Finding useful tips for learning guitar has never been easier. There thousands of lessons and songs available at your fingertips on the internet.
Teaching yourself is a great way to get started. But it’s a lot easier to develop bad technique and skip some fundamenals without proper guidance.
I began teaching myself guitar at the tender age of 14 and have taught hundreds of others to play guitar too.
Here are the twelve tips for learning guitar I wish I knew when I began playing.
They’ll make things a lot easier for you, help you avoid bad habits, and keep your momentum while learning.
1. Make Sure Your Guitar Is Well Set Up
When you start playing, there’s no way around getting sore fingers. Pressing the tips of your fingers against steel strings is bound to hurt.
But setting up your guitar properly will make it much more comfortable to play. It might not avoid the pain altogether… but it certainly helps!
There’s nothing more off-putting to a budding guitar player than strings sitting too high off the frets. Even the most experienced players will have a hard time playing a badly set up guitar.
Take your guitar to a qualified technician. They’ll make sure the strings are as low as they can be without buzzing, and that your guitar’s neck is straight and flat.
Timing is the foundation of musical ability. It’s a vital part of learning proper technique, and playing along with other musicians.
The next important factor to include in your practice sessions is proper timing. Too many beginners ignore this, developing a bad habit that can be difficult to break.
It’s great to play along with your teacher, a friend, or even the piece of music you’re learning. But a metronome is simply the best tool for learning proper timing.
I highly recommend investing in a simple metronome while you’re learning to play — you’ll use it for years to come!
Play the pieces you’re learning with a metronome once you have them fairly well dialed in. Always start slow — you can speed up later!
Even spending 5-10 minutes of your daily practice session with a metronome will have a massive impact on your overall sense of timing in the future.
3. Learn Some Theory
Like most beginner guitarists, I used to hate the idea of learning theory. I just wanted to play the songs that drew me to the guitar in the first place!
However, if I could go back and speak to my 14-year old self, I’d suggest learning some basic theory.
Even a very basic understanding of the notes on your fretboard and how they’re related will be of great help to understand the fundamentals of playing guitar.
There are some great video lessons out there that break theory down into small bite-sized pieces and make it far easier to digest.
Music theory can be confusing and overwhelming at first. Still, I recommend watching the whole video, as it gives a great overall rundown of basic music theory.
If you work through basic theory slowly — just a few minutes a day — you’ll become reasonably knowledgeable after a few months.
4. Learn Songs
This may seem totally obvious — the whole reason you want to play guitar is to learn songs you love. But it’s an important point to emphasize, nonetheless.
There’s a great wealth of knowledge in even just one song. And learning songs that are just beyond your capabilities at the moment can push your playing forward exponentially.
Take, for example, Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin. It features various different picking and strumming techniques, plus some fairly complex timing structures. By learning a tune that you love, you’re being forced to learn important playing techniques too.
It’s natural to rush into learning songs you’re passionate about. But for the absolute beginner it’s helpful to learn easy songs like “Happy Birthday” or “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.”
These tunes are easier to learn because they’re deeply ingrained in your subconscious. Try and learn the chords both picked and strummed, and then try and pick out the vocal melody on your guitar.
5. Don’t Ignore The Right Hand!
Many beginner guitarists focus too much on their left, or fretting hand. This is natural as the manipulation of the fretted notes is what allows you to play songs!
However, many guitarists that I’ve taught have little to no right-hand technique — strumming or picking.
Having good right-hand technique is vital to timing, playing chords and individual notes cleanly, and overall guitar playing.
There are many ways to get your right hand going properly, and using a pick is a good one to begin with.
Try and alternate downward picks and upward picks per note on one string.
For example, hold a G chord, and pick down on the “G” note or top string. Pick up on the second string, down again on the third, and so on.
6. Strumming Patterns
This complements the right-hand tip mentioned above.
I’ve come across a ton of students who only strum downwards, or battling to alternate between up and down strums. Learning varying strumming patterns will help your timing and make learning more complex songs in the future a lot easier.
My number one tip when learning both strumming patterns and new chord changes is to never stop the movement of your right hand while playing.
Even when you’re battling to get your fingers into the next chord progression, keep your right hand moving up and down and let your left hand catch up.
This creates a connection in your brain between what your left and right hands are doing. And this connection will keep growing stronger in the future.
Another tip when learning patterns is to mute the strings with your left hand. This creates a percussive effect that makes strumming patterns a lot more fun and a lot easier to hear.
7. Anchor Points
I’ve often noticed that beginner students lift all their fingers off the fretboard when changing chords, making it far more difficult to place them all down again.
While some chords demand that you do this, many chords that are in the same key have anchor points that allow you to keep one or more fingers down on the fretboard while changing.
The best example of one of these anchor points is changing from the “Am” chord to a “C” chord or vice versa.
Try holding an Am chord and then move to a C. You’ll notice that you’re only moving one finger — your ring finger, from the second fret on the third string, to the third fret on the fifth string.
Your index and middle fingers are the anchor points that remain on the fretboard while changing chords. There are many other examples like this, and it helps a lot to learn and understand them.
8. Chromatic Scales
Put simply, a chromatic scale is a musical scale that has all 12 possible notes in it separated by half-steps or semitones — the parent of all other musical scales.
To visualize this, play every note, one after the next, on any given string on your guitar’s fretboard with no gaps.
A chromatic scale isn’t very useful musically. But I teach it to every student before any other scale as a finger-strengthening and dexterity exercise.
One of the biggest hold-ups while learning guitar is gaining strength in your fingers. This exercise helps speed up the process tremendously.
Begin with the low E string (the thickest string). Use your index finger on the first fret, middle finger on the second fret, ring finger on the third, and pinky finger on the fourth fret. Play each note one by one, and then back down.
Repeat this a few times, and then move up a fret and perform the exercise again. You can eventually perform the exercise on every string and every fret on your guitar.
9. Practice Slowly
In the beginning, don’t worry about playing fast! With the right techniques and diligent practicing, speed will come all on its own.
This is especially true when practicing scales and solos. I’ve seen way too many guitar players trying to play faster than their capabilities, resulting in poor technique and inaccurate playing.
Remember that good technique is fundamental to becoming a good guitarist. Hitting the right notes at the right time is far more important than how fast you play them.
Using your metronome, practice the parts you’re learning at half the speed it’s supposed to be played. This will help you play notes with precision and clarity and playing fast will come naturally, all on its own.
Practising new songs, scales, and techniques can sometimes feel like homework. We’ve all been there, and there are times when inspiration just feels lacking.
However, the quickest way to becoming a competent guitarist is regular, consistent, and disciplined practice.
Nothing beats the old adage “little and often” when it comes to learning guitar. Even 10 minutes a day is better than an hour once a week.
Practising a small amount every day or two rather than in isolated chunks will help you progress much faster. You’ll need to be disciplined to put in some practice time, even when you don’t feel like running through those scales!
11. Know What To Practice
Everything we’ve discussed so far are great techniques to begin with and will provide a good foundation to your musical journey. But what about when your foundation is built? Well, the key is knowing what to practice, how much, and in the correct sequence.
You cannot learn a complicated classical guitar piece when you’ve only just learned basic chords, right?
Before sitting down for any practice session, it helps enormously to have a basic lesson plan set out. Try and aim for each practice session to cover several different bases.
Include some finger strengthening, timing, and theory. Then wrap those concepts together at the end by practicing a song or two with those techniques included.
12. Listen To Music
My final tip may also seem obvious but it’s important — listen to music, as much as possible and as often as possible.
By listening I don’t mean in the background while you’re doing something else. Take some time with a good set of speakers or headphones and listen to music.
Try and digest what each player is doing, what chords, notes, and timing you can hear, and how the song is structured.
This deep listening and analysis of your favorite music will have a massive impact on your playing!
I spent hours and hours in my teens (and still do now!) absorbing the music of my favorite guitar players. The tones and techniques became an embedded part of my musical awareness.
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There are many different ways to learn to play guitar, and every player and teacher will likely give you a different list of tips to practice.
The above tips are the ones that worked for me, and that I wish I knew when starting.
Even if you focus on just a few of them, I promise they’ll have a positive impact on your playing!
What To Do Next?
Now that you’re armed with a few great tips that will boost your learning, check out our article on basic guitar chords. And if you’re thinking about where to start in terms of basic gear, check out our articles on how to choose a guitar that helps beginners succeed, and the best practice amp.