Where to start when learning the guitar
A question I frequently encounter in beginner guitar groups on social media like Reddit or Facebook goes something like this:
“I’m a complete beginner on guitar and don’t know where to start. What do I need to practice and learn?”
Usually, the person who asks the question gets thrown at a barrage of things to learn on the guitar such as “scales”, “songs”, “chords”, “reading the notes”, “arpeggios“, or whatever is the whim of the day of the person answering his question.
The beginner guitar player who asked the question is usually left none the wiser.
I’ll show you exactly what to practice on guitar as a complete beginner, why, and how everything relates to each other in the steps below.
But there are two things I’d like to clarify before we begin:
1. What you practice on the guitar will not always be as clear as in the method I’m going to show you here.
As you reach intermediate or even advanced levels of guitar playing, what to practice on the guitar should depend on your musical goals.
If for instance, your goal is to specialize in Jazz improvisation, you will have to focus on different things than had your main goal been to record Heavy Metal albums.
However, as a beginner, this difference is not felt that much. The basics of learning the guitar, and music, are the same.
2. The method I’m going to show you doesn’t apply that much if you want to learn how to play Classical guitar like say, Andres Segovia.
I do not play Classical guitar, I don’t teach it and the path is a bit different.
This guide is for you if you play the electric guitar or an acoustic guitar with a pick.
You should start learning the guitar practicing items below in the order I’m giving them to you but you should not wait until you master any of them to go to the next.
It will take you a very long time to learn the guitar if you do that. Once you have a workable knowledge of each item, start working on the next.
After some time, you will be practicing guitar for all or most of these items because as your skills improve in one area, they will spill over into other areas of your playing – and your improvement will have a compound effect, meaning you will improve faster.
1. Reading guitar tabs
Many guitar students are immediately introduced to learning how to read standard music notation in their first lesson with a teacher.
This is not a good idea at all – always start with learning how to read guitar tabs first – you will always have the option to learn how to read standard music notation later (and it would be much easier to do so then)
First of all, you don’t need to know how to read standard music notation to play the guitar. Guitar tabs are now available for nearly every song or piece of music written for the guitar.
Secondly, guitar tabs are much easier.
And at this point, you want the way you read the notation to be as easy as possible so that you can focus on areas that are way more important to you at this stage.
Learning how to read guitar tabs (as well as chord and scale diagrams) is key to being able to learn the other items you will be practicing.
2. Learn easy Tunes
The next step is to find some easy tunes that have a melody you already know (such as Ode To Joy, Sound of Silence, or the Can-Can) and learn them through reading guitar tabs.
This will help make sure you’re understanding how guitar tabs work and to start getting fluent in them, but even more, so that your fingers start getting their first taste of the guitar neck.
You will also start developing muscle memory.
An experienced guitarist doesn’t have to worry about how to go to the next note. His fingers have done it so many times before that they literally remember where they need to go – though in reality the memory is being developed in your brain, not actually in your fingers.
Many beginner guitar students believe that in order to play guitar, you must develop finger strength.
The truth is that building finger strength is not a big issue at all, and you’re actually doing it every time you play guitar, which includes learning these first tunes.
3. Learn open major and minor chords
Open chords are chords that involve at least one note that is not fretted by any finger of your left hand.
These are easier to play than barre chords, as we’ll see later on in this lesson.
The open major and minor chords you can play on the guitar are mainly C, A, G, E, and D major and Am, Dm, and Em.
Not all major and minor chords can be easily played as open chords, so you will soon need to learn barre chords too in order to have more options when it comes to learning songs.
That said, a very significant amount of Rock and Pop music, uses only these chords. There are a lot of songs you can learn with just these few chords.
4. Learn how to change from one chord to another fluently
You’ll soon start learning your first real songs, but first, you need to go a step beyond just knowing how to play the chords above.
You need to be able to change from one to another with ease.
Match the 8 chords mentioned above with each other and learn how to change between each of them.
Do the changes very slowly at first. You will develop muscle memory soon if you repeat the same thing slowly a number of times.
5. Train your right hand in picking and strumming.
Learning chords and changing fluently from one to another will get your left hand on the right path, but you play the guitar with your right hand too.
Learn how to alternate pick (alternate down and upstrokes) on each string so that – once again, muscle memory – your guitar picking hand could easily go to the intended string at will.
Also, learn how to strum whole chords.
Choose one of the 8 chords above and practice strumming down and up, using different patterns and making sure you hit all the strings you want to hit – and only them.
Don’t change chords while doing this. Not until you can play the rhythm pattern steadily and in time.
When learning something new – in this case, strumming – you want your mind to be completely focused on that thing, and changing chords will divert your mental attention away from your strumming.
Note: This does not mean you will always be learning one thing at a time. A topic that will help you become a better guitarist faster is guitar practice time optimization, and there will be times when you should be practicing to learn more things than one at the same time.
But you’re learning a new thing, and even more when you’re a beginner guitar player, the more you simplify things, the better.
6. Start learning songs
Tunes are just simple melodies and you needed them to get started not only in learning guitar tabs and building muscle memory, but also to get yourself motivated by the fact that a nice tune is coming out of your instrument.
Now that you can strum and change between open chords you can start learning your first real songs.
Some songs I give my beginner guitar students include Knocking on Heaven’s Door by Bob Dylan and Day Tripper by the Beatles.
Finding songs to play should not be difficult. There are tons of songs that can be played, with the knowledge you have acquired so far.
7. Start learning phrasing techniques
Picking both notes is not the only way you can play two consecutive notes.
Phrasing techniques such as slides, hammer-ons and pull-offs, string bends, and vibrato can all be applied to get a different sound from the same notes you are playing.
Spend some time practicing each of these techniques, and then keep reinforcing these skills since you’ll be encountering them a lot in guitar music.
8. Start building an arsenal of guitar riffs and licks.
If you learn only the guitar licks and riffs provided in the above links you would already have started building a vocabulary of ideas you will, later on, be using to create your own guitar licks, riffs, and solos.
9. Learn music theory basics
Though the above may not appear to be a lot of work when written down in an article like this, there is a lot of stuff you need to practice on guitar in the above 8 items.
If you dedicate enough guitar practice time to each, you will have the basic concepts of the guitar in your hands.
Your fingers can move around with ease, you’re developing muscle memory and you can play some of your favorite guitar songs, licks, riffs, and solos.
This makes it possible for you to actually start playing the guitar, rather than just practice it. You can take it with you for the next campfire night and entertain your friends, or even consider joining an amateur band.
But you still don’t know how music works. The dots are not yet connected.
Learning music theory and applying what you’re learning to the guitar will help connect these dots and the things you’re learning will start making more sense.
10. Learn your first scales
Learning guitar scales will help take you to the next level in your guitar playing – coming up with your first guitar licks and improvising.
Many guitar teachers give their students a lot of scales to learn and introduce improvisation only much later, if ever.
I disagree with this approach.
Guitar scales are essential tools you will need to create music. And the best way to learn how to use a tool is to actually use it.
Once you understand the role of scales in music (from music theory), learn your first scale – which I suggest should be the minor pentatonic scale.
Before you learn your second scale (I suggest the major pentatonic scale here), practice scale sequences on the first and try to come up with your first guitar licks using the scale you have just learned.
11. Learn to play Barre chords
As mentioned in item 3, not all major and minor chords can be played as open chords.
Barre chords are a bit of a challenge for beginning guitarists, but you should have enough finger strength and dexterity by this point to begin learning them.
Tip: When barring a chord focus on getting the position of your hands and fingers right first. Using the proper technique is more important than strength. Many beginner guitar students believe that they need to press harder to play barre chords when all they need to do is improve their hand/finger position.
How To Play Guitar: Beyond Beginner
If you become fluent in every item I have mentioned above, you are barely a beginner on guitar anymore.
The path will be less straightforward from now on, and as you advance, you’ll need to specify your musical goals more.
If your goals are clearly defined, you will find it easy to find what you need to learn.
Unfortunately, goal setting is rarely a priority for guitar players.
If you start doing it now when you’re a more intermediate and advanced guitar player, it will become second nature, and what to practice on the guitar not be an issue at all.
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