10 Tips For Beginner Guitarists

Starting to learn the guitar can be a difficult and daunting task. There are so many resources, books, videos, articles, magazines, where do you start? Although the points on this page do not cover any specific instruction, they will hopefully be a guiding light and help you to start your journey on the right foot, whilst also preventing you from falling foul of any pitfalls. Take the time to read them through carefully, maybe once or twice to let the ideas sink in, then try putting them into practice. Let me know how you get on.

1. Practice Slowly

Remember the old saying ‘practice makes perfect’? Well it’s not entirely true. We could rephrase it as ‘practice makes permanent, perfect practice makes perfect.’ So, what does this mean?

Well our bodies learn physical movements by repetition. Whatever movements our muscles repeat, we learn over time – and hopefully get very good at them. Think about a child learning to catch a ball, the hours spent throwing and bouncing the ball against a wall to train the muscles in the arm and hand, until eventually they have learnt to catch the ball.

So, in order to make sure we have the best chance of perfecting a skill, we need to make sure we are practicing the correct movements. How can we do this? Well the most important thing we can do is to practice slowly. By practicing slowly, you give your fingers and hands time to move in the correct way and land in the right position on the guitar. If you start off too quickly the chances are you will make a mistake as your fingers haven’t learnt what to do yet. As you practice more and more you get better and better at that mistake, until you are an expert at the mistake. Slow down. If you are trying to learn a chord, try holding your fingers in the air above the strings and then move them all into position slowly before placing them down. If you are trying to learn a lead passage, try playing it very slowly, just a few notes at a time until your fingers know where they have to go. Don’t worry about the timing or rhythm at this stage, just get the finger positions correct first. Remember if you can’t play it slowly, you’ll never be able to play it at speed. Have patience speed will come with time and familiarity.

2. Use the most efficient fingering

This is somewhat related to the previous point. Always try to minimise the amount of movement you need to do. Needless movements of your hand and fingers will only slow you down. Look at the fingers you are using. Is there a better way to play the chord or passage using different fingers? Take for example and Am and an Em chord played in the open position. It’s quite an easy change to simply move your 2nd and 3rd fingers up from Am to Em. But what if you are learning a song that doesn’t require you to change between Am and Em? Maybe you need to change between Em and G, in which case, using your 1st and 2nd fingers to fret the Em chord would be beneficial as you then have your 1st finger in the correct position already to play the G chord, you can just move the other fingers around it. It’s a useful skill to be able to spot shared notes between chords. Beginners will often take all their fingers off the guitar and then place them back on again when changing chords. But if there is a finger that is in the same place in both chords why take it off to put it back on again? To start with it can be tricky to keep one finger in place whilst the others are moving, but with practice (slowly and correctly remember) you will soon train that finger to keep still, making your chord change more efficient.

3. Hold the guitar correctly

It is always important to sit correctly when holding the guitar. A bad posture can not only impair your ability to play and hence learn quickly, but can also lead to physical problems later down the road. Try to sit on a decent chair, rather than the bed or sofa. If necessary, use a footstool to set your leg at the correct height. Let the guitar rest naturally on your leg and body, held in place by your picking arm. Your fretting arm should not be taking on any of the weight of the guitar, but free to move around the fretboard. Try to keep your fretting hand thumb down low on the back of the guitar neck and don’t let it creep up over the edge of the neck (unless you’re playing like Hendrix, but that’s an advanced skill). This will ensure that your fingers have maximum reach and also clear the strings so you don’t muffle notes when playing chords. Finally try not to let your body tense up. Check for tension in your back, neck, shoulders and arms. Try to release any tension that occurs. If your body is tense, then the muscles are fighting each other, which means you won’t be able to play well.

4. Warm up before practice

Would you run a marathon or enter a football game without warming up? The body is a finally tuned machine and as such we need to warm up before physical activity to ensure we are performing at our best and to prevent injury. Warm-up activities will vary depending on your ability level and style of guitar you are playing, but always start off with something slow and simple. Maybe an open string picking exercise for beginners, or a chromatic note exercise if you have been playing for a while. Scales can also make good warm up exercises but don’t do any crazy stretches straight away.

5. Be prepared

There is nothing more frustrating than sitting down to a task and then finding you need to get up again because you need something, or the phone rings, or some other distraction. Try to ensure before you start that you have everything you need, whether that be music books, equipment, or just a cup of tea. If you can switch off your phone or computer while you are practicing, that way you won’t be tempted to check your email or Facebook profile every few minutes. The world will still be there when you return. If you live with others let them know that you are practicing for the next half an hour or so, and that way they won’t disturb you (hopefully).

6. Have your practice area set up

It may sound simple but it’s a good idea to try and keep the place where you practice set up and ready to go. That way you can get straight into practicing without any delay. Also, if your guitar is packed away in case somewhere, there is a tendency to forget about it. Whereas if you have it out and on a stand where you can see it, there will be a constant reminder for you to start practicing. In the beginning, it can be hard to build up the habit of a good practice routine, there is always something more important to do or another excuse to prevent you from picking up the guitar. But if your guitar is out and set up ready to go, all you need to do is plug it in and off you go. Sometimes this can make the difference between a highly productive practice session and putting it off to do something ‘more important’ such as the cleaning the dishes.

7. Don’t expect overnight success

Playing the guitar is hard. I’m not going to sugar-coat it, you’ve chosen a difficult hobby to take up (and expensive too if you start getting into all the gear). But it is also immensely rewarding and can bring a lifetime of pleasure, maybe even change your life completely. Try not to be impatient with your progress and try not to compare yourself to others. People are different and learn in different ways and at different rates. You just need to focus on your own path and trust that you will get there. The hardest things that you will learn on the guitar will be the first things you learn. Everything will be unfamiliar; your hand will hurt and your fingertips will be sore. You won’t be able to play the chords you want straight away and when you try and play along with your favourite songs it will sound terrible. We’ve all been there, but with time and patience, and a steady practice routine you will get there. If you still feel disheartened about your progress, try to set yourself mini-goals. There is nothing more rewarding and likely to spur you on than being able to tick off a particular target you have set yourself. Maybe it will be to memorise a scale pattern or to perfect a tricky chord change, whatever it is keep focused on that task until you have nailed it and then move on to the next. One day you’ll look back and be amazed at what you have accomplished.

8. Practice away from the guitar

There are countless opportunities for us to continue learning and improving our skills as musicians even when we don’t have a guitar in our hands. One of the best things you can do is to listen. Whenever you find yourself listening to a piece of music, try to do so actively. Listen out for the pulse in the music, does the time signature change? What are the different instrumental parts doing and how do they complement each other? Can you follow the chord changes of each section? By listening to music actively you will start to develop your ‘musical ear’ which will go a long way to helping you become a much better guitarist.

9. Create a practice schedule

It can be quite daunting when you first start learning the guitar, there is so much material to cover - how will you fit it all in? This is where a well thought out practice schedule or plan can help you greatly.

First break down all the various areas you need to work on, for example, scales, chords, exercises, a piece you’re working on, improvising, etc. The list of areas you need to work on will vary greatly depending on what your overall goals are, the style of guitar you are learning and how long you have been playing for. Once you have worked out the different areas you need to work on, you can develop a weekly plan. You don’t need to work on every single item each day, but try to make sure you go through everything at least once during the course of a week. You might decide to prioritise some areas and spend more time on them than others, that’s fine, just make sure you don’t neglect any one particular thing.

Knowing how long to spend practicing can also be tricky. To start out with a few minutes each day is fine. As your skills develop you can always increase your practice time. In the beginning it can be difficult to stick to practicing, especially if you have set yourself an overly ambitious routine. Little and often is best to start with. It’s better to practice five minutes every day, than to do nothing all week and then spend half an hour or an hour practicing on one night. In the early stages it’s more important to develop a good routine than to try and practice for a long time each day.

10. Learn to tune

One of the most important things you can do as a new guitarist, for your own sanity as well as those around you is learn to tune your instrument. There is nothing worse than having to listen to someone strum away for hours on end on an out of tune guitar, never mind the fact that it’s not much fun for yourself.

There are numerous methods to tuning a guitar, but the simplest it to get hold of a digital tuner. The best kind are the clip-on ones that sense the vibration of the strings through the body of the guitar. Failing that, there are tonnes of great tuner apps available, often for free, for most mobile phones.

It’s also an extremely useful skill to be able to tune by ear too, sometimes it’s even quicker. However, this can take time to learn and practice. In the meantime, it’s still a good idea to get hold of a decent tuner, even if you want to work on your ear.

I hope you find these 10 tips for beginner guitarists handy. Some of them may even be useful for more advanced players. Each of the points I have made here only scratches the surface of each topic and I may, at some point in the future, write a number of fuller articles dealing with each topic in more detail.

If you have any comments or questions, or feel you might benefit from receiving guitar lessons, please feel free to contact me via the contact page.

I wish you good luck in your journey. Keep practicing and have fun!