I’ve been playing guitar for over 10 years, and frankly, it wasn’t easy getting started. I had a lot of misconceptions about guitar playing and about why I would want to play guitar in the first place, some of which turned into disappointments. It took me a while to understand it all, and hopefully you’ll be able to learn a thing or two from my ups and downs.
There are many great sites and videos about the technical side of playing guitar, but very few focus on the attitude and mentality you should have about starting to play an instrument. I’m gonna try to leave all the music stuff to the teachers and the pros, and just focus on what goes on inside your head, not on what your hands are supposed to do.
Most of these things apply to any other instruments as well, but I play guitar and figured I’d write this article around my own experience, making it a bit more personal and not just generic.
I am not a professional guitarist, by the way, so keep that in mind while reading this article, and take it for what it is — just some guy’s opinion.
The tips start after the jump!
1. Be honest with yourself
Why do you want to play guitar? This may seem like a dumb question, but you’d be surprised how many reasons there are for picking up the guitar, and how different people’s motives are. So ask yourself honestly, why do you want to do it? Is it because a girl you like might be impressed by it? Is it because you think it will just get you laid anywhere? Is it because you want your Facebook profile to have a photo of you and a guitar in it?
If any of those answers ring true to you, then I’ve got bad news for you: You just think guitars are cool, and want to do it for your image. You have to be honest with yourself and realize you will probably never become a great guitar player, you’ll probably just learn “Wonderwall” by Oasis and spam your Facebook friends with photos of you and a guitar with a scenic background.
That’s pretty lame in my opinion, but to each his own. Maybe some people start appreciating the instrument more as time goes by, but most will just use their guitars as accessories, and that’s it.
However, if the answer is: “I don’t know, I’ve seen <insert guitarist here> and I just want to do what he does.” That, my friend, is the correct answer. Congratulations, you may just actually learn to play guitar some day.
2. Find your purpose
Do you want to play guitar just as a hobby, or do it for a living? Again, it may seem like a weird question to ask, but there are two types of guitarists in the world: Those who play for their own sake, or in some local tribute band, and those who want to make a living out of it. Personally, I’m just doing it as a hobby, I’ve never been in a band, I just play my acoustic daily for my own sanity, and plug in my electric every other day and jam with myself through a loop pedal and drum machine. If that sounds like what you might be like in a few years, relax, it’s not a bad thing.
Not every person who plays guitar was born to be on stage, just like not every person with a dSLR camera was born to be a professional photographer. You will become a guitar prosumer, friends will see you as a guitarist, but guitarists will see you as an amateur. Even if you’re technically better than them, or your guitar is more expensive than their car. Musicians feel like they pay their dues by playing shitty clubs for little money, so even if they suck, they think they’re better than you. Fuck ‘em.
However, if you want to change the world with your guitar, that’s awesome. Just remember, you’ve got a lot of work to do, and a lot of sacrifices and compromises ahead of you. It’s not easy, and not everyone is gifted enough to become the next Dimebag Darrell. Which brings me to my next point…
3. Be realistic
When one of my best friends started playing guitar, he was really annoying. He could barely play an E chord, but he was telling me stuff like “In two months, I’ll be able to play Master of Puppets” or “This time next year, I’ll play the Crazy Train solo perfectly!” or even “In a few years, I’m gonna be just like Steve Vai!”. I kept bringing him back to Earth and telling him he should focus on the small stuff first, and see where it takes him. He didn’t like that, he told me I was discouraging him. I told him he was just obnoxious about his new-found love for guitar.
Then I remembered I was just like him when I started. Granted, I was much younger, but still, same attitude. Instead of getting good at the small stuff I could barely play, I was thinking of playing Kirk’s “One” solo and estimating when I’ll be able to pull it off. That was so wrong, don’t make the same mistake.
Just take it slowly. Chances are you won’t be able to play at blistering speeds in just a few months. Unless you’re really talented and practice 8 hours a day (which if you do, congratulations), it will take time for you to even get the basic stuff down, let alone be as fast and as precise as professional guitarists who have been doing this for decades.
Be realistic, guitarists like Steve Vai worked A LOT to get to where they are today, you are not gonna be able to cheat your way through it in a few weeks or months. And even if you do get good, remember, not everyone is Steve Vai.
4. Find your strumming hand
If you’re right-handed, congratulations. You’re ‘normal,’ and you will be able to play any guitar you find anywhere, and just enjoy life like the normal son of a bitch that you are.
If you’re a lefty, bad news, guitar playing will be a bit more frustrating than usual.
As a southpaw myself, the first time I tired to play guitar, I just got my dad’s right-handed acoustic and started watching video lessons. It was so frustrating, and I didn’t understand why. Especially since I figured out that the hand doing all the complex work would be my dominant hand, which meant I had an advantage as a lefty, fretting with my left.
Wrong, I didn’t, and only after I read an article about it, I realized that strumming with your dominant hand is important, because you’ve got your rhythm in it.
Play air guitar for a second. Which hand is doing the ‘air strumming’? Whichever it is, that’s the one you need to strum with on real guitar, so keep that in mind.
Michael Angelo Batio is a lefty who plays guitar ‘normally.’ He can play really, really fast. But he’s an exception, because he also plays guitar left-handed, and he says that even though he has more speed doing it the normal way, whenever he plays as a lefty, it feels normal to him. So if even one of the fastest shredders in the world feels he should have learned it the other way around, that’s enough evidence for you.
The downside to being a lefty is guitar models are limited, and usually hard to find in medium or small guitar shops. Once you get good enough and want more guitars, the limited choice will be very annoying. But it’s the price you have to pay for being a freak.
Okay, now you’re ready to buy the appropriate guitar, but…
5. Don’t spend too much
We humans have a weakness for shiny, beautiful things. It’s what keeps the economy going, and it’s why we spend so much money on smartphones, tablets, shiny laptops and other crap we don’t really need. Guitar playing is no different. In fact, it’s worse. Guitars are really attractive, and so are amps and pedals. You could blow through $10,000 instantly in a guitar shop, and still want more. It’s a sickness, it even has a name (Gear Acquisition Syndrome).
If you are rich and a few grand is not that much to you, sure, go nuts, it will probably motivate you. But if you’re a normal person with normal income, don’t waste it. Buy as you go along.
I started out with a very cheap Strat replica, an old pedal my dad had (which sucked), and an old Russian amplifier my dad had (which sucked even more). So what? It got me through the motions. If you have friends with old gear they don’t need, borrow it or buy it cheaply. Start modest, and don’t spend a lot until you’re certain you’re serious about it. But remember, a $1,000 guitar will not make you a better guitarist.
The good side of having GAS is that instruments kinda sell well even after years. It’s not like an iPad which becomes ancient after 2 years. If you take care of your guitars, they will look and sound great even after decades, so that’s an upside to spending money on gear. But do it smartly. You don’t need a powerful Marshall amp and a Gibson Les Paul when you’re a noob.
6. Stay away from the chords
Unless you’re a nerd and want to approach guitar playing like you’d approach your physics project, chances are you just want to play your favorite songs and don’t care about theory.
So don’t learn chords, learn songs. They will naturally take you towards chords, because at one point you will get tired of the intro to “Come as you are” and you’ll just want to go into more complex territory. But don’t make the mistake I made at first, and don’t start with chords on an acoustic guitar, it’s very frustrating and sounds like shit. I quit after realizing I can’t press hard enough on an acoustic to hold the easiest chord in the world.
Then I got an electric guitar a few months after and just tried to learn a few songs I liked that seemed easy. I learned to read guitar tabs, and in the first day, I could already sort of play a few things after hours and hours of practice. I was so happy, it just motivated me to keep practicing. And a few months after, I was actually playing guitar. So that’s the way to go, in my honest opinion, cause hearing yourself play familiar stuff is very rewarding. Hearing a buzzing D chord is not.
I actually learned the basic chords because I wanted to learn “Time of Your Life” by Green Day. It taught me the G chord, then I took it from there and next thing you know, I knew C, D, E, and G effortlessly. Much, much easier for someone already sort of playing guitar, than for a complete beginner.
What about getting a teacher? Frankly, I’ve never had one, but they can’t hurt. My advice is to simply start on your own just to see if it’s for you, then take up lessons when you get a bit more comfortable around the instrument and want to learn it properly. It’s the same, if he forces theory down your throat when all you want to do is play your favorite riff, you’re better off without one. Just get one when you want to take it to the next level.
7. Don’t buy an acoustic just yet
Since this is a metal site, I’m assuming everyone reading this wants an electric. So it may not be an issue with most of my readers, but just in case, let me say this:
When I first wanted to play guitar, a few people told me I should start with an acoustic guitar, learn the basics, then get an electric. Seemed like the natural way to go about it, but I learned that it is not. And I learned it the hard way.
Because a lot of people play basic chords on acoustic guitars and stop there, many assume the acoustic is level 1 of playing, and the electric is the ‘next level’ for people taking it seriously. That might be the case when it comes to the music played, since acoustic players are usually limited, whereas electric players go for scales, complex riffs, etc…
However, the acoustic is much harder to play at first. The strings are hard, they will hurt your fingers, because you have to press them very hard in order to not hear any buzz. It’s a nightmare for first timers. And you have nothing to hide behind, like, say, distortion. Everything you do wrong can be heard.
Electric guitars are easier to play. From a physical point of view, that is. The strings are lighter, distortion helps you, you don’t have to press hard, it’s the way to go for any beginner. Save the acoustic guitar for when you get good enough.
I love the acoustic guitar, I really do, but it’s not something I recommend to anyone starting out.
8. Don’t be afraid to try other genres
Metalheads are very serious about their genre, and as a metalhead guitar player starting out, you might feel tempted to just go straight for thrash metal songs. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that, but metal guitar playing is complex, so you might want to go for other songs, even songs you wouldn’t normally listen to.
I was never big on Nirvana. So what? My parents heard more “Come as You Are” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” coming out of my shitty amp than a lot of other songs I actually listened to. It’s all about learning to play coherently at first, as said at point 6, and that might mean being the devil’s advocate for a while.
9. Aim for the power chord
In my opinion, you are able to play guitar when you are able to hold a power chord properly, and move it all over the fretboard effortlessly. That’s when you can jam along to most songs, and play on your own. Sure, it’s still intermediate stuff at best, but you will be amazed at just how many famous songs use basic power chords.
Of course, this is not for your first days. Like I said, play songs first, then start with chords. But when you get comfortable enough playing guitar, that’s what your aim should be. It all starts with the power chord.
10. Don’t worry about looking cool yet
One mistake I definitely made in my first year was worrying about what I looked like while playing. Does my strumming hand look okay? Is my guitar low enough?
It doesn’t matter, just play. Do what feels comfortable and natural to you and keep playing. If that means holding the pick in an unusual way, don’t worry, just do it. James Hetfield has a pretty unorthodox way of holding his pick, but his strumming hand is still precise and very fast, probably one of the best in heavy music. He picks that way because that’s what’s right to him, so do what’s right for you.
Don’t forget, musicians are showmen. They may do certain things or have certain habits because they’re pros, and they can do it, and it looks good on stage. It is definitely not the time to worry about that when starting out. No matter how geeky you look, just play and practice. Worry about looking cool AFTER you can play the instrument properly.
At one point I felt more comfortable finger picking than using a pick. I didn’t know why, everyone I loved used a pick. But I kept playing and now I have my own style of finger picking which feels good to me. I can even do pinch harmonics without a pick, and my middle finger does some mean tremolo work. It just felt right to me, and I did it. Do the same.
Although one exception would be posture. If you’re sitting down, try not to have that bad habit of slouching over the guitar.
Playing guitar has to be fun, but it is frustrating at first, so hopefully my tips above will help you get through (or avoid) some of the problems I’ve encountered starting out. Remember, be realistic, take your time, have patience, and try to practice because you want to, not because you have to.
The electric guitar is one of the finest inventions in this world, treat it with the respect it deserves.