Here is a list of what we consider to be the guitar basics – the things that everyone who is thinking about buying or learning the guitar should know.
Included here are: the different types of guitar available; how notes and chords are played; how guitar music is written down; and a look at the various guitar playing styles.
We’ll also answer questions such as ‘Should I play a left or right-handed guitar?’ and ‘Should I play with my fingers or a pick?’
This list of guitar basics is by no means comprehensive, but it will be invaluable for those thinking about taking up the guitar.
Links to further free information available on this site are provided throughout the article.
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Guitar Basics – Types Of Guitar
There are four basic types of guitar: acoustic, electric, classical and bass.
Acoustic Guitars have steel (or equivalent) strings. They are used in nearly all styles of popular music. Acoustic guitars can be used as solo instruments or to provide accompaniment for singers or other instrumentalists.
If you see a solo singer / songwriter strumming chords while singing, he or she will probably be using an acoustic guitar.
An example of a famous acoustic guitarist is Tommy Emmanuel.
Electric guitars rely on amplifiers to produce a usable sound – they emit only a very quiet, metallic sound when played acoustically.
Beginner guitarists usually find electric guitars easier to play than acoustic guitars, because the fingers need to exert less pressure on the strings to produce notes and chords.
The basic (or ‘clean’) sound of the electric guitar can be altered by electronic means. This means that electric guitars are extremely versatile and can change from gentle strumming to distorted heavy metal sounds with the flick of a switch.
Read more about the types of electric guitar here.
An example of a famous electric guitarist is Steve Vai.
Classical guitars (also called ‘Spanish guitars’) are strung with nylon strings (although the three lowest strings are wound with metal). They are used to play classical music such as that written by Bach, Sor and Albeniz.
Classical guitars can be used in rock and pop music, often to add a Spanish sound to the music.
An example of a famous classical guitarist is John Williams.
Bass guitars have four strings, which are tuned: E, A, D, G (the same notes as the lowest four strings of a standard guitar, but tuned an octave lower). Bass guitars generally provide the bass lines in rock, pop and jazz music, but they can also be used to play lead lines.
An example of a famous bass guitarist is Sir Paul McCartney.
Other Types Of Guitar
There are many variations within each of the main types of guitar. Some guitars have 7 or 12 strings. Some bass guitars have five or more strings. Some electric guitars are ‘semi-acoustic’. Some acoustics are ‘electro-acoustics’. However, because this article is dealing with the guitar basics, we’ll cover these variations in another article.
Guitar Basics – Tuning
A standard guitar has six strings, which are tuned E, A, D, G, B, E, from low to high. The strings are numbered 6 to 1 from low E to high E.
There are other ways of tuning a guitar, but this is by far the most common.
Guitar notation is written an octave higher than it is played.
Find out how to tune a guitar here: Standard Guitar Tuning.
Playing Notes And Chords
Pick Or Fingers?
A pick (or plectrum) is a small rounded triangular piece of plastic which is held between the thumb and index finger of the right hand. It is used to pluck or strum the guitar strings.
Find out how to hold a pick in this article.
Classical guitarists and ‘fingerstyle’ acoustic (and some electric) guitarists use their fingers to pluck the strings.
The left hand is used to ‘fret’ the notes, by holding the string down at the desired position on the fingerboard.
The right hand is used to sound the strings by causing them to vibrate, either by using a pick or by using the fingertips or nails.
Guitar Basics – Left Or Right-Handed Guitar?
‘Left-handed’ guitars are available, which means that each hand’s role is reversed. However, people who are left-handed do not necessarily have to use left handed guitars.
(As a left-hander who has played standard, right-handed guitars all of his life, the writer of this article would discourage the automatic use of left-handed guitars by left-handed people unless they have tried very hard to play a standard instrument.)
Guitar Basics – Playing Styles
Classical & Fingerstyle Guitar Playing
Classical and fingerstyle guitarists, as we’ve already found, do not use picks. This gives them more control over the notes and chords being played.
A solo classical guitarist can produce self-contained music, made up of separate elements such as bass lines, chords and melody lines, without relying on other musicians.
However, it is harder to play fast solo lines using the fingers rather than with a pick. It also takes more effort to play loudly and evenly.
Rhythm Guitar Playing – Chords
A chord is simply a group of notes played at the same time. There are many different types of chord, each with their own individual sound. The three most common types of chord are major, minor and dominant seventh.
Chord symbols are often used instead of the full names. The root note of the chord is given first, then the symbol for the kind of chord to be played. If there is just a letter with no symbol, then a major chord should be played.
Examples Of Basic Guitar Chord Symbols:
C = C major
Cm = C minor,
C7 = C dominant seventh,
D = D major,
Dm = D minor,
D7 = D dominant 7th
Guitar chords are also often shown as chord boxes. Chord boxes are diagrams that represent the fretboard. They show where the fingers of the fretting hand should be positioned in order to play a particular chord.
Strumming is a way of playing chords rhythmically in order to provide an accompaniment for other musicians or singers. It is an essential basic technique for rock & pop guitarists.
A pick is generally used to strum chords, although the fingers or thumb can be used. Most non-classical players start off by learning chords. Many famous songs can be played using as few as three chords, so chord playing is a good way of introducing beginner guitarists to playing music.
Learn some basic strumming patterns here: Guitar Strumming Patterns.
When guitarists talk about ‘lead guitar’ they usually mean improvising guitar solos. However, the term can also be used to refer to playing the main part, rather than an accompanying part, in a song.
Lead guitar solos are usually built on guitar scales, such as the major scale, pentatonic scale or blues scale.
Riffs are short musical phrases that are repeated at various parts of a song. They can also be used as introductions to songs, and as accompaniment parts.
Many guitarists get by without reading traditional musical notation. This is because much popular music is improvisatory in nature, and also because guitarists also have two other ways of reading music: chord charts and tablature (usually shortened to TAB).
Chord charts show where in the music the chords should be played.
TAB is a way of writing music for fretted instruments. It shows the fret number at which the fingers should be positioned. It is often shown underneath traditional musical notation.
Traditional music notation
Traditional music notation (‘the dots’!) is used by all guitarists, but only for classical guitarists is the ability to read music considered to be an essential skill. However, in order to become a good all round musician, it is a good idea to learn how to read music from the beginning, no matter what kind of guitar you play.
Additional information on guitar basics is available on these pages:
Guitar Basics – Summary
We hope that this page has been useful to you if you are thinking about learning the guitar. The guitar is a versatile and expressive instrument, and has the potential to give years of pleasure to the player.
Because the basics are the same for all types of guitar, you can change between them depending on where you are in your musical career. Many classical guitarists started on electric or acoustic instruments, and vice versa.
Now you know the guitar basics, take the next step and visit your local music shop or find a local guitar teacher using our guitar teacher directory.
We wish you many years of happy guitar playing.
Guitar Command is a dedicated publisher of music and tuition material for the guitar. Our high-quality Guitar Backing Tracks are used by thousands of guitarists all over the world.
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