10 things to know before you start learning guitar
1. What do you need to get started?
Simply getting a guitar in the first place is step one, but there may be other items you may not have thought about which are worth considering.
Guitar picks: They’re thin, colorful, and always getting lost (or found) in the washing machine. These little guys aren’t expensive, but it can be a bit bewildering to a beginner with all the different shapes and thicknesses.
In short, you’ll eventually find a shape and size that feels good to you. But it’s worth gathering a good collection of them early on so you can experiment and see what’s vibing with you.
As a rule of thumb, thinner picks are a better place to start for acoustic players as they’re more flexible and produce a softer tone.
Thicker picks offer more rigidness, control, and attack which makes them great for electric guitar players.
Tuner: This one is easily overlooked. While one can certainly tune by ear using the 5ths to tune the next string, you still need to tune that first string to start.
Beginners may have a tough time getting their ears to pick up on proper tuning. Having visual feedback will not only help tune your ears but also keep you in tune to match music and any instruction you are working with.
You don’t need to spend money on this either, if you have a smartphone to hand there are some pretty good free tuning apps you can use.
Straps: Just about everyone starts out sitting down to learn guitar (unless you bought a flying V first).
At some point though you’re going to want to try standing up. It takes some getting used to but I think it’s important to get used to the feeling of playing while standing.
Particularly if you ever plan on playing gigs. 95% of the time you’ll be standing, so getting a headstart on that front is very helpful.
Cases: Your guitar needs protection from the elements. Some people let theirs hang out and be on display. This is totally fine, especially if you love how your guitar looks.
But if you ever plan on taking it outside or traveling with it, a case is a must.
Not only will it protect your investment, but it also preserves the sound. Wood warps, and if you’re picking up an acoustic guitar, you will not like what a guitar baking in a car trunk all summer sounds like. Believe me.
Stands or Hooks: This one makes you get home and think, “huh, probably should’ve thought about that when I got the guitar.”
Without a stand, you’ll often just lean the guitar up against your desk, which will inevitably lead to a fall at some point.
The sound of your new guitar falling flat on the floor is one of the most jarring sounds you’ll know.
Also, protecting your guitar from peril increases longevity and chance for resale should you decide to later on.
Amplifier: This one primarily applies to electric guitars. The reason is obvious. That’s not to say you can’t play or learn without one, but getting in some practice through an amplifier with some distortion on is well worth it.
Plus, amps come with a whole other slew of tonal options and is really where you get into modern sonic territory with distortion, reverb, or any other effects you can think of.
Lots of fun, but for a beginner, getting a nice practice amp that won’t tear down the walls is the way to go. Bad guitar playing at extremely loud levels is fun for no one.
2. What kind of guitar should I buy?
There are three main families of guitars to consider here. Classical, Acoustic, and Electric. There are a few in-betweeners, but for now, let’s stick with these three.
Steel strings, hollow body, modern neck, hybrid electric versions available
Warm and round sound, but a bit more metallic from the strings
A very broad range of use cases, but prominent in rock, pop, R & B, and folk genres
Acoustic guitars are also hollow body guitars that can have a nice warm and round tone.
The main thing that sets them apart from a classic guitar is the use of steel strings which are much brighter, louder, and have a distinct metallic chime to them.
They’re also constructed a little more robustly than classical guitars with additional bracing inside the body, as the steel strings put additional tension on them that the instruments needs to be able to withstand.
These are the most commonly purchased for beginners as they are loud enough to be played without an amplifier, and are a great entry point to the world of guitar playing.
Electric guitars come with a slew of additional options so keeping it simple with an acoustic guitar is a good way to just pick up and get going with learning.
Acoustic guitars can also be kitted out with an electronic pickup system so they can be plugged into an amplifier for even more. For beginners, I’d recommend starting here.
The Affinity Series Stratocaster HH from Squier combines classic Strat looks and playability with a full-bodied tone to deliver a wallet-friendly 6-string that is a great addition to any guitar collection.
Metal strings, solid and semi-hollow models, modern and varied necks, various options in features
Sounds can range just about anywhere with the use of amps and effects
A very broad range of uses for almost any kind of genre
Electric guitars are the symbol of rock and roll music. I don’t think I need to go into too much detail as to their capabilities, but we’ll go over some basics.
As the name implies, these guitars are meant to be plugged into amplifiers to really get the full sound and character out of them.
They use pickups to convert the string’s sounds into electronic signals that are sent out through the instrument cable. These pickups (along with the general construction of the guitar) can drastically change the sound.
Additionally, electric guitars usually have various knobs and controls that you can manipulate to achieve a range of different sounds.
Electric guitars have a bit higher cost of entry based on needing an amplifier, but many companies these days offer great ‘starter packs’ where they’ll bundle an amplifier in with the guitar at a super cheap price.
Electric guitar strings can feel a bit smoother and lighter depending on the gauge of string, and all the nice tone and pickup options really help to introduce the player to different guitar timbres (the quality or texture of sound).
Aside from this, if you’re looking to play aggressive-sounding music, the electric guitar will be your partner in crime for years to come.
All three types would be fine to start learning on in my opinion, though I would lean towards acoustic.
Some have more advantages over others depending on your needs, but the first step is just getting one in your hands.
3. How much should you spend on a guitar?
There are a few different schools of thought here. One is to go for the quality instrument, so you’re learning on the one you can count on later and might be more appreciated as you get better.
The other is just get a run-of-the-mill guitar to learn because you’re just testing the waters to see how you like the instrument.
I think there’s wisdom in both philosophies. In short, I’d say get what you can afford, but keep in mind not everyone takes to guitar just because they want to.
My advice if you’re buying brand new would be to spend at least $200-$300 if you can, but again the guitar isn’t going to be the one who teaches you. This is just so you can start learning.
But if you know you’re serious and will stick with the instrument, the overall quality of guitars and their manufacturing processes are so good these days that a $700-800 guitar will hold its own in any professional musical setting.
Now that general equipment is out of the way, let’s get to learning.
4. What are your goals in learning guitar?
Whether you’re looking to learn a new hobby, or looking to change the world of music as we know it, it’s good to get a sense of what your goals are to begin with.
This might shape your choices in guitar, instruction, or overall approach to learning in the first place.
A person looking to learn because perhaps they’ve always wanted to try an instrument might have a more patient or cautious approach to learning.
The bar is low and they might just be looking for a new hobby. For this, the threshold for feeling like you’ve “learned guitar” might just be playing a couple of songs you like, or finally nailing a solo.
Someone who really wants to become a performing musician or touring artist might want to take a more staunch approach to learning.
In this way, the level of effort or pressure you put on yourself might be greater, and “learning the guitar” to that effect, might require more work and time.
Either way, I guess my point is that your intentions or goals in learning guitar should line up with your habits.
If you’re just looking to strum around, play a good tune, or write on your own casually, learning to play guitar can be, well, casual.
If you’re really trying to strike out into the world musically and have high goals for yourself, the approach should ideally match that intensity.
5. Practice takes effort
I know I sound like an old man yelling at a cloud, but as someone who plays guitar and has tried my hand at being a working musician, I can confidently say I have never gotten better by not practicing.
I know it sounds obvious, but it’s something you should hear. Making a routine of practicing will be worth the time, it’s just hard to see when you’re doing it. The benefit is always much further down the line.
Practice doesn’t need to be a chore though. This is where my previous point comes in.
Whatever pace you envision for your progress, you should shape it around your goals, but make sure you put in an effort to stick to it as best possible.
6. Patience, especially in the beginning stages, is key
It is veryeasy to get discouraged when learning a new instrument. Many people are not patient with themselves from my experience.
Learning to play a song can seem like an eternity away when your fingers can’t seem to even seem to hold the right notes down.
Patience with yourself, in my opinion, is another key thing to have when learning guitar or any new instrument.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t aspire to be better, but getting to a serviceable level of guitar playing, just to get started playing a song, is a stage of learning in and of itself.
7. You can learn a lot from others
I mean this in the broadest sense. Personally, I think being physically in the room with your guitar teacher is the best way to learn. At least for the beginner to intermediate phase.
It’s really difficult to convey hand positioning, finger pressure, and tone with a computer screen, and even less so with one that can’t offer feedback.
My advice is to try one at least until the stage where you can strum a few songs well enough.
That doesn’t mean I disparage online learning, but this is about beginners. I think this is the fastest way to get going, at least with the basics of creating sounds and knowing some notes and chords.
Additionally, you may find you can learn from friends or other musicians who give you tips along the way.
There’s a whole community of guitar players in the world to learn from. Forums are a great place to gain knowledge as a beginner or advanced musician.
8. You can learn a lot from yourself
I know it’s a 180, but I don’t want it to sound like it would be impossible to learn on your own.
I know quite a few people who’ve gone the self-taught route, and I always find it to be impressive. You’ll find quirky styles and techniques from self-taught musicians, which I love to learn about.
Another approach might be, learning a few songs with advanced techniques. The desire to learn a song despite your shortcomings can put you past where you thought you could be. Nailing 80% of a difficult song is still progress when you initially couldn’t play any of it.
To add to my previous point, learning from online material is a 100% viable way of learning guitar. Some people can’t afford weekly instruction, and the modern era of information has a bounty of guitar material to share.
It doesn’t have to be web-based either. There are books for every instrument, at every level and age group. These are often very useful as it’s right there in front of you to read and look back on, as opposed to scrolling or rewinding.
Here are some well-rated online guitar courses you can try:
I’ve taught some guitar in my day, and often people are surprised at how much playing guitar can create soreness in their hands and forearms.
Not only are you pressing stiffly on metal or nylon strings, but you’re also using a lot of muscles in your forearms and hands to grip and move that you haven’t accessed before.
It takes novice hands a while to get used to that sort of physical movement and exertion. But don’t worry about it too much, your forearm muscles will develop, and your fingertips will callus over fairly quickly!
10. Learning guitar is fun and rewarding
I know the last point was a bit foreboding, but in the end, if you love guitars and playing music, you’re going to have fun once you get going.
That first sweet open E minor chord is going to make you feel like you can take on anything, and nailing a song for the first time gives a sense of accomplishment few things in life can, in my opinion.
Not only that, you can have fun learning in general. From participating in forums to discussing with friends or co-workers who might play, learning to play the guitar can be a source of great joy and accomplishment. I know it has been for me.
Learning to play guitar is a long process that requires some perseverance and patience, but knowing the 10 things we listed above will put you ahead of the game at any age.