What you should learn in your first guitar lesson (and why)

What you learn in your first guitar lesson may vary a lot, depending on who your teacher is if you have one, and what sources of information you access if you don’t.

In this article I will explain what your first guitar lesson should consist of and, more importantly why this should be your first lesson.

[Note: The following may not apply to you if you want to learn the Classical guitar or other forms of fingerstyle guitar playing. This lesson is aimed at students who want to learn the guitar, whether electric or acoustic, with a pick.]

As stated above, different guitar teachers may give you completely different things to learn in the first lesson.

The following are the most common three and while there’s nothing essentially wrong with the first two, I will explain why the third is the most ideal to reach your goals in the shortest amount of time and enjoy the process.

1. Learning to read standard music notation.

This is exactly how my own first guitar lesson was.

My teacher showed me three notes (E, F and G) written on music notation and where to play them on the low E string of the guitar.

I practiced playing exercises using different combinations of these notes at home and the following week I went for my second guitar lesson.

And he gave me the notes A, B and C on the A string.

Thus, I got the idea (which I held for the following months) that learning the guitar was about was identifying where to play the note I was seeing on the sheet and playing it accordingly on the guitar for the indicated duration.

And there are some problems with this approach.

First of all, I wasn’t actually learning how to play the guitar. I was learning how to read music. And while learning standard music notation does have its value when learning the instrument, unlike other things, it is not a must. 

There are many great guitar players who can’t read music (which is different from not learning any music theory). 

Secondly, and more importantly, learning from guitar tabs instead of standard music notation is much easier and at this point, you want the way to identify which note you should play to be easy as possible.

The reason for this is that since you still don’t know how to execute those notes on the guitar, you will need to focus all your attention on the technique of it, rather than identifying the E from the F on the music staff.

You may be interested in learning how to read sheet music later on, but this should definitely not be among your first guitar lessons since at this point you need to focus on much more important things.

2. Learning your first chords 

Starting with chords on the first lesson is more common among guitar teachers and the reason for this is that unlike reading sheet music, you’re going to need chords very soon (especially if one of your main goals is to play your favourite songs, since most songs are chord based).

I usually start teaching chords to my students somewhere between the third and the fifth lesson, but not the first.

The reason is that chords are made of at least three notes played together and, considering this is the first guitar lesson, doesn’t it make more sense to learn how to play one note at a time first?

Which brings us to the third option, the one I strongly suggest.

3. Learn a tune you’re already familiar with from guitar tabs

Your first guitar lesson should be as simple as this:

Decide on a popular tune such as Happy Birthday, Ode to Joy or Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, search for its guitar tabs, (of which there are an abundance on the Internet), and learn it.

Through this you will achieve three things, all of which are of utmost importance when starting out on the guitar:

  1. You will start learning how to read guitar tabs. Though reading guitar tabs is way easier than reading standard music notation, it has its learning curve too and since you’re going to be using guitar tabs a lot, it’s a good idea to start the learning process as early as possible.
  2. You will start learning how to actually play the notes on the guitar, which is, needless to say, the first crucial skill in guitar playing.
  3. When you finish, you know a tune, which is much more motivating than knowing chords in isolation or learning an exercise. After just one lesson, actual music is coming out of your guitar, and you’re more likely to be eager for your next lesson.

Tips on taking the most from your first guitar lesson

I hope that the above has convinced you that your most ideal first guitar lesson ever is learning a tune you already know from guitar tabs.

The following are some tips and points to help you make the best out of learning the tune you’ve chosen.

  1. The reason it should be a tune you already know is that for your very first lesson you don’t want to be burdened with the duration of each note, but on playing the right notes.
    If it’s a simple tune, and you know it already, you will easily figure the rhythm out by ear rather than have to depend on some form of notation to know how long you should hold each note
  2. Make sure you hit the notes with the tip of your fingers and not the flat part. Not doing so, will make it harder for you to play the tune and you’ll also be developing a bad guitar playing habit
  3. Press each intended note as close as possible to the relevant fret, but not on the fret itself since this will muffle and deaden the sound of the note.
  4. Don’t try to learn the tune all at once but zoom in on one bar of music at a time. This will not only make it easier for you to learn, but will also make the next point possible.
  5. Look at your hands. 

You’ve probably noticed that your favourite guitar players don’t look at their hands when they play. Thus you may wrongly believe this is the right way to practice the guitar. 

Thing is, these are accomplished musicians not beginner guitar players.

At this point, you need to learn how to execute each note correctly, when you still haven’t figured out anything on the guitar neck yet.

Thus, you should learn your tune one bar at a time (usually this will mean just 2 – 8 notes) by memorizing those few notes so that you can use all your concentration on executing them correctly while your eyes are watching over the process and making things easier.

Conclusion: Where to go from here

The purpose of your first guitar lesson is to get started on the instrument.

The above are not the only guitar skills you will need to learn.

Guitar playing is a set of skills combined together and you will need to start developing some of these skills earlier on.

This lesson will show you what you will need to learn at the early stages of your guitar learning curve and include things you already started covering in your first lesson as well as others you will need to reach an intermediate level of guitar playing as fast as possible.

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2 thoughts on “What you should learn in your first guitar lesson (and why)”

  1. You got my attention when you suggested deciding on a popular tune so you could easily learn to read guitar tabs and learn how to actually play the notes on the guitar. My son is interested in learning to play the guitar, so I am planning to enroll him in a class. Since I want him to learn fast and easily, I would ask him to start with learning basic music or song.

    1. Learning a tune is also fun. Many guitar students, young ones, in particular, find it disheartening that they have to learn a lot of exercises and chords before hearing actual music coming out of their guitar.

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