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Basic Guitar Lessons

This is a very basic introduction to learning to play the guitar. The first step, obviously, is to obtain a guitar - click to read about acoustic or electric guitar selection. Start by finding a quiet spot where you can practice without being disturbed (and not disturb others in your home); and a comfortable chair (without arm rests). If you have a small footstool or hard box, keep it handy as well - some people prefer to raise their right leg (where the guitar rests). Forget about playing standing up when you are learning, put the guitar strap away for now. If you have an electric guitar, plug in the amp and connect your guitar.

holding guitarSit upright in your comfortable chair with your back erect and as far back as you can go in the chair. Straddle the guitar over your right thigh - note that if you are lefty you will have to reverse all the directions given here! Also note that for classical guitar you will eventually be playing with the guitar on your LEFT thigh - just keep it on your right thigh for now for these basic lessons. Bring the guitar as close to your body as you can, and balance it on your thigh so it doesn't wobble (too much) - and the neck forms a straight line parallel with the ground. If you need to raise your right leg to keep the guitar balanced, use the footstool. Put your left hand under the neck of your guitar with all your fingers open and pointing skywards, rest the neck between your thumb and forefinger. Your thumb should be along the back of the neck, slide your hand up and down a few times and get to know how cool it feels to be holding your guitar. Your right hand should go over the body of the guitar, and your fingers should be near the soundhole (or neck pickup, if you have an electric guitar).

holding guitar pickIf you intend to use a pick, grip it lightly in your right hand, between your thumb and forefinger. Your forefinger and thumb should make a "cross", and the tip of the pick should be sticking out just a little bit (enough to hit the strings without your fingers brushing them). Grip the pick tightly enough so it doesn't fall out, but not so tightly that your fingers will start to hurt. If you don't want to use a pick, just use the the outside of your right hand thumb for now - be sure to cut your fingernails short to avoid hurting yourself. Lean forward just a little, so you can look over the guitar and see the frets and soundhole (or pickups). The guitar itself should be perfectly vertical - don't tilt the guitar to look down.

For your first strum (drum roll!), leave your left hand fingers in the air (don't fret any strings yet) while balancing the guitar neck in the V of your thumb and forefinger, and rotate your right hand wrist so the pick (or your thumb) strikes all six guitar strings from the top to the bottom (the TOP most string nearest your face is the SIXTH string, and the string closes to the ground is the FIRST string). Do it slowly at first, listen to all the strings ring out. That was your first strum - although it may not sound like much. As you strum by rotating your wrist, you will realize that it is quite a stretch to strike all six strings just with your wrist action. Now try it by moving your arm ONLY from your elbow along with the rotation of your wrist - must easier, isn't it. So keep in mind, your wrist action is what you need to strike the strings (not by moving your whole arm) - and your arm moves at the elbow to position your wrist over the string that you wish to strike. Strum the top most 6th string (thickest string, nearest your face) downward once, recover the pick back to position above the string (without hitting the string on the way back up). Now nudge your arm (from the elbow) down a fraction of an inch so your pick is in position over the next string (5th string) and pick it. Recover the pick back up without touching the string on the way back, and nudge your arm from the elbow into position over the fourth string - and keep going till you reach the bottom most (first string). Repeat the process backwards, coming back up to the sixth string. When hitting the string, you only need a little pressure - don't get carried away and try to slam the strings to get more volume. The important thing is to pick only the string you are aiming for, and only hit it on the DOWN STROKE (not on the recovery when you bring the pick back up). Try this exercise for a few minutes every day to get your hand and wrist used to the motion.

After you get some practice with the downstroke described above, do the same thing but this time allow the pick to hit the string on the recovery, this is the UP STROKE. So you will hear two notes (downstroke and upstroke). If you have a metronome (which is strongly recommended) set it to a speed that you find comfortable and strike once on each beat (click) - once going down, once coming up; move arm from elbow to next string and keep going across all the strings from the sixth to the first string and back up. Timing is a critical element to playing any music - the metronome provides an audible "click" that indicates the beat - you want your note to ring out exactly on the beat. After a few minutes of acceptable accuracy, turn the metronome speed up by 10 and keep practicing. Strumming and picking strings is vital - it is the whole basis of guitar playing. The sooner your hands and brain get the rhythm and motion figured out, the easier it will be for you to begin playing "real" music.

holding guitar neckOnce you have some control over your right hand for strumming, lets start with the left hand for fretting the strings. By pressing the string down at a fret you effectively shorten the length of that string, increasing the pitch of the sound it makes. This allows you to make infinitely more sounds than just the six strings picked in open (without any frets being pressed) position. Reposition your left hand so your thumb is flat along the back of the neck approximately in the middle - it should be as though you are placing a fingerprint on the back of the neck. Curl your remaining four fingers and lightly touch the sixth string (closest to your face). Now depending on the length of your fingers and the width/thickness of the neck, you have to get a comfortable feel where you are able to keep your fingers arched - so they do NOT brush against the first string (closest to the ground). Adjust your thumb accordingly, this is your indvidual "zone".

guitar fret fingerNow you are ready to fret your first string. Note that when we say "fret the string" it does not mean press ON the fret, you want to press AHEAD (towards the tuners) of the target fret as close to the fret as your finger fatness allows. Ideally only the finger tip should touch the string pushing it flat against the fretboard at that point, the closer you can get to the fret (without actually climbing the fret) the better the sound your guitar will make. Again depending on the length and thickness of your fingers, and the width and thickness of your guitar neck, you have to find your own "zone". Start by holding all four finger above the first four frets on the sixth string (closest to your face). Pick the sixth string, then lower only your index finger on the first fret (remember, ON means just ahead of) and pick the string again. Note the sound of the note changed, you just fretted your first string. Lower your middle finger on the second fret (again, ON means just ahead of) and pick again keeping your index finger down where it landed. Repeat with your ring and your pinkie fingers, picking once each time. Now reverse the process, lifting the pinky finger and picking the string, then lifting the ring finger and picking the string, and so on till all four fingers are back up in the air. Switch to the next string (the FIFTH string) and repeat, and keep going all way down to the first string. Then do the same thing in reverse, coming back up to the sixth string. When you fret a string, use your ears - each note should ring out clear as you pick it. If it is muffled your finger is not pushing down correctly or hard enough - if the note cuts out abruptly your finger did not move up (or down) smoothly. You will hear the sound change (technically, by half a step) for each fret that you play.

Use your metronome during the fretting exercises, again, timing is everything in music. Once you have control over your fretting fingers, slide your left hand down a bit and start the fretting exercise from the second fret, then the third and keep going till you reach the last fret that is reachable - then repeat going back to the first fret. Use your ears, they are the best self-test tool you can get. Notes should ring out clearly and as you speed up the metronome (by 10 after a few exercises), the notes will start to blend together as you practice (think DO-RE-MI-FA-SO-LA-TI). Don't try to go too fast, slow and steady is good for learning - speed will come with practice and patience.

Always ensure your guitar is in tune before practicing - guitars frequently go out of tune as the strings stretch out, and as the weather changes (humidity affects the wood, swelling or shrinking the neck). You should have a guitar stand, and keep your guitar on it (weather and humidity permitting) so it is easy to just grab it and start playing whenever you have a free moment. After each practice session, you should wipe your guitar down with a dry soft cloth to remove the oils and sweat your hands and fingers deposit on the strings and body. If you have an electric guitar, remember to turn OFF the amp to avoid damaging both the guitar and the amp. It is a good practice to also unplug the cable from your electric guitar when not in use, this saves your equipment in case you forget to turn the amp off - and poses less of a risk that someone may trip over it (which could destroy your guitar, and possibly their teeth).

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