I am a self-taught guitarist who began around the age of 10: a period of my life when I seemed to have all of the time in the world, a lot of patience, endurance, and a great desire to succeed. Those were the advantages I possessed, yet disadvantaged by the lack of information and materials as compared to today. Still, true desire can overcome adversity, as refusal to succumb makes you stronger and better at your trade. This Beginning Guitar-Getting Started article is intended to offer some valuable advice to any aspiring musician.
Nothing but Time
There are no shortcuts in replacement for hours of practice. With our modern, busy lifestyles, there are so many options for things that we would like to do and things that we absolutely must do. You will need to prioritize and set aside a time each day to put in the work. That’s right, “work.”
You need to understand that right up front. The beginning stages of learning are not exactly fun, rather, many students don’t survive this initial period. When your fingers are raw and sore from the strings, and your chords are muted by fingers bumping strings that should not be touched, the realization sets in that this is not easy. In fact, it’s damn hard in the early going, and you may now gain some respect that you didn’t have before for accomplished players. It’s a shame, but many give up at this point, not willing to make the sacrifice. But, that being said, you CAN get over that hump, and in a short amount of time be generating melodic tones. How long it takes depends on you: nothing but time.
I cannot stress this enough. Regardless of where you envision yourself down the road, whether it be a lead guitarist for a band or a classical soloist, DO NOT begin with an electric guitar. You need to start with the acoustic. Now, the “boos” and “ahs” begin. Don’t worry, you will get there soon enough. Let me explain.
The electric guitar’s strings are much smaller in diameter and easier to press. In fact, if you use “super slinky” strings like I do, all you have to do is touch the string to make a sound. Number one, you will be emanating all kinds of unintentional tones by bumping things that you shouldn’t. However, more importantly, you will not develop the strength in your fingers or the callouses required in order to get past that pain stage. In comparison, the acoustic’s strings are larger, higher off of the neck, possess a much greater deal of tension, and are harder to press. If you can play the acoustic, you will be able to easily transfer that ability to the electric, but not necessarily visa versa.
Before I was old enough to know better, I bought an acoustic from a pawn shop, later to find that the neck was warped, the strings high off of the fret board, and hard as hell to play. This adversity however, was instrumental in the development of strength and callouses. I think it made me a better player more quickly. In today’s world, we seek out ways in order to get things done effortlessly. Remember, easiest is not always the best.
In addition, DO NOT run out and buy an expensive instrument, nor a cheap toy for that matter. Save your money until you get past the beginning stages and know for sure it is what you want to do. As previously stated, if early on you determine it’s not your thing, you don’t want a costly axe just collecting dust. On the other hand, don’t run out to Walmart and pick up a $50.00 piece of crap. As the saying goes, “you get what you pay for.” I think it’s safe to say that budget yourself for a couple hundred bucks, and pay a visit to a major music store. There, you will gain advice from actual players who know what’s junk and what isn’t.
While all professionals use electronic tuners on stage and in the studio, and it won’t hurt for you to have one, buy an A440 Concert Pitch tuning fork. I still use mine all of the time when I’m just practicing or playing around.
You MUST train your ears as to the proper pitch for each string and whether your chords are finely tuned. You cannot accomplish this while having an electronic device do it for you. Always start with the fork, then afterwards if you like, verify your accuracy with the tuner. The best way is to tune each string, then play a few chords, checking to see if the guitar is tuned with itself. Slight adjustments might be necessary.
Strike the tuning fork on a hard surface. I generally use my knee. Without touching the fork thus muting the sound, place the end on the open body of your acoustic. Another method, leaving your hands free, I like to place it between my teeth. The ringing resonates in your head therefore amplifying the sound.
Now, play the 5th (“A”) string open. Note that the sound from the fork will be two octaves higher. With good ears, you can still tune the string to the correct note. Very challenging for the beginner, yet more accurate is to strike the harmonic for the string. This is done by barely touching directly on top of the 12th fret as you strike the string. This will definitely require some practice.
Next, strike the fork again, and place your finger on the 5th fret of the 1st (“E”) string. Tune that string to the same pitch. It is important to note, that when it is required to place your finger on a fret, it is never on top of the bar, rather between the frets. Contrary to this rule is when you are playing harmonics as mentioned above.
Now, you should have two strings properly tuned, and you can tune the rest of the guitar to these strings.
6th (“E”) string – 5th fret = Open 5th (“A”) String
5th (“A”) string – 5th fret = Open 4th (“D”) String
4th (“D”) string – 5th fret = Open 3rd (“G”) String
3rd (“G”) string – 4th fret = Open 2nd (“B”) String
2nd (“B”) string – 5th fret = Open 1st (“E”) String
As mentioned earlier, after tuning each string individually, play a few chords and verify that the guitar is in tune with itself and adjust accordingly. Also note, there are additional harmonics that can be used, but I won’t get into them at this stage.
Get yourself a good chord book and start by learning all of the major and minor “open string” chords: A, B, C, D, E, F, G. You will probably use this chord chart throughout your life. I still have mine from childhood. The pages may be yellowed and worn, but it still serves its purpose if ever in need. Understand, there are to my knowledge 16 variations of the “E” Major chord alone. This does not count minors, diminished, augmented, sevenths etc.
Don’t overwhelm yourself by trying to learn all of the variations. Pick a favorite song, learn the basic chords to that tune, and work on different chord variations using your chord chart. You will find that each fingering will have different intonations. This is important especially when working with a group. As one example, if an accompanying instrument is playing a chord in a lower register, you can obtain exciting effects by interweaving different harmonic structures, thus accomplishing a separation of instruments.
At this point, DO NOT begin practicing on scales or lead licks. There is a time and place for everything: first things first. Number one, you MUST understand chord structure in order to comprehend what fits and what doesn’t. Within each chord, certain notes are acceptable and others are not. Additionally, think of your favorite songs. How many have a solo, and if so, how many bars does it consume? What? 20 seconds maybe? And what is the guitar doing throughout the rest of the number? No band is going to want you joining in unless you can be an effective rhythm player.
When I say “rhythm,” I don’t mean that you simply have to be what I call a “strummer.” Learn to elaborate on the chords and licks and tricks that can be played within. Below, you will see a video of a simple rhythmic melody that I put together on the acoustic.
Unless you plan to play for the symphony, forget about it. Most successful pop, country, blues, or rock artists are “ear trained.” In fact, and this experiment has been done with some major headliners, you could place a piece of sheet music, without listing the title, in front of the artist who wrote it, and I would venture to say that most popular artists could not even play or recognize their own songs.
It is an ABSOLUTE MUST to train your ears to hear and your heart and soul to feel. I learned by listening carefully to professional players and mimicking the notes they would play. Afterwards, I found ways to enhance their styles, and in doing so, developed my own.
If you have an ear for music, and not everybody does, the sky is the limit. All you need now is the desire and perseverance. I feel that having that special ear is a gift and is natural. That doesn’t mean that you can’t learn and play the guitar for enjoyment. It is very soothing and a great pastime and stress reliever. Without that natural ability, you will just need to work a little bit harder.
In closing, I hope you have found this Beginning Guitar-Getting Started article helpful. I was born and raised a musician, my parents professionals before me. It was in my blood, and once in your blood, it never leaves you. I will always be a musician until I am “Dust in the Wind.” I am sure that someone reading this article will follow in that path, as it boils in your blood as well.
If you have anything to add, I would love to hear from you. In addition, if I can assist in any way, please feel free to contact me using the contact form at the bottom of the “Learning Center” page.