Learn to Play Guitar!
Ready to start Learning Guitar? dive into this series of lessons now:
Getting your guitar in tune and learning to play notes is the first step towards learning guitar for beginners. Tuning up is easy, but if you don’t know how, having an out-of-tune guitar can put you off playing. After you’re in tune, learning to pick notes properly can help you ensure your technique doesn’t hold you back as you continue to learn.
There are many websites that offer guitar tuning online, and you can also download guitar tuner apps if you have a smart phone. Websites play a pitch to you, and you have to adjust your string so the pitch it produces matches the one played. Electronic tuners and apps display the pitch you’re playing and show you how close it is to the perfect pitch. They’ll show you if the pitch is too low (flat) or too high (sharp).
Use the tuning heads at the top of the guitar neck to adjust the tuning. The top tuners are usually tightened by turning the heads anti-clockwise, and the bottom ones should be turned clockwise (this can vary, so listen carefully to make sure the note is getting higher). It can be hard to find the right pitch at first, but be patient and you’ll get there. It gets easier as you gain familiarity. Remember, the thickest string is E, the next is A, then D, G, B and a higher pitched E.
Now your guitar is in tune, you can practice picking some notes. Just play the open strings for now, to make it easier. It seems silly, but focusing on one thing at a time can really help. Hold your plectrum between the fleshy tips of your thumb and index finger. It might feel more natural to hold it between your thumb and the side of your index finger, beside your nail. You can use your middle finger or both if you prefer, as long as you have a firm grip on the pick. You don’t want the flat side of the pick to be parallel to the string when you strike it because it causes unnecessary resistance. Tilt the pick diagonally so that the edge strikes the string first.
This guitar tab below shows a simple picking exercise. The six horizontal lines represent the strings, with the thickest at the bottom and the thinnest at the top. The numbers on the lines represent the frets you have to play. A “0” means that you don’t fret any note. Remember that the picking motion comes largely from your wrist, with a bit of help from the rest of your arm. Try to keep your wrist loose, and pick one note downwards and the next one upwards. Continue “alternate” picking like that throughout this exercise. This will help your picking speed later.
Now you’ve got to grips with the basics of picking, you should bring your fretting hand in on the action and start playing scales. Scales are runs of notes that sound nice together, and produce a specific effect. Some people find them boring when they learn guitar, but all musicians use them and they are great for picking exercises, songwriting and solos.
How you use the fingers of your fretting hand is very important in beginner guitar. You need to use them logically, so where possible you have one finger per fret. This makes it easier to change between notes quickly and prevents you from getting confused about where you are on the fretboard. In the G major example below, use your index finger for the second fret, your middle finger for the third, ring for the fourth and pinky for the fifth. Your pinky will probably be especially weak at first, but you really need it in guitar, so you should stick with it.
Make sure you’re holding the guitar correctly before you start this exercise. The thumb of your fretting hand should reach about half way up the back of the guitar neck. This gives your fingers the best freedom of movement and makes it easier to fret notes. You should be comfortable overall, but your fretting hand might ache for a while as you get used to pressing down notes.
Try to keep alternate picking throughout. You always play scales both forwards and backwards to help familiarize yourself with them. Try to work out the best fingering for the scale below.
A Minor Pentatonic
The majority of guitar playing is built around chords. Learning even a few basic chords gives you the knowledge you need to play simple songs like “Sweet Home Alabama.” Getting to grips with some common guitar chords is a vital part of learning the instrument. This lesson will show you some chords and will explain how they work together.
Chords, in the most basic terms, are groups of four notes based on “triads.” In a scale, the notes are numbered, and the triad is the first, third and fifth notes of the scale. C major is the simplest scale, running C, D, E, F, G, A and B. C is the first and B is the seventh, meaning a C major chord is made up of C, E and G. You add an extra, higher C onto the end to make it the dominant tone. On the guitar, you fret all of these notes and strum all of the required strings in one continuous motion.
Guitar websites and books use something called a guitar chord chart to display chords. These feature six vertical lines which represent the strings – with the thick E string at the far left – and horizontal lines for the frets. The “nut,” that strip of (usually) white material at the top of the neck, is shown with a thick black line. Each of your fingers is numbered, with one being your index, two your middle, three your ring and four your pinky finger. Any strings you don’t need to play are marked with an X.
If the chord doesn’t sound right, you should try picking the notes of it individually (known as an arpeggio). You can hear which note is causing the problem, and then fix it. The main problems you’re likely to have are not pressing notes down hard enough and accidentally catching another string with one of your fingers. Both of these probably mean you should lower your thumb a little.
Learning different patterns for strumming chords opens up new options for you when you start to play songs. Many online guitar lessons don’t address strumming patterns fully, and this can leave beginners stuck playing banal chord progressions. The patterns in this guitar lesson will give you some simple ways to make your chord progressions more interesting. You’ll also pick up a couple of useful techniques for making your own progressions.
Most songs are in 4/4, or “common” time. This means that you can fit four quarter notes in every bar, or twice as many eighth notes. A strum really just plays multiple notes at the same time, so you can fit the same amount of strums in a bar. You can count out “one and two and three and four and” for each bar to get a sense of the rhythm. This counting is used in strumming diagrams, along with “/\” and “\/” arrows to indicate whether you strum up or down. The down arrow means you strum from the thickest strings to the thinnest ones. Try this eighth note strum in the key of C or G, changing chords when you get to the end.
1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &
\/ /\ \/ /\ \/ /\ \/ /\
In practice, this strum is rarely used. The reason is that it simply strums a chord on every beat (the numbers) and off beat (the ands). You can mix it up by adding in rests. These are just gaps in your strumming, but they can make the patterns more interesting. Keep moving your hand as if you were strumming when you miss one. This will help you stay in time, and keeps your strums going down on the beat and up on the offbeat.
1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &
\/ /\ \/ /\ /\ \/ /\
1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &
\/ /\ /\ \/ /\ /\
1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &
/\ /\ /\ \/ /\
Some websites and books will specify if the previous strum should ring out for the rest period or stop, but you can experiment with these examples. It’s easier in practice to allow them to ring out, unless you’re specifically looking for a sudden pause. Just rest your picking hand on the strings lightly to stop the strings ringing out. The third example is a good one for muting the rest periods.
You can also pluck the lowest note of the chord to mix up our progressions. The lowest note you play in a chord is always the “root,” which is the most important note. In strumming patterns, an “r” means you should pluck the root note individually. Try these examples:
1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &
\/ /\ /\ /\ \/ /\
1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &
\/ /\ \/ /\ \/ /\ /\
The problem with normal “open” guitar chords is that they can only be played low on the neck, which can restrict you in terms of pitch. Barre chords are six-string shapes that can be moved up and down the neck of the guitar. They’re made even better by the fact that you can play all of the major and minor chords with just four shapes. Minor chords produce a sadder sound, and they’re useful for somber songs and any more pensive compositions. This guitar lesson introduces you to major and minor barre chords.
Barre chords are based on the majors and minors of E and A. Open chords, like the ones you’ve learned so far, incorporate the notes of the open strings (E, A, D, G, B and E) to make them easier to play. Barre chords basically create a new nut by pushing five or six strings down at the same fret. They then use the E and A open chord shapes in front of this DIY nut to play anywhere on the guitar and change the key. These are the four barre chord shapes.
You can play in any key easily with barre chords. If you start on an E form shape with your index finger on any fret, you can play the A form shape on the same fret and the A form shape two frets further up to play a progression in key. If you start with an A form shape, you play the E form shape on the same fret and the E form shape two frets further down to play in key.
As you start to sift through free guitar tabs and learn some songs, you’re going to come across some legato techniques. Legato is an Italian word (the language of music) meaning “smooth,” and the techniques relate to smooth transitions between notes. If you have far-off dreams of playing killer guitar solos to crowds of adoring fans, you’re going to need to master these techniques.
The first two legato techniques, hammer-ons and pull-offs, are very closely related. A hammer-on is when you fret and play any note and then, as it rings out, press another finger down on a higher fret on the same string. This cuts off the string’s vibration at the new fret and changes the pitch. A pull-off is the exact opposite. You fret two notes on the same string and then pluck it. As the higher note rings out, take your finger away to change to the lower note. You don’t re-pick the second note when you use these techniques, which create a smooth transition between notes. Practice this run through of the C major pentatonic scale which uses hammer-ons and pull-offs. On guitar tabs, a hammer on is shown with an “h” and a pull-off with a “p.” Some tabs use arched lines linking the two notes.
Slides are very similar to hammer-ons and pull-offs, because they are another method of smoothly changing notes. The main difference with slides is that you only use one finger and you hear some of the passing notes between them. Press any fret down and play the note. Keeping your finger pressed down, slide your finger either further up or further down the string. Most tabs use the “/” and “\” symbols for slides, and indicate the two notes you should slide between at either side. Sometimes, the specific note you slide from isn’t mentioned, so you can start anywhere you like. Just trust your musical ear. Play through this example based on the E blues scale that incorporates all of the legato techniques in this lesson.