This post is for anyone who has thought about picking up the guitar but hasn’t yet. For those of you who aren’t musicians, becoming one is both more fun and easier than you imagine.
I’m writing this post in the hopes that I can convince 1 or 2 of you to pick up a guitar and start making your own music. Below I describe a basic theory and method for getting started with the guitar that I’ve taught in real life to many friends with success.
Before I picked up the guitar, I was operating under a lot of false assumptions about how difficult it is to become a musician.
- I believed I was too old to start to learn music.
- I believed I had no musical talent and that I wasn’t a “musical” person.
- I thought you needed to learn to read music to play an instrument.
- I believed to overcome these barriers it would take too much time and effort.
I couldn’t have been more wrong on all these assumptions.
If you don’t have musical talent I’ve got good news for you– you don’t need it.
You just need time. Playing guitar is fundamentally about teaching your fingers to do weird things they aren’t used to doing. That’s it. It doesn’t take a genius. It takes some hours. Set aside 10 hours with the guitar and you’ll be playing some great songs. Promise.
I love playing the guitar. When I think of the decisions I’ve made that have changed my life the most, picking up the guitar was one of the most important and meaningful decisions I’ve ever made.
Learning how to play an instrument opens tons of doors:
- A quality and productive way to “unplug” and relax.
- You’ll enter in to a community of musicians who are looking to jam, sing, write, and take over the world– it’s like learning a new language and culture.
- No matter what your race, sex, creed or color you will increase your sexual attractiveness.
- Listening to music will become more enjoyable because you’ll start to pull apart the composition– you’ll begin to understand what is going on. (Eventually you’ll start to make your own).
- And as a bonus… once you learn your first instrument, the next ones get easier.
This post will teach you how to play songs on the guitar in less than 10 hours.
The information you need to play the guitar can be learned in 5-10 minutes. That information consists of 5 finger shapes you must remember. I’ve posted them below. The rest of your 10 hours will be spent teaching your finger muscles to play chord shapes.
For those of you who play guitar, you might have noticed that some of my tasty licks aren’t so tasty. I’m no Stevie Ray Vaughn. You don’t need to be superstar to have tons of fun with this stuff. Despite not being the best guitar player, I’ve played my songs in front of 1000’s of people in live venues, had songs I’ve written and recorded played on San Diego’s leading rock station, and played in some super cool seedy dive bars to drunken hipsters. That’s just a few among a countless other memorable experiences. You don’t need to be a genius– half the battle is just showing up.
Here’s what your 10 hours can look like.
- Minutes 0-30. Read this blog post. All the info is here to get started.
- Minutes 30-60. Practice making the basic 5 shapes. This is probably the hardest part. You gotta put your head down for 30 minutes and remember the chords that are demonstrated below. Once you start getting these shapes down, adding to your portfolio will be easy. You can even experiment with adding and removing fingers– you’ll find a lot of cool sounds here and you’ll continue to discover these for years to come.
- Minutes 60-600. Pick up the guitar everyday for 20 days for 30 minutes or so. You can do this while you do other things like watch TV or chit chat. Get your fingers used to moving around on the fretboard. Start jamming out some John Denver baby. Please do sing along. Eventually try to keep up with tempo of the changes in the actual song. Once you can change your chords on time, focus on improving your “touch” with your right hand. Strum the chords in a way that it adds texture to the recording (if you are playing along with the man himself.)
The shapes you need to remember (the only information you need to get started):
Tips for playing:
- To get good touch in your strumming hand, it’ll take longer than 10 hours. It’s about reps. Try to consider the amount of finesse you are hitting the strings with. Do a little research on palm mutting and other useful strumming techniques. If it sounds nasty at first, that’s cool. Your fingers and wrists will start to adjust. Focus on getting quality sounds out of the guitar.
- With your left hand, fret the strings as close to the frets as possible. This will reduce buzzing and the chords will ring clearer.
- You’ll need to press the strings down firmly to ensure they ring out well. One of the toughest parts for beginners is ensuring you aren’t “muting” the strings that you aren’t fretting (credit natasha at www.dresshead.com). These small touches get programmed in to your fingers after hours of time, so don’t worry too much about it. Just focus on getting the best sound out of your guitar.
- Your fingers will hurt, don’t worry about it too much.
- It’ll feel weird for the first few days. This is normal. At the beginning a G chord feels like it was purpose designed to give you wrist cramps, after a month of playing the guitar it’ll feel like coming home.
Songs you can play along with within 1 hour:
- “Country Roads” by John Denver – Chord Map | Youtube Performance
- “If it Makes You happy” by Sheryl Crow – Chords | Youtube Performance
- “Last Kiss” by Pearl Jam – Chord Map | Youtube Performance
- “Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash – Chord Map | Youtube Performance
- “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” by Bob Dylan – Chord Map | Youtube Performance
- “Margaritaville” by Jimmy Buffett – Chord Map | YouTube Performance (need that A you learned!)
A little faster, perhaps after a week or so of jamming out….
- “Runaround” by Blues Traveler – Chord Map | Youtube Performance (play C instead of Cadd9)
- “Lonesome Johnny Blues” by Cracker – Chord Map | Youtube Performance
- “Accidentally in Love” by Counting Crows – Chord Map | Youtube Performance (notice you’ll need to learn A!)
Ok, I did my 10 hours and I can Play John Denver’s entire catalog. My roommates/family members are going to kill me. What’s next?
- Search popular tablature sites for your favorite songs. Google “your song name + tab.” Tablature is basically easy notations of how to play chords and songs.
- If you want to learn how to strum along to a song Google [song name + ‘chords’], if you want to play the solos and riffs as well, Google [song name + ‘tab’]
- Consider learning to play your favorite artist’s catalog by reviewing tablature sites for their songs and jamming along to youtube. Guitar driven artists are great to learn from. Think Dave Matthews, Jack Johnson, Lucinda Williams, John Mayer, stuff like that.
- I believe if you focus on learning via things you enjoy, like playing some great songs from your favorite artists, you’ll eventually seek to push your knowledge deeper and go for the crazy stuff like learning scales and all that jazz.
- The guitar is a remarkably hackable instrument for a million reasons that will be revealed to you as you spend more time with it. As you go along in your journey you’ll find a million shortcuts and fun ways to learn fast. I’ve rarely heard any of this stuff from guitar teaches, so beware, trust your instincts, and learn from people who can show you where you want to be.
Have fun and let me know if you need more help.
*Update February 2nd, 2017*
Wow! This post really seems to have helped a lot of folks get started with the guitar. It has been read by – I kid you not – millions of aspiring guitarists. Thank you! As many of you have noted in the comments below, no, I’m not selling anything here related to playing the guitar. My motivation to write this post was that musicians, and especially guitar teachers, can often make learning the guitar sound way too hard. It’s actually easy.
Sometimes it’s easier for an outsider to say stuff like that. I know many people in my life have used this simple approach to play the guitar and now, because of this blog post, certainly many hundreds (maybe even thousands!?) more. That’s super cool.
A lot has changed for me since I first wrote this post well over five years ago, but not the guitar’s role in my life. That’s one of the cool things about this skill. It’s like riding a bike. Once you’ve got it, you have it for life.
I wanted to add a few comments regarding the most frequently asked questions I receive about playing the guitar. I’m also going to make a few product recommendations for those of you looking to purchase your first guitar. “What guitar should I buy” is the #1 question I receive from readers.
Question: “Hey Dan, my fingers are really hurting, is there anything I can do about this?
Answer: Not really, except know that you’re sharing that pain with every guitarist who came before you! It’s like a right of passage. If you practice enough, the pain will go away, guaranteed!
Question: “My hands are small and I’m having a tough time making the chords, what can I do?”
There’s plenty of people with small hands who play the guitar. Nine times out of ten smaller people confuse the terrible awkwardness that comes with the first week of playing the guitar and mistakenly think it’s because their hands are small. Again, you’re teaching your hands to do really strange movements here. Imagine going to an advanced yoga class having never stretched before, that’s basically what you’re doing.
I’m a bigger guy and I still had a lot of trouble my first ten hours. All of that said, I do think there is a virtue in a 3/4 scale guitar.
A 3/4 scale guitar is basically a “baby” sized guitar, designed for kids or travelers. I actually have one myself. Why? Because I think they are fun to play and it’s convenient in the small apartment I live in. I also think they are slightly easier to play. So there you go. A complicated answer!
Question: “Is it better to start with an electric or acoustic guitar?”
It doesn’t really matter. What counts most is finding a guitar you’ll want to play. You could base the decision on the type of music you aspire to play. What I was starting out, my motivation was to play Dave Matthews songs, so an acoustic guitar was an obvious choice.
I do think playing an electric guitar is slightly easier but not so much that it’ll matter that much (basically, it’s easier to push the strings down). So the best answer is: the guitar you’ll play the most. Eventually you’ll have both :)
“What is the best guitar to start with?”
I get this question a lot, and the best answer is ‘whatever you got.’ But if you want to get something good I’ll make some recommendations. My first guitar cost less than $50. And that was just fine for me to learn on. Problem? It was a total piece of crap.
So what I’m going to do is recommend guitars that are mid-range and that you can grow with. Although these guitars aren’t that expensive, you could easily play with them in a band and in front of audiences. And as your skill progresses, you won’t be thinking “this thing sucks.”
Acoustic: I recommend a Yamaha solid top acoustic guitar. This guitar plays just as good as some that are many hundreds of dollars more expensive. It can be difficult to manufacture quality acoustics at low prices due to the importance of a solid top finish. When I was in college I scratched together the cash to buy a handmade acoustic guitar that was over $1,000 (I won’t mention the brand) but that guitar was nowhere near as good as this Yamaha.
I actually gave my original Yamaha to a friend and former bandmate, and a few years later when I settled into a new apartment in a new city, I went out and bought the same damn guitar. So yeah. That’s as good a recommendation as I can give. If you want an acoustic, go get the Yamaha.
3/4 Size Acoustic: I also have a 3/4 Scale Guitar in my apartment because they are awesome to sit beside your couch and just pick up easily and jam with. I bought the guitar a few months ago, and when I was playing it a concerned shopper came up to me and reminded me “that’s for kids you know.” I laughed. Fair enough, but I think little guitars are cool to have around the house, so if you do too (or if you have really small hands) perhaps this could be the guitar for you.
Electric guitar: Well the world of electric guitars is in some ways more complex, as there are all kinds of different looks and technologies. And it’s not good enough to just have a guitar, you need to buy an amplifier as well. I will just recommend mid-level stuff that’s worked for me based on my preferences, but if you like “stuff” and collecting gear, you’ll find playing the guitar to be a deeply satisfying hobby :)
So what’s the coolest electric guitar there is? Well, that’s for you to decide. But for me it’s the classic Fender Standard Telecaster (that’s what I’m playing in the video above) or the Fender Standard Stratocaster.
My heart rate just went up 10 beats a minute just looking at these things!
I love love love these guitars. No gimmicks. They are pure class (but are capable of absolute fury!) :) Think a Telecaster can’t rock? Johnny Greenwood respectfully disagrees. Check out Bonnie Raitt using a Strat to lay down some nasty slide licks. SRV nearly tears the strings off his Strat. Would you prefer something a little funkier? Here’s Prince playing the greatest guitar solo of all time on a Telecaster.
One problem, particularly if you are just starting out. They are expensive! So perhaps just something for those of you who know you’re in this for the long haul. But these guitars are the type that you could have for your entire life!
And also remember: it’s not always true that a more expensive guitar is better. I had one “knockoff” brand Stratocaster in high school that to this day is one of the best guitars I’ve ever had. Sadly, it was stolen some years later :( Oh well.
If you like these guitars but don’t have that kind of money, Fender has an “entry” level brand called “Squire.” Now, when I was young Squire guitars were junk, but nowadays they are much much better. I think the entire guitar industry has upped their game. You can see Fender has created a simple “beginner’s” pack here.
Not bad! The only downside to a setup like this is that you’ll start to feel the “limit’s” of the rig, if you play a lot, within the first year. But it’s also affordable so you can’t argue with that!
Now many people are going to ask about other brands, like why don’t I suggest Gibson guitars? It really is a personal taste thing, and it’ll ultimately depend on yours. Perhaps by the style of music you play or the artists you admire. For me, Fender guitars represent the best in quality and feel. Many Gibson style guitars have fatter necks, bigger frets, are heavy, and feel and sound “muddy” to me, whereas the feel of a Stratocaster– light, slender, classic– feels, plays, and looks fast. :)
To rock, you need an amplifier. I personally enjoy anything “Line 6” or “Fender.”
On the high end, you can play gigs with the modern Line 6 Guitar Amplifier (offers many on-board effects), or for a more classic live performance oriented amp you cannot go wrong with the Fender Hot Rod Deluxe. This is the amp I used to play to audiences in my rock and roll days. Your neighbors are going to hate you! :)
If you want something more for in-home use, I’d recommend a smaller amp with on-board effects. For that purpose Line 6’s amps work better than Fender’s in my opinion. This little amp, the Line 6 Spider Classic is killer! And really affordable. It’s great for beginners practicing John Mayer licks in their bedroom.
One other cool thing about electric guitars– you can plug them into your computer and use a program like Apple’s Garageband as an amplifier. You can basically have 100’s of classic sounds available virtually. You can “jam” virtually with your computer and create full-on recordings on your laptop. You’ll just need a “pre-amp,” which is a device that amplifies the signal from your guitar before it sends it to your computer. I’d recommend something like the Focusrite Scarlett
Other stuff you might need:
Probably a guitar tuner. If you have an iPhone, this app is incredible! If you prefer to have a dedicated tuner the KLIQ “UberTuner” will work. As you scan tabs on the internet, you’ll notice a lot of songs require Capos, this one is my favorite. And you might want a guitar stand to show off your axe :)
Do you have other questions about learning to play the guitar? I continue to respond to readers in the comments and occassionally I’ll come back to update this post since, even so many years after I wrote it, it seems that many folks are finding value in it. It’s working! People are playing the guitar :)
Thanks for reading, and rock on.
PS, check out John wail.
PPS, a lot of the links to the product recommendations above will give us a small commission if you purchase through them. That does not influence the price or my recommendations. Here’s the disclosure policy: Tropical MBA is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. Amazon and the Amazon logo are trademarks of Amazon.com, Inc. or its affiliates.