Guitar Techniques and Skills for Beginners
16 absolutely essential skills every guitarist NEEDS to know
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Last Updated: January 2023 | Article Details: 2711 words (14 – 16 minute read)
Article Table of Contents
1. Basic Guitar Techniques
2. Picking Techniques
- 2.1 Alternate Picking
- 2.2 Finger Picking
- 2.3 Brush Strokes
- 2.4 Sweep Picking
- 2.5 Economy Picking
- 2.6 Hybrid Picking
3. Intermediate Guitar Skills
- 3.1 Palm Muting and Choking
- 3.2 Hammer On
- 3.3 Pull Off
- 3.4 Tapping
- 3.5 Vibrato
- 3.6 Bending and Pre-Bending
- 3.7 Slides
5 Guitar Cheat Sheets and Practice Plan
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So you want to become a better guitar player?
Well here are 16 essential guitar techniques that you better be familiar with.
We’ll go over the most important guitar skills that level up your playing and give you a brief description of what it is and how it’s done.
If you’re serious about learning how to play guitar better (including mastering these techniques) then we highly recommend you check out these online guitar training lessons.
Let’s get into it…
Basic Guitar Technique
Before we get into the really juicy techniques, you need to really master these basics. If you’re not good with these, do not move forward.
Practice the fundamentals a bit, and it’ll make the more advanced skills below easier to handle.
The first thing you need to know is how to hold a guitar pick and pick guitar strings.
To hold a guitar pick correctly, hold the wide edge between outside edge of your curled index finger and under your thumb. You should have a firm grip, but make sure you’re not pinching the pick too hard. That restricts your wrist and elbow movement. How much the end of the pick sticks out and is used to strike a guitar string is up to you.
With a proper grip on your pick, use your wrist to strike the 6th string (top/thickest string). Make sure you’re hitting the string cleanly – don’t hit other strings and make sure the string you hit rings out clearly. Try to hit each string individually and work on how quickly and cleanly you’re able to hit each string.
Another basic technique that you need to be really good at before being able to effectively do cool tricks, is fretting a guitar – holding strings down on fret board to produce a different note than an “open” string.
Make sure your nails are trimmed down so your finger tips can easily push down on each string. Remember one thing – if you form bad habits in fretting and picking, you’ll slow down your progress. So get these right.
Most of the time, your thumb should be placed behind the neck and not on top of it.
Make sure you are bending your finger with the right type of arch – your finger tip should be able to press down on a single string without affecting/touching any other string.
Try to press as close actual fret (metal strip) without being on top of it. Use a firm press so that you’re touching the string down to the fret board. You want to avoid a buzzing sound from the string due to bad fretting technique.
When practicing at first, don’t worry about picking a string. Just use your fingers to fret and release various strings until you’re able to do it firmly, and cleanly (without touching other strings)
The next thing you need to master is strumming. Pick a couple of basic guitar chords to play. Make sure your fretting technique is good and slide the pick down across all the strings the chord uses.
It should be a firm sweep down without hitting any unnecessary strings. Start slow and gradually increase your speed.
Make sure you’re hitting each string cleanly. All of them should ring out with equal power and none of them should buzz. Again, check your fretting if your strings don’t sound right.
Also, make sure your fret hand isn’t accidentally touching other strings and that you’re not strumming a string that’s not used in the chord.
Next up let’s talk about the different guitar picking skills you need to master. This is still fundamental technique you need to really have down.
Don’t neglect the basics, just because they’re boring. If you want a comprehensive list of guitar picking styles we have a guide on that.
This is pretty basic. Alternate picking just means using an alternating pattern of down strokes and up strokes, instead of just one or the other.
The advantage of this, is it allows you to pick a guitar faster. It can be used with both picking and strumming.
Start with a basic pick/strum (moving downwards) and instead of moving your hand to the top, simply move upwards while hitting a string. It can be the same or a different string.
Start slow and gradually increase your speed. Try it with individual notes and chords.
This is another basic technique that is exactly like it sounds. Using your fingers, instead of a guitar pick, to play the strings on a guitar. It’s especially great for acoustic guitar, but can be used with anything.
Because you have access to four fingers and a thumb to hit strings, you’re able to produce really interesting licks, riffs and sounds.
Start by playing strings with your thumb, index and middle fingers. Don’t start trying to learn to use all of your fingers – it’s too much at the beginning.
Focus on technique and start slow as always.
This is similar to finger picking. We’re essentially using the thumb to strum the strings, instead of a pick. It gives you a softer, more subdued sound when playing chords.
This technique can be taken to higher levels by playing octaves with the thumb, but for now focus on good technique with strumming regular chords.
Use the side of bottom of your thumb, and if you want a different tone, try incorporating your thumbnail as well. When you’re practicing use both down and upstrokes.
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Sweep picking is a technique that is used to increase the speed at which you’re able to play individual notes.
Instead of picking various strings to get specific notes, you use a sweeping motion with your pick across all the strings in order during a riff or lick. Your fret hand will control which notes ring out. Start out with a locked wrist and try it out.
This allows you to play notes faster than if you were to hit strings that are farther apart from each other. Just make sure you’re starting slow and paying attention to making each string ring out cleanly!
Just like sweep picking above, economy picking is a more efficient way to play single note melodies/riffs, but in a way that lets you incorporate alternate picking.
So you use the same motion and resistance as sweep picking, but with a wrist action that allows you to alternate upward and downward sweeps. If you’re playing ascending notes you sweep down and when you need to go the opposite direction you sweep up.
It’s a tough technique to master, so you want to definitely take a focused and slow approach to practicing this guitar technique.
Now we get to an advanced picking technique where you’re incorporating both standard picking and finger picking with the rest of your free fingers. It combines the versatility of finger picking with the strong attack sound generated with a plastic pick.
The reason this is such a powerful technique to learn is that it allows you to play licks that you wouldn’t ever be able to play without incorporating it in your playing. You get great range, rhythm and tone combinations.
Start with a firm grip on your pick, and curl your free fingers so they remain close by, ready to hit any string you need.
Try playing a scale or a set of intervals and go slowly at first. You need to make sure you’re letting each string ring out the same – it can be tricky since you’re using fingers and a pick, so be mindful of this.
Intermediate Guitar Skills
Now that you’re familiar with basic technique, let’s move on to some more skills you should be familiar and comfortable with as a guitarist.
You’re not always going to use these, but when you do they give you interesting sounds and ideas that you can combine to compose a truly stunning guitar performance.
Palm Muting and Choking
Palm muting is a technique that gives you a damped or muffled sound from the guitar. It gives a cleaner performance with less harshness from ringing notes.
What you do is rest the base of the palm of your picking hand on the bridge on the guitar. Apply gentle pressure with your hand on the bridge as you pick your strings. Slowly move your picking hand closer and further away from the strings – you’ll notice that the closer your hand is to the strings the more muted the sound gets.
Choking is an extreme form of palm muting that stops the strings from vibrating and ringing out at all. It can be done with either your fret hand or picking hand (or both!).
Simply pick the strings like normal and then put your hand on the strings the moment you want them to stop ringing out. Both palm muting and choking are a great way to play a more rhythmic/percussive pattern, or to stop unwanted notes from ringing out.
A hammer on is a technique where you can play different notes faster by using both hands to help produce both notes.
Sound confusing? It’s actually pretty simple. You simply pluck a string to get the first note and then slam your index or middle finger down onto a fret to get that same string to produce the next note.
To start, use open strings as your first note (no fretting). It’s easier to practice. Simply pick the string and then try hammering down your finger onto that same string on the first fret. Do it quickly and forcefully.
If you do it correctly you’ll hear two distinct notes. It will be tough at first, because if you’re off a bit, you’ll just stop the string from vibrating. It’ll take some practice but keep at it and it’ll become second nature.
Pull Offs are the sibling to hammer ons – it’s basically the exact opposite movement. Start by picking a string with a fretted note, and then remove your finger from the fret to let the open string ring out, producing a separate note.
Try it like this – using your index finger hold down the first fret on any string. Then pick that string and quickly lift your finger off the fret in a sort of downward direction. Think of it as almost plucking the string with your fret hand as it comes off the string.
Though it’s best to use your index and middle finger for hammer ons since you have the most power with them, you should practice pull offs with all your left hand (fret hand) fingers.
Tapping is another great way to play a lot of notes (and even chords) faster than you’d normally be able to. What you do is use both your fret and pick hands’ fingers to hit notes on the fret board.
It’s very similar to hammer on and pull off technique, just using both hands. But because of this, you need to develop your finger strength on both hands.
Naturally, your fretting hand will already be better at this than your picking hand, but keep on practicing this and you’ll get better at it in no time.
Using vibrato is one of the most expressive ways to play guitar and adds so much flavor to a performance that would otherwise be dull. It’s normally used on single notes using a single string, but once you get better at it, you can try it with intervals and chords too.
What you do is fret a note and pick the string. As it rings out, you use your fret finger to slide the string slightly up and down on the fret board. Make sure you are pressing down firmly enough that the note rings clearly all the way through your vibrato.
It may be tough at first so use your index and middle fingers to get used to the movement. Also try placing your thumb over the neck and use it as leverage and a pivot point.
Experiment with using different width of movement and different speeds/intensity. You’ll soon develop a signature vibrato style to your repetoire.
Bending and Pre-Bending
Bending guitar strings is a great way to convey emotion through your performance. If you like playing blues guitar, then this is something you absolutely need to master.
What you’re doing is fretting a note and then pushing the string up towards the thicker strings. It’s a very expressive way of playing, but will definitely take some practice. Start by finding the 1/4 tone bend and tone 1/2 bend points and practice bending various notes/strings.
A great way to practice is to fret the note with your ring finger and use your index/middle fingers to help push your ring finger upwards. If you do it correctly, you’l hear a clean pitch that glides upwards and stays clean throughout.
Pre-bending is basically where you bend the string up FIRST, and then pick it/strike it and let it gradually go down to it’s natural position. You can also bend and pre-bend strings DOWNWARDS as well.
Slides are super common, super fun and sound great. They’re a technique you’ll often learn by accident just by trying to learn to play the guitar!
And it’s easy to perform – simply fret a string and pick it. As it rings out, glide/drag your fret finger up or down the fret board to another fret.
If you do it right, you’ll hear a smooth change in pitch with no dead notes. Once you master this technique you can do the faster shift slide variation.
Frequently Asked Questions
Although playing techniques for guitar and violin are quite distinct, you can definitely transfer some of the skills you learn playing guitar to the bass or banjo. Particularly, picking styles and things like hammer ons/offs can be transferred to these other instruments. In terms of overall musical ability, learning guitar can help make it easier to learn other instruments.
This is definitely a debatable topic, but it makes sense that one of the most important skills any guitarist can know is picking. Not only is it the most fundamental skill for guitar, becoming very proficient at guitar picking is likely to level up your ability to play guitar quite a bit. But all of the various skills you can learn on the guitar will be important to becoming a great guitar player.
It’s essential any beginner guitar student learn the most fundamental skills first. That would be picking and fretting. Becoming great at picking and fretting is absolutely necessary to any guitar playing. Mastering these basic skills will definitely help you level up as a guitar player and make playing everything else easier.
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Guitar Techniques Wrap-Up
There you have it, the most essential skills you should learn and practice to become a better guitarist.
There are more advanced techniques, but first start by mastering what you’ve learned here.
And be sure to download our free guitar chord and tab cheat sheets to help make your practice and learning easier (see above).
Thanks for reading this complete guide on essential guitar techniques every beginner needs to know.
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