Learning to play the guitar is much easier than people think it is.
Yes, I said it. Of course, there are seriously advanced techniques and skills to be acquired, but it is one of the simplest instruments there is to get to a basic competence level. By using the information below in tandem with my previous post on music theory, I believe you could play along with at least 90% of contemporary music today. Maybe you won’t be shredding those crazy solos yet but if you’re looking for a starting point, this is it.
Step 1 – Learn Some Music Theory
Music Theory is not ‘sexy’. I get it, you’re one of the 100,000 beginner guitarists I’ve heard trying to play that Metallica solo or that AC/DC, Guns N’ Roses and even John Mayer line before you understand the basic principles surrounding the construction of music. Steady now, young padawan. First, you should understand the force before you can use it…and never, ever wear a top hat. You are not Slash.
I recently wrote a post that covered all of what I would consider the basic principles of music theory – these are particularly relevant in a church setting, but they are useful for many other settings too. I strongly suggest that you read, bookmark, practice, read again and keep coming back to that post until you really understand it. Whilst it doesn’t cover improvisation for solos and so on, it will build strong foundations that will help make it much easier in the future. For now, we’re sticking to being rhythm guitarists anyway.
Step 2 – Learn the Note Names of the E and A Strings
For total beginners, you may have noticed that there are six strings on your guitar. From the lowest sounding string to the highest sounding string, the notes progress as follows: E A D G B E. It is often written on guitar tablature (a form of notation using numbers and often abbreviated to ‘TAB’ – find out more here) as follows:
Learning the note names from fret 0 to fret 12 (exactly an octave higher than fret 0) on the E and the A string is often overlooked, but vitally important exercise. The knowledge of these strings will enable you to play almost any song in any key with only a handful of chords under your belt. We’ll look more at this later.
What’s more, by knowing the note names of the E and the A string, you can very easily learn the note names of every other string. Skip this part if you aren’t interested (as it’s not relevant to acoustic guitarists just yet) or already know about this.
Every note name on the guitar with ease:
Same as the E string when played two frets higher. Eg, E fret 3 is G. D fret 5 is also G.
Same as the A string when played two frets higher. Eg, A fret 3 is C. G fret 5 is also C.
Same as the A string when played two frets lower. Eg. A fret 3 is C. B fret 1 is also C.
High E string is obviously the same as low E. It should however be mentioned that whilst these are they same notes on the various strings, they are not always the same octave.
Step 3 – Nine Chords to Rule Them All
If you’ve looked at the music theory notes I mentioned earlier, you’ll know all about keys and the Nashville system. If so, great. If not, don’t worry about it just yet – this part will still be useful but won’t be as useful without that knowledge.
As acoustic guitarists, I personally believe that G and C are the most important keys to learn initially. These keys will allow you to play any song in any key once you’ve learnt the fourth and final step. The links between the two keys mean that there are only nine chords to learn to get going, which makes things much more simple. Start by learning these open chords:
G Am Bm C D Dm Em F F#m
I’m not going to tell you how. Between YouTube and Google, I’m sure you can figure it out! Otherwise, this post would be huge! Don’t tell me it will take you more than two months to learn nine chords!!
Step 4 – Get Capo Capable
This is a capo.
It’s going to be your best friend while you start out. In fact, I’ve been playing guitar for twelve years and it’s still my best friend. Maybe I need more friends.
Essentially, a capo can raise the entire pitch of the guitar so that wherever you place it becomes the new fret 0. This is where your music theory knowledge comes into play…and where all of a sudden, playing guitar gets a whole lot easier.
Our chords in the key of C are:
1 2m 3m 4 5 6m 7m
C Dm Em F G Am Bm
Our chords in the key of G are:
1 2m 3m 4 5 6m 7m
G Am Bm C D Em F#m
*The astute among you will know that chord 7m is technically a diminished chord, but for the sake of ease, we’ll avoid that for now.
Well, this is fine if we’re playing in the key of C or G – we have everything we need. But what if a song is in E? How can we play this song without having to learn a load of new chords? Simply, by following this process.
Using a capo to play in a different key
When we play a G in the key of G, fret 3 on the E string is our root note ( a ‘G’).
When we play a C in the key of C, fret 3 on the A string is our root note. (a ‘C’)
Step 1 – Choose starting chord, move the chord shape to the desired root note
In this example, our G chord shape rests on a G root note on the E string. By moving the whole shape up the fretboard (G#, A, A#, B) we find that the root note of our G chord shape becomes a B at fret 7.
Note: this wouldn’t work in the key of C for this example, as you can only raise the pitch (not lower it) to use a capo.
Step 2 – Place the capo 4 frets lower
If we were to play the chord as it was, it would sound pretty awful. This is because of the open strings. Instead, by placing a capo three frets lower, the chord begins to sound as it should.
Note: think of it as ‘current fret – 3 frets’. In this case:
fret 7-3 = capo on fret 4.
Step 3 – Play in the key of G or C
In this case, we are playing in the key of G. However, although chord 1 is still ‘G’ as far as what we play, the chord that is produced is actually a B. Likewise, chord 2m is still played as an Am, but the chord that is produced is actually a C#m.
This is very easy with the Nashville system as you never look at specific chords – you simply place a capo and play the song as if it was always in G. However, it is good practice to learn the theory as it is very likely that you will be given a chord sheet with the original chords in and have to transpose on the fly. Be prepared to do this!
A few examples for good measure
The same principle applies to the key of C, only using the A string as our reference point (‘ahhhhh, I hear you say’). Let’s look at a few examples using these steps:
Example 1 – Song in the key of E
We would technically use a capo for both G and C, but C wouldn’t be quite so high, which is probably a good thing. We’re not playing the mandolin.
By taking our C shape and moving it up the fretboard (C# D D# E) we find that the root note of our C shape becomes an E at fret 7.
Fret 7-3 = capo on fret 4
Now when we play the song in the key of C, it will actually sound like the key of E. Perfect!
Example 2 – Song in the key of F#
We wouldn’t be able to go high enough to play in the key of G, so we must use the key of C.
By taking our C shape and moving it up the fretboard (C# D D# E F F#) we find that the root note of our C shape becomes an F# at fret 9.
Fret 9-3 = capo on fret 6
Now when we play the song in the key of C, it will actually sound like the key of F#. Fantastic!
Example 2 – Song in the key of D
We could actually play in both C or G here; at this point it becomes personal preference. Perhaps there is another acoustic guitar player lower down the fretboard, so I’m going to choose to go higher up. G it is.
By taking our G shape and moving it up the fretboard (G# A A# B C C# D) we find that the root note of our G shape becomes a D at fret 10.
Fret 10-3 = capo on fret 7
Now when we play the song in the key of G, it will actually sound like the key of D. Glorious!
Now to Practice!
This post, combined with the previous post on music theory should be enough to help you go from total beginner to being competent in a large number of settings. This is by no means exhaustive – you will need to look at strumming, finger-picking and other such aspects on playing the guitar yourself. My intention is not to tell you everything you need to know in one sitting – rather, to equip you with enough skills to be able to play along with (even at a basic level) with almost any of your favourite music. Music is an art, an enjoyable hobby and a gift that should never become a chore. I strongly believe in practice routines, scales and technical development, but only if there is an outlet to truly enjoy what you’re doing too.
I hope that this benefits you; I’d love to hear from you if it does! All the best.