Singing a song for someone you love can be an incredibly thoughtful and touching gesture, but it’s even more impressive if you can accompany it with some guitar melodies. (It’s a great proposal idea, too.) Whether you’re trying to learn a song for your mother’s birthday or fulfill your New Year’s resolution of joining a band, you’re in the right place. This article is for anyone wondering how to learn to play the guitar for the first time. It will introduce skills such as chord strumming, accompaniment, and tablature reading. It will also discuss the differences between how to play acoustic guitar and how to play electric guitar, and provide further resources for those wishing to continue their education in any of these areas.
Basic Guitar Vocabulary
In any guide on guitar playing, a little initial vocabulary is crucial. Guitars don’t require a lot of technical knowledge, but these few definitions may help your comprehension.
- Fret: The metal strips that intersect the guitar’s neck perpendicular to the strings.
- Chord: three or more notes played simultaneously or in quick succession.
- Tablature: An easy-to-read type of music notation designed specifically for the guitar.
- Open string: A string playing its original note with no fingers pressing it down.
In guitar playing, each chord has its own fingering pattern. The fingering pattern for any chord must make each string play one of the chord notes. If you read music a little you can work out the fingering string by string, but why do all that work when you can just use a printable diagram? There’s no need to reinvent the wheel when someone else has already done the work.
How to play guitar chords
Allow the neck of the guitar to rest on your left thumb, and arch your fingers around and over the strings. Using your chord fingering diagram as a reference. Find the correct fret for each finger and then place the finger firmly on the string behind that fret. Once you have them all placed, use your right thumb (or a pick) to strum gently and you should hear a lovely harmonious chord. Here’s a checklist to make sure your left hand fingers are placed correctly:
- Each finger should be behind the correct fret, not in front of it. “Behind” means “On the side closest to the end of the guitar neck with the tuning knobs.”
- Each finger should be pressing the string all the way down (leaving a gap between the string and the guitar’s neck allows unwanted vibrations to creep in).
- Each finger must touch only the correct string(s). Accidentally touching additional strings, even slightly, can cause an odd buzzing sound.
If your chord still sounds wrong, your guitar may not be in tune. You can use a piano to play the right note and then gently turn the knob for each string to raise or lower its pitch as necessary. But be careful not to snap the string!
How to use chords with a song
Unless you already play other instruments by ear, you can expect to need sheet music for a song in order to get the chords right. Sheet music often comes with the names of guitar chords written in so all you have to do is memorize the fingering for each chord (or keep your chart handy). If it doesn’t have chords written in, you can figure out which chords will fit best by comparing melody notes to chord notes. This requires a little skill in music theory though, so you may have to study a bit first if you’re a beginner at music. If you’re not up for that, it’s perfectly fine to just use music that has chords written in.
These are fun! The simplest patterns are just one step past a basic strum, but you can make up any patterns you like, make a longer pattern by putting two together, switch patterns in the middle of the song, or perform any other creative variation you wish. Here are a few ideas to get you started.
- The most basic accompaniment pattern has two beats. On the first beat you play the top string; on the second beat you strum the remaining strings. Pluck-strum. For a four-beat pattern, you just play it twice: Pluck-strum, pluck-strum.
- The next step up is to position each finger of your right hand on a specific string. This is the same as the last pattern, except you’re plucking all the strings instead of strumming. So on the first beat you pluck the top string, on the second beat you pluck all the other strings together. (This pattern leaves out a string, since there are six and you only play with five fingers. The A string, just below your thumb, is commonly skipped.)
- Now mix it up. Try plucking top-middle-top-bottom, or top-middle-bottom-middle, or any other combination you choose. You can play each string separately or several together.
The sky’s the limit! Take some time to experiment and find the sound you want for your song. You can get even more inspiration from this site, which provides videos of several accompaniment patterns.
Now that you know how to play a guitar, you should take some time to practice your accompaniment skills. But there are just a few more things you should know about guitar playing; for example, you’re sure to come across tablature notation eventually.
This fancy word just means a different kind of diagram to show you where to place your fingers. It’s a widely-used diagram, so it’s important to understand its use as you learn. While chord diagrams depict strings vertically, tablature shows them horizontally. The trick to reading tablature is to remember that your top string (the thickest one) is shown at the bottom of the diagram. The other feature of tablature is the numbers that appear on the strings, which can be explained very simply: the number you see written on the string is the number of the fret your finger should be on. So if the E string shows a 1, put your finger on the first fret of the corresponding string on your guitar. Reading from left to right on the diagram, play each string that has a number on it. An open string will be indicated by a 0.
All these instructions apply to both acoustic and electric guitars, so let’s take a moment to look at the distinguishing features of the acoustic guitar and why so many people love it. Some important characteristics are:
- Sound: The acoustic guitar is more mellow and soothing.
- Authenticity: Much music has been written specifically for the acoustic guitar. (The same, of course, can be said for the electric guitar, so it depends on what music you want to play.)
- Flexibility: The acoustic guitar doesn’t require electricity, making it a great choice for blackouts or campfires.
- Weight: Acoustic guitars are hollow inside and therefore usually lighter than electric guitars despite being larger.
Some distinguishing features of the electric guitar include:
- Volume: You can crank it up as high as the speakers will allow.
- Colors: Electric guitars are more likely to come in bright color schemes.
- “Coolness” factor: Popular musicians tend to use them much more frequently.
- Style: They go with a modern-day band much better than an acoustic guitar does.
If you’re wondering how to play bass guitar, it’s similar to an electric guitar. The strings of a four-stringed bass are one octave lower than the four lowest (thickest) of a normal guitar, so you can use the same chord fingering charts but just ignore the two highest (thinnest) strings. The tablature is similar to normal tablature but will only have four lines.
Now that you know how to play the guitar, you can spend hours a day practicing until you become a real pro. You may even be able to teach your friends. But to do thatm you’ll need some materials: more chord fingerings, songs with chords and tablature written in, music reading lessons, and the like. Get started with materials such as:
- A comprehensive chord fingerings site
- Free video lessons for beginners
- Some guitar tabs
- A Canadian tablature site
- This tablature search from the UK
- Free music theory video lessons
- Musictheory.net: lessons, exercises, and tools
- Bass guitar tabs