Learning Guitar: A Beginner's Guide
It could be argued that the guitar is the most widely played instrument in the world, if not the most instantly recognisable instrument of our generation. Learning the basics of guitar is a pretty straightforward task, even for those lacking any musical skills or experience. However, mastering the guitar and developing your skills to levels demonstrated by today’s guitar heroes is another thing all together!
As we’ve discussed in other Sound Advice articles, patience, dedication and determination are the key to learning any instrument. It’s what you put into learning an instrument that ultimately determines what you get back in return, and the same can be easily said for learning guitar.
So where do we begin? To learn any instrument, it’s advisable to listen to as much music as possible and more importantly the instrument you intend to learn. It may sound silly to start with this advice, but its advice you really cannot afford to ignore if you are to take learning guitar seriously. You may wonder why this is so important, but the soon you begin to develop your ears and begin using them in the way a musician should, the more this skill will benefit you in the long run.
Most people listen to music on a daily basis, whether it is on the radio at work, in their car on a journey or on their stereo system while relaxing at home. Any musician will tell you the difference between simply ‘hearing music’, and ‘listening to music’ is very different. Most musicians can listen to a piece of music, and instantly pick each individual instrument out of the mix. Some more experienced musicians can actually work out what chords etc are being played simply by listening to a piece of music.
Why is this important?
The latter of the two skills is obviously a more advanced technique and will take many months or even years to achieve, but starting early is the key to success. Understanding how this can benefit you is important, and something you should think about early on. The better your listening skills are, the easier you’ll find it to determine if you’re playing correctly and develop your technique.
This is partly why the introduction of TAB as a form of musical notation has contributed to the influx of extremely average guitarists demonstrating their ‘skills’ on the website YouTube. If used correctly, TAB (or tablature to use its full name) can be a tremendously useful learning tool, however if used incorrectly anyone can be fooled into believing what they are playing is correct simply because it is written on a piece of paper.
There are probably many more incorrect tab scores on the internet than there are correct ones, which is why it is important to develop your listening skills when your first set out to learning any instrument. You don’t hear music on paper, so learn to rely more on what you hear and less on what read. If it doesn’t sound right, then it probably isn’t.
Time to tune up
So you’ve thrown the TAB books away and decided you need to trust your ears a little more. Good, because the next thing you need to do is understand about the tuning of your guitar. Your guitar needs to be in tune at all times, otherwise your guitar really is not gonna play ball with you. You’ll quickly discover that it really doesn’t matter how much you think you’ve nailed the solo to ‘School’s out for summer’…it’s going to sound horrid!
Starting with the thickest string (the string closest to your body) and working down to the thinnest string, they should be tuned in the order of EADGBE. There are several other tunings that a guitar can be tuned in, however EADGBE is thought of as ‘standard tuning’ as it is the most commonly used. We’ll cover the other tunings and explain their use in another article
So you’re probably thinking “How am I supposed to know what E sounds like?” well don’t worry as you can easily get help with this. Electronic tuners are very cheap, (anywhere between £5 and £20) and can be found in pretty much all music shops. Once you’ve bought yourself a tuner, all you need to do to find the correct note is slowly adjust the machine heads (situated on the headstock of your guitar) whilst slowly strumming the string you are attempting to tuning.
As you make minor adjustments you should see the needle on your tuner fluctuate back and forth, settling in the centre once your string is in tune. Be patient as you may have to repeat this process several times before you guitar is perfectly in tune. The minor adjustments you make to tune up one string can knock other strings slightly out of tune. Once your guitar is tuned, try attempting that solo again or maybe that chord sequence you’ve been learning, I guarantee it sound a lot better!
The chords you need to know
When you start learning guitar, there are a number of guitar chords that you really should make an attempt to learn from the very start. A guitar chord is a series of notes played simultaneously and are achieved by plucking the strings of the guitar whilst pressing the appropriate strings against the frets of the guitar neck. The easiest way to learn and memorise guitar chords are to identify each chord with the shape your fingers make whilst pressing down on the strings of the neck, like below.
You should try to only tackle a few chords at a time. Start with learning the major chords C,G, F and D. These will enable you to play a number of songs straight away, and as soon as you have learned a few chords you will be surprised at how simple the chord structure of certain songs can be. Just a few chords will open up a whole world of possibilities to your playing and should keep you entertained while you’re practicing.
It may take a little while to master these chords but learning an instrument for the first time can be tough. It will take time for your fingers to feel comfortable making the required shapes on the neck, and being able to change smoothly from playing one chord to the next is simply a matter of practice. Take your time and most importantly try to have fun learning these chords. Once you feel like you’ve got the hang of these, it’s time to learn three more.
The Major difference with Minor chords
The next chords you will learn are E and A, but we will use these chords to learn the difference between Major and Minor chords. Basically, the only difference between major and minor chords is in one essential note – the third. The third note is what gives major-sounding scales and chords a brighter, happier sound and what gives minor scales and chords a darker and sadder sound.
The ‘third note’ is that taken from the major or minor scale, and its use obviously depends on whether it is a major or minor chord being played. A minor 3rd is one note lower than a major 3rd, which doesn’t seem a lot of difference but you should instantly notice the difference in sound these chords make.
Advanced Chords and Techniques
As you learn and gain experience, you will learn to understand that due to the positioning of notes on the neck of a guitar, there are more than just a few ways of playing a chord. One common technique you may come across is barred chords. Basically, these are the same as normal chords but are played by placing you first finger over the neck to apply pressure to all six strings. You then need to make the required chord shape with your remaining three fingers. It’s a technique that works well with both major and minor chords, and is often used to increase the speed between chord changes.
A good way to add variation to your playing is to experiment with different strumming patterns and timings. You can try adding emphasis to some chords and speed up and slow down others. In fact it is these simple techniques that can set an average guitarist and a great guitarist apart. Anything that makes the simple chords you are playing sound more interesting will ultimately benefit your playing.
Another technique that will benefit your playing and create a different sound is finger picking. Finger picking involves making the same chord shapes that you’ve already learned but using your right hand to pick out the notes of the chord rather than simply strumming them.
Try practicing these techniques as soon as you feel confident enough to try them, but don’t feel put off if you struggle. You can always go back to the basics at any time. In the meantime, enjoy practicing and keep checking the Sound Advice section for more articles like this in the future.