10 Things Every Beginner Guitarist Needs to Know

Key Points

  • In a post-rock world, playing the guitar is not a one-size-fits-all approach; learn to make it complement the styles of music you like.

  • A beginner guitarist is only as good as the time and effort they put into practicing and learning the guitar.

  • Focus on sculpting your optimal tone. As a beginner guitarist, you are much more likely to stick with it and advance if the sound emitting from your guitar and amplifier matches the desired sound you have in mind.

Beginning to play the guitar is the embarkation of a potential lifelong journey – a fulfilling and rewarding pursuit. There is no right way or wrong way to learn how to play the guitar. Some methods are simply more beneficial than others.

This article is a compendium of suggestions for beginner guitarists that address not only the actual physical process of learning to play but also how to craft the kind of guitar sound you want to create. Employ these tips simultaneously and achieve a more comprehensive understanding of the guitar and an expedited learning process. Part guitar-playing technique, part audio engineering, and part philosophy, here are 10 tips for the beginner guitarist.

Listen to as Many Genres of Music as Possible

Everyone has a slightly different musical preference; it’s as unique as their DNA. Pushing yourself to listen to different genres of music and discovering new and old artists diversify your style of playing and broaden your horizons.

Learning classical guitar is the best way to learn how to play guitar. Classical guitars are sensitive and unforgiving, yet produce the most authentic guitar tone and are the best calisthenics for guitar practice.

Listening to and learning to play jazz frees the ears and hands from the confines of strict music theory.

Playing in a pop band teaches that there really are certain chords and scales everyone emotionally responds to in a similar way.

Learning how to produce hip-hop teaches how the guitar is primarily a rhythmic instrument.

Punk rock teaches that music is freedom.

What Makes the Guitar a Different Instrument

The guitar is a musical instrument like any other. It has vast capabilities and some limitations.

The guitar produces up to six notes simultaneously, second in note capability only behind the keyboard instruments and the harp, which produces up to 10 notes simultaneously: one note per finger.

The guitar is essentially a rhythm instrument with lead capabilities. As such, it must be carefully placed in the sonic space of a mix when recorded with other instruments. Sometimes it sounds good up front in the mix, like in a guitar solo or a featured melodic guitar section. Other times, the guitar sounds best when panned off to the side during a verse chord progression designed to move a piece along rhythmically.

Use Technology to Maximize Music Output

Everyone who plays an instrument needs an audio interface and a digital audio workstation (DAW). When you start rolling tape of your practice sessions with the likes of Pro Tools or GarageBand, you have the ability to go back and grab little chord progressions here and there and save them from being forgotten. Sometimes those progressions work with other progressions and you form a song by cutting and pasting pieces together from practice sessions.

By utilizing an interface and DAW, you also have access to thousands of drum loops you can program to get the rhythm part of your project sounding as close as possible to how it sounds in your head. This makes the difference between a flat, lifeless song and a full-on bumping track.

Mastering the capabilities of a DAW not only develops your ear as a musician but also teaches you how to be a music producer. Where to pan the guitar track on the left-to-right stereo spectrum, how to utilize space to form the ultimate sound, or when to use an echo effect or compression on a track: All these become second nature by learning how to proficiently use a DAW.

Write Original Songs

Writing original music is the ultimate goal. Although composing original music is difficult, it’s more rewarding. Playing covers only is bush league.

A singular artistic statement rendered in a song, novel, or painting is the apotheosis of self-actualization. Writing music is a great mental exercise; it forms new connections in the brain – especially through communication between the left and right hemispheres. It’s your way to make a statement about how you see the universe.

Writing original music instills individualistic creativity in how you play all music. You may even find that you have an affinity for some genres of music you thought you disliked! Everyone has a different interpretation of musical genres.

Sometimes producing hybrid styles of certain types of music sound good in unexpected contexts. Take a heavy metal lead riff and layer it over some trapp beats, and it takes on a whole different vibe. Sometimes a simple guitar riff sounds really cool and very catchy with reverb and delay when played over a house or disco beat.

Don't Try to Rock Out

Don't practice or record at excessive volume. Sometimes home studio recordings sound great at the time when played at a loud volume through quality headphones. When you transfer them to your phone and play them in the car, they might not sound as good as they initially did.

If you don't practice at an unnecessarily loud volume, it trains your ear to listen more intently and form a stronger connection to what your hands are doing, thus enabling you to get the maximum potential from them. The most authentic voice you have is usually the quietest one.

Playing at a very loud volume causes ear fatigue more quickly than playing at a reasonable volume, causing you to not hear sounds in the same way as with fresh ears. Also, playing at excessive volumes causes hearing loss and tinnitus, two things that happen as a result of trying too hard to rock out.

If you get used to playing at ear-bleed volumes, you become accustomed to it. Then when you get together with other musicians to jam, they might plug their ears and tell you to turn down your amp. Save yourself the embarrassment and don't try to rock out.

Learn to Play Acoustic Guitar Early On

Even if your ambition is to shred like Eddie Van Halen, learning to play the acoustic guitar well early on helps you get there. The acoustic guitar requires more precision than the electric guitar and more hand strength to play notes and chords. 

Speaking of notes and chords, it’s essential to know how they sound in their purest form, a la acoustic guitar, before playing them on an electric guitar.

Most professionals usually compose solely on acoustic guitar and later make notes about what arrangements they use for the electric guitar parts. Sometimes they get lazy and just record the electric guitar parts on a miked acoustic guitar and dial in a distorted Mesa Boogie electric guitar amp setting in the digital audio workstation. The dirty guitar sounds of The Rolling Stones’ "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and "Street Fighting Man" are acoustic guitars recorded in a way that sounds like overdriven electric guitar inputs.

Another reason to learn to play acoustic early on is that acoustic guitars sound great in alternate tunings. Martin guitars sound best when tuned down a whole step to DGCFAD and then using a capo to play in different keys.

Open Tunings are guitar tunings that form a chord when played. Open G for example tuned DGDBD–forming the root G, major third B, and fifth D–of a G chord. Open D tuning on the guitar is DADF#AD–forming the root D, major third F#, and fifth of a D chord.

Slide guitar technique sounds phenomenal on an acoustic guitar. It has this haunting weepiness about it. Learning to play slide guitar on an acoustic teaches a guitarist how to replicate a vocal melody interestingly and play with greater precision.

Shape Your Unique Tone

As no two people play the guitar in the exact same way, everyone has their own unique sound. Learn to cultivate that sound. Practice is a good way to cultivate that sound. Writing original music is a great way to cultivate that sound. Playing music with others is the best way to cultivate that sound.

Learning how space affects sound opens up new worlds to a beginner musician. The dimensions of an enclosure affect the sound recorded in it. The spatial placement of a microphone on a guitar amp affects the sound recorded. Construct a virtual recording space in a digital audio workstation and hear the difference in which certain frequencies (Hz) get boosted and others are dampened.

Want to have an intimate sound on an acoustic guitar track? A parlor-sized acoustic guitar is an apt way to achieve that. Put a condenser microphone about two or three feet away in a medium sound room and a parlor-sized guitar sounds better than a cello when recorded.

Want to have a wall of soaring sound with a distinctive punch? Stick a 30-watt tube amplifier in a closet, place a dynamic microphone up to a foot away from the speaker, and crank it up.

You don't need a huge guitar amplifier stack to get a massive sound. On the entire first Led Zeppelin album, Jimmy Page used a Fender Telecaster and a 22-watt Supro amp, but it sounds huge! Page knew how to use depth in microphone placement and postproduction tone sculpting to get that booming electric guitar sound.

Electric guitar sounds best when played through an amplifier and recorded with a microphone, not when plugged directly into a recording apparatus. Though technology has made exponential leaps and bounds in making DI guitar sound like the real thing, at the end of the day music is a physical force involving pushing sound around in time; as such, it sounds the best when the source is a vector (guitar) physically pushing sound through a speaker and a microphone captures this force.

By seeking and playing countless different arrangements of guitars, effects pedals, amplifiers, and production tools, you sculpt your unique sound. You may find that your ideal sound is best achieved with Fender Stratocasters, Electro-Harmonix and Boss effects pedals, Vox amplifiers, and a fair amount of compression and reverb added after recording an electric guitar track. This combination creates a punchy sound that still has a vibrant definition to it.

Don't be afraid to experiment; there is no wrong way to go about sculpting your unique sound! It is not a one-size-fits-all equation. Sometimes the right guitar sound is ethereal and transparent and situated in the back of the mix, sometimes it's in-your-face power chords that sound best at the front of the mix with the drums.

Quality is Better Than Quantity

Starting out playing guitar, it’s important to know that practicing for a structured, dedicated 45 minutes is better than noodling around for two hours. Tune up, break out a metronome, and organize a solid practice routine.

Of course, more quality time is better than some quality time. Try to increase dedicated practice time by 15-minute intervals until you reach solid two-hour sessions.

By spending 30 minutes learning and practicing scales and chord progressions at different tempos, 30 minutes messing around listening to recordings of other people's music and trying to figure out the guitar parts, and 30 minutes working on picking, legato, string bending, and all that technical stuff, you have performed a solid all-around practice routine.

Always have an outline for what you want to achieve in a practice session. A bit of preparation directs you to focus on what you need to learn most when practicing.

Seek Out People Who Are Better Musicians Than You

No one wants to come across as a novice, but taking a dose of humility and asking better musicians to jam with them increases your skills more thoroughly than anything else. It teaches you how to play on the beat and how to craft your tone to complement the total sound landscape.

Not only does it improve your timing exponentially by playing with better musicians, it also teaches you to find space for your pockets of expression in the sound mix. No one likes to play with a guitarist who crowds other musicians' sonic space.

If two guitarists play the exact same thing, it often sounds muddy and garbled. That is due to the minutiae of human error and phasing — where the sound comes out of different outputs at fractions of a second of a different rate.

To get around this cluster of middle ground, try playing the same chords but higher or lower on the guitar neck or in inversions; that way you aren't crowding the mix and your part stands out. Or have one player hold down the rhythm guitar part while another focuses on lead riffs and creates a melodic background.

Never Play the Same Song the Same Way

You've formed a band. You've written some songs and learned some cover material. You've rehearsed countless hours and now sound tight as an ensemble. Then you book your first professional gig at a venue and you're going to be performing in front of people who paid money to see and hear you.

Always take a fresh approach to songs; it keeps them new and open to a different approach each time. They’re now living, breathing things, with a lifeforce of their own.

Pay attention to the flow of your setlist and the vibe of the crowd. If you have a fast-tempo song, play it faster to a hyped audience. If you have a slow number after a moderato, maybe even slow it down a couple of beats per minute to emphasize the shift.

Take risks when playing live. Play guitar solos in a slightly different way every time. This keeps you fresh and from becoming complacent with your licks. You may discover new variations upon the themes on-the-spot. In music, these are "happy mistakes." It's when you spontaneously stumble upon the note or chord that you've been searching for.

All Great Journeys Begin With One Step

These 10 tips offer suggestions to help the beginner guitarist make leaps and bounds during the most crucial phase of learning the instrument. Climb ahead of the learning curve and implement these tips simultaneously to achieve maximum progress.

The first two years of learning and playing guitar are the most important. Your dedication and mindfulness during this period shape how your intermediate phase of proficiency goes, which is a good indicator of whether you proceed to master the instrument. The rubber meets the road at the intersection of the metronome and the hand.

In addition to implementing these 10 tips in your exploration of the guitar, seek out as many other tips from professionals and music veterans as possible: watch video tutorials on guitar playing styles, read up on audio engineering techniques, and practice, practice, practice. Practice doesn't make perfect – practice makes permanent.

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