While nothing compares to having an experienced guitar teacher guiding you, guitar lessons aren’t convenient for every beginner guitarist. So in the following guide, we’ll be going over what to learn first on guitar, including how to hold a pick, how to tune a guitar, how to learn the notes of the fretboard, along with an introduction to scales and chords, and how to develop effective practice habits that ensure you are continually making progress.
How to Hold a Pick
Before we start playing the guitar, it’s important to learn how to hold a guitar pick correctly.
If you play with a pick (which I’d encourage, at least when first starting out), it’s important to have a reliable grip on the pick, without introducing unnecessary tension.
If the pick moves around in your hand you will have less control over the pressure you exert on the strings and this will result in poor note accuracy and poor note articulation.
However, gripping the pick too tightly will introduce unwanted tension in your arms, shoulders, and neck, making it difficult to play for very long.
The simplest way to get started is to hold the pick between the thumb and index finger with the narrow end of the pick protruding past the end of your thumb by about half an inch.
Grip the pick tightly enough so that it won’t fall or move around in your hands, but without feeling like you are squeezing the pick and introducing tension into your hand and arm. You can either curl the remaining fingers back up toward your palm or let your fingers hang, both options are fine.
What Pick Should you use?
There’s a huge variety of picks available but when first starting out, I’d recommend a thin, flexible pick as this will be more forgiving. If unsure, try the Dunlop Nylon .60mm pick. As you progress and your accuracy improves consider moving to a pick made from a harder material. And, when you buy your first pick, consider buying at least three. Trust me, they will go missing.
Tuning the Guitar
Before playing it’s important that the guitar is in tune.
Tuning your guitar means calibrating your guitar strings to their correct frequencies so that the guitar is in tune with other instruments, and itself.
I’ve written a guide to tuning an acoustic guitar here (the electric guitar is tuned exactly the same way) that goes into far more detail, but the summary below should help you get up and running.
Open String Notes
To tune the guitar we first need to know the pitch each string should be tuned to.
Starting from the 6th string (the heaviest string), the order of notes is as follows:
E, A, D, G, B, E
If you have trouble remembering the order, try this acronym:
EDDIE ATE DYNAMITE, GOODBYE EDDIE
Using a Guitar Tuner
When using a guitar tuner, first select the mode.
Depending on the tuner you are using the available modes will include chromatic or guitar (you may also find options for bass, ukelele, etc).
If you choose the chromatic mode, the tuner will indicate how sharp or flat the pitch of the string is relative to the nearest note. (The chromatic scale includes all the notes available in western music).
If you choose guitar mode the tuner will indicate how close in pitch you are to E, A, D, G, B, or E (the open strings of the guitar when in tune).
Quick Tuning Tips
- If using new strings your strings are going to stretch and go out of tune easily, so you may need to repeat the process 2 – 3 times, along with stretching the strings.
- It’s better to tune up to the correct note rather than down. In a practical sense, this means if you overtighten the string and notice you are higher in pitch than the desired note loosen the strings a little and try tuning up to the note again. This will help prevent the string from grabbing in the nut slot which can affect tuning stability.
- The strings should be fed onto the tuning pegs from inside to out. To tighten the strings turn the tuning pegs on the left of the headstock counter-clockwise, and the tuning pegs on the right clockwise.
- If your bridge pins aren’t staying in place while tuning, remove the bridge pin, and place a small kink in the guitar string approx. 5mm from the ball end and reload the string.
Learning the Notes of The Fretboard
If you’re comfortable with holding a pick and tuning it’s time to start playing the guitar! The first step is familiarizing yourself with the fretboard.
Keep in mind you don’t need to memorize every note to begin, but it’s a good idea to find a few reference notes to help navigate your way around the fretboard.
The notes of the fretboard
Regardless of the type of guitar you play, most guitars have at least 20 frets. In simple terms, this means your guitar neck has at least 120 notes available.
(20 frets X 6 strings = 120)
But, there are only 12 notes used in western music:
A, A#, B, C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#
This means the same notes are available in different locations on the fretboard in higher and lower octaves.
What’s an octave?
Technically, an octave is the “musical” distance between one note and another that is double its frequency.
If you are unsure what this means in a practical sense, I’ll explain, starting with the low E string (shown at the bottom of the diagram above).
If we play the 6th string (the heaviest string), provided it is in tune we are playing the note E. Now fret the same string at the 12th fret. Notice it sounds the same, but higher in pitch?
Both notes are E, but when played at the 12th fret the note is double the frequency of the open string. When playing the 12th fret we are also halving the length of the string able to vibrate, causing the string to vibrate at twice the frequency of the open string.
The human ear can hear the pitch is higher or lower, but can also recognize the note is of the same note value e.g. E.
The Correct Order of Notes
Going back to our 12 notes written above (A, A#, B, C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#) we can easily navigate the fretboard simply by knowing where some of these notes reside.
For example, if playing either our open 1st or 6th string the note is E. As there isn’t a sharp or flat between E and F, the note at the first fret is F, the note at the 2nd fret is F#, the 3rd is G, and so on.
A great way to get started navigating the fretboard is to learn the notes on your 6th string (which happens to be the same as the 1st string, only two octaves higher) and then do the same with your 5th string. This can be handy, especially when it comes time to learn barre chords.
This might seem boring to start with, but having some knowledge of the fretboard will make you more ‘teachable’ and help you progress faster.
I’ve written a massive guide here on how to learn the notes of the fretboard which I highly encourage you to read if you want to be able to memorize the fretboard.
Learning your First Open Chords
Chords are essential to music, learning a handful of open chords will allow you to play any number of your favorite songs across many different styles of music.
What Is A Chord?
A chord is simply a collection of three (or more) notes played simultaneously. Keep in mind this can include open strings and also keep in mind many chords repeat notes as part of the chord voicing.
Take the chord of A major. When we play the chord we play the open 5th string (A), along with the 2nd fret of the 3rd string which also happens to be A.
Beginner Guitar Chords
Below are the first open guitar chords (open simply means the chord contains open strings) beginner guitar players should learn first. If unsure how to read a chord chart, I’d suggest clicking on this link and then coming back to this page.
Keep in mind, that learning open position chords, will take time, but once you memorize the chords below and practice transitioning between them learning a simple song such as “Knocking on Heaven’s Door”, or the chords for “Hey Joe” by Jimi Hendrix will be a breeze.
You can read my article here which includes some useful tips on making cleaner chord transitions and utilizing anchor notes. And, once you are comfortable with the open chords listed above, begin learning the remaining major and minor chords eg. B major and minor.
Learning your First Guitar Scales
Scales are simply collections of notes assembled in ascending or descending order. They are also the building blocks for chords and many basic guitar riffs.
Regardless of the style of music you intend to play, the first scale you should learn is the major scale, as this is the scale all other scales are referenced against, hence why it’s referred to as the mother of all scales.
Other useful scales for guitarists include the pentatonic scales (both major and minor), the blues scale, and the natural and harmonic minor scales.
For efficiency’s sake when practicing scales we tend to stick within a box shape on the fretboard and utilize all 6 strings, at least to begin with.
For example, below is a scale diagram demonstrating the major scale in the key of G, I have also included the tab below for reference:
*If you don’t know how to read scale charts yet, or understand guitar tab click on either of the links to be taken to a complete guide. Don’t worry they are incredibly intuitive. Most people can learn tab is 5 minutes.
G Major Scale
G Major Scale Tab
How to Practice Scales
When practicing scales and playing with a pick you should practice a technique known as alternate picking. Alternate picking describes alternating the direction of the pick for each note you play. e.g. upstroke on note 1, downstroke on note 2, and so on.
If unfamiliar with playing this way it will definitely feel awkward at first, but alternate picking is key to developing speed on the guitar as it is a far more economical movement than playing all notes with a downstroke.
If you would like to learn more about scales including the 5 scales mentioned above that new guitarists should learn, click here to read my complete guide.
How to Continue Learning And Develop A Practice Routine Focused On Incremental Improvement
Repetition is the most effective weapon a new guitarist has. If you practice something repeatedly, muscle memory will start to take over, your brain will begin to develop patterns, and you will need to concentrate less to perform the same task.
How Often Should You Practice?
If you are serious about learning the guitar, you should practice daily for at least 30 minutes every day. Don’t practice until you get a chord, scale, or technique right, practice until it feels almost impossible to get it wrong.
If you don’t have 30 minutes spare each day, focus less on the time and more on the regularity of your practice. Practicing ten minutes each day is far better than practicing for an hour every 3-4 days, as this reinforces muscle memory and helps you adapt faster.
Learn New Things, And Retain What You Already Know
As you learn new things on the guitar it’s also important to retain what you have already learned, so develop a practice schedule that allows you to do both.
Don’t practice half lying down, or in an awkward position. Make sure you are playing in a comfortable position looking down at the guitar with the waist of the guitar sitting on your right leg (if right-handed).
Exercises are great ways to improve things like speed, efficiency, accuracy, and stamina. Below is a challenging finger exercise I often use to increase efficiency on the guitar.
The Spider Technique
The technique helps teach economy of movement and involves playing a pattern without lifting your fingers off the fretboard until that finger is required to play a note.
Play And/Or Write Songs
I always finish a practice session by playing real music, covers, or often songs or ideas I have written myself.
Playing actual music is one of the best ways to practice the guitar, and if there is any way you can make practicing chords or scales more musical by adding additional techniques or playing around with timing, do so.
If like many people, you teach yourself guitar instead of taking guitar lessons, the first (and most important) thing to understand is how to go about actually learning the guitar.
Knowing where to begin, what to focus on, and how to make incremental progress makes a huge difference.
The information in this guide is one approach to learning guitar, and one I like as it follows a logical progression and addresses the fundamentals using simple examples.