Guitar Beginners - Your First Lesson


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It’s not always easy to know where to start when you first pick up the guitar. In thirty years of teaching privately, I’ve tried many approaches and seen many others applied by other teachers. Over time, I’ve learned that the most effective way to get started is to keep it simple while at the same time playing real music as quickly as possible. There are two parts of this balance: the material needs to be challenging enough to be engaging, but not so difficult that it’s discouraging. Most people who start lessons and don’t stay with them get stuck in one trap or the other.

It’s a good idea to keep your expectations modest, especially in the beginning. People learn at their own pace, and you don’t know what yours is until you get into it. So it’s best to start simply, knowing that you can pick up the pace any time. Step one is just to make friends with the guitar, to get comfortable with it and to enjoy making sounds on it. That’s where everyone started, and those sounds will grow as you do.

So with that in mind, this weekend we’re going to look at three simple things to get you started. First getting the fingers on the strings with simple melody, then a picking pattern, and finally a pair of useful common chords. The best part is, most of this won’t require more than one finger at a time to make it sound like real music!

The Basics of Tabs

First thing you’ll need to understand is the notation. Now, not everyone who plays reads music, and lots of great players don’t. But it really helps to have a map to follow. Fortunately we have a simple alternative, called tablature or “tab.” Here is a blank tab staff:

Blank Tablature

You’re looking at a picture of the guitar neck, with the six horizontal lines representing the six strings. If you were holding your guitar flat on your lap with the strings up, the 6th string (the thickest string) would be closest to you. On the tab staff, this string is the bottom line, and the headstock of the guitar would be to the left of the staff.

Now look again at your guitar neck and notice the frets, the metal bars that run across the neck. These divide the string up into the individual notes. We refer to them by number, using zero to indicate the open string (a string that is plucked without touching it with the fretting hand). On a tab staff, each number is a note, and the numbers sit on the lines, like this:

Exercise 1

Slow Demonstration

Full Speed Demonstration

Notice the vertical lines across the staff every four notes. These are bar lines and organize the notes into groups of beats called bars or measures.

Now before we start, remember that the bottom line is the 6th string, the thickest and lowest in pitch. That makes the top line the 1st string, the thinnest and highest in pitch. Recognizing the strings on the tab staff is important, so make sure you’re clear on that!

Each measure has four notes all played with a slow, steady beat. We start with the open 1st string played four times: 0 0 0 0. Place your index finger on the 1st string at the 1st fret to play the next measure: 1111. Then place the ring finger on the third fret of the same string and play 3333. Notice how all the numbers are on the same line, so we pluck the same string.

Continue on following the numbers, and notice how we move to the 2nd string at the 6th bar; the numbers move from the top line to the second line. We stay on the 2nd string for the rest of the line. The number 3 tells us to place the ring ringer on the third fret. Play that note four times as indicated, and then place the index finger on the first fret to play the last five notes: 1 1 1 1 1.

Fingers Between the Fret Wires

It is important to recognize that placing your finger “on” the fret actually means placing it in between the frets, but as close to the fret wire as you can. Hold the string down with your fingertip. Let the fingers curl naturally and let the thumb sit lightly on the back of the guitar neck. This should give you enough natural pressure to hold the string down without squeezing. If you’re completely new to guitar, the string might hurt your fingertip a little, but don’t worry. You’ll build up your calluses soon enough!

Now that you’ve got an idea of how to read tabs, let’s try another example. This one is more focused on your picking hand. Take notice of how often we change strings:

Exercise 2

Slow Demonstration

Full Speed Demonstration

Remember, each number represents a note, while each line represents a string. In this example, we’re changing strings with each note, starting with the 6th string or “low E.” Looking closely, you’ll see that we play the same strings in each measure. The 6th, 3rd, 2nd, and 1st. Try it. If you played it right, the notes should sound from low to high.

As we move through the exercise you’ll see that the picking pattern is the same all the way through until we get to the last two bars. But you should also notice that the note on the 2nd string changes. We start with four open strings for two measures, then add the index finger to the first fret of the 2nd string and repeat the picking pattern twice. Then place the middle finger on the second fret of the same string, repeat the picking pattern twice more, and return to the index finger on the first fret. You’ll hear how the changing fingers on that one string create a melody that goes along with the other ringing open strings. At the end, strike the low E string once, let it ring out for a count of 4, and then strike three strings together to form a chord, the strings 3, 2, and 1 played with a single pick stroke.

Cheating Allowed (at first)

You might find it challenging to strike the right strings at first. There’s nothing wrong with resting one of the picking hand fingers on the face of the guitar to stabilize the hand, as long as it doesn’t make it difficult to reach all the strings. The picking hand needs to be able to move from string to string without having to bend or twist the wrist. The hand position should be nice and relaxed. Some people find it works better to rest the palm lightly on the saddle, at the base of the strings. This is acceptable too as long as your hand doesn’t stop the strings from ringing out clearly.

Your First, Simple Chords

Now that we’ve got both hands working, it’s time to take a look at two simple chords. These will require two fingers, placed on two different strings at the same time. Before we play, though, we need to look at how chords are indicated.

We can use tablature to show chords, but there’s an even easier way. When we place the fingers on the neck to form chords, it’s very natural to view these patterns as shapes. So chords are often indicated by diagrams that show the shape as it appears on the guitar neck.

These diagrams are laid out a little differently from tablature. In this case, we’re looking at the guitar neck straight up and down, with the string indicated by the six vertical lines. The low E or 6th string is on the left, the high E or 1st string on the right. Horizontal lines show the frets, and dots or circles are used to show where to place the fingers.

We have two chords in this example, an E minor and an A7. We’re using these two because they’re relatively easy to play, are used often, and have similar fingerings. Notice how the two dots in each diagram appear in the same horizontal box, meaning that the two fingers will sit side by side on the same fret but on two different strings. We’re going to use the middle and ring (2nd and 3rd) fingers for both chords.

To play the E minor, place the middle finger on the second fret of the 5th string, and the ring finger directly beneath it on the second fret of the 4th string. Hold both notes down and swing the picking hand to strike all six strings.

E Minor Chord

E Minor Demonstration

A Minor Chord

A7 Demonstration

A7 and E Minor Demonstration

To play the A7, take the same two fingers and just move them over. Stay on the same fret, but place the middle finger on the 4th string and the ring finger on the 2nd. Notice how the space between the two dots in the diagram indicates the skipped 3rd string. Now swing the picking hand to strike five of the six strings, leaving off the low E.

Frets are Buzzing!

You might find it challenging to get all the notes to ring. Do your best to stay on your fingertips so that you don’t block off other strings, but this isn’t always easy in the beginning. Use the other two exercises to find your comfortable hand position and then try to apply the same basic position to the chords. Remember to keep the fingers as close to the second fret as you can without landing on top of the fret wire.

Start off by memorizing each “shape.” Place the fingers, strum the chord, release the fingers and then place them again. Visualize the shape on the fingerboard so you can see where your fingers are going, and move slowly enough that you can hit the target. Once you’re confident, try switching back and forth between the two chords. Look closely and you’ll see that the actual finger movement is very small! Play the first chord, release the fingers, visualize the second chord, and slowly move to place the fingers on the new shape. Try your best to keep time. Start out with four slow, steady beats for each chord. When building muscle memory speed is your enemy.

Why is this important?

This chord pattern appears in literally hundreds of songs, including “Breathe” by Pink Floyd, “Evil Ways” by Santana, and many others. So these chords are a great place to start, because you’ll be using them often!

If you devote some time to these three exercises this weekend, you’re on your way. Everything you do going forward will build on this simple set of skills. Learning how to place the fret hand fingers, how to strike the right strings, and how to connect one piece to another. You may find that you do best breaking your practice time into segments. Play for 30 minutes or so, put the guitar down, and come back to it later in the day. Many people find it easier to concentrate this way, because you’re coming back to the process fresh each time. If making the notes sound cleanly is a challenge, you may want to have your guitar looked at by a professional to make sure it’s properly playable. Guitars need to be maintained, and the action or height of the strings off the fingerboard is something that makes a big difference in a guitar’s playability. But for most of you, these bite-size pieces should be a manageable start. You’ve just had a taste of the first few lessons of my beginner guitar course on JamPlay! If you’d like to go further, take a look at this lesson that puts the E minor and A7 chords to work with a backing track. Now you’ll really feel like you’re playing real music!

Don't forget that that everyone learns at their own pace, so stick to it no matter what, and have fun!

Your First Song by David Isaacs

Taught by David Isaacs

Learn the E7 minor and Am chords and then immediately put them to use with a simple song. Play along to the provided backing track and feel like you are part of the band...It's only your 4th lesson! Keep up the good work!

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Thanks for reading.

Thanks for reading! Have fun with this weekend and be sure to leave any questions or comments you might have in the comments below!


Dave Isaacs
Nashville Session Musician

Dave Isaacs Nashville Session Musician In a community full of world-class musicians, Dave Isaacs is known around Music City USA as the “Guitar Guru of Music Row”. The New York native has called Nashville home since 2005, and has built a reputation as an ace guitarist and top teacher, mentor, and musical coach. Dave has helped countless aspiring and pro musicians, songwriters, and performers expand their musical knowledge, improve their performance skills, and achieve dynamic new levels of success.

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