The Basics of Playing Guitar

Guitar, in my opinion, is the easiest instrument to learn how to play. Your left hand presses the strings down in a certain position, and your right hand simply plucks the string. Most guitar music can be picked up by sound, and with the help of tabulature, reading guitar music is unnecessary.

The difficulty comes from physical pain in your fingertips, and in speedily jumping from complex chord to complex chord. The pain in your fingertips will subside in a couple weeks, as calluses will develop. As for speed, this simply comes from practicing songs and scales. Since most of your songs will be learned from guitar tabulature (tabs), you should learn how to read it.

A guitar tab is drawn to resemble the string arrangement on your guitar. It is as if your guitar is oriented with the neck to your left. Therefore, the ‘first string’ is going to be the skinniest string with the high sound. When referring to strings on your instrument, count this way. The thickest string with the lowest sound is the sixth string. (This means that the tab will seem ‘upside down’) On the guitar tab, you’ll see numbers from 0 to 20 (though often times numbers will be 0 to 13) organized on the different strings.

The number indicates the ‘fret’. On your guitar you’ll see vertical bars running along the neck of your guitar. These are frets. Each rectangular area behind each fret is indicated by the number. This is where you press down. For instance, for fret 3, count 3 spaces. Do not put your finger on the actual bar.

Now, read through the tab playing the different notes. Play them in the order that they appear on the tab. If you happen to see numbers stacked on top of each other, then you are to play those notes simultaneously. If you see three or more stacked notes, then this is a chord . (We’ll get to that in the next section) For your first few tabs, avoid chords and practice playing simple tunes that involve single notes. Also, since tabs don’t indicate anything more than the notes, you’ll need to be familiar with the song to know it’s timing. Radio, CDs, and friends are useful for this.

Playing chords is not theoretically difficult. You are just positioning your fingers in such a way that you can hit all of the required strings and frets. However, in practice it is difficult due to a lack of finger strength and speed. For several chords you may need to do a ‘bar’. A bar is when you press your finger over an entire fret of strings. This is done when a chord requires a specific fret to be hit several times on several strings. Since you only have 4 fingers available for hitting frets, ‘barring’ notes allows to hit all of the needed frets without having 7 or 8 fingers. Other chords are simply an arrangement of frets and strings.

Most chords also have variations, so be aware that if a fingering is too complex for a song, there is likely a simpler one. Chords are often identified through letters A through G. There are also sharps, minors, and other variations on these notes. When a tab just has a letter, it is referring to the ‘major’ chord. ‘E’ is the same as ‘E major’. If you see “Em’, that means ‘E minor’. There is no trick to learning chords aside from practice, practice, practice. Songs and scales are a great way to become comfortable. Ideally, you should be able to switch smoothly and quickly from chord to chord.

In order for the songs you play on your guitar to sound good, your instrument must be tuned. This is done by tuning your sixth string (remember, that would be lowest sounding string, but the top string when you are holding the guitar) to some in-tune standard. The sixth string (low E) would need to be tuned with the low E note of another instrument (or tuning device). Then, you would tune the other strings to that sixth string. Now, technically the sixth string does not need to be tuned perfectly to the E note of another instrument or tuning device.

As long as the strings are all in tune with each other, the instrument will sound fine. But, if you plan on playing in a band or with a companion, you’ll need to in tune with each other. In that case, tuning to a single standard is advised.

Begin tuning by tuning your sixth string. If a tuned piano or tuning device is not available, then just estimate. Sound files are available on the internet that can give you an idea of what a low E note sounds like. Next, press down the fifth fret on that sixth string.

Hit the string, and then hit the open fifth string (open means that no fret is pressed). Your goal is to tune the fifth string so that it sounds the same as the sixth string/fifth fret. Once they sound the same, press down the fifth fret on the fifth string, and tune the open fourth string. When it comes time to tune the second string, you’ll need to press on the FOURTH fret on the third string. After this second string is in tune, you can continue using the fifth fret.

And voila. Your instrument should sound in tune. A good way to check is to become familiar with a couple of chord on a tuned instrument. Play these chords, and if they sound off, your instrument probably still needs some tuning. The first couple of times, it may be difficult to get your instrument perfectly tuned. Don’t worry about it, and do it regularly. Most skilled guitarists can tune their instrument in 30-60 seconds, but again, don’t worry, as you’ll build to that level.

Now you have learned how to read tabulature, play chords, and tune your instrument. The only thing I can advise you to do now is to practice. Practice everyday. Play songs that you like, and play scales that you like. Soon, you notice improvements and comfort with your guitar. Good luck.

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