How to Play Guitar in 9 Easy Steps

Learn on your own, or hire a pro to help.

Instructions by a Thumbtack professional

Learn how to play guitar in 9 easy steps

You’re ready to rock and roll — or at least learn how to play one of the most popular instruments on the planet. All you need is to learn how to play guitar. Andi Mac of SHREDLAB and a Thumbtack Top Pro in Oakland, California, has been learning and playing guitar for 30 years — and teaching for 15 of those years. He considers himself a lifetime guitar student and after all these years is still excited about all there is to learn. Mac works with approximately 15 students each week, who range in age from five to 55. He knows the strings of the guitar world, inside and out. Read on for his take on basics of learning how to play guitar.

STEP 1: Learn how to play guitar

Aquire your gear

Purchase a classical-style guitar with nylon strings. Nylon strings are much easier on fingers, Mac says, and good for people who are just starting out. Electric guitars are also okay to learn on, but you need an amp to hear the music you’re making, so that’s more cost up front.

Having a tuner is useful. You can download a free tuner app for your smartphone that will do the trick. A metronome is also helpful. Metronome apps are also available for your phone and work well.

A designated place to sit and practice isn’t “gear,” but it’s nice to have a special place where you can have some peace and quiet to concentrate and practice.

STEP 2: Learn how to play guitar

Understand your instrument

It helps when learning to play the guitar if you understand the basic components of the instrument and what they are for. The main body on an acoustic guitar has a round sound hole. An electric guitar doesn’t have a sound hole — instead, it has pickups, which are little knobs that direct sound out into the amp.

The neck of a guitar has vertical metal pieces called “frets.” The frets are what you push the strings down onto. This shortens the string length, which creates a higher pitch the closer down the neck toward the body of the guitar that you press.

Tuning keys are used to tighten strings higher or lower in pitch, depending on how tight or loose you make them. Where the strings are fixed to the body is called the “bridge.” The “nut” is a slotted bar just under the tuning keys. The strings vibrate between the nut and the bridge.

STEP 3: Learn how to play guitar

Hold your guitar

Specific posture is important not only for playing an instrument well but for protecting your body from strain. The sitting position recommended for classical guitar is with a straight back, feet comfortably on the floor. Slouching can lead to back problems. If you’re right handed, elevate your left leg slightly and balance the guitar on that leg’s thigh. This elevation reduces strain.

Be sure to try out different sized guitars to see what fit best when you sit in this position. Most types of guitars come in both adult and child sizes.

STEP 4: Learn how to play guitar

Know your strings and their notes

Open strings are names of the notes. When you simply pluck a guitar string, it makes a note. Starting from the 6th string, which is also the thickest, the open strings are E, A, D, G, B, E.

Learn which notes correspond to which strings, so that eventually you can pick a string and identify what note it makes by sound. “Elephants and dogs grow big ears” is an easy mnemonic device for memorizing the order.

STEP 5: Learn how to play guitar

Understand the sound

Mac’s philosophy when giving a guitar lesson is to get students to play something that sounds musical right away. Adult and kids alike want to hear something musical right away as they begin to learn — to gain confidence and to enjoy the process more. Learning how your finger placement can create different sounds is a great way to approach your first steps down the guitar-playing path.

STEP 6: Learn how to play guitar

Read chord diagrams

Chord diagrams are a visual demonstration of how to position your fingers on the strings to create different chords. You can get quite far in guitar without learning to read sheet music, Mac says. Chord diagrams show a grid of six vertical lines that represent guitar strings crossed by five horizontal lines that represent the frets. The sixth string is on the left and the first string is on the right. The dot is where you should put your fingers. The dots in the chord diagram show you which strings and frets to put your fingers on. You can play libraries of songs using chord diagrams once you master the finger positions.

STEP 7: Learn how to play guitar

Practice chords

C Major is a great place to start for practice, Mac says. It’s musical and can be easily combined with the A Minor chord. C Major is one finger position from A Minor, so transitioning between the two allows you to practice moving around the strings easily and still see results. Once you master those two chords, incorporate G.

STEP 8: Learn how to play guitar

Start a daily practice

Start with C Major and A Minor as recommended above. Spend 15–20 minutes a day strumming each chord four times, switching back and forth between the chords. You’ll learn a four strum count as you’re working on positioning.

If you’re playing single notes instead of chords, just practice picking the strings. Remember the order of the notes: E, A, D, G, B, E — and there’s a sharp or flat between every note except B & C and E & F.

After a week of practicing your C, A and G chords, take on a new set of chords and again spend 15–20 minutes a day strumming each chord four times, switching back and forth between chords.

STEP 9: Learn how to play guitar

Be patient

Your fingers might hurt the first few days or weeks. It’s normal. Try not to get discouraged in the beginning — it gets easier! Success depends on the amount of time you’re willing to put into practice, Mac says.

Teaching yourself how to play guitar is not impossible, but it’s definitely easier with a guitar teacher. There are so many things an absolute beginner doesn’t know, Mac says. As a beginner, it might be difficult, if not impossible, to make sure your guitar is in tune. Even if you’re good at playing, you may hit a plateau and not grow as much because you continually seek out songs and exercises that you’re already good rather than challenge yourself. A teacher can help you grow, pinpoint issues and improve your skills.

However you learn to play guitar, Mac says, it’s more important than ever to learn to play music. With all the electronic activity and distraction pulling you in numerous directions, it’s good to have something that you can do for yourself and by yourself — and that you enjoy.

About the pro - I am a guitar instructor in San Leandro, providing music theory and guitar lessons in a variety of styles and formats. I am dedicated to helping students maximize their musical potential and reach their musical goals.

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