Let's get started by looking at some of the most common questions I get asked about learning the guitar. The guitar is an easy instrument to play badly, but with practice anyone can learn to play well. In this lesson I just want to clear up a few things so that you know what to expect of this course, and of yourself.
Am I too old to start learning the guitar?
I find it amusing that I get this question a lot... from 16 year olds! You are never too old to start playing and enjoying guitar. Sure, you will read about the guitar legends we all admire, and how they started when they were six months old and were playing the Albert Hall by the time they were two, but that's not the case for most guitarists. It seems that about a quarter of the people using my website are over 50 years old and loving it. It's a wonderful hobby and I have had a few students in their 50s that started gigging regularly after a few years practice; a couple even turned professional! So it is never too late.
One thing to be aware of however is that children do tend to learn faster than adults. I've been surprised time and time again at how quickly children between 12-18 learn stuff. I guess because they are still growing they develop the muscles in their hands faster, but they also have less pre-conceived ideas about what might be difficult to learn. Many grown-ups will hear a song and think “that sounds amazing, I bet it's very hard to play” and struggle if they try, whereas an 18 year old will hear the same thing and think “that sounds amazing, I want to learn that” and then do it without thinking about how hard it might be. Just remember it's mostly about practice time: put in a lot of time and you'll get good, no matter what your age!
How quickly will I be able to play songs?
You should be able to play a basic song or two after about three to five hours of practice (over a week or more - not in one go). It probably won't sound perfect, but it will at least be recognizable. How much time it takes you to learn the basics will depend almost totally on how much you practice. Note that if I give a recommended practice time - say, five minutes - it means five minutes of intense practice, not half-watching TV or answering phone calls or whatever. Try to stay focused when you practice, and then you can ‘free up' when you play "for real."
How often do I need to practice?
If you play for fifteen minutes a week, expect it to take at least a year to get the very basics under your fingers. However, if you practice for fifteen minutes a day, you will notice that things are getting easier after just one week. There is such a thing as ‘natural aptitude' - so some people naturally learn things faster than others - but perseverance will always prevail. Lots of people who learn slowly at first learn better and faster in the long run (usually because those people are taking the time to figure out what they are doing). https://goo.gl/Gh4f6z
Do I have to practice every day?
The best way (but not always possible) is to try and find a little time to practice every day. It is much better to do 10 minutes a day 6 days a week than an hour practice every Saturday. Aim for daily practice but if it is not possible, try to get in a little time often and then have one main practice time each week. Many of my students have found that playing at the same time (such as straight after dinner, when you first get home after work/school or just before you go to bed) is the best way to develop a consistent routine.
Do I have to follow your suggested practice routine?
Well, I'm suggesting it for a reason, and that is that most people need to work on similar things. However, everyone is different, and so if you feel the routine does not fit well for you, then change it. But try and keep to the general structure: it works!
My fingers hurt and have deep grooves in them, should I stop practicing?
Yes, if it is painful at all, then you should take a break. It's normal for things to be a little sore at the beginning. Getting grooves in your fingers is quite normal, and they are just from the strings sitting in the same place under your fingers (which is good). They will toughen up after a short time and then you won't notice it at all. The very first few times you play your fingertips are likely to get VERY sore, very quickly (in 5 minutes or even less!) but don't worry: just put the guitar down for a while and come back to it later. It's normal.
Sometimes the lines in your fingers can stay there for a whole day after you finish. Don't worry about this! Some people like to start playing on a nylon string guitar when they're starting out, for this very reason. It hurts a little less I guess, but it shouldn't be long before your fingers toughen up enough to play for 10 or 15 minutes on a steel string guitar without crying!
Also check that you're not pressing too hard! You only need to press hard enough to get a good note, any harder is just wasted energy! A good test is to see how lightly you can press while all the notes in a chord (or an individual note) sound good. That's how hard you should press. As lightly as possible while getting all clean notes. The position of the finger in the fret effects this too - but we'll be getting into this in the lessons!
Try not to let it get to the point of a blister, because then you need to take a few days off to let it heal. Also, make sure your hands are dry when you play; if you practice right after a shower or after doing the washing up then the skin will last hardly any time at all. If you get any pain in your hand or forearm you should stop straight away and see a doctor if the pain persists. Playing should be fun and enjoyable, not painful.
My fingers get tired quicky, should I buy a "hand strengthener" machine or something?
Just practice dude! Those machines are a waste of time and money. If you're new to guitar you just need some time to let the muscles get strong. Don't stress out, just get practicing. :)
I can't feel my fingertips! Help!
If you're just starting out and you do a big practice session then it's not uncommon to hear people say they can't feel their fingertips or that they feel numb. Some hand stretches (just random stretching, not some strict routine) and a bit of massage (use the thumb of your strumming hand) should sort it out pretty quick. If it lasts a day or more, go see a doctor!
What strings should I use?
If you are a beginner playing steel string acoustic or electric guitar you probably want to start with very thin strings. On electric they are referred to as ‘9s' (.09 to .46 inches thick); on acoustic you would use "11s" (.11 to .52 inches thick). If you just go to a shop and ask for light strings—or 9s or 11s—you should be given the right set. However, this is really a matter of personal preference. If you're really suffering from painful fingertips, you could try .08 gauge, but they're only for real wusses! ;)
Some people prefer thicker strings, and don't mind the pain so much. Thicker strings tend to have a fatter sound too, which many people prefer. I use 10s or 11s on electric and 12s or 13s on acoustics. I use lighter strings when I practice a lot so I don't hurt my hand muscles, but for recording I usually use the thicker strings as they sound a little better most times.
The string thickness (or string gauge) is a lot less important with nylon strings, so any set will do. You'll see high and low tension, I usually buy High Tension, but I'm not entirely sure why if I'm honest... I need to do some more research too!
There's more about strings in lesson BC-103 and also lessons in the Essential Skills area on changing strings and other FAQs about our stringy friends.
If you change strings, you might (only might!) need to adjust your "truss rod" (which changes the angle of the neck), but for beginners this is usually better done at the store because doing it wrong can damage your guitar! If you're really new to playing a quick set up your local store with some light (.09) strings would be a solid investment in your playing future!
How do I know what gauge strings I have on my guitar?
Very good question - it's very difficult to tell, even for me! Changing strings is not too expensive so that's probably the easiest way to find out, or ask the store where you bought your guitar!
I only want to play rock guitar (or country guitar or jazz or whatever): why do I have to play pop songs and rhythm guitar?
What you should learn when you first start, no matter what style you want to aspire to, is the same basic chords, and developing a sense of rhythm. Any serious guitarist in any style should know all of the things in this course. Often learning things in one style will help your playing in many other styles.
Even if you might think that a particular skill is not needed for what you want to do, you will often miss an important technique or 'a piece of the puzzle' that you will be searching for later!
My advice is to follow the beginner's course all the way through and then decide what things you might want to specialize in.
We don't learn much about rhythm in the first few stages. Why?
Learning to play good and consistent rhythm guitar is only possible when your strumming hand can move without stopping. This helps you get in the groove and keeps your timing solid. If you can't change chords fast enough, then you will keep putting little stops in your strumming and this is a very bad thing to learn. If you work on building up the speed of your chord changes first, you will start playing rhythm easily. People learn a lot faster this way: by mastering the individual elements first and then combining them.
Do I need to grow my fingernails?
It is very important that the fingernails on your fretting hand (the one that holds down the notes on the neck) are very short or they will make your hand go in a funny position. I have fake nails on my strumming hand because I play guitar all day, every day and natural nails just don't last long enough. They can help with fingerstyle playing but many great players use flesh and not nails, so you don't have to have fake fingernails. In fact, I don't recommend getting fake (acrylic) nails unless you want people giving you funny looks when you go out! See more on this in lesson BC-184
Does it matter if I'm left-handed?
No! But you'll either need to buy a left-handed guitar, or string a right-hander upside down (like Jimi Hendrix). There's advice on the forum about being a left-handed player. In this book we've tried to use "fretting hand" and "strumming hand" to avoid dictating which hand you're using.
Worth noting that the majority of left handed guitar players I know play a right handed guitar, and it's what I recommend generally. It's more common to find right handed guitars at parties, there's often a bigger ranger to choose from and it makes learning a little easier as most things are written for right handers!
Can I use a different fingering than you suggest for playing chords?
Sure you can, do whatever you like! However I have given this stuff and the course a LOT of thought and I think you'd be better off following through the Beginner and Intermediate courses before deciding to branch out on your own and change things up!
Do I have to use a pick?
Nope, many great players don't, but I recommend you start with one, learn the basic and then explore other options. It certainly won't hurt to have some experience with a pick, even if you decide later on to play only fingerstyle!
How do I know when to move onto the next stage?
Very common question this one, but the answer is a little vague I'm afraid. I have tried to give you as much advice as I can at the end of each stage about what to expect, but everyone has different goals, abilities, expectations and aspirations and all those things will come into play when you have to decide when to move on. My advice is "when you feel ready". As a self learner you will have to make that decision, but if you are confident in most of the skills from each stage and can use them in a song or two (just bumbling along, not concert level just yet!) then you are probably ready!
How long should it take to finish the beginner course?
It seems on average to take between 3 and 6 months. Some people a lot faster, some a lot slower. Just go at your own pace - it will mostly be related to how much practice you do, these averages are based on the recommended amounts. Double or triple the suggested times and it will obviously happen a lot faster!
Can I practice more than you suggest?
Of course, but be careful in the first month you play as going crazy might lead to injury or straining muscles. I don't recommend beginners practice more than 2 hours a day - that is a LOT or practice!
When should I start doing the Finger Gym and other Technique exercises?
I'm surprised to see this question on the forum so often - as a beginner you should not be worried about specialist technique exercises yet - just play and enjoy it! The Finger Gym is a hardcore exercise and certainly not for beginners, doing it as a beginner would be like an unfit person deciding to get fit and wanting to run 20 miles on the second day. Just leave all that until you finish the Beginner's Course and know what special technique work you actually need!
I've got blisters, should I keep going?
Absolutely not! If you have blisters you have done too much too soon and need to take a little time off (maybe a week) to let them heal. If you keep playing they won't get any better!
I pulled a Bryan Adams and "played until my fingers" bled (it's a lyric in his song, the Summer Of 69) a couple of times as a teenager, but I sure don't recommend it, takes ages to heal and was just plain stupid in hindsight, but I guess my friends thought it was kinda cool.
Some days I really suck. Why?
Me too! Guess we all just have days like that. Usually I just do something else on a day that it's not really working for me (in fact, I'm updating these lessons today because I had a good practice this morning but this afternoon I don't seem to be enjoying it, so I stopped!). Either grit in and stick with it (I've done that many times!) or take a break and come back to it later, and if it still don't feel good, find something else to do today!
Do I have to read Tabs, or music or what?
We'll get to all those things as we need them. Don't worry about it when you start!