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How to Play Guitar

A complete guide to learning guitar

Last Updated: January 2024 | Article Details: 4722 words (25 – 27 minute read)

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Want to learn how to play the guitar? In this complete beginner’s guide you’ll learn all the basics of playing. PLUS, we’ll give you free cheat sheets 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 better fast

If you really want to level up your guitar playing, be sure to check out our guide to the best online guitar lessons around.

We’ll go over the core basics, show you techniques and much more. It’s absolutely possible to teach yourself to play the guitar as a kid or an adult even if you have no musical training or talent.

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 you learn.

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What Great Guitarists Focus On

We’re not gonna BS you – learning guitar isn’t easy. There’s a lot to focus on when you’re first starting out, like:

That’s a ton of shit to learn and worry about… So let’s get started.

The Basics

Here’s everything you need to know about how to play guitar. You can skip this first section if you want to get right to playing, but knowing the parts of the instrument, how to hold it and making sure it’s in tune are important things to know!

Step By Step Learning Goals

Here’s an overview of the steps involved in learning the guitar:

  • Learn Proper Technique

    It’s important to learn the proper technique of the instrument. This includes things like posture, wrist movement, picking technique, fretting and more. It’s much easier to learn how to play if you can master the basics of how to play.

  • Practice the Rudiments

    Next you want to learn and practice the rudiments of music. This includes things like notes, intervals, scales, chords and chord progressions. If you master these, you’ll be able to play music and make your own music easier.

  • Learn Guitar Skills

    After you master the rudiments of playing, it’s important to learn the various playing skills and techniques involved in guitar. These are things like styles of picking, hammer-ons/hammer-offs and other advanced things.

  • Learn Songs in Various Genres

    Rudiments and skills have their place, but there’s more to playing guitar. You need to learn songs – whether they’re classics or modern popular songs, learning how to play them shows you how music works in a wider context.

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It’s important to learn this stuff. So how does it all work? Regardless of the type of instrument 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 instrument, strings and even pick can have an impact on HOW it sounds.

Here are the basic different parts to learn:

  • The Head
  • The Bridge
  • The Neck or Fretboard
  • Body
  • Strings

Certain types will also have specific parts like a sound hole on acoustics or pickups for electrics.

Parts of a Guitar

How to Hold a Guitar Correctly

It may seem like something basic to learn but the way you hold your 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 – it should play fine either way.

Here’s some tips on making sure you’re holding it right:

  1. Sit up straight – use a stool or straight-backed chair
  2. The thinnest string should be closest to the ground
  3. Hold so it’s resting on your dominant leg (same side as hand you’ll use to strum/pick)
  4. Cradle the body and hold it against your chest/stomach
  5. The hand you’re not strumming with should support the neck

It might not feel super comfortable at first, but you’ll get into it.

Image demonstrating proper way to hold a guitar

How to Tune a Guitar

Now comes time to tune your strings. It’s pretty straight-forward with not much to learn, so we won’t get into it in-depth.

If you’re got a smartphone you can download a free tuning app to help you get everything sounding right. If you prefer something physical to tune with here are some great options to try.

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 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 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!

Person Tuning an Acoustic Guitar

How to Play Correctly

Ok, finally… We’re gonna show you exactly how to play now. First up, you need to learn about notes and fretting.

Learning Notes and Strings

Here are the order of the notes from top (first string – thickest) to bottom (sixth string – thinnest)

  • E
  • A
  • D
  • G
  • B
  • E

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 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).

Closeup of Fretting a Guitar

Where to Put Your Thumb When Fretting

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.

Picking vs. Fingering

Let’s talk about picking techniques. It’s up to you whether you use your fingers or a pick to play the guitar, but it’s good to learn both techniques.

A pick is a small tear-drop shaped piece of plastic (in varying weights) that you use to strike the strings.

It produces a different sound than if you just used your fingers. Learn more about guitar picking techniques in this guide.

Closeup of Hand Using a Guitar Pick and Bare Fingers to Play

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 Pick Correctly

To hold the 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.

Strumming and Picking Techniques

Next, you need to learn proper basic technique. To begin, practice your picking and strumming without holding down any frets. First, grip the pick and hold it above the top string at a 45 degree angle (see picture below).

Now that you have a good grip on the 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.

Closeup of Hand Using Guitar Pick to Strum

To practice picking (and not strumming), simply use the pick – with the same grip – to play each string 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. Next, you’ll want to learn about different strumming patterns (read more).


An easy and fun way to learn guitar

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Playing Chords

Now that you’ve learned basic fretting, picking, plucking and strumming, it’s time to get into learning to play CHORDS. So what’s a 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.”

And because this is such a rhythmic instrument, chords are an important part of your playing.

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 proper practice (like this) and learning – you have to keep pushing yourself. .

Read our full guide on how to play basic guitar chords!

Closeup of a Chord Being Held on Guitar Fretboard

Playing 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 I just learned! How am I supposed to play different chords one after another?” Don’t worry, keep practicing the chords you learn 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

So now that you’ve learned 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:

  1. Strum C Major 4 times
  2. Strum F Major 2 times
  3. Strum G Major 2 times
  4. Repeat

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.

Smooth Transitions

At first, your chord transitions (moving from one chord to another) is going to sound broken and sloppy. And you’ll be slow when learning how to play. 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 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 that will allow you to freestyle your playing easily. But you need to learn guitar scales and chords fully. That’s really beyond the scope of this tutorial.

Then come back here and learn some of these chord progressions:

  • 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

Learning Full Songs

You made it! Now that you know the basics of playing, 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 songs you can start to learn and play today as a beginner! We’ll also go over reading 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 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

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Learning to Read Music

There are a few ways that music is notated. You’ve likely seen traditional sheet music with a staff of 5 lines and 4 spaces with different notes placed throughout.

But for guitar, there is another way of reading music – chord diagrams and tablature (or “tabs”). Tabs are an easier way to read guitar music compared to traditional sheet music. It’s a great way for beginner guitar players to start reading guitar music.

Be sure to read our guides on how to read guitar tabs and chord diagrams.

Choosing Your First Instrument

Whether you pick an acoustic, electric or classical guitar – hell even a ukulele – the same basic concepts lay behind playing each instrument. And you’ve learned the basics of playing right here. So, here’s a quick overview on how to pick the right type of guitar for your situation.

Acoustic and Electric Guitar With Electric Bass in Middle

Acoustic Guitars

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 Guitars

Electric guitars are great if you know the type of music you want to play is a more rock-influenced sound. But remember, they can still be used in all those genre’s we mentioned above as well.

But there are certain techniques (like these) that only sound good on electrics – like shredding (an intermediate playing technique). If you want to really shred on some power chords (learn more) and get that heavy, electronic sound while you practice, choose an electric.

Classical, Bass and Ukulele:

There are, of course, other types of instruments but they’re beyond the level of this guide. Classical/nylon 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 it’s a different instrument, so it has it’s own nuances in playing and creates a different sound. And then of course there are 7-string, 8-string and even 12-string instruments and other types.

Our guides are about learning how to play your basic 6-string electric or 6-string acoustic.

Guitar Prices + How Much to Spend:

Making music can be VERY expensive, especially when you’re just learning. We’re talking thousands of dollars for a single instrument in some cases. 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.

Guitar Case Full of Loose Cash

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 musical equipment from. It’s a good idea to find a music store in your area so you can actually hold the thing and see how it feels. But you don’t have to. There are a ton of options for you to buy your instrument online.

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.


Sweetwater Guitars

Accessories: Strings, Amplifiers, Effects Pedals and More

Once you’ve got your main instrument, there are a lot of accessories you can buy.

Essential Accessories:

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. Amps are necessary for electrics to really get the right sound and feeling. You’ll also need a cable (1/4 inch) to connect your instrument to your amp.

Optional Accessories:

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.

Various Accessories for Guitar

Frequently Asked Questions

Is Guitar Playing Good for You?

Learning any type of musical instrument can be good for you – especially your mental health. Playing music is a soothing and satisfying experience. It can lead to lower levels of anxiety and overall happier mood. But it also helps you improve your ability to learn and understand things. And so playing an instrument is very good for you. Learning how to play the guitar can have several benefits on you and your life.

Can I Play Guitar With Long Nails?

It’s extremely difficult to play guitar with longs nails and even if you manage to do it, you’ll be using bad technique which could lead to bigger issues down the road. You need to be able to “fret” the strings (press down the strings) pretty forcefully to get a good tone. This usually requires using the pads of your fingers, and so even shorter length nails can hinder this. Long nail would make it extremely difficult.

Is Guitar Playing Hard?

Like with any new skill you want to pick up, it can seem daunting and challenging at first. But with the more you practice the craft, the easier it will become. Playing any instrument is difficult at first – there’s a lot of “moving parts.” But fairly quickly, you’ll get used to the movements and concepts. And over time playing the guitar will seem easy to you. You just need to put in the “difficult” effort at the beginning.

How Do I Play Guitar Standing Up?

If you’re just starting out, it’s best to stick to playing while sitting down. Once you’re comfortable with picking and fretting it becomes easier to transition to playing while standing up. You should know various chords and licks like the back of your hand if you want to play them standing up. And of course, you will need a strap to play while standing. So make sure you’ve got one that feels comfortable.

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    Hopefully you have a pretty good understanding of the basics of playing guitar for beginners after reading this guide.

    The key really is to focus on the fundamentals – picking, strumming, fretting, chords, scales, etc. – and practicing them daily. Consistency is key.

    But it takes time, so don’t get too disheartened.

    Finally, taking care of your instrument is extremely important. You want to make sure the strings and body don’t warp or get damaged.

    Next up, we suggest you read our guide on basic guitar scales for beginners – read now.

    If you really want to become a better guitar player fast, I highly recommend you check out Guitar Tricks (14 Day Free Trial) – they’ve got a TON of in-depth video lessons on everything you could possibly want to learn.

    That’s all y’all – our complete guide on learning how to play guitar for beginners! Thanks for reading.

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    About The Author:

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    Omar Zulfi

    Omar Zulfi is a music producer, rapper, singer, songwriter and digital entrepreneur. He is the founder and head writer at Deviant Noise. Learn more about what he's doing by clicking here.