Teach Yourself Guitar. Part Three - Taking The First Steps

Part Three of the TyG series. In this installment we give some things to practise when you're just starting to play.

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Welcome back to the Teach Yourself Guitar series. This is to be the third out of eight articles and this time I'll be focusing on the time you spend when you first pick up a guitar. At this point, you are a guitarist, but an inexperienced one still. With time, effort and plenty of practise, you'll advance quickly. Now, a word about your current skill level. If you've never picked up a guitar before, you will, at this point, be terrible. Do not worry about this. Every guitarist in the world has been at the point you're at at current. With perseverance and determination, they advanced and increased their skill, at their own pace and in their own way. You can do the same. In this article I'll be giving you a look at what to practise at this pivotal stage in the progression of your skill. My experience in this is both personal and otherwise, as people have already benefited from the knowledge I intend to share. I'll be looking at general left and right hand rules and techniques, as well as bare basic theory and chords. From there we shall be finishing with a consideration of improvisation. Then I shall leave you to go off and discover things on your own. So here goes. I hope you learn something new, or just clarify knowledge you're unsure of. Welcome back to TyG.

Teach Yourself Guitar by Tom Colohue

Part Three: Taking The First Steps Using Your Fingers As a guitarist, your fingers are going to be your major weaponry. While your left hand will be used to hold down strings, your right will be equally occupied using your pick. Let's start by looking at the left hand. At first, holding down your strings may prove difficult. This is because the skin on the tips of your fingers is typically weak and fragile. Given time and use, they will develop calluses, which are tougher and more resilient. This makes it easier to hold down your strings. Contrary to popular belief, playing until your fingers bleed is not beneficial to your playing. It's also not very beneficial to the wood of your fretboard. A good general rule is called positional play. This is when you assign each of your four fingers to a particular fret, all of which would be adjoining. For example, if you assigned your index finger to the third fret, then your middle finger would be on the fourth, your ring finger on the fifth and your pinky on the sixth. This is known as playing in third position because your index finger is positioned on the third fret. Generally speaking, when playing above the twelfth fret, this rule is forgotten about. Using this rule, let's try to play something. What follows will be a piece of tab. The six lines symbolise the strings, with the letters on the left showing which is which. The numbers on the line represent the fret your finger should be on. The line the number is on shows which string. Take your time, making sure that your finger is pushing the string down properly. When playing your 'E' string, your left wrist should be almost in line with the fretboard, but not quite. When changing string, your wrist should move back a little to compensate.
e|---------------------------3-4-6-|
B|-----------------------4-6-------|
G|-----------------3-5-6-----------|
D|-----------3-5-6-----------------|
A|-----3-4-6-----------------------|
E|-4-6-----------------------------|
As your weakest finger, the pinky is often neglected. Don't let this happen to you; it's as valuable as any other finger. The Right Hand There are multiple ways of hitting your strings and many debates amongst them. Before we get into them however, we need to look at anchoring. This is, once again, a much debated subject so I would suggest you read this forum thread, which addresses the issue. Take a moment and consider how you played the previous piece of tab. There are many different ways it could be played and we're going to be looking at two of them. These will be alternate picking and economy picking. I will be disregarding downpicking completely as it is the slowest form of picking. I want to get you started on the good stuff early so that you're more proficient at it later. Alternate picking is when you alternate between picking down on the string from above and picking up from beneath. An upward motion, regardless of string or position, must always follow a downward motion. For information and exercises for alternate picking, read this article. Economy picking is similar to alternate picking, with one major difference. When switching strings, you pick the note in the direction of the new string relative to the previous one. For more information and exercises, read this article. The Major Scale The major scale is the basis for all music theory. All scales are organized relative to the major scale. This makes the major scale the single most important building block in music theory. Consider it a stepping-stone that you use first to move into the large and complicated area that is music theory. Each of the twelve notes in western music has its own distinctive style and sound, but melody is made by context. This is the way that one, or multiple notes, relates to the note, or notes, that come before or after. The difference between one note and the next is called an interval, and using these intervals, a well practiced musician can calculate how the next note in the progression is going to sound in relation to the current piece. So let's start by building ourselves a major scale. Now, the major scale is diatonic, meaning it contains seven notes. Most scales do not use all twelve notes because not all notes work together to create the right sound and style. Thus, scales are a collection of notes, built around one in particular, and organised to give a particular sound and style. Seven notes are not the only way to do things. You can also have scales such as the pentatonic scale, which only has five notes. The only scale that contains all twelve notes is the chromatic scale. In order to build a major scale, we need to know two things. First, we need a root note. This is a single note of the twelve in western music, around which we will build the scale. Second, we need to know the intervals of the major scale. Here follows a list of intervals relative to the root note. The numbers on the left represent the distance, in frets, from the root note.
  • 0: Root Note
  • 1: Minor Second
  • 2: Major Second
  • 3: Minor Third
  • 4: Major Third
  • 5: Perfect Fourth
  • 6: Diminished Fifth
  • 7: Perfect Fifth
  • 8: Minor Sixth
  • 9: Major Sixth
  • 10: Minor Seventh
  • 11: Major Seventh
  • 12: Perfect Unison The major scale is composed of the major and perfect components of those intervals. These would be the major second, third, sixth and seventh, as well as the fourth, fifth and unison, which is the octave. If, for example, your root note is E, you can make the following E major scale:
    E, F#, G#, A, B, C#, D#, E
    When showing relation to scales other than the major scale, these are labelled as:
    1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8
    Each note in the major scale has its own specific name also. These are as follows:
  • Root: Tonic
  • Second: Supertonic
  • Third: Mediant
  • Fourth: Sub-Dominant
  • Fifth: Dominant
  • Sixth: Sub-Mediant
  • Seventh: Leading Tone The tab from further up shows a G# major scale shape played on the fretboard. See if you can find a shape for the E major scale. Basic Chords Chords are collections of three or more notes, played at once, that work to complement each other in creating a particular sound. To learn the theory behind chords in relation to the major scale, try this column, which is the beginning of a series. If you're not really interested in the theory, and just want to learn the basic chords, try this one. When playing chords, your wrist should be positioned relative to the thickest string you are holding down. Powerchords Though not technically chords, due to them only containing two notes, powerchords are nonetheless immensely popular. There are multiple reasons for this. They are composed of the tonic, the dominant, and possibly the octave. They are easy to play, they sound good with distortion and they epitomise the sound of rock and metal music. The powerchord shape, in tab, is:
    e|---------------------------------|
    B|---------------------------------|
    G|---------------------------------|
    D|---6-----------------------------|
    A|---6-----------------------------|
    E|---4-----------------------------|
    This shape is moveable, meaning it can be used all over the neck. The exceptions are the 'B' and 'e' string. When playing powerchords that use those two strings, you should play the expected note one fret higher. If you'd like to learn more about powerchords, learn here. Improvisation Improvisation is an important skill to learn, especially if you want to start writing music. Improvisation, at the most basic level, is just making it up as you go along. Now you know how to work out a major scale, and how to play basic chords, you can improvise, travel your fretboard and just make it up. So experiment with what you've learnt and play around. See what you can come up with and, above all, enjoy it. Next time we'll be looking at learning songs. Thanks for reading. Tom Colohue Ultimate-Guitar.com 2009
  • 34 comments sorted by best / new / date

    comments policy
      Phe4rTheGod
      TBH, scales are boring...but theory is very exciting in the idea that it will help ensure your solos are in key and sound great...never underestimate the power of knowing the ideas behind what makes what sound great...
      gtmom
      Scales excite me because I'm constantly looking for that "certain something" to have in mind for soloing. I don't know. I try to be positive about all aspects of learning guitar. I find it ALL thrilling. Sue me. Again, I'm happy someone got something useful here. That's the whole purpose.
      gizmodious
      scales are boring to people who are ignorant. Not only are they great for 'nome drills to build speed and accuracy, after awhile you can hear them in your head and know when and where to use what... and thats before you start playing them in different modes. Might be boring, but necessary all the same.
      gtmom
      Patrijz wrote: I never really got into the 'theory' behind these scales (scales are boring )...
      I find it sad that so many people who claim to be musicians think theory is boring. It's the study of music! How can that be boring if you love it and how do you really understand how to solo, or much of anything for that matter, without knowing some theory? I'm glad this sparked it for you. Though it was tucked inappropriately in this article, it was worth it to be written if only one person realizes that theory is a great thing as a result. May your solos get better.
      Patrijz
      The Major scale part was really usefull to me! I consider myself a novice/intermediate player at the moment, but I never really got into the 'theory' behind these scales (scales are boring )... but it really helps as a starting point to 'understand' the music to me!
      unlearn27
      TW909 wrote: The value of this article is questionable
      I just wish people would take more time to proofread their articles. There are quite a few grammar mistakes which can seriously throw people off, because they're thinking "wait, what?"
      gynther flynt wrote: backtothe70s : I don't have the time to read it all trough but it seems sane and accurate! But you had the time to comment?
      Exactly what I was thinking. What's the point?
      unlearn27
      When playing your 'E' string, your left wrist should be almost in line with the fretboard, but not quite. When changing string, your wrist should move back a little to compensate.
      You need to be more detailed when trying to articulate these type of things. While it may make sense to those of us not new to the guitar, using the term "in line" is very subjective and could mean more than one thing. Try to use more descriptive terms like parallel or adjacent (just making an example), etc. Remember you're trying to explain these things to people who have no idea what you're teaching them. It's not a bad article though, but being more descriptive would greatly increase it's value.
      etays69
      gtmom wrote: I'm sorry to say that the bulk of the article, the section on the Major scale, seems out of place. Although I can appreciate the info for someone who's been learning for a few weeks or months, I don't think I'd have a new student read this for fear of losing them. The other information is basic and appropriate.
      I completely agree. Def not the first thing I would tell beginning guitarist, a very confusing topic for inexperienced players is most def scary...
      mre488
      i agree about not playing until your fingers bleed because my fretboard is a darker color than the rest of it
      gradian
      Not a bad article, you could have gone a little bit more into the theory (which is, IMO the coolest part), but still a good read. Keep up the good work. Much appreciated.
      illyria
      still getting 404 wih the alternate picking link. and the scales part is weird. which frets are the major e scale?
      Colohue
      No, it's practise, as I'm English and English English is more English than American English.
      Samuraig
      the 12th fret wouldn't be a perfect unison it would be a perfect octave.
      e-bowie
      This article has less information and presented in a less comprehensive way that others i have read on the site.
      decayingdave
      I use my little finger (or pinky) all the time, and I have been since I started guitaring, but I'm sure there's plenty of people who don't use it at first and struggle when it comes a time to use it. Another helpful article.
      tbake2000
      though ive learned theory, i would have been confused if i had seen this article before more basic guitar stuff and playing a couple of months
      Equivalence
      Good job emphasizing on the pinky finger...when I started off I did not train this finger enough, and it ultimately took me a looong time to get it up to a decent level
      gtmom
      I'm sorry to say that the bulk of the article, the section on the Major scale, seems out of place. Although I can appreciate the info for someone who's been learning for a few weeks or months, I don't think I'd have a new student read this for fear of losing them. The other information is basic and appropriate.
      Phe4rTheGod
      Good tip about the use of the pinky finger, it's an exceptional tool for guitars...
      \m/Torin\m/
      nice, i like it its a good intro for those who do not fully understand scales, nice intro mate.
      Zappabootlicker
      the scale part is a bit random too add that in here, you shoulkd probablt keep on how to play first, how to actually use the guitar, and then go on becuase i see it as you need quite a bit of dedication to your instrument to go on and start learning musical thoery.
      Colohue
      It's more that I'm giving plenty of information that the beginner can then use to build their own skills from.
      gynther flynt
      backtothe70s : I don't have the time to read it all trough but it seems sane and accurate!
      But you had the time to comment?
      nileflows
      "It's also not very beneficial to the wood of your fretboard". this sentence sounds so funny. nice job Tom !