Learn How To Play Guitar

So you want to learn how to play guitar do you? Well congratulations, because in my ever so humble opinion, learning to play the guitar is among the most rewarding things that you can learn. The goal of this article is not to turn you into some kind of overnight rock star, but rather to give you a bit of an introduction to the guitar, give you a couple chords to work on to get started.

But first… a question I come across all too frequently:

Can I Learn How To Play Guitar?

I had the good fortune of learning guitar when I was a teenager; however I’ve found that there are many people out there who are much further along in life, and are now wondering if it is even possible for them to learn at their age.

I’d like to answer that with a resounding YES!

YES! It is possible for you to learn to play guitar, regardless of your age. The oldest student of mine that I’ve heard from was 93… just starting to learn how to play guitar, and LOVING IT! The biggest hindrance to learning how to play guitar, at any age, is the belief that you’re not able to do it. So, if that thought has ever crossed your mind, toss it in the garbage can right now, and let’s move on.

If you’re older, you might not be able to get as far on the guitar as you would have wished, and your fingers may work more slowly than they used to, but nevertheless, I guarantee you that you can still find many hours of enjoyment out of learning to play.

Learning to play the guitar is a life-long process; it will not happen overnight despite what many of the hucksters on the internet may tell you. As such, you are best to develop some reasonable expectations of how quickly you will progress. There will be challenges along the way (yes, your fingers will hurt!) and too many budding guitarists have given up prematurely, slid their brand new guitars under their bed, and walked away in disappointment… not realizing that they were oh-so-close to a breakthrough that would have taken them on to the next level. Having a mindset that allows for setbacks here and there will really help you in the long run, because you will find that through every challenge you come out a stronger player on the other side.

Okay – mindset is important folks! But, mindset alone will never get you playing guitar. So let’s dig in!

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Tuning Your Guitar

I've seen so many guitar lessons where the instructor simply dives right in and begins teaching chords. Unfortunately, that assumes that the student's guitar is already in tune! Guitars are made out of wood, and wood reacts to our environment, be it hot, cold, dry or humid. As such, guitars frequently go out of tune, and they must be tuned to make them sound good. If you begin learning to play guitar on an out of tune guitar, it will not sound good to the ear no matter how hard you try, and as such, it will become discouraging pretty quickly.

When you're holding your guitar in your lap, the smallest string (closest to the ground) is called the first string. If you pluck it, you will hear it has the highest pitch of all six strings. From there,  we move towards the sixth string, which is closest to your face. If you pluck that string, you will hear it has the lowest pitch of the six.

Now pick a string, any string, and pluck it open. Listen to the pitch. Now, press down on the string anywhere along the fretboard. You will hear the pitch of that string is now higher.

Thus, we learn that the terms higher and lower on guitar having nothing to do with physical position, but instead refer to the pitch that is produced by the position. If I say go higher, it doesn't mean move along the strings towards your face, it means increase the pitch.

Ironically though, the highest string is also the first string, thus has the lowest number. Yeah, I know... it's goofy, but it's just something you have to learn quickly and deal with.

The most common tuning for guitar is E A D G B E.  We start with the sixth string here, E, then go to A on the 5th string, and so forth. We call this standard guitar tuning.

You'll need a guitar tuner to help you find the right pitch for each string. The good news is, a decent tuner can be had for $10-$20 these days. You might find my lesson on How To Use A Guitar Tuner helpful.

I recommend tuning your guitar before every single practice session, and if you're playing for a while, double checking it in the middle doesn't hurt either. If you find the guitar goes out of tune very quickly, it might be time for some new strings. 

Guitar Chords For Beginners

Alright, are you ready to learn your first guitar chord? It's called an E minor. There are two basic types of chords you'll come across, major and minor. Major chords don't have anything after them, ie we just call them G, or C, or E etc. For minor chords however, we abbreviate the minor into just 'm' and add that onto the end of the chord. So, Em.

Here's what it looks like:

Now I know you might be confused by this diagram, so let's take a moment to explain it. First off, the top of the diagram corresponds to the nut on your guitar, that's the part where the strings end, farthest from your body. Left to right, the strings are 6,5,4,3,2,1. So as you look at the diagram, the string on the left is actually the 6th string on your guitar, the low E string.

You'll likely be coming across quite a few chord diagrams, so it's worth taking a minute right now to understand them!

The O marks above the strings indicate that you let that string ring out. In some diagrams, you will see an X in that spot instead, which means you need to mute that string and not allow it to ring out as part of the chord.

In this case, Em is a chord that uses all six strings, which is the easiest for beginners anyhow.

Okay, so if the diagram had O’s across the whole thing, then you wouldn’t even have to touch the fretboard at all, you would just strum it. However, this diagram has a couple of other marks on it, and those indicate where we need to place our fingers. In this case, they are on the 2nd fret of the 4th and 5th strings. The frets are the metal parts running perpendicular to your fretboard; they are what the string makes contact with when you press your fingers down. On the diagram, the frets are the horizontal lines. So count up to the second fret, and put your fingers down just behind the fret, like in the diagram.

You’ll want to use your 2nd finger on the 5th string, and your 3rd finger on the 4th string. That’s what the 2 and 3 inside the circles represent.

Don’t worry about how to strum for the time being. For now, simply focus on getting a good clear sound out of every one of your six strings. No buzzing, no dead sounding strings… just a nice clear tone out of each one.

Ok, so have you mastered your Em yet? If not, don’t worry about it, that will come in time. If you want to learn to play guitar, you’ll need plenty of patience, because it is going to take a while.

In the meantime, let’s move on to our next beginner guitar chord, A minor (Am).

The first thing to notice about Am is that you don't play the 6th string! When you see those X's, pay attention, because if you're playing all six strings on a chord that doesn't require it, the sound will be muddy and confused, and it won't be pleasing to the ear.

So put your index finger, that's your first finger (index = 1, middle = 2, ring = 3, pinky = 4) just behind the first fret of the 2nd string, then add your 2nd and 3rd fingers on the 4th and 3rd strings, respectively, just like the diagram.

Now, starting from the 5th string, pluck each string in order making sure to get a good clear sound out of each one. Don't strum or thrash about wildly, as you'll never hear if you have a problem spot. Far better to learn how to make a clear sounding chord, and then learn how to strum. Your playing will improve more quickly that way.

Okay, one more thing to mention here. Did you notice that you used your 2nd and 3rd fingers in basically the same arrangement for both chords? Spotting little things like that can help you make chord transitions easier.

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From your Em chord, move your 2nd and 3rd fingers both down a string and you've got most of your Am chord there already. Another way to go about it would be from the Em, add your 1st finger on the 1st fret of the 2nd string (without strumming) and use it as an anchor point to help guide in your other two fingers for a landing on the right spot.

Practice going back and forth between these two chords. Have you noticed how they sound great together?

While there are in fact a number of songs you can play with simply the Em and Am chords, I know you're going to want a little bit more than just that. If you're still working on those first two chords, that's okay, they might take a bit to get comfortable with. Bookmark this page, work on the chords for a bit, and come back when you're ready for a few more. I'll still be here!

Next up, we're going to take a look at the three major chords in the key of G major.

Adding Some Major Chords

The reason I gave you Em and Am first was because those two chords are among the easiest for a beginner to wrap their fingers around. However, the three chords we’re going to look at now, G, C, and D are all incredibly important chords on the guitar, and together they are the three major chords in the key of G major. If you want to learn to play guitar, you need these chords!

I’m not going to walk through each of these chords individually with you, because you should be able to figure out where to put your fingers by looking at the diagrams. Once you’ve got each chord sounding nice and clear, then you can begin working on changing between the chords. You can switch between all five of these chords in any order you please and they will sound good together. There’s a reason for that, but we won’t get into that just yet.

Tips For Cleaner Sounding Chords

Here are some common reasons you'll end up with muddy sounding chords:

  • Not pressing hard enough on the string can cause the string to buzz where it touches to the fret.
  • Pressing too hard on the string can put the note out of tune. You want to apply just enough pressure that you get a firm contact with the fret.
  • Pressing too close to the fret that your finger is over top of it and deadens the sound of the string.
  • Pressing too far behind the fret can give you a poor connection with the fret.
  • One of your fretting fingers is interfering with another string.

There are many reasons why you might not get a good clear sound, but the short list above should give you a starting point. Also, I’ll stress again: when learning a new chord, pluck each string individually and re-arrange your fingers until every string in the chord rings through nice and clean and bright.

The Next Step

Alright, now you know five chords. But what’s next? How do you keep moving forward and improving on the guitar? If you’ve made it this far, I highly recommend joining my free email newsletter. As my thanks for signing up, I’ll send you a free ebook with all the best chords for a beginner to learn to play guitar with. As well, you’ll receive a free video lesson once a week that will dig into a particular technique or idea on the guitar. It’s tons of fun, and you’ll learn lots along the way! Sign up below…

Free, Customized Guitar Lessons

I'll send you a lesson plan focused on the things you need to be working on right now, based on your current skill. Take the quiz!

Helpful Tips

  • If you are practicing regularly, like you should be (at least once a day) be sure to change your guitar strings once a month. You will be amazed at how much of a difference in sound quality a fresh pack of strings will make. You don’t need super expensive strings. When I was starting out, I got by quite happily on my local music store’s house brand of strings that cost about $4 a pack.
  • Jam with a friend if possible.
  • Don’t cram your whole practice time into one day per week. You’re far better off with a few 10-20 minute sessions during each day than you are with a monster multi-hour session on Saturday!
  • If you’re working on a song, record yourself practicing. Then, listen back and critique yourself. Yes, it is hard to do because you’ll notice ALL your errors, but it is also a tremendously powerful technique that will propel you forward faster.
  • If you find it hard to play your guitar, it probably is. Find a reputable guitar technician and get the guitar setup properly. Something as simple as adjusting the action can make a world of difference to how easily the guitar plays, and as a result, how much you’re going to want to play it!

About the Author

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Jonathan Boettcher's first instrument was the piano, which he quickly rejected. Not because of the instrument, but rather because the teacher didn't make things relevant. Years later, he picked up the guitar in high school (in the 90's), and was blessed with a teacher that made everything relevant and interesting.

Music theory became the means of explaining how music worked, and at the same time, a way of writing new music. Music makes theory fun, and theory explains why music works; thus they are inseparable for any aspiring musician.

Several years ago, Jonathan recognized a lack of good guitar lessons explaining music theory in a simple yet powerful way, and so decided to jump into the mix and add his voice. Since that time he has taught tens of thousands of players how to better understand their instruments through the use of theory. Of course, not all his lessons are just theory, he teaches a lot of 'how-to' stuff as well!

Since that time, Jonathan has continued learning the guitar and bass, playing either whenever there's an opportunity. He teaches both instruments via the internet.

You can find many of his guitar lessons here on PlayGuitar.com, and in addition he also helped found RiffNinja.com, and teaches there as well.

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  1. Wow, you really know your stuff. I didn’t even know there was a G chord. I thought they mean Gee, that’s a nice chord. Unbelivable.

  2. This is hard! I’m 62 recently unemployed, thought I’d try to teach myself the guitar. I feel like my fingers are revolting against me!

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    that is, two decimal places. There is more money chasing comparatively few products otherwise known as “inflation. The idea is to encourage the use of innovative payments throughout Africa.

  4. You reached me on my phone on facebook with your free scale download, but I did not want it on my phone. My computer does not get the same feed so I was not able to download it to my PC where I keep all my other learning data.

  5. Learning guitar is not as difficult as you think but it’s true that you need to know the basics of guitar and music theory. Exploring a wide range of music and transcribing them into guitar is a major part of the learning process.

  6. Tried to sign up for your ebook and newsletter but always ended up back on the same page? (the page with the beginner chords and the ‘Start Now’ button – pressing the start now button just refreshed the same page

  7. Jonathan, you've done a great job by providing a clear and concise introduction to learning how to play guitar. You covered a lot of important topics, including choosing the right guitar, understanding basic guitar chords, and developing good practice habits. I enjoyed my reading.

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