My introduction to guitar was around age 12 or 13 when I won a classical Yamaha guitar from a radio promotion I’d entered. I remember my mother driving me to the radio station to pick it up and then me sitting on my bed in my bedroom wondering what in the world to do with it. Little beknownst to me, or my parents, a classical guitar isn’t what most tweens aspire to play and is quite different from a steel string acoustic guitar most people are familiar with. It has thick nylon strings on a much wider neck, which isn’t suitable for kid’s hands, and produced a plunky sound most people probably associate with Flamenco, or Andres Segovia if that cultured. I was determined to learn it, so my mother signed me up for guitar lessons with a man named Mr. Foley who lived in the next neighborhood, and was around 95 years old and I remember really liked to suck on his dentures and make a distinctly froglike sound. I remember sitting in his bedroom with him and his acoustic guitar, while his wife cooked supper in the kitchen next to the bedroom, strangely, and him writing out musical notes on special musical papers while trying to teach me such popular hits with the teens such as “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore.” I stuck that out longer than anyone should have thanks to my mother being determined not to waste the entire $50 or so she spent on the ten lessons we’d signed up for. I immediately hated the guitar.
I pawned that guitar as soon as I was old enough to do so, but was eventually struck with the desire to learn to play again, hitting my teen years and realizing boys that played guitars attracted pretty girls. I failed to realize the important part, which was that the boys had to play with some proficiency. That was the untold trick. In any case, I managed to get my hands on a steel string guitar, which I probably begged my mother for until blue in the face, and in return, received a bottom of the barrel, piece of junk guitar that sounded awful, even for the 1 second it stayed in tune, and I’m not sure if it ever was put in tune, since tuning it requires at the minimum, a note to tune it to and some knowledge of doing it. Back then, tuning forks were the norm, not even electronic tuners, which can be bought for a few dollars today.
That guitar was also a flop, needless to say. Thinking the problem was that I was thinking acoustic, which was out of style even to Bob Dylan at that time, I soon got my hands on an electric guitar, bought for a small sum from the local pawn shop that I had become acquainted with. Not in the best part of town either, thinking back on it.
I actually managed to learn some chords on that guitar, which I don’t remember the make of, but still have the Crate amp I bought to go with it. I remember the strings getting very rusty very quickly, not surprising considering our proximity to the Atlantic Ocean where everything rusts within minutes. But not having the inclination to or budget to change my strings each week, I eventually sold that guitar for money to buy a surfboard, which was a much more used and enjoyed item during my teen years. Also, I bought a black Fender Squier Bullet electric guitar for about $100, which was the going rate back then for one at an actual music shop, which I graduated to.
I learned more and more on that and even landed a Fender acoustic guitar, which I hated. It was a piece of junk, but I didn’t really know it since I didn’t know much about guitars at the time. It was never properly set up, and the action was terrible, and it didn’t stay in tune, and just wasn’t a quality instrument in any way. I often bought Guitar Player magazines and learned to read tab, and learned to exchange riffs and scanty musical knowledge with friends, but it was still a frustrating experience. And remained so for a long time. I taught myself to play lots of Beatles tunes and riffs from magazines that had tablature. And so it went for a long time. I eventually sold all my guitars and was without one until I received an all-maple Ibanez dreadnaught for a birthday present my sophomore year in college. And I played and had that for a very, very long time until it was broken by a pack of 8 crazy puppies I was looking after who knocked it off its stand and broke the headstock beyond feasible repair. I still have it, however, nested in its case.
I could go on from there about every guitar I’ve owned, but I’ll fast-forward to present day because this post is about “learning to play guitar” not “Michael’s uninteresting collection of guitars over his life.” But hopefully it shows some dedication to the instrument and what a lot of people I think go through before deciding to either part ways with the notion of ever learning to play it, or actually becoming proficient with it, which I believe anyone can do, if they really want to. Especially with the resources available these days, which are light-years ahead of anything imaginable when I was a kid. And what I intend to discuss here.
You don’t need to learn how to read sheet music to play guitar. I’d argue few guitarists actually can, and those that do know it came from a piano or keyboard background before learning the guitar. The guitar is considered a keyboard instrument, and if you hold it the right way you can see why. Your fretting fingers are akin to the string lengths on a piano and your right hand provides the keystrokes, while the body of the guitar acts similar to the construction of a piano. I took a course in college that was “Physics in the Arts” which was sone of the most interesting classes I took. In it, I learned how instruments and sound work, as well as our ears and brains, to process the sounds, and my “thesis” project was demonstrating how guitars produce sound and work, complete with a demonstration of putting sand on a soundboard of a guitar and playing it to the class to watch how it creates different patterns from the vibrations.
But one activity that pays dividends, and is pretty easy, is to learn tablature. Tablature is the visual representation of the guitar fretboard with keys as to where to place your left-hand fingers(or whichever hand you use for fretting) and which fingers to use for plucking, or upward or downward strokes. It also uses some more involved graphics to illustrate bends, slides, pull-ons and offs, harmonics, and other subtle fret-hand techniques you should know. It’s easy to pick up and read, relative to sheet music, however. There are lots and lots of websites and apps that use tablature extensively, which I’ll list below in the TOOLS section.
The biggest help in the last 20+ years has been the adoption of the internet to help people learn to play the guitar. Youtube itself must have millions of videos and billions of hours dedicated to it alone. Guitar manufacturers like Fender have made lessons available to complement their guitar sales. And above all else, there are tons of free videos by people who just like to teach others that have spent no small amount of their own time producing some incredibly-high-quality videos to do just that.
A word of caution: with so much material and so many videos, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with material that isn’t helpful and isn’t structured in a way that’s optimal for a beginner, or anyone, to just jump in and start learning. I’ve spent hours watching (mostly) guys that have thrown up (almost literally) videos that aim to teach you something about becoming proficient playing the guitar. Don’t just jump in.
Finding someone online that teaches songs and artists that you enjoy listening to certainly helps. As I mentioned above, when I began and was forced to learn “Twinkle Twinkle” instead of James Talyor or Jimmy Buffet, I became immediately discouraged. While it’s important to have material you can at least tolerate, I urge you to view learning as something more important than ONLY learning the songs you like. The goal is to play guitar, any artist or song, not just a couple of favorites. It won’t take you long to learn that many of your favorites are composed by using just 3 or so chords, and after you perfect those, you’re on your way.
Two people I’ve found that teach better than anyone else, are on YouTube. The Stitch Method, based in Sarasota, Florida, USA and Paul Davids, from the Netherlands.
Ian Stitch caught my eye because he teaches a lot of the material I love: The Grateful Dead, The Allman Brothers, and others, and really digs down deep in some of their most amazing works. He teaches the theory, which I believe is important. Learning the chords and scales is vital- don’t get me wrong- but the theory and how it all works together is equally important at a near point to learning the basics. Otherwise, you’ll plateau and become disinterested, if not frustrated. I’ve been there. Many times. I’m writing this all out to save you the years I learned by trial and error.
Paul Davids caught my eye because, well, he’s eye-catching. His videos are top-shelf in terms of production value, and every other type of value you can think of. He’s a top-notch educator, knows what he’s teaching backwards and forwards and presents it as if he works for Pixar. His videos are entertaining, well-done, and I can’t say enough good things about them. Everything is meticulous, which is one of the reasons I think I like them, even his hipster appearance is military-level. He’s kind of a perfectionist, as am I.
Fender has done an exceptional job with onboarding people to guitars with their lessons. It’s a marketing initiative called Fender Play. This is a great example of how marketing guitars well can help a business, help an art form, help people create, and generate interest in their products while genuinely teaching people how to play their instruments. It’s a situation where everyone wins.
As mentioned above, videos are a great visual and auditory way to learn. Most internet formats are even interactive so that you can chat and interact with the teachers one on one, in fact, for free. They’ll hold AMA (ask me anything)sessions that can be useful when you hit a snag.
But above that, you can watch your favorite players play their songs and dissect how they’re doing it. If you’re interested in traditional players like Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Dickey Betts, Johnny Marr, or whomever, there is goldmine after goldmine of them playing live where you can watch, pause, rewind and study just how they’re doing it. And if you’re into non-traditional players like the guys on Radiohead, there is still a treasure trove of videos where you can see how they create their sounds and get inside their heads and learn about the gear they use.
This is a video by the awesome and humble Alex Lifeson of Rush teaching how to play the songs he’s helped write, for example:
Or Johnny Marr playing “This Charming Man:”
Or this incredible video which is a talk with Ed O’Brien from Radiohead discussing his approach to playing guitar and his experience. It’s an amazing look into the backstory, and a non-traditional guitarist who’s become a master of his art:
The fact is, if you don’t play consistently and diligently, you’ll never get better. That’s just a fact. With anything. The best players do nothing but play and have spent days locked up in hotel rooms and elsewhere just playing and studying and teaching and learning. Fortunately, practicing the guitar isn’t as hard as, say practicing football or tennis where you need a lot of space and equipment.
The tricks I’ve found to practice – to MAKE yourself practice, even when you don’t feel like it – is to have your instrument available as much as possible. If you work at a desk all day and can do it, keep your guitar right next to you so when you need to take a quick break from work, you can reach over and play a little guitar. It’s great for bouncing between brain hemispheres, if you do a lot of quant work, I’ve found and can take you to another place, even if momentarily, so you can dive back into work refreshed.
Something else that helps immensely, which I’ll discuss next, is keeping your equipment in tip-top shape. It’s no fun to want to play/practice and realize you only have 4 strings because you didn’t feel like replacing that string you broke. Or your strings are dead or even rusty because you don’t keep them fresh and clean. Even trying to keep your guitar in tune at all times is a good idea. It should always be in tune when you play, but it’s just a nice favor to do your future self to tune it up when you can.
Learning open-ended chords, then barre chords, then scales and how they create those chords is the usual way to learn. And it works. But make sure you’re learning the right thing. I learned lots of scales but never how they fit together or formed chords, so I had to go back and un-learn everything ad re-learn it correctly. Music theory is important as well. If you’re serious about being good at playing, I’d advise learning theory as you go and applying it to what you’re learning. And learn to listen to music differently. Pick out the guitar parts and really listen to what’s going on.
Learn to play in-time. There are metronome apps and backing tracks to help with this if you don’t have an actual metronome. But you have to be able to play in a groove or else you’re playing it wrong. Tapping your foot may look goofy to some people but there’s a good reason musicians do it.
Having a guitar you like is essential to learning to play one. I say that as someone who, as discussed in great length above, spent most of his life with the wrong ones. It’s exasperating. They don’t stay in tune, and no matter HOW good you are, you will never sound any good on an out-of-tune guitar. And even when in-tune, it’s not really fulfilling to play on one that just doesn’t sound good. No deep lows or bass you can feel in your chest. No mids at all. O high treble notes that don’t ring and sound tinny or buzzy or just hurt your ears. No good.
There are resources online and apps on your phone these days that do nothing but help pair you up with the right instrument. Price wise, size-wise, intonation-wise, and every other way. Use them. But also be realistic about what a good instrument might cost. While you don’t need a gold-top Les Paul or Taylor Grand Pacific to learn on, I’d plan on getting a guitar you not only can learn on, but will grow into for the intermediate times and beyond. You may find yourself learning pretty fast and wanting to upgrade faster than later. Just be sure to take very, very good care of your instrument, because they aren’t toys. A nice guitar was (mostly these days) handmade and inspected by professionals to provide a consistent, beautiful experience, to the ear, eye, and hand.
There are some pretty good acoustic guitars that can be found these days for $300-$500. $750 can get you a nice used one and $1000 will get you a very nice one indeed, used or new. Keeping it in a hard case is a good idea, and if you live in a humid or dry area, keeping a close eye on the humidity level is another good idea. You don’t want to be taking it from a very humid environment to a very dry one suddenly because it will damage it, no question. Keep your strings clean and wipe them down before and after playing, or even during if you’re really putting in some intense time.
Finger-Ease is a spray and wipe-on product I and many guitarists use for strings, despite the toilet-humor giggles the name often provides. I use Elixir strings because they live a lot longer than others. Keeping the fretboard clean and free from oil and dirt is essential. If you buy a used, or even a new guitar, having it set up by a professional luthier is a good idea. Most mid-size cities will have a couple. Be sure to vet them and know that they have a lot of experience. I use Bill Barney here in Louisville, and I have another guy I haven’t used but plan to in the future since I have the need. Frets become worn with use, and I recently had an electric pickup system installed in a Talyor 414 acoustic. Not a job for an amateur. Even though I’m great with my hands and a very competent woodworker with endless tools available, I resist the urge to work on my guitars myself because they are such delicate, precision, finely-tuned and made pieces of playable art. And I’ve learned the hard way grabbing a wrench and screwdriver and going to town on the truss rod and electronics or tuners of a guitar is the best way to ruin one. Again, the reason I’m writing this is that I’ve done the try-and-fail method so you don’t have to.
Having a travel or parlor-sized guitar to take on the road with you is also a good idea if you can swing it. Camping, or going on trips where you know you’ll have some downtime in the hotel room are great times to get some practice in. You can find nice travel guitars on Facebook Marketplace, eBay, Craigslist, Reverb, and elsewhere. They don’t really pass for the real thing in my experience, and a cheap travel guitar is asking for frustration. Get one of the better travel guitars, like Taylor’s Babys, Martin’s weird shaped travel thing, or one of the other better guitars. Expect to spend about $300-$400 for a new one, and a little less for a used one. Buying a used one with some cosmetic blemishes at a discount is no big deal since they tend to get banged up anyway. Just make sure it hasn’t had a real serious bang-up and has structural damage or is on the edge of falling apart or has been damaged and poorly repaired. I’d personally steer clear of one that’s been repaired at all at this price range since the cost to repair it usually would outweigh the cost of a new one, so it’s probably been done by a novice, rather than a qualified luthier.
I played acoustic guitar exclusively for a loooong time. I love woodworking and can appreciate the work that goes into making a guitar. And I like the organic sounds and simplicity that an acoustic guitar provides. I’ve always liked the sounds stringed instruments make like violins and cellos, and even woodwinds, over brass and percussion. I like the earthiness over the screeching spit-valve blurts, I guess. Personal preference, of course.
Some essential tools for changing strings is a soft piece of leather or cloth, some little wire clippers and a guitar string winder, with a built-in pin puller. The link I just provided is a three in one that goes for less than eight dollars.
Learn to change your strings properly. There’s little worse than excitedly putting new strings on a guitar, working your way up to the high b and e strings, and popping one, without a backup. The reason strings break usually is because there is something up at the nut where the string crosses to be wound that isn’t smooth. Keep the grooves that the strings rest in smooth, and even lubricated if necessary. Check the bridge at the saddle to make sure there’s nothing that might cause a string unnecessary wear down there as well. Then, when changing your strings, make sure you don’t crease them and be sure to insert them into the post and wind them correctly. Here’s a video that shows how. It’s simple but the devil is in the details.
Keep your guitar in tune. You can be the best guitarist in the world but if your instrument is out of tune, you’ll never sound any good. It can’t be overstated. A good guitar should stay in tune but getting it there and making sure it stays there is easy. If you have a good ear you can learn to tune it by ear and by using harmonics and as long as one string is in tune, you can tune the rest around it. But a cheap electronic tuner can save the day and you should have one.
Recently I bought some electric guitars for a diversion. I got a Les Paul, and two Telecasters. Two of my acoustic guitars have pickups installed, a Taylor 414 and a 1977 Guild Bluegrass Jubilee but that doesn’t make them electric guitars, of course. I don’t play gigs or in front of audiences, so I don’t need a lot of equipment, thankfully. I recall going to a friend’s apartment in college who played, and still plays, in a regionally popular band in the South, and nearly every square foot of his place was black boxes housing musical equipment. It was a maze to navigate.
I have a Yamaha THR10C which I’ve written about before on this website and is a great little personal amp. It’s just loud enough, with no buzz or hum, and emulates tube amps perfectly via technology, to use a vague term. It has a built in tuner, 5 memory buttons you can set your favorite settings to, and the ability to play using a number of vintage tube amps within a small box, with carrying case. It recreates the sounds of those amps perfectly and impressively. And if that wasn’t enough, there’s a USB port that lets you pull up an interface to fine tune everything, with about 20 or so preset effects already built in and about 20 more spots where you can save your own. It’s really easy to use. Ports for headphones, an Aux jack for your phone to play along with backing tracks or music, and it even looks cool. My only very minor complaint is that Yamaha decided to put the settings indicators in a dark-colored typeface, on a dark background, so it’s nearly impossible to see where or what you’re doing in dim light. The knobs themselves are clearly marked, but what they point to is invisible. A good reason the THR Editor app is useful.
Another piece of equipment that’s useful is a looper. You can make backing tracks to play along with and entire compositions if you’re clever enough. I have a Boss RC-30, which is great, although I’d admit has a steep learning curve. But there are looping apps you can find on your smartphone and online.
When you begin to get into electric guitar playing, I’m seeing that there’s a rabbit hole to easily go down, which is labeled pedal effects. There are hundreds, if not thousands of pedals out there, and used in conjunction with one another, can absorb a lot of your time. Same with MIDI tinkering. This is where a musician who’s a gearhead is in heaven. There’s no end to the equipment you can try out to get that gnarly sound you’re after. Hopefully, your recording deal gave you a large advance to buy it, because you can also spend a fortune. And you have a lot of time, because this is where you never knew music could get so complicated and complex.