Music & Entertainment

Learn How to Play Guitar

Written by MasterClass

Feb 7, 2019 • 9 min read

The guitar has influenced many styles of music, from Spanish flamenco to folk, country, blues, rock, and modern pop. When played with skill, the guitar is a complex instrument that yields endless combinations of sounds and expressions. Its capable of altering the mood of a song with just a few simple strums—just think about Jimi Hendrix’s wild, inventive playing or Tom Morello’s punk-metal hybrid riffs.

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What Is a Guitar?

The guitar is a fretted musical instrument with a hollow wooden body. It has a long, narrow neck lined with ridges, which are called frets. These indicate the notes. The guitar has six strings, usually made of nylon, which are typically played by strumming or plucking with one hand. At the same time, the other hand focuses on “fretting”—pressing down on the string behind the fret to get the right note.

What To Know Before Playing Guitar for the First Time

Before you sign up for your first guitar lessons, there are two things you need to know:

  • The difference between acoustic and electric guitars (and which you want to play)
  • Whether you’re a right-handed or left-handed guitar player

What’s the Difference Between Acoustic Guitars and Electric Guitars?

Learning to play acoustic or electric guitar depends on personal preference and what kind of music you want to play. Both have their advantages—and present different challenges.

  1. The electric guitar is generally recommended for beginners. This is because electric guitars have thinner strings and a smaller body, which make them easier to play. However, learning to play electric guitar also means investing in additional equipment, such as an amplifier.
  2. Learning on an acoustic guitar may be a little harder at first, but you’ll be able to transition to electric without any problems. (The same cannot be said for the reverse.) Acoustic will also not require additional cables or equipment. The downsides for beginners is that it will be much tougher on your fingers at first. The wider fretboard will also make it harder to stretch your hand until you get used to it.

How to Know If Your Right Hand or Left Hand is Dominant Guitar Hand

There are both right-handed guitars and left-handed guitars. The general wisdom is, if you’re right-handed, it’s probably safe to assume that the right-handed guitar is the most suitable for you. If you’re left-handed, however, you should try both—it won’t be clear which hand plays the dominant role until you have practiced a little bit.

  • The picking hand. When playing, the “picking” hand is the dominant one—it plucks the string and keeps the time.
  • The fret hand. The other hand, known as the “fret” hand, holds down the fret chords and must be able to quickly switch between notes and make long stretches while doing so.

Take note the first few times you pick up a guitar. Which hand naturally gravitates to the strings, and which to the chords?

What Do You Need to Start Learning Guitar?

The first thing every great guitar player needs is, of course, a guitar. There are five other basic things you’ll need before you can start making music:

1. Guitar strings

If you’re just starting out, the best strings for beginners are the thinner, lighter type—these produce less tension and are therefore easier to pluck. If you’re learning on an acoustic guitar, try for strings with a gauge of 0.11 inches to .052 inches (known as “11s”). If you’re learning on the electric guitar, try “9s” or “10s”—.009 inches to .042 inches, or .010 inches to .046 inches.

In regards to materials, for an electric guitar, nickel strings produce clearer sounds and are therefore recommended if you want to jam more rock, blues, and jazz. Stainless steel strings are a bit harder but sturdier, and therefore more recommended if you want to get into more rock and metal.

For acoustic, phosphor bronze strings produce a warm, mellow sound and are a great choice if you’re just starting out.

2. A strap

The purpose of a strap is to stabilize your guitar while you play. While straps can also be a nice way to personalize your guitar, as a beginner, you should keep comfort at the forefront of your mind. For example, make sure your strap is thick enough so it doesn’t hurt your back—at least 2 inches in width is a good size to ensure your neck and shoulders will not get sore.

3. Guitar pick

While you can learn guitar without a pick, most players will pick one up at some point. Picks produce a clearer, sharper sound and allow for more precision. They can also save your fingers during more intense sessions. When it comes to pick types, there are a few— but start simple, with a standard sized plastic pick (between 0.73 mm and 0.88 mm). Later, you can work your way up to a pick that better suits your playing style as it develops.

4. Guitar tuner

A tuner allows you to quickly and accurately tune your guitar. While chromatic tuners allow you to tune in any key, clip-on tuners are generally recommended for beginners. These clip to your guitar and tune using the vibration of the strings. They’re light, portable, and very simple to use. There are also a lot of free smartphone apps available that also do the trick.

5. Capo

A capo is a clamp helps to raise the pitch of the strings by pushing down on them and bringing them closer to the fretboard. A capo is strongly recommended for beginners as you’ll be still building the strength in your fingers, so this device makes it easier to push all the way down on the strings when you need to.

How to Start Playing the Guitar

Once you pick up a guitar, get comfortable with the two foundational techniques: strumming and picking. Your technique and personal style will build up from your understanding of how the strings and chords work.

1. How to Strum

The most important thing to remember when strumming is to relax.

  • Make sure you are holding your guitar securely, and have good posture. Don’t allow your upper body to tense up.
  • Next, hold your pick in your hand. Once your fingers are locked on the chord you want, lock your wrist—make sure it forms a straight line from your forearm. Make sure you don’t strum from the wrist. Don’t move or rotate it. You need to strum with the entire forearm, not just the wrist.
  • Once your wrist is locked, strum in a downward stroke.

2. How to Pick

Once again, the best advice for picking is to relax. If there is tension if your upper body, it will reflect in your playing and your technique. Remember: everyone has his or her own style, but this won’t be evident until you’ve practiced enough to be comfortable.

  • Unlike strumming, you’ll want to make sure your wrist is nice and loose, as you’ll be mostly using small, focused movements when picking.
  • You can pick upwards or downwards, but for beginners, just practice downstrokes to start with. The angle you pick at—whether you’re parallel to the strings or at an angle—will depend on what’s most comfortable for you.
  • Don’t stress too much about it. Play with it and see what works best.

What Are Common Beginner Guitar Chords?

Now that you’re all set up, try practicing some basic chords. The most popular ones are G, C, and D.

The G Chord

Place your index finger on the fifth string, second fret.
Place your middle finger on the sixth string, third fret.
Place your ring finger on the second string, third fret.
Place your pinky finger on the first string, third fret.

The C Chord

Place your index finger on the fourth string, second fret.
Place your middle finger on the fifth string, third fret.
Place your ring finger on the second string, third fret.
Place your pinky finger on the first string, third fret.

The D Chord

Place your index finger on the third string, second fret.
Place your middle finger on the first string, second fret.
Place your ring finger on the second string, third fret.
Place your pinky finger stays off the fretboard.

Once you’ve become accustomed to positioning your fingers in these chord formations, you’ll need to strum in for 10-15 seconds so you can hear how the chord actually sounds. Practice transitioning between these three chords (with a full 15-second strum on each one) until you can do it seamlessly.

What Are Some Easy Songs to Practice With G-C-D Chords?

Once you’re comfortable transitioning between the three G-C-D chords, the next step is to try and play along with some songs where it’s easy to distinguish between these chords. Doing this will also allow you to get better at matching the tempo of the song while strumming.

Here are some good songs to practice G-C-D with, and the breakdown of how the three chords are structured in each song:

Lynyrd Skynyrd, “Sweet Home Alabama” (1974)
D-C-G

Green Day, “Good Riddance” (1997)
G-C-D

AC/DC, “You Shook Me All Night Long” (1980)
G-C-D

Van Morrison, “Brown Eyed Girl” (1967)
G-C-D-Em

Violent Femmes, “Blister” (1983)
G-C-Em-D

How to Practice Playing Guitar

Guitar players aren’t born with technique. It’s developed over time through repetition and muscle memory.

Practice is equal parts:

  • Technique. When you practice technique, you train your fingers to do what you want them to do.
  • Theory. When you study theory, you learn where your fingers can go and why.

Practice requires:

  • Consistency. Guitarists like Tom Morello believe you can see more progress playing for one hour every day than playing an entire afternoon once a week. What you focus on during your practice time can vary throughout your development as a musician.
  • Commitment. As with learning any other craft, it’s easy to get frustrated at the beginning when progress doesn’t seem to happen fast enough. Be patient and commit to practicing regularly.
  • Creativity. The great Carlos Santana is known for practicing in the dark to let his fingers find new possibilities and to learn more about the guitar by touch.
  • Collaboration. It’s also important to remember to practice with other musicians. Not only does it teach you how to collaborate, but it also allows you to see up close how other people approach their craft.

How to Become a Guitar Pro

Learning to master the guitar takes years of practice and dedication. It requires patience, time, and a love of music. Don’t rush yourself—know that the longer you spend understanding how the instrument works, the more you’re discovering about how to master it.

When you’re starting out, it’s natural to want to play like your favorite guitarists. After all, these are the people who inspired you to pick up a guitar in the first place.

But if you want to become an artist, a musician with your own unique voice and style, learning those riffs and solos will only take you so far. It’s a great way to develop technique and gain an understanding of how and why your heroes play the way they do, but a true artist doesn’t merely copy his or her influences. A true artist transcends them.

Technique makes it easier for you to take the ideas that are in your head and heart and get them out into the world for others to hear, but it’s the ideas themselves that matter most. You could strap on a guitar for the very first time, not knowing a single note, and as long as you have the conviction to write and play a song, you’re an artist right there and then.