HELP! I want to learn guitar, but it is all so confusing!

Nick Minnion PicThis is a guest article by my friend Nick Minnion. 


Nick Minnion a.k.a The Secret Guitar Teacher answers the fifteen questions that beginner guitarists most often ask.

Whether you are considering learning guitar or have already begun the process, I am going to bet that at least some of the following questions are foremost in your mind right now:

  • Do I need to take lessons?
  • Should I buy a book on how to play, if so which book?
  • Should I concentrate on learning notes or chords?
  • Is it OK just to learn riffs or do I have to ‘study music properly’? 
  • Do my fingers have to hurt this much?
  • Is it best to learn to read tab or ‘proper’ music notation?
  • Should I start with an acoustic or electric guitar?
  • I’m left-handed, which way round should I hold the guitar?
  • Should I use a pick or just my fingers?
  • Do I need a steel-string guitar or is a nylon-strung one better?
  • Am I really too young / too old to start learning guitar?
  • I’m not very musical / coordinated / talented /clever / patient / persistent / rhythmical … is it worth me bothering to learn?
  • My hands are too big/small; my fingers too fat/ skinny … should I think in terms of playing some other instrument instead?
  • Just where exactly should I start?

Here’s the good news … you are definitely not alone! Throughout more than forty years of teaching guitar, I have heard these questions many times from many people. In this article, I am going to try and answer each of them and address the concerns that lay behind them.

I think it helps if we put these questions into a logical order. First, we should address the questions that express doubts about whether to even start to learn:

I’m not very musical / coordinated / talented / clever / rhythmical / patient / persistent … is it worth me bothering to learn?

It seems to be a common belief that you have to be all these things before you start to learn a musical instrument. I think this is part of the harm done by popular TV shows such as the X-Factor – this belief that people have either got talent or not.

The truth is that these things are what you gain from learning to play. You become increasingly more musical, coordinated, talented, clever, and rhythmical as a result of learning to play guitar.

Patience and persistence are different perhaps. These are character traits and it is fair to say that the more patient and persistent you are, the quicker and smoother your progress will be. But it could also be argued that learning to play guitar will help you develop these elements of your character. So the straight answer to this first question is yes.

My hands are too big / too small; my fingers too fat / too skinny … should I think in terms of taking up some other instrument instead?

This question arises because of a preconceived idea that long slender fingers somehow work better than short chubby ones on the guitar. The truth is that there are pros and cons to any finger size and shape configuration. Slender fingers reach further, but tend to have less strength; chubby fingers take up more fretboard space, but generally have more strength and stability.

There are two important things to mention on this subject, however.

Firstly, when buying a guitar it is vital to take into account what kind of fingers and hands you have, especially on the fretting hand (left hand in most cases). For some reason I have never grasped, music store sales staff rarely seem to be sufficiently aware of this detail. Yet, from the perspective of a guitar teacher who has seen so many first-timers
turn up to their lesson with a guitar that simply doesn’t fit them, it is the single most important factor to consider when buying your first guitar.

Guitars come in all shapes and sizes and, in particular, the width, depth and cross-sectional contour of the guitar neck should match your hand size and shape. Big hands? Get a wide necked guitar. Small hands, get a narrow one. Same goes for the guitar body shape – make sure it sits comfortably on your thigh and that you don’t have to stretch to reach the strings with your strumming hand.

Secondly, you have to accept and work with, whatever type of hands and fingers you have. This means accepting that your style of playing will, to some significant degree, be affected by the size and shape of your hands and fingers. Work with it – not against it, is my advice.

Am I really too young / too old to start learning guitar?

I have successfully taught students as young as 5 to play guitar. That said, I have also found myself in the position, on more than one occasion, to have to advise parents that their child may be better off waiting until the age of 8 or 9 to start.

It all depends on the individual child and their level of motivation. It is also important to consider the parent or sponsor of the child. How realistic are their expectations of what may be achieved and how do these expectations affect the child?

The guitar is a more physically difficult instrument to learn than say, the keyboard or recorder. Typically, between the age of 10 and 13, there is a kind of ‘golden zone’ where the finger strength and coordination ability has matured but has not yet been affected by the accelerated physical changes brought on by adolescence. Also at this age, concentration levels are normally good and the attention span is sufficient to focus for a whole hour on one thing. This is rarely true of 6-8 year-olds.

I would say however that the overriding factor is the level of desire to learn. A child of any age, who is highly motivated, will progress through the physical and mental barriers and enjoy making good progress.

At the other end of the scale, as one gets older, we all have to accept that learning anything new becomes increasingly challenging. I have taught people in their eighties and would not turn away an adult student of any age who had a genuine desire to learn.

What I would do however is engage them in realistic expectation management of their likely progress. I would encourage them to think in terms of ‘enjoying the process’ of learning rather than worrying about achieving a certain level of ability. This is actually true of all ages, but acutely so of those in their later years.

Having said all that, older people generally have one edge over younger ones. They normally have a strong level of certainty about why they are learning guitar and are very highly motivated (it’s something they have always wanted to do). They also normally have a strong appreciation of how much effort and persistence it takes to achieve anything worthwhile in life, having been around long enough to have learned the lesson that you get out what you put in!

Okay, so that should have helped dispel any doubts about whether you should start learning guitar. Unless you are 4 years old or less – in which case I must congratulate you on your reading skills! – then the answer is Go for it!

Now on to the details…

Should I start with an acoustic or electric guitar?

Acoustic and Electric Guitar

 

 

 

 

Steel-string Acoustic & Electric Guitar

The short answer to this is that it doesn’t matter a great deal which category of instrument you start learning on, but here are some factors to take into account.

  1. The cost of a buying a good quality acoustic guitar will be significantly less than that of an electric guitar plus amplifier (no point really in buying an electric guitar without an amp).
  2. Rhythm guitar (strumming chords) is easier to learn on the acoustic guitar.
  3. Lead guitar (playing riffs, solos etc…) is easier on the electric guitar.
  4. Acoustic guitar is ultimately better suited to styles such as: folk, finger picking, flamenco, gipsy jazz, country blues…etc…
  5. The electric guitar is better suited to Rock, Metal, Chicago Blues, Rock n Roll, Rockabilly etc…
  6. An electric guitar sounds far better when played in a band context (i.e. with bass and drums behind it). In this respect, it is not a good solo instrument.
  7. The acoustic guitar is, in almost every respect, a more versatile instrument, and definitely a better solo instrument.
  8. The electric guitar is not a great instrument to sing along to. The acoustic is ideal for singers to work with.
  9. It is significantly easier to make the transition from acoustic to electric than it is from electric to acoustic.

So on balance, I normally advise starting with the acoustic guitar and progressing onto the electric after a year or so, if you want.

Do I need a steel-string guitar or is a nylon-strung one better?

Nylon-string Guitar

Having made the decision to acquire an acoustic guitar, there is a further choice to be made between the two very different types of guitar generally available: the steel-strung western guitar (sometimes called folk guitar) or the nylon strung classical (sometimes called Spanish) guitar.

The answer is to get a steel strung guitar unless:

  1. You particularly like the soft sound of the nylon strung guitar.
  2. You want to focus on classical, flamenco or fingerpicking styles exclusively.
  3. You have tried steel strung guitar and just don’t have the finger strength for it (usually due to a physical problem such as dyspraxia).

Basically, the steel strung guitar is a great deal more versatile than the nylon strung guitar and again, it will always be easier to add a nylon-strung guitar later if you start out on steel, whereas it is more difficult to transition the other way.

I’m left-handed, which way round should I hold the guitar?

The guitar is played with both hands. For people who are normally left-handed, I strongly advise NOT buying a left-handed guitar. Start with a right-handed guitar and play it just as a right-handed person would (i.e. don’t turn it upside down).

My experience with lefthanded people is that if they start out playing right-handed, they simply develop their fretting hand quicker than a right-handed person would. As the fretting hand is the one that has to do all the work when you first start playing guitar, this actually gives them a slight advantage initially.

Left-handed guitar

Left-handed Guitar

Once the fretting hand is up to speed and chord changes have become fluent, then the left-handed player will have to put some extra attention on their strumming hand, as this will come less naturally to them. However, any problems with this aspect of playing are easily overcome just by playing a lot!

If you take the other route, go and buy a left-handed guitar and learn to play left-handed you may run into any of four significant problems further down the line:

  1. Every time you go into a guitar shop there will be a hundred different guitars that are useless to you (because they are right-handed), to every one guitar you can play. This can be very frustrating.
  2. All the diagrams in almost all the guitar books assume you are right-handed so the diagrams only really make sense to right-handed players.
  3. If you want to sell your guitar on the second-hand market you will find it hard to reach left-handed buyers, so you are more likely to get stuck with your old guitars.
  4. If your friends invite you to play their guitar, chances are it will be right-handed.

Alright, so we have decided we want to learn guitar and we have got our hands on the right guitar to start out with. Now let’s  get down to the detail of how best to actually learn to play…

Do I need to take lessons?

The answer to this is no. There are many people (myself included) who managed to learn to play without taking lessons.

However, perhaps this is not really the right question. There are perhaps three questions we should be asking on this subject:

  1. What are the benefits of taking lessons?
  2. If I do decide to take lessons, what kind of lessons should I look for?
  3. How should I choose a teacher?

The subject of guitar playing is vast. There are thousands of sources of information on it and much of this information is conflicting. This can be exceptionally confusing to the beginner because they are not in a position to be able to select the best path through this particular labyrinth.

So the most important benefit of having a teacher is that of having a guide who can keep you focused on precisely the very best next step for you to take.

Generally, there are two types of guitar lessons available. Individual (1:1) lessons and group lessons.

Group lessons can be great fun and may appeal to you on a social level. They are almost always less expensive as well. However, in my experience, they have relatively little benefit in terms of how much you actually progress with learning to play the guitar.

If you want to make the best possible progress then you need to take individual lessons.

Which brings us to question 3: How to choose a teacher.

It cannot be emphasized enough just how important it is to find the right teacher to suit you.

The truth is that there are a great many guitar teachers offering their services who actually have very little idea of how to teach. Typically these guys are really good musicians and attract students by showing just how great they (the teacher) are at playing guitar. The unsuspecting student naturally assumes that because the teacher is great at playing, they, the student will become equally great just by hanging out with them.

However, teaching guitar is a real art in itself and curiously, the best teachers are often not necessarily the best performers.

So here is my advice. Firstly, try and find a guitar teacher by recommendation if at all possible. A good teacher will have a strong reputation.

If this is impractical and you have to resort to finding one by following up adverts then proceed as follows.

Start by ringing up the teacher and having as long a chat as possible on the phone. Discuss your own thoughts and feelings about learning guitar. Ask questions on all aspects of the subject.

Then after you hang up, ask yourself this crucial question:

‘After that phone call, do I feel better about learning the guitar, or worse?’

If the chat with the teacher didn’t raise your level of motivation, enthusiasm, and desire to learn to quite a significantly higher level, then the chances are that they are not the right teacher for you.

To get the most from individual guitar lessons there must be a good rapport between you and the teacher. You should come away from every lesson feeling highly motivated to go home and practice. If your teacher doesn’t do this for you – keep looking!

Should I buy a book on how to play, if so which book?

If you have access to the internet, then I would say that finding guitar learning materials online is probably going to be a more sensible approach than buying books. The problem with learning from books is that it is extremely difficult to decide which book will best suit your needs. Even as an experienced player, I have many times bought a book based on a few minutes scanning through it in the music shop, only to be disappointed to discover, once I started working through it, that it really didn’t have much to offer.

My best advice is to start with YouTube. There are thousands of guitar teaching videos on YouTube available free. Of course, many of them won’t suit you, but with a little bit of hunting around, you will soon find videos by teachers who work at the right pace for you and help to inspire you to practice.

Here is an example of a video guitar lesson for beginners made by the author of this article. Play through this video and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does this sound too complicated and over my head?
  • Does it all sound a bit obvious and progress too slowly to keep my interest?
  • Does it answer the questions I have about playing guitar?
  • Does it show me clearly and precisely what to do?
  • Does it inspire me to practice?

These are the most important aspects of any teaching video. My videos may do this for you, but I know they will not work for everyone, because they are pitched to work for a certain type of student, and the truth is we are all different!

How to Learn Chord Shapes – Please Watch This Video!

Should I concentrate on learning notes or chords?

Loosely speaking, guitar playing can be divided into rhythm guitar and lead guitar. The foundational skill most required of rhythm guitar is strumming chords; that of lead guitar, playing single notes.

Most guitarists, especially those choosing acoustic guitar, will start off learning to strum chords. Electric guitarists are more likely to learn riffs – rhythmic single-note patterns.

The truth is that it doesn’t matter a great deal which route you take. Ultimately a good guitarist will develop a solid foundation in both areas.

Here’s a 2-part lesson that is designed to help beginners integrate both lead and rhythm technique right from the start:

Easy Texas Blues – Part 1 – Rhythm

Easy Texas Blues – Part 2 – Lead

(You can access the rest of the lessons in this series by visiting the Secret Guitar Teacher website.)

Is it OK just to learn riffs or do I have to ‘study music properly’?

During your first year or so of playing guitar, your main focus should be on physical development. That means getting your hands working on the instrument. Learning chords shapes and scale patterns. Then learning chord sequences and above all, getting your chord changes up to speed.

Here’s a lesson that focuses on this vital aspect:

How to Change Chords Quickly

Learning riffs is also a great way to go as these combine elements both of lead and rhythm technique.

During this time I wouldn’t be too concerned about studying music theory or learning to read standard notation (conventional musical notation).

Do learn to read chord diagrams and rhythm charts (song sheets). And do learn to read Guitar Tablature (usually referred to just as ‘tab’).

If you have any problems understanding tab please try this lesson:

How to read guitar tab

During the second year or so, I usually get my students to try to start improvising a bit to help them develop the creative side of their musicianship. A little bit of music theory helps at this stage, but I would say the task is still 50% physical – lots of scale practice and exercises to develop fluency and finger strength.

Not until the third year do I begin to really emphasize the theoretical side of learning music.

As I have already mentioned, we are all different and some students (the ones that practice a lot) get through my ‘first year’ in three months. Others may take two years to get over the physical training hump. Some people take instantly to improvising; others struggle with this aspect. The important thing to realize is that there are many possible paths and finding the right one for you is the secret.

Do my fingers have to hurt this much?

To begin with, especially if you have a steel-strung acoustic guitar, you may find that the tips of your fingers get quite sore from playing. This is perfectly normal and will reduce as time goes by.

The more you play, the more accurate you get with your finger placement and the less pressure you need to exert to get a good clean sound from notes and chords.

Also, over time, you will develop hard calluses on the tips of your fingers and these will help prevent them getting sore.

If you have a really major problem with this you can take three steps to resolve it. Firstly, get the action of your guitar adjusted (by a guitar technician) so that the strings are closer to the frets. Secondly, buy a lighter gauge of string. Thirdly, if all else fails, switch to a nylon-strung guitar. Note that you can’t just switch strings – nylon strings aren’t designed to work well on a steel-string guitar.

Is it best to learn to read tab or ‘proper’ music notation?

Learn Tab to begin with. At the stage when you really want to develop your music theory knowledge then it makes a lot of sense to learn standard notation.

Should I use a pick or just my fingers?

This really is almost entirely a personal choice. A pick helps give you a harder-edged sound that is really difficult to replicate with fingers. Fingers help you play more intricate patterns that are essential to some folk, country, jazz and flamenco styles. There is no reason not to develop both approaches.

Just where exactly should I start?

If you have enjoyed working through some of the video lessons embedded in this article then you are invited to visit the author’s site at www.secretguitarteacher.com

If you didn’t find these videos helpful then I suggest exploring other lessons found on this website until you find the lessons that you feel suit you best – remember, we are all different – it’s worth exploring until you find the approach that suits you best.

I wish you many hours of happy guitar playing!

Nick Minnion

The Secret Guitar Teacher

www.secretguitarteacher.com