Find Your First Guitar
To get started, you’ll first need to find yourself a guitar. A lot like buying your first car, you don’t want to get ripped, so here’s some information about getting your first guitar; what type of guitar to start with, places to find your first guitar, and how to know if it’s worth the money.
Should I start with an electric or acoustic guitar?
No matter if you’re happy spending the rest of your guitar playing days strumming Woodie Guthrie songs, or if you’d like to shred some Yngwie Malmsteen on a stratocaster, you should definitely start playing with an acoustic guitar.
All the greats, from Jimi Hendrix, to Yngwie Malmsteen himself, to Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Ace Frehley, Eddie Van Halen.. just about every great guitar player started on acoustic guitar. Of course, that’s not a be-all-end-all reason for you to start on an acoustic guitar—maybe they just didn’t have the means to start on an electric guitar but you do.
A main reason why you’d want to start on an acoustic guitar is precisely because playing an acoustic guitar is harder than an electric guitar! With an acoustic guitar, you’re responsible for your own sound; there’s no relying on an amplifier. That forces you to learn by trial and error, for example, how to fret and pluck your guitar’s strings with the proper technique, which helps your fundamentals and your finger strength.
Then, by the time people who have started on an acoustic guitar switch to an electric guitar (after going through the first learning curve), they’re usually much better off, and have a much stronger foundation of guitar playing ability.
Where can I find my first guitar?
Much like your first car, your first guitar is the one you’ll have to worry the least about specifications and features; you just need a guitar that’s functional enough to start learning on, and you can always reward yourself with a nicer guitar once you’ve worked through the basics.
If you’re lucky, you might have a friend or family member who’s got an old guitar laying around that you can borrow. If not, take some time to scour Amazon for beginner acoustic guitar kits (which you can usually find for $150 or less), check your local classifieds ads, or visit the guitar store, where you could even get some help from the store workers.
For your first guitar, you shouldn’t have to pay more than $150 or $200 to get started. That’s why a great choice are the Amazon beginner guitar starter packs (which come with other supplies you might need), or scalping a nice used guitar deal elsewhere.
How do I buy my first used guitar?
This subsection is for those who are looking to save by buying their first guitar, used. These are just a few tips, so be sure to gather some more intel elsewhere, but you can bear these ideas in mind so you can get the most value from your purchase.
Ensure the action isn’t too high
If you’re combing through the classifieds ads, looking for cheap acoustic guitars near you, the big risk is that the “action” of the guitar is too high.
“Action” is a technical guitar term that measures the height of the guitar strings from the guitar’s neck. Especially with old guitars, the tension of the guitar’s strings over time often causes the neck to bend/bow, which makes the strings' heights relative to the guitar’s neck to become too high and difficult to play. You can fix the bow in the neck by adjusting the guitar’s truss rod, but it’s usually nice to just avoid buying guitars with action that’s more than a couple centimeters high.
Check for cracks
A luthier (the job title of someone who fixes stringed instruments for a living) once told me that, since guitars are made of wood, any cracks can be fixed. With that being said, fixing even a couple cracks can use up an hour or two of a luthier's time, costing you $50 to $100 alone. It’s best to avoid buying a guitar with cracks in the first place.
Keep an eye on the price
Remember that if a used beater guitar’s $80, but it’s in pretty bad shape, it might be better to just pay $130 and get a brand new beginner guitar pack from your guitar shop or Amazon. With that being said, you can always shotgun an array of offers to anyone nearby with beater guitars for sale, and see if you can snag a nice deal. Also, remember you can use sites like Reverb and eBay to understand the going-rates for certain guitars or types of guitars, and use that as a basis for making your offers.
Decide on a method of learning the guitar
You might remember the line from earlier in this guide, “all ways, always,” suggesting that experimenting with many learning methods is better than just one. As you’re looking for your own best way of learning guitar, the only way to find out which is best for you is by testing a bunch of different ways, and leaning into the ones that work best for you.
Ways of Learning Guitar
Here’s a resource dump to help spur your guitar learning. Ideally, these links can start you down some new rabbit holes for exploring.
- Guitar teachers
- In-person private lessons
- Virtual private lessons
- Method books
- Online lessons and courses
- Paid courses (such as Guitar Tricks or UDemy)
- Free courses (such as the Learn Guitars course)
- Playing music with friends and family
- Listening to music
- In concerts
- Watching videos of guitarists online
- Listening to albums with guitarists you like
Learn how to tune the guitar
There are a few different ways you can tune your guitar:
What is Standard Tuning?
There was a cool Youtube video about time zones that relates well to the guitar’s tuning.
The video told in depth how, back in the day, every city’s timezone was tuned to the motions of the sun, so that for example noon was when the sun reached a certain angle to the ground. That posed an issue, since, with every city’s latitude and longitude being different, every city’s time was a bit different, so trains had trouble deciding what their arrival and departure times were. That brought in the idea for “standardized” zones of time - time zones, so everyone knew what was going on.
It’s the same with the guitar’s tuning. The tuning of the guitar’s strings is “standardized”, so that the thickest string is tuned to an “E” note (see in the bottom left-hand-corner below),
If that's a lot to digest, just look at the bottom (thickest string's) notes,
How to Tune Your Guitar Using Relative Tuning
From there, you can actually try a way of tuning the guitar called “relative tuning” where you tune your guitar to Standard Tuning by comparing the strings’ pitches to each other.
The Note Matching Process
In this picture below, the bottom-most, thickest string (the low “E” string), is fretted at your guitar’s 5th fret—that creates an “A” note; this will be called Note One.
Then, on the 5th thickest string (named the "5th string"), there also should be an A note.
Then, since the “A” string plucked open (meaning unfretted) on the 5th string should match Note One (since it’s also an “A” note), you can twist your guitar’s tuning peg for the Open A String (AKA the 5th string) until both notes sound the same.
You can follow this principle to tune your guitar using “relative tuning” for the rest of the strings. Here’s the D string,
Here’s the G string,
Here’s the B string (note how the fretted note is on the 4th fret instead of the 5th like the other pictures),
And finally the High E String,
Other methods of tuning your guitar
There are tons of ways to tune your guitar, and relative tuning is one of them. Beginners actually usually use electronic tuners, rather than starting with relative tuning; they’re both great and have their pros and cons!
Note: the relative tuning method is extremely convenient, but know that it’s not perfect like using an electronic tuner, since it assumes you begin the relative tuning process with a string that’s in tune.
As with the “all ways, always” principle, be sure to look into other methods of tuning the guitar, and dig into other article and videos on the topic. This guide is meant to just give a broad-strokes crash course on these starting topics.
These are other ways you can tune your guitar, with links that can get you started on new rabbit holes to learn more about each one:
- Using an electronic tuner
- Tuning to another instrument (piano, another guitar, keyboard, etc)
- By using natural harmonics on the guitar
Learn how to hold the guitar
In reality, you won’t be convicted for holding the guitar in whatever way feels most comfortable to you — and you can be sure that people have held the guitar with more various techniques than you can imagine — but there are some broad rules of them you can keep in mind.
To learn how to hold the guitar, let’s consult one of the all-time great American guitar players from the 20th century, Mr. John Fahey. In the following few photos, he holds the guitar in the two most common fashions, over the left leg, and over the right leg. As a right-handed player, his left hand holds the guitar’s neck, and his right hand deals with the strummings of the strings.
Over the Left Leg (for Right-Handed Player)
Over the Right Leg (for Right-Handed Player)
Which Way of Holding the Guitar Is More Popular?
You’ll find that most players (if they’re right-handed) lay their guitar over their right thigh, rather than their left, but both ways have pros and cons.
With that being said, you can go your whole way playing guitar with success using either method. It’s like arguing over the interlock versus overlap grip in golf; legends have won majors using both, and it’s mostly just personal preference.
Learn how to fret & pluck notes
Fretting and plucking is being mentioned here for the absolute beginners, but it’s something that anybody who’s played for years upon years can always be reminded about, because fretting and plucking the string really gets to the core of creating a nice sound on the guitar.
How to Fret Notes
The metal bars on your guitar’s neck are the frets. Here’s a diagram that shows your guitar’s: nut, frets, and note names:
As a verb, “to fret” a note means that you press your fingertip onto your guitar’s string, so it’s held against the metal fret; that shortens the vibrational length of the string, which changes the pitch of the string.
Knowing that your finger is what’s helping push the string onto the metal fret, so it cleanly can vibrate with a new vibrational length, it’s physically easier if you fret the string with your fingertip just behind the fret, barely. If your fingertip is too far ahead (on top) of the fret, it muffles the sound; if your fingertip is too far behind, it’s like pushing a door near the hinges—it’s physically harder to do.
Here are a couple demo photos to show how the hand should look,
While this is the “making it hard on yourself”, less correct way of fretting the note,
Do I always have to play with perfect technique?
In playing situations, professional guitarists frequently abandon so-called “ideal” physical technique on the guitar. With that being said, it’s good to practice with the best technique you can, and then feel freer when you play. Usually, “proper” physical technique refers to the most force and movement efficient ways of handling the guitar, whether by fretting or strumming.
Extra Challenge for Fretting Notes
If you feel like jumping ahead, you can challenge yourself to fret one finger per fret; this helps your hand’s reach, improves your dexterity, trains your finger strength, among other great things.
These are the “numbers” assigned to your fingers,
Just as a reminder, here are the ways the strings are referred to; if you hear, “4th string”, know that it’s, for example, the fourth thinnest string on your guitar.
These are frets where you’ll place your fingertips, so that they’ll each cover one of the first four frets,
From there, your hand will look like this,
Plucking the Strings
A big theme of beginner guitar learning is knowing how to manage your fretting hand and plucking hand simultaneously. It’s the same as NBA players doing their fancy dribbling—it’s something they worked on intensely in formative years, but probably not something they have to consciously think about anymore.
About String Plucking
The plucking of the string with your strumming arm is what causes the string to wiggle back and forth and emanate a sound. Just imagining how the string wiggles back and forth, you can imagine that—if you wanted it to ring out louder, you could pluck it harder, or try and make it so there’s as little muffling (or dampening) of the string as possible, to let it ring-out freely.
How the String Actually Rings Out
You might want to know more about how the string actually vibrates to create that sound. In reality, the guitar string is—believe it or not— vibrating at several different frequencies at the same time.
To demonstrate, here are the different natural frequencies of a vibrating string. They’re called modes in physics, or second harmonic, third harmonic and so on:
Does each mode vibrate with the same volume, or amplitude? No, it mostly vibrates on the first mode, and might share 9% of that with Mode 2, and 2% with Mode 3, etc (not actually sure about the physics behind those %s but the takeaway is that it’s the combination of all the modes taken in sum which yields the sound you hear.. that’s why if you loudly pluck your guitar’s string and listen closely, you can hear other “overtones” ringing out.. some of that is the other wave patterns the string is vibrating about, mixing into the overall sound). It’s a bit of a tangent into the basics but might interest the science people out there!
What’s the Best Way to Pluck the String?
There’s no best way to pluck the guitar strings, as long as you use a way that lets the string freely vibrate, with as little muffling as possible, and with the volume that you desire.
The two main ways of stimulating the string to make the sound is via: (1) fingerpicking, and (2) using a plectrum (or pick).
How Does Fingerpicking Work?
While this guide won’t really get into the specifics about fingerpicking, since it’s a tough way for beginners to get started with creating a sound from the guitar, let’s dive into a little bit of it.
Typically, based on how your strumming hand rests over the guitar’s strings and the soundhole, your thumb (if you were to fingerpick) handles the bass string, thumping them away, while your pointer finger (also called your first finger), and middle finger (the second finger) might handle the thinner strings.
There are so many sub-styles of fingerpicking—it would require endless courses on their own, but suffice it to say that within fingerpicking, there are variables like including more fingers (like the 3rd finger and pinky finger for plucking), using fingernails, or even just using the thumb.
How does using a pick work?
You can also pluck your guitar’s string by using a plastic object called a “plectrum” or a “pick”—granted, Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top is well-known for being partial to using Mexican Pesos as his guitar picks.
By holding the pick between your thumb and pointer finger, you can get this plastic object thing to do most of the work in stimulating the string to make a sound.
It’s the most popular method of playing guitar today (in American and American-like societies), and is well-suited as the method for string plucking for beginners; for example, rather than having to think about the independence of your strumming hand’s thumb and fingers (let alone the independence of your left hand and right hand), you can just focus on the up and down motions of your guitar pick.
How to Hold the Guitar Pick
The best way of holding your guitar pick is the way shown in the following photographs. As you can see, the pick is held between the thumb, and the side of your pointer finger’s knuckle.
From there, you can close down your thumb, so it holds the pick snugly in place,
How should I then pluck the string?
You can pluck the guitar string by using both downstrokes and upstrokes.. eventually! For now, practice only using downstrokes on the strings with the pick to make a sound.
Learn how to read tabs
Now that you’ve made it this far in this crash course, learning how to tune your guitar, how to hold your guitar, and make your first sounds, another next step is to familiarize yourself with how to read music for the guitar.
What are guitar tabs?
Guitar tablature is a quick and easy way to write guitar music on paper. The six lines represent your six guitar strings, the top line is your top string on the guitar (thin). The bottom line is then naturally your bottom string on the guitar (thick) .
Numbers are placed on each line, these numbers represent FRET numbers (not finger numbers). For example the tablature below reads, 1st note is played on the 6th string open.
Rhythm and Tabs
Tablature usually doesn't tell you what timing to give each note. Professionally scored tablature is written underneath normal sheet music, if you can understand note values then you can get the timing from the staff music and use the tab for a quick reference on what notes to play.
Is learning traditional sheet music better than tabs?
In terms of the learning curve, learning traditional sheet music probably isn’t better than tabs, for reading music for guitar. Most players will say with confidence that tabs are much easier, even as you grow into being an intermediate or even advanced player.
In fact, you may not already know that (oddly enough) most of the greatest guitar players, hailed today as geniuses, didn’t know how to read traditional sheet music—for example, Jimi Hendrix, Django Reinhardt (who allegedly couldn’t even write his own name), Eddie Van Halen, and others.
As another case, most people you know who play guitar probably can’t read traditional music, but use tabs instead; while they don’t show you the exact rhythm of the notes, you can successfully learn riffs and songs by using tabs in combination with the original recording, for instance, slowed down on Youtube.
With that being said, while tabs are really being pushed here because they’re one of the clear ways of learning the guitar fast, traditional sheet music has been around for centuries for good reason! Rather than choosing a single best way of reading music for guitar, just open yourself up to trying out all ways, always.
Learn how to read musical notation for the guitar
This isn’t meant to sound contradictory, but oddly enough, learning with musical notation can be easier than using tabs for starting out. Who knows, it might gel with you, it might not gel with you, but it doesn’t hurt to get a bit familiar with how to read traditional musical notation!
Does music always have to be played as it’s written?
Musical doesn’t always have to be played as written—that idea of not playing things “as written”, and improvising instead, is the basis of lots of music like jazz and blues.
At the end of the day, music occurs in sound and in time, not on paper. The notes on the page are just attempts by the composer to sketch out what he’s hearing into the standardized musical notation. Composers can always make mistakes with notating rhythm or feels (which are hard to capture on written music), so it’s always a good idea to not just play the notes on the page, but imagine the intent of the composer—the intangibles that couldn’t be captured on paper—and take freedoms if it’s for the good of the music.
How is music notated in traditional notation?
The music staff is made up from five lines and four spaces. The first line starts from the bottom and goes up. The same applies with the spaces. The higher up the staff a dot (note) is placed, the higher the note will sound. The lower on the staff a note is placed, the lower the pitch will be.
This is what music is written on,
This is a treble clef sign, it tells you how to read the staff lines and spaces. As you can see on the diagram below shows the names of the notes on the five lines, they are E, G, B, D and F (this is in no way the same as your string names). There is a saying you can use to remember these notes. (Every Good Boy Deserves Fruit). The names of the notes in the spaces are F, A, C and E (the way to remember this is by spelling FACE).
How a note looks on paper will tell you how long that note is played for. As you can see below, all the notes have different duration values. It is a good idea to understand what each of these notes are called and how long they play for. This will help you understand how music is written. One of the main parts of playing the guitar is having good rhythm and understanding it well. For example, if you were to pick the thin "E" string on the guitar for the duration of a "Whole Note" it would be picked on the 1st beat and stopped at the end of the 4th.
This is called a WHOLE NOTE it is equal to 4 BEATS,
This is called a HALF NOTE, it is equal to 2 BEATS,
This is called a QUARTER NOTE, it is equal to 1 BEAT.
This is called a EIGHTH NOTE, it is equal to HALF A BEAT or TWO EVENLY PLACED NOTES EVERY BEAT.
This is called a SIXTEENTH NOTE, it is equal to a QUARTER OF A BEAT or FOUR EVENLY PLACED NOTES EVERY BEAT.
This is called a THIRTY SECOND NOTE, it is equal to an EIGHTH OF A BEAT or EIGHT EVENLY PLACED NOTES EVERY BEAT.
The note names above are a modern way of describing notes values. Below are more traditional names for the same notes values. It makes more sense to describe timing and note values as basic mathematics (eg: Whole note, Half note and Quarter note, etc) rather than a strange name that is hard to pronounce (eg: Semibreve, Minim and Crotchet, etc).
Also on the table below you can see the equivalent rests values lengths. Rests are the complete opposite to note values. If a whole note is played for 4 beats, then a whole note rest is silent (no note played) for 4 beats.
Below you can see the comparison between all the notes.
- There are two half notes in one whole note
- There are four quarter notes in one whole note
- There are eight eighth notes in one whole note
- There are two quarter notes in one half note
- There are two eighth notes in one quarter note
The arrows show how long the note is played for.
Now that you’ve got a decent basis in how reading music, in the spirit of this “crash-course” let’s see if you could stretch your brain to using the tools from this guide to play your first song!
Learn your first song: Mary Had a Little Lamb
For your first song, you’ll learn how to play Mary Had a Little Lamb! It’s nice learning songs you already know the tune to, since that can help guide your fingers.
Tools You Need
To play this song you have to be able to read the Thin E string & B string.
For a bit of help if you’re stuck, you can watch this video lesson I made for some clues!
Well, in this crash-course guide, I’m crossing my fingers that you might have gone from never having touched a guitar, to playing Mary Had a Little Lamb, all in a few swirls of your scroll-wheel.
Hopefully this served as another way to learn guitar quickly for you. With that being said, it may not be the best way to learn guitar (that’s probably in getting a private guitar teacher), but maybe you can use this among other tools as your springboards to dive a bit deeper into your guitar learning journey.
If you found this free guide helpful then please consider using my affiliate links to experiment with Guitar Tricks, JamPlay, or Fender Play. Paying for those is like paying for a gym membership; you’ll probably be glad you got it if you go, but you’ll be glad you didn’t if you don’t go.
If you liked this style of guitar teaching, then please feel free to use the free beginner guitar lessons that are available on this site. While you now have a nice foundation in knowing how to tune a guitar, read tabs, and pluck the string, among other tidbits, the beginner guitar course gets into greater detail about learning each string, learning chords, and learning more songs.