Guitar for Beginners: 10 Tips to Take Your Playing to The Next Level

Guitar for Beginners: 10 Tips to Take Your Playing to The Next Level

By Andy Aledort

The guitar is surprisingly easy to get started on. And progress comes quickly, if you are willing to put in a little practice time. To give you a head start, today we'll cover 10 helpful tips to take your playing up a notch. Remember, no matter your level, there's always more to learn.

Before we dive in, let's talk chords. All beginner guitarists start with the basic CAGED chords, which, as the name implies, are C, A, G, E and D. Below you can find a diagram guide of each of these essential chords.

Beginner guitarist courses typically start with these five “cowboy” chords, so named because all of the well-known cowboy songs like “The Streets of Laredo,” “On Top of Old Smokey” and “I’m An Old Cowhand” that utilize these chords exclusively. Whether your ultimate objective is to play old cowboy songs or is perhaps something a bit loftier, like playing Van Halen’s “Eruption,” beginner guitarists are well-served to start with these five chords.

Now, with the chords out of the way, let's jump into the 10 tips to kickstart your playing.

1. Get Comfortable Forming Beginner Guitarist Chords

All five of the CAGED chords are formed by placing three fingers of the “fret-hand” fingertips down onto the strings. The fret-hand fingers are usually referred to in this way:

  • The index finger is “1,” or the “first finger”
  • The middle finger is “2,” or the “second finger”
    The ring finger is “3,” or the “third finger”
    And the pinkie is “4,” or the “fourth finger”
    • If one uses the thumb to “fret” a note on the fretboard, it is referred to as “the thumb”
  • When forming chords, most beginner guitarists do not initially place all of the fingers down onto the fretboard simultaneously. Start by placing one finger down and then follow with the other two fingers.

The C chord.

For example, when fretting the C chord, start by placing the ring finger on the fifth string at the third fret, followed by the middle finger and then the index finger. In time, you will be able to place all three fingers down simultaneously.

Our rule of thumb with all of these easy guitar chords is to always fret the lowest string first, regardless of the finger, followed by the fingers on the higher strings. It is essential to establish good practice habits when forming these chords so playing them will feel comfortable and reliable.

2. Learn to Keep Solid Time

It is essential to be able to keep a solid rhythm while playing the guitar. This is true whether one is strumming chords or playing single-note solos. A great guide for getting started in establishing a firm handle on your timing is to set a specific tempo and play strictly to that tempo without speeding up or slowing down. This can be achieved with or without a metronome.

Pro Tip: If you are not using a metronome, begin by thinking of the way you count seconds—ONE-one-thousand, TWO-one-thousand, THREE-one-thousand, FOUR-one-thousand. Practice counting in this way out loud and at a steady tempo.

Now, instead of saying, “ONE-one-thousand, TWO-one-thousand,” say, “ONE-and TWO-and THREE-and FOUR-and.” The, leave out the “ands” so you will recite, “ONE TWO THREE FOUR” at a steady tempo. These are known as quarter notes.

Fret a first-position chord, such as E, and, using all downstrokes, strike the strings in sync with reciting “ONE TWO THREE FOUR” out loud. Tapping your foot will help you keep an even beat. If you choose to use a metronome, practice at a slow BPM (beats per minute) setting, like quarter note=60.

3. Learn to Switch Smoothly from One Chord to the Next

Now that you are working on keeping solid time, let’s try switching chords without “losing” the beat. Strum an E chord four times, using all downstrokes, while reciting, “ONE TWO THREE FOUR” – this is the equivalent of playing one bar of E in 4/4 time. Then switch to an A chord and do the same. Now, switch back and forth between E and A, playing one bar of each chord. Have patience; these skills don’t come overnight, so work diligently on keeping solid time.

4. Play the “Cowboy” Chords in Different Positions

A great way to expand the sounds you make on the guitar is to simply move the “cowboy” chords to other positions of the fretboard. For example, fret and strum the E chord; then guide the chord shape up one fret, so that the middle and ring fingers are placed at the third fret and the index finger is placed at the second fret. Listen to the sound and then alternate between the standard E chord and the E chord one fret higher. Repeat this process (or try moving further up the fretboard) with all of the CAGED chords.

5. Develop Your Beginner Guitarist Strumming Patterns

Instead of just strumming the aforementioned quarter-note downbeats, count, “ONE-and TWO-and THREE-and FOUR-and” out loud, and use a downward strum across all of the strings on “ONE” and an upward strum on “and.” Repeat this process for all four beats. This repeated down-up pattern is known as alternate strumming. Once this feels comfortable, try leaving out one of the chordal accents; for example, leave out “TWO” and “FOUR” so the pattern becomes, “ONE-and…and TWO-and…and.”

6. Develop Your Picking by Arpeggiating Chords

Arpeggiating sounds fancy, but it's not that difficult to master. Picking each note of a given chord individually and in succession is known as arpeggiating a chord. Instead of strumming, fret each of the CAGED chords and try picking the individual notes one at a time, moving from the lowest string to the highest string and allowing all of the notes to ring simultaneously. This is one of the fundamentals of playing guitar. Be sure to fret properly so each string will ring clearly.

7. Apply Different Picking Patterns to Your Beginner Guitarist Chords

Now that you have a handle on arpeggiating, try different picking patterns: when fretting an E chord, for example, instead of picking the strings from low to high, try skipping strings. Pick to low E string first, and then pick the fourth string, followed by the fifth string, then the third string followed by the fourth string, the second string followed by the third string, and the first string followed by the second string.

8. Change the Five Beginner Guitarist Chords from Major to Minor

All beginner guitarists need to know the minor equivalents of the five major CAGED chords. The easiest way to play minor versions of all of the chords is to incorporate barre chords, which are formed by laying the fret-hand index finger across all of the strings (known as the barre) and then adding the other fingers.

  • To switch E to Em (E minor), simply lift the index finger off the G string when forming an E chord; this results in Em. Now, form the standard E-shape and move it one string higher, so that the middle, ring and index fingers are fretted on the D, G and B strings, respectively. This will sound Am.

  • To switch from D to Dm, form a D chord and then lift the index and middle fingers; place the middle finger on the second fret of G and the index finger on the first fret of the high E, which results in Dm.

    To sound Gm, fret the Em shape with the ring finger and pinkie, and then slide the fret-hand up three frets so the ring finger and pinkie are at the fifth fret of the A and D strings, respectively; now lay the index finger across all of the strings at the third fret, which results in Gm.

    Similarly, fret the Am with the ring, pinkie and middle fingers on the D, G and B strings, respectively, and then slide up three frets while adding an index finger barre across all of the strings at the third fret, resulting in Cm.

9. Practice Different Genres and Styles to Improve Your Playing

Virtually every style of music can be played by simply utilizing these major and minor chord shapes. Start by learning as many classic rock songs as possible, and then expand to country and folk songs, then jazz and bluegrass songs, or whatever genre interests you. Strive to absorb as much music as possible, as this will serve to strengthen your abilities as a guitarist as well as your understanding of music in general.

10. Get an Amp that Makes Practice More Fun

The revolutionary Spark amp makes learning, practicing and progressing on the guitar easier than ever. This amazing guitar amp will enable you to play and practice with millions of songs and access over 10,000 tones powered by an award-winning BIAS tone engine.

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Andy Aledort has contributed to the international music scene for over 35 years as a journalist, instructor, performer and editor of Guitar World magazine. His 2019 book, “Texas Flood: The Inside Story of Stevie Ray Vaughan,” is a New York Times bestseller. He has sold over one million instructional DVDs, on top of teaching guitar privately and on online sites such as Truefire.

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