How To Play Guitar 101

There’s always been a big problem with “learning to play guitar.” Playing guitar is a big vague goal that’s going to intimidate anyone who tries to hold a pick and sit down with the thing.

What you should do instead, before you read the rest of this article, is ask yourself….

“Who or what inspired me to play the guitar?”

“How will playing guitar make my life better, or more enjoyable?”

For me, it was not only the desire to have a life skill. It was also to have a way to be instantly transported to the world that my favorite musicians and composers could conjure up.

Playing the guitar became the way that I chilled out and re-centered at the end of the day. Music had always been my armor when I ventured out into the world, and this only supercharged my armor.

So I’m excited to tell you how I learned to play the guitar and get these peaceful easy feelings. It’s not just about chords and exercises either…..

pexels north 1407322
Photo by 42 North: https://www.pexels.com/photo/person-playing-brown-guitar-1407322/

How To Play Guitar: The Simplest Answer Possible

Get ready cause I’m about to give you the clearest answer possible….

To play guitar, you must become adept at choosing the best fret hand fingerings, choosing the best picking hand techniques, and then using that info to match the sound you’re hearing on the song recording you’re learning from.

Sometimes, this will just be a few chords. Sometimes, it will contain a single note line that we call a “riff.” Sometimes, a riff will combine chords, single notes, and lead guitar-like lines.

The reason I’ve phrased it this way is because there is no big secret to playing guitar. Every riff will be different, and you will learn more about playing from every riff and chord progression you learn to play.

Any method or article that details every piece of minutiae that comes with playing guitar will be thousands of pages long.

So to play guitar…you’ve got to learn lots of chords, yes, but also lots of fret hand techniques and picking hand techniques.

Every riff is going to require some combination of these three aspects of playing guitar, and this article is going to attempt to give you most of the techniques to start learning.

Reading Chord Diagrams & Guitar Tabs

This is the very first task that any guitar player should start with.

A lot of time will be spent learning chords and reading tabs. It’s essential that you understand the best ways to do both!

So to read chord diagrams like the one below:

Chord diagram

⦁ Each vertical line that goes up and down will match a guitar string: EADGBE
⦁ Every horizontal line going left and right will match a fret, and most diagrams only span 4-5 frets.
⦁ Pay attention to what fret the top horizontal line is at. Usually, this will be 0, which stands for an Open note. An X means to not hit that string or play any notes on that string.
⦁ The darkened circles on each fret will be what note you play with your fret hand fingers
⦁ The numbers below the chord diagram, that align with the vertical lines, will tell you what fret hand fingers to use. 1 will stand for the first or pointer finger, 2nd for your middle finger, 3rd for your middle finger, and 4 for your pinky.
⦁ Any vertical string line that has a clear circle above it will mean you play this note “open” or without any fingers

This will get a lot easier as you learn more chords and read more diagrams. It’s natural to struggle with this as it’s all going to be brand new to you.

Now let’s break down how to read a tab like the one below. Tabs are actually a lot easier and overlap with chord diagrams.

guitar tab image

⦁ Every tab will have six horizontal lines going left to right, to denote the 6 guitar strings EADGBE
⦁ The lowest string will be the lowest line, while the highest string will be the highest line
⦁ Instead of dark or clear circles, the frets you play will have their numbers on it. 2 for 2nd fret and so on.
⦁ Like before, 0 will stand for an open note
⦁ When you must play a chord, the numbers will be aligned together vertically up and down.
⦁ Anything that’s not stacked together will be played as single notes
⦁ The tricky part with tabs is that rhythm notation is often missing, but as a beginner all you’ll need to do is match the speed of the individual notes with what you hear in the song you’re playing

Knowing how to read chord diagrams and tabs is just one part of the equation though, and this is where many articles, books, and courses fail.

As an absolute beginner, you’re not going to be familiar with a lot of sounds that these tabs are going to ask you to create. Because of that, you’re probably going to interpret the tabs wrong.

It will take time to do this, but the next section is going to help you speed up this process…

Matching Tabs To The Music You’re Listening To

californication tab

This part will be easy or hard depending on how much you already listen to guitar based music.

Nonetheless, many guitarists are going to struggle to match the chords they see, and the guitar parts in tab, to the music they’re hearing.

If you take the following steps, you’ll be able to start hearing the most common sounds:
⦁ Most tabs will at least have the various parts in the order they’ll be played. So try and guess which part matches the part in the song you’re learning
⦁ To do this, you’ll often look for a verse or chorus marking. Many songs will have at least 2 verses and 3 choruses, as well as other parts like solo parts, fills, bridges, pre-choruses, and so forth.
⦁ The actual guitar parts will either consist entirely of chords, entirely of single notes, or a combination of both. The best thing you can do now is start learning what a chord part sounds like and what a single note riff sounds like
⦁ You will also need to start learning what sounds come from which areas of the fretboard. For instance, you’re going to see the E5 powerchord of 022XXX a lot. The more riffs you learn that use this chord, the more you’ll recognize that the guitar is playing in this area of the fretboard.
⦁ Another common sound will be strumming open chords like G, C, D, A, Em, and so on. Like before, the more songs you learn using these chords, the better your ear will get at spotting these in the music you listen to. LOTS of songs are going to use these chords

What you’re going to be doing a lot is building your ear’s ability to interpret the music you’re playing. As a beginner, you’re going to struggle with this and you’ll need guitar tabs and chord diagrams to progress quickly.

Some guitarists will stress that you only play by ear without the help of tabs. This is extremely foolish and if you do this you’re going to quit in no time.

This is more of a skill for those who want to become musicians, and not someone who just wants to play “Seven Nation Army” by themselves.

How To Choose Your Finger Positions

Another big problem with many learning methods is that they don’t teach you how to choose the best finger positions if there’s no information from a tab about this.

As a beginner, you’re going to struggle to play the right notes with the best finger positions. Many times you’re going to have to choose this by yourself if you don’t have a teacher around.

open position tab
3rd position 5th position tab
3rd position 5th position tab

Like with the other sections, I’m going to give you some tips on how to start doing this on day one:
⦁ Focus on staying in one position as much as you can. The “open” position from the open notes to the 3rd fret will be the most common position.
⦁ Many tabs will require you to change from one position to another like open to 3rd position etcetera.
⦁ Your 1st finger on your fret hand will determine what position you play. Nearly every other note in a tab will be reachable with your other three fingers if you choose the best position.
⦁ Only ever change positions if it’s obvious that the next note or notes is not reachable by staying in one position

The reason to go through these steps is that it’s tough to play many riffs smoothly and quickly without keeping these ideas in mind.

A guitar player’s fret hand must stay as close to the fretwire as possible so that the tone will be clear and not buzz.

As usual with your status as an absolute beginner, you’re going to struggle to figure out what finger positions to use. That’s okay as it takes practice and experience to get this down.

It’s Not Just Chords & Scales, But These Techniques

Most beginners don’t have the proper context for playing so they believe that they must start learning chords at first instead of the techniques I’m about to tell you about.

When you are playing a riff correctly, you will use a combination of a picking hand technique and a fret hand technique. Your picking hand will involve anything using a pick or your fingers, while your fret hand technique will involve any and everything you’ll be using on the fretboard.

strumming tab
downpicking and alternate picking

Here’s a summary of the various picking hand techniques:
⦁ Strumming: this is where you use a pick to brush all 6 strings or a combination of the 6 strings in an up and down motion. This is one of the most typical techniques a beginner will learn
⦁ Down picking: this is where you use a pick to play one note or more in a precise downward motion. “Up” picking is the exact opposite where you will pick in an upward motion
⦁ Alternate picking: this is where you play a precise set of notes in an alternating series of up and down motions. As a beginner, you may play everything with just down strokes at first, but alternate picking is the most efficient way to play most riffs out there.
⦁ Fingerpicking: this is where you use your individual fingers of your pick hand to play various strings independently or together. This will be natural to many beginners at first too, but may not be appropriate for lots of beginner riffs in the rock genre.
⦁ Economy picking: this is where you will use a downward and/or upward motion to play multiple strings in a precise motion. This is mostly for lead guitar and it’s a more advanced technique, but it’s important to be aware of it.
⦁ Palm muting: This is where you place the bottom part of your palm against the strings to dampen the sound. This will be used a lot in metal and rock music.

It’s important to start learning the sounds of each picking technique so that you can recognize it in the music you’re learning. This is one of the very first steps you’ll take to train your ear.

hammeron pulloff tab

Now here’s a summary of the most widely used fret hand techniques:
⦁ Hammer-ons: This is where you’re holding one note of your fret hand with one finger and then you use another finger to “hammer-on” to a higher fret.
⦁ Pull-offs: This is the exact opposite of a hammer-on. You will “pull-off” to a lower fret with one finger when holding a note on a higher fret with another finger
⦁ Slides: This is a technique where you will literally slide up or down a string from one fret to another while keeping the string ringing.
⦁ Fret Hand Muting: This is a concept where you will use your other fingers of your fret hand, or your palm, to stop any sounds on other strings. As you play more, you will learn many ways to use this idea as you’re playing and you start hearing some unwanted noise.

As you can see, there’s more to the picking hand than the left hand. Besides choosing your finger positions, the fret hand will not give you many problems when it comes to interpreting a tab or chord.

The more difficult part of playing will come to understanding when to use which pick hand technique where.

The First Chords To Learn

Now that you’re acquainted with some of the other concepts of playing, you can now start learning about what chords to start learning.

These chords will consist of E, G, C, D, A, Am, and Em. These chord shapes will be used and reused all throughout the guitar repertoire. Focusing on playing these correctly now will help you speed up your guitar progress in the next few months.

Before we talk about the individual chords, you may be wondering where the techniques of the previous section will come in. Well here’s the thing….

You’re going to use fingerpicking or alternate picking to play parts of these chords or the many others you can play on the guitar.

So that’s why just knowing these chord shapes is not enough.

Let’s start with the E, Em, Am and A chords…..

A and E chords

You’re going to see these shapes used the most on the guitar so it’s essential you learn these first.

The next most prevalent ones will be the G, C, and D chords.

G C D chords

When you’re playing more advanced stuff in jazz, classical, and country, you’re going to see these shapes moved all around the fretboard. For now though, you’ll be playing these shapes with their open notes included.

The First Scales To Learn

Even though you’re an absolute beginner, it’s still a good idea to learn some scales and start playing them. Playing scales will help you build your knowledge of the fretboard, improve your dexterity in both hands, and help you see the music theory concepts behind many of the riffs and songs you’ll start learning.

There are four types of scales that many guitarists come across at first: major scales, minor scales, the modes, and the pentatonic scales. The pentatonic scales are the easiest to learn while the modes are the hardest and most mysterious for many players.

The big daddy beginner scale of them all is the minor pentatonic scale “box” pattern:

E minor pentatonic box

This pattern is easy to play and can be used in a lot of musical contexts when you learn how to use a scale over a chord.

The scale also just sounds great by itself and can be turned into blues, funk, country, or rock with little effort.

The next most important scale pattern to learn is the major scale 3 notes per string pattern, which will start on an E note:

The major scale is the foundation to lots and lots of songs because of the famous I, IV, and V chords. These refer to roman numeral harmonies that exist in every major key signature, and the major scale is what helps these chords go together so well.

One more scale to learn is a common minor scale pattern that builds off the minor pentatonic pattern you just learned:

E Minor Scale

Pentatonic scales have five notes while major scales and minor scales will have 7 notes. You can create many major or minor scales by taking a major or minor pentatonic and just adding two notes to it.

And now you’ve just learned some music theory!

Your First Songs To Learn

One of the most popular questions that many beginner guitarists have is “What should I start playing?”

Although there’s material accessible to many beginners in every genre, it’s best to stick to rock and metal riffs when starting out. Many pop songs will have chord progressions that use the most common chord shapes we just talked about too.

However many articles or books will end there and leave you to figure that out yourself. So here’s what I recommend for an absolute beginner in the most popular genres:
⦁ For pop music, go with Taylor Swift, the Beatles, and Ed Sheeran. There’s lots and lots of songs in their catalogs that will be simple enough and use the chords you know now.
⦁ For rock and metal, I recommend Metallica, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, and AC/DC. Feel free to look outside these bands but they’re going to have plenty of riffs that won’t be too intimidating for a beginner.
⦁ For country, Garth Brooks, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, and Dolly Parton will all have songs that use the basic chords.
⦁ Jazz music actually does have lots of beginner friendly riffs when you check out Wes Montgomery, Django Reinhardt, and some of the Jazz Standards.

It’s impossible to give a perfect answer as only you will know what drove you to want to play the guitar. I always recommend that every guitarist explore their favorite artists tabs until they find something that is playable.

The other thing to keep in mind is that more dance and electronic oriented music like hip-hop is not going to have guitar in there most of the time. There are many exceptions, but those exceptions may or may not be playable to you yet.

Developing Your Fret Hand

There are not many exercises available for a beginner guitarist as many books and resources are dedicated to helping lead guitarists develop speed and accuracy.

However I’m going to show you some exercises to help you build the foundations of chord strumming, legato (a fancy word for hammer-ons, pull-offs, and slides), and single note playing.

So let’s start with this one going between E and A:

E to A exercise 1

This exercise will help you move between the E and A strings, as well as help you practice changing between chord shapes.

Remember that as a beginner you need to stay in one fret position so that your hands won’t have to work too hard. It’ll be natural to miss some notes and hit others that you don’t want.

The main point of this exercise is to help you stay in position, and help you see how to start changing between similar chords.

Here’s one changing from C to G:

C to G exercise

This is one of the most difficult chord changes there is so it’s okay to mess up. You may get frustrated but that’s alright as there is a secret to this one.

Many chord changes will have you keep your fingers in the same place in both chords. Try to start finding places you can do that.

For C to G, your middle finger will move from the third fret of the A string to the third fret of the B string. This is an easy and seamless change to make as your other fingers will be doing a lot of work.

The same thing happened from E to A with your 2nd and 3rd fingers.

Here’s a few more common chord changes to practice all of these concepts on:

Other Chord Change Exercises 1

Developing Your Picking Hand

Now I’m going to show you some exercises using the scales we learned earlier, as well as a common chromatic exercise.

Take a look at this exercise here:

chromatic scale exercise

These are an old stand-by of many guitar players to get their right and left hands warmed up. They will force you to use every finger, and you can play them in many combinations too like 2413, 1324, 1432, etc.

Although we didn’t go over exactly how to perform the various picking hand exercises, I recommend that you practice these mostly with downpicking and alternate picking. Go with whichever one is easier.

After that, play this pentatonic scale exercise:

e minor pentatonic scale exercise

This exercise is going to help you practice changing strings, as well as challenge you when using alternate picking.

Lots of lead guitar parts will use the pentatonic scale so it’s never too early to start playing around with this scale and doing some exercises.
How To Practice Efficiently
The idea of practice, just like playing guitar, is also very vague. I’ve heard many players and youtube commenters say that you “just need to practice!” and you’ll be great. They just never tell you what to practice.

As a beginner though, this will be quite easy for awhile. Here’s what you should do every time you pick up the guitar:
⦁ Play through the riffs and chord progressions that you already know, and review them if you don’t remember them accurately
⦁ Spend some time learning one new part of a song or one new riff. Learn more if you’re on a roll.
⦁ Make up exercises that’ll help you practice some techniques that you’re having trouble with like changing strings, muting strings, legato, alternate picking, fingerpicking, etc.
⦁ Search on YouTube for a guitar lesson on an artist that you’re into. At this point in time, there will be multiple videos on nearly every song you’re wanting to learn.
⦁ Watch videos of some of your favorite players performing, but don’t get caught up too much in this without practicing their music and learning their material.
⦁ If you’re playing lead guitar, find new exercises to put into your repertoire of exercises.
⦁ Finally, spend some time noodling with the scales and chords you’ve learned already.

You can do all of this in 10 minutes, 30 minutes, an hour, or longer. Obviously, the more time you can put into practicing, the faster you’ll progress.

Remember to give yourself some slack if your practice session didn’t go perfectly. If you only did ten minutes and didn’t play as well as you liked, then that’s better than nothing.

More than likely, you don’t have a gig coming up where you need to play everything perfectly. Give yourself the freedom to mess up, to goof around, and to just enjoy making noise if you want to.

Some Other Basic Guitar Skills To Start Learning Right Now

Along with choosing finger positions and pick hand techniques, you should also start learning the following guitar skills:
⦁ How to tune your guitar to standard tuning
⦁ How to hold a pick
⦁ How to pick the settings on your amp or effects pedals to get the sound you want
⦁ How to hold your guitar when sitting and when standing
⦁ How to change strings
⦁ How to keep your guitar clean and free of dust and other particles

There are lots of articles and YouTube videos that cover all of these topics in lots of detail. None of this will really accelerate your skills but it’s essential to learn.

The other concepts we covered are going to be what determines how quickly or slowly you progress.

What To Do After You’ve Covered The Absolute Basics

You made it! Now you know how to play the guitar.

Every riff, every chord progression, and every exercise will help you learn something new and push you forward in your progress.

The reason I’ve structured this article in this way is because every riff is going to require at least a slightly different approach.

Not every song will have strummed chords, and not everything will have single note riffs. So it’s a good idea to have some familiarity with all the techniques you need.

At one point though, you may end up getting bored with the instrument. This happens naturally to everyone and it’s because you’re not challenging yourself.

So here’s what to do when this happens:
⦁ Play with another guitar player who’s better than you, if possible.
⦁ Jam over some YouTube jam tracks, or play along with some of your favorite songs.
⦁ Start exploring a new genre or a new artist. You can even make a list of new songs or riffs that you’ve always wanted to learn.
⦁ Explore fingerpicking, classical guitar, jazz guitar, metal soloing, etc.
⦁ Learn how to write chord progressions and melodies and become a songwriter

There’s always something new you can learn about the guitar. AC/DC and Black Sabbath are going to get old after a while so start thinking about what other skills you may want to have soon.

With all of this in mind, I hope you’ll keep the following mindsets as you start to play the guitar:
⦁ Guitar playing is not easy, and it takes effort. So don’t beat yourself up if you’re struggling right now.
⦁ Having the best gear does not make you the best player. Experience and good habits make you a better player, and the gear helps only a little.
⦁ There are players who have played for twenty years who can barely play better than they could in year 2. So don’t intimidate yourself by a more “experienced” player.
⦁ Stay away from anyone who tells you that you’ll never learn guitar. It’s unrealistic to become Steve Vai in a month, and they should understand that.
⦁ Music theory does not hurt your creativity and it’s not a set of rules. Theory will help you see new ways to put notes together into chords and scales, as well as help you make music of your own.

Good luck and have fun!

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