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10 Essential Principles for Learning Guitar

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Read Time: 13 mins
This post is part of a series called Creative Session: All About Playing Guitar.
Improvization Basics: The Pentatonic Scale

The guitar is a great instrument. It's fairly portable, relatively inexpensive, easy enough to learn the basics - and you can take your playing as far as you want. Lots of people - from kids to grandparents - learn the guitar every day. And if you're one of them, here are ten things you need to know.

On a recent Open Mic we asked the question, "What advice would you offer someone considering learning the guitar?" Lots of you answered, and your main points are included in this article alongside my own thoughts. And please feel free to add even more advice in the comments. Thousands of learners will appreciate it.

1. Practice!

This might seem obvious, but it never stopped anyone giving this advice when I started learning.

I started learning music when I was 20 - keyboard first, then guitar later. I was keen and enthusiastic, and constantly asked every musician I met for advice about the best and fastest way to learn. Every person gave me just one word of advice: "Practice!" It drove me crazy as hell - I wanted more - but it was good advice.

A big part of learning to play the guitar (and any instrument) is finger memory - motor skills. Your fingers need to know what to do without your brain needing to tell them. And that comes just one way - practice.

How much do you need to practice? I still stand by the advice I was given at the time: half an hour a day, or an hour a day if your really serious about learning. And the daily part is important - practice every day. One three hour session a week just isn't going to cut it. Remember we are trying to develop finger memory, and that comes by regular, constant practice.

Most of you agree. Here is the advice you gave in the Open Mic:

  • "Practice, practice, practice. There’s no substitute for actually playing music." (vladh)
  • "Practice practice practice." (lisote)
  • "Be prepared for hard work, playing the guitar is hard at first and requires patience, determination and above all time. If you are prepared to practice half an hour a day you will start to get results within a month or two and you will be playing your favourite songs which is when the fun really begins." (Jon)
  • "Persistence. To begin with your fingers won’t like it & it can be frustrating, but with regular practice (said countless times, 10/20mins a day is better than a 4hour practice once a week) it will suddenly click & feel very natural, almost so that you’ll find it hard remembering what it was like in the beginning." (Simon)

2. Find a Way to Stay Motivated

Learning to play the guitar won't be easy. To begin with you will sound terrible and feel totally uncoordinated. Your finger tips will suffer daily pain until you develop callouses. After countless hours of practice you will feel like you are not getting anywhere. Although your family may encourage you on the first day, their words may not be so complimentary after a week or so of daily practice. (Actually, it's better to practice where you won't annoy anyone if you can manage it.)

You feel good about learning the guitar now, but what can you do to keep that motivation when for a month or two if you feel like you're wasting your time?

You might want to set small short-term goals that won't take so long to accomplish. You might want to visualize yourself onstage playing with a band. You might want to reward yourself somehow after each practice. You might want to find a guitar buddy who is also learning, and cry on one another's shoulder. You might want to remind yourself that most people find learning very difficult to begin with. However you do it, maintaining motivation is essential, or you might just give up.

Here are your comments from the Open Mic:

  • "Don’t let anyone dishearten you. If they’re a musician they’re being an ar**hole because they would have gone through the same thing and if they’re not a musician then your doing something they probably wish they were. Although you should find that most people will encourage you, everyone loves to be serenaded or when you kick out a song they can bellow out to." (Simon)
  • "Don’t be put off if things don’t sound right at first." (Chris Blizzard)

3. Learn the Basic Skills the Right Way

Playing guitar involves a combination of basic skills. Take time to learn those skills, and learn them properly.

Some people have a very narrow musical education. Toby Pitman told me about one of his students who impressed the class with an amazing lead guitar solo. Toby then asked him to play a G chord, and the guy stared back blankly. A guy I went to uni with impressed me with a classical piece. I assumed he was an amazing player until he told me that was all he could play.

So make sure you learn all of the basic skills. Get a book or teacher or online course to make sure. Learn notes and learn chords. Learn rhythm and learn lead. Learn strumming and learn picking. And don't be in so much of a hurry that you skip lessons.

And learn those skills properly. Be fussy. You will sound terrible to begin with, but don't be satisfied with it! Work at it until you sound better. When you play a chord, check every string to make sure it sounds clearly, and one of your fingers aren't leaning on it giving it a muted sound. Make sure you use the correct fingers when playing chords and playing scales. Make sure the way you hold the guitar, the angle of the guitar, your right-hand grip and left-hand wrist action are correct.

This isn't to say that there is one and only one way to do everything - personal preference and comfort certainly come into it - but that you shouldn't be satisfied with being sloppy, and that you should be concerned to do things in the most efficient and effective way. Remember you are learning motor skills, and if you teach your fingers a bad habit, it will be very difficult to break.

Here is some advice from the Open Mic:

  • "Two things – learn the notes, chords and fingerings in general. That’s not too much fun, though (for me)." (Zach)
  • "Learn Rock Grip now. It will make your life easier." (thomasfedb) Another commenter and I are not sure what Rock Grip is. Would someone please explain in the comments? But Thomas points out that learning the correct grip earlier rather than later is better.
  • "Learn chords - it’ll sound like a song sooner than if you concentrate on notes and scales exclusively." (Todd Cumpston)

4. Play in Time

My 14 year old son has just started learning the guitar. Youtube is his teacher, and he spends most of his time learning chords and putting them together. But I can hear something he can't - often when he is changing chords there is a slight pause. Without realising, he is stopping his rhythm to get his fingering right.

While I'm glad he cares about correct fingering, learning to play in time is also important. Play regularly with a metronome. Playing along with a CD or other person is also helpful. Practice playing slow, and practice playing fast. If you don't have a metronome, use the free one over at www.metronomeonline.com.

A few of you commented about metronomes on the Open Mic:

  • "Whatever you are going to play, play it with a metronome." (Omar)
  • "Practice practice practice and of course, as Omar said, with metronome." (losote)

5. Learn to Listen

Listening is a highly under-rated skill. More than just about anything else it will help you become a great player.

Listen to others playing, both live and on albums. What sort of guitar are they playing? Are they strumming, picking, or playing single notes? What sort of tone are they achieving, and how?

Carefully listen to yourself as you practice. Can you hear when you do something wrong? Is your guitar out of tune? Are all of the strings sounding clearly? Do the notes and chords you are playing sound even? How can you improve your tone?

And listening is most important once you are playing in a band. What are the other instruments playing? What can you play to compliment them? Should you play more or less to fit in with the sound of the band? What rhythm are the drums and other guitars playing? What can you play to enhance the groove?

Here is some advice about listening from the Open Mic:

  • "Learn to *listen* to music. Learn to recognize intervals, learn to recognize how different chords sound and what feeling they carry. Try to imitate your favorite recordings to train your ear. This will greatly improve your playing and musical feel, and will give you five steps ahead when learning any instrument." (wwwald)
  • "Learn songs by ear. It’s great to be able to read music, but learning to deconstruct what you’re hearing and play it without any tablature or sheet music is a great way to develop critical listening skills, build repertoire, learn a range of techniques, and develop your ability to quickly digest and apply new material (for example, when learning repertoire of a band). What’s more, it’s fun!" (Glynn)

6. Learn Some Music Theory

When I was at school a lot of kids complained about math. "How am I going to use this in the real world?" they asked. I loved math and didn't understand the question.

Music theory is the same. Some love it and some hate it. But it always helps to know some. Especially when you can see how it improves your playing.

Consider learning some sort of music notation. Every guitarist should be able to read a chord chart. And the Internet is full of guitar tabs, so you may want to learn how to read it, especially if you'd like to learn riffs and melodies.

You should know the note names of each string. It is worth learning the notes for each fret along each string. You might want to learn scales and how chords work.

Guitarists have varying feelings about music theory, and this came out in the Open Mic:

  • "Be able to sight read SHEET music (tabs are useless in a recording environment) . Understand chord charts. and metronome metronome metronome! Also, don’t get caught up in playing leads. Become a strong rhythm player first. You wouldn’t believe how many people I have recorded that can’t play simple upstroke patterns or lack the understanding of basic time signatures." (Deems)
  • "I’m afraid I’ve got to disagree with this. Maybe sight reading sheet music will help you if you want to eventually become a session player, but most people DON’T become session players. Play what you want to play, the way you want to play it. BUT remember that sheet music does offer more than tab ever will, so it is worth learning. You may have found that from recording people, I’ve found whilst teaching people bass, that they don’t want to sit and learn how to site read, it puts them off. better to let them tell you a song they want to play, you listen and figure out techniques required, teach them those, and then teach them the song. then pick another song, teach new techniques required for the song, teach them the song…" (Chris Blizzard)
  • "Don’t learn theory in isolation. Whatever you learn – a new scale, chord, the name of an interval you like the sound of, a technique like bends or hammer-ons – apply it to something musical. There is value in simply repeating exercises, scales, etc., but to get these things into your vocabulary, do it in a musically meaningful way: improvise some melodies with a scale, play a riff you already know and add in those hammer-ons, etc. Again, this is fun!" (Glynn)

7. Buy a Guitar

In the Open Mic, one commenter said, "Buy a guitar." They signed the comment "Doh", possibly because the comment is so obvious. Another commenter, Chris Blizzard, adds, "Don’t worry too much about having the best equipment."

It's hard to practice regulary unless you own a guitar. I recommend that you buy the best guitar you can afford, keeping in mind that you can always buy a better one down the track as you improve. And obviously if you are learning electric guitar buy an amp as well.

What you want is a guitar that sounds good when you play good, and sounds bad when you play bad. Some people have guitars that sound bad no matter what they do. I can't imagine they will improve very quickly. For the same reason, make sure that you keep your guitar in tune, or it will sound like you are playing something wrong even when you aren't.

8. Put Variety In Your Routine

Regular practice can become boring without variety. Your fingers learn better with consistent routine, but keep your mind happy too by adding something interesting and enjoyable.

Try something challenging from time to time, even if there isn't a chance in hell you can do it right. Play songs that you enjoy. Sing along. Play with friends. Enjoy the portability of the guitar and play in different locations - get out of the house!

Here are some suggestions from the Open Mic that will add variety to your musical life:

  • "Play along with your favorite artists and apply what you’ve learned!" (Zach)
  • "For total beginners: Print out some chords/lyrics for songs you *love*. It’ll sound stilted at first, but being able to play a song you’ve always loved is an attractive enough goal to keep you practicing until your fingers ‘learn’ the chords." (Neil)
  • "The other thing to do is find people to play with, even if you all suck it is way more fun than being locked up in your bedroom and your playing will improve so much more playing in a band." (Jon)
  • "And learn songs that you like." (Todd Cumpston)

9. Stay Healthy

In the Open Mic, Jake gives this advice: "Protect your hearing. Tinnitus sucks." It's true - guitar playing can be a health hazzard!

When learning anything new, it's always a good idea to become aware of the risks. And Jake points out the biggest risk: Playing at excessive volume can damage your hearing. I know, I live with ringing in my ears every day - probably caused by listening to music too loud in headphones.

Of course, there is minimal risk of this unless you are playing your guitar through an amp, or listening with headphones.

If you'd like more information about tinnitus and other health concerns, Guitarsite.com have some helpful links on their Health & Safety page.

10. Have Fun!

And finally, remember why you are learning the guitar. You are learning it for your own enjoyment, so remember to have fun!

  • "Most of all though remember to have fun, if you have a teacher and they are not making learning fun find someone else to teach you." (Jon)
  • "Importantly, as Jon said, remember to have fun. Pick up a chord book, learn you favourite tunes or make up your own & rock out! Then knock it to 11 & rock some more!" (Simon)
  • "Rule 1: Have Fun. Rule 2: Have Fun." (Chris Blizzard)

One last piece of advice that I will give you is to keep your eyes on Audiotuts for upcoming guitar tutorials. I'm expecting them to start flooding in this month and next. We'll have Basix tuts and advanced. If there is something particular you'd like us to teach you, let us know in the comments.

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