Learn what you need to know and when you should learn it as a beginning guitarist.
Learning guitar is easier when you do things in the right order.
Going it alone as a beginning guitarist can be challenging because you don’t get the road map through the musical journey that a teacher can provide. It’s much harder to learn intermediate and advanced guitar concepts if you don’t have the basics down first. I’m going to give you a checklist of guitar concepts every guitarist needs to know, and the order you should learn them in for the easiest advancement.
First, a couple of tips. Don’t try to tackle all of these subjects at once. Music is a cumulative study. Think about the way you’d study math. You can’t learn calculus until you’ve already got algebra under your belt.
Second, don’t just study these concepts in a vacuum. As much as possible you want to learn them in the context of a song. You’ll understand the ideas better and find they stick in your head more if you’re using them in a real world context. Plus, it’s just more fun to learn that way!
Some of these ideas will overlap each other a little bit along the way. And some are ongoing ideas that you’ll continue to develop at higher levels. But this is a good basic order to learn them in.
Reading Standard Music Notation and Tablature
Learning to read music isn’t as hard as it seems and will make the rest of your learning experience much easier. The notation is simply the instructions on how to play a piece of music. Without it, it’s like trying to put together a piece of furniture without being able to read the instructions. You might eventually figure it out, but it will be harder and take longer than it needs to.
Guitar tablature is a simple system to understand, but don’t stop with that. Tabs don’t have a rhythm notation component. So you already have to know the rhythm to make sense of the notes. Being able to read standard notation along with the tab will get you everywhere you want to go.
Open Position Notes
The open position is the first three frets of each string. You’ll learn the names of the open strings, plus a couple other notes on each string. I suggest taking this one string at a time and finding little pieces to play with each set of notes. Keep expanding one string at a time until you’ve done all six strings. You may want to invest a couple bucks in a beginner guitar book by Mel Bay or someone similar. Having their little graded pieces can save you a lot of time searching around for something to play.
Basic Music Theory
You might think it’s a little early for this, but it’s not. Music theory is something that you’ll use and expand on throughout the guitar learning process. It’s like learning the grammar of music. By knowing how the music is put together, you’ll be able to apply that knowledge to every new song you learn to make the learning go faster.
Here’s a quick list of basic theory ideas you should get to:
- How chords are built
- Tension and release
- What a “key” is
- Chord relationships (You should be able to answer a question like “What is the IV chord in the key of F major?)
- Half, Authentic, and Plagal cadences
- Borrowed chords
Again, don’t just try to memorize these concepts. Always look for them in real pieces of music to see how they’re actually used.
Basic Open Position Chords
Open chords are ones that use a combination of fretted notes and open strings. They’ll mostly occur within the first three frets of the neck. I suggest starting with major, minor, and dominant seventh versions for all the natural notes, A-G. Look for songs that use a few of the chords and learn them in that context. Don’t try to learn any more than five or six at a time. This allows you to learn new chords as you need them instead of trying to cram 21 different chords into your head at once.
It’s no good having chords if you don’t have any rhythms to go along with them, right? You can start with some basic quarter note/eighth note rhythms and later expand into sixteenth notes and syncopations. Work the rhythms first over just one chord, then use pairs of chords to practice changing them effectively. You’ll continue to learn and invent rhythm patterns throughout your studies.
Tuning By Ear
I didn’t put this earlier in the list because you can use electronic tuners to keep you in check early on. But as you get more advanced you’ll find that those tuners will get you in the ballpark, but rarely perfectly tuned. Being able to tune by ear will help you fine tune your guitar to make it sound much better. You’re not looking for perfect pitch here. You’ll start with a reference note from another source and use relative pitch to tune the rest of the guitar.
Once you’ve gotten your open chords down, you’ll start running across chords that can’t be played that way, like a C#7. Barre chords use all fretted notes to create the chords. The nice thing is that you really only need to know eight patterns here because they’re movable to other areas of the neck. Make sure to learn major, minor, dominant seventh, and minor seventh voicings rooted from both the fifth and sixth strings.
What makes barre chords a little harder is the physicality of holding down five or six strings at once and keeping them all clean sounding. If you run into some trouble with these, that’s totally normal. Just keep working at them. As a guitarist, you’ll use barre chords a lot.
Also, while you’re learning your barre chords, you can easily learn how to read all the rest of the notes on the fretboard.
Traditional music teaching would have you learn major scales first. But for a guitarist, pentatonic scales are much more immediately useful. As with anything, don’t try and learn everything at once. Start with a basic box pattern rooted on the sixth string. Add subsequent patterns once you’re comfortable with the one you’re learning.
Same as with the pentatonics, you want to work with one pattern at a time here. The nice thing is that once you know some major patterns, they can be slightly changed to become other interesting scales as well. Always look at how the new thing you’re learning relates to the old stuff you learned.
Position playing means being able to play melodies higher up on the neck than the open position. Once you’ve got some major and pentatonic scales under your fingers, this won’t be that hard.
Your minor scales are related to the major patterns you learned before. Here you’ll want to get to know the natural, harmonic, and melodic minors.
Extended chords go beyond the old major and minor. You’ll need all the variations of seventh chords, diminished and augmented, ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth voicings. As you go along you’ll pick up new chords you find in pieces your playing.
Remember that music is a cumulative form of study. The more you learn, the easier it is to learn more. The building blocks that you learn early on will still be relevant later when you’re tying out much more complicated pieces.
Once you can make your way around each of the concepts above you’ll be ready to go into any style and any piece you’d like with the proper tools to teach yourself.