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Learning to play guitar is a great challenge. Doing it correctly means learning techniques and music theory topics that will take your playing from the beginner level to rock-star-stadium level!
But what should you work on?
That’s a question that many beginners struggle with.
Fear not! We have taken a look at some of the best topics and exercises that any beginner will benefit from.
Just a little side note…practice makes perfect!
Chords are typically one of the first things that beginning guitarists will learn. They are simply three or more notes played at the same time with one stroke of your picking hand.
There are several different types of chords. Learning and using the different types to increase your playing vocabulary will greatly enhance your playing skills.
With open chords, you play only one note per finger. In addition, there typically are strings that are played “open”. Open strings are simply ones that are played without your finger anywhere on the string.
The four chords below are the best ones to start out with:
Chord charts are pretty simple to read. The vertical lines represent the six strings on your guitar, with the one on the far right being the high ‘E’ string that is farthest away from you as you hold your guitar.
The horizontal lines refer to the frets on your guitar, and the thick black line on the top represents the nut (the piece that the strings go over before they go into the tuning pegs on the headstock.
The numbers at the bottom tell you which fingers you are supposed to use. The ‘O’s at the top are open strings, and the ‘X’s are strings that you do not play as they are not part of the chord.
Work on getting comfortable and memorizing these chord fingerings. Once you can play them with confidence then a great exercise is to switch between them.
With barre chords, the notes are the same as those in open chords. The difference is that with a barre chord you use one or more of your fingers to press down (or “barre”) more than one string at a time.
Barre chords are pretty standard fare for guitar players, especially for those that play some good ol’ rock & roll.
Take a look at the diagrams below for a C barre chord and see how they relate to their open chord cousin:
What’s really cool is that barre chord fingerings are movable up and down the neck. Take the C barre chord example that is on the 8th fret above. Take that same fingering and move it up two frets to the 10th fret. You now have a D chord! Take it down from the 8th fret to the 5th fret and you’ll get an A chord.
Practice the different barre chord forms and move them all around the neck. That’s how a good portion of rock songs are played so turn it up and rock it out!
Power chords – yet another staple of rock guitar – are similar to barre chords in that the same fingering patterns will give you different chords based on where you play them on the neck.
They are really simple to play because they are typically just two notes – the root note and the 5th.
See the similarities?
Take a power chord…add some knowledge of the notes on the fretboard…and throw in a little distortion for good measure. You’ll be rockin’ the house in no time!
Playing chords with all downstrokes will get pretty boring, and it honestly won’t sound very good.
A great exercise (particularly for acoustic guitar players) is to practice strumming patterns. That’s where you alternate downstrokes and upstrokes while playing different chords.
Here’s a good pattern to work on, using the same open G chord that we discussed earlier:
An arpeggio is when you take a chord and play each note in succession to each other, either going up or coming down.
A great example is the “la la la” section of Crocodile Rock by Elton John, or Can’t Help Falling In Love by Elvis Presley. In both songs, you’ll hear the guitar in the background playing staccato notes that ascend and descend in rapid order.
Arpeggios can be played with letting the notes ring out as well.
Single Note Technique Exercises
Sure – you can get away with playing guitar just by learning all types of chords. That being said, you can take your playing to the next level by learning how to solo.
Soloing typically involves techniques that are applied to single notes. These techniques will allow you to add emotion, dynamics, and flair that you can’t get with just picking notes all by themselves.
Hammer-ons and pull-offs
To correctly play a hammer-on, take your index finger and play a note anywhere on the neck. Once the note is ringing out clearly, take your ring finger and “hammer” the neck two frets higher. Try doing this across the entire neck:
Pull-offs are basically polar opposites of hammer-ons.
With a pull-off, you fret and play a note, then you “pull off” with a slight downward motion to a note that you already have fretted on a lower fret. That keeps the note ringing similar to the hammer-on motion.
As a simple exercise you can use the same fingerings at the hammer on exercise:
These exercises are simple examples. Try your own exercises where you use hammer-ons and pull-offs one fret, two frets, or even three frets apart. Your only limit will be how far you can stretch your fingers!
Sliding up (or down to a note) is one of simplest techniques that you can learn.
To do a slide correctly, fret a note anywhere on the neck, and play it. Make sure it is ringing out as it should, then slide up to another fret on the neck without taking your finger off the string. That will keep it ringing throughout the whole technique.
Practice this across all strings at different frets. You may find it hard to keep the note sounding even during the slide at first but with practice, you’ll get the feel for how much finger pressure to use.
Have you ever heard a guitar solo where it seems so smooth and fluid, especially when it is a bunch of fast notes? That is called legato phrasing.
Legato is “pulled off” (no pun intended) by using a combination of hammer-ons, pull-offs, and slides. It saves you from having to pick every note, which can be tricky to do with a little bit of speed.
Bending a note is a technique that will give your playing an almost vocal-like quality.
To properly bend a note does take some practice, though. It’s easiest to use your ring finger to fret a note, with your middle and index fingers right behind it. Fret the note, play it, and – here’s the trick – rotate your wrist to move your finger up. Don’t use your finger to “push” the string up.
This will give you much better leverage and make the bend an easier and smoother action.
Don’t try to bend too much, though – you might break a string!
Vibrato is a technique where the pitch of a note is raised and lowered by bending and releasing a string repeatedly after striking the note.
Approach it the same way as a bend, but just do not stop the string from vibrating as you bend it up and down across the neck. This is a very expressive technique as a slight bend will add color, and extreme bends can really make a statement.
Finger tapping is a flashy technique that was popularized by Eddie Van Halen. It can be used to play solo phrases and patterns that you can’t by using “traditional” playing methods.
As the name implies, to tap properly you first have to fret a note with your fretting hand. Then, taking a finger on your picking hand (typically your index finger), you then “tap” the neck at a fret higher up. It really is the same thing as a hammer on, but you can tap at any fret above the fretted note, which can open up a new vocabulary for your solos.
In the example below, make sure to have your fret hand index finger already on the 5th fret. Using the index finger of your picking hand, “tap” the neck at the 12th fret, then do a slight pull off motion. The tap will sound the note at the 12th fret, and the pull-off motion will let the 5th fret note ring out. Then you do a hammer on with your ring finger on the 7th fret.
While the note from the 7th fret is still ringing you can then tap at the 12th fret again. Repeating the pattern quickly will result in a very fast phrase that is sure to impress!
Harmonics are bell-like chime tones that can add a lot of flair to a solo phrase.
Playing natural harmonics is pretty simple. Place one of your fingers over any string at either the 5th, 7th, or 12th fret. Make sure that you are directly over the fret instead of in between them – that’s very important! It won’t work unless your finger is in the right place.
Apply just a small amount of pressure and then strike the note. If you do it correctly the harmonic will ring out clear and true.
Picking and Dexterity Exercises
Learning how to pick solo phrases with accuracy will keep you from sounding sloppy when you try to play faster lead lines.
Picking exercises are great for developing your fret hand dexterity as well. Wherever possible try to use all of the fingers on your fretting hand, particularly your pinky. Many players don’t develop their pinky strength as well as they could, and that can really limit your soloing options.
One trick when working on picking exercises is to take it slow and easy in the beginning. Make sure that every note is sounding clear before picking the next note. Once you can play a particular phrase perfectly when slow, that’s when it’s time to start speeding things up.
Faster solo phrases aren’t easy to play with all downstrokes of your pick. Alternating your pick strokes up and down not only makes it easier to play but with enough practice, you can get fast enough to make it sound like a playing card in your bicycle spokes!
This exercise is great because it lets you practice several techniques at once:
- Alternate picking (downstrokes and upstrokes for every note)
- Finger dexterity (one finger per fret – lets you develop finger strength)
- String skipping (taking a picking pattern and moving it from one string to another)
Visual and Mental Exercises
Learning how to play guitar efficiently and effectively is much more than just the physical act of striking the strings.
I have found that I can do some of the best guitar exercises – no matter the skill level – without even having a guitar in my hands. Many times the key to success is getting what you are trying to do burned into your brain.
Sounds weird, I know. But it really isn’t.
On countless occasions, I have done mental exercises. Try it! You’ll be surprised how well you can play once you have a firm grasp of what you are trying to do in your mind.
I won’t kid you – some of these exercises may seem a little extreme. Take them one step at a time and don’t try to overload your brain. Keep at it and one day you’ll realize that you’ve learned something new!
Learning notes on the fret-board
One of the biggest challenges of learning to play guitar is also one of the things that bring some of the biggest benefits.
Learning the notes on the fret-board can be made into a simple memorization exercise:
It looks intimidating but don’t let it scare you.
All you need to do is remember the musical alphabet. Starting on a C note:
C – C#/Db – D – D#/Eb – E – F – F#/Gb – G – G#/Ab – A – A#/Bb – B – C
Once you memorize that pattern, you can start on any string and any fret and mentally figure out any note on the neck.
If you know that the note on the 3rd fret of the 5th string is a C, then what is the note that is two frets up? It’s a D – just like in the musical alphabet.
Make a point to play this “mental flash card” and you may be surprised as to how well you will learn the neck over time.
Learning notes in chords
The key to knowing what notes belong to a particular chord is to memorize its “chord spelling”. Basic chord spellings are:
- Major: 1 – 3 – 5
- Minor: 1 – b3 – 5
- 7th: 1 – 3 – 5 – b7
- Major 7th: 1 – 3 – 5 – 7
- Minor 7th: 1 – b3 – 5 – b7
How you apply it is to take the corresponding note number in a scale and plug them into the chord spelling. Voila! You’ll now know what notes go to what chords!
Let’s use the key of C for example:
C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C
1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7 – 8
- C major (C): C – E – G
- C minor (Cm): C – Eb – G
- C7th (C7): C – E – G – Bb
- C major 7th (Cmaj7): C – E – G – B
- C minor 7th (Cmin7): C – Eb – G – Bb
It really is that simple. These chord spellings are the same no matter what key you are playing in. It’s fun to play some mental games with yourself and try to figure out the chord notes for all different keys.
Visualize playing a song or a solo
I’ve often found myself in a situation where I have had to learn a new song quickly. Sometimes you just don’t have the time to sit down and physically practice as much as you would like.
This is where visualization comes in.
I have looked up sheet music, guitar tab, or chord charts for a song just to get an understanding of how a song is supposed to be played. Once I know that I then take those chords and picture myself actually playing it.
I have surprised myself many times over the years by using this technique. After visualizing making the chord changes it’s amazing how easy it is to do it once you actually lay your hands on your guitar.
Well, there you go.
We can give you all of the exercises in the world, but the most important piece of advice we can give you is to take your time and practice them properly. Take the time to get your techniques smooth, fluid and precise.
Learning the theory stuff can get a little boring too…but stick with it! Your playing will thank you for it in the long run. A trick here is to take some of the things you have learned and find songs that use those same topics or techniques.
That will keep you motivated to keep on keeping on.
Good luck, and rock on!