Learning to Play the Guitar – THE COMPLETE GUIDE

learning to play the guitar

Learning to play the guitar is challenging but incredibly rewarding – so stick with it.

As anyone who plays a musical instrument knows, learning to play is not easy and learning to play the guitar can be particularly challenging. But don’t be daunted, as with any new skill it will take a bit of time and practice.  But once you have mastered a few basic techniques the satisfaction you gain from doing it is immense.  In this guide to learning to play the guitar we take you through everything that you will need to know from choosing your first guitar through to useful learning to play the guitar resources, all of which are free.

There’s a lot to cover so let’s get started by answering the important question…


Why should you learn to play the guitar?

Forget the piano if you want cool then the guitar beats tickling the old ivories on every level. There really is no contest if you want range, expression, tone, versatility then it has to be the guitar.

But why learn to play the guitar when there are so many other things out there to capture your attention.

Isn’t the Guitar on its way out?

This is the problem that is facing the guitar in the 21st Century with some, if you read this Washington Post article, even predicting the death of the guitar.  On a first look the numbers would perhaps also bear out this dire prediction.

In the last ten years the number of electric guitars sold has dropped from 1.5 million to 1 million.  Gibson and Fender, the two iconic names in guitars, are both in debt and have seen revenues drop.  Even PRS has had to cut production and staff to make ends meet.

For some this decline in the guitar is due to the lack of modern day guitar heroes.  For those of us who grew up in the 60s, 70s or 80s there were the “Guitar Gods”.  Names such as Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Dave Gilmour, Brian May, Steve Vai and Joe Satriani to name but a few.  They were mainstream guitarists who inspired us to pick up the guitar and play like our heroes.  We would put in the blood sweat and tears to try and emulate their skills.

Coming back to the present, although there are some amazing guitarists, think Joe Bonamassa, Mark Tremonti and John Mayer, their music is not mainstream enough to reach the young fresh blood that the guitar manufacturers need to sustain their sales.

Does this mean that the guitar is definitely on the decline?

Well perhaps not.  Interestingly, although PRS cut production and staff, they increased their production of cheaper guitars.  The industry has also seen an increase in the sales of acoustic guitars, perhaps driven by the popularity of the likes of Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift.  This suggests that the way we buy and play our guitars is changing and the big beasts of the industry, namely Gibson and Fender, have not adapted to that fact.  These days not many of us can afford a US Strat or Les Paul costing up to, and in some cases over, £1000.  This is especially true when you can buy a very good copy for less than £300.  If you combine this with the fact that Ed Sheeran can gig at Glastonbury with a beat up acoustic guitar and a loop pedal you can see a few reasons why the electric guitar manufacturers are worried.

However, the other big problem facing the industry is that of retention of new guitarists.  For example many kids will pick up a guitar but give up within the year.  To combat this there are a plethora of on-line tools and mobile apps to encourage an enjoyment of playing the guitar, more on this later.

So, although not in rude health, it would appear that the doomsayers, predicting the end of the guitar, are being a little bit too pessimistic.  Especially when you consider that…

Learning to Play the Guitar is Good for you!

Let’s put the doom and gloom behind us and consider the fact that there are a whole load of fantastic reasons why taking up the guitar is good for us.

Apart from the guitar being a very cool instrument research has shown that learning to play a musical instrument has significant physical and mental benefits.  Now these might not be important to you but if you want a few bargaining chips when trying to get your Mum and Dad to pay for your first guitar these might help.

Here are just a few bargaining tips to help you land your first guitar!

Learning to play the guitar can improve your memory.  Yes, believe it or not, as the Daily Telegraph reported, researchers have found that learning to play a musical instrument (read GUITAR!) changes the shape and power of the brain.  As such playing the guitar can help to improve your memory and can even boost IQ by 7 points in both children and adults.  There is even research that has been done which shows the benefits of learning to play a musical instrument has on Mathematical skills.  So if Mum and Dad are complaining about your algebra abilities then tell them they need to let you play more guitar!

Finally and perhaps most importantly playing the guitar is a great social activity.  If you consider that most people who play the guitar will go onto join or form a band you can see that playing the guitar is a social catalyst getting kids off their computers and out of the house.  Learning to play the guitar also helps to teach discipline and improves self confidence, especially if you become good enough to perform.

Now that we have covered the benefits of learning to play the guitar let’s move on to how we choose our first guitar.

What Guitar do I choose?

If you have already started learning to play the guitar and you have your instrument already you may want to skip this section.  But if not read on because choosing your guitar wisely is key to your success.

So how do you chose what guitar to buy?

Choosing your first guitar is difficult as there are so many makes and models to choose from.  However, to help you in the process of making that decision we have collected together some of our best tips for choosing your first guitar.

Ultimately choosing your first guitar can be an extremely daunting experience.  I remember very well the day I purchased my first guitar, the fear of actually going to the music shop put me off buying for some weeks.  Please bear in mind this was before the days of the internet and online shopping!  Once I had actually plucked up the courage to cross the threshold of the guitar shop the paranoia of thinking everyone was laughing at my ham fisted attempts at playing brought me out in a cold sweat.  So I understand the anxiety that many will feel.  Therefore my aim is hopefully to help settle some of your fears and re-assure you that even the guitar legends, had to buy their first guitar, and although they might have turned out quite good in the end I can guarantee their first strum was just as tuneless as yours and mine.

Electric or Acoustic Guitar?

electric or acoustic guitar

Which is the best to learn on – Electric or acoustic guitar?

Before you even set foot in the guitar shop the biggest question to ask yourself when choosing your first guitar is should you buy an electric or an acoustic?

A good way of answering this question is to consider the type of music that you are interested in, and therefore the type of music that you want to play on your new guitar.  Do you love blues, rock or metal, then it is probably best to buy an electric guitar.  If folk or classical music is your thing then an acoustic is more what you should be considering.  Furthermore if you want to be portable and be able to strum your guitar no matter where you are, well the old acoustic has all the advantages over an electric guitar.

However, there are a number of additional advantages of buying an electric guitar over an acoustic, the biggest being that they are generally easier to learn to play.  The solid body, generally contoured to fit that of the player, makes it more comfortable to hold.  Furthermore the neck on an electric guitar tends to be narrower and the action, or height of the strings from the fretboard, is lower, saving your fingers and therefore yourself a lot of pain.  However, the obvious drawback of an electric guitar is the requirement for an amplifier.  But thankfully you can get some very reasonably priced starter packs which include all you need to get started including the amp.  We review some great ones in the post – Electric guitar starter packs for under £150.

If you are still torn and want more details on the advantages and disadvantages of both the electric and acoustic guitar then check out this article – Which is the best to learn on – Electric or Acoustic Guitar.

Once you have decided whether it is an electric or acoustic the next step is to set your budget and do some research.

Set Your Budget

When starting out budget is quite an important consideration, unless of course you have money to burn.  But even if you do have money to burn my advice is, to paraphrase Goldilocks and the Three Bears, you don’t want to spend too much money but equally you don’t want to spend too little on your first guitar, you have to spend just the right amount.  What is the right amount?  In my experience you can pick up some very good guitars for between £100 to £200.  If the guitar is below £100 you have to start questioning the quality of build.  As for spending too much well you don’t know if it is something that you are going to stick with so do you really want to blow £300 to £500 on something that you will use for a few weeks and then it will sit gathering dust in the bedroom.  The benefit of not spending too much on a guitar is that you can try it out, if you like it and progress you can always trade up to a more expensive guitar as your skills improve.  Often you will be able to part exchange your old guitar for your new one or with the help of Ebay you can easily sell on your old instrument.


Research is, in my opinion, invaluable.  You know whether you want an acoustic or an electric and you have set your budget.  Now is the time to do a bit of research on the guitars that you are interested in.  But, and I would say this is quite important, you need to do it before you set foot in the guitar shop.  Why?  It allows you to clarify what you are looking for in a guitar and gives you all you need to know to drive a hard bargain.

Before you set out to purchase, get an idea of prices for the type of guitar that you are after.  This will put you in a better position when you are in the guitar shop.

Do other guitarists rate the guitar that you are interested in.  Have they encountered any issues, would they recommend this guitar.  Is there a better equivalent guitar that they would recommend.

Armed with all your research you are now ready to…

Try before you buy

Finally I would strongly advise you to try out the guitar that you are interested in before you buy it.  You might not want to, especially if you are a complete novice, but don’t be put off, give it a go as it is important to test the guitar.  Does it feel comfortable to play.  Check the guitar for signs of wear and tear or flaws in the build quality.  If you are buying an electric guitar plug it into an amplifier and try it both clean and distorted.  Does it stay in tune, play with the tone and volume controls, do they work, does the sound crackle when you turn the volume up or down.  If there is anything that you are unsure about ask as the store owner, if they are good, will answer all your questions, after all they want to sell a guitar to a happy customer.  If you are happy with the guitar, remember the research that you did.  Is the model cheaper to buy on-line.  If it is ask the store owner if they are willing to match the price.  If they aren’t then perhaps consider buying on-line at the cheaper price.

Having decided and purchased the guitar of your dreams we now need to move on to the fun part – Learning to play the guitar.

What is the best way of learning to play the guitar?

10 top tips for getting better on the guitar

A guitar tutor will help you to keep on track with your learning goals.

There is no BEST way of learning to play the guitar there is the best way for YOU to learn the guitar.  We all learn in very different ways so one persons ideal way of learning is a real switch off for somebody else.  For example I am a very visual learner, I have to see it demonstrated and then I pick it up quite quickly.  Therefore for me books and CDs are no good but the internet with myriad high definition videos to watch has been an absolute God send.

How are you going to get the best out of your learning?

First off I am a firm believer in enjoying what you are doing and this is very true if you want to learn to play the guitar.  However, I am also of the opinion that you get out what you put in, therefore the more effort you put in the better you become.  To that end I am always wary of ads that tell you that you can learn to play the guitar in 10 hours or less.  Certainly you will have made some basic steps but I am not convinced that you will actually be able to play guitar.  So if you are looking to learn to play the guitar my first bit of advice would be to steer clear of miracle teaching techniques that will teach you to play in double quick time.

So what are your options?

The Guitar Tutor

The first option, and probably the best, is the private guitar tutor who will guide you step by step using the best teaching methods to get you playing the guitar competently.  There is nothing better than one to one tuition to really get you well on the path of guitar mastery.  However, there are some caveats to this viewpoint.  It is not cheap.  Guitar lessons, especially with a good tutor, can be very expensive.  Furthermore not all guitar tutors are the same and standards vary, and can vary quite dramatically.  My first guitar tutor was a great guitarist and I am sure he would have been a good tutor but we ended up talking more about guitars and equipment than actually doing anything that actually helped me learn to play the guitar.  I must admit that was probably more my fault than his but, as a tutor, he should have been able to direct my enthusiasm more constructively.  Sadly I was wasting my money, became dissatisfied and stopped going.  Unfortunately you may well find that you might have to try out a few tutors before you find one that you gel with, but when you do I think it is by far the best way of learning to play the guitar.

How do you find a guitar tutor?

The best place is to check in your local guitar shop as they will be able to recommend someone, they may even run lessons themselves.  If they do recommend someone then ask for some testimonials and if possible speak to the people, who gave those testimonials, directly.  You would be surprised by how many testimonials are provided by friends and family, and they are not likely to give the tutor a negative review!  It is your money that you are spending and if the tutor is half decent they will not mind you checking them out before you commit yourself.  I am also slightly wary of tutors who request a block booking of a certain number of lessons.  You should be able to have one or two taster lessons before having to commit to a large number of lessons.  In my view steer clear of the block booking technique before you have tried them out, even if there is a hefty discount involved.

What are the options if you want to learn to play the guitar but you can’t afford a one to one tutor?

Before the days of the internet there were two options, books and correspondence courses.  Now thanks to the internet the correspondence courses, at least by post, have largely disappeared.  As an option we will discuss the internet later, but books still provide a credible, and in some cases cheap, option for someone who wants to learn to play the guitar.

If you check out guitar books on Amazon or in your local guitar shop you will be amazed at the choice open to you.  From basic teach yourself guitar through to specialist speed metal techniques there are books to cover all musical tastes.  Once again it is a case of getting a few and seeing which ones work for you.  As with a tutor you might have to go through a few before you find one that really gels, but you will always learn something on the journey.  If you don’t want to buy you can check at your local library as most will stock a selection or be able to order ones that they don’t have.  If you find something in the library that you do like then you can choose to buy it.

What about the internet?

In some regards the internet has opened up guitar tuition to a huge and global audience.  There are literally thousands of products out there on the internet that you can choose from.  Remember my initial warning to avoid miracle teaching techniques that will promise to turn you into Jimi Hendrix in just 10 hours.  The internet is where the warning should be heeded most.  There are some good tuition products and there are some bad ones.  Before you consider paying for a tuition product check out what is available for free on sites such as You Tube.  There are some really great Guitar tutors out there who have up-loaded brilliant videos as a taster of what they have to offer.  Give these a go and you can pick up an awful lot for free.

We give you some helpful tips on free on-line resources below.

Resources to help you Learn to play the guitar

With the internet the path to mastering the guitar has become significantly easier.  When I started out learning to play the guitar I had the choice to pay for a guitar tutor (too expensive), pay for a correspondence course (too expensive) or get a tuition book (expensive but thank goodness for libraries).  Now I can just hook up to the internet and do a search for learning to play the guitar.  The search will bring back hundreds of sites, and if you are on YouTube, hundreds of videos covering every aspect of learning to play the guitar.  However, there are a few sites out there which stand head and shoulders above the rest and this is my short list of the absolute best.  First up are those sites that are free.

In my humble opinion the absolute best site out there on the internet for learning to play the guitar is Justin Guitar run by guitarist Justin Sandercoe.  If you are starting to learn to play then his beginners course is fantastic.  It takes you through everything from tuning your guitar to playing your first chords.  The thing I also liked about his beginners course is that he also considers common aches and pains that afflict the novice guitarist and has provided guidance on how to prevent them.  I cannot recommend Justin Guitar enough, but don’t take my recommendation for it.  Justin Guitar is recommended by guitar greats such as Brian May, Steve Vai and Mark Knopfler to name a few.  If I was starting to learn to play the guitar this would be my first port of call.

Next up is GuitarLessons.com by Nate Savage.  Although GuitarLessons is a subscription site there are a huge number of really great free video lessons that will get you up and playing real quick.  The videos are good quality, very informative and include chord diagrams and full transcript so that you can go back and review what you have just learned.  This is another great site with a lot of free resources to help you get started.

Online Guitar Tuition

When it comes to learning the guitar online guitar tuition is a very good cost effective alternative to a guitar tutor.

Now, the next two sites are the leaders in paid online guitar lessons, but they also offer free lessons which act as tasters for their paid lessons.  These free lessons are really quite good and well worth a look.  The two sites are Guitar Tricks and JamPlay.  Between the two sites they have around 2 million users many of who will be paying for their lessons.  As such the quality of the free lessons is good and the content very informative.  After all their free lessons act as advertisements to entice you to sign up for a subscription.  If you are interested in either JamPlay or Guitar Tricks and their paid lessons then it is worth reading this article – Online Guitar Tuition  – Guitar Tricks vs JamPlay.

Finally there is Fender Play a guitar tuition program created by Fender.  It is quite new and we are still testing it out but, what we have seen so far is good.  It is aimed at the new guitarist and is designed to take you from taking your new guitar out of the box to playing chords, scales and full songs.  The videos are good quality and the content is great.  However, we do have a slight criticism of the Fender Play platform in that you have to hand over your credit card details when registering for your 30 day free trial.  If at the end you forget to cancel your membership they will start charging you a monthly subscription fee.  I am not overly impressed with that approach but if you can remember to cancel your membership the content is very comprehensive for the new guitarist.  If you want to find out more about Fender Play then read our review – Fender Play – The new on-line guitar tuition platform from Fender.

First Steps on the Guitar

A guide to learning to play the guitar wouldn’t be complete without at least a mention of some tips and techniques to get you started.

The first thing that we would suggest is get used to the feel of your new guitar by holding it.  It is going to feel odd to start off with, perhaps it may feel a bit heavy or bulky.  But with time it will become like an extension of your body.

The next big issue all new guitarists face is the impact of playing on your fingers.

Unfortunately there will be a time where your fingers get used to playing the guitar.  Your fingers are not used to forming complex shapes and will be relatively weak.  However, the biggest problem for any new guitarist is actually holding down the strings.  Soft fingertips coming into contact with steel strings, even nylon in the case of classical guitar, for the first time is going to take some getting used to.  Many new guitarists have over done it when they first get their guitar developing blisters on their fingertips.  Believe me after a week or so your finger tips will harden up and the pain will disappear so persevere just don’t overdo it.

How can you reduce the pain?

Well there are lots of tips (pardon the pun) out there from super glue on your fingertips to dipping them into a hot frying pan to toughen them up, neither of which I would recommend.  For me the only, and best way, to toughen up your fingers is to persevere and carry on practicing.  As with wearing a pair of new shoes with constant fretting of the strings the skin on your fingertips will thicken up and the pain will disappear.  The best advice I would give is to practice for short but frequent periods allowing your fingers to recover in between your practice sessions.

What next?

Your new guitar needs to be tuned.  This is fairly straightforward when you know how to do it.  It is even easier if you have an electronic tuner.  If you have one then follow the tuner instructions and your guitar will be in tune.  If you don’t have one and want some recommendations of good tuners to buy then check out our article on guitar tuners.  However, if you don’t have a tuner you can tune the guitar to itself.  To learn how to do this read our article on tuning your guitar or check out the great video below from Justin Guitar.

Your guitar is in tune and your fingers are starting to toughen up.  What is the next thing which will get you well on the road to mastering the guitar.  For me learning basic chords is the best place to start.  Now we may all want to be impressing our mates as we rip out a shredding virtuoso solo, but solos don’t make a song, chords do.  I made this mistake when I first started playing thinking that I needed to learn scales and build up as much speed as possible so I could rip across the fretboard.  When it came to it I couldn’t play much, other than solos, and I became very dissatisfied with my progress.  Don’t repeat this mistake.  Learn chords, as many as you can, in all positions across the fretboard and you will see yourself progress far quicker.  Initially the basic open chords are a good place to start.  Our guide to the 8 major chords in the open position will get you on the road to chord mastery so is well worth a look.  If you take the time to perfect these 8 basic chords you will have, under your belt, many of the chords that are used in some of music’s greatest songs.

There you have it our complete guide to getting started on learning to play the guitar.  It has been a long read but I hope that you have stuck with it until the end.  More importantly I hope that you have found it to be of use.  If you have any comments or suggestions of great ways to improve the learning experience then please let us know.

If you are a new guitarist then welcome to the amazing world of the guitar – Stick with it as it is a truly rewarding instrument!


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