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How To Teach Yourself The Guitar

Young Guitarist

The guitar is an instrument that comes with a steep learning curve. It's not immediately easy to get even a few notes to sound good, unlike, say, the piano. There, you press a key and the note is a good as it can sound, but the guitar is more than capable of producing buzzy, muted or otherwise ugly sounds.

The guitar is, however, interesting and fun and rewarding enough as an instrument that it's worth persevering with, as so many have. While many, if not most, get some instruction along the way, it is possible to learn to play the guitar on your own, and many have. Some self taught players even end up being world class, even while using the less traditional technique they arrived at on their own. A great example is Wes Montgomery's right hand technique. You won't find a guitar teacher that recommends spreading your fingers out on the body, while picking with your thumb, but it clearly didn't hold Wes back.

What is “Self Taught”?

For the purposes of this article, let's assume that someone“self taught” means simply that they didn't hire a teacher. Things can get a little fuzzy otherwise. For example, if you use a book aimed at teaching guitar, does that count? How about if you watch videos online? What if you do none of that, but just try to replicate what you hear other players do? In my opinion, searching for good sources of information on the guitar and music in general, wherever you can find it, is perfectly valid, with or without a teacher.

So, this article won't be a rundown of how to play guitar for beginners, but it's some general advice on how to make progress on the instrument. This is advice that I've given to all of my students, but it's stuff you might not hear if you go it alone.

Learn to Tune

This one is fundamental. No matter how well you're playing, if the guitar is out of tune, it'll sound bad. Changes in temperature and humidity can be enough to alter the tuning of a guitar, so it should be checked each time you pick it up. A string may even go out of tune as you play it, so learning to tune is essential.

A guitar tuner is the obvious place to start. This can be in the form of a pedal you plug an electric guitar into, a clip-on device that attached to the headstock of any guitar, or an app on your phone.

I highly recommend learning to tune by ear. As musicians we need to be able to differentiate between different pitches (notes) just by hearing them. It's a foundational skill to all others.

To do this, use a tuner (or a reference pitch) to tune the low E string (as in the lowest sounding, thickest strings). Once that's in tune, the 5th fret will give you the note of A. A is the pitch you need for the adjacent open string, so compare the 5th fret of the E string to the open, i.e. unfretted A string. They should sound the same. If not, adjust the tension of the A string until they match. Once they do, you can use the 5th fret of the A string to tune the next string, which is D, and so on.

Note that the 2nd string (as in the thinnest-but-one string... the thinnest string gets reffered to as the 1st string, the thickest as the 6th string) needs to be tuned to the 4th fret of the 3rd string, whereas all other strings are tuned to the 5th fret of the string below.

Take Manageable Bites

Again, the guitar is a tricky thing to wrestle with initially, so go easy on yourself to begin with. You got to walk before you can run, and you've got to crawl before you can walk. Nobody's an exception to that.

Look up 'open chords' for the guitar and get those under your fingers. These form the basis of literally millions of songs and are a solid foundation for every player.

To work on the left hand, hold down one of these chords and work on strumming down and up, in time (more on that later). Even if you want to end up playing a style that doesn't make much use of open chords and strums, this is the best way to start getting your limbs to cooperate and work together. You can then apply that basic skill to other styles and techniques.


You could say that music is made of 4 main components: rhythm (when the notes are played and for how long), pitch (the specific notes played), dynamics (how loud or soft they're played) and timbre (the tone or character of the sound). Personally, I'd put them in that order of importance too. If you can play all the right notes but your timing is off, it sounds worse than if your rhythm is great, but you get notes wrong.

So, right from the start, get used to practising along with either a metronome, or a steady drum track (search for something like “simple straight beat drum track on youtube).

Even when you're not playing the guitar, when you're listening to music, get into the habit of tapping your foot along to the beat. You want this action to become subconscious and automatic, such that you can do it when you're playing the guitar, without any extra concentration. This will develop your internal sense of time, and you can become your own metronome.

Whatever you're working on, even if it's just changing from one chord to another, always have a steady pulse playing (either through some speakers via a metronome or drum track, or just in your head if you've developed a good sense of time). You don't have to be actively strumming the whole time, but just keep track of that beat.

Little and Often

When it comes to practising, more is more. However, few people have got the time and dedication to be grinding away at it 8 hours a day. I certainly didn't.

Short bursts of focused work pay off in a big way. For example, if you're finding it hard to go from a G major chord to C major, set a timer for 10 minutes and strum each chord once, back and forth until the time is up. After such a short period of time, you might be impressed with the progress you've made.

Have a break, pick another small task (or continue with the one you just did), and do another 10 minutes. Apply this idea of short, focused bursts to anything you're having trouble executing. All we're doing is training our fingers and hands to do what we want them to. Once they can, it'll be locked in. Just like riding a bike, as they say.

Taking Away Hurdles

When we're motivated to play the guitar, it's important to remove as many hurdles between that feeling and actually sitting down and doing it. My advice here is to keep your guitar readily available on a stand or a wall hanger, rather than stored away in a case. Similarly, have anything else you need to get going easily to hand. For example if you're playing electric guitar, leave the amp plugged in and a cable and pick nearby. If you're anything like me, the smallest barrier can be enough to distract me from whatever I'm supposed to be doing.

The Advantages of Having Lessons

While it's perfectly possible to learn to play the guitar without having guitar lessons, there are certainly advantages to having a guitar teacher guide you. Having a weekly lesson provides a goal and a time frame that will focus your efforts. A tutor will be able to not only give you good information, but point out when you're accidentally making mistakes, or otherwise making life hard for yourself. A tutor is not only someone you can ask questions of, but also someone to provide feedback on your playing.

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