November 2, 2022

How to Start Learning Guitar

Everyone who plays guitar remembers the magic of picking up an instrument for the first time: the possibilities, the excitement to try your favorite songs, the potential to join a band and play for people. What many also remember is the frustration: the sore fingers the slowness of getting the first few concepts, and mastering the dreaded barre chords. It can be daunting to begin but the rewards - and the journey itself - make learning worth it. Here are some tips and tricks to help keep you motivated and making progress, even during the first few weeks.

First, define your goals.

What made you decide to pick up your instrument in the first place? Do you want to play a particular song, or play in a band, or go to music school, or write an award-winning album? No matter how big your dreams are, you can break the process down into manageable steps if you know what your goal is. Set something attainable to start - maybe you want to play an open mic within a year and need to learn three songs to fill the time slot. Or you want to learn a loved one's favorite song and surprise them on their birthday. Once you have a goal, you can set a deadline and work backward to see how much time and effort you'll need to put in on a regular basis to see results. If you know why you're practicing, you'll be able to keep going even on days when you don't really want to.

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Be consistent.

Just like studying for a test over the course of a week instead of cramming the night before will get you better results, practicing every day (or as consistently as possible) will speed up your progress. Even if you can only pick up your instrument for a few minutes a day, if you make a point of doing it every day, you're more likely to keep going. Once you've made practicing a habit you enjoy, it becomes easier to practice longer and work on more ambitious skills. It might not seem like you're making huge strides from one day to the next, but you'll be amazed at how far you can progress in a month or two alone a year. And if you miss a day, remember - in terms of the big picture, missing one day won't ruin your progress, so don't stress about it. Start again the next day and keep going from there. That way, you can keep the joy alive and avoid burnout.

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Reduce friction.

Anything that stands between you and your guitar will make it harder to practice. If possible, leave the guitar out of its case when it's at home, and if you can leave your practice space set up, do it! A guitar you can see is a guitar you will play, and without having to set up your practice space and tear it down again, you can sneak in more moments throughout the day where you're actually getting your fingertips on the strings. Similarly, keep any supplies you might need on a regular basis on hand so you aren't waiting on a trip to the store or for a shipment to come before you can comfortably play again.

Keep these tools handy so you always have what you need to practice.

Make yourself comfortable.

It might seem obvious, but you don't need to suffer to learn an instrument. Use a comfortable chair that's a good height for playing and consider a guitar strap even if you play sitting down. It will help to hold the instrument steady so there's one less worry while you're figuring out where the notes are. Practicing for longer stretches, just like anything else, can also cause muscle aches and sore joints, so be sure to take regular breaks and stretch so practicing doesn't literally become a pain.

Get a buddy.

Accountability is critical to maintaining enthusiasm for practicing. Whether it's a teacher, band mate, sibling or friend, or even a practice journal you keep for yourself, tell someone what your goals are and ask them to help you meet them. Having that external motivation can be the push you need when you're tempted to take too many days off. Other more experienced players also can help you out if you run into a concept that you don't understand or an exercise that's giving you trouble.

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Learn the basics.

There are a few fundamental concepts everyone should know. Learn your basic chords and a couple basic scales. Start working toward having a couple favorite songs down from start to finish. Start learning some of your favorite riffs. There's nothing better than finally attaining a smaller milestone on the way toward your big goals. You can try the lessons in Rocksmith+ to learn more about chords, techniques, and styles. Try these articles for further reading:

Chord Progressions

Chord Charts

Staff Notation


Learn more about the music you're working on.

Reading about the music you're working on can add context, and even help you understand a style or technique better. Being able to speak comfortably about artists you like can help to make friends in your local music community, or even find band mates, so stay curious! Here are a few articles to try:

How Dolly Parton Saved Kenny Rogers' "Islands in the Stream"

Classical Structure, Flamenco Style: Al Di Meola's "Fantasia Suite for Two Guitars

Peter Tosh, "Downpressor Man," and the Song's Unexpected Journey

The Sweet Chaos of "Ballroom Blitz"

It's okay to make mistakes.

Ultimately, learning to play guitar is YOUR journey. As with learning any new skill, some days will be easier than others; if you try something and struggle, it's okay! Take note of what world-class athletes and artists say again and again: if you can enjoy the process, then you will be able to keep up the work you need to do to advance. We all want quick results, but if you can find a way to enjoy the slower parts of learning - the repetitive exercises, finding and fixing mistakes, and making that slow progress toward bigger goals, not only will you get there faster; you'll enjoy each step of the way. Happy practicing!

Margaret Jones is a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and music teacher living in Oakland, CA. She plays guitar in several local bands including her own songwriting project M Jones and the Melee. She also holds a Ph.D. in Music History from UC Berkeley and has taught at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

"Writing Letter Hand" by Kristen Hardwick is licensed under CCO 1.0.

"guitar shot" by Gianni Brocato is licensed under CCO 1.0.

"monochrome guitar player" by Marcus Spiske is licensed under CCO 1.0.

"man, rock, music, play..." by px here is licensed under CCO 1.0.

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