To become an expert in anything, it takes 10,000 hours practice. Stuff that, we say. You can learn how to play guitar in about seven days. Most of those days will be spent practicing over and over until your fingers feel like they’re made of leather – but it can, we promise, be done.
First, gather together all the stuff you will need:
- An acoustic guitar
- Some plectra (the plural of “plectrum”)
- A guitar strap
- A capo (we’ll explain this later)
- Three chords
- Finger tips of steel (these will come with practice)
Why an acoustic guitar? Electric guitars are more expensive and they require additional stuff to work, like an amplifier and electricity. You can play an acoustic guitar anywhere. Also, you don’t need to spend a lot on an acoustic guitar. You can pick up a playable instrument new for under £100. If you don’t mind buying second-hand, you can halve that. Take a muso friend with you when you buy your guitar to make sure it’s not a lemon.
Or just borrow your muso friend’s guitar. Much cheaper.
Plectrums are the little plastic doohickeys you use to strum the strings of your guitar. Get half a dozen, medium thickness from any guitar shop. You’ll need a guitar strap too because, when you play your gig, you’ll be standing up. Get used to playing with the strap or you’ll struggle on your big night.
Setting the Date
Every town has an acoustic club or open mic night. These are by far the best places to play your first gig. Firstly, and most importantly, anyone can play at these nights. Even someone who has only been learning guitar for seven days. Secondly, they are used to people being rubbish – but will clap you for getting up and having a go anyway. Win, win. Find out where your local acoustic night is based and mark the date in your diary.
It’s time to learn how to play guitar.
Without getting too far into music theory, the best three chords to learn are E, A and B. Learn those three chords and you will immediately be able to play almost any rock and roll song ever written and every blues song recorded. Why? They follow the classic I, IV, V progression; first, fourth and fifth. With those chords you can play any “12 bar blues” based tune – and there are a lot of them.
Why E, A and B? E and A major are just that bit easier to play than most other chords. And, we’re going to show you a way to cheat so that you can play B easily. So, without further ado, here’s the hard part.
So you can read our diagrams, we’re going to number your fingers:
1 = index finger
2 = middle finger
3 = ring finger
4 = little finger
And, for your information, the strings on a guitar are tuned to:
6 = E (the bottom, fattest string)
5 = A
4 = D
3 = G
2 = B
1 = E
Chord 1: E Major
To play the chord of E Major, place your index finger on the first fret of the G string, your ring finger on the 3rd fret of the D string and your middle finger on the 3rd fret of the A string. Here’s a diagram to help:
And here’s a video to help even more:
Once you can play the chord clearly, strum that mother, over and over. Just use downward strokes with your right hand for now and count “1,2,3,4” as you strum. Rest and stretch when your fingers start to hurt, but get right back on that pony and start again as soon as you can. The idea is to build up some muscle memory, so try to just practice strumming the E Major chord for a good twenty minutes or so before we move onto the next one.
Chord 2: A Major
Next up is A Major. To play this chord, place your ring finger on the 2nd fret of the 2nd or B string, your middle finger on the 2nd fret of the G string, your index finger on the 2nd fret of the D string. Again, here’s a diagram:
And here’s a video:
Practice playing the A Major chord for a while. Once you can play it easily, try switching between E Major and A Major. Play E for four strums, then A for four Strums. Do this nice and slowly, don’t rush yourself. It should already sound like you’re playing a tune. Because you are.
Chord 3: B Major
The final chord, a B Major, is quite difficult to play as an open chord for beginners – so we’re going to show you a cheat version. The diagram looks like this:
The index finger holds down the A string at the second fret. Then notice that the middle finger holds down the D,G and B strings at the fourth fret. You don’t play the top E string at all. When you hold down more than one string with one finger, that’s called a “barre”.
Again practice the chord over and over until you can play it clearly, then practice switching from E to A to B, four strums each. Keep going until your fingers are bleeding and you’re crying for your mum.
Here’s what that capo thing does
Right at the top of this piece we included a thing called a “capo” in the list of stuff you’ll need. You’ll have seen these devices attached to guitars many, many times without realising what they are. A capo is a spring loaded little device that clamps across the fretboard of your guitar, changing its pitch. They cost about a fiver.
Your guitar is tuned to E – but place the capo at the third fret and, magically, it’s now tuned from G. Your three chords, E, A and B are now G, C and D. Place it at the fifth fret and it’s now tuned from A. Your three chords become A, D and E. You’ve just tripled the number of songs you can potentially play…
Learn a Song
Finding songs to play shouldn’t be hard with the I, IV, V progression pattern. It’s even easier with the site Ultimate Guitar, which has hundreds of song “tabs”. These are cheat sheets for buskers with the chords written above the lyrics. As we said, just about every rock and roll song fits this progression. For example:
or why even bother with all three chords when you can play Born in the USA with just two?
Want more options? Put your capo on the third fret and you can learn all these:
All you have to do now is pick a song – just one song – and practice it until you’ve got it perfect. Then roll up to the open mic night with your cheap/borrowed/stolen acoustic guitar to play your debut gig.
Next stop; fame, groupies and taunting tweets from Justin Bieber. It’s what you’ve always dreamed of.