How to Play Guitar: The Basics

Learning how to play guitar is a rewarding venture.

For one, playing guitar helps lower stress. For another, learning how to play guitar and practicing it keeps your mind active. It forces you to exercise your brain, sharpening your focus and attention to detail.

Not to mention, playing guitar just looks cool.

But that doesn’t mean learning how to play guitar is without its challenges. In fact, many novice guitarists quit after only a few months out of frustration.

Reading this guide is your first step on your journey to becoming the next Jimi Hendrix or Carlos Santana. There are some steps you can take to ensure you reach your guitar playing goals.

Avoid Gripping the Guitar’s Neck

A common mistake among beginners is gripping the guitar’s neck.

The first consequence of this mistake will become apparent after a few minutes of play. Your wrist and fingers will start to hurt.

The second consequence will show as you continue to play. You’ll notice your fingers can’t reach the strings at the top of the neck.

If you’re holding the guitar’s neck in a “death grip,” your thumb will be cocked and placed on top of the neck. To correct this mistake, straighten your thumb and move it to the back of the neck. Doing so will ease the pain in your hand and allow you to reach those elusive strings.

Avoid Locking Your Wrist, Fingers, and Upper Arm

Another common mistake that beginners make is locking their playing wrist, fingers, and upper arm together.

When you stiffen your whole arm from your elbow down, you lose the flexibility you need to smoothly move from string to string. You also create a lot of unnecessary tension that will produce pain in your arm.

Instead, keep your wrist, fingers, and upper arm as limber as possible. When you strum the strings, use a flicking motion while keeping the guitar pick pointed to the left. A popular technique is imagining there is something on your pinky and you’re trying to shake it off.

Use Correct Fingering

Every guitar chord requires you press certain strings at certain frets. The complicated nature of playing guitar chords makes it tempting to press the strings and frets however you want.

To properly learn how to play guitar, you have to resist this temptation. The requirements for excellent playing technique are in place for good reason. They help you play better and prepare you for learning more complicated chords later.

Here’s a sample how to play the D chord:

Start Slow

When many beginners embark on their journey to learn how to play guitar, they immediately want to play fast. It makes sense. Many popular songs have a fast rhythm, and, well, it just looks cool.

Playing fast before you can play correctly, however, is detrimental to learning how to play guitar. When you focus on speed rather than accuracy, you become a sloppy, ill-timed guitarist.

So ease up on the strings, Slick. Make like the tortoise and take it slow and steady. He was the one who won the race, after all.

Practice While Sitting and Standing

There are two positions you can assume when playing the guitar: sitting and standing.

Handling a guitar while sitting is fairly easy. The most difficult aspect of it is making sure you have the guitar propped up so you can comfortably reach all the strings and frets.

Standing takes a little more adjustment. You need to make sure you have a reliable guitar strap that will take the guitar’s weight and your continuous use. You also need to make sure the strap is adjusted correctly so you can play comfortably.

Use a Metronome

Metronomes are devices that pace a beat. It does this by swinging a hand back and forth and making a timed sound. You can adjust the beats per minute (BPM) to your preference.

Metronomes are valuable tools when it comes to learning rhythm. They give you a visual and audio queue that helps you follow the rhythm of a piece you’re playing. When you’re ready to focus on rhythm, you won’t regret picking up one of these devices.

Practice Frequently

A writer cannot improve without writing. A painter cannot improve without painting. Likewise, a guitarist cannot improve without playing guitar.

One obstacle to practicing your guitar-playing will likely be time. Between work, school, and family, we’re all busy and have little time to spare. However, if you want to improve your guitar-playing, you need to make time to practice.

Keep an eye open for potential practice windows every day. Lunch breaks are a great time to squeeze in a chord or two as is waiting for your dinner to finish baking in the oven. Other great times include just before work, school, or bedtime.

If you can’t seem to fit guitar-playing into your schedule, consider what you’re doing with your time. Are you watching a lot of television? Or maybe sitting on a park bench, watching your children play on the jungle gym?

If you find you’re partaking in a lot of activities that involve sitting or standing, you can silently practice during them. Take your guitar along, and use your fingers to silence the notes while playing the strings.

Maintain Discipline

Once you’ve established a good practice time, stick to it.

It’s all too easy to let those precious few minutes get eaten up by checking your phone, daydreaming, or doing nothing at all. If you want to improve, you need to focus and use your time wisely.

If you find maintaining your discipline difficult, try making reminders for yourself to practice. Write your practice time on a calendar, or else set your phone to send you a reminder when practice time rolls around. Doing so makes you feel obligated to follow through.

Got Any Other Great Tips for How to Play Guitar? Tell Us!

These aren’t the only excellent tips for novice guitar players. If you know of another great technique that would benefit beginners, tell us in the comments below! We would love to hear from you!

Stephanie Su

Started learning music when she was four years old, Stephanie is a music teacher and a music therapist who is highly proficient in Piano, Violin, Guitar, and Ukulele. She likes to learn, teach, and share her music playing experiences.

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