This is a first in series of articles on the best ways to learn how to play a particular instrument of your choosing. I will go into greater detail and focus on important aspects on how you can make learning to play a better and fun experience.
First up, the guitar. No doubt it is one of the most popular instruments in the world and one the most accessible instruments around. It can be heard in just about every genre of music known to man – from pop, rock, blues, country, classical, reggae, R&B, soul, metal and so many more.
I am going to share just some of the best ways to start learning this versatile instrument and before you know it you will be “playing a guitar just like a ringin’ a bell!”
Buy Yourself a Guitar
First things first, go buy a guitar of your own! If you’re serious about learning to play, you can’t rely on your significant other or drinking buddies to come over with their guitar in hand to practice. You want a guitar to call your own and maybe even give it a name – like BB King’s very own Lucille.
So what’s your budget like? Some guitars can cost as little as $20, or it may run you several thousand dollars depending on the brand name or what material it is made from. Of course, you get what you pay for. Just how seriously do you plan to take this new en devour? If you’re very serious about learning to play the guitar, it will behoove you to invest a little more money in your first instrument, as the sound quality will be significantly better, the build quality will usually be a lot better and you’ll be much more satisfied with your purchase in the long run.
Since you’re probably new to playing a guitar, it is a good idea to get some advice from an expert who has plenty of experience with guitars. You can do some research online but nothing beats going to your local music shop and seeking advice from any one of the sales people. They will be more than happy to assist you in finding the right guitar that will fit your budget.
Here are some more useful tips when factoring in your budget:
- A middle of the road starter guitar will likely cost around $150-$200. Sometime it may even come bundled with an amplifier, a strap, some picks and maybe even some guitar polish.
- A guitar between $200 and $300 is a real good investment especially when you are first starting out; even if you purchase a better quality instrument later, this first instrument will likely be of a quality that should last you a long time.
- A good rule of thumb is to stick to cheaper models produced by the big, reliable brands. One of the reasons they are cheaper is because they are usually mass-produced with cheaper components and assembled in places where labor is cheap in countries like Mexico, China, etc. For example, a Fender Squire is one the more popular guitars especially for beginners and usually can be purchased for under $200 and it can hold its own against it’s more expensive big brother – the Stratocaster which can cost anywhere from $500 to well over $1000. Some reliable brands include Gibson, Fender, Epiphone, Yamaha, and Ibanez, just to name a few.
- If you plan on getting an electric guitar will also need to purchase an amplifier, which may add a significant additional cost, depending on the quality but you can get a good one for under $200 which can produce about 20 to 50 watts of power.
- One of the best places to buy a guitar are pawn shops, where you might find a high quality instrument at a much lower price.
Again, do your research online but also go to your local music shop and to get a feel for all the guitar. Choose one that feels comfortable to hold, and make sure it is the right size for your hands.
Acoustic or Electric?
One of the most common questions I hear when from beginners is should I start on an acoustic or electric? There is no hard and fast rule that says you should start out on an acoustic and then work your way up to an electric. It is entirely up to you. Are you more into folk, country, classical, flamenco or other music that emphasizes acoustic style playing, then an acoustic is probably more up your alley. Though you can still play an acoustic even if some songs were made for electric guitar. If you are more of a fan of rock n’ roll, blues, hard rock and metal, the choice is obvious.
Some would argue that because acoustics are larger, have thicker strings, and are somewhat more difficult to play, beginners should start with acoustic guitars to build up their finger strength and dexterity. Others say that beginners should buy electric guitars because the body is smaller, thinner and easier to play. Still, others will argue that with acoustics you don’t need an amplifier and all you have to do is just pluck the strings to get a nice, warm sound. The only thing you should be concerned about is the sound you want to produce with your guitar and what your primary musical tastes are.
Acoustic guitars produce sound through the vibrations produced by the strings. The strings themselves make very little sound. Instead, the vibration of the strings travels through the saddle and bridge which are located toward the bottom of the guitar to the flat upper surface of the guitar, called the soundboard. The vibration of the soundboard, combined with the subsequent vibration of the air inside the hollow body of the guitar, produce a sound that comes out through the center hole in the body.
If you really want to hear the beautiful sounds an acoustic guitar is capable of then do yourself a favor and listen to some of the greatest classical, flamenco and jazz guitar players such as Andrés Segovia, Paco de Lucía, John Williams, Julian Bream, Sharon Isbin, John McLaughlin…just to name a few.
Electric guitars by contrast have solid bodies, so they can’t produce sound through the vibration of the air inside no matter how hard you pluck the strings. Instead, they rely on a set of “pickups,” which are magnets, wrapped in copper wire, that convert the vibration of each string into an electrical current. That current travels through a cord to an amplifier which converts that current or electric signal into the sound you hear. And since the sound is produced electrically through an amplifier, you can manipulate the sound of an electric guitar any way you desire far more than you can an acoustic guitar. For example, you can add distortion, echo, chorus, delay effect, flanger, you can even make your electric guitar mimic the human voice, and so many more. There is absolutely no limit to what kind of sound you can get from an electric guitar.
Don’t take my word for it, if you really want to hear some of the real out of this world sounds you can get from an electric guitar than look no further than these legends of electric guitar: Jimi Hendrix, the aforementioned BB King, Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eddie Van Halen, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, David Gilmour, Tony Iommi, Angus Young, Malcolm Young, Prince, Slash, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Kirk Hammett, Dimebag Darrell, John Petrucci, Marty Friedman, Yngwie Malmsteen, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Bonnie Rait, Glenn Campbell, and I could just go on and on. This is just a partial list of some of my favorite guitar players and there are so many more out there waiting to be heard
You Will Need Some Accessories
Now that you have chosen you preferred guitar don’t forget to buy these all important accessories. Unless you are exclusively going to learn only finger style playing you should get some picks. They’re pretty cheap and you should get as many as you can since you are bound to lose a few them because of their small size.
A guitar strap is a must if you are going to play while standing up since it is so much easier to let the guitar hang from you neck and shoulders than trying to support the guitar with your hands.
Another accessory you might want to get is a guitar stand so that you can let your guitar stand upright when not in use and you can easily grab it when you need it.
Once you have procured your instrument of choice, be it acoustic or electric, it’s time to take some lessons. If you are an absolute newbie to playing a guitar, a total “virgin” if you will, then go invest in some lessons. See my previous post Tips on Learning Your Musical Instrument for more insights into getting lessons.
Face-to-face lessons are invaluable especially if you have no musical experience whatsoever. Your teacher can guide you on proper technique, how to sound the right notes, chords, scales and offer words of encouragement. He or she can expose you to other genres of music you may not be familiar with so you can broaden your horizons. Individual face-to-face lessons means that you can make mistakes and be corrected and you get to experience personalized guidance. Think of your guitar teacher as like having your own musical Obi-Wan.
Some of you may not be able to get a teacher for face-to-face lessons because of time, money and other factors. There are plenty of resources out there to help you get started such as online courses such as YouTube, apps that can teach you how to play and even track your progress (I will go into greater detail about what are some of the best apps to teach you to play in a later post.) Even if you decide to go your own route it would be of great benefit for you to seek out other guitar players who are on the same skill level or have progressed ahead of you and just jam. This will help you to learn to play with others, expose your mistakes and learn from others and what could be more fun than to jam with your fellow guitar enthusiasts – who know, this may even lead to forming your own band out of your garage. Many great bands have got their start out their mom’s garage.
Tune Your Guitar
This is the most important step to do when you begin learning. Nothing sounds more displeasing than an out of tune guitar. Once the guitar is tuned, it’s fairly easy to keep it in tune, but tuning it the first time can be difficult if you haven’t tuned one before nor developed an ear for it. If you’re buying a guitar at a music store, ask a store employee to tune it for you before you leave the store. Or, you should ask someone more familiar with the guitar to tune it for you. Once the guitar is in tune, you should check to make sure it remains in tune before every practice session. You will most likely be using standard tuning in the each string on the guitar is tuned to these notes starting from the top string: EADGBE
There are other known ways of tuning your guitar besides standard tuning but stick with standard for now.
Here are some ways to tune your guitar using some popular apps:
- You can download any number of apps on your iPhone or Android device that can help tune your guitar.
- Play each string individually, making sure to pluck the string loudly and clearly without holding any of the frets down.
- Adjust the corresponding tuning peg up or down until the tuning app lets you know that string is in tune.
- Keep repeating this process for each string until your guitar is in tune.
- Or you can try to tune your guitar if you have a piano, keyboard or an electronic chromatic tuner.
Listen and Learn
I can’t emphasize enough listening as a skill. More than anything listening will help you become a great player. Take a good listen to your favorite guitar player and others playing, both live and on albums. What kind of guitar are they playing? Are they strumming, picking, playing single notes, chords, or what key signature are they in? What sort of tone are they achieving, and how? What kind of effects are they using? These are just some of the things to listen for so that you learn to incorporate into your own playing.
Listen to yourself real good as you practice. Can you hear when you make a mistake? Is your guitar in tune or not? Do all the strings sound clear? Do the notes and chords you are playing sound even? How can you improve your tone?
And listening is absolutely crucial once you are playing in a band. You are not going to get anywhere fast if all you are concerned is whether you sound good or not – your band mates will not take too kindly to that. Listen to what the other instruments are 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, keyboards, horns and other guitars playing? Take a special listen to what the bass player is playing as he or she provides the foundation to the whole band. What can you play to enhance the groove?
Just because you are the guitar player who may get most of the attention doesn’t mean you should just focus on your own playing and ignore your band mates.
Learn to recognize intervals, scales, and learn to recognize how different chords sound and what feelings they convey. Try to imitate your favorite recordings to train your ear so that you will improve your playing and musical feel, and will give you a step ahead when learning any instrument
Learn songs by ear so you can deconstruct what you’re hearing and play it without any tablature or sheet music. This is a great way to develop critical listening skills, build your musical repertoire, learn a range of new techniques, and develop your ability to quickly digest and apply new material.
Learn Music Theory
There is some debate as to whether learning any music theory is of any help in learning to play guitar or any other instrument. Some argue that music theory is drag to learn and takes away from the “feeling” of what music is all about and others will point out that many of the greatest musicians of our time never learned music theory or learned how to read music and yet composed some of the greatest music known to man. I believe that learning music theory is essential to building a strong foundation. In my previous post Tips on Learning Your Musical Instrument, I stated my reasons for learning music theory and how it will make you a better musician.
Remember to Have Fun!
Learning how to play guitar can be downright intimidating even if you have some musical knowledge. The most important thing to have is the right type of guitar to play the right type of music you want.
When you start out, ask yourself what are my goals? Do you want to play in public? Write your own songs? Play in a band? Learn a real difficult piece of music or learn an entirely new genre of music? Once you know what you want, you can set yourself challenges and tailor your lessons towards reaching your goals.
And finally, remember why you are learning the guitar. You are learning it for your own enjoyment and pleasure, and because it makes you feel good. So remember to have fun!
Rock on \m/