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Playing guitar can be relatively easy and lots of fun, but there is important information that newcomers need to know before they begin. You see answers to common questions below and find useful information that will help you get started on the right foot.
- What’s a good age to start play guitar?
- What is the difference between acoustic and electric guitars?
- How can I make a good guitar purchase?
- How do I get my guitar tuned up and ready to play?
- Should I learn how to read guitar music or not?
- How do I find good beginner guitar instruction?
Instruments are not toys and there’s a necessary level of maturity required in learning how to play. My teaching experience has shown that the students who do best are teens and adults. Younger students struggle with a few things; their hands are small and not as coordinated as older students, and their interest in playing guitar tends to be more of a fascination than a true desire.
Learning Guitar As an Adult
Adults learn better and faster than teenagers, but tend to be more easily discouraged. Their mind set appears to be based on the idea that learning something new is for the young, not the old. As a result, adults sometimes feel out of place. Adults are also more self-aware with better developed ears, which makes it harder for them to tolerate the sometimes unpleasant sounding learning process. Less mature students don’t know any better and think that they sound great from the beginning. Bottom line: Those who play a lot and stick with it do the best. Be patient and give yourself time to work everything out.
Learning Guitar Basics
If you’re serious about playing guitar, then the first required step is to learn the basics. “Basics” refers to the things such as how to hold a guitar, how to tune a guitar, how to fret notes with your fingers, and how to play basic chords. Once you get a handle on these things, you can begin playing songs.
This is the number one question I get asked. First let me explain to you the difference between an acoustic and electric guitar.
The bodies of acoustic guitars are hollow boxes that serve to amplify the sound of the strings when they vibrate. Electric guitars are usually made of a solid piece of wood and the sound of the strings is picked up by electro-magnetic pickups. This signal is then sent to an amplifier.
Acoustic guitars can be played and enjoyed without any additional amplification. Electric guitars need to be plugged into an amplifier to truly hear their sound. Both acoustic and electric guitars include six strings, are tuned the same, and are basically played the same. What you learn on one type of instrument will carry over to the other.
About Steel-String and Nylon-String Acoustics
Acoustic guitars include steel-string and nylon-string varieties. The steel-string, or “folk guitar,” is the standard type and is used the most in popular music. Song examples are “Yesterday” by The Beatles, “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin, “Me and Bobby McGee” by Janis Joplin, and literally a million other tunes.
Nylon-string guitars, which produce a softer sound, are primarily used in classical and flamenco music but they sometimes appear in more mainstream music as well. Song examples include “Tears in Heaven” by Eric Clapton and “Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman?” by Bryan Adams. Country music icon Willie Nelson, part rebel and part odd-ball, has strangely made a nylon-string guitar his instrument of choice which is uncommon in his genre.
Either type of acoustic guitar is suitable for beginners. You may want to stick with a steel-string since it’s the most common. They will produce the sound you hear in most popular acoustic songs. There are a few benefits of the classical variety. Nylon strings are a little softer on the finger tips. Also, the strings are spaced slightly wider which can give more room to chubby fingers.
A good starter acoustic guitar will cost between $100-$200 by itself. For a bit more, you can get a pack which includes a gig bag (soft case), strap, electronic tuner, extra strings and picks. Acoustic guitars don’t come in nearly as many shapes as electric guitars because their shape has an effect on how they sound. In general, you’ll find this to be true about acoustic guitars: the bigger the body, the bigger the sound.
About Electric Guitars
Electric guitars are as common in popular music as steel-string acoustics and even more common in rock styles (especially guitar solos). The electric guitar signal is frequently routed through devices that add special effects to the sound. These effects include reverb, distortion and echo. Electric guitar song examples include “Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry, “Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix, the never-ending solo to “Free Bird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd, and literally a million other tunes.
Electric guitars come in a wide variety of shapes, colors and pickup configurations but they are all played the same. There are no specific types nor features that a beginner requires. It’s all up to what you think looks nice, feels nice and fits your budget. Later, after your ear has had time to develop and can discern between all the different tonal characteristics, you may find that you prefer some models over others. Until then, don’t worry about it. Just get a guitar and learn how to play!
About Guitar Amplifiers
Electric guitars don’t make much sound on their own and need to be plugged into an amplifier to truly hear them. Be sure to factor the price of this additional item when you calculate the cost of buying an electric. Nothing fancy is required. A suitable starter amp can be bought for around $100.
Electric Guitar Prices
Electric guitar prices are similar to acoustic guitar prices ($100-$200) but with the additional expense of an amplifier. Most manufactures offer a package deal which includes a gig bag (soft case), strap, electronic tuner, extra strings, picks, plus an amplifier, cable and headphones. All for around $300 and perfect for a beginning guitarist.
Which to Choose, Acoustic or Electric Guitar?
Any guitar will do, whether it be steel-string, nylon-string or electric, as long as it’s a decent instrument in good working condition. I recommend that students use what they’re most interested in playing.
In regard to which kind of guitar will better help a new player to develop, perhaps the biggest myth is that a student should begin studying on an acoustic and graduate to an electric. I completely disagree with this concept. In fact, one could make a good case against starting out on an acoustic. This is because acoustic guitars have thicker strings and higher action, which make them a little tougher to play. They put more stress on the fingertips and it takes slightly more skill to get a good sound. An electric on the other hand, has lighter strings, lower action and it’s easier to access the entire neck. More importantly, most students want an electric guitar and are more likely to be enthusiastic about practicing with one. This whole argument aside, it really doesn’t matter what you start on. Just start!
Beware of Junk Guitars
The figures I mentioned above are generally where the price of decent instruments start. While it’s possible to find a suitable guitar even cheaper, it’s also possible to waste your money (and time) on a guitar that’s too cheap to be played. Some guitars are borderline toys. They are made to look like legitimate instruments, but they are unable to be tuned and nearly impossible to actually use. Beware of guitars sold in department stores or catalogs that aren’t specifically guitar related. Also, most hand-me-down, garage sale, and flea market guitars are passed on for a reason: They’re junk! You’ll have a very hard time trying to play an inadequate instrument (if you’re able to play it at all).
About Guitar Truss Rods
Something specific to look out for when choosing a quality instrument is a truss rod. A truss rod is a metal bar that runs lengthwise inside the guitar neck. Its purpose is to strengthen and reinforce the neck against the tension of the strings. Also, a truss rod can be tightened or loosened with an Allen wrench to adjust the curvature of the neck so that you can set the strings at an optimal height for good sound and playability.
A truss rod is an absolutely necessary piece of hardware. Don’t get a guitar without a truss rod! On an electric guitar, the truss rod access is usually hidden behind a plastic plate on the headstock which is flush up against the nut. On an acoustic guitar the truss rod can be accessed inside the sound hole under where the fretboard meets the body.
Borrowing a Guitar
If you’re just starting out it’s not a bad idea to borrow a guitar first to see if you like playing. The first people to consider are your friends and family members who might have an unused guitar lying around that they’re willing to loan you. Just make sure it’s playable, because a piece of junk isn’t worth its free price.
Renting a Guitar
Renting is another sensible option but this service is hard to find these days. Unfortunately, most guitars come back beat up and broken or worse, they don’t come back at all! You can check to see if guitar rentals are available in your area. If so, I recommend it. After a month or two, and with the right instruction, you’ll know if you want to stick with it and make a purchase.
Buying a Used Guitar
Buying used will definitely help you save some cash but you’ll really need to know what you’re looking for. Ask an experienced, guitar-playing friend or family member to help you search. If you must shop the used market alone, I recommend you first find a few brand name and moderately priced guitars that are new. Then search for the exact same make and model used. Stay away from guitars that you can’t find any information on. Be sure to factor in the extra cost of shipping (for online purchases) plus the price you may have to pay a local guitar shop for a restring and set up (more on “set up” below).
Buying a New Guitar
Finally, there’s nothing wrong with buying new. The prices are quite reasonable and everyone loves the look, feel and smell of a brand new, shiny instrument. If you end up changing your mind about playing the guitar you can always sell what you have or pass it on to someone else. The small price isn’t going to make or break you.
Where to Buy a Guitar
Guitars are surprisingly easy to find these days. I recently saw a guitar package for sale at my local grocery store! I highly recommend that you stay away from retailers that aren’t specifically guitar oriented. Most of the brands that are found in non-music stores, however legitimate looking, are junk and not worth their seemly great price. To be fair, I have seen some that were able to be tuned and played, but it’s just not worth the risk for a beginner to get stuck with something unplayable. What if you end up really struggling with learning how to play? Is it you, or the guitar? How would you know?
Purchasing From Online Retailers
Online retailers sell a variety of brand name guitars and gear and usually at discount prices. This is perfect for experienced players who don’t need the extra services a local retailer can offer, but I don’t recommend this for beginners. You’re going to need personal support. A real, live person. Unless you have a guitar player on hand who can help, you’re going to need to develop a relationship with a local dealer.
Find a Good Guitar Dealer
My first recommendation for you is to purchase a brand name guitar from a local certified dealer. The reasons are two-fold. You can be confident that you have a quality instrument, and you can have a real person to go to with questions or bring your guitar to for service.
Guitars need to be adjusted in order to tune and play properly. This work is called a “set up.” Talk with your local dealers and ask them if they set up their guitars before they sell them. Some dealers will simply pull a guitar out of the box and send you home with it claiming that all the setting up was done at the factory. This is not satisfactory. Additional setting up is usually required.
Most beginner guitars are made overseas. By the time they arrive to your town, they have experienced quite a change in elevation, temperature and humidity. The wood and metal parts may expand or contrast when these conditions change. This will effect how a guitar tunes and plays. Most critical is the angle of the neck and the intonation.
Adjusting Your Guitar’s “Action”
The angle of the guitar neck will determine the height of the strings off the fretboard. If the neck bows too much the string height, or “action,” may fall out of the optimal range for playing. Sometimes the action is so low, or so high, that the guitar can’t be played at all without the proper adjustment. Problems like this are corrected by tightening or loosening the truss rod inside the guitar neck.
The truss rod runs lengthwise inside the guitar neck. On an electric guitar, its access is usually hidden behind a plastic plate on the headstock which is flush up against the nut. On an acoustic guitar the truss rod can be accessed inside the sound hole under where the fretboard meets the body and ends.
Setting the Intonation On Your Guitar
Another adjustment that guitars require is setting the intonation. This consists of adjusting the string length from the bridge to the nut by moving the saddles under the strings at the bridge end. When the intonation is set properly, then the strings will be in tune regardless of where you fret them. When the intonation is not set properly, then fretted notes will sound out of tune and become increasingly worse as you move up the fretboard.
Setting up your guitar is where a good dealer comes in. Having a relationship with a real person with knowledge and experience in this area is well worth the extra price you might pay. Also, you’ll need someone to help you when it’s time to restring or if you throw something out of whack.
The information presented here is intended to help you make the best guitar selection possible and avoid an instrument or situation that may hinder your attempts to learn and play. With that said, I don’t want anything to discourage you from giving guitar playing a shot. Depending on your location or budget, you may not have all the options I describe. If this is the case, just get your hands on whatever you can .
Guitars require some very specific, and rather technical, adjusting in order to tune and play properly. Once you have a guitar you really ought to have it looked over, set up and tuned by a guitar tech. If you made a purchase from a retailer, then they should have already done this work for you (and in most cases not charged you extra). If you have some sort of hand-me-down or used guitar it’s CRITICAL that you have it evaluated and adjusted if need be. Take it to a guitar tech or guitar-savvy friend. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a decent instrument that may only need to be tuned or possibly just restrung. If you’re not so lucky, you’ll have a piece of junk and you’ll have to go out and find something more suitable.
Tuning Your Guitar
Unlike some other instruments, guitars must be tuned regularly. Regularly means everyday, before each practice, during practice, etc. Heck, sometimes you’ll see a performer twist a tuning peg right in the middle of a song! There are all sorts of methods for tuning a guitar, but using an electronic tuner is the easiest and most accurate of them all. In fact, it’s the only method I recommend for beginners. Unless you’re highly skilled at playing and tuning other instruments, stay away from pitch pipes and other methods that require you to tune to a relative pitch by ear.
Using an Electronic Guitar Tuners
Every guitarist should have an electronic tuner. When you play a string, the display will indicate whether the pitch is too low, too high, or in tune. Turn the tuning peg until the string pitch is correct. That’s it! Electronic tuners are very inexpensive.
TUNING NOTE: Have someone help you tune your guitar the first time. If your strings are WAY out of tune, then you and your tuner will both be confused. The strings need to be in the ballpark. If you plan on purchasing a tuner from a local music store, take your guitar with you and make sure it’s tuned correctly before you leave. Otherwise, call a guitar player for help. Once your guitar is in tune, tune it regularly.
So, you’ve got yourself a guitar, made sure it’s suitable to play and tuned it up correctly. Now what? You’re ready to get started! There are basically two different approaches you can take. You can go the traditional route and learn how to read music, or you can go the modern route by jumping right into chords and popular songs. Both have their benefits and advantages, but the latter, chords and songs, serves the best interest of most newcomers.
Reading Guitar Music
Musical notation is the standard staff with a bunch of little black dots and stems. Maybe you studied this in school at some point, or maybe you played a band or orchestra instrument. Years ago, before the guitar was accepted into formal music circles, there was no sheet music or method books for it. People just passed around guitars, usually pulled out at campfires, strummed chords and sang folk tunes. It was then that a young guitarist and entrepreneur named Mel Bay began transposing clarinet music for guitar. Literally driving, promoting and delivering his new product all over the country, Mel Bay helped legitimize the guitar and made a legitimate fortune while he was at it.
Mel Bay’s Modern Guitar Method
Mel Bay’s Modern Guitar Method Grade 1 is the granddaddy of all courses and still a leader in note-reading today. An equally good sight-reading method is Hal Leonard’s Guitar Method Grade 1. Both courses focus on understanding the staff, treble clef, notes and rhythm. The music and style is similar to what you’d expect to learn playing the clarinet or other band and orchestra instruments. If this is your goal, then this is the approach you should take. If you’re more interested in playing mainstream music, including the campfire variety, then I suggest starting a different way.
Mainstream Guitar Music
While the traditional approach will definitely help you understand formal written notation, it does little to teach how popular guitarists really play. Most guitar heroes didn’t start in a Mel Bay book and spent little time, if any, playing from written music. Instead they focused on learning bits and pieces of songs they heard on the radio. Usually a friend would show them how to finger a few basic chords and strum some popular tunes. Players could continue to advance by trading licks and techniques with other guitarists. Instead of using standard notation, charts and diagrams are used to illustrate new chords and scale patterns. Learning in this manner provides a great deal of instant gratification because you’re able to jump right into the music that has drawn you to the instrument in the first place. Taking this approach won’t earn you a seat in the orchestra, but you just might land a spot in a band!
Hands-On Guitar Learning
If you’re like most folks and simply want to play popular music, whether it be pop, rock or country, then I suggest using instructional materials that will get you started in the hands-on manner I described above. This will include using charts and diagrams to learn basic open chords, develop simple strumming techniques and play lots of easy songs. These skills can usually be learned in just a few short weeks! See my free course, Play & Master 3 Simple Guitar Songs.
Getting to Know Guitar Basics
What kind of guitar “basics” do you need to know? Honestly, there are just a few. They include:
- How to hold a guitar
- How to tune a guitar (using an electronic tuner)
- How to read chord charts and tablature
- How to fret and finger basic chords
That’s it. Once you get a handle on these things, you’re ready to begin playing simple songs.
What basic open chords do you need to know? G, C, D, E, and A. These are all “major” chords. Then there’s the minor chords Em, Am, and Dm. Throw in a B7 chord and you’re prepared to play literally hundreds of songs. Click on the image below to learn these chord shapes. The numbers are suggested fingers (your index finger is “1”).
Playing Easy Beginner Guitar Songs
The best songs for beginners are those that are recognizable and simple. Fortunately, great songs don’t have to be complex and there are many popular tunes that can be played with only a few basic chords. These include songs such as “Wild Thing” by The Troggs, “Wonderful Tonight” by Eric Clapton, and “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple. See my free course, Play & Master 3 Simple Guitar Songs, to learn how to play through these songs.
Should you learn guitar theory? Should you try to memorize all the notes on the fretboard? Should you learn how to play chord shapes and scale patterns in every position on the neck?
No. Not at the beginning.
The beginning stages should be spent playing songs. This involves using basic chords to strum along with songs and being able to stay in time with the music.
Once you can play a lot of songs using basic open chords, you should do the same thing using power chords and barre chords, then you can explore music theory and more advanced playing techniques.
Private Guitar Lessons
Schedule a Private Skype Guitar Lesson with Desi Serna
Need help getting started with guitar? Don’t want to waste time trying to figure things out on your own?
You can schedule a private lesson with me online. I can use any video chat app to connect with you such as Skype or FaceTime.
Whether you’re just getting started with guitar and needing to learn the basics or you’ve been playing for years but need to fill in some gaps, I provide personalized training so you make quick progress and have more fun.
Click the link below to schedule a lesson.