitarist

Where will you be in a year? You won’t be a beginner anymore, that’s for sure. If you work hard at learning guitar you’ll be a totally different musician and even a different person. You’ll know what it takes to stick to something and get good at it, and it will be hard for you to understand why anyone would ever hesitate to learn an instrument.

Those who really dedicate themselves can make some amazing progress in a year. But it all starts with the first step. It takes courage to try something new, and it takes dedication to learn an instrument. But it is all worth it. Once you gain knowledge nobody can take it away from you. You will be a guitar player forever.

So, where do you want to be in a year? Still thinking about learning guitar, or looking back on a year where you changed your life? It’s entirely up to you.


Guitar Gopher (author) on January 14, 2019:

Hi leblat100 - Thanks for the kind words! I believe you can use an acoustic guitar with Rocksmith via a microphone. Be sure to check out their site for specifics on how to do that.

Fender Play is a fine learning system as well. It is more video based, where Rocksmith is more like an interactive game. Rocksmith is a one-time software cost plus additional songs, where Fender Play is a monthly subscription. Both will get you where you want to be. It's a matter of which you feel more comfortable with.

Suggestion: At this time Fender appears to have a free trial for Fender Play. Maybe try it out and decide from there.

Congratulations on making the decision to learn to play and good luck! When things get frustrating just take a step back, clear your head and try again. Learning guitar is something you'll never regret!

leblat100 on January 13, 2019:

56 and retired for a year+. Really ready to take up the guitar learning journey, that's been on my mind for way too many years. I've found your articles extremely very readable and helpful. A big thanks! A couple of quick questions......does an acoustic guitar have to be "connected" to the computer to make use of Rocksmith (I have it downloaded on my Mac)? My son suggests that I go with Fender Play,.....thoughts? Thanks again,