So you’ve decided to take the leap and learn the guitar. It’s an exciting prospect, to say the least, thinking about all the songs you’ll be able to play, performing live, writing your own music. It’s an extremely positive and healthy pursuit that carries with it many lessons on discipline, perseverance, and practice that will permeate into other areas of your life.
But at the same time, it can also be intimidating, you can’t play a single song yet and it seems like such a long road ahead to achieve true guitar godhood. Luckily for you, the guitar adheres to the old adage ‘easy to learn, difficult to master’ and you’ll soon find that your first steps are far smoother and more rewarding than you’d expect.
So today we’ve prepared 10 steps that outline your beginning journey when learning the guitar, to both help you prepare and give you some direction on what you’ll need to learn.
- Step 1: Learn the anatomy of the guitar
- Step 2: Before you play – tuning, sitting position, how to hold the pick
- Step 3: Let’s starting playing chords
- Step 4: Turn chords into music with strumming
- Step 5: Expanding your technique – bends, tapping, vibrato
- Step 6: Tablature – unlock the ability to play any song
- Step 7: Learn to practice
- Step 8: Theory – scales, chords and modes, oh my!
- Step 9: Original compositions
- Step 10: The ongoing journey
- Closing thoughts on steps to learn guitar
Step 1: Learn the anatomy of the guitar
Wrapping your head around all the bits of the guitar and what they do is not that hard, it’s just unintuitive. If you sit with the instrument and just twist and turn everything you can you’ll probably get less than desirable results and possibly damage something.
So it’s very important before touching anything to just briefly inform yourself on the fundamentals of how the guitar works. What the string does when you strike it, how pressing a fret shortens the length of the string increasing its pitch, how the pickups convert that into an electrical signal.
In addition, it’s also worth understanding, even at this very beginning stage, what the electronic controls do. Not utilizing the volume knob to keep your guitar nice and quiet while leaving the guitar idle can draw ire from your fellow musicians as the amplifier buzzes through it while someone’s trying to talk.
Also, it’s helpful to learn that using the pickup selector and tone knobs will control aspects of your guitar’s sound which is going to help start training your ear and get you used to the process of manipulating the sound of your instrument.
With that being said, you don’t need to know everything, just the basics. The guitar is quite a precise instrument with things like the bridge height, intonation, action, neck relief all needing to be set just right to have it playing its best. At this stage, it’s best to leave that to a trained guitar technician (although this is something you can absolutely do yourself in the future with a little training).
Step 2: Before you play – tuning, sitting position, how to hold the pick
We’re nearly ready to start playing, but there are a few things to cover first.
Firstly, you need to know how to tune your guitar. This can be quite an art in itself and many professional audio engineers could tell you at length about how difficult a guitar is to get truly in tune (but don’t let them, change the subject immediately).
For your purposes, you just need to remember the tuning of the guitar which is (from low/thickest string to high/thinnest) E A D G B E. And you will use the tuning pegs at the top of your guitar to adjust the pitch of each string until it matches that tuning.
The easiest way to know what you’re doing here is to download a tuning app on your phone such as the popular ‘guitar tuna’, which is completely free. When you play a string it will ‘listen’ to the pitch and tell you whether you need to tune up or down, easy!
Two other things you want to think about before you start playing is your sitting position, there are a few ways in which you can sit with the guitar. There’s a ‘classical’ position where the guitar sits in between your legs and you’ll use some kind of stool to prop your left leg up. You can also sit cross legged which pushes the guitar up a little more towards your chin which some people find easier, or you can simply place it on your left leg and just ensure you sit upright.
Lastly, you need to hold the pick, technically there is no right or wrong way to do this. But you could easily find yourself practicing with a pick technique that isn’t what you want later on and it can be some work to ‘retrain’ your picking angle. The easiest thing to do here is watch some YouTube tutorials on how to hold a pick and see what works best for you.
Step 3: Let’s starting playing chords
You’re seated, tuned, holding the pick correctly, and ready to rock. What’s first?
The single most important thing that you need to do when learning the guitar is make sure you’re having fun. Without that, you will give up and this whole endeavor is rendered pointless.
So forget theory, reading sheet music, exercises, drills, and all that boring stuff, we need you playing music and having fun right from the beginning.
The easiest and quickest way for a beginner to start sounding good on the guitar and be able to jam along to songs is by learning some easy chords. Most popular music draws from a surprisingly small pool of chords and by just learning a handful of them you’re going to be equipped with everything you need to play literally thousands of songs.
To learn chords we first have to learn how to read a ‘chord diagram’. This is essentially a picture that gives us the information we need to play a chord. Fortunately, this is very easy and takes just a few minutes to learn, we even have a handy guide written to help you through this here.
Get used to playing those chords one at a time, memorize them, ensure they sound clear. Don’t be discouraged if they don’t sound amazing right away, learning guitar is a process and sounding good is not a simple flick of a switch where you suddenly sound great. It’s an ongoing journey of small wins that will accumulate into having you sound amazing.
Step 4: Turn chords into music with strumming
With a small vocabulary of chords under our belt, there’s just 1 final step and we can start to play music, and that is to learn ‘strumming patterns’. In the broadest sense, a strumming pattern gives the chords we are playing rhythm and personality. They hold the groove and dynamics of the song in place and are really what turns just a single chord into real music.
There are three main components to strumming, the downstroke, the upstroke, and sometimes the mute, we indicate these with a D, U, or X respectively. Here’s an example of a simple strumming pattern:
So with this strumming pattern, we are playing downstrokes on the 1, 2, and 4 beats, with upstrokes on the & ‘s of 2, 3, and 4. The gaps on the &’s on 1 and 3 simply mean we let the chord ring.
Many lessons for popular songs will give you both the chords you need to play as well as provide an appropriate strumming pattern for the song. So between the two you now have everything you need to get out there, learn some songs, and have fun!
You will quickly come to find that many strumming patterns are re-used a considerable amount in popular music. You’ll even hear names for them be coined such as ‘the island strum’ or ‘the folk strum. This is all great information for you to digest as a learner, with a good vocabulary of chords and strumming patterns under your belt you’re already equipped with everything you need to be considered a capable musician.
Step 5: Expanding your technique – bends, tapping, vibrato
Of course, there is more to this whole guitar thing than just strumming open chords endlessly. This is where we start to explore a little more of what the guitar can do by expanding our techniques beyond just that of chords.
Now there is a lot to learn in this topic and it’s not something you just study for a few weeks and are done with. So it’s first important to adopt the mentality that this is a long term pursuit and it’s not about knowing everything, it’s just about learning and progressing.
There are a lot of techniques we can use on the guitar to make our playing more interesting and flavourful. The blanket term we use for this is called ‘phrasing’. It’s everything that we do beyond simply hitting a note or chord to make things interesting. This includes techniques such as bending, tapping, sliding, vibrato, palm muting, double-stop bends, and even more creative things such as using the whammy bar.
The best way to get an idea of how phrasing is used effectively is to watch other guitarists, when you watch some of the guitar greats such as John Mayer or Steve Vai you will start to formulate an idea in your head about how great guitarists utilize these techniques to make their playing more interesting.
Before you know it you’ll begin working these techniques into your own playing seamlessly and steadily, over time, increasing your fluency and competency on the instrument.
Step 6: Tablature – unlock the ability to play any song
Chord charts and strumming patterns are all well and good for learning simple and easy to play pop songs. But what about a guitar solo? Or a rock ‘n’ roll riff? Chord charts simply don’t have the capacity to convey details such as phrasing or single note passages.
This is where we use guitar tablature. It sits in the middle ground between sheet music and chord charts where it’s a little more complicated than a chord chart, but is simple enough to where we can learn to read it without any theory knowledge nor the ability to read sheet music.
Here’s a quick example of a bar of guitar tablature:
Each of the horizontal lines represent a string of the guitar, with the bottom string also being our bottom/thickest string, and the top being the thinnest.
On these lines are numbers, which simply refer to which fret we need to play that we read from left to right. Easy right?
So in this example, we are first going to strum a chord (if you’ve already done the chord step you’ll probably notice it’s an E major chord) followed by a few single notes.
‘But what about phrasing? I thought tablature gives us more information’.
While Tablature cannot provide the rhythmic detail that traditional sheet music can, it does absolutely contain all the information you need as a guitarist to know which kind of phrasing to use.
Here’s a quick rundown of the common phrasing indicators you will see on tablature:
P.M – Palm Mute
B – bend (often accompanied by an arrow indicating a full bend or half bend)
H – Hammer on
P – Pull Off
T – tap
There are also indicators which can show things such as vibrato, slides, pinch harmonics and picking direction. There are plenty of glossaries out there for tablature if you wish to learn the full range of indicators.
Step 7: Learn to practice
Practicing the guitar is quite an art in itself, the long process of development while trying to keep yourself entertained. Forward momentum without burning yourself out.
You’re at the point where you know some chords, techniques, you can teach yourself how to play songs using tablature. This is the point where your progress starts to slow and you will have to work more for your technique gains.
Adopting the right mentality and keeping yourself from getting discouraged at this stage is key. You’re no longer measuring progress in terms of weeks, now we’re into months and years.
Try to develop good habits of keeping up to speed with the various techniques required on guitar with things such as exercises or drills. These don’t have to be mind-numbing practice sessions with a metronome either, if there is a song that you enjoy that has a cool part containing the particular technique you’re trying to improve, play that!
Make an effort to identify the weak areas of your playing and put time into sharpening those areas.
It will take some time to figure out that the right practice balance is for you, making a plan and practicing frequently is definitely a good habit to develop. But you also need to identify your limits, when to show patience with learning something, and give it the time it needs to develop, while also keeping in mind your emotional state and when your focus starts to wane.
This might sound like a lot of things to think about, but the most important thing is just making sure you are putting in a good amount of time to practice as often as you can. You’ll figure out the small details along the way.
Step 8: Theory – scales, chords and modes, oh my!
You’re having fun, practicing, and improving. Now we have to bring up the area of guitar that makes many rock ‘n’ roll guys wince like a 5 year old when he’s been asked to finish his boiled broccoli, and that is music theory.
Maybe you like broccoli, just as many guitarists enjoy music theory. But there is a reason why many players will learn a few minor pentatonic box shapes and call it a day, and that is because it’s difficult. The layout of the guitar is particularly unintuitive when compared to a piano which makes wrapping your head around many of the concepts more challenging.
But always remember, much like eating your vegetables, learning theory is good for you. It will bring you a level of confidence and understanding to the instrument that many guitarists never get. Not only that, but it’s also pretty important when communicating with other musicians, being able to quickly discuss things such as the song’s key, what mode you’re in, and exchanging chord ideas. This competency and fluency on the instrument are really what will make you into a high-level player.
Most importantly is to not get overwhelmed and give up, hearing people talk about things such as modulations, substitutions, and inversions when you don’t understand them can be discouraging. But I PROMISE you that once you’ve taken the time to learn them you’ll find yourself saying ‘oh, well that’s easy’.
Start off simple, learn the notes of the fretboard, learn all about the major scale, learn the theory behind chord construction and you’re already off to a great start.
Step 9: Original compositions
With both technique and a little music theory under your belt, you’re now equipped with everything you need to start writing your own music. This doesn’t necessarily have to be writing songs, ‘original’ music also falls under things like improvisation too.
For improvisation, there is a wealth of backing tracks available on YouTube for you to improvise over, or you can pick up a cheap loop pedal, record your own chord progressions, and jam over that.
When it comes to writing your own music you can have a ton of fun exploring what style and genre you want to play. Maybe you’re also a singer who wants to sing and play at the same time.
This is truly where the world of guitar opens up and you get the chance to have your personality shine. Remember, there are no rules in songwriting, no matter how weird or experimental you want to get with it, it’s all ok. Have fun and go crazy!
Step 10: The ongoing journey
There is enough to learn and discover in the guitar world that can occupy you for your entire life. Certainly too much to boil down into a few steps. So for the final step let’s go over the myriad of other areas, specialties, and activities you can explore as a guitarist:
Amplifiers, pickups, pedals, software, straps, bags, strings. The gear and equipment we use as guitarists play a huge part in our personality as musicians and the tone our instruments produce.
For many, shopping for new equipment is every bit as fun as playing the guitar. There are lots to discover, just remember to actually play sometimes.
As musicians in the modern era, we have a lot of tools available to us. We’re now able to record songs at home using minimal equipment and software. If you’re serious about songwriting, definitely look into recording your songs. This can be just simple demos to full blown commercial productions, it’s all doable nowadays.
For some, this is the only reason they picked up the guitar in the first place. To join and band and play live. If this is something that interests you, start to make an effort to get out there and meet musicians in your local area, you’ll be playing in a band before you know it!
Closing thoughts on steps to learn guitar
Although we’ve provided a reasonably solid route through the process of learning guitar, it’s always important to remember that this is a personal pursuit. You can start on this journey and if you find yourself being pulled along a different path as you learn more about yourself as a musician, that’s great, follow that.
But, as an absolute beginner, if you follow the steps in this guide you’re going to have both a good direction to follow that will give you a solid foundation and balance between technique, theory, and the creative elements.