If you clicked on this article, you are probably someone who wants to know how to learn guitar. Maybe you want to teach yourself before starting lessons so you know some of the basics or maybe you just want to start your guitar-learning journey completely by yourself. Either way, as someone who taught themselves for a year during the pandemic before getting a guitar teacher, passed my Grade 5 Rockschool exam with a distinction (now preparing for Grade 7) and plays gigs regularly with a band at various open mics, I feel I have the ultimate 10 steps to teaching yourself guitar, based on my own experiences and regrets.
1. Know the basics of your instrument
This may sound simple, but having a solid understanding of the fundamental parts of the guitar will mean you really understand how and why the guitar works, so you can know exactly how certain sounds are made. I will briefly cover the main features that you should know, which will make the guitar make much more sense.
- The strings are essentially wires and produce sound through vibrations that create sound waves. Each string has a different tension and thickness which produce a different note when plucked or strummed. The standard tuning of a guitar is E A D G B E (learn these) but you can use different tunings for different sounds.
- The tuning pegs change the tension of the strings and, therefore change the pitch of the note produced by them. It is worth getting a clip-on tuner that will use the vibrations through the headstock (the top part of the guitar) to determine the pitch, but there are free phone apps available if you don’t want to spend money.
- The nut is the white strip, usually made with synthetic bone or graphite, at the top of the guitar neck which the strings rest on in little notches. When you play an open string, the vibrations travel from the nut to the bridge (the metal part on the guitar body where the strings end), so when you fret a note (fretting is what you call placing your finger on a string just before a fret, which are the metal lines on the fretboard, and picking it) you are making the distance the vibrations travel down the string shorter and the pitch higher.
- (You can skip this part if you are learning on an acoustic.) On an electric guitar, there are a few extra things you will need to know: electric guitars either have two or three pickups, which are essentially a collection of magnets and coils of wire that sit under the strings and pick up the mechanical vibrations, which are then converted into electrical energy as it goes into your amp (or amplifier, a speaker for your guitar, sometimes with built-in effects), then back into mechanical energy when it comes out as sound waves.
- The pickup selector switch is a switch that allows you to choose which pickup you want your strings’ vibrations to be picked up by, as this changes the sound or tone of your guitar. For guitars with only two pickups, the options are the neck pickup (which gives a softer sound) and the bridge pickup (which gives a harsher sound, that works better for a distorted, rock sound or just for when you want more bite). For guitars with three pickups, there are five options: neck pickup, neck pickup and middle pickup, middle pickup, middle pickup and bridge pickup, and bridge pickup. But don’t worry too much about finding the perfect tone when you’re learning; focus on playing first, then your ear for tone will develop and you will know what sounds good for what style of music.
2. Start by learning absolutely anything that is within your capabilities
If you are learning completely from scratch, consider yourself a blank slate that should be filled with absolutely any information. At this stage, learning anything, whether it is a simple riff, Mary Had a Little Lamb or just the easy part of a song, is beneficial. When I first started, I learned a few simple tunes from a very basic ‘starting guitar’ songbook (things like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star) then when I became bored of these, I moved on to learning simple, two-string riffs to popular songs I liked, such as R U Mine and Come As You Are. The third step was learning power chords (easy, three-finger chords) which are the staple of almost every punk rock song, leading me to learn songs like Smells Like Teen Spirit, Holiday and Polly.
- I recommend downloading a free app called Songsterr, which I relied on heavily as a beginner, as it has tabs (short for tablature, a simple way that music on the guitar can be written that indicates the fingering rather than the note) for thousands of songs. It may not be the most accurate source of tabs, but it is accurate enough. Another quick tip is not to get disheartened when you can’t learn a whole song because there is something in it that is too hard to play; soon enough, you can play it. Common barriers for beginners are barre chords (chords that require the first finger to press on all of the strings at once) and string bends (pushing the string up, usually with two or more fingers, to change the pitch), so focus on what you can play before tackling them.
3. Know what you like and learn it
Once you have spent a fair bit of time learning and practising various tunes or parts of songs, your technique will naturally improve. The first couple of months of playing, my fingers were stiff, my coordination between both hands was poor and the tips of my fingers got incredibly painful after practising for several hours a day, but you will notice that after a while, your fingertips will become callused and you will be able to play for longer without pain. You will also notice that you pick up songs quickly.
The next step is to find out what you want to play on the guitar and play it. This may be fingerstyle pop songs, blues, jazz, classic sing-along songs, rock or metal. Whatever it may be, the important thing is to keep playing it, because this is what will keep you motivated to practise and improve. I do think that exploring genres that normally don’t interest you can be very technically enriching, as you may learn techniques that your preferred style of music doesn’t utilise, but this can come later, as maintaining motivation, in the beginning, is the most important thing for learning.
4. Online tabs and YouTube tutorials are your friends
As I mentioned before, tabs are a great way of learning songs. They’re simple to understand and are very easily accessible. Essentially, tabs use numbers instead of notes to indicate the fret and string you need to play, along with various symbols for different techniques, such as vibrato (rapid, slight variations in pitch), bends, slides (sliding up or down from one note to another), hammer-ons (fretting a note above a note that you have already fretted) and pull-offs (pulling off from a higher note to a lower note). This may sound complicated, but you will get the hang of it quickly with practice.
YouTube tutorials are also incredibly useful for people who prefer having someone telling them exactly how to play a song, rather than reading it from tabs. This is helpful as you have a visual and audible representation of what you are supposed to be playing. In some videos, the person talks through the song, whereas in some, there is just a person playing the song with the tabs below so you can follow along. I recommend the following YouTube channels, from song-levels simple to more complex: Marty Schwartz, GuitarZero2Hero Express, Mr. Tabs and GuitarLessons365Song. It is also worth getting into the nerdy guitar/music side of YouTube as there is a vast amount of information and inspiration to be found there.
Recommended Reading: How We Made an EP
5. Zone in on techniques and practise them
To give yourself more direction after simply learning songs, a beneficial thing to do is to focus on certain techniques that are holding you back from learning songs in full or just ones that appeal to you. The most useful techniques for a beginner to learn are bending, hammer-ons, pull-offs, slides and vibrato. There are plenty of videos and resources online as to how to do these, but you may find that they come naturally as you play songs. Most of them are self-explanatory and add spice to your playing. When I look back at my old progress videos of guitar solos, I cringe at how emotionless and boring my playing was; my bends were flat (didn’t hit the right pitch) and my vibrato was weak, which very much affected how good I sounded. A good player should be able to use techniques in the right places (this is called phrasing) to make it sound like their guitar is singing with emotion, not just hitting the right notes, which is the bare minimum.
Check back for Part Two next week.