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How to Play Guitar for Beginners

A long time ago, a certain young man, born in Louisiana, decided he wanted to play guitar. This boy didn’t read or write so well. But they say he could play the guitar like ringin’ a bell! 

There you have it in a musician’s own words. If you’ve ever worried that you need formal schooling or a fast mechanical mind to play guitar, you’re in for a surprise. 

All you need is the will to learn it and the time to practice. For this guide for learning how to play guitar for beginners, we’ve researched the best resources, so you don’t have to. In this guide, we’re going to demonstrate how to:

  • Recognize parts of the guitar
  • Hold a guitar
  • How to figure out notes, chords, and frets 

Pair these base instructions with one of the best online guitar lessons, and you'll be well on your way to proficiency!

Parts of the Guitar

According to top experts, one of the best ways to start getting acquainted with your new guitar is to identify each of the parts.

The Neck

The neck is the long and narrow piece commonly associated with a guitar.

The Body

The body is the large base you hold with your other hand.

The Headstock

The headstock is the top piece with adjustable tuning pegs and the guitar’s brand name. 

The Frets

Frets are the ridges that line the neck. The “fretboard” is the piece that holds these frets. When press and hold the frets, you put pressure on the strings, which alters the sound.

The Strings

Guitars have either six or twelve strings. You play these metal or nylon strings by hand or using a guitar pick. “Open strings” mean a note played without holding down a fret. 

The Guitar Nut

The nut refers to the thick bar at the top of the fretboard, which slightly raises the strings.

The Bridge

The bridge is the bottom piece where the strings end.

The Soundhole

The large hole inside the base is called the soundhole.

Strumming and Plucking

There are two basic ways to play guitar notes: strumming and plucking. 

Strumming means you move your fingers in a broad sense, with a sweeping movement that plays several strings. 

Plucking is the opposite, referring to when you play one specific string at a time, or a rapid series of strings played individually.

Posture and Positioning

You use both hands when playing the guitar. The bottom hand strums and plucks, while your top hand is for fretting. Fretting means pressing down on the higher strings, which changes the length of the note as well as getting the clearest and fullest sound. 

Your dominant hand (right or left) will serve as the picking hand for strumming or plucking the chords. This requires stronger and faster movements, which is why you’ll sometimes notice left-handed guitars that cater to your preference. There also exist guitars made for smaller hands, which may be suitable if you're struggling with full-sized ones!

Your secondary hand is for fretting. Since the point of fretting is to make the note sound right, you can fret in a variety of ways, as 30-year veteran guitarist Keith Dean explains. 

The default position is holding a finger directly behind the fret wire, ideal for single note picking. But for more complex chords, you may want to try a different fretting method, such as:

  • Finger Curl
  • Thumb Leverage
  • Clearance

Keeping your fingers curled helps to apply the right pressure and prevents accidental “buzzing.” Thumb leverage refers to the method of increasing your thumb pressure on the back of the guitar neck. 

Pay attention to clearance and make sure you have enough access to reach strings without muting or buzzing surrounding strings. This is a matter of balancing finger curl and thumb leverage.

How to Hold a Guitar

To begin, hold the guitar in a comfortable position. Think about sitting down on an armless chair to get comfy. Slouching can throw off your performance and hurt your back in the process. 

Next, hold the back of the guitar’s body against your stomach and chest area, so that the bottom of the neck is parallel to the ground beneath you. When you’re sitting, your legs support the guitar, most of the weight going to your leg farthest from the headstock. 

The thickest string is the farthest string to the top, and the thinnest is closer to the ground. If you’re right-handed, usually the headstock points to the left, or vice versa, or you’re left-handed.

Using Accessories for Comfort and Control

Picking up a few accessories will help you get comfortable when playing the guitar for the first time.

Picks

While a lot of musicians do like to show off with strong fingers and dramatic strumming motions, beginners prefer using a guitar pick. Not only is playing with your fingers harsh for your skin over time, but the guitar pick is effective for playing many notes successively, more so than your fingers. 

On the other hand, strumming chords with your fingers tend to sound louder and give a “fuller” feeling to the chords/notes you play. Some musicians complain that guitar picks are difficult to “sing over.”

Playing for the First Time with a Pick

When playing for the first time, try to make a loose fist. Keep your thumb next to your index finger. Point your thumb knuckle in your direction. Now, with your second hand, put the pick in between your thumb and index finger, protruding slightly, about half of an inch.  

Hold the piece firmly and position it over the soundhole and hover over the strings with your knuckle still facing you. Be careful not to rest your hand on the strings or the body of the guitar, since this will warp the sound. 

Learn to play with your wrist rather than your arm and experiment with downward and upwards motions. The ideal standard is to minimize too much motion or movement in your picking hand. It takes some getting used to, but with practice, you will begin to keep the motion fluid and light.

Strings

The guitar strings, you might notice, have a thickness gauge that ranges from thin to thick. Thin strings measure 0.11 inches, and the thickest come in at 0.052 inches. Thinner strings produce less tension, making them easier to pluck for beginners.

Strap

A guitar strap is a helpful accessory that keeps the guitar still while you play. The strap connects to the top of the body and goes across your shoulder.

Learning Notes and Chords

Start learning guitar notes and chords by simply looking over the instrument. Some YouTube music teachers, such as Marty Music or Guitar Compass, can show you how to look over your guitar for the first time and see how to recognize notes and chords. 

Their virtual music lesson taught us a few things about guitar fundamentals:

Frets and Strings

Starting from the top of the guitar, or the nut, you’ll start counting up for the number of frets, the thin metal brackets along the fretboard. The metal frets nearest to the top are 1, 2, 3, 4, and so on. 

When referring to the first fret, you’re actually talking about the complete distance from one fret starting point to the next, not just the metal piece itself. You might also notice little dots on the side or on the front of the guitar, which are mostly for easy visual reference to find a particular fret. 

With the exception of fretless guitars, most guitars have at least 19 frets, with some electrical guitars boasting up to 27. 

Each fret represents an equal tempered division of an octave (a series of eight notes, or an interval between one musical note and then the same note at the double the original frequency), and each set of 12 frets equals one octave. 

The double dots (sometimes located on the side of the guitar) that follow the single ones show you when the scale goes up and starts over on the 12th fret, then becoming the next octave of the open string. 

The brackets represent the frets (you can learn more about utilizing frets by learning to read tabs), and you can see them represented horizontally on sheet music.

The strings pointing up at you are also numbered, starting with the sixth string on top, and then counting down, until you reach the first string on the bottom. Or, you could also say that the first string to your left side is #6, and then the bottom string to your right is #1. On guitar sheet music, you will see them represented by vertical lines.

Further Reading: The JamPlay Course Review

Guitar Notes

When it comes to notes, remember this sequence starting with the very top sixth string:

6 - E, 5 - A, 4 - D, 3 - G, 2 - B, 1 - E

Or if this makes it easier to remember, the often-used sentence:

  • E)ddie
  • A)te
  • D)ynamite
  • G)ood
  • B)ye
  • E)ddie

According to Acoustic Life, the thickest string on a guitar will also produce the lowest sound, which after a standard tuning would be a low E. As you move to the next string, thicker to thinnest all the way down, you get an A note or an A string. 

The thinnest and highest string would be another E, now double the high pitch as the first one. There is both a low E and high E string. 

The only way to play the other notes not already on the numbered strings is to press on the corresponding fret. Activating frets alters the guitar strings, producing unique notes. Therefore as you move up in frets (1, 2, 3, 4, and on), then also you move up the musical scale.

If you pluck a low E note (open string) and then move up one fret, you move to an F, following the alphabetic scale. Another fret up, and you go another note higher, as in F#. Then G, then G# and all the way down the scale to E, by going up to another fret. The twelfth fret ends with a higher E. 

Congratulations, you’ve played a full “octave” of 12 notes!

Guitar Chords 

According to LiveAbout, many beginners find playing chords easier and more enjoyable than learning the complete scale of notes. You play chords by hitting at least two notes or more at the same time, and it just so happens many famous songs consist of simple chords played in succession. 

For example, to play a simple C major chord, you would put your third finger on the third fret, second finger on the second fret of the fourth string, and your first finger on the first fret of the second string. 

The frets are easy because you’re just playing C chord notes, and frets are the only way to reach those notes. However, when playing the chord, try to avoid strumming the sixth string (you know, like Jimmy Buffet on his front porch sipping a margarita), since that would change the notes and the chord. 

With certain chords, you must avoid accidentally playing specific strings to keep the chord’s signature. 

Guitarists will learn two types of chords: Barre Chords and Open Chords.

You hear barre chords when you use an index finger to fret all six strings at once, strumming along quickly. Then, you can play different chords with different fretting patterns. You can play barre chords in any key. Open chords do not require fretting each string. As soon when you start to strum they play.

Guitar Tuning

Like many other instruments, guitars can lose their perfect tune over time, due to factors such as temperatures, wear, lack of use, and other environmental issues. If this happens, your notes and chords might sound off-key. 

Fender.com has a helpful page on learning how to tune a guitar manually, You can also purchase an electronic or clip-on guitar tuner, a device that uses the vibration of the strings to quickly tune the guitar. 

Musicians often use “standard 440”, which refers to keeping a standard tune that all guitarists will recognize, so they can play in harmony when jamming. Check out my article on learning to tune your guitar easily to help ease the learning curve!

Learn How to Follow Rhythm

Finally, it’s time to learn basic strumming patterns, which will be easier than picking a lot of notes individually, at least in the beginning. One way to do this is to practice playing along with a song you like. 

Look for at least one note in the song that you recognize and play in harmony with that note. Pay attention to the rhythm and try to keep in sync not just in notes but in the speed of the song. 

Then as you get the hang of it, try to pick out other notes, then chords, then other rhythms. Learn how to play guitar by mimicking great music. Over time, it will become second nature. Pair these tips with some top singing lessons and you'll really expand your musical proficiency!

Summary

Indeed, human’s ability to just pick up a guitar and start practicing is the stuff of legends, and very often the theme of a popular rock and roll song. It doesn’t take a lot of education, just the desire and time to practice. 

You don’t have to be the next Chuck Berry. Guess what? Most musicians aren’t. But that doesn’t mean they stop playing. Once you learn the basics of guitar parts, posturing, hand position, accessories, and notes and chords, you’re one practice session closer to becoming an amazing guitarist. Before you know it, you’ll be leaving the band and trying for a solo career! 

Start practicing just a few minutes every day and chart your progress. You will develop a new skill in no time and have lots of fun doing it.

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