The guitar is, and has always been, a social instrument. In all its forms, it has always been a portable, multi-stringed instrument made for public hearing. Even today, there's nothing better than hanging out with some friends and being able to strum a few songs on the guitar. And if you've just bought your first guitar, then you're in luck: you can play literally hundreds of popular songs by learning just a handful of chords. But playing the guitar is more than just struggling through a half-recognizable version of some song, it also requires good technique. In this section, you will learn the basics of how to hold the guitar, use a pick, and other important fundamental techniques.
Never forget that instruction books are not a replacement for playing with other guitarists, or learning from a teacher, who are excellent sources of information and inspiration.
Also, this section, as with most guitar manuals, is written with right handed players in mind. Left-handed players may simply reverse the instructions as appropriate.
Holding The Guitar
The guitar can be played in many positions, but some positions are clearly more efficient than others. The choice of position is personal, but clear guidelines exist. Some basic considerations in determining a chosen playing position include:
- the physical stability of the instrument
- ensuring the freedom of both hands such that they have thorough access to the instrument and can meet all technical demands without having to support the instrument
- elimination of general muscular tension in the assumed body position. While it is natural for a beginner to experience fatigue in the muscles of his hands and arms, you must be careful to sit straight and not cause damage to your spine and waist. If you do experience pain in those regions it is possible that the position is harmful and must be changed to prevent damage.
Many beginners try and turn the guitar towards themselves, so they can look down at the frets and soundhole. Curling the guitar towards yourself in such a way actually makes it more difficult to fret the strings efficiently, because you have to curl your wrist more. This tension can be harmful. Beginners are also often inclined to put their elbow too high or low, which leads to cramping. Ideally your arm and shoulder should be relaxed.
It may take a beginner several weeks until holding the guitar feels comfortable and natural. By using efficient hand positions and not straining, the muscles in the arm and hands will get stronger. If you ever feel pain you should immediately stop and ascertain the cause of pain before continuing. Sometimes discomfort is due merely to fatigue and a period of rest will be all that is required.
Sit up straight on a chair or stool, with your left foot on a footrest approximately 10-20 cm in height. Place the waist of your guitar on your left thigh. Rest your right forearm on the top front edge of the guitar's lower bout so that it is comfortable and allows you to easily strum the strings over the soundhole. The guitar headstock should approximately be at head level, which corresponds to an inclination of the guitar neck of about 45 degrees. Your left hand should be presented to the guitar neck and fretboard such that the thumb is behind the neck and all three segments of the fingers are forward of the edge of the fingerboard. Shoulders should be level and relaxed, and it helps to be leaning forward slightly. Most people should feel comfortable and able to stay in this position with little effort. If you cannot, something may not be right. As an alternative to using a footstool, you can use some sort of guitar support between your left leg and guitar. This also allows for good alignment of the spine and an efficient playing posture.
With your left hand, put your thumb so that it is behind the second fret. This is the most comfortable area for playing open chords. Your thumb should not extend over the edge of the fretboard and touch the E string.
Many rock performers hold the electric guitar lower than the classical position. The neck is held horizontally, rather than at a 45 degree angle. This allows bends to be more easily achieved and also allow the same hand angle to be maintained when moving up the neck through box positions. playing in extremely high fret positions is also facilatated by this angle as the left hand twist to accommodate playing in the cutaway in a way that would be straining and more difficult in the classical position.
Lapsteel or Hawaiian guitar
With these styles, the guitar is played horizontally, so the frets and strings point upwards. Some skilled players can fret notes and play chords by pressing down on the strings, but more often these guitars are played with a slide.
If you have a guitar strap, available from any guitar store for a few dollars, then you can also learn to play standing. This is useful if you plan on playing in a band. If you have a heavy guitar a broad guitar strap is often more comfortable than a thin strap. To attach a strap, there should be a hole in each end that you can put over two pins, usually fitted on the endblock of the guitar and where the neck meets the body. Many acoustic guitars only have one pin on the end block, and straps must be attached under the strings above the nut on the headstock. However, this sometimes makes it difficult for keep the guitar at an optimum height and can cause shoulder strain. You can usually install a second pin where the neck meets the body, but you should be careful or you might damage (and devalue) your guitar.
With the strap attached to the guitar, sling it so that it hangs around your neck on your left shoulder. You can usually adjust the height of the guitar, but the exact method depends on each strap. The length of the strap depends on your preferences, but you can use the same guidelines in found in the previous section. Some professionals have their guitar hanging down at their knees, and others keep it under their shoulders. Neither of these extremes are recommended for a beginner.
Using the Picking Hand
Please see the Picking and Plucking section for more information.
Much of the "feel" of a guitar style comes from the way the strings are hit. Since there are many different techniques, and often they defy explanation, it is difficult to explain all but the most basic techniques. How a player hits the strings is something they must discover for themselves.
In order to advance with the guitar, it is very important to properly use your picking, or impact hand. This should almost always be your dominant hand, so if you are right handed, you would use your right hand for your picking hand, and vice versa for left handed people. This hand should always be loose, because if it is not, the strings can sound clunky.
Your hand should "float" at a comfortable height above the sound hole, and you should be keeping your wrist straight or slightly bent. You should always be ready for movement in either direction, and your wrist should not touch the strings as you are strumming (unless you are doing some sort of muting technique). You can use your fourth finger to brace against your guitar, but this is considered bad in the long term; this is like a crutch, and you are limiting the potential you can get from practicing with your whole arm. For example, even though the brace will let you pick notes faster, it sometimes limit your ability to play complex rhythms using chords. While it might be good to practice using your fourth finger for a brace sometimes, you will become a better guitar player if you don't brace yourself like that.
It doesn't matter if you are using a pick or just your fingernails, whenever your impact hand hits the strings, the type of hit can be changed based on the tension of your upper finger joints. This is the area to pay attention, because slight variations in pressure and speed can make distinctly different sounds.
The fingers can be used in two main ways, through finger picking or strumming through chords like using a pick. There are several styles of finger picking, such as Travis picking, where you only use the thumb and first finger, and other styles where you use three, four or all five fingers.
Using a Pick
Hold the pick in between your first finger and your thumb. Don't pinch it, hold it firm but loose, with the pick flat in between the side of your first finger and the bottom of your thumb. Your thumb should be in line with the first segment of the first finger, with the pick firmly (but not tightly) between. When you pick, your wrist should be loose, and the main motion comes from your wrist for picking on one string, and you should use the Elbow for crossing strings. Similarly, when you strum, make sure to use your forearm and not your wrist for strength. Your wrist should be loose enough, but controlled, and the power should come from your forearm.
It is helpful to imagine the pick like a small bird between your thumb and finger; you do not want it to fly away, and you do not want to crush it.
Using the Fretboard
The most important things to remember when playing are to keep your hand loose, avoid unnecessary movements and finger spreading, and not to smother the strings. Having good flexibility in your hand is one thing, but trying to reach too far can be exhausting. Keep your fingers tight together, but not cramped. In general, when playing acoustic instruments you should always use the tips of your left hand fingers and not the pads to press the strings. If you use the pads, you risk muffling the sound coming from adjacent strings, which may be required to be heard. The greater sustaining properties of electric guitars often requires that such strings be damped so this rule does not always apply. Ideally your left elbow should be extended from your body, and your left hand should curl in towards your body. Your fingers should be like little hammers hitting down on the strings, and this way you will use the tips to push the strings down into the frets.
Regardless of where you are playing on the fretboard, you always have to make sure that you're pressing down in the best spot to get the best sound. You should always be fretting down the string slightly behind the fret of the note you want to play. Press the string down firmly to the fretboard, close to the metal fret. If the finger is too far away from the fret, then the pressure is not sufficient to press the string down completely on the frets, and the note will buzz. If you are pressing too close to the fret you will sometimes accidentally play a note too high. You'll have to practice to get the right amount of pressure to use and the right distance at which to hold your arm. Be careful on how you hold strings
Please see the Chords section for more information
A chord is defined as three or more different notes sounded at the same time. Ability to play chords is a basic requirement of most guitar music. There are many different types of chords, and each type has its own sound. Other things about the guitar affect how a chord sounds.
Generally, playing chords involve pressing several (and sometimes all) the strings down on the frets. Sometimes this can be very tough for beginners until their muscles develop. Often a beginner will find that when playing a chord, not all the strings are being pressed down properly, and some strings sound dead. It is important to make sure that all the strings ring out, which can be tested by picking up and down a chord, and adjust your fingers when needed. It doesn't matter how fast or loud you can play, if your chords are not fretted properly you will sound terrible.
Some players use their thumbs to play the low E string. They do this by turning their fretting hand slightly out and squeezing the thumb down on the string. Players with long thumbs can play on the low E and A strings. This technique compromises efficient left hand function as the wrist and hand have to undertake significant re-adjustment in order present the thumb to the string in such a manner and then to return the hand to its standard presentation. Additionally the tips of the fingers can no longer be presented vertically to the strings. The technique is not recommended for beginners who wish to maximise their technical abilities.
When a player is first starting out, it is not their ability to make melodies causing problems, it is a lack of skill in their hands. Many people can whistle or hum a melody, but have difficulty translating that to the fretboard. Learning the sound of different intervals between notes takes time and patience.
The best way to learn how to carry a melody on the guitar is simply to keep practicing. Unfortunately there is no secret to being a good player, you simply have to practice and learn for yourself. This is good though, because even if there was some secret, if everyone did the same thing, then all the music would sound the same. For general advice about learning about melody, see the Lead Guitar and Rhythm Guitar page
Coordinating Your Hands
Truly great guitar playing comes from the unison of the left and right hand. Unless both hands are connecting with the strings at the proper time, your playing will sound sloppy.
Now that you have some basic control over the guitar, you're ready to start playing. A good place to begin is by exploring some of the other styles and techniques listed on the main page. The most important thing to remember is that you become a good player by practising properly, and accurately. It is always better to learn and practice a piece slowly, and then increase your speed as your increase your skill and comfort, rather than struggling through it a few times and just considering it "learned".