I can’t tell you how to groove like BB King, rock like Van Halen, shred like John Petrucci, solo like Derek Trucks, or do whatever the hell Gabriela Quintero does with a guitar… But I can tell you how to become an amazing beginner guitarist.
I’ve been playing the guitar for over six years and this past August was the first time I felt like I stopped being a beginner.
You see, I have zero natural ability. I’m not ashamed to say it. I’m actually proud of it. Everything I have learned on the instrument has been a result of persistence and perseverance.
With that in mind, here are the eleven things that I wish someone told me before I picked up the guitar.
1: It’s gonna hurt
I’m not talking about a metaphorical hurt (although that happens too). I’m talking real physical pain. Pressing guitar strings against the fretboard creates a special kind of pain for beginners. It’s not unbearable, but I didn’t see it coming.
You’re going to have to play through the pain and build calluses. Once you do, it’s painless to play.
- Patience – Play for 15 minutes a day until the pain goes away.
- “Summer of ’69” it – Play until your fingers bleed. This wasn’t an option for me. When I started learning I was running a Fortune 50 website for a living, and needed to type a lot. My fingertips were already raw enough from 15 minutes a day, and my boss would not have been ok with me calling out while my bloody stumps healed.
Icing your fingers will help, but not as much as you’ll want.
Most people who buy a guitar don’t make it past the three-month mark because they don’t play through the pain. Don’t be that person.
2: Get an electric guitar
This seems counterintuitive to new players, but electric guitars are much easier to play than acoustic guitars.
- The strings are lighter, so you don’t have to press them as hard
- The necks are thinner
- It’s lighter to hold
- The body is thinner so you can more easily wrap your arms around it
- An amplified guitar with a little gain masks a lot of mistakes (don’t worry if you don’t know what gain is, you’ll see the knob)
- They’re just cool and fun
Also, buy a guitar that you think looks cool. This won’t make playing any easier, but it will make you want to pick it up more.
Some good starter options:
- Fender Strat Pack – This was what I started with
- eBay – Guitarists, like photographers are frequently selling gear to trade up
- Craigslist – There are also lots of beginner guitars on the market from quitters
You’re going to be shocked by how much time you spend tuning your guitar.
Everything knocks your guitar out of tune; especially playing it and minor changes in humidity or temperature (no joke). This will be made worse by the fact that you’ll probably be playing a starter guitar; they aren’t famous for keeping a tune.
Two critical skills:
- Recognizing when you’re slightly out of tune
- Tuning up quickly
How to tune:
When you’re tuning start from the low E string, the thickest one, and go from there. Make sure that the strings are really close to tuned, then make a second pass trying to get each string dead-on. It’s important to go from the thickest strings to the thinnest because the thicker ones put more tension on the neck and can impact the tuning of the thinner ones more.
Checking your tuning:
After you tune, try to play a E minor chord. Strum on that for a while and make sure that everything sounds good. E minor is probably the easiest one to fret correctly so it’s a good test.
Buy a vibration tuner. There are plenty of tuning phone apps, but none of them will match the ease-of-use and precision of a vibration tuner. It’s one of the best pieces of gear you’ll ever buy.
4: Learn a few basic chords and a scale, then learn a song
You’d be shocked how many songs you can play with the following:
(via Guitar for Beginners)
Once you have those down, find yourself a few songs to practice. Bob Dylan has a lot of great and simple stuff, but chord sites and YouTube are packed with entry-level songs to learn. Find something that suites your style.
5: Focus on your strumming and picking
The way you strum and pick is going to define you as a player. You can take the same notes or chords, and strum/pick them in different ways with a wide range of results. It’s pretty incredible. Explore it.
Get your strum down. It is the motor that keeps your playing going.
Longterm you’ll be able to pick up new chords and scales pretty quickly once you can control your strumming and picking on the basics.
6: Learn from lots of places
YouTube, tab websites, and lessons are all great in their own ways. I learned from a big mix of the three.
Many of the most valuable lessons I learned came from playing in guitar jams. The tips I picked up from the veteran players were amazing, but even better was that feeling I got when I made music with other people. The first time I locked-in with another player we were jamming on “The Weight” by The Band. That chordal riff in the chorus was a total pain in the ass to learn, but once I had it down it was magical. That night where it came together for me is a treasured memory.
Playing live, unaccompanied, and at my friends’ wedding was what pushed me out of my perpetual state of beginner. Knowing that my butt was on the line to perform was the kick I needed to really put everything I had into practicing. It was one of the most terrifying and rewarding experiences of my life.
7: Leave your guitar out
Get a guitar stand and leave you’re guitar out in a place that is constantly in reach. Pick it up often, even if it’s just for a couple of minutes.
A guitar in a case is a guitar that isn’t being played.
8: Crappy tone
It’s going to take a while to get your chords to sound correct.
When you’re starting out, you’ll have problems putting the proper pressure on the strings, so they won’t vibrate correctly. Similarly, you’re going to accidentally touch strings that you don’t mean to, and this will stop them from vibrating.
Be mindful of this, and keep pushing yourself to get a full sound out of each chord.
A good way to tell if you’re fretting your chords correctly is to pick each string in the chord individually. If something isn’t vibrating properly, you’ll hear an icky dull sound. Those ugly sounds should fuel your fire to make pretty noises.
Once you’re comfortable with some basic chords, try learning to play an F chord. Give yourself time. For me, learning to play an F chord on command was dreadful. I could not do it… But I got there. Once I did, most other barre chords became pretty easy.
10: Gear (toys)
You don’t need a lot of it. Don’t bother with pedals, and lots of expensive stuff.
Once you’ve got your calluses and are committed to playing, you might want to upgrade your electric guitar, or get an acoustic.
Don’t go nuts on gear. If you have disposable income, it’s really easy to buy lots of stuff… And better guitarists will secretly covet all of the crap you bought and resent you for not having a clue how to use it. A better guitar will have a minor impact on your overall abilities. It won’t be dramatic.
While we’re on the subject of gear…
11: It’s not your gear
You really do suck.
Your fingers aren’t too thick. Your fingers aren’t too thin. It’s not your guitar, pick, or amp. Your playing sounds bad because you’re terrible.
Eric Clapton could pick up a cheap starter guitar and make amazing music with it. Never forget it.
Accept the truth. Give yourself permission to suck, but don’t quit.
Practice. Get better. It’s a wonderful and worthy journey. The beauty of the guitar is that you will never run out of things to learn.