Learning the guitar is a noble venture. But if you’re like many aspiring guitarists, you might have already realized that there’s a bit of a learning curve — even when it comes to figuring out the best way to learn guitar on your own. The truth is that you’ll start to figure out what works (and doesn’t work) as you go along. But in the very beginning, having a roadmap for success is vitally important. Here’s our guide to the best way to learn guitar.
Learning How to Play Guitar: A Map
Is Guitar Easy to Learn?
Before you start really looking at how to learn guitar at home, you probably want to know what you’re getting yourself into. But as far as ease of learning, learning guitar is really what you make it. Just like any sport or hobby, you can learn a little and just play recreationally. You also can take a serious, focused approach to develop your skills in a very short period of time.
Regardless of your goals, if you make sure to take it slowly, learning guitar can be relatively easy. Ideally, you’ll be able to strike a balance. You want learning a musical instrument to be fun. However, you also want to make sure that you’re keeping yourself challenged enough to learn new things.
The Easiest Way to Learn Guitar Depends on You
As you can see, your approach to learning has a major impact on how easy it is to play guitar. After all, there’s no shortage of available resources for learners. Learning guitar can be easy if you organize your resources and use them in a logical way. But if you go about it haphazardly, you’ll probably develop gaps in knowledge that will ultimately hinder your progress.
Planning is an essential part of ensuring that the actual learning process is easy. But the other main component is motivation. While it would be great if we could passively absorb musical ability, that isn’t how the world works. You might have watched some of your favorite guitarists play and thought that even complex solos seem easy. But just like with anything else, those players had to put in countless hours of focused practice in order to make playing seem that easy.
When you’re motivated to learn, putting in that practice won’t seem tedious. You won’t usually find yourself staring at the clock and waiting for your session to end. And since your focus will help you retain what you learn, you’re much more likely to find it easy to learn new things and grow as a player.
Types of Guitar for Guitar Beginners to Learn On
Depending on how familiar you are with the world of guitars, you may already know that there are several different types of guitars to choose from. Choosing the right guitar is especially important if you want to stick with the craft.
For one, you need a guitar that is comfortable and easy to play. The best way to do this is to ask a professional to do a setup. For a setup, an expert will adjust the action (the height of the strings relative to the frets) and make sure the neck is in the correct position. In some cases, they may also file down any rough fret edges.
To have a successful learning experience, you don’t need the most expensive guitar out there. But very cheap models tend to have trouble staying in tune, and they can sometimes have a tone that is borderline unpleasant. If you’re buying online, listen to video demos and read reviews to make sure the guitar is playable and has a tone you like. If you know of any guitar teachers or fairly experienced players, it may help to ask if they have any recommendations.
Make sure you choose a guitar that you like the look of — guitarists, especially newer players, will often be more motivated to play if they have an instrument they find beautiful.
When it comes to choosing the guitar you want to learn on, there are a few things to keep in mind. Here are some things to consider in your search:
You may have already found that plenty of sources recommend that you start out learning on an acoustic guitar. For one, it’s easier to move from the somewhat thick acoustic neck to the slim electric neck. Acoustic guitars open up the world of percussive strumming and other types of percussive techniques that can add new life to your playing. Plus, you don’t need to worry about purchasing and using an amp or dialing in the perfect tone — you can just focus on learning.
Even in the world of acoustic guitars, you might be unsure of whether to get an acoustic or an acoustic-electric. Acoustic-electric guitars can be plugged in and amplified when needed. They can be a good option if you want to perform at some point. But if cost is a concern, keep in mind that it may be best to put your money into getting the best acoustic you can. You can always install a pickup later if you need one. Here are three types of acoustic guitars to consider:
Steel Stringed Acoustic Guitar
This is probably the most common type of acoustic guitar used in contemporary music. Steel-string guitars are versatile and come in endless tonewood configurations, and you can also find them in just about any body style. You can select a small, portable parlor guitar, classic dreadnaught, or even a big-bodied jumbo. There’s a steel string for just about every type of player.
However, some new guitarists do have a reasonable concern about steel strings — they worry about them hurting their fingers. Before you develop calluses on your fretting fingers, your fingertips may become sore from playing. If you don’t want to wait for calluses to form, you might be interested in silk and steel strings. These strings combine steel and silk fibers to make the steel strings a bit softer on your fingers.
Classical Guitar or Nylon Stringed Guitar
For children or adults with incredibly sensitive fingers, many guitar instructors will recommend nylon-string guitars. These are the instruments used in classical music, but their distinctive tone has made them a favorite of some non-classical artists, too. Nylon-string guitars tend to work especially well for fingerstyle players, as they capture very subtle nuances in your playing.
Nylon-string guitars have a mellower, more harp-like sound. They also have less string tension than steel-string guitars, making them especially easy on the fingers. It’s worth noting that many classical guitars have especially thick necks. If you’re learning lead guitar or a genre that requires your hands to move quickly up and down the neck, you might find that the thick neck gets in the way.
Flamenco guitars have nylon strings, but they are decidedly different from classical-style nylon-string guitars. Because they are designed for fast-paced, somewhat dramatic music, they tend to have thinner and faster necks. Many also have cutaways for easy playability. Essentially, even if you don’t play flamenco, a flamenco guitar is perfect if you like the sound of nylon strings but need an instrument that’s easier to play. Because flamenco music incorporates a lot of percussive techniques, some flamenco guitars come with a golpeador (or tap plate) that opens up some additional opportunities for percussive playing.
11 Tips for Guitar Beginners to Ponder on Learning How to Play the Guitar
Teaching yourself to play for the first time can sometimes be daunting. If you know at least a few tips for new players, your guitar journey is likely to go much more smoothly.
1. Know Your Learning Style
Part of teaching yourself guitar is knowing (or figuring out) what learning methods work for you. With the popularity of video-based musical instrument courses, you can see that learning from videos works for a lot of players. However, some players prefer to have tips, tabs, and chord diagrams written out. For these types of players, primarily using guitar books is a good idea.
To figure out your learning style, pay attention to how you react to different teaching methods. For example, if you’re learning chords, try a video tutorial. For plenty of players, the over-the-shoulder camera helps them quickly see what a guitar instructor is doing to hold down a chord. After the video tutorial, try a page from a guitar book or an online article. You may find that being able to look at a chord diagram is ultimately more helpful than watching someone play a chord.
Of course, this doesn’t mean you need to pick one learning style and stick with it the whole time. In fact, mixing up teaching methods is one way you can become a more well-rounded guitarist.
2. Use What You Learn
This tip probably sounds obvious at first — after all, most people are teaching themselves guitar in order to be able to play music. But sometimes when it comes to learning, it’s easy to get hung up on mastering musical knowledge without applying it.
The pentatonic scale is a great example. The minor pentatonic scale is often the first one new players learn — it’s easier to master because it’s divided into “boxes.” Ultimately, the goal is to be able to connect the boxes and use them to solo or improvise in any key. Sometimes, players get so focused on playing all the scales as quickly as possible that they forget to apply them.
If you make sure to apply what you learn regularly, it serves as a great motivator to play. You’ll be able to hear a noticeable difference in your musical abilities, and that will, in turn, inspire you to develop your guitar skills further.
3. Make Your Practice Regular
Most new guitarists start out ready to play for hours on end. But as time goes by, life circumstances get in the way. You might realize that you can go a few days without playing at all. To avoid that pitfall, set a practice schedule each week. Treat your practice time like work or any other obligation — choose a time and write it down in your planner.
You don’t need to make your practice times excessively long, either. Most guitar instructors recommend practicing 20 minutes per day as a beginner. If you have the time and want to play longer, let yourself do that. If you’re like most players, you’ll find that you start wanting to play for longer periods of time as you improve.
In order to see the effect that practice has on your playing ability, you might consider finding a way to track your progress. If you’re using an app to learn to play, you can use an in-app progress tracker. These trackers usually show up on your dashboard as soon as you log in. Alternatively, you can keep a practice journal. Simply writing down what you worked on and how you felt about the session can be helpful when you want to look back and see how you’ve grown.
4. Play With Other Musicians
Learning guitar on your own certainly has its benefits. You don’t have to travel for lessons, and it’s a fraction of the cost of traditional in-person lessons. However, it can be isolating. If you’re asking “What is the best way to learn guitar?” most musicians will recommend at least occasionally playing with other people. This is a great way to get used to playing in a group (it’s harder than it looks!), and it also will challenge your skill when it comes to keeping a rhythm and playing in time.
But what if you don’t know anyone who plays an instrument? The good news is that the internet has plenty of alternative options. Both on YouTube and on most guitar learning apps, you can find what are usually called “backing tracks” or “jam tracks.” These usually feature an instrument or band playing in a certain key. You can improvise with the backing track by either playing lead guitar in the given key or finding chords in the same key and playing those.
Some guitar apps have fairly advanced backing tracks that let you remove almost any instrument from the mix. That way, you can take out the rhythm guitar part or the lead guitar part and create your own.
If you want to do something a little more high-tech, you might be interested in some of the cloud-based music creation programs. Some of them allow you to collaborate with players all over the world to create tracks or even just jam. There might be a bit of a learning curve when it comes to figuring it out, but it can be a lot of fun once you get the basics down.
5. Master Technique Early On
Almost any music instructor will tell you that one of the primary pitfalls of being a self-taught musician is the tendency to develop bad habits. Usually, these are habits related to posture and technique. Posture is especially important — over time, playing with poor posture can lead to injuries.
Finding the best way to learn guitar includes making sure you’ve got the right technique. There are a few ways to do this. One is watching instructional videos and checking your technique in the mirror. If you choose this approach, be sure to do it regularly — bad habits tend to sneak up on you.
You also might consider occasionally seeing an in-person guitar instructor. This would work somewhat like a checkup — the teacher can offer some honest critique on your playing and look for anything that might cause issues down the line.
If you’re looking for an easier alternative, you might be pleased to know that many different learning sites do offer one-on-one consultations or video critique. Sometimes, these require an additional fee. However, when you take into consideration the amount of money you’re saving by teaching yourself, you might decide that it’s worth it to pay for a consultation or two.
If you’re short on cash but still want someone to weigh in, online guitar forums can be a great resource. On many of these sites, you can post videos of you playing and ask for critique. Forums for guitarists are also great places to connect with other musicians, even if it’s only virtually.
6. Start Learning Songs ASAP
What is the best way to learn to play guitar? Plenty of instructors and guitarists alike will tell you that incorporating songs from the very start is good to do. Learning songs can help you remember chord shapes, and it’s also a great way to actively apply what you learn. Most people learn more effectively when they feel a real connection to the subject, so learning to play songs you love is a great way to learn and retain new chords, playing techniques, etc.
Plus, you don’t need to have a lot of playing time under your belt before you play songs. You can play many easy guitar songs for beginners with even two or three chords. Many different tablature sites like Ultimate Guitar also tend to offer simplified versions of chords for popular songs. That way, you can learn more straightforward versions of your favorite songs while you’re still a beginner.
7. Learn Some Theory
If you’ve done any looking around at guitar learning apps, you’ve probably seen that many of them are quick to say that you can learn all you need to know with no theory. This is true on some level, but it does often lead to problems. Knowing at least some basic theory — like where the notes are on the fretboard and which chords are in which keys — will help you understand what you play. And if you’re a songwriter or want to be, having that understanding will help you improve.
If you intend to play in a band or at least with other musicians, knowing some theory will make you a better communicator. If you’ve ever seen a group jam together, you’ve probably seen someone ask what key the others are playing in. Knowing what to play in what key will help you make sure you’ll be able to reliably play something that sounds good.
You don’t need to really dive into music theory, but it’s a good idea to learn little bits as you go. Some online lessons incorporate music theory, and the best ones illustrate theory concepts with bits of songs. Most guitar books and even some YouTube videos will also introduce bits of theory as you learn.
8. Remember That There Aren’t Shortcuts
Just like some learning programs emphasize the fact that you don’t need to learn “boring” theory, others advertise themselves as being shortcuts to complete mastery. For instance, plenty of programs say that you’ll be able to shred effortlessly in a week. But if you’re going for true mastery of the instrument, keep in mind that there aren’t shortcuts. Any advertised “shortcut” is likely to lead to gaps in knowledge, and most focus on expertise in a very limited area. So a given program may show you how to play a few different types of solos, but it won’t give you the background knowledge of scales and/or modes that you need to be a truly great lead guitarist.
In short, don’t chase shortcuts — if you put in the time and effort to really learn the instrument, you’ll be glad that you did.
9. Learn to Read Tabs and Chord Charts
Whether you want to learn to read musical notation is up to you. In the guitar world, you typically don’t need to — most songs can be found in the form of tablature. That said, if you want to focus on a genre where most music is in the form of traditional musical notation (classical guitar is a great example), you may want to dedicate time to learning to read sheet music as well.
But regardless of what genre you want to play, learning to read both tablature and chord charts will save you lots of time. Tablature is essentially a simplified form of musical notation. Six lines on the page represent the six strings of your guitar. You’ll see numbers on each line — a number indicates which fret to place a finger on. This way, you can see what to play without necessarily knowing the note names.
Tabs sometimes have additional notation for hammer-ons, pull-offs, vibrato, etc. But since tab notation doesn’t indicate note length or time signature like sheet music does, it’s especially important to be able to listen to the song you’re learning in order to play it accurately.
Chord charts (or chord diagrams) are similar. They involve a visual representation of the guitar neck turned vertically. Then, circles indicate where to place your fingers to form that chord. Sometimes, you’ll see a number in each circle. That number is a suggestion for which finger to use. Number one is the index finger, number two is the middle finger, number three is the ring finger, and number four is the pinky.
10. Balance What You Learn
Perhaps you have your sights set on being a great rhythm guitarist. Or maybe you have plans to one day be the lead guitarist in a rock band. But as you learn, make sure to strive to be a well-balanced guitarist. It’s perfectly fine to specialize in a certain discipline, but try to avoid limiting yourself. If you want to focus primarily on lead playing, make sure you don’t neglect learning about chords and rhythm patterns. Similarly, if you’re primarily a rhythm player, be sure to take some time to learn at least some of the basic scales and how to use them.
11. Don’t Discount the Importance of Timing
If you’ve ever learned an instrument before, you might already be familiar with the dreaded metronome. Most of us get at least a little annoyed with its rhythmic clicking sound, but a metronome is an essential practice tool — in time, it will help you to internalize the beat of the piece of music you’re playing.
If you don’t like the plain ticking noise of the metronome, there are fortunately several more pleasant alternatives. Many digital audio workstations (DAWs) like Garage Band will let you select a drumbeat to play at a given BPM. That can serve the function of a metronome while being a bit more pleasant to listen to.
Plenty of self-taught guitarists who primarily play on their own believe that they don’t need to learn to play in time. After all, it’s a skill that comes into play primarily when playing with other people. But playing in time has benefits for solo players, too. For one, it helps you ensure that you’re playing each piece of music as it’s meant to be played. It also is important for recording. If you’re layering tracks, it’s absolutely essential that they are all in time with each other. If they aren’t, you’ll quickly notice that the song falls apart.
Can You Teach Yourself Guitar at Home?
After taking that information in, you might find yourself wondering — is all of that even possible? The short answer is yes, but having an idea of how to learn guitar at home will make a major difference. As you can see from our list above, one of the most important parts of successfully learning guitar at home is making sure you have a plan.
That said, countless people have taught themselves to play guitar at home successfully (and unsuccessfully). Those who struggled or ultimately gave up frequently ran into some of the same pitfalls. Be sure to keep these common mistakes in mind as you’re asking, “How can I teach myself to play guitar?”
Playing too fast. Ultimately, part of being a proficient guitarist is being able to play quickly when you need to. But many new guitarists are eager to be able to play fast and learn how to do so as quickly as possible. This is especially tempting when learning scales.
But trying to play very fast before you’re ready can actually become counterproductive. If your focus is on speed rather than technique, you’re very likely to develop some bad habits. And these habits are a lot harder to correct later on! Lots of players also end up playing easier passages more quickly and harder passages more slowly. Over time, that makes it more difficult to play consistently in time.
Being impatient. Many of us want to become great guitarists right away. It’s fine (and helpful) to have goals, but unrealistic expectations also are usually counterproductive. If you’re excessively impatient, you may become frustrated and want to give up. Finding a way to track your progress, either with a guitar learning app or on your own, can help you see how you’re developing as a player.
Not practicing consistently. You’ve heard it before, but it’s better to practice for 15 minutes each day than to have a marathon practice session every week or so. If you’ve ever gone too far in between practice sessions, you might have realized that you’ve forgotten things you had previously memorized. Practicing a little bit each day will help keep your progress moving forward.
Not checking your accuracy. If you’re learning a new song or even playing exercises, it’s vitally important to make sure you are playing them correctly. There are a few ways you can do that. If you’re learning a song, be sure to listen to a recorded version of it to make sure what you’re playing is at least close.
If you’re playing a guitar exercise, most learning apps will have a sound or video demo of it. If you prefer to learn via a guitar book, you may find that some of them include website links where you can hear examples being played. If you have friends who play guitar, ask them to listen to you play or offer suggestions.
Not learning any theory. Plenty of people dismiss music theory as being “boring.” But learning little bits of theory as you go will help you understand how the guitar works and make you a better player, too. For example, learning about the circle of fifths is a great way to understand why certain chord progressions sound great while other ones really don’t.
How Long Does it Take to Learn the Guitar?
This one is a difficult question to definitively answer. After all, many of us think about the time taken learning a musical instrument in terms of months or years. However, how many months or years it takes to learn guitar will vary considerably based on how long and how often you practice — as well as how efficient that practice is.
That said, some general estimates can give you an idea of what to expect in terms of progress. Most experienced guitarists and guitar teachers say that it tends to take around six months to feel basically comfortable on the guitar. That doesn’t mean being able to play intricate solos or becoming a very skilled guitarist, though — in six months, many learners are comfortable with the basics. That usually means being able to play most basic chords and follow different rhythm patterns accurately. If you’ve been primarily focusing on learning lead guitar, it might mean knowing your major and minor pentatonic scales and being able to confidently improvise over a backing track.
Similarly, to get “good” at guitar, many people say that it tends to take about two to three years of good, consistent practice. Keep in mind that these estimates depend on you consistently challenging yourself to learn and master new things. Plenty of players develop to a certain point and then plateau. For instance, some singer-songwriters learn the chords they need to accompany themselves and then stop. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But if you want to continue to grow as a player, make new challenges a priority.
So what is the best way to learn to play guitar? As you can see, there are plenty of different approaches to teaching yourself. But keep in mind that “teach yourself to play” does not mean “don’t use any resources.” The internet is full of valuable tutorials, articles, videos, and even lesson plans. Here are some of our suggestions — choose the ones that work best for you!
Online guitar courses
Online courses are emerging as popular and affordable alternatives to in-person guitar lessons. Their greatest asset is probably their lesson plans — many self-taught players have trouble knowing what to learn next. Some online courses will offer general lesson plans, but some offer individualized lesson plans tailored to your goals as a player.
You probably won’t want to center your learning around YouTube videos and one-off tutorials. However, tutorials are a great way to supplement your learning. Plus, many online instructors advertise by releasing selected tutorials. You may end up finding an online instructor you like just by picking out select tutorials to learn from.
Online learning is very popular, but some guitar learners prefer to keep things old school. Guitar books are ideal if you prefer to see scale diagrams, chords, etc. written out on the page. And since things are divided by chapter, guitar books are an excellent way to follow a lesson plan. Some books even come with a few free video or audio lessons that can help you get started. Other books come in series — with these, you’ll always have clear guidance on what to learn next.
Self-created lesson plans
The best way to learn guitar on your own is frequently a mixture of different methods. And one of the best ways to shape all of these different elements into a cohesive learning plan is via a self-created plan. Try writing your plan out by week or month, taking into account what you want to focus on. You may want to plan which video tutorials, books, etc. you want to consult during each phase of the plan. This isn’t a step you want to take lightly, and putting some serious research and effort into your plan will pay off later.
Hopefully, you now have an answer to “What is the best way to learn guitar?” Teaching yourself to play is possible, especially when you have a plan in place. Remember all of the great free or inexpensive resources available to you. Happy playing!