10 Tips for Beginning Guitarists
I've written an article for MusicianWages.com called "15 Guitar Tips for Non-Guitarists" geared towards professional musicians that are picking up the guitar as a secondary instrument. The article covers the basics: how to hold the guitar comfortably, strumming and picking techniques, and tips for playing chords. These are tips I give my beginning students as well, or even remind intermediate players from time to time. As the title suggests, that article is written for non-guitarists--people that have a lot of experience learning another instrument and simply want to play some guitar as well. Here are some extra tips for beginners who have never learned another instrument. And although I'm writing with guitar students in mind, I believe these concepts can help relieve some of the frustration that comes with learning any instrument.
1. Warm Up
When you first pick the guitar up every day, take a few minutes to play slowly. Let your fingers get used to feeling the instrument. Whatever you're learning, slow it down and play it with very little tension. If you're a beginner, you're exercising new muscles in your hands and they're going to get a little sore. Even after you've been playing for a while, you still need to warm up to avoid injuries. See My Guitar Warm-up Routine.
If you're having trouble with a chord change or picking out a solo line, stop playing. Take your hands off the guitar and just imagine yourself playing it a few times. Picture your hands moving and imagine the sound the guitar will create. Then try playing it slowly. The physical coordination of your fingers might still be difficult, but once your mind understands what you are trying to do, it's much easier to get it right.
Repetition creates new connections between neurons in your brain, called synapses. When you learn something new, like a C major scale, your brain creates new synapses. The connections are reinforced with repetition. There is no shortcut to this process, you simply have to put in the practice time. But even 15 minutes of focused repetition will help you learn very quickly.
4. Break It Down
When you're learning a new song on guitar, break it into pieces that can be practiced easily, then connect the pieces together. For new songs, spend a little time on each section individually before you try to play it start to finish. If you're working on a new solo, focus on one phrase at a time, and then practice connecting each phrase. It's a lot easier to handle many smaller pieces than one big piece.
5. Sleep On It
When you sleep your brain continues working on those synapses. Just like lifting weights requires recovery time for your muscles to get stronger, your brain needs some recovery time to process what you've just learned. Practicing right before bed (or a nap) is probably the best way to learn something new. Try it for yourself--go over something brand new in the half hour before you go to bed. The next morning, pick up your guitar and try playing it. It's much easier than it was last night, right? Noticing progress one day to the next is a great motivator to keep practicing.
6. Playing vs. Practicing
There's a difference between playing the guitar and learning the guitar. Be aware of which one you're doing. I've had students come to a lesson and play a new song they learned, but they stumble through the whole thing because they never slowed down to work out the rough spots. I encourage everyone to learn a few songs early on just so they have something fun to play, but I also make sure they dedicate some of their playing time as practice time. See How To Practice Guitar.
7. Don't be Afraid of Mistakes
When you learn something new, you will make a lot of mistakes. I always tell myself those mistakes are bound to happen, so I might as well get them out of the way now. What's more important is that you identify the trouble spots, and then break the passage down to fix the trouble spots. This is where a good teacher can really come in handy.
8. Practice Recovering from Mistakes
Since mistakes are bound to happen from time to time, learn how to get through it and keep playing. A metronome is a great tool for this exercise. The beat keeps moving and so should the music, whether you hit the chord or not. Don't stop every time you mess up, just catch up at the next downbeat. Imagine the music happening on it's own, your job is to simply play along not sabotage it.
9. Learn with Friends
Learn the same songs as your friends. You don't have to start a band, but having other people to play with will motivate you to learn your part and learn it well. Not to mention it's a lot of fun.
10. Get a Good Instrument
Now, I never like to use gear as an excuse, but most cheap guitars are simply difficult to play. If your strings are too high from the fretboard or the guitar keeps going out of tune, you won't enjoy playing every day. If you really want to play guitar, it's worth the investment to buy a decent instrument and pay to have it set up by a guitar tech for optimal performance. If you need more advice in these areas, I've also written articles about buying your first guitar and basic set ups for fretted instruments.