Guitar Basics: How To Get Started Playing Guitar

This page covers guitar basics. These are the things that you should know either if you’re thinking about learning the guitar, or if you’re in the early stages of your guitar playing career.

Subjects covered in this guide:

(Click to jump to the relevant section of the page.)

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 (and elsewhere) are provided throughout the article.

  • Teaching yourself to play guitar? Check out JamPlay online guitar lessons and learn even faster!

Guitar Basics – Types Of Guitar

There are four basic types of guitar: acoustic, electric, classical and bass. Let’s look at each of them in turn…

Acoustic Guitars / Steel-String Guitars

Acoustic Guitars have steel (or equivalent material) strings. They’re used in nearly all styles of popular music. Acoustic guitars can be used either as solo instruments or to provide accompaniment for singers or other instrumentalists.

Acoustic guitars fitted with pickups* are known as electro-acoustic guitars. They can amplified just like electric guitars, and are usually used with specially-designed acoustic guitar amplifiers.

An electro-acoustic guitar is not an alternative to an electric guitar if you want to play rock or metal; its neck is wider and has fewer frets, and its sound is completely different. Electro-acoustic guitars are also prone to feedback if  turned up loud.

* Devices that turn a guitar string’s vibration into electrical current.

acoustic guitar
A typical acoustic guitar

If you see a solo singer / songwriter strumming chords while singing, he or she will probably be using an acoustic guitar.

Twelve String Guitars

Some acoustic (and electric) guitars have 12 strings rather than the usual 6. 12 string guitars are usually used for providing rhythmic accompaniment (strumming chords on a 12 string produces a loud, rich sound). As a beginner you’ll probably be better off getting a standard 6 string guitar.

Electric Guitars

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. This is mainly because they require less pressure to be exerted in order for a note to be played.

electric guitar
An electric guitar.

When amplified, the basic, or ‘clean’, sound of the electric guitar can be altered by electronic means. Because of this, electric guitars are extremely versatile and can change from gentle strumming to distorted heavy metal sounds with the flick of a switch.

  • You can read about the different types of electric guitar here.
  • An example of a famous electric guitarist is Steve Vai.

Classical guitars

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.

Guitar Basics - Classical Guitar
A classical, or Spanish, guitar

Classical guitars can be used in rock and pop music, often to add a Spanish sound to the music.

The technique required to play the classical guitar is more formal that required to play electric and acoustic guitars. There is more emphasis on reading music and less emphasis on improvisation.

You can find out more about playing classical guitar here: Learning Classical Guitar

Bass Guitars

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. They can also be used to play lead lines and riffs.

Guitar Basics Bass Guitar
Bass Guitar

You can find out more about the bass guitar and the differences between it and a standard guitar here: Is a Bass a Guitar?

Other Types Of Guitar

There are many variations within each of the main types of guitar. You can find out more about the different types of electric guitar here: Types of Electric Guitar.


Guitar Basics – I’m Left-Handed; Should I Buy A Left-Handed Guitar?

Most guitars are available in both standard and left-handed forms. When playing a standard guitar, the player’s left hand will be holding down the strings on the fretboard, and his right hand will be plucking or strumming the strings.

‘Left-handed’ guitars are available, which means that each hand’s role is reversed.

You might think that the choice is easy; buy a standard guitar if you’re right-handed and a left-handed guitar if you’re left handed.

But it’s not quite that simple. Many left-handed people play standard guitars (including the writer of the article). Because both hands are involved in playing the guitar, there’s no real advantage in a left-handed person playing a left-handed guitar. (One could even argue that when playing a standard guitar the left hand has the hardest job.)

If you’re left-handed, it’s definitely worth trying a standard guitar; most tuition books and videos are aimed at people who play standard guitars, and you’ll have a much wider range of guitars to choose from. If you really can’t get to grips with it then change to a ‘lefty’ guitar.


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.

Guitar Basics String Notes
Guitar String Notes

The strings of a guitar can be tuned to other pitches, but this is by far the most common sequence.

There are numerous ways of tuning a guitar. You can tune it by ear using a reference pitch, such as a piano or tuning fork, or you can tune it using an electronic guitar tuner. If you are beginning the guitar then buying an inexpensive electronic guitar tuner is strongly recommended.

If you don’t have a reference instrument or tuner to hand, then you can tune a guitar so that its strings are in tune with each other (but not necessarily with other instruments). This is fine if you’re just playing by yourself.

Guitar notation is written an octave higher than it is played.


Playing Notes And Chords

When playing guitar, one hand (the fretting hand) holds down single notes or chords on the fretboard, while the other hand picks or strums the strings.

Should I Play With A Pick Or With My Fingers?

A pick (also called a plectrum) is a small, rounded triangular piece of plastic which is used to pluck or strum the guitar strings. It is usually held between the thumb and index finger.

guitar picks
A selection of guitar picks
guitar basics pick
Guitar Pick In Use

You can find out how to hold a pick here: how to hold a guitar pick.

Classical guitarists and ‘fingerstyle’ acoustic (and some electric) guitarists use their fingers instead of a pick 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.

Guitar Left Hand
Left Hand

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 Right Hand
Right Hand

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

Chord Boxes

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.

Guitar Basics Chord Diagram
Guitar Chord Diagram

Strumming Chords

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.

Lead Guitar

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

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.


Guitar Music

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

Chord charts show where in the music the chords should be played.

Guitar Chord Chart
Guitar Chord Chart

TAB

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.

Guitar TAB
Guitar TAB Example

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 – Conclusion

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 provide you with years of pleasure.

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, you’re ready to take the next step: Learn To Play Guitar In Two Months.

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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