The Best Way to Teach Yourself Guitar

If sales data are any indication, recent record sales of electric guitars online and in music stores seems to show a huge wave of interest in learning guitar. With the massive influx of online guitar teachers with their websites, downloadable tabs and instructional Youtube videos, there has never been a better time for learning the guitar!

The (Not So) Good Old Days

If you grew up in the 70‘s and 80‘s listening in slack-jawed amazement to the guitar histrionics of players like Eddie Van Halen, Yngwie Malmsteen, Eric Johnson, Joe Satriani, Steve Vai and Paul Gilbert (just to name a few!) you probably remember how hard it often was to find teachers and lesson materials that could show you how to shred like your favorite guitar greats. Sure, there were magazines like Guitar World and Guitar Player that featured monthly columns by a lot of the cutting edge players of that time — who of that ilk does not remember Joe Satriani’s column? — but most guitar teachers and technique manuals only showed you how to play chords and rudimentary lines, folk songs and jazz standards.

If you were listening to Eddie Van Halen shred on his Frankenstrat one minute and then going to your guitar lesson where you were spending your fourth week strumming ‘This Land is Your Land’ on a cheap gut-string acoustic, then you know what it was like to teach yourself guitar before the Internet! The idea that beginners play ‘beginner’ guitars and play songs out of a beginner song book is gone.

There is no magic way to teach yourself guitar, but today there is a lot more information out there for beginning guitarists than ever before, so much in fact that it can seem like too much. The best way to learn guitar without taking traditional guitar lessons is by following these surprisingly easy steps.

Start by Getting a Guitar You Love

While we wouldn’t advise dropping three grand on a custom shop Stratocaster, we also wouldn’t advise starting out on the cheapest guitar you can find. Sure, many people buy the cheap ‘starter’ guitar until they are sure they are going to stick with it, but doing this almost guarantees that you will lose interest. Why? Because guitars at the so-called ‘beginner’ guitar price point are often harder to play than those that are just slightly more expensive.

rows of colorful cuitars

So, what should you look for in a first guitar? First, find something that grabs your attention and looks absolutely beautiful to you. Then try it out, even if you don’t know how to play anything. Hold it and get a sense of how it feels and play some notes on it. You want to be able to hold down a note without having to apply so much pressure that it hurts your fingers. Of course, it will hurt your fingers to a certain extent until your calluses come in (that will be discussed later on) but the point is to find a guitar that feels good and that you can play notes on easily.

Next, buy a guitar stand or wall mount for your new guitar, and display your new guitar somewhere you will see it every day. This will remind you to practice and take your attention away from the TV, your phone, social media and everything else that keeps us away from our instruments!

Some reasonably priced brands for aspiring guitarists to look into:

  • Squier (Owned by Fender)
  • Epiphone (Inspired by Gibson)
  • Sterling by Music Man
  • Schecter Diamond Series
  • Ibanez GIO (great for metal fans)
  • Yamaha Pacifica and Revstar
  • PRS SE Standard Series
empuriabrava, spain february 17, 2021 guitar master changing guitar strings on fender squier strat, top view

Start Learning Songs You Like from the First Day

There’s a reason why you hear certain songs, like ‘Smoke on the Water’ and ‘Wonderwall’ whenever you walk into a guitar shop. These songs are not only classics, but they are easy enough to play that an absolute beginner can start playing them (or some version of them) from day one. Playing songs, making recognizable music, is so important because any instrument can become terribly boring if all you do is practice chords, scales and finger exercises. Of course, there is a place for practicing all of these things, but spend the bulk of your practice time jamming out to songs that you love.

Learn All About Your Guitar

All guitars have a basic layout or design of body, neck and headstock. These are all usually made of wood (though some are made from lighter, more space age materials like carbon fiber and composite materials), and in electric guitars, they will also contain some amount of electronics and metallic hardware. The neck is usually either bolted or glued into the body and has a fretboard (also called a fingerboard) glued to the surface which you play notes on. The fingerboard is usually divided into 22 or 24 spaces called frets by nickel or stainless steel bars which are called fretbars or fretwire. When you hold the strings down between the fret wires it will produce a specific pitch or note.

The headstock is the place at the top end of the neck where the strings meet the tuning machines. The nut is the slotted piece of plastic, metal or bone that the strings run through on their way to the tuners. The bridge is the hardware mounted on the body where the strings begin. The strings usually run up through the bridge either from the back of the guitar (as in a Stratocaster) or from a tailpiece (as on a Les Paul style guitar). There are many types and styles of bridges and nuts, some easier to manage than others, and before you choose a guitar you should acquaint yourself with these differences.

The electronics are mostly internal and out of sight on an electric guitar except for the pickups and controls. The pickups are the magnetic devices that ‘pickup’ the strings vibration and turn it into an electrical signal that it then transmits to your amp. The controls are the knobs and switches that select which pickup or combination of pickups you are using, and at what level they are transmitting.

The point of all of this is that even an inexpensive guitar like an Epiphone SG or a Squier Stratocaster will offer you lots of options. The more you know about it, the easier it will be to get the most out of your guitar and truly enjoy what your guitar has to offer.

Tune Your Guitar Properly – Use a Tuner!

A tuner is absolutely indispensable if you want to teach yourself to play guitar. When you first start out playing it will be difficult to tune your instrument by ear, even if you can play a C note on the family piano and tune the rest by ear. The tuner will actually help train your ear to standard tuning and help you get other tunings correct as well. As you continue in your playing, you will instantly know if a string has gone out of tune and if you have a tuner on your pedalboard or snapped onto your headstock, you will be able to fix it immediately, before it ruins the song you are playing.

Play a Note, Bend the Note, Vibrato

The guitar has the wonderfully expressive quality of the human voice because on the guitar, unlike the piano, you can bend notes and use vibrato to make notes more expressive. These are techniques that you should start to master right away. Of course, there are literally tens of thousands of bending and vibrato videos on Youtube where you can learn these basic techniques.

However, before you take that step, start with actually fretting and playing a note on the guitar. For this it is important to look closely at how good guitar players fret notes. By the time a guitar great has mastered their playing, something as simple as fretting notes is second nature, but when you are starting out, it is easy to fall into bad habits that can make it hard to progress. These bad habits include:

  • Fingers too flat – When you fret a note, your finger should be rounded and you should be holding down the notes with your finger tips.
  • Poor Hand Positioning – When you hold the neck, don’t grasp it tightly like a baseball bat. Your touch should be light, with the thumb mobile, able to shift easily from position to position.
  • Holding Down Too Hard – When you press down a string, you only want to hold it down against the crown of the next fret. It doesn’t require a lot of pressure. Too much pressure slows down your fingers and makes it harder to play.

Learn to Read Tablature and Chord Charts

Playing guitar is not rocket science and the materials that guitarists use to communicate their ideas are not terribly difficult to learn. The most common way to learn a song today is by reading tablature — also called tabs — and chord charts.

Both systems essentially show you where to place your fingers on the neck to place certain pieces of music. Chord charts show the neck as if you are looking at it from above with dots used to indicate where to place your fingers, while tabs run like musical notation, showing finger placement in terms of fret numbers. In fact, tablature often appears with standard notation in song books and guitar magazines.

The drawbacks of tab and chord charts is, while they do show you where to place your fingers on the neck of the guitar, they don’t necessarily give you the pitch and rhythm information you need to play a song well. To do this, it is important to use your ears and eyes — listen to the song and watch an inspiring performance on YouTube, watch the guitarists hands closely and listen, don’t just blindly follow the tabs. While online tabs are usually reliable, they aren’t always perfect, so when in doubt, choose what you hear over the numbers on the tab.

guitarist plays

The best thing about tablature is that it is available everywhere, especially sites like Ultimate Guitar which millions of aspiring guitarists rely on to learn songs fast.

Master the Fretboard

Learning songs becomes a lot easier once you master the fretboard. To master the fretboard it is important to:

  • Master the Basic Chords – these are the open chords like an open C, A, G, E and D.
  • Learn Every Note on the Neck – memorize the notes in standard tuning until you can pick out and name any note on any string.
  • Learn the Pentatonic and Blues Scales – these scales are the foundation of all lead playing, rock, blues and country.
  • Learn Barre Chords – barre chords allow you to move your open chords up and down the neck, enabling you to play in any key.

In standard tuning, the open strings are tuned to the notes E, A, D, G, B, High E. From the open strings, the notes on each string go up one half step each time you move up a fret. So, as you can see in this diagram, they move in alphabetical order upward with the appropriate sharps (or flats, you will learn more about that as you progress musically) in between:

guitar fretboard chart

To the untrained eye this looks like a lot to memorize, but what you really see are the building blocks of all music right there. All chords, notes, scales and riffs, licks and songs are in there and all you need is the right system to unlock them. This is why mastering the fretboard is such an important step to learning the guitar.

Knowing the fretboard in this way is like having a cheat sheet. Every time you want to learn a song, your knowledge of the fretboard will give you a much better idea of what your favorite guitarists are doing and you will soon find yourself picking up songs and riffs by ear. Knowing the fretboard is also the key to more advanced playing, like lead playing and more difficult music.

This is where having a teacher can come in handy. Online guitar teachers not only provide you with videos on how to learn the fretboard in depth, but they often teach systems like the CAGED system that professionals use all of the time in their playing. Online guitar teachers usually provide a video lesson along with tabs, chord charts and printed materials that you can download and use again and again as you practice.

Leave Your Guitar Out and Practice Every Day for at Least 15 Minutes

Of course, we’ve all heard stories about the maniacal practice regimes of guitar players like Paul Gilbert, Eddie Van Halen and Yngwie Malmsteen, but the reality for most of us is, we have work and school and stuff to do, so much stuff, in fact, that guitars often just sit locked away in cases and zipped up in gig bags, never to see the light of day. This is why it is so important to display your guitar prominently in your home and pick it up often, even if it is just for 15 minutes per day.

Practicing only 15 minutes per day will not lead to tons of progress instantly, but what it will do is create a habit which will eventually grow. Soon, the 15 minutes will begin to snowball to a half hour, 45 minutes, an hour and half and so on. Maybe you will choose not to watch Jeopardy one night and sneak in an extra half hour jamming on that Foo Fighters song you’ve always wanted to learn. The point is the more you make the guitar a habit, the more likely you are to make progress and reach your playing goals.

Your Aching Fingers Will Come Along

In his song about learning to play music, ‘Summer of ‘69‘, Bryan Adams starts with: “I got my first real six-string / Bought it at the five-and-dime / Played it ’til my fingers bled / Was the summer of ’69…”

A lot of performers had a similar experience. As you start out, your fingers will hurt, and whenever you learn a new technique or try to master a new approach to playing, it will happen all over again. Even Steve Vai, who has been playing the guitar for nearly 50 years, recently experienced this when he invented his new ‘joint shifting’ technique (which is insane! check out this article in Guitar World).

So, the question is how do you deal with it? One way is to play frequently for short periods of time each day. Instead of practicing for an hour or two, play for 15 or 20 minutes, until your fingertips feel sore, and take a break. Later on, do it again. Eventually, your fingertips will callus over and the soreness will go away, only coming back when you try to play something you’ve never tried before. Another thing you can do is use lighter gauge strings. If .010 gauge strings are hurting your fingers, try .009, and if they hurt move down to .008. The lighter strings will be easier on your fingers while your calluses are building up.

Learn Multiple Strumming Patterns

So far we have spent time talking about the left or fret hand and learning the fretboard, but it is also important to master a set of basic techniques for the right hand or pick hand. When learning to play with a pick, start by holding the pick between your thumb and index finger in a way that feels comfortable and natural.

how to hold guitar pick

Hold the pick firmly and run it across all of the strings from the low E or thickest string down to the High E, then run it back up from High E down to the Low E. That is called strumming across the strings and you do this when you play chords.

In country music, when you are playing the ‘Cowboy chords’ as they are called, you will often strum down and back up in a steady rhythm along with the song. In rock and blues songs, the strumming patterns will usually be different, with a lot more down strokes and with accents on different beats. The important thing is to practice strumming in different rhythmic patterns so you never fall into the trap of being able to only play one type of song.

Practice Switching Chords

One you’ve learned the basic chords, and practiced strumming patterns, it is time to start switching chords. When playing the open chords, it is good to practice switching between common chord patterns that you find in lots of songs. One of the most popular is Emin, G, D, A, G, C. You can find variations of it in hundreds of popular songs. Just a few minutes each day switching among these most often used open chords can open up a wealth of potential new songs that you can learn and play with surprising ease.

If you are having trouble switching from one chord to another, look for a video lesson online that can give you tips on how to make the switch more smoothly. Online guitar teachers and professional guitarists have all kinds of tricks they use to give themselves that fraction of a second it takes to move from one position to another smoothly and easily.

Set Goals For Yourself as a Player

Many of us came from the generation that all wanted to learn how to play Van Halen’s Eruption, or the guitar solo in Ozzy’s Mr. Crowley, or Yngwie’s Black Star. Players in the 90’s learned Nirvana songs with equal enthusiasm. But your goal does not have to be so finite. It can be a lot more open ended. A great goal would be to want to play guitar well enough to play in a band. Another great goal would be to become good enough to write and record your own music. And of course, a lot of today’s players want to be good enough to host their own Youtube channel. The point is that having a goal gives you something to work toward and keeps the experience of playing alive for you. However, once you achieve a goal, just realize that it won’t be long before your mind has fastened on another goal. That’s just the way it is!

FAQ’s:

Is it ok to learn electric guitar first?

Yes, in fact learning on an electric guitar might even be easier. Acoustic guitars generally have fatter necks with high action that can be difficult for beginners to play. Many beginners give up playing their ‘beginner’s’ acoustic guitar out of frustration because the wide, fat necks and high string height makes playing them a struggle. A beginner’s electric, like a good Epiphone or an Ibanez Gio guitar that you can get surprisingly cheap new and even cheaper used, have thin necks that are perfect for small hands and fingers that have not yet developed calluses.

Which guitar is best for beginners?

This depends on the age and size of the person who is taking up the guitar. The best guitar for beginners should be a quality instrument from a reputable manufacturer and never the cheapest thing you can find. Squier by Fender, Epiphone by Gibson, Ibanez Gio guitars, Sterling by Music Man, and Yamaha Pacifica all offer quality guitars at reasonable price points that look and sound really good. Comparable acoustic models from the same brands are available at similar price points. Overall, you are looking for a guitar that is comfortable to play and stays in tune so the beginning player doesn’t feel that he or she is struggling against their own instrument. Keys to look for: low action, stays in tune, reputable brand, overall good sound. Also, look for something you are going to love to look at day after day.

What is the best way to learn to play a guitar without having to take lessons?

Online guitar lessons offer the best all around value for people who are teaching themselves how to play guitar. Usually, for a small monthly Patreon donation, you can access a wealth of guitar lessons and information, and a good online guitar teacher will present the information in a systematic way, so you make actual, logical progress toward your playing goals.

What is the best app to learn guitar?

A: This is hard to say because there are tons of apps for guitarists. Apps like Fretboard Hero turn learning the notes and chords on your fretboard into a fun game, while multifunction apps like Yousician Guitar offer a large number of songs, exercises and tutorials and are designed so you can play along on an actual guitar. The best thing is that most guitar apps have free versions that you can try that offer a good amount of content at little or no cost.

How long should it take to learn a song on the guitar?

You should be able to start playing songs, or at least recognizable portions of songs, right away.

How do you harden your fingers for playing guitar?

By playing. There is no other way. A great way to harden your fingers without suffering a lot of pain is to play your guitar for short periods of time multiple times of day. Maybe 15 or 20 minutes at a time until playing becomes nothing but a pleasure.

Can you play guitar with short fingers?

A: Of course! The great thing about guitar is that the notes repeat themselves in a variety of ways across the neck. You don’t need a wide finger span to play large intervals because you can just choose a different position on the neck, skip over strings and so forth.

I watch all kinds of videos, but I’m still not getting better at guitar? Why?

The problem is that there is no structure to your learning. Sure, the videos you are watching probably teach you a lot, but if you are just going from video to video without any structured learning, then you aren’t building on your previous lessons and adding new skills and techniques in a systematic way.

As a beginner, are guitar picks necessary?

Learning to play with a pick is not always necessary. Look at players like Derek Trucks and Matteo Mancuso who fingerpick everything. It all depends on the style of music you are playing. If you want to learn rock and metal, you will probably want to learn with a pick, but country, blues, jazz and fusion players routinely fingerpick everything.

Is guitar bad for your fingers?

Absolutely not. Look at how many players keep on playing at a high level well into their 60‘s and 70‘s. Steve Vai celebrated his 60th birthday by premiering a brand new, never before heard guitar technique on his Youtube channel. Check out the tune Candle Power for more on this.

How many hours a day should I practice guitar?

Instead of looking at it as how many hours per day you should play, the best thing to do is to make sure you play your guitar every day. Make it a habit to pick up the guitar, go over some chords, maybe warm up with a finger exercise, and play through some songs. Do this every day, even if it’s just 15 or 20 minutes at first. Make it a habit, and when you progress you can flesh out your practice sessions.

What age is too late to learn guitar?

There is no age that is too late to learn the guitar. If you are a late bloomer, or a senior looking for a great new hobby, guitar is perfect for you. This is because it is low impact physically and it engages your mind and heart. Playing your favorite songs and making music is great for people at any age.

Why pay for online lessons when Youtube is free?

There is a lot of great material on Youtube, and once you’ve progressed to the intermediate stage, you’ll find these lessons a lot more useful, but when you are just starting out as a player, it is essential to follow a course of structured learning. Youtubers tend to hop around from one topic to another according to the comments they see on their videos. This is a great way to attract views, but not the best way to lay a solid foundation for a beginning guitarist. Online lessons give you all of the advantages of Youtube lessons in a structured format that is foundational in nature and will allow you to make fast progress as a player.



Michael Southard

Michael is a multi-instrumentalist with extensive knowledge of audio production. He loves trying new gear to discover gems to create unique sound.