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Getting Started on the Guitar - A Beginner's Guide

 
"I think the hardest obstacle to overcome ... is the thought that playing the guitar is only something musicians can do"
 
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This article is devoted to all beginning and early-intermediate guitarists (and even those just thinking about learning to play or giving the gift of music to a loved one) and how to approach gaining some kind of profiency on the instrument. Now, we've all seen people playing the guitar at various times, sometimes on TV, sometimes up close (a real treat), playing various kinds of music and at varying skill levels. I think the hardest obstacle to overcome when you're a beginner or thinking about starting is the thought that playing the guitar is only something musicians can do, or is only for people who are musically inclined. The simple fact is that anyone can learn to play the guitar. It's just a matter of spending some time with it on a regular basis, and practicing in a manner that's both fun and productive. Once it becomes part of your routine, it's only a matter of time before your skill level and confidence develop.

When I started learning the guitar, there were a couple of learning aids I found to be indispensable. They include:
  • Guitar Chord Reference Book - This is really helpful when you're not sure how to play an F chord or a B minor, or want to learn some other ways to play it


  • Artist Songbook - This is a songbook which has the piano, lyrics, and guitar chords to your artist's favorite songs, and is great for learning how to strum and change from chord to chord


  • Classical Guitar Book - This helps you familiarize yourself with the feel of scales and arpeggios, and also improves your sight reading


  • Guitar Tab Songbook - As you progress, you're going to want to play some of the guitar parts from your favorite songs note-for-note, meaning exactly as your favorite guitarist plays them. This type of book has the music for this both in standard notation and guitar tablature


I had a very insightful guitar teacher who started off each lesson by showing me a new chord and how to play it. Some good chord reference books that tackle these types of chords are the Whole Book of Guitar Chords and The First Book of Chords for the Guitar both written by Dan Fox. Once I had a feel for the chord, he would choose a song from a songbook from one of my favorite bands that used this chord (say a B minor or an A7) and would have me learn that song using an appropriate strum pattern. My mom played the piano, and would often visit the music store to buy sheet music songbooks from her favorite artists, so eventually I got her to buy me a few gems of this type:
  • Beatles Complete - This is a valuable book for two reasons. One is that it's The Beatles. The second is that The Beatles composed songs with relatively few and very easy to play chords ("I Saw Her Standing There" has three), and also songs with many and often unorthodox chords ("Michelle" has, um, a lot), especially when used in rock music. This makes it a great vehicle for learning new chords incrementally via their songs


  • Neil Young - Decade - My brother wore out this recording and when I started playing some of the tunes from it on the guitar, it gave his little brother some instant credibility. Many of the songs in this book were recorded by Neil on the acoustic guitar, so it lends itself to the beginner who's learning on an acoustic


  • Led Zeppelin Complete - This is a strange and beautiful book. It has the main guitar riffs for every Led Zeppelin song on the first five albums (I - IV and House of the Holy) but it's in standard notation. I spent a summer learning every song in this book and not only did my guitar playing improve, but so did my sight reading


  • Eric Clapton Deluxe Revised - This contains some of the best songs from Cream, the Layla disc by Derek and the Dominoes, and some of Eric's early solo work, but it's unique in that it has a separate section with some of Eric's best guitar solos transcribed. Eric is a great role model when you start learning how to play a guitar solo, because some of his solos are simple enough that they can be played by a beginning-intermediate guitar player (though it takes a lifetime to learn to play it with as much feeling as Eric)


Once we covered the chord of the week and the song that went with it, we would tackle a classical piece. One of the best classical books I can recommend, especially if you're not a classical guitarist, is Classical Studies for Pick-Style Guitar - Volume 1. This book is great for developing your right-hand picking and also for developing your sight reading since all the music is in standard notation. There's some interesting pieces by Matteo Carcassi, which require you to arpeggiate various chords, and also some Bach Inventions that are arranged for duet guitar, so you can play with a friend. You can hear how this sounds in an on-line guitar lesson I created at WholeNote - Bach's 8th Invention.

The one thing that's changed over the past decade in sheet music for guitarists is the emergence of guitar tab songbooks. In the late 1990's, an archive of guitar tablature files was collectively created and dubbed the On-Line Guitar Archives (OLGA), in which random guitarists from around the world created text files containing their own transcriptions of how to play your favorite songs by your favorite bands. The problem was that the quality and accuracy of the transcription was hit or miss. Sheet music companies finally wised up and started releasing accurate note-for-note transcription books, which were the real deal. In my day, you were a god if you could play the guitar solo, "Eruption", played by Eddie Van Halen off Van Halen I, because you had to learn it by ear off the record, which is pretty much impossible. Today, you can just buy the Van Halen I guitar tab songbook and get all the music for Eruption both in guitar tab and standard notation. Oh, and they also throw in the rest of the songs from Van Halen I, and from Van Halen II, as well. I've always loved the whacked-out intro that Eddie plays in Mean Street, which opens the Fair Warning recording. The Van Halen Guitar Anthology Series has the tab for this, note for note, including every last harmonic, pick scrape, bend, and tap. It's unbelievable. And it's not just Van Halen. You can find similar guitar tab songbooks for The Beatles, Metallica, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Dave Matthews Band, Nirvana, Green Day, Audioslave and pretty much anyone else you can think of.

Finally, as you develop your practice routine, the one thing most often overlooked during practice is being able to play in time. When you start to get comfortable with chords and strumming, there's a natural tendency to stop or to hesitate while switching between chords. A good metronome will make you aware of this and force you to play in time. The Qwik Time QT-7 Quartz Metronome is a good budget option and provides a good click, while the Wittner Wood Case Metronome w/ Bell and Cover is the kind you can hang onto forever and pass along from generation to generation (and I should know - I have one from my grandfather). The Fender MT-1000 Chromatic Tuner/Metronome is unique in that you get both a metronome and a guitar tuner in one convenient package. Very handy, indeed.

Hopefully, this gives you a bit of direction as you learn to play the guitar. Remember that it's simply a matter of spending some time regularly practicing some of the basics and then applying them to your favorite music. Keep expanding your knowledge of the basic chords and learn to play songs that use them, along with the strumming patterns of the tune. Combined with some classical pieces for dexterity and developing your sight-reading chops, you'll be well on your way to mastering the guitar in no time.

Christopher Sung is a guitarist, an adjunct professor at NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program, and a small-business owner - probably in that order.
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