What you need to know to learn to play guitar

PEOPLE WHO WANT TO BE ROCK GUITARISTS will go to Guitar Center and buy an electric guitar, then try to learn from Youtube videos. I highly recommend you learn to play on an acoustic guitar, and, if you have the money, with an instructor. The acoustic guitar may seem less sexy, and taking lessons may seem dull, but both are worth your while.

All recommendations aside, it’s important to figure out just why you want to play. Do you want to play like Carlos Santana, or like Django Reinhardt? Do you want to play in a metal band, or do you see yourself as a lead player in a jazz band? I was inspired by Paul Simon, and so I didn’t learn much beyond strumming chords for some time. Fortunately for me, the guitar wasn’t my first instrument, and I already had enough of a grounding in music that learning guitar was more of a mechanical process for me, but I suspect that most people will be learning guitar as their first instrument. With one exception, most of my students were learning guitar as their first instrument.

The basic idea of any musical instrument is to make noises we find pleasing, and one way to do this is to vibrate a string. A vibrating string will produce a note; shorten the length of that string and it’ll make a higher note. When you play a guitar, you pluck the string with your right hand and change the length with your left hand, by pressing a string against a fret, changing the string’s length. (There are guitars for lefties, but if you learn on one of them, it’ll be tough to play any other guitars.) There’s more, including chords, where you fret more than one string at a time.

Photo by Neil Fein

What guitar will you learn on?

The usual dilemma applies: Your first axe should be inexpensive enough that you can afford it; but, if the guitar is terrible, practice will be no fun at all, and you’re more likely to entertain thoughts of giving up.

From the viewpoint of a student, there are two major kinds of guitars: electric and acoustic. Both are fun, both have problems while you’re learning.

To make this even more confusing, acoustic guitars are further divided into two types: Steel-string or “folk” guitars on the one hand, and nylon-string or “classical” guitars on the other; both are good sorts of guitars to learn on. The nylon-string or “classical” guitar requires less strength in your fretting hand, and calluses will take less time to build up on your fingertips. The strings are larger and softer than those on a steel-string guitar, where the strings are more like wires and cables. Classical guitars are designed for more intricate, fiddly playing than folk guitars, and if you have smaller hands, the steel-string “folk” guitar with its narrower fretboard will be easier for you to learn.

My first guitar was a rented classical, and I found it frustrating: they’re not designed for strumming chords. However, I only had it for the two months of lessons I took in summer camp, and I moved to a steel-string Ovation acoustic guitar shortly afterwards.

Photo by Neil Fein

One of the toughest parts of learning how to play guitar is building up strength in your fretting hand. (That’s the hand you’ll use to press the strings down to the fretboard, it’s usually the left hand, and a lot of lefties get a right-handed guitar because they’re more common.) Building up calluses on your fingertips is also very difficult, mostly because there’s no way to rush it; you can only do this by playing, and it takes time. What’s worse is that if you stop for a few days, the calluses start to go away.

While guitar calluses take more time to form when you’re playing an acoustic guitar than they will on an electric, I still recommend learning on an acoustic first for this reason: It’s not difficult to learn to play the electric after having originally learned to play on the acoustic, but the reverse is not true: making the leap from electric to acoustic is more difficult, because you’d have to build up larger guitar calluses. However, if you’re not the sort that rips the band-aid off all at once, you might rethink this advice.

Electric guitars introduce additional elements of complexity, including different pickup combinations, and (on some guitars) additional mechanical elements like the whammy bar (which can cause frustrating tuning problems). A simpler instrument will allow you to concentrate on learning chords and notes rather than learning about pickup combinations and amplifier settings. Also, the amplifier on an electric guitar is really a part of the instrument, and guitar amps can be somewhat complex.

My cousin Rob helped my pick out my first electric guitar, a Gibson with two pickups, five dials, and a pickup selector switch. I plugged it into the Peavey amplifier Rob had recommended; it had a row of dials itself, and I spend endless time fiddling with these dials in a quest for good tone. The most complicated part of my bowl-shaped acoustic Ovation was explaining to my parents just how I’d managed to drop it down the stairs. (My Dad was a really good talker; the store actually did replace it.) You’re more likely to play when all you have to do is pick up the guitar, but having to pick it up, plug it in, and turn on the amp is a roadblock to practicing.

Peavey Amp I
Photo by Marcel Grieder

I also find that. except for very good electric guitars, chords don’t sound as good on an electric guitar. However, there are situations where it may make sense to learn on electric guitar. Do you live in a place where you can’t play a guitar, not even an acoustic? You can learn on an electric guitar with headphones. It’s not ideal, but it works.

Learning on your own versus learning with a teacher or a group:

I learned piano on my own, quitting after a few lessons and pestering my Mom with questions.

Learning an instrument on your own can be frustrating, particularly if it’s your first instrument. It’s certainly possible to learn mostly on your own, particularly if you’re very dedicated and patient. Learning any instrument requires patience and, most importantly, practice.

If you have a particular difficulty, a good instructor will spend more time in that area. A good sign of a bad teacher is when they don’t do this, instead rigidly sticking to a predetermined lesson plan.

When learning on your own, you can go at your own pace, and it’s inexpensive; your costs after getting the guitar are basically internet access fees and time. However, going at your own pace can be a detriment; knowing that you have a lesson on Tuesday is a good impetus to practice before then! If you have a friend who plays guitar well, that friend is a great resource if they have the time and are willing to teach you.

My older cousins and I still like a lot of the same music, and Rob was my unofficial teacher for a few years. Songs by the Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel — those I could figure out on my own. Rob taught me more difficult material, mostly music by Yes and Genesis. If you can’t afford lessons for an extended period of time, consider combining the two approaches: Pay for a few lessons to get you started, then learn on your own. Maybe you’ll want to go back for a few lessons later on, maybe you won’t need them.

When I started learning guitar in the 80’s, you could get a guitar method book and follow it, and there were more involved guitar reference books available: I learned a lot from The Guitar Player Handbook by Ralph Denyer. I still have a copy, and when I was in-between teachers, I learned about the different kinds of guitars, pickups, hardware, and basic maintenance from this book. (According to a review on Amazon, the current edition has some errors. They’re minor, though, and the book is still excellent.)

Takamine guitar strings
Photo by Chloe Fan


The best way to learn guitar is with an acoustic instrument that’s good enough that you’ll like playing it, but within your means. If possible, I suggest learning with a teacher or a group, but there’s no single correct way to do this. While it may not be as pleasurable or as quick, you can learn on any guitar, and completely on your own. There’s a lot available for the new guitarist, and you can learn a lot on your own if you’re diligent.

Whatever you do, remember that you need to put in the time practicing, but playing guitar is supposed to be fun; it won’t take long before it is.

This article started its life as an answer I wrote on Stack Exchange; here’s the original text.


6 thoughts on “What you need to know to learn to play guitar

  1. Thanks for your tips on playing guitar and I agree that it’s best to start with an acoustic guitar. I enjoy my Spanish guitar. At the moment I don’t have a chance to learn with a group though I play when I can to the children I teach. You have written a few topics that I like on your blog. Thanks for sharing.

  2. You probably have a family member who is a great guitarist, you
    might additionally get their aid to be taught a number of chords.
    The reason I waited was because I didn’t like or believe in them, and just don’t like the way they’re done.
    The fret gets closer to the guitar body as you advance counting.

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