Below is an extensive list of the things you should learn as a beginner guitarist, organized roughly in the order that you’ll want to cover them.
I have played hundreds of shows, taught hundreds of lessons, and I have a degree in guitar performance. I have whittled all that experience down into this guide.
You’ll want to bookmark this page and use it as a reference as you advance as a guitarist and as a musician. For tips on guitar maintenance and storage, jump to the end of the article. Let’s get started!
1. Which Style(s) Do You Want to Play?
Knowing which style or styles you want to play will set you on the most efficient path toward your goals.
If you want to play rock, I would recommend getting certain gear, using a certain practice routine and listening to certain artists.
On the other hand, if you want to play classical guitar, I would recommend different gear, a different practice routine, and listening to different artists.
I want to get you driving in the right direction as soon as possible. So, which style(s), do you want to play? Consider that question first, and then move on to the next step.
2. Playing in Context: Solo, Duo, Band
The context you want to perform in will inform what it is you should be practicing. If you want to play solo guitar, you have to handle entire arrangements yourself.
If you want to be a lead guitar player, you can just focus on playing great solos, melodies, and fills. Here are some references for a few different contexts.
- Solo Guitar: Joe Pass (jazz), Tommy Emmanuel (general steel string acoustic), Andres Segovia (classical)
- Singer-Songwriter: Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Mississipi John Hurt
- Lead Guitar: Jimmy Page, Mark Knopfler, Joe Satriani, Stevie Ray Vaughan
- Duo: Tuck and Patti, Joe Pass and Ella Fitzgerald, Pat Metheny and Charlie Haden
Simply Google lists of the best guitar players and watch videos of them in your spare time.
That will help you get a better idea of where you want to go as a guitar player.
3. Which Guitar is Right for You?
Whether you have a guitar already or not, take a moment to consider which model of guitar is ideal for you. If you already have a guitar, feel free to dive into the rest of the material in this article, but this section is still worth considering.
Below is a chart to give you a starting point for guitar manufactures. Do not consider this list comprehensive. There are many, many great manufactures not included here.
Spend some time drooling over the guitars on these websites. This is a core part of the experience of the modern guitarist!
- Rock – Fender, Gibson, Ibanez, G&L,
- Acoustic – Fender, Martin, Taylor
- Pop – Fender
- Blues – Gibson, Fender
- Metal – Ibanez, Fender, Gibson, Jackson, ESP
- Classical – Ibanez, Yamaha, Taylor
- Funk – Fender, Gibson
- Jazz – Ibanez (especially hollow and semi-hollow body models), D’Angelico, Gibson
4. The Other Gear You’ll Need
If you play electric guitar, you’ll need an instrument cable (ideally 2-3 of them), an amp, and maybe some effects pedals and power / batteries for them. Regardless of the guitar you play, you’ll want a hard case, strap, extra strings, a tuner (or app), and a metronome (or app).
Eventually you may also want fretboard cleaner (I use a lemon oil made for guitar), guitar polish, and a string winder for changing strings quickly. It is also nice to have a wire cutter for removing the excess string length near the tuning pegs.
5. Holding the Guitar
Every guitar model is a bit different and every guitar player is a bit different. We have different hands, fingers, arms, etc. So, there is no formula for perfect posture. However there are some guidelines we can all keep in mind.
Standing Position (Strap height)
Spend considerable time experimenting with the height of your guitar strap. This is really, really important. Watch videos of your heroes playing. How does the height of the guitar affect their playing?
Just because a player is famous, doesn’t mean they have good, healthy technique. Rock and metal guitar players tend to sling their guitars lower: around or below the waist. This posture may look cool, but it can put stress on your fretting wrist!
Note: whenever I talk about the “fretting hand”, this refers to the non-strumming hand. In other words, the hand that is actually forming the chords or notes that you’re playing. For example, if you are right handed, your fretting hand will typically be your left hand.
As my teacher told me, most of the guitarists who can really, really play hold their guitars on the higher side. Check out players like Pat Metheny and Allan Holdsworth.
Keep your body relaxed as you play, using only the muscles needed. Do not slouch, or bend or twist your neck. Keep your weight evenly distributed between your feet.
Keep your fretting wrist fairly straight. It will bend within its normal range when playing various material, but avoid extended severe bending of the wrist.
Seated Position: In a Chair, On Leg VS. Between Legs
If you are in a seated position, you have the option of resting the guitar on your thigh or between your legs.
Most players choose the thigh, but some players, such as B.B. King, hold the guitar between their legs. Great technique is whatever works for you, and works long term. Imagine telling B.B. King that he was holding the guitar incorrectly! Yeah right!
Easiest Way to Tune
My favorite way to tune is with an instrument cable into a tuner pedal (I use a polytune). These are really accurate, and you can tune with out being heard (great for live shows). Of course, these only work if your guitar has an output jack. The other downside is that tuning this way does not improve your ear.
Tuning with a reference (e.g. Piano)
Tuning to a piano is good exercise for your ear. Keep in mind if you are using an acoustic piano, it may not be in tune itself. So it’s best to use a digital keyboard or piano app. Sidenote: if you’re also considering learning piano, you should definitely read about why guitar is harder than piano.
Tuning by Ear
Detune your a string slightly, play your reference pitch, and slowly tune your string up to match the reference. I like to tune the low E string (i.e. the “fatest” string and the one closest to your face when you’re playing) first and go up from there.
Some alternate tunings you may want to try are “drop D” (DADGBE) and “DADGAD,” you can also tune so that all open strings form a major chord. You can also invent your own tunings.
7. Playing Notes
Picking / Finger-style
To play a note with a guitar, you have to get a string vibrating. This is typically done with a pick or with the fingers / fingernails. Many singer-songwriter, folk, and classical guitar players play finger-style (without a pick).
This technique can greatly expand the possibilities of the guitar, in a way, it is kind of like having five picks instead of one.
Holding a pick
The traditional way of holding a pick is to pick the strings with the tip/point of the pick and hold the other end between the thumb and pointer finger, or, thumb, pointer, and middle finger. Pat Metheny uses the broad side of the pick. Again, if it works, it is not wrong!
Frets are the thin strips of metal running along the top of the fingerboard. To fret a note, place your finger just behind a fret. Generally you want to be as close behind a fret as your can without touching the fret.
Use the minimal amount of pressure required to play the note. Pick the string you are fretting and you should hear the note.
Muting is a technique used to play avoid unwanted noise by touching (muting) certain strings. The strings only sound when they are vibrating. Touching a string (with hand, palm, fingers, etc.) will mute or “deaden” the strings. Mute the strings you are not playing for the clearest sound.
Rhythm is the time element of music. Timing is one of the most important, arguably the single most important, element of music. You do not need a guitar to practice rhythm. In fact it is a good idea to practice without the guitar.
Get a metronome. A metronome app is fine (if you can avoid the other distractions your phone provides). Learn about and practice various rhythms.
The most common rhythmic values (lengths) are whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, eight notes, sixteenth notes, various dotted notes, quarter note triplets, and half note triplets.
There are many good books with written rhythms. Most of them are drumming books or sight singing books. If you can read music, there are a lot of options. We will discuss whether you should lean to read music later in this article.
You can also clap, tap, and sing along to your favorite songs as a way of practicing you sense of time.
Intervals are the distances between notes. We use names to label the various intervals so we can easily discuss the motion of a melody. Below is a chart displaying the various distances up to one octave, although intervals can be much wider than one octave.
|Interval||Equivalent Number of Half-Steps (i.e. Frets)|
|Augmented Fourth / Diminished Fifth||6|
|Augmented Fifth / Minor Sixth||8|
Note: The intervals above with two names may be referred to by either name depending on the context. Some of the other intervals above have alternate names as well.
10. Playing Chords
Playing chords on the guitar requires you to use multiple fingers of the fretting hand simultaneously. It is common for inexperienced players to accidentally mute desired notes.
Some chords require the player to arch the fingers, avoiding strings that should ring. Some chords require the player to lay one or more fingers flat against the fretboard, this is usually done to “barre” (fret multiple notes with one finger).
Other chords rely on a combination of flat and arched technique. Every chord shape is unique. The geometry of the chord shapes, and your muscle memory will help you memorize the shapes. Eventually you will be able move all fingers to the correct places simultaneously.
Muting for Chords
Muting is useful for playing chords accurately. If you use a pick, and strum all six strings when you play chords, you’ll have to mute the strings that you do not want to ring. Muting can be done with either or both hands.
Typically, I avoid strumming the strings that I do not want to ring, but sometimes it makes more sense to strum across certain strings while muting them. Here’s a video from JustinGuitar that breaks this down in detail:
Palm muting is a different kind of muting that is used to create a muffled, percussive tone. This technique is notably used in metal riffs but can be used whenever that sound is desired. Here is a video that shows how to do that kind of muting:
Strumming should be natural, like walking. Keep your wrist relaxed and flexible. It is possible to move from the shoulder, elbow, wrist, and fingers. I tend to move from the elbow, keeping the wrist relaxed.
In most cases it is best to keep the wrist in motion, even when the strings are not struck. Get your hand and wrist strumming in steady motion, do not stop for a rest in the rhythm. Feel free to rest for a longer pause, but in general keep moving.
Try strumming downstrokes with a metronome. Notice that if you are playing down strokes on the beats, your hand is making the motion of an up stroke on the up-beats. Keep this motion consistent, unless you have to play a faster subdivision such as sixteenth notes.
Power chords are a great place to start when learning about guitar chords.
A “Power chord” is simply a root note coupled with its perfect fifth, an octave above the root is optional. These are usually played in the low to middle register and with a distorted tone. Technically a two note chord is called a dyad, not a chord. As they say, close enough for rock n’ roll…
Try moving this shape along the E-A and A-D string sets. If you try the G to B string set you’ll have to adjust the shape.
Explanation of the term “String Sets”
What do I mean be string set? The six strings can be looked at in various groupings. Two sets of five (E-A-D-G-B) (A-D-G-B-E), three sets of four (E-A-D-G)(A-D-G-B) (D-G-B-E) , four sets of three (E-A-D) (A-D-G) (D-G-B) (G-B-E), five sets of two (E-A) (A-D)(D-G) (G-B) (B-E), or as six individual strings (E-A-D-G-B-E). Thinking this way is helpful for exploring all of the possibilities of the guitar.
You’ll want to continue by learning root position major and minor triads. Although the chords on the D-G-B string set and G-B-E string set tend to be used the most, I recommend beginning with the lowest set and going up from there.
For a basic overview of how movable chords and triads work, I like this brief video from Scott Robertson:
11. Intermediate Chords
Most guitarists learn open chords first, although they are not necessarily the easiest. Most of these use four, five, and six strings. So if you want to learn some smaller shapes first, feel free. It is good to learn the common ones such as C, C7, G, G7, D, D minor, D7, A, A minor, A7 E, E-, E7, B7.
For example, here are diagrams showing the 4 chords that many guitarists start with, since you can play a lot of popular songs with just these few chords:
Movable Seventh Chords
Next you’ll want to learn the basic movable seventh chords. Major seventh, minor seventh, dominant seventh, and diminished seventh.
It is most important to learn these with roots on the low E string (and higher chord tones on the D, G, and B strings, and also with roots on the A string, again with the higher tones on the D, G, and B strings).
There are many, many ways to voice (arrange the notes) of these chords, but these are the best forms to start with.
To get you started, here’s a nice overview from Godfrey Guitar:
If you want to advance from here, learn all the inversions of the triads along all four string sets, then look into playing seventh chord inversions!
Essential Chord Formulas
Below are formulas that tell you which notes are used to form each chord type. In these examples the chord is either a triad, which contains a root (1), a third (3, or b3), and a fifth (5, or b5), or a seventh chord which contains a seventh as well (7, b7, or bb7).
Notes represented by numbers with no alterations (flats or sharps) are the same notes found in a major scale. For example “3” is the major third above the root, and “5” is a perfect fifth above the root. If alterations are present, raise or lower the note accordingly. To find a bb7, find the major seventh and lower it two half-steps.
Diminished (Triad): 1-b3-b5
Major Seventh: 1-3-5-7
Minor Seventh: 1-b3-5-b7
Dominant Seventh: 1-3-5-b7
Diminished Seventh: 1-b3-b5-bb7
12. Listening to Music
Listening to music provides inspiration! Focus on listening to the masters of your chosen style: artists from the past and contemporary artists who are releasing great music regularly.
Be careful not to compare your skills with the skills of the masters. This will likely lead to a negative mindset. Mindset is half the battle as a musician and it is important to stay positive and focus on getting better than you are, not better than anyone else. Let great players inspire you with their amazing skills.
Ask yourself why they are so great. Did they study in school? Have a great mentor? Have years of experience? How can you take a similar path and achieve a similar result?
Remember that your life is not the same as anyone else’s. You will have different luck and different challenges. There is no one formula to being a great artist. It is about how well you can express your true identify, views, and experiences.
13. Should You Learn to Read Music?
I do recommend that most guitarists learn to read music. It is very rewarding and fun once you get the hang of it. It does require hours of practice, and purchasing a few books.
You could just read charts online, but I recommend getting at least one book: Music reading for guitar (the complete method) published by MI / Musician’s Institute.
In addition to that, if you can get any of the sight reading books by David Singley, I’d recommend those.
Learning to read (and notate) allows you to articulately convey and remember musical ideas, which is hard to do verbally. If you want to write for other instruments it will help with that as well.
Tablature or “tabs” are a helpful but incomplete form of notation for guitar music. Tabs show you how the music lays on the fretboard, but do not necessarily convey the rhythm of the music! So, you have to rely on listening to the recording, or already knowing how the songs goes!
Chord charts are a form of notation that tell a guitarist which chords to play and when, typically without specific chord voicing provided. If you are ever going to get hired playing in theater, TV, or a professional band, you’ll have to be able to read these!
Keep in mind that you can learn all the notes and rhythms of pretty much any song with you ears alone, you just have to train them to hear what is happening.
Ear training is the practice of learning to recognize musical material by listening only. You can do this with notes, intervals, melodies, chords, etc.
Try a site like this one to get started.
14. Essential Scales
A scale is a specific set of notes. It is common to practice them ascending and descending to build your technical ability. They are also useful for writing and improvising melodies. Each scale has a unique sound and certain scales are best paired with certain chord qualities.
Major Scale: 1-2-3-4-5-6-7
Major Pentatonic: 1-2-3-5-6
Note that pentatonic means five tones (notes).
A flat before a scale degree means that the scale degree is lowered by one half step compared to where that same scale degree is in the major scale.
Minor Scale: 1-2-b3-4-5-b6-b7
Minor Pentatonic: 1-b3-4-5-b7
Blues Scale: 1-b3-4-b5-5-b7
To get you started, here is a solid introduction to major scales:
And a here’s a really cool demonstration of the pentatonic scale:
15. Basic Music Theory
It a good idea to know some basic music theory in order to understand what you are playing and communicate with other musicians. You may hear them say things like “1-4-5 progression,” “dominant chord,” “off beat,” “1-6-2-5 turnaround,” “key of F, etc”
In western music theory, the major scale is the standard metric against which all numbers labels are derived. A half step is the same as moving one fret on the guitar. For example from C to Db. A whole step is the same as moving two frets. For example from C to D.
The formula for playing a major scale is: whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half. (W-W-H-W-W-W-H). For Example. C major is C D E F G A B. C to D is a whole, D to E is a whole, E to F is a half, F to G is a whole, G to A is a whole, A to B is whole, B to C is a half.
This formula is the same for all major scales, simply start on any note and follow the formula (W-W-H-W-W-W-H). The seven notes of a major scale are labeled 1-7. When labeling chords, roman numerals are typically used but in this case, I’ll use standard numbers: C is 1, D is 2, E is 3, F is 4, G is 5, A is 6, B is 7.
Chords can be build upon each “degree” of the scale. In the Key of C, the “1 chord” also referred to simply as “the one” is C major, the “2 chord” is D minor, the “3 chord” is E minor, the “4 chord” is F major, the 5 chord” is G major, the “6 chord” is A minor, the “7 chord” is B diminished.
So if someone says, this song is a one, four, five in C, the chords are C, F, and G.
These major, minor, and diminished “chord qualities” occur in the same pattern regardless of which major key you are in. All of this information is different for minor keys.
A key is either major or minor. Do not overthink the concept of key. It simply means that the song is roughly based on that scale.
The formula for the minor scale is: W H W W H W W. Note that the minor scale is a mode of the major scale. Because of this, if you start in the sixth degree of C major (which is A) and play the C major scale from there, you will get an A minor scale: A B C D E F G A.
There are five other modes of the major scale, but we are not going to get into those here.
Improvisation means to compose as you play in real time. An improvised solo is not composed in advance. It is important to learn other solos that you like in order to learn the material (language) that solos are made of.
An improviser does not necessarily invent the material out of nowhere, a lot of study goes into writing, and borrowing phrases to add to your vocabulary.
The primary elements of music are rhythm, melody and harmony. The rhythmic flow is the most important element of most popular music, be it pop, rock, blues, jazz, R&B, hip-hop, etc.
So you’ll want to develop a strong rhythmic flow and master as many rhythmic values as you can. You’ll want to learn strong melodies, and play material that fits with the harmony that is accompanying you.
17. Basic Guitar Maintenance
Storing a Guitar Properly
It is best to store your guitar in a hard case at a temperature between 66-77 degrees Fahrenheit. Using a wall hanger is okay if the room has a decent temperature and humidity level. Using a stand is ok, but you run the risk of having your guitar knocked over.
I recommend changing your strings approximately every three months. If your strings become dirty, or dull sounding before this point, change them earlier. If you play infrequently, your strings should last longer. There is an entire article on this subject here at Fretfolks!
Intonation means how accurately a guitar plays in tune (when all the open strings are tuned). Once you tune your open strings, keep your tuner on and play each note of your low E string moving up the neck.
Are all of these notes in tune? It is pretty unlikely that every note of a guitar is every perfectly in tune, but you want to be as accurate as possible, right? This is where adjusting your action comes in. Various guitar models approach this in various ways.
In every case the key is adjusting the length of the string so that it sounds as accurate as possible. Watch how this is done by someone with experience, or bring your guitar into a shop for a “set-up.”
When I change my strings, I remove them all at the same time (this may not be a good idea depending on your model).
With all strings removed, I use a lemon oil polish, which removes dirt and revitalizes the wood of the fretboard. If you don’t want to remove all the strings at once, you can polish a portion of the fretboard at a time.
18. How Much to Practice
How much you should practice depends on your goals and how high the guitar is on your list of priorities.
Some guitarists play as a hobby, only practicing occasionally. Many of the legends practice(d) eight plus hours per day to reach the virtuoso level. Make a schedule that works for you and your goals. Adjust if necessary, and stick with it.
It is not the end of the world to miss a practice session here and there, especially if it means seising another major opportunity. But be honest with yourself and your commitment. Stay true to your goals!
You can become proficient practicing one hour five days per week, if your goals are learning some common songs and learning to play a basic solo.
If you want to join a band, there will be practicing on your own, rehearsing together, writing songs, recording, booking shows, promotion, and a lot of other things you and your group will have to organize and execute.
Best of luck and remember that playing guitar is about what YOU want to get out of it. As an artist, you make the rules as long as they give you the desired result. Have fun and stay positive!