When professional musicians set aside time to practice or take lessons, it is usually on their primary instrument. But in the world of the working musician, doubling on another instrument every once in a while is common, and there’s few instruments more common than the guitar. I’ve watched many talented musicians pick up the guitar and struggle to get comfortable with the instrument. Because of it’s popularity (and now video games with guitar-shaped controllers), a lot of people think the guitar is an easy instrument to just pick up and play, but I’m afraid that’s not the case. Perhaps it’s the guitar teacher inside of me, or the fact my friends often ask for pointers, but here are the most common guitar tips I give to non-guitarists starting to play guitar.
Holding the Guitar
Whether sitting or standing and using a strap, the guitar should be in roughly the same position. Despite what you see some guitarists in rock bands doing, the guitar is much harder to play when it’s hanging at your knees. Consider the type of music coming out of that guitar before you model your technique after the person holding it!
Note: This article will assume you play the guitar right handed, meaning your left hand pushes down on the strings and your right hand holds the pick or plucks the strings.
Every beginner’s guide to the guitar is going to start out telling you how to hold the instrument. My general advice is to first pretend that you are holding a guitar and pay attention to where your hands, wrists, elbows and arms line up with your body. The guitar should rest comfortably within the natural posture of your body. If it feels wrong, it’s probably wrong.
Tip: Sit down in a comfortable chair, sitting up straight with your shoulders in line with your hips and your knees straight in front of you, relaxed so they are slightly open. Let your left hand hang at your side, completely relaxed. Now bend at the elbow, raise your hand, and rotate your wrist so that your palm is facing nearly up. Your left hand should be almost over your left knee. There should be a slight curve to your fingers and thumb. The neck of the guitar should pass through your hand in this position comfortably. If you were to look down at yourself from a birds-eye view, the guitar will be at an angle, only touching your right leg and the right side of your stomach.
The exact position of your right arm will vary based on the size of the guitar and guitarist. The only advice I can give without seeing you hold the guitar in person is make sure you are not contorting your shoulder or elbow to reach over the top of the guitar. This is especially true for smaller body types playing larger acoustic guitars. To compensate, bring your left elbow forward, pushing the neck a little further from your body so the body of the guitar pivots back under your arm a little more. You’ll have to get used to not being able to see all the strings when you look down.
Universally, the first problem people have is just strumming the guitar in time. When beginners start strumming rhythms on the guitar, the result is a flurry of awkward downstrokes with a few accidental upstrokes tossed in for good measure. I assume this is because our gut reaction to creating rhythm is to hit something–tap our foot, hit a drum, press a piano key, etc. But if you watch a guitar player, you’ll see a constant, steady up and down motion in their strumming arm.
Tip: Think of your right arm as a metronome: Down on the beat, up on the off beat. If you tap your foot, it follows the up and down motion of your toes. The actual rhythm comes from selectively strumming and missing the strings.
That may seem obvious, but I don’t think it comes naturally to anybody. We all know that time and feel are the most important elements of music, so once you get this part down there’s a good chance you’ll be able to set aside the trombone and finally fake your way through “Brown Eyed Girl” on your next wedding gig.
The same concept for keeping time while you strum applies to picking single note lines. Guitarists call this alternate picking–down-strokes on the beat, up-strokes on the off beat. Picking single notes is harder because it requires a smaller and more accurate motion.
Tip: While the strumming motion starts at your elbow, picking should come from the wrist. Imagine your right arm is in a sling because you dislocated your shoulder moving your piano. To shake somebody’s hand, all the motion has to come from your wrist. That’s exactly how it should feel when you’re picking single strings on the guitar.
Tip: To make accurate picking easier, allow your picking hand to make contact somwhere on the guitar as a reference point. I tend to rest the heel of my hand on the bridge of the guitar or allow it to touch the strings I’m not playing. Othertimes I’ll allow my little finger to touch the strings I’m not picking, or the guitar itself. Whatever you do, make sure your hand can still move across the strings, with your reference point changing slightly. Do not anchor your hand in one place. Most importantly, stay relaxed.
Finger picking (Finger style):
Finger picking is exactly as it sounds–plucking the strings with your fingers or fingernails instead of a pick. While it’s most commonly used outside of classical guitar for folk and blues styles of guitar playing, it’s also an easy way to arpeggiate chords in other genres if you have trouble using a pick across multiple strings. The technique for proper finger picking is fairly complex and you might want some one on one instruction from a guitarist, but here’s my advice.
Tip: Start by resting your fingers on the strings you need to play (typically the thumb will be on one of the lower two strings and your pointer, middle, and ring fingers on the middle and treble strings). Then practice moving just one finger at a time. By allowing your other fingers to touch the strings, you’ll keep a reference point to help you control which strings you are plucking.
Tip: Pull your hand up away from the string so the plucking motion starts from your first knuckle–where your finger connects to your hand. Also, allow your wrist to stay relaxed, hanging down as if in the bottom of the handshake motion mentioned earlier. That will feel most awkward at first, but once you get the hang of it you’ll get better tone and more volume from the attack.
Hand, finger, and thumb position:
The biggest mistake made by beginning guitar players is their left hand position. First make sure you are holding the guitar comfortably and correctly as mentioned above. Many times small adjustments to your left hand will instantly make the instrument easier to play. Try to make good left hand positioning a habit early on.
Tip: Keep your fingers rounded! I don’t know of an instrument where keys or valves are ever supposed to be pressed with flat or rigid fingers, and the guitar is no exception. Push down on the strings with the tip of your fingers (you might need to trim your fingernails). If your fingers are nice and rounded, it will actually take less effort to push the strings down and your chords are going to sound a lot better.
Tip: Despite what you see other guitarists doing, keep your thumb behind the neck. Refer to the first exercise in this article where you sit and raise your relaxed left hand up to an imaginary guitar neck. If you do it with a guitar in your lap, you’ll find that your thumb naturally lines up on the back of the neck roughly lined up with your middle finger. Allow it to move up and down the back of the neck to stay behind your fingers. When your thumb is in the right spot, it’s easier to keep your fingers rounded.
Changing from one chord to the next:
If I had a quarter for every time somebody asked me, “How do you change chords so quickly?” I’d have, maybe… $8.75. The short answer is practice, but here are some tips to make practicing more effective.
Tip: When changing from one chord to another, practice repositioning one finger at a time while the rest stay put. Most beginners do the exact opposite and pick up their entire hand and start over, painstakingly mapping out the fretboard before placing their fingers anywhere. By moving one finger at a time, you’ll find that a lot of fingerings for common chord progressions allow at least one finger to stay in the same place, or at least move a minimal amount.
Tip: When fingers aren’t needed in a particular chord voicing, keep them close to the strings. Anticipate the next chord by lining up your fingers over the strings/frets where they will end up. Eventually you can go a step further by using alternate fingerings (ie. substituting your ring finger for your middle finger) to keep the amount of movement to the next chord to a minimum.
Tip: Keep strumming in time, force your left hand to keep up. Don’t be afraid of hitting some open or muted strings while changing chords. This is pretty common for the guitar, sometimes it’s even one of the nuances that make a guitar riff sound so natural. More importantly, you’ll make greater progress in your left hand if you allow the rest of you to move forward in the song.
It’s only a matter of time before you encounter bar chords (or barre chords), and the only way to play them is with practice and build up some left hand strength. I remember struggling with these as a kid and finally having that Eureka! moment when I was finally able to do it. I could finally play the last part of “Stairway to Heaven.” Sigh.
Tip: When barring with your pointer finger, try rolling it slightly on it’s side, towards the thumb. I found this was a little more natural, it allowed me to keep my left hand position intact, and it’s easier to push the stings down with your knuckles this way.
Tip: Loosen up. If you’re playing the “F” bar chord (barring the first fret, voicing an F chord), you only really have to push down the lowest string and the highest two strings. Your other fingers are playing notes on three of the middle strings, so save the energy by focusing the effort on only the strings that matter to the barred finger.
Relax, have fun.
Tip: Tension is symmetrical. If you squeeze too hard with one hand, the other will follow. Relax your entire body, from fingertip to fingertip while you play. If you’re already a musician, then you know that the music happens more easily when you stay relaxed.
Tip: There’s a reason video games are made that allow people to pretend to play guitar as opposed to say, the sousaphone. The guitar is fun. It’s a very popular, versatile, and portable instrument. Not only can it be a useful double on certain types of gigs that normally only need one guitarist, but it’s a great way to take some music with you to the park, when you go camping, or just want to jam with some friends but don’t have your main axe handy.
As I said before, these tips won’t replace one on one instruction. However, I’ve been giving these tips to many of my friends that pick up the guitar as a secondary instrument, not to mention most of my students, so I hope you find them helpful. Good luck!