People often give up learning how to play acoustic guitar because they think it’s already too late for them. They often say: “It’s like swimming, if you didn’t learn it as a child, you’ll never learn it!“ Fortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. Playing guitar is more like driving a car – although it can be very challenging in the beginning, with regular practice it can be mastered in a very short period of time, no matter how old you are. Have you ever wondered why the guitar is one of the most popular instruments? Probably the main reason is that it can be mastered without much difficulty.
Types and parts of a guitar
Basically, there are three major types of the guitar: acoustic, electric and classical. An acoustic guitar is constructed of wood with a sound hole in its body, which produces the sound of the guitar, so it does not require the use of an amplifier. Classical guitar is very similar to acoustic, but it has a wider neck and typically uses nylon strings, which produce more mellow tone, and are more suitable for finger style type of playing.
Parts of an acoustic guitar
Headstock – a term which refers to the end of the neck, where tuning machines (or tuners) are located.
Tuning machines – tuners are used for changing the pitch of strings, by tightening or loosening them.
Nut – a part which is located between neck and headstock, where playable parts of the strings end.
Neck – a long, narrow part which connects the body and the headstock.
Fretboard – a part of the neck which is found directly underneath the strings.
Frets – thin metal bars that are located along the fretboard. While playing, fingers should be placed between bars.
Body – a hollow wooden part, also called resonance box, which gives the guitar its tone.
Sound hole – the hole in a guitar body, which releases the sound from the body.
Pick guard – used to protect the guitar body from being scratched by the pick.
Bridge – the part that transfers the string vibration to the body, amplifying them and thus producing the sound.
Saddle – has the same function as Nut, but on the opposite end.
Bridge pins – a part where string enters guitar body and is fixed by pins.
How to hold a guitar neck?
At the beginning of the guitar learning process it is very important to remember that it might get quite uncomfortable, but don’t let these difficulties discourage you! With regular practice, you will overcome these obstacles in no time!
If you are right-handed you should hold the guitar neck with your left hand (and vice versa). It is crucial to hold the neck properly from the beginning; otherwise, it will be difficult to change the way you hold the guitar once you have learned the wrong way. Picture no. 1 illustrates the proper way to hold a guitar neck, and Picture no. 2 shows the inadequate way. The main problem is that putting your thumb over the neck prevents you from accessing the top strings with your fingers. As illustrated by Picture no. 1, the thumb should be gently pressed to the back of the neck when learning how to play acoustic guitar.
Picture 1: Right way Picture 2: Wrong way
It should be noted that sometimes thumb can be used as demonstrated on Picture 2, usually while playing chords, in order to mute the top string (as illustrated on Picture 3).
Although both of these techniques can be used, it is recommended to use position on Picture no. 1 as often as possible, because it allows better access to the strings.
How to hold a guitar pick?
Although some guitar players use only their fingers (usually those who play classical music), it is common to use the guitar pick. It’s a small piece of plastic used for strumming the strings.
First of all, your strumming hand (right hand in case you are right-handed) should be as relaxed as possible. If you tight your pick too hard you won’t be able to keep the rhythm and to strum the strings in the proper way. Guitar pick should be located between your thumb and your first finger, as shown in the picture under.
Tablatures are often used by guitarists in order to write down the proper way to play a song on a guitar. It consists of frets and strings. Frets are represented by ordinal numbers (1st, 2nd, etc…) and the strings by their notes (E, A, D, G, B, and E) and by the numbers. The thinnest string is called the 1st string, the one above it the 2nd, and so on… Of course, the top string is called the 6th string. All of this is represented in Picture 5.
When we say that “the note of a string” it means that this particular note is produced when you play an open or “empty” string, i.e. hit the string with your pick without pressing any fret. It is usually marked as an empty circle above the first fret (just like we did with the notes, but without any letter in it). There is one more symbol that we should mention, and that is a symbol that looks like letter X. It represents the muted string (a string that you shouldn’t play while playing a chord). We will see these symbols later in a chord section.
You might notice that there are two E strings; don’t worry, this is not a mistake. This is because the 1st and the 6th string produce the same note (E); the only difference is that the 1st one is higher in pitch, but it is still the E note.
Of course, when you press the string on a particular chord it will change its tone. The higher the fret, the higher the tone will be. Although there may be above 100 frets, there are actually only 12 notes E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, H, C, C#, D, D#. The # sign (sharp) means that the note should be played one semitone above (one semitone = one fret). The notes on the fretboard on all of the strings are represented in Picture 6.
Picture 6: Notes on the fretboard
Like many of you are aware of, the guitarists usually play more than one string at a time. It is called the chord playing, and right now we are going to find out what are the chords.
Now that you have learned how to hold your guitar and a guitar pick, and what the notes of a strings and frets are, it is time to start playing! We will start with the chords, as this is an essential music element and a foundation for guitar playing. Many guitar players stay on this level, especially if they also sing. In bands, a guitarist who plays chords is called a rhythm guitarist. So, let’s see what the chords are!
A chord is a harmonic set of notes that are played simultaneously. It usually consists of three notes – the 1st, the 3rd and the 5th note of a scale (don’t worry if you are not familiar with these terms, they are not essential at this point). However, the theory part is not so important, at least for now. So, the best idea is to mention a few of the most common chords ant to learn how to play them.
A little tip for the beginners – prepare your fingertips! When you start to play, you will experience a pain in your fingertips, especially if the distance between the strings and the neck of your guitar is wide and if your guitar has metal strings. Although this can be very frustrating, you should remember that, after a while, your fingertips will become solid and insensitive, so you will be able to play for hours with no problems. Another part where you might feel pain is your wrist; the pain occurs as a result of pressing the string with your fingers. The best advice is to play until you feel the pain and then to rest for a couple of seconds until the pain is gone.
However, if it is too painful for your fingers and wrist, you should consider getting nylon strings as with these strings it is much easier to learn how to play acoustic guitar.
Now let’s see the chords!
Major and Minor chords
There are two basic categories of chords – Major and Minor. The difference between them is in one note (3rd note of a scale). In the case of Major chords the 3rd is one semitone higher (or one fret higher) than within Minor chords. Although it is just one semitone, Major chords tend to sound more “happy” while the minor chords are usually described as dreamy or “sad”. Let’s see some pictures so it would be easier to understand.
As you can see, a symbol for A minor is the note name (A) with a letter m following it. The black circles on the string represent the fret on which you should press the string. You can also notice the numbers within these circles; these numbers show you what finger you should use for what fret. You can press the frets with all of your fingers (except the thumb). Every finger has its number:
- Index finger – 1
- Middle finger – 2
- Ring finger – 3
- Little finger – 4
So, as you can see, in order to play A minor, you should put your index finger on the 1st fret of a second string, your ring finger on the 2nd fret of a third string, and your middle finger on the 2nd fret of the fourth string. The first and fifth strings should be played open and sixth string should be muted.
A major chord
Let’s see how the A major chord is played. All major chords are symbolized only with the note name (A), although somewhere you can see capital letter M after the note name (AM).
As you can see, it is very similar to the Am. The only difference is that the second string is played on the 2nd fret. Of course, because it is a different chord shape, fingers position is also different.
Like in a previous case, the first and fifth strings are open, and the sixth one is muted.
Like in the case of an A minor and major, these two chords differ only in one note. Everything else is the same – the fourth string is played open (it is D note) and the tops two strings are muted
These two chords are probably the easiest to play, especially Em, as you need only two fingers in order to play it. There are no muted strings here, but in the case of Em, there are 4 open strings.
This is a chord that is a little harder to play, as you have to stretch your fingers across three frets. If you look closely you can see that it is very similar to Am. In order to play C major after A minor, you only have to move your ring finger from the third string 2nd fret to fifth string 3rd fret.
So far, this is the most demanding chord, as you have to use all of your playing fingers. Besides this, although it is played only on two frets, it won’t be very easy chord to play because you have to separate your fingers from the top to the bottom two strings.
All of these chords are located in the first three frets, and this is why th
ey are oftencalled “first position chords”. The thing is that you can play all of these chords all across the fretboard. In order to do so, you have to learn how to play the barre chord. This is very important because there are chords that you can’t play in the first position (such as C# or G minor). However, the problem is that this chord isn’t very easy to play, as you have to press all of the strings with one finger. This may sound impossible, but don’t worry, there is a technique that can be mastered. It is represented in the picture.
This shape is the same for every chord; you just have to move it across the neck. The chord name depends on the root note, and that is the note of the 6th string. So, if you play barre on the 1st fret, what is the name of that chord? If you can’t remember, you can always go back to the Picture no6, and check the notes on the fretboard. If you do that you will realize that this is F chord. And what if you play it on the 5th fret? That is right, that is A chord. Of course, like in the previous cases, you can play the minor and the major barre; the only difference is whether you will press the 3rd string with your second finger. If you press it, it is major, and without it, it’s a minor chord.
You should be aware that this is one of the most complicated chords to play. It will be very hard in the beginning; you will feel the pain in your wrist because in order to play this chord, you have to press all of the strings with the side of your first finger, and that is not an easy task, especially for the first couple of frets. However, with a hard work, dedication, and practice on a regular basis, you will learn how to play it. Remember, if you feel the pain you should stop until the pain is gone and that continue. Ignoring the pain and keep pressing the strings despite it won’t get you anywhere, and you will only hurt your wrist. Learning how to play the guitar takes time, you can’t become Eric Clapton in a month!
Songs for practicing how to play acoustic guitar
I know many kids that started playing guitar and then give it up because they didn’t find it interesting to play the same chords over and over again. It can be very boring indeed, but there is a solution for this. The best way to overcome boredom while practicing is to find a song that you can play with a few chords, as this way you will hear and feel the right chord progression; also, this way you can sing while you play. All of this will make these first few months of practicing more interesting.
Besides this, it is important to practice your right hand as well. With your right hand you shouldn’t strum the strings randomly without any timing; on the contrary, it should be done in a particular, constant and accurate rhythm, and there is no better way to do this than to play a particular song.
Here are a few suggestions of simple and popular songs that you can learn.
Iggy Pop – The Passenger
This is a popular, easy, and interesting song to play. It consists of only 5 chords – Am, F, C, G, and E. As we have mentioned, all of these chords are “the first position chords”, so it is a pretty simple.
Coldplay – Paradise
This is another easy song that a younger population is more familiar with. It should be mentioned that in this song there a few barre chords, so it won’t be as easy as Iggy Pop. However, this is a great song for learning how to play acoustic guitar, so it can serve as a great motivation for learning barre chords.
When it comes to playing and learning how to play acoustic guitar, one thing is crucial, and that is dedication; and, as it is well known, it is hard to be dedicated to something unless you enjoy it. Having this in mind, it is clear that it’s very hard to make progress if you don’t enjoy playing guitar.
This is why you should ask yourself: “Why do I want to learn how to play the guitar?” and be honest while answering this question. So, what is it? To become popular, to attract the attention of your peers, to earn money? If one of these answers is yours, you should probably rethink your decision to play the guitar, as there are many other ways to achieve those goals. However, if your answer is “because I love playing the guitar” or “because I’m into music”, then you are on the right path.
The best advice for the end would be to create a special and personal relationship with your guitar. You shouldn’t look at it as a kind of tool or an object, but rather as your extension which allows you to express yourself. Although sometimes it can get really hard and your training might seem useless, you should always remember to just keep moving on and to keep on practicing, and the success will eventually come. This Jimi Hendrix’s quote can serve as a motivation to help you go through hard times: “Sometimes you want to give up the guitar, you’ll hate the guitar. But if you stick with it, you’re gonna be rewarded.”