The Complete Guide to Learn How to Play Guitar in 2023

A guide to learn how to play guitar
Learn how to play guitar

There are so many options to learn how to play guitar.

There are millions of guitar teachers out there. But the guitar is also one of the best instruments to teach yourself.

Many online resources are available, as well as books and magazines that you can use at home.

But knowing where to start to learn guitar and how to progress can be difficult.

The best way to learn guitar is:

  1. Find a resource to give your learning structure – like a teacher or an online guitar lessons course
  2. Practice, practice, practice.

This article provides that structure. It shows you how to play guitar by suggesting what to learn at each stage of your development.

Can I Learn How to Play Guitar Without A Teacher?

A guitar teacher helping a child to learn how to play guitar
Guitar teachers can help adults and children learn how to play guitar

Face-to-face lessons aren’t everything. You can learn to play guitar by yourself – it’s fun and you’ll still become a great musician.

When I was a kid, if you wanted to learn guitar, you either got a teacher or bought a book. There was no easy way to learn guitar by yourself.

Today, the internet has revolutionized how we learn guitar.

Beginner guitar players can learn almost anything online. YouTube, guitar tabs, apps and guitar lessons websites are all great resources.

Getting face-to-face weekly guitar lessons from a teacher is still the best way to learn. If you can get a teacher, then you should—at least to begin with.

Why? Because a good teacher will:

  • Provide immediate feedback and tips on your guitar learning
  • Structure guitar lessons around you
  • Give you advice on what to learn and the learning process

Before You Begin: Get A Guitar

A woman trying to decide which guitar to buy.
There are lots of choices when it comes to buying your first guitar

To begin with, you need to choose your first guitar. The best guitar for a beginner guitarist should:

  • Suit the kind of music you love: you’ll enjoy learning the guitar more if you focus on playing music styles and songs you love. Your guitar should enable this. So if you love folk music, you should buy an acoustic guitar.
  • Be the correct size: There’s a range of different guitar sizes available. It’s important to find which size works best for you. For example, a child may prefer a 3/4-sized guitar, while an adult may be more comfortable with a full-sized guitar.
  • Be inexpensive: it’s a good idea to at least learn the basics before spending hundreds or thousands on a guitar. Our article on best acoustic guitars under $500 lists several good budget instruments. It’s often a good idea to begin with an acoustic guitar. That’s because if you want to play electric guitar, you also need to buy a guitar amp. This means it costs more. That said, the most important thing is to buy a guitar that suits your style.
  • Be reasonable quality: You don’t want to spend much but still need a good quality instrument from one of the best guitar brands. We recommend something like a Fender Squire or an Epiphone.

Tip: Practice at least one hour per day

A man practicing guitar at home.
The best way to learn how to play guitar is to practice

The ONLY way to get good at guitar is to practice.

Whether you get a teacher or decide to learn guitar by yourself, no one gets good without regular practice.

We recommend at least one hour per day to begin with.

This isn’t a hard rule—the regularity of playing every day is more important than the time.

Putting time aside every day can be difficult, so here are some tips:

  • Remember to keep your guitar in a place where you can see it. This will encourage you to pick it up whenever you have a spare few minutes.
  • Break the hour down. If a single one-hour session is too much, consider breaking it down into smaller sessions. Try to play for a few minutes in the morning, after work or school and shortly before bed.
  • If you’re struggling then begin practicing for 20 minutes at a time. Try to practice a minute longer every day.

Below is our step-by-step guide to learn guitar. We’ve broken this down into beginner, intermediate and advanced stages.

How to Learn Guitar by Yourself: The Very Beginning…

Learn to tune your guitar

A guitar player tuning their instrument.
You need to be able to tune a guitar if you want to learn how to play guitar

You can learn the world’s biggest guitar riffs, but if your guitar is out of tune, they will sound terrible. New guitarists will most likely need to buy a tuner.

But it’s good to learn how to tune a guitar by ear. It means you won’t need to rely on a tuner and you’ll develop your musical ear.

There are two main ways to tune by ear:

  • Relative pitch tuning: this is where you tune your guitar to another string you already know to be in tune
  • Reference tuning: this is where you tune to another instrument or sound

Learn basic riffs

Guitarist playing a riff from their favorite song
Most budding guitar players want to learn riffs from their favorite songs

When you decide to learn guitar it’s usually because you want to play songs you recognize.

Luckily, some of the most recognized riffs in history are also some of the easiest.

Learning some super-simple riffs is a great first step when you learn guitar. It’s both fun and satisfying. Here are some easy song suggestions:

  • Smoke On The Water (Deep Purple)
  • Another One Bites The Dust (Queen)
  • You Really Got Me (The Kinks)
  • Seven Nation Army (White Stripes)
  • I Can’t Get No Satisfaction (The Rolling Stones)

Learning these riffs helps develop basic technique and is fun from day one.

Learn to read guitar tab and chord charts

An open book showing guitar chord charts with two guitar picks
Learning guitar chord charts is crucial

Guitar tablature—or tab for short—shows guitarists how to play songs. It does this by telling them where to put their fingers on the fretboard.

Most players find it easier to learn songs using tab than musical notation. But it doesn’t provide as much detail on the rhythm and often relies on your ear to pick up this aspect.

Read our guides to chord charts and guitar tab for more information.

Learn to play guitar chords

A close up of a person playing the D chord on guitar
Learning guitar chords is an important step

Playing guitar chords is critical to learning the instrument. Being able to play beginner chords is vital if you want to learn most songs or play with others.

Unfortunately, learning to play guitar chords can take some time. That’s because you need to build up the dexterity and strength that your fingers need to play them.

A good way to start is to learn how to play simplified versions of basic chords.

Here are some examples of how you can learn to play guitar chords with one or two fingers:

Read our guide to guitar chord charts for more information.

Armed with these simple guitar chords, you should be able to learn a lot of songs.

Learn to Strum Guitar Chords

A metronome next to a classical acoustic guitar
A metronome helps you learn to keep time when playing guitar

So far, we’ve focused on what your fingers on the fretboard are doing.

But it’s also important that the other hand can play a range of different rhythms.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to good strumming technique:

  1. Get a pick/plectrum. This is a small triangle piece of plastic that’s used to strum or pick the guitar strings.
  2. Hold the pick between your thumb and forefinger, in line with the back of your hand.
  3. Position the guitar pick so that it is pointing at the soundhole or the pickups. Keep your forearm in line with the body of the neck. Avoid bending your wrist as this makes strumming harder.
  4. Now it’s time to strum. Move your arm up and down and pass the pick over the strings using fluid movements. Keep your wrist straight and pivot your whole arm from the elbow. Strike the strings with the tip of the pick and push through them, allowing the pick to slide over them.
  5. The most important part of strumming is to strike the strings in time to the beat. Your downstrokes should hit the strings on the beat, while your upstrokes should be off the beat. Only hit the first two or three strings on the upstroke (the three thinnest ones that are furthest away from you. This makes your guitar playing sound more relaxed.

Play a full song—and sing along!

A woman playing guitar and singing into the microphone
Singing along makes playing guitar more enjoyable

Once you have the basic technique down and you can play guitar chords, you’re ready to learn some simple songs.

Learning songs is fun and it’s a good way to show off your new guitar playing skills to friends and family.

Playing songs teaches you about song structure. It also teaches you to switch between different guitar parts.

At this stage, you should try to learn your favorite songs in a style that you enjoy.

You should also try to sing along.

This is very difficult at first. But it will help complete the song and make your guitar playing more satisfying. Don’t be put off if you can’t sing. If others are around and you don’t want to be heard then sing under your breath.

Find a structured, high-quality course or resource

Man shown from behind holding a guitar and watching an online guitar lesson
Online guitar lesson platforms are a good way to learn guitar

There are tonnes of great online learning platforms to self teach guitar. Finding the right one for you can be a great replacement for a guitar teacher.

Professional guitar teachers develop these platforms. They help you learn the basics step-by-step. You can then choose a style to focus on and develop your technique.

Good examples are Fender Play, Guitar Tricks and Justin Guitar.

You can also find online teachers who provide their own courses and tuition. A good example of this is Guitar365 which also provides free lessons on YouTube. Or we provide our own free guitar lessons or beginner guitar course here at Guitarist 101.

How to self-teach guitar: Intermediate

Play arpeggios

An open sheet music book showing a song involving arpeggios
Arpeggios are a great technique for beginner guitarists to learn

An arpeggio is when you play a chord one note at a time along with the beat. They can be quite difficult to learn to begin with, but once you’ve cracked it they sound great.

They are most often used in more soulful rock and folk songs. That’s because they give an extra layer of depth and complexity than strumming a chord would.

Some of our favorite songs that use and arpeggio include:

  • Stairway To Heaven by Led Zeppelin
  • Everybody Hurts by REM
  • House of the Rising Sun by the Animals
  • Greenday Time of Your Life

Learn some simple solos

Male guitarist leaning his head back and playing a solo with a drum kit in the background
Everyone wants to learn screaming solos – but it’s better to start simple

Many people dream of playing a screaming guitar solo like Hendrix or Page when they self-teach guitar.

Playing solos involves learning a broad range of techniques. There are too many to list in this article!

But some guitar solos use very little technique and are perfect for beginners.

Start with solos like the one in Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit. This follows the vocal and involves playing single notes with an effect over them.

Beginner solos also usually revolve around a simple, repetitive phrase. A good example of this is Eric Clapton’s Wonderful Tonight.

Self-teach guitar scales and theory

A chalk board showing the major scale
Learning guitar theory like major scales helps you understand what notes sound good together

Music theory is the relationship between the different notes.

If you know these relationships then you can use it to work out how to play chords. You’ll also know why notes sound good or bad together in a song or solo.

The two most important terms for beginner guitarists to learn are scales and keys.

Scales are groups of notes that work with a specific chord progression. They help create a specific mood when you play them together. 

A key is the scale in which you play a song. Usually, this will be the first chord played in a song—but not always.

For example, if you are playing a song in the key of A major and you want to add a solo, then you would use the A major scale.

Practice to a metronome

A close up of a guitar. The guitarist is strumming the strings using a plectrum
Learning to strum correctly is important

Music is all about playing the right notes at the right time, so it’s important to train yourself to play in time to a beat.

This will add speed and precision to your playing, as well as make it easier when you come to play with others in a band.

A metronome counts beats out loud so you can hear exactly when to strike the strings.

Begin by slowing down the metronome and playing something that you find difficult. Once you can play it at that speed, gradually speed up. Once you can play it at full speed, try playing faster.

This approach makes it easier to learn difficult songs and also gets you used to playing in time.

You could also use a drum machine. This can be easier to play along to as your ears will be familiar with the sound of drums.

How to self-teach guitar: Advanced

Train your ear

A woman cupping her ear
Training your musical ear will make you a better musician

Don’t just rely on tabs and videos to self teach guitar. Spend time trying to work out how to play guitar songs by listening to them. This will help you develop your musical ear.

Someone with a good musical ear can learn things faster and finds jamming with a band easier.

Learn techniques

Once you have become an intermediate guitar player, it’s good to start learning some more advanced techniques. These could include:

  • Pinch harmonics
  • Tapping
  • Shredding
  • Sweep picking

These techniques will take you some time to develop and use effectively.  You need to be patient and dedicate a lot of time to practicing them.

Recognize rhythms and time signatures

A music book showing a time signature
Learning time signatures is a good way to recognize different rhythms

Time signatures tell you the rhythm that you’ll be playing for a song.

Time signatures are expressed as two numbers, one on top of the other. The top number tells us how many beats are in a bar, while the bottom number tells us how long they are.

This might sound complicated. But by this point in your guitar playing, you will be familiar with most of the basic time signatures.

For example, 2/4 is a march, while 3/4 is a waltz.

  • It’s good to have a basic understanding of how time signatures work.
  • It’s crucial that you know the names of and can recognize basic rhythms.

That’s because it will help you self teach guitar songs without having to listen to them. It will also allow you to talk about the rhythm of your favorite songs when you play with other musicians.

Here are some examples of common rhythms and songs that use them:

March: I Will Wait by Mumford And Sons

Waltz: Golden Brown by The Stranglers

Shuffle: Everybody Wants To Rule The World by Tears For Fears

Swing: In The Mood, by Glen Miller

Join a band

A band consisting of two guitarists, a bass player and a drummer practicing at a studio
Joining a band is one of the best ways to improve your guitar playing

Joining a band is one of the best things you can do to self teach guitar.

By playing with other musicians you expand your creativity and pick up tips from bandmates.

Being in a band also helps you learn to adapt your playing on the cuff.

What do I mean by this?

Well, no song ever sounds like it does on the record when it’s played live. You might play it slower or louder—sometimes one of your bandmates might even make a mistake or skip a part.

Being able to react to these changes will make you a better and more flexible guitarist.

Joining a band also gives you focus and direction, which is the backbone of how to self teach guitar.

Say you join a jazz covers band. You’ll need to learn their songs before you can start playing with them. This could involve learning 20-50 songs within a few months. By the end of this period, you’ll have a strong understanding of jazz guitar and you’ll be ready to learn more in the genre.

Finally, being in a band usually involves performing live. This is the true test of your abilities. You’ll be playing under pressure and the audience will expect a seamless performance.

7 Tips for learning guitar

Tips for how to learn guitar
Tips for how to learn guitar

In this article, I’ve provided you with a step-by-step guide to self-teaching the guitar. Next, I’m going to list a few top tips to bear in mind as you go.

1. Set goals

Try and write down what you want to achieve next in your guitar playing and when. For example, if you want to learn to play a song by a certain date, then write down how you are going to do that and when. This could be as simple as:

Learn to play Take Me Out by Franz Ferdinand in two weeks.

  1. Learn to play by watching YouTube videos every day this week
  2. Play song with band at weekend practice
  3. Play along to track every night for a week and iron-out any issues
  4. Perform song at a gig

2. Leave your guitar where you can see it

Keep your guitar out on display and don’t shut it away in a cupboard. This will remind you to practice and keep you thinking about playing.

You’ll also be more likely to pick it up and have two-minute ‘micro practices’.

Having regular micro-practices is valuable.

That’s because they keep your guitar playing fresh in your mind throughout the day. This has a compound effect on your playing. Your brain will be ready to play guitar at any time—rather than just at your practice time.

3. Try to play early in the morning

This is a tough one, but if you can try to make practicing guitar the first thing you do in the morning.

Playing early in the morning makes your brain think about what you’ve practiced throughout the day. This makes your learning more effective.

This is what students at guitar conservatoires do (schools where people spend all day every day learning to master guitar).

For most people, this will be difficult. You’ve usually got somewhere to be in the morning and family members and housemates might not appreciate it.

Our advice is to get up one hour earlier than you usually would and practice through headphones or in a garage.

4. Don’t just play power chords

Many new guitarists learn power chords and realize they can use them to play almost anything.

This is true, but it’s not good for your guitar development.

A power chord is otherwise known as a 5th chord. Guitarists can play the power chord shape in a uniform position across the guitar. This means they can quickly and easily play a tonne of great songs.

Once they have learned power chords, many players’ learning begins to slow down. That’s because they stop trying to develop their technique.

Don’t let this happen to you.

5. It’s normal for your fingertips and wrists to hurt

When you first begin guitar you’ll start getting little bruises on the tips of your fingers. These will then blister and go hard.

This is completely normal and is a sign that you are practicing regularly—good work!

You’ll also find that some harder chords and techniques will make your wrist ache. This is also normal and will start to reduce with time and practice.

6. Create structure

One of the main problems which self-taught guitarists face is a lack of structure.

This becomes a bigger problem when they move from intermediate to advanced.

We recommend using an online platform or course to help you with this. Good examples are Fender Play or Guitar Tricks.

Is YouTube rubbish for learning guitar?

No, it isn’t. You can learn guitar using YouTube. But the lack of structure mentioned above is a real problem that you’ll need to overcome.

7. Play with better guitarists

A great way to improve your guitar playing is to join a band or jam with guitar players that are better than you. You should never feel intimidated by better players. Instead, view it as an opportunity to learn and become as good as they are.

Begin your guitar journey!

A woman holding a guitar teaching a child to play guitar at home. The child is looking down at the guitar concentrating.
Begin your guitar journey!

The best way to self-teach acoustic and electric guitar is to find a resource to replace the structure that a teacher would give you.

One of the best ways to do this is to go online and find a lessons platform like Fender Play or Guitar Tricks. You can also use guides like this one.

Then you have to practice, practice, practice.

Maybe you want to learn how to play guitar but don’t know where to start? If so, then try our free beginner guitar course. It’ll take you from getting your first instrument all the way through to playing your first two songs.

Playing guitar is a journey of discovery and will enrich your life—so have fun and let us know how you get on!

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