Category Archives: Guitar Basics
One thing that I always say to a new student is “whatever new thing I show you when we get together… you’re not suppose to get it the first day.” I think learning any instrument (or anything at all) requires time. There are probably only a few people in the world who can pick up an instrument and just play it. If you’re one of them, then pin a rose on your nose. 😛
If you’re new to an instrument, whether it’s the guitar or something else, don’t beat yourself up because it doesn’t seem like you’re getting it quick enough. We all learn in our own way and at our own rate. Don’t get discouraged because it’s not sounding the way you expect it to the first day.. or the second day.. or even after a week. And don’t give up. Sometimes, you might know in your mind how it should sound or what you’d like it to sound like but it takes your fingers/hands/body some time to catch up.
When it comes to technique, I don’t believe there’s “right” or wrong” or “good” or “bad”. Although, there is “clean” and “sloppy”. (But then again, maybe sloppy is what you’re going for.) In any case, the point is that everyone’s fingers work differently. What’s important is if the technique is serving you. Does it produce the sound you want? Does it allow you to play at the speed you want? Does it create the feel you want? And, probably most important, does it hurt?
On the other hand, analyzing the details and figuring out what exactly is keeping you from being able to play a certain part or lick is a great practice to have. I think every great musician has to do this one time or another. And once you find that little piece that’s giving you a hard time, just practice that short passage until you get it and then add it to the rest. Or maybe there are a few parts that are difficult. Practice them individually then string them together.
But if you don’t have that kind of time or just don’t want to spend the time, maybe the situation you’re in doesn’t really require you to play something exactly the way you’re thinking. For guitarists, maybe it doesn’t have to be that particular position or that particular lick. Sometimes it might be (more) appropriate to ask the question “this person played it this way to make this particular expression, how would I play this to express the same thing or something similar?”
But whatever you do, don’t beat yourself up over it. It’s not worth it.
Alright, so let’s see how we can put all this theory to practical use!
You might notice that we only looked at a few chords in the Basics section. Now, let’s get into barre chords.
So… by learning 4 shapes (E, Em, A, Am), remembering where the notes are on 2 strings, and applying a little bit of theory, you can now play all major and minor chords in 2 positions! Cool huh?
If you are a beginner and you’ve looked through the first few lessons, hopefully at this point you’ve memorized a few of the chord shapes. Holding chords and notes are basically left hand technique (if you’re a right-handed player like most).
Tip for Left-Hand
One of the things I often forget to point out is that even though you learned to hold the chords one finger at a time, in practice you’d want to fret them all at the same time. You can think of it kind of like putting your fingers into the correct shape and applying or stamping it down on the fretboard.
Now let’s talk about what to do with your right-hand or strumming hand. For this lesson, we’ll assume that you’re using a guitar pick. So let’s look at how to hold the pick.
(Disclaimer – these are not my hands)
This is the way I usually hold the pick. I try to get the pick pointing down almost perfectly perpendicular to the thumb. And I usually allow my other 3 fingers to spread out a little (comfortably). I find that this works well for me when strumming chords and getting the right feel. I also like having my middle finger out ready for tapping.
But I’ve since learned that this is not necessarily the best or recommended way to hold the pick.
It seems that the way most people recommend is to hold curl your fingers back (almost like holding a fist). Again, the pick is held perpendicular to the thumb.
I’ve been using this technique a bit more when I need to play faster licks. The other fingers don’t get in the way as much.
When we talk about strumming, we are talking abot rhythm which would be the “horizontal” or “time” axis.
There will probably be future lessons on how to read music where we’ll talk specifically about whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, etc.
Playing The Beats
For now, let’s just talk about quarter notes. In other words, we’ll take a “measure” (some block of time) and divide it into 4 equal parts. At the start of each part, we’d count: 1, 2, 3, 4.
Let’s call these the “down beats”.
When you first practice, try playing just the down beats using a down stroke (play the strings from top to bottom).
Let’s use this simple progression:
And we’ll repeat this over and over.
So you’ll play:
|E E E E |A A A A | (and repeat)
Once you get the hang of this, try playing the strings while moving your hands up (play strings from bottom to top). This is the up stroke.
In guitar notation, the down stroke is noted by a down arrow head while the up stroke looks like a box without a bottom (or an “n”?).
Let’s split the measure up even further into eighths. But instead of counting 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, we’ll count: 1 n 2 n 3 n 4 n (“n” = “and”). To write this out so that each “n” is associated with a specific beat, you can think of it as:
D U D U D U D U <— D = down stroke, U = up stroke
Now, let’s play a more interesting rhythm. Instead of playing just downs like before, we’ll mix them up like this:
D — D U — U D —
In this case, we’re only playing the beats: 1, 2, 2n, 3n, 4.
If you try to play this with a electronic metronome, set the metronome to 4-beats per measure. Each time it beeps of flashes, it’s the down beat. Some metronomes will beep/flash differently once. I usually use this as the 4th beat (ie “about to change measure!”).
You should find yourself playing down strokes with the first 2 beeps/flashes (1, 2), playing an up stroke between the 2nd and 3rd beep/flash, skipping the 3rd beep/flash, then playing an up stroke before the 4th beep/flash and finally down stroke with the 4th beep/flash. Try to play the up strokes equally between beeps/flashes (otherwise, you’re not playing the “n” beat!).
Right-Hand Technique Tips
Here are some tips for practicing:
- Start Slow — When you first start playing, you might find that it takes you a long time to shift from one chord/shape to the next. The temptation will be to play the 4 beats quick, then change chord slowly, then play the next set of chords quick again. Try not to do this. 🙂 Instead, try to space each strum out evenly. If you have to play slow at first (each measure is taking more time), then do that. In fact, you might want to use a metronome to keep pace.
- Keep Your Hand Moving — Another habit that I see some players get into is not moving their hands during the beats that they don’t play. I find that many players with this habit also have timing problems. The easiest way I find to overcome this is to simple keep your hands moving up and down. In the example above, your hand should move down at each down beat and move up in between. Also, try to move in an even pace. For instance, instead of strumming down and up quickly and waiting, imagine your hand is a pendulum that swings back and forth evenly and smoothly. I’m not sure about everyone else but when I strum, I allow my wrist to move a little.
- Down/Up Exercise — One way to practice is to mute the strings with your left hand and just practice down/up strokes. First, try all downs. Then all ups. Then all downs and ups. Then try any combination you can think of. Once you get the hang of this and you see how each down/up stroke corresponds with a particular beat, then playing any rhythm is only a matter of figuring out which downs/ups to play and which ones to “skip”.
We’re going to use this chart again for C and G.
C Major and G Major
And, again, when you’re practicing these chords, try playing the strings one at a time to make sure the ones that should be ringing are not muted and the ones that should not be ringing are.
Variation on G Major
Here, the D is played on the B string for G. Use your middle finger (2) to hold the low-E string on the 3rd fret, your index finger (1) to hold the A string on the 2nd fret, your ring finger on the B string no the 3rd fret, and your pinky also on the 3rd fret on the high-E string.
You’ll notice that as you switch between these chords, you only need to move your (1) and (2) fingers from holding the low-E and A strings to the A and D strings.
And as mentioned in Part 1, you’ll want to mute the low-E string with your thumb.
A well-known song that uses this is Every Rose Has Its Thorn by Poison. But there are plenty of other examples as well.
Here’s 1st installment of basic chords. We’ll be starting with “open” chords meaning that these chords are played which strings that are opened (“not fretted”).
When practicing holding chords, play strings one at a time and make sure each string rings nicely. If a string is meant to be played, it should not sound muted.
But muting (with your thumb) can be helpful when playing the A (major) and D (major) to keep the low-E string from ringing.
In the top of this chart, the top is showing the particular note being played/held on that string.
The numbers on the side indicate fret number.
X = don’t play
O = open (don’t hold string, play, and let ring)
This chart also shows C (major) and G (major).
* I put “major” in () because it’s implied.
Another way to hold the A, which is my preferred way, is to use just the 1st and 2nd fingers by holding the D and G strings with the 1st finger and the B string with the 2nd finger. I prefer this method because it’s easier to get my fingers where they need to be. Sometimes, depending on the width of the neck, it can be hard to get 3 fingers next to each other on the same fret.
Try to curl your fingers so that the tips of your fingers are holding the strings down. This will help them to not accidentally touch an adjacent string.
Also try placing your thumb lightly/gently on the low-E string to try muting it. This, with combination of practicing playing only the strings you want, will help you avoid playing unwanted notes.