How to Play Guitar in 2021
A complete beginner’s guide to playing the most popular instrument in the world
Last Updated: November 2021
Want to learn how to play guitar? In this complete beginner’s guide you’ll learn how to become a guitar player so you can play riffs/licks, chords, songs and more. PLUS, we’ll give you free guitar exercises and a daily practice plan at the end!
If you follow this guide you’ll have:
- a full understanding of how to play properly
- better technique and more control
- an arsenal of chords and songs to play
- a full practice plan to help you become a better guitarist
We’ll go over the core basics, show you guitar technique and get into advanced stuff that will take your playing to the next level. At the bottom of this (long ass) guide, we’ve got an entire practice plan for you FREE that you can use to become a better guitarist quickly. Whether you’re just starting out, or having trouble moving forward, this is the guide to help you make your next breakthrough in guitar playing. If you put in the work…
Bottom Line – you don’t need to be “born with it” to be a phenomenal guitarist.
You can make yourself better, regardless of your current skill level or “talent.” And we can help.
What Great Guitarists Focus On
We’re not gonna BS you – playing guitar isn’t easy. There’s a lot to focus on when you’re first starting out, like:
- Guitar Types
- Strings + Picks
- Keeping Your Guitar in Tune
- Amplifiers and FX Pedals
- Proper Technique (holding, frets, strumming/picking)
- Guitar Notes
- Guitar Chord Positions
- Guitar Maintenance
- Sight Reading and Guitar Tabs
- Rhythm and Note Lengths
- Much More
That’s a ton of shit to worry about… So let’s get started. We won’t go into things like sight reading and rhythm in detail, but you can brush up on those things here.
How to Practice Guitar
OK! Now that you know what to focus on, it’s time to come up with a practice plan and routine! Below we’re got the perfect plan you can download for free and use to improve your guitar skills fast!
Guitar Chord Diagram & Guitar Tab Cheat Sheets + Practice Plan
- Easy Access Cheat Sheets – quickly reference the cheat sheets anywhere, anytime you need to refresh how to read guitar tabs and chord diagrams.
- Step-By-Step Instructions – we explain exactly how to read guitar tabs and chord charts, step-by-step.
- A Complete Practice Guide + Timeline – know exactly what part of your guitar playing you should work on, and when/how to move on.
- Additional Guitar Playing Tips & Resources – sign up and we’ll keep in touch with our latest guides, tips and resources for getting better at playing guitar!
Special Note: If you want to speed up your learning check out these online guitar lessons. They really help make learning easier and faster. Our favorite is JamPlay, but Guitar Tricks is great too! Read our JamPlay Review or our Guitar Tricks Review to learn more about them. We also have a TrueFire Review, Guitar Mastery Method Review and a Fender Play Review if you’re interested.
The Basics of Playing Guitar for Beginners
Here’s everything you need to know about playing guitar.
Parts of a Guitar
And it’s important to understand. So how does it all work? Regardless of the type of guitar you’re wanting to play, the basic structure of the instrument is the same. Some are made of metals, plastics and woods but they all work off the same basic idea.
A guitar works by producing a sound at a certain pitch by plucking a string. The sound the string makes then resonates through the body or electrical components within it. That sound can then be amplified further if necessary. The types of materials used in making the guitar, strings and even pick can have an impact on HOW it sounds.
Here are the basic different parts of the guitar:
- The Guitar Head
- The Bridge
- The Neck or Fretboard
Certain guitars will also have specific parts like a sound hole on acoustics or pickups for electrics.
How to Hold a Guitar Correctly
It may seem like something basic but the way you hold the guitar has a lot to do with how well you’ll be able to play. It shouldn’t matter much if you’re right or left handed – the guitar should play fine either way.
Here’s some tips on making sure you’re holding the guitar right:
- Sit up straight – use a stool or straight-backed chair
- When holding the guitar, the thinnest guitar string should be closest to the ground
- Hold the guitar so it’s resting on your dominant leg (same side as hand you’ll use to strum/pick)
- Cradle the guitar and hold it against your chest/stomach
- The hand you’re not strumming with should support the neck of the guitar
It might not feel super comfortable at first, but you’ll get into it.
How to Tune a Guitar
Now comes time to tune your guitar. It’s pretty straight-forward, so we won’t get into it much. If you’re got a smartphone you can download a free guitar tuning app to help you get everything sounding right.
Here are some good options:
- Guitar Tuna
- Fender Tune
- Guitar Tuner Pro
Basically start the app, and play each string one at a time near the phone’s speaker. The app will tell you if that string is too low or too high. What you’ll do is adjust the tuning knobs at the top of the guitar headstock, either tighter or looser until it’s perfectly in line with what the tuner says.
While you’re adjusting the tuning knob with your hand that supports the guitar neck, keep picking the string with your dominant hand so the tuning app gives you feedback. Repeat for each string and you’ll have a finely tuned guitar!
How to Play a Guitar Correctly
Ok, finally… We’re gonna show you exactly how to play the guitar. First up, you need to learn about notes and fretting.
Notes on a Guitar
Here are the order of the notes on the guitar from top (first string – thickest) to bottom (sixth string – thinnest)
These will be important later so memorize the order. Think of it this way – Eddie Ate Dynamite, Good Bye Eddie. That’s an easy way to memorize the strings in order from top to bottom. Also try to remember how they each sound once you’ve tuned your guitar properly.
Using Guitar Frets
Frets are the metal strips that run up and down the neck of the guitar. By pressing your finger on a string right before the metal fret (NOT on the metal fret itself) you change the note that string will play.
Pressing right before the fret will give you the best sound. But how do you know which fret is which? Well let’s call the very top fret (closest to the tuning pegs/knobs) Fret 1. And you can count down from there.
So, if you’re asked to play the second fret, you’d press down on the string between fret 2 and fret 3 (as close as you can to the actual metal fret without touching it).
Where to Put Your Thumb When Fretting a Guitar
Normally, you won’t use the thumb much to press down on strings. You push it up behind the neck of the guitar so your fingers get enough leverage to press down on a string with force. Try to make sure that when you’re positioning your fret hand, you’re loose and comfortable, not tensed up.
How Hard Should You Press
And make sure you press down hard when fretting. Otherwise when you strike the string, you won’t get a clean sounding note (it’ll buzz if you don’t press down properly). It may start to hurt your fingers at first, but you’ll gradually get used to it. Practice fretting strings at different positions and plucking the string to hear how it sounds, until you get the hang of it.
Guitar Picking vs. Guitar Fingering
It’s up to you whether you use your fingers or a pick to play the guitar, but it’s good to be comfortable with both techniques. A guitar pick is a small tear-drop shaped piece of plastic (in varying weights) that you use to strike a guitar string. It produces a different sound than if you just used your fingers.
Using Your Fingers
If you’re using fingers, practice plucking the strings with each of your fingers. You don’t want to pull too much and snap the string back. You want a gentle even pluck using each of your fingers.
How to Hold a Guitar Pick Correctly
To hold the guitar pick make a loose fist with your hand and put your thumb on top of it. Put the pick in between your thumb and top of fist with the pointy side away from your inner palm.
The pick should be resting between your thumb and index finger and poking out enough so that your fingers won’t hit the guitar strings while picking.
Guitar Strumming and Picking Techniques
To begin, practice your picking and strumming without holding down any frets. First, grip the guitar and hold it above the top guitar string at a 45 degree angle (see picture below).
Now that you have a good grip on the guitar pick, glide the pick across the strings from top to bottom. Make sure you’re not rigid and playing too forcefully.
Be gentle, but firm. You should hear each string play fully without any muting caused by your fingers hitting and dampening the strings as they ring out. Practice doing this until it becomes second nature.
To practice picking (and not strumming), simply use the pick – with the same grip – to play each string on the guitar separately. Make sure you’re getting a nice, loud and even sound from each string.
Don’t pull on the string with your pick or fingers too much, unless you’re going for an exaggerated sound on purpose. Now try picking individual strings while you’re holding them down on a fret. Adjust your fret and pick/strum technique until you’re able to get a nice clean and even sound from each string.
How to Play Guitar Chords
Now that you’ve got basic fretting, picking, plucking and strumming down, it’s time to get into playing CHORDS. So what’s a guitar chord?
It’s when more than two notes are played at the same time to produce a harmonious sound. Simple, right? Why are they important? Because they form the basis of songs. They lay the “harmonic foundation” of how the music will flow emotionally.
Huh? You know how a certain song makes you sad? It’s probably because the harmony (the movement form chord to chord or note to note) uses chords and a sequence that’s universally felt/heard as “sad.” So how do you play chords on a guitar?
Understanding How Chords on a Guitar Work
Remember the notes on the guitar (thinnest to thickest string):
Now each of these notes is also going to get a number – from 1 to 6. The bottom E (highest pitch note + thinnest string) will be #1. The lowest pitch note and thickest string (top E) will be #6.
The frets on the guitar neck are also going to get a number – the first fret (Fret 1) will be the one closest to the nut of the guitar (mind out of the gutter, people…) and go downwards. The nut is what you could call Fret 0 and sits right on the border of the guitar head and guitar neck.
We’re also going to be numbering our fingers (except your thumb):
- Thumb = T
- Index Finger = 1
- Middle Finger = 2
- Ring Finger = 3
- Pinky = 4
First Position Guitar Chords
You ready to learn your first chord? Great. We’ll start with the C Major chord.
The notes that make up a basic C Major chord?
- C Note – Played on the A String, pressing the 3rd fret
- E Note – Played on the D String, pressing the 2nd fret
- G Note – Played on the G string – no fret (i.e. string stays “open”)
- C Note – Played on the B String, pressing the 1st fret
- The Low E (top string) and High E (bottom string) are not played
Now press down those strings and play each note (except the two you’re not supposed to play) one at a time. Sound off or kind of weird? Don’t worry, it happens. Check your fretting hand – are your fingers pressed down firmly and in the right place?
You may have to twist and curl your fingers in positions that feel awkward at first to get a good sound, but you’ll get used to a comfortable position over time. Play them again – sounding better? Good. Now strum the strings in the chord from top to bottom, all together. Congratulations – you’ve just played your first guitar chord. Aren’t you just a boss…
Learning More Guitar Chords
Playing chords is all good, but you want to be able to play songs don’t you? It’s not going to happen overnight. At the end of the day it takes practice and learning – you have to keep pushing yourself. But for now, we’ll give you two more chords you can use with the C Major you just learned to play a basic strummed song (freestyle).
The F Major Chord
The F Major Chord sounds great when played along with a C Major Chord. What notes are in this one?
Here’s how you play it:
- Press finger 1 down on the 1st fret of both String 1 (E) and String 2 (B)
- Press finger 2 down on the 2nd fret of the G String (String 3)
- Press finger 3 down on the 3rd fret of the String 4 (D String)
Now play each string one-by-one and all together like you did in the previous exercise. There you go – you just played an F chord. Practice this and the C chord a few times before moving onto the third one below.
The G Major Chord
The final guitar chord you’re about to learn is the G Major. This is another one that sounds great when played along with the F and C that you learned above. What’s it made up of?
There are a few ways to play this one, and we’re going to show you the more complicated way to get you used to fretting. If you see it, you’ll notice it’s the exact same thing as the F chord you just played, but it’s moved up by 2 frets.
Here’s how you play it:
- Press down on the top two strings (E and B) on the 3rd fret with Finger 1
- Press down on the G String (third string from top) on the 4th fret with Finger 2
- Press the D String (fourth from top) on the 6th fret with Finger 3
Now play each note one by one and all together. That’s a G Major Chord.
Check out our guide on the 10 basic guitar chords every beginner must know!
If you’ve brushed up on basic music theory, you’ll know there are Major chords (“happy” sounding) and Minor chords (“sad” sounding). Well, there are a bunch of other types of basic chords too. There are so many chord combinations it’d be impossible for us to list them all right here in this guide.
So make sure you download our free practice plan below (coming soon!) for a “chord cheat sheet” of some common guitar chords. One thing we should mention, though, are Barre Chords (a.k.a. Bar Chords). These are normal chords, but the way they’re fretted make it easy to move between chords.
It’s where you basically use your index finger to press down ALL the strings on a fret, (example the first fret) then the rest of your fingers make the shape of an E Major chord underneath the index finger. That will let you play an F Chord.
Here’s a Breakdown:
- Finger 1 presses down ALL strings on fret 1
- Finger 2 presses down String 3 on fret 2
- Finger 3 presses down String 5 on fret 3
- Finger 4 pressed down String 4 on fret 3
That shape (excluding finger 1) is an E Major chord if you were to play it starting on fret 1 instead of fret 2. Now… If you keep that same shape with your fingers and move your hand down so Finger 1 is now pressing down ALL strings on fret 2, the chord becomes a G Chord. And so on… The Ramones used a lot of barre chords, pretty successfully too! So practice some barre chords!
Playing Guitar Chord Progressions
Chord progressions are basically patterns of chords you play to convey a certain sound or emotion. Remember, harmony evokes emotion and it guides the flow of the song melodically as well. So by playing different chords one after the other, we can start to build the foundation of a song.
You may be thinking “I barely remember the chords you just taught me! How am I supposed to play different chords one after another?” Don’t worry, keep practicing the chords and eventually muscle memory will kick in and you’ll have various chord positions memorized so you can switch from chord to chord easily. Let’s try it…
Your First Chord Progression on the Guitar
So now that you know the “Big 3” guitar chords (C, G and F Major chords above) it’s time to put them together to make your first (straight up basic) song. Playing these 3 chords one after another sounds great. Try it – play the C Chord a few times, then switch to an G, and finally a G. Now go back to the C. Doesn’t that sounds amazing? (I know, not really – but it’s a start right?)
Do it in this order and it’ll start to sound like a real song:
- Strum C Major 4 times
- Strum F Major 2 times
- Strum G Major 2 times
Doesn’t that sound great? But you can’t just randomly choose different chords and expect them to sound great together. So why does it work with those chords? The reason is because those 3 chords make up very important “Scale Degrees” in the C Major scale.
The above chord progression is known as a I – IV – V (i.e. 1-4-5) progression in the key of C Major.
If you have no idea what I just said there, don’t worry. It’s a bit of an intermediate music theory subject. You can learn more about it here – The Nashville Number System
Smooth Guitar Chord Transitions
At first, your chord transitions (moving from one chord to another) is going to sound broken and sloppy. And you’ll be slow. And it won’t sound “clean,” because you won’t be pressing the strings on the fret properly. It’s normal. Just keep at it. Practice the three chords above until each one sounds pristine, and your transitions between chords are smooth and not jittery.
A great way to do this is by first practicing your left hand movements. Practice moving your fret hand from one chord position to another. Once you’re good with that, try strumming and changing chords together. You should be able to move from one guitar chord to another without hesitation, trouble and thinking. That’s the goal.
Common Guitar Chord Progressions for Beginners
There are some common chord progressions you can learn on guitar that will allow you to freestyle your playing easily. But you need to learn guitar scales and guitar chords fully. That’s really beyond the scope of this tutorial. Check out our music theory guide to learn about finding scales, finding the chords in a scale and then putting together a chord progression.
Then come back here and try out some of these chord progressions on your guitar:
- I – IV
- I – V
- I – IV – V – I
- I – V – IV – I
- I – IV – I – V – I (12 bar blues)
- II – V – I (Jazz turnaround)
- I – V – VI – IV (common pop music progression)
- I – V – VI – III – IV
- VI – V – IV – V
- I – VI – IV – V
- I – IV – VI – V
- I – V – IV – V
- I – VI – II – V
Playing Full Songs on the Guitar
You made it! Now that you know the basics of playing guitar, let’s talk a little bit about why we’re all here. SONGS In this next section, we’re going to tell you some easy guitar songs you can start to learn and play today as a beginner! We’ll also go over reading guitar tabs, so you can use both video and written tools to help you learn!
Easy Guitar Songs for Beginners
Here’s a list of some really great guitar songs you can learn to play easily as a beginner. You can find great tutorials on YouTube for these and your favorite songs for now, but soon we’ll be posting our own tutorials to play these songs right here!
- Stay With Me by Sam Smith
- Sweet Child O Mine by Guns N Roses
- Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen
- Time of Your Life by Greenday
- Wonderwall by Oasis
- Hey Joe by Jimi Hendrix
How to Read Guitar Tabs & Chord Diagrams
So when you’re looking for songs to play online, you’ll often come across something known as guitar tablature or “guitar tabs” for short. You’ll also see something called “chord charts.” These are diagrams that show you what notes and chords to play for a particular song or progression. Remember the finger, fret and string numbering we mentioned above?
If not, here’s a diagram to help jog your memory:
Basically a chord diagram and a guitar tab will tell you what strings to press on what frets using which fingers..
Here’s a guitar chord diagram:
Here’s what you’ll notice when you’re looking, for example, at the C chord diagram:
- The strings and frets numbers’ correspond to the diagram above it
- The top string of the guitar has an X over top of it – that means you DON’T play that string
- The second string is pressed down on the 3rd fret with the 3rd finger
- The third string is pressed down on the 2nd fret with the 2nd finger
- The fourth string isn’t pressed on any fret and has an O on top of it – that means you play that string “open” (i.e. not pressed down on a fret)
- The fifth string is pressed down on the 1st fret using the 1st finger
- The bottom string is not pressed down on a fret and is played “open”
And that’s how you read a guitar chord diagram.
Here’s what guitar tabs look like:
Here’s what you need to know:
- The top line on the tab represents the high E (top) string on your guitar
- The number represents which fret you should be pressing (0 means NO FRET, open string)
- You read the tab from left to right – single numbers mean it’s a melody line
- If you see numbers stacked on top of one another, that means it’s a chord (more than one string struck together)
There is more to it than that, but that should get you started. If you want to learn more, read our guide on how to read guitar tabs.
Choosing Your First Guitar
Whether you pick an acoustic guitar, electric guitar or classical guitar – hell even a ukulele – the same basic concepts lay behind playing each instrument. And you’re going to learn the basics of how to play right here. But before we get to that, here’s a quick overview on how to pick the right guitar for your situation.
Acoustic Guitar for Beginners:
Acoustic guitars are great for beginners because it’s easy to play anywhere. You can take it with you anywhere. And you don’t have to really worry about making a TON of noise with amps and shit like that. It can also be used in ALL genres of music – country, folk, rock, r&b, pop, hip-hop, soul, etc.
Electric Guitar for Beginners:
Electric guitars are great if you know the type of music you want to play is a more rock-influenced sound. But remember, electric guitars can be used in all those genre’s we mentioned above as well.
But there are certain guitar techniques that only sound good on electric guitars – like shredding (an intermediate playing technique). If you want to really shred on some power chords and get that heavy, electronic sound while you practice, choose an electric.
Classical Guitars, Bass Guitars and Ukuleles:
There are, of course, other types of guitars but they’re beyond the level of this guide. Classical guitars are different because they produce a distinct sound. Bass guitars are very important to music, but serve a different purpose than electric/acoustic varieties. They help support the rhythm and groove of the song. So that’s a different guide altogether. Ukuleles are like guitars but a different instrument, so has it’s own nuances in playing and creates a different sound. And then of course there are 12-string guitars and others.
This guide is about learning how to play your basic 6-string electric or acoustic guitar.
Guitar Prices + How Much to Spend:
Guitars can be VERY expensive. We’re talking thousands of dollars for a single instrument. But you don’t need to spend a ton of money, especially when you’re starting out. You see, guitars all sound a bit different based on the material used to build it and building process itself.
That’s why they range in price so widely. As a beginner, you shouldn’t be spending more than $500 on your first guitar. Get good at playing the instrument before you drop a ton of money on a high end one. Plus, if you’re buying an electric you have to buy an amp as well.
Best Places to Buy Guitars
There are a few great places to buy guitars from. It’s a good idea to find a music store in your area so you can actually hold the guitar and see how it feels. But you don’t have to. There are a ton of options for you to buy your instrument online.
Check out these affordable guitars on Amazon (affiliate link)
And then of course, there are online music stores like:
They’re all great options. Just find something that suits you, don’t spend too much and upgrade it over time.
Accessories: Strings, Amplifiers, Effects Pedals and More
Once you’ve got your main instrument, there are a lot of accessories you can buy.
- Extra set of guitar strings (affiliate link) – sometimes they snap
- Guitar picks (affiliate link) – they get lost easily
- Guitar Amp + DI Cable (for electric guitar players)
This is stuff you should definitely have. Have extra strings in case one breaks. Get a load of picks so you’ll always have one even if you lose them often. Guitar amplifiers are necessary for electric guitars to really get the right sound and feeling. You’ll also need a cable (1/4 inch) to connect your guitar to your amp.
- Guitar bag + stand (to protect/hold your instrument)
- Guitar strap (if you want to stand and play)
- FX Pedals (to give your electric guitar’s sound some crazy effects)
These accessories are fun and cool, but not necessary. Get them if you have the money, don’t worry if you don’t have them, though.
Guitar Care and Maintenance
Taking care of your guitar is extremely important. You want to make sure the strings and body don’t warp or get damaged. Here are some general care and maintenance tips you can use to keep your guitar looking and playing like it’s brand new!