Ever since Elvis Presley appeared in 1956, flailing and rhythmically beating up the guitar that was strapped just above his undulating hips, guitars have been one of the best-selling instruments among youth in America.
Currently, it’s the second most popular instrument for students taking private music lessons in America, dancing only behind the ubiquitous piano.
In my studio, the charm, charisma and iconic flash of the guitar is always represented by dozens and dozens of starry-eyed youth, wanting to emulate the latest axe-slinging guitar star, and trying not to think about how their fingertips hurt.
The question of how to play guitar for beginners is one that has many answers. Like any instrument, there’s so much to learn when you first pick it up that it seems ridiculous to believe you’ll ever be more than a hack.
Also, there are so many ways to play the guitar that one could get stuck just considering which educational direction to take on the instrument.
If you’re just looking into it, you might feel confused and uncertain; you may feel like taking the Beavis route – pick up a guitar, strum any old place on the neck, start singing radical, crazy guitar licks and then proceed to demolish the guitar in true Pete Townsend fashion all over the floor. You may have even already tried that and now need a new guitar!
It might not be a great guitar performance, but I’ll give ya points for Hendrix flair. 😉
Instead of pretending and being a laughable poser like Beavis, let’s look at the best first steps to take as a beginner that will help you make the most of this radically esteemed instrument with such a rich, inspiring history, and put you in the footsteps of the masters. Let’s rock!
Legendary stories abound of many guitar slingers, Elvis included, who started out on a guitar that was so hard to play their technique suffered horribly and they couldn’t progress. This is why it’s important to have an instrument that’s not so hard to play it feels like Steve Martin’s “Cruel Shoes”.
After all, who wants to play an instrument that uses a vice and razor blades to hold their hands in place?!
You want to make it so that the guitar is inviting, and fun to spend time with. If you’re spending less than $100 on some “new” guitar, you’re probably going to be sorry you even tried. Instead, if you don’t have much cash to initially invest in your new interest, try CraigsList or Music-Go-Round.
CraigsList will show you people in your local area who want to get rid of guitars in their homes, and sometimes these are really good instruments that are stupid cheap because the person selling it has no idea of its worth.
Music-Go-Round is a store that specializes in used gear. I personally have saved hundreds of dollars buying from them, and all the gear they’ve provided me with is still in excellent shape.
If money is no object and you’re looking to buy new, my recommendation is to spend at least $250. Then you’re pretty much assured that you’re not going to go home with a baseball bat that has strings on it.
Also, before you buy be sure you play quite a few guitars. This will give you an idea of how they all feel. Make sure one of them is a really expensive model, over a $1,000. This will let you experience what a quality instrument should feel like. Then try to buy the closest thing to that that doesn’t keep you from making your rent payment.
It all comes down to this: buy the very best instrument you can afford, and stay away from anything that feels incredibly hard to play. Got one? Ok, let’s move on…
Before you strike a note, imagine the instrument you just bought years, even decades from now. It’s still delivering that great sound you liked when you picked it out. It has been constant in its tone production. It’s inspired you to greatness in soloing, rhythm chording, melody-writing… all the things you’ve come to love and be quite good at in music. It rose up with you to the stages, the spotlights, the glory.
You’ve written dozens, maybe hundreds of songs on it. Some of them can still make you laugh out loud, or still bring you to tears. Its sound, through those decades, was the magic, the glue, that held every song together. Always just a reach away, it has become… like an extension of your soul.
There’s a reason why guitarists often name their guitars – they become so familiar and cherished through the years and gigs that they’re almost like a dear friend; a part of the family. This now is your opportunity; the chance to discover the power and alchemy of your new companion. And if you invest time in this symbiotic partnership, I promise you it will take you and your aspirations to places you never thought possible. Dreams come alive and stay alive through one thing…
Practice. It’s the best next step. Spending time with your new instrument like a friend will start unlocking its secrets, and reveal to you understandings you never knew were even there.
Like any great relationship tho’, it shouldn’t be forced. Don’t wanna play today? Then don’t. Would your girlfriend or boyfriend want you to be with them because you “should”? Or because you want to? We all know the answer to that.
And don’t view your new instrument like the U.S. Mint, locking all the greatest treasures away, and mocking you – just daring you to try to get in. It’s not at all like that!
Rather, see your new guitar like the very best teacher you ever had; you know, the one that showed you endless ways to enjoy the subject at hand, that kindled a real fire inside about the possibilities and wonders that are latent in its study and tools. THAT is this new companion. And that is just a glimpse into the time treasures to come.
With all this in mind, keep your guitar out of the case, in arm’s reach, somewhere that you will be often on a daily basis. If you keep your instrument accessible, just seeing it will remind you of its devotion to your happiness, which will in turn prompt you to pick it up. If you can get it in your hands just ten minutes a day, you will see real progress.
As I type this, one of my guitars is right next to my table on the right, ready at a moment’s notice to deliver the goods. It’s my oldest guitar, and it has been put through the ringer. It’s not expensive. It doesn’t even have a recognizable brand. It was my first acoustic and remains what it was when I bought it: a cheap beater.
Good thing too, because one time going to a gig in Idaho from L.A. our drummer fell asleep at the wheel at 5 a.m. and all of our luggage, instruments… and myself were thrown headlong into the Arizona desert plain. None of us were hurt (read that as “miracle”) but the truck was totaled. One of my guitar’s seams, along the back bottom edge, was cracked open. It still is today. I leave it that way to remind me of how blessed I am to still be here writing this.
There are few feelings more awesome than that of accomplishing something very difficult, that took a lot of commitment, time, energy and patience to bring to fruition, and that you now see happening in front of your very eyes. When you have practiced something enough this will happen to you, again and again. And just like any human… you’re gonna love it!
To get there, make sure you spend at least half of your practice time focusing on a specific song and trying to play it as exactly as you can. This teaches you technique, and after doing this with many songs, you will naturally have many techniques to draw from. Some you will play more than others, and this is partly what becomes your “style”. Thus, learning music by others actually unlocks your own music, and one day… a student will be excited to learn your songs!
The other half of your time you can mess around on your instrument. Do crazy things. Pretend you can play things you can’t. Get in front of big windows or mirrors with your favorite songs on and mimic being the guitarist. It’s FUN! And it helps you visualize yourself actually being an accomplished player.
Basically, if you’re playing your instrument at all, it’s a good thing, but mix it up with half free-play and half applied study on some tune. This will mature your playing quickly and be entertaining at the same time.
How long will it take ’til you’re any good? Depends on how much you’re hangin’ with your new friend. The more your fingers on the fretboard the faster you’ll progress.
Oh, yea, and if you do, don’t be surprised if times just flies! Countless times I’ve picked up one of my instruments to practice “just a few minutes” and found myself still there, digging, searching, pushing, plaaaaaaying… hours later. That’s because music is so much fun, and so rewarding that it never gets old. If you treat it like the gift it is, and go it with anticipation, never in drudgery, you’ll be amazed at the bond you’ll create.
As for what to play, that’s also up to you. Got a favorite song? Google it with “how to play…” in front of the title. You’ll find hundreds of websites and YouTube videos showing you how to play it. Especially here at the start, just learn songs you like. Don’t try to play something you hate but someone else recommends. Life’s too short. Investigate what you’re interested in and you’ll have an absolute blast!
One guitarist that I’ve always looked up to and is still, in my opinion, the best guitarist alive today, is Phil Keaggy. I’ve seen him play countless types of music: rock, classical, country, roots, medieval, pop… and he not only plays them adequately, he excels in each of them! Here’s what he says about playing guitar:
“There are times when I am able to free myself from concerns about technique, and suddenly my spirit soars and the music just ﬂows through my hands spontaneously. That comes with living with the guitar for a long time.”
Take it from my hero Phil and I: enrich yourself with quality and quantity time with your new axe. As I often tell my students, you won’t have to try to be good at your instrument. If you spend time with it, exploring and attempting what inspires you, you simply will be!
Now, go… make… sounds!