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Tips for Beginner Guitarists

Dan is a hobbyist musician and producer. Some of his instrumental music can be heard on Bandcamp via his LinkedIn page.

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Each person aspiring to learn the guitar approaches the prospect differently. Some begin by noodling — a slang term for playing chords and notes somewhat aimlessly. Some even noodle over a span of years with relatively little guidance from experienced players.

There is also the bunch who begin with a few informal lessons before proceeding on their own. Others go through extensive training although some end up using a combination of two or three of the approaches. Since guitar players each have their own points of blooming, there is not necessarily a wrong way to learn.

Keeping some foundational points in mind, however, will help mitigate frustration along the way. It should be noted there's no "quick" approach to developing guitar talent — and patience is a cornerstone.

Instruction

If approaching an instrument with no prior training in music theory, it will help to visit a music store — whether local or via the internet — and purchase some type of music fundamentals book. Obtain one that makes use of a guitar in its examples. The guidance of a book will be an anchor in the vast sea of songwriting options.

If going without books or other formal instruction, it's generally recommended to have a good ear for music — the ability to understand music intuitively. If you think you have a natural inclination for music, seek out the recordings and videos of admired guitar players for inspiration. This will keep your musical goals grounded. Spend time listening to other artists' recordings and become acclimated to their sound. It wouldn't hurt to at least learn the major scale and its basic functions, however — just a little bit of music theory.

Techniques

Guitar techniques more or less fall into two categories. They are picking and fingering. Picking refers to the method of causing strings to vibrate. Fingering refers to the placement of fingers on the guitar fretboard (pressing strings against the fretboard) to play individual chords and notes. Not all techniques must be learned, but there are some that most styles of playing require — it would be beneficial to focus on those.

  • Picking

The most commonly used picking techniques are down-picking, alternate-picking, strumming, or a combination of them. When down-picking, either guitar chords or single notes are struck with a downward motion. When alternate picking, single notes are stuck with an up-and-down motion — for example, on the first note, a downward motion is used, on the second note, an upward motion is used, then on note three, it starts on a down-stroke again. This picking style can be advantageous due to its speed — when playing only with down strokes, the pick consumes time in returning to the start position, causing latency — alternate picking does not suffer from the latency. When strumming, an up-and-down motion is used to strike chords, but in a general manner where precise attention to rhythmic detail can be omitted.

  • Fingerings

Common fingering positions pertain to chords and individual notes although certain techniques are often used for them — hammers, pull-offs, sliding and bending. For the sake of brevity, examples are not extensive in this guide.

Guitar chords are combinations of notes struck simultaneously. The placement of fingers on them can vary depending on experience and preference. When beginning on the guitar, a player may opt to place fingers on chords in a way that is less physically exhausting — some chord shapes require stretching fingers in a way that is uncomfortable or even painful.

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Moving or omitting certain notes in the chord, or using the same chord in a different voicing can serve as an alternative. A chord voicing is simply a way to play the same chord on different strings (on the fretboard).

Single note fingerings are fairly straightforward. If you want to play a single note, then play a single note using a selected picking method. Sometimes, however, playing a single note sounds bland or the envisioned melody needs a modified technique known as a hammer. The guitar player can drop or "hammer" a finger down on a note instead of picking it — little force is needed to produce a sound with this method, especially if hooked up to an amplifier.

If playing two notes in a sequence (typically on the same string), the guitar player may opt to pick the first note and hammer the second note (while holding the first note). Another common technique is that when two notes are played, a player can strike the first note and release (pull off) to a lower note on the same string. Alternatively, a player may use only hammering and pull-offs with no picking, across one or more strings.

Quite often, more than two notes are played sequentially using the hammer/pull-off techniques, especially while soloing. Hammers and pull-offs tend to create a smooth sound whereas picking sounds more rigid. Research legato technique for more information on hammers and pull-offs.

Guitar Adjustment and Tuning

Learning to adjust and tune a guitar is almost as important as learning to play. Without them, the guitar will feel uncomfortable and sound outright terrible. There are several settings on guitars that can be adjusted for tuning stability and feel. Professional guitar technicians provide services for adjustment, but learning to tune is a necessity for all players.

However, becoming familiar with adjusting the neck would certainly help. Room temperature can cause the neck to bow over time and in turn, increase or decrease the distance of the strings off the fretboard — affecting playability.

tips-for-beginner-guitarists

An inexperienced guitar player could think a new guitar is ready to play when taken out of a store. Some guitars, although adjusted to a certain extent by the seller or manufacturer, require tweaking for optimal feel. Whatever the case, it should be understood that unless a guitar is properly adjusted, it cannot be tuned.

The options available for setting up a guitar are out of the scope of this article, but simple terminology such as "guitar set-up" can be searched on the internet for tutorials. Once a guitar is properly adjusted, a guitar tuner can be used to get the guitar up to par — as far as tuning.

However, it's important to learn what a professionally tuned guitar sounds like before tuning one yourself. Guitar tuners can give a false sense of note accuracy. Sometimes, due to general quality or variations existing between guitars, custom tuning jobs are better suited. Learning to tune by hearing instead of using a tuner will help mitigate guitar variation or quality problems that tuners aren't helpful with.

Play

Becoming a good guitar player doesn't come overnight or even within a few months. Famous guitar players have spent years developing talent, and even some of them are still on the lookout for ways to improve how they play.

Learning guitar is a marathon, not a sprint. If tempted to become discouraged, try taking a break or rethinking your approach. Revisiting lessons or old inspiration can be helpful. Sometimes, breaks are needed for the mere fact that sound can fatigue the ear after enough playing — music won't sound the same as when listening with well-rested ears.

There is plenty of information on the internet for musicians of all skill levels. What makes the difference between players is how they utilize the information, or whether they utilize it at all.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Dan Martino

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