From how to tune a guitar to reading chord diagrams, I’m going to show you the first 4 steps to learning guitar.
Table of Contents
- 1. How to Tune a Guitar
- 2. Guitar Techniques (you NEED to know these!!)
- 3. How to Read Tabs
- 4. How to Read Chord Diagrams
- Guitar Essentials Primer Recap
You’re one step closer to learning the guitar.
You have the guitar, maybe you know a few chords, and perhaps you’ve set some goals for yourself.
All of these things theoretically set you up to start learning how to play guitar.
“But Tony… how hard is it to learn guitar? And how do I actually start playing?”
Fortunately, you’ve come to the right place.
This first part of The Ultimate Guide to Learning Guitar will focus on basic fundamental skills. From tuning the guitar to technique checks, this primer will set you up on the right foot.
Once you finish this section of The Ultimate Guide to Learning Guitar, you’re going to be ready to start playing the blues — but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Are you ready to start learning how to play guitar and learn some guitar fundamentals?
1. How to Tune a Guitar
Learning how to tune a guitar is a guitar fundamental…there’s no doubt about it.
If you don’t learn how to tune a guitar, you’ll be fighting an uphill battle. Whether you’re changing strings or you can’t seem to get one string in tune, this section is here to help you.
One of the first things I recommend is getting a tuner. This is a great place to start learning how to tune a guitar. You might start with an app on your phone, or maybe you’ll have a tuner that has a mic built into it.
Another great option is a clip-on tuner. Brands like Snark have made tuning easy, efficient, and accessible. You simply clip the tuner to your headstock, and within seconds you can tune your guitar.
WAIT… how do I actually tune the guitar?
Guitar Tuning Basics
To talk about this, we need to discuss the concept of pitch.
Pitch can be sharp or flat of an intended note.
A flat pitch falls at a lower frequency than the intended note, while a sharp pitch passes the frequency of the intended note.
As guitarists, we use the gears on the tuning machines to either loosen or tighten the strings. These are the metal mechanical components attached to the headstock. If a string is flat, that means you need to increase string tension.
As you turn the tuning machine, you can hear the sound of the open string get higher. If you turn in the other way, you’ll hear the sound (pitch) of the note get lower.
When you first pick up your guitar, I want you to try playing an open note and turning one of the tuning machines. Get used to how drastically or subtly the pitch will change.
Now that you feel comfortable using the tuning machines, it’s time to use the tuner. Typically a tuner will either tell you you’re sharp or flat or in tune. This is done by showing you the frequency of your string.
Typically the tuner will detect the pitch of the string you’re trying to tune to, and let you know you’re either sharp or flat with a meter that measures the frequency of the string.
What are the Strings’ Names on the Guitar?
There is a short answer and a long answer to this.
The Short Answer:
Starting from the thickest string, the string names are as follows:
This tuning is what a majority of music is performed in. It’s called standard tuning. When you’re learning how to tune a guitar, it’s important to know these string names.
Did you notice that the final E string is written in lowercase? This denotes that it is the high-E string, the thinnest string on your guitar.
Ensure that each of your strings is tuned properly, and don’t be afraid to check your tuning throughout a practice session. Going to a concert, you may notice the musicians tuning the instruments after almost every song!
The Long Answer:
There are a variety of different tunings. Every genre of music utilizes these alternative tunings. However, most music uses standard tuning (the tuning listed above).
Alternate tunings are a great way to experiment with different tones and style of playing. You’d be surprised how fun it is to play in something like open D Minor tuning — and if you’re wondering what open D Minor tuning is, check out this lesson here.
More Ways to Learn How to Tune a Guitar
Once you feel comfortable tuning a guitar with a tuner, I have another method to tell you about.
How To Tune a Guitar by Ear
Learning how to tune a guitar by ear takes practice and patience. If you have experience with other instruments or sing, this might come more quickly.
To tune a guitar by ear, you need to have a reference pitch. This might be off of a piano, an electronic tuner, or someone else’s guitar.
When you hear the reference pitch, you’ll want to find whether the string you want to tune is sharp or flat — relative to the reference pitch.
You can also listen for discrepancies in the two frequencies. This typically sounds like a “wobble” that gets more intense the more out of tune your string is compared to the reference pitch.
Always make sure that your reference pitch is itself in tune. Otherwise, you might have trouble tuning a guitar.
Once you feel comfortable tuning your guitar, go ahead and keep scrolling to find out the next step in learning guitar fundamentals.
Also, I haven’t forgotten about teaching you the blues. I cover that soon — I promise!
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2. Guitar Techniques (you NEED to know these!!)
How to Hold a Guitar
I can’t have a guitar essentials course without covering how to hold a guitar. There are tons of different ways to hold a guitar. I’m going to show you a standard way to hold a guitar.
Learning how to hold a guitar is essential for limiting the strain on your muscles and joints. Once you learn how to hold a guitar properly, you can focus on other guitar essentials.
I, like many guitar players, like sitting down. If you practice frequently, sitting is a great way to get familiar with how to hold a guitar.
Here’s how to hold a guitar while sitting down.
- Keep your back upright and your feet on the floor.
- Place the side of the guitar on your right leg.
- Make sure the back of the guitar is resting against your stomach and chest.
- Keep the neck of the guitar parallel to the floor; do not hold the guitar up with your left hand.
- Use the upper part of your right arm to balance the guitar and keep the neck parallel to the floor.
Feel free to make adjustments. The most important part is that you feel comfortable holding your guitar.
4 Guitar Technique Check-ins
The 4 guitar technique check-ins cover holding the guitar, placement of your fretting hand, placement of your picking hand, and overall tension management. Following these check-ins will make learning the guitar easier while preventing injuries.
Let’s start with the guitar technique check-in that covers holding the guitar.
1. Holding the Guitar
I know I just talked about holding the guitar, but it’s important to check on how you’re holding the guitar regularly. Feel free to go back over the steps above to make sure you’re holding your guitar properly.
How to hold a guitar isn’t just about the guitar and hand placement, though. In addition, pay attention to what your back is doing.
Your back should be upright. Imagine that you’re looking over a fence to talk to your neighbor. You want your spine straight so that your back isn’t feeling heavy.
In addition, you want your shoulders to be free of tension. You don’t want to be crunching or hunching your shoulders. Let your shoulders drop, and keep that back nice and straight.
Even if you’ve been playing for a while, it’s a worthwhile venture to do a check-in on how to hold a guitar frequently.
2. Fretting Hand Technique
Fretting hand technique will focus on whichever hand you use to fret the strings. If you’re right-handed, this will be your left hand (vice-versa if you’re left-handed).
Learning how to fret a guitar properly is important for chords, soloing, and reducing injuries like tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome.
Whether you are fretting with your first, middle, ring, pinky, or all 4 fingers, play with your fingertips. DO NOT use the pads of your fingers! Playing with your fingertips will eliminate fret buzz or the accidental muting of other strings.
When placing your fingertip on a string, always place your finger next to the intended fret. If you’re behind the intended fret, you’ll get a fret buzz. If you’re right on top of the fret, the note will be muted and fuzzy.
Another guitar essential is keeping your fretting fingers arched. What I mean by this is making sure the joints of your fingers aren’t locked out.
Playing with your fingertips will keep an arch in your fretting fingers. In addition, making sure the palm of your fretting hand is close to the neck of the guitar will ensure arched fingers.
When the palm of your fretting hand moves farther away from the guitar, you lose the arch in your fingers. When you lose that arch in your fingers, it’ll be more difficult to learn chords on the guitar, and your tone will suffer.
3. How to Hold a Pick
How to hold a pick is something every guitar player should know. This guitar technique check-in focuses on the picking hand, with special attention given to learning how to hold a pick.
I want you to pretend that you’re holding a TV remote. Make sure that your thumb is ready to change the channel at the commercial break!
From there, place the pick on the pad of your index finger, with the pointy side of the pick facing away from your palm.
Then, secure the pick by placing your thumb on top of the pick — almost like hitting the channel button on your remote!
Congratulations! You have learned how to hold a pick properly! Learning how to hold a pick is a guitar essential that is too often neglected, so I’m glad you were able to learn with me. If you ever forget, just remember the remote control!
Guitar Picking Technique
Guitar picking technique, however, goes beyond just learning how to hold a pick.
When picking individual strings, you don’t want to lunge, you don’t want to thwap, you don’t want to muscle: picking individual strings should take minimal effort.
You are going to be picking individual strings all the time, especially if you want to learn how to flatpick or solo.
If you expend lots of energy picking, you’ll slow yourself down and your muscles will fatigue before you’re mentally ready to take a break.
When picking individual strings, place the pick on the string and simply let the weight of your hand fall. As a result, you should be using too much muscle. Rather, you’ll let gravity do the work for picking individual strings.
You don’t want to strike or pull away from the string. Just let the weight of your hand help the pick follow through the string.
This is just the start of learning how to pick a guitar, so make sure you feel comfortable letting the weight of your hand follow through the string.
4. Tension Management
Guitar essentials courses rarely cover tension management. If not enough attention is given to tension management, you may end up with a chronic injury or strain in your muscles.
Tension creates injury, fuzzy chords, fuzzy notes, and a bad time.
I want you to be as relaxed as possible when holding and playing the guitar. I know there’s a tendency to tense up when you first learn something new. That’s to be expected. The important part is recognizing the tension in your body.
Once you’re aware of the tension, then you can work on relaxing certain parts of your body.
The most common tense areas for guitar players are as follows:
Once you learn to recognize where you hold your tension, it’s important to alleviate the pressure and relax. I promise you, it’ll make all the difference in the world.
3. How to Read Tabs
Learning how to read tabs is critical for learning the guitar. This is doubly true if you can’t read traditional staff notation.
Let’s start by looking at the tablature staff.
You’ll notice that the tablature is organized into 6 lines. Coincidentally, there are also 6 strings on a guitar. Each line on the tab represents a string. Your low E string is at the bottom of the tab. From there, it goes A, D, G, B, and high E.
The next concept in learning how to read tablature is the numbers. Those numbers correspond to the fret that will be held down. For example, you may see a 3 on the bottom line. What does this mean?
It means you’ll hold down the 3rd fret on the low E string. Easy enough, right?
Additional Tab Notations
You may also see stacked numbers. Don’t be alarmed! Stacked numbers in tabs dictate a chord that is being played.
For example, you may see a 3 on the bottom line, a 2 on the second line, and 0 on the third line. Those strings are meant to be played together, or strummed. This is the start of an E major chord…do not worry, we’ll go over more chords later.
Learning how to read tabs isn’t incredibly hard. It’s designed to be intuitive and easy to follow.
As you continue to learn how to read tabs, you might come across slashes, letters, or other notations. These are indicators designed to tell you how to play a certain note. Don’t worry too much about those for now. All I want to give you, for now, are the basics on how to read tabs.
Knowing what you know now, you are ready to look at a piece of tablature and move your fingers in the correct areas.
One final note: it’s always helpful to listen to the music as a reference instead of blindly following the tablature.
4. How to Read Chord Diagrams
When you first start learning guitar, you’ll hear about chords and chord diagrams a ton.
“You gotta learn your chords!”
“Make sure you write out chord diagrams!”
“Learn these essential chords!”
But, what exactly are chords? I went over it briefly in the How to Read Tabs section, but I’ll expand upon how to read chord diagrams here.
As I said earlier, a chord is a series of notes played simultaneously by strumming a guitar. Learning how to play chords is a guitar essential. And, one of the quickest ways to learn how to play chords is by using chord diagrams.
Chord Diagram Anatomy
Like tabs, chord diagrams are designed to make learning how to play chords intuitive. If you learn how to read chord diagrams, you’ll be able to quickly learn new chords.
Chord diagrams typically look like little boxes. These are designed to represent sections on the neck of your guitar.
There are 6 vertical lines which represent the 6 strings on the guitar. Your low E string will be on the farthest left side, while your high E string will be on the farthest right side.
There are also multiple horizontal lines. These lines represent the frets on your guitar’s neck.
You may also notice a thicker horizontal line at the top of the chord diagram. This line represents the nut of your guitar (where the strings are guided into the tuning machines).
Taking this into account, the first line after the thickest line on the chord diagram represents the 1st fret. The second line represents the 2nd fret, and so on.
If you need a quick reminder on how to read a chord diagram, just try holding your guitar vertically. If you look at it head-on, you’ll notice your guitar looks almost identical to a chord diagram. This will help you learn how to read chord diagrams in case you need a refresher.
Chord Diagrams: What are the Dots?
Another key component of learning how to read chord diagrams are dots.
The dots indicate where you’re going to be fretting that string at a certain fret.
In addition to the dots that will be placed on the strings, you’ll see some open circles on top of the thick bar at the top of the chord diagram. These open circles represent open strings, ie. strings that you don’t put a finger on a fret.
You may also see Xs instead of open circles. Xs, indicate that you do not play that string.
I’m going to talk more about chords in a different section of The Ultimate Guide to Learning the Guitar, so don’t worry.
Guitar Essentials Primer Recap
I know this is a lot of information.
And I want you to know this guide isn’t going anywhere. You can bookmark it and revisit it as many times as you want.
The goal for the guitar essentials primer is to give you basic knowledge on how to learn the guitar, so let’s recap what I’ve covered.
I talked about how to tune a guitar and different ways to tune a guitar. Make sure that you feel comfortable tuning your guitar, and don’t be afraid to invest in a clip-on tuner.
From there, I talked about guitar techniques. You learned how to hold a guitar as well as 4 guitar technique check-ins. Always keep in mind where you’re holding your tensions…tension is the enemy!
After that, I covered how to read tabs. I didn’t go too in-depth on this, but I want you to have a basic understanding so that you can go forth and start reading tabs and playing songs.
And finally, I showed you how to read chord diagrams.
Now, you remember how I told you that you could start playing the blues right away?
Well, guess what?
The next section of The Ultimate Guide to Learning Guitar will teach you how to play the blues. If you’re feeling ready and motivated, head on over to the next lesson and start learning the blues today!
If you’re looking to build a consistent, life-long guitar practice, watch this FREE guitar class, where I show you the three secrets to faster guitar learning in 10 minutes a day.