The 4 things every beginner guitarist should know
Congratulations! You've made the decision
You’ve decided you want to play guitar. Getting started is simple enough, right? You just need a guitar and you’re good to go. Well what should you learn? How do you learn? A couple of google/youtube searches and you’ll find that there is an overwhelming amount of information out there. It’s difficult to discern from the not so useful, especially when you have no idea what you’re doing.
This is a short yet comprehensive list on the most essential aspects of playing guitar. Everyone has to go through these steps regardless of their goals or preferences. Personally, I teach this to all of my beginner students no matter what. Master these fundamentals and you will have built a solid foundation on which to build on, fail to do so and you’ll find yourself coming back to fill in the gaps (this happened to me!).
How to tune your guitar
This step gets overlooked on a fairly consistent basis. Most people just want to get in there and start playing, which is great, but you need to make sure your instrument is ready to go. I’ve heard students ask, “why doesn’t it sound right?”, they’re making all the right moves yet when they play their instrument something sounds off.
Let’s take a quick look at how a guitar is tuned by discussing a short and simple crash course on music theory.
In music we use a collection of pitches or notes, these are just sounds that every instrument makes. Each note gets a name, for example “C”. There is a note that is called “C”. The musical alphabet goes from “A” through “G”, once you hit the last note you just start again on “A” and keep going. If you’ve ever seen or played a piano you’ll find that each key makes a different sound. Every key gets assigned a note name. If you start on the key that plays “A” and go from left to right you’ll eventually get to another “A”, and so on until you run out of keys.
What does music theory and piano have to do with tuning my guitar?!?!
Well a guitar doesn’t have keys, it has strings, as you’ve probably noticed by now. Each string gets a note name, but these aren’t exactly in sequential order like “A,B,C…” It is up to you, the guitar player to tune your string to the appropriate pitch.
The first step is to learn the notes that each string needs to be tuned to. The 1st string is the thinnest string on your guitar and is found at the bottom. From there you just work your way up to 6. So the 1st string is tuned to E, the 2nd to B, the 3rd to G, the 4th to D, the 5th to A, and the 6th to E. You’ll notice that the 1st and 6th string have the same letter, technically they aren’t the same pitch. Yes they are both E, yet one is higher (1st string) and the other is lower (6th string). These are called octaves, we will cover this on another lesson but for now they will we will just call both of them E.
Again, the first string is the THINNESTS and is found at the bottom of your guitar. ( I know my diagram is upside down, don’t worry about it for now)
Now you need a device that can tell you where your string is actually at. The diagram shows you where they need to be, what note your aiming for, not what note your strings are currently on. Enter the tuner. A tuner can pick up the sound/vibration of individual strings and tell you what note its on. So you have two pieces of information, where your string is at now and where it needs to go. Music moves in two directions, up and down. Next we’ll see how to navigate this.
There are two options for tuners. You can buy a tuner from any old music store or online. Most are clipped on the headstock of your guitar. You pluck a string and the tuner will show you what pitch your string is on now. Here you need to identify if you need to move up or down in pitch. In terms of the musical alphabet, if you need to go forward or backwards in letters. For example. If your 6th string needs to be tuned to “E” and when you check with your tuner it’s on “C”, that means you need to move up, “C,D, and E!”. Music works in circles, you have to know where you are in the circle and then you can decide the direction that you need to move in.
Aside from the charts included in this article I’ve made additional resources available for download. These are for subscribers only. Don’t worry, it’s free of charge if you sign up for my email list. You’ll get access to the charts found on this page as well as the additional ones mentioned previously. You will also gain access to the private facebook group where you can get direct feedback on any aspect of your guitar journey.
Another way to tune is to download an app on your phone. These are a little more intuitive and on some you can bypass the whole music theory thing (although everyone should know that regardless). These virtual tuners use your phone’s microphone to pick up the sound, so when you tune make sure your phone is close enough to the strings. Regardless of interface the way to tune is the same. Identify what pitch your string is currently on and then change it by either going up or down.
How to read Chord charts and Tablature.
This step is not the most glamorous aspect of guitar playing. But if you’re going to be using books, the internet, or even if you’re taking private lessons, often you’ll get written material to help you practice. Usually these involve chord charts and Tablature.
What is a chord anyway?
A chord is any two notes or more that are played simultaneously. However, there are a set of standard chords that everyone needs to learn. To be able to play these chords we need to know where to put our fingers and a chord chart tells us just that.
Remember when I said that your first string is at the bottom of your guitar? Well that piece of information is crucial when it comes to reading chords or Tabs (short for tablature).
On this chart you’ll see that the horizontal lines represent the strings, and the vertical lines represent the frets. The numbers that are on the strings represent the finger that you’re supposed to use. It’s like a simple graph, you need to find the point where your fingers need to be. To do this you need the string number and the fret number. After that you translate that information onto your guitar.
The index finger is one, the middle finger is two, the ring finger is three, and the pinky finger is four. The thumb is placed behind the guitar and does not get a number.
As you can see a chord requires that multiple fingers be placed on the fretboard at the same time.
Remember, a chord is two or more notes played at the same time.
The last step to this is to strum the chord. Either by using a pick or your thumb. Once you’ve placed your fingers on the correct strings/frets, your other hand is going to strum in a downwards motion. The circles and “X’s” on the side of the chord chart tell you which strings you’re supposed to strum. If there is any X next to a string that means it doesn’t get strummed. The “O” indicates the string you should strum from. The “D” chord for example gets strummed from the 4th string down, the 5th and 6th string are not to be touched. To implement this refer to the chart under “Cowboy Chord” below.
The process of reading a chord chart and translating it into music can be a little daunting at the beginning. The more you do it the better you get at it. Eventually you will be able to read a chart and quickly identify where your fingers need to be placed.
Reading TABS is in part similar to reading chord charts, with some differences of course. First, the horizontal lines still represent the strings. As you can see there are no vertical lines. The way to read it is from left to right, one note at the time. The numbers on the strings represent the fret (as opposed to finger numbers as they did on chord charts). If you look this chart, the line on the bottom represents the 6th string and the number one that is drawn on it represents the fret. In turn, it’s telling you to play the note found on the 1st fret and the 6th string. The second note is a two, that means you need to play the note found on the 2nd fret and the 6th string. This is a simple exercise but it’s a good way to get started on TABS, it is also great when it comes to building dexterity.
The process of reading a Tablature/Chord charts and translating it into music can be a little daunting at the beginning. The more you do it the better you get at it. Eventually you will be able to read a chart and quickly identify where your fingers need to be placed.
Now that you’re capable of reading chord you’ll be able to look them up either online or in a book. There are varying levels of difficulty when it comes to chords, there is a general consensus on which set of chords a beginner should learn first. These are called open chords (because they include open strings). I’ve made a list of these for you, go through a few at the time. You’ll get a lot of mileage from these and you’ll be able to play hundreds if not thousands of songs.
Rhythm is a crucial component of music, I would say that it is the most important. Regardless of my personal opinions every guitarist needs to have a good sense of rhythm. To keep it very simple we will identify rhythm as a steady pulse, a steady beat if you will. If you hear a good drummer, he will most likely be playing a steady beat, he helps keep the whole band together. Try to tap a beat at a steady pace. When you do so you create a pulse.
Beyond that we need to group these beats together in order to actually play music. We are going to group our pulse into sections of four beats. Meaning that as your tapping your pulse you are also going to count one, two, three, four, over and over. Here you’ve divided your pulse into “bars”, every bar has four beats. For example, if you count two bars you’ll find that there are eight beats within those two bars. One, two, three, four, one, two, three, four.
On this chart you’ll see that I drew vertical lines to represent the “bars”, and within those I’ve written the beats. The speed of the pulse is going to vary, this component depends on the song you’re playing or the difficulty at which you choose to practice a certain exercise. Generally speaking, faster tends to be harder so always start nice and slow.
In this second chart you can see that I’ve added chords. What this “lead sheet” is telling me now is that each chord needs to be played for no more than four beats. For example, the “D” chord is going to play for one bar, a total of 4 beats. After that comes the “G” chord, that plays for another bar, another total of 4 beats.
The pulse keeps you playing the correct chord for the correct amount of time. Picture a bunch of musicians playing together, when it’s time to switch they will all do so at the same time.
Now here is a question, how many times should you strum for each bar?
The answer is, it depends.
Enter note values. We will learn three different note values, this refers to the duration of each strum or note that you play. Since you have a steady pulse and you’re grouping it to set your bars apart, you need to decide how long each note that you play is going to last. One beat, four bets, two beats.
In this scenario if you strum a chord and its ringing out, then technically you are still playing that chord. Here is a quick breakdown of the note values that we’ll learn today.
Whole notes = 4 beats
Half notes = 2 beats
Quarter notes = 1 beat
Look again at the previous chord chart. The “D” chord is inside one bar. This means it should last no longer than four beats. You can play one whole note, two half notes, or four quarter notes. It’s like filling up a container, we are filling up a space with notes.
If you play a whole note you would strum on beat 1 and let the chord ring out for the remaining 3 beats, this is a total of 4 beats inside the bar.
If you play two half notes you would strum on beat 1 and 3, because each half note lasts for two beats.
If you play quarter notes then you would strum on every single beat.
Your job as a musician is to switch at the correct moment. Take a look, there is a different chord with every bar, meaning you need to switch chords every four beats.
One final piece to the puzzle, you need something to keep a steady beat for you, especially when you’re starting out. If you start counting a steady beat, 1 2 3 4, etc… and you start to play, you might think that you’re keeping a steady beat but the opposite is more likely to be true. You have two options, get a metronome or find a drummer. The second one is easier than you might think.
Option 1: Getting a metronome. A metronome is simply a device that clicks at a perfect pace. You choose the speed and it click without flaw. You can buy an actual metronome or you can find digital ones that are completely free, it’s up to you. If you go with this option you need to sync yourself with the beat. Count 1, 2, 3, 4, along with the click and away you go. The metronome will show you exactly where you’re making a mistake. You might come in too early or too late. Either way it is your best friend, it’s always going to be honest with you.
Option 2: Get a drummer. It’s 2020, there are digital drummers now. What I like to do is to go on Youtube, type drumbeat, and pick a speed, which is measured in bpm (beats per minute). You’ll find videos of drummers playing a steady beat, most of them are counting for you visually on the screen. It’s a great tool for beginners and it’s a little more fun than a metronome.
You might have questions regarding what to do next. If you’re just getting started I wouldn’t worry about it too much. Focus on mastering these four things. Regardless of what kind of music you want to play every guitar player needs to know how to tune his guitar (and understand how it works), be able to read chord charts/TABS, know the fundamental open chords, and to play in time. Once you get that you can start navigating in different directions because you would have built a solid foundation for yourself.
Get in the shed!
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