Looking for a quick guide on how to play acoustic guitar? Want to skip a whole heap of info and get to the heart of things?
Then join us as we explore the ins and outs.
Playing acoustic guitar doesn’t have to be difficult. In fact, it can be as simple or as complicated as you like, and there are plenty of methodologies you can follow to cheat the system, so to speak. Follow our comprehensive step-by-step guide below to learn more!
Basics for Playing the Acoustic Guitar
The acoustic guitar is one of the most popular instruments for a reason. With it, countless artists have learned to express themselves through music.
If this is your first time trying the guitar or the first instrument you’ve ever played, take heart. Many people have started in your position, and before long, they were discovering the joy that comes with playing the acoustic guitar.
Parts of an Acoustic Guitar
Let’s get our heads around the guitar’s anatomy first, shall we?
The body of an acoustic guitar is made up of the soundboard, or top, and the back and sides.
The soundboard is the part that vibrates to produce sound – how acoustic guitars work – which is why top tonewoods are considered so important, but the back and sides contribute to the tone as well. From top to bottom, the body is divided into the upper bout, the waist, and the lower bout. Bouts are measured across the width of the guitar, with the lower bout being slightly larger than the upper bout.
There are many types of guitar body sizes and shapes, including models with cutaways, or scooped indentations in the guitar’s upper, treble-side bout, etc. In general, a bigger box means a bigger sound, but some guitars will surprise you with qualities not typical of their body style.
The neck of the guitar projects from the main guitar body and includes the fretboard, frets, headstock, and truss rod (which stabilizes the forward curve, or “relief,” of the neck, keeping it from bending due to the tension of the strings).
Necks have different shapes, from more of a V shape to a C shape and every point in between. The rigidity of a guitar’s neck is indicative of the quality of the instrument. Some give can be desirable, as bending the neck slightly to change the pitch of a note is a common technique in blues and rock, though one ought to be careful with such things.
Laminated to the front of the neck is the fingerboard or fretboard, by far one of the most important parts to consider when selecting a guitar, as it affects comfort, playing style, and tone.
It is generally made from a different type of wood as the back of the neck and is fretted. Ebony, rosewood, and maple are typical woods used, though synthetics such as Richlite are another option.
Guitar frets are raised parts on the fingerboard of the guitar that extend across the full width of the neck and are generally made of metal. Frets divide the guitar neck into intervals, each fret representing one semitone of an octave.
Pressing the string against the fret shortens the string to the length between the fretted point and the bridge, changing the note and making it easier to achieve correct notes than a non-fretted fingerboard. Frets come in different shapes and types and will wear over time.
How to Hold Your Acoustic Guitar
Posture is important when playing the guitar as keeping the right posture ensures you develop the correct technique while building the stamina needed to last through extended guitar-playing sessions. Essentially, practicing the right posture is part of practicing to become a better guitar player.
Here are some tips to hold an acoustic guitar comfortably when sitting:
- Sit on a comfortable chair, without armrests, or sit on a low bar stool. Your feet should be able to touch the ground.
- Hold the neck of the guitar securely with your non-dominant hand.
- Position the guitar so the thickest string — the low E string — is closest to the ceiling.
- Rest the guitar body on your thigh with your knees slightly bent. The body of the guitar should rest comfortably on your thigh and lightly against your body.
- Secure the guitar body with your elbow and forearm.
- Angle the neck slightly upward and balance it between your thumb and forefinger.
- Keep your back straight to maintain good posture.
If you are standing while playing, connect a guitar strap to the two strap buttons on your acoustic guitar. Adjust the strap as needed and position it over your non-dominant shoulder, so the guitar is in the same position against your body as if you were sitting. Remember to keep good posture, even when standing, something that is easily neglected.
How to Hold Your Guitar Pick
Unless you’re playing fingerstyle or casually strumming your guitar with your fingers, chances are that you’ll use a pick, a tool that makes it easier to get louder volume when strumming chords as well as when playing individual notes.
To properly hold a guitar pick, you must relax your strumming hand. Gently hold the pick between your thumb and the side of the tip of your index finger on your dominant hand, closing your other three fingers into your palm (or using them to pick simultaneously, depending on the context).
The tip of the pick should be at a right angle from the side of your thumb when playing, and the tip of your index finger should be behind and slightly above the tip of the pick.
How to Tune Your Guitar
There are many different tunings, though the one you are likely going to want to get started with is learning how to tune your guitar to standard tuning.
Play the 6th string (low E) on the 5th fret. This will give you the note A. After playing the E string on the 5th fret play the A string so that the two notes are playing at the same time.
If the A string does not sound the same as the E string played on the 5th fret then it is out of tune and needs adjusting.
If the string is too flat (sounds lower) then turn the tuning peg away from you (anti-clockwise on the bass strings and clockwise on the treble strings). This will tighten the string (assuming the strings have been put on correctly) and sharpen the tone.
If it is too sharp (sounds higher) then turn the tuning peg towards you (clockwise on the bass strings and counter-clockwise on the treble strings) to loosen the string and therefore lower the tone.
Don’t worry if you can’t quite tell at this stage if it is flat or sharp – over time you should develop an ear for this. If you turn it one way and it goes further out of tune then you’ll need to turn it the other way.
Some Extra Tuning Tips
Tip 1: Listen for oscillations between the notes. When the strings are out of tune there will be very fast oscillations and as they come closer to being in tune those oscillations will slow down. Eventually, they’ll slow down to a point that the oscillations are no longer audible – that is when the string is in tune.
Tip 2: Turn the tuning pegs with your right hand (or left if you are left-handed). After you have played the notes with your right hand (or left if you are left-handed) leave your finger holding on the 5th fret and reach over with your right hand to tune. This will allow you to still hear both notes and be better able to pick up the oscillations – rather than relying on memory of how the first note sounded.
Tip 3: Using harmonics. If you know how to play harmonics, then play the harmonic on the 5th fret of the E string and the 7th fret of the A string. Getting these two to sound the same will also result in the string being tuned. And also allows you to tune with your left (or right if you are left-handed) hand and still hear the notes ringing as you tune.
Melody & Harmony
The first thing you will likely want to understand before you even pick up a guitar is the difference between melody and harmony, the opposition between notes and chords.
To put it as simply as possible, let’s think about music as a language.
- A note is a single letter. It’s the smallest part of musical language.
- A chord is like a word: it’s made up of multiple notes, the next step up in language, sort of like a word.
To create a chord, we need a combination of these notes grouped together to make a word so that we can overall tell a story.
Just as a single letter on its own sounds different from a word, notes sound different from chords.
Guitar notes are individual pitches so that, when you play one string at a time, you’re playing one note.
As we said earlier, chords are like words: you create a chord when you take notes and play multiple of them at once. There are also different types of chords like ordinary chords and power chords, not to mention chord extensions.
Chords have a richer, fuller sound than guitar notes but can also just consist of two notes. A chord is essentially any attempt at harmony where more than one note is played simultaneously.
Learning How to Play Chords
Since chords are one of the essential building blocks of guitar composition, it would be well worth learning how to play them properly using proper fretting techniques.
Fretting may feel awkward when you first start on the acoustic guitar, but like anything, playing chords and notes will start to feel much more comfortable over time with dedicated practice. If not, you might do some serious damage. Here are some fretting tips to help you on your way:
- Finger placement: Press the string just next to the fret wire when playing a note. Avoid pressing directly on the fret wire, as you may accidentally slip into the next fret. Using this part of the fret is the best way to improve acoustic guitar tone when playing.
- Accuracy: Find the position on your fingertip that gives you the best strength and leverage when pressing frets. This is the area you’ll want to practice pressing frets with. Over time, you’ll be able to achieve greater sustain from your guitar with accurate fret presses.
- Thumb position: Your thumb will be on the back of the neck as you fret to give you more strength and leverage when fretting. Practice moving your hand up and down the neck and pressing frets to familiarize your thumb with these new movements. Note that the guitar fret sizes decrease the further up the neck you go. There are also several acoustic guitar body shapes, including cutaway acoustic guitars, that give easier access to the higher frets.
- Curved fingers: Keep your fingers curved when fretting to avoid pressing other notes or muting nearby strings.
- Wrist position: Keep your wrist in a comfortable, relaxed position. Avoid bending your wrist too far forward or backward.
Some Useful Beginner Chords
Many popular songs throughout history have consisted of only chords. With four simple chords, you can even write a song of your own. Here are four beginner chords you can play right now at your own behest:
- G6 chord: Place your middle finger on the third fret of the low E string. Place your index finger on the second fret of the A string. Then strum the chord, playing all six strings.
- C major 7 chord: Place your middle finger on the A string’s third fret. Place your index finger on the second fret of the D string. Strum the five bottom strings, leaving out the low E string.
- E minor chord: Place your middle finger on the A string’s second fret. Then, using your ring finger, press the second fret of the D string. Give all six strings a strum.
- Dsus 2 chord: Place your index finger on the second fret of the G string. Use your ring finger to press the third fret of the B string. Strum the four bottom strings, leaving out the low E and A strings.
Learning How to Play Tab
Whether you want to learn to read musical notation is up to you. but in the guitar world, you typically don’t need to – most songs can be found in the form of tablature, something well worth learning as soon as possible. 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 intended for guitar and other string instruments. 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.
Guitar tabs will often 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, something that works to its advantage and disadvantage simultaneously.
Some Easy Examples to Learn
To get started, try these easy and simple tabs so that you can get your head around the metric of it.
1. “Seven Nation Army” by the White Stripes
Guitar TAB doesn’t come much simpler than this tune. The sheer simplicity of this song has meant that it has achieved popularity unforeseen in world music, becoming a staple chant at sporting events where pundits will supplement the melody with lyrics of their own choosing.
The magic is in the simplicity – literally, anyone could learn this song, and yet how could it not have come about in the manifold centuries since the invention of popular music? You be the judge and learn the tab.
2. “Sunday Morning” by the Velvet Underground
Songs don’t come much more serene than this number from the 60s’ very own arch experimentalists the Velvet Underground. Here, though, they display their far more tender side, offering forth a sublime and nebulous ballad about waking up bleary-eyed and content on a Sunday morning, watching the world at work, and knowing that you don’t have to do all that much yourself.
We have all surely felt the pleasure of watching those at work while safe in the knowledge that we don’t have to – now you can revel in it for free!
3. “Under My Thumb” & “Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones
It’s hard to conceive of just how much of a fuss this song made back in the day. This is, after all, a time when Christianity still reigned supreme in many American households, so to hear a song like this which so openly dealt with themes of sexual frustration would have riled up the populous, even if it was thinly veiled in its own way.
So, why not take a trip back to a time when this was enough to rile up a nation, with this guitar tab? Better yet, try learning the acoustic guitar and the guitar solo.
The chord progression, spiced up as it is with some tuned percussion in the background, is a testament to how effective such simple guitar techniques can be in conveying a message in the guitar world through a tab.
For some, the guitar and the plectrum simply aren’t enough – in fact, it is entirely necessary for such people to have more gear!
Bags & Cases
You might be happy playing at home. But what if you want to strum and pluck into the world? This is where a bag or case comes in.
These serve a dual purpose. One, they protect your instrument. And two, they allow you to transport your instrument.
When you start playing guitar, you’ll probably only know a few chords. But what if you want to sing at different pitches?
Capos are ideal for this. A capo clips or straps onto your strings, making each string higher. This means you can play the same chord shapes at higher pitches.
Want to sound good while playing guitar? The easiest way to start is by being in tune.
Tuners are an essential acoustic accessory – for beginners and professionals alike. These will make sure your strings are at the right pitch and sound good together.
So, there you have it! Hopefully, you are now feeling ready and able to get started on your journey!
FAQs How to Play Acoustic Guitar
Indeed you can. In fact, there has never been a better time to teach yourself acoustic guitar considering how many resources there are for it online.
The famous four chords used in many pop song progressions are the I, V, vi, and IV chords of a major key. The Roman numerals represent the numbers of the major scale we begin a chord from (1, 5, 6, 4) so in C major this would be C, G, Amin, F, or in G major it would be G, D, Emin, C.
No, acoustic guitar is for much, much more than just chords.
The body parts of the guitar, the open string names, basic fretting technique, and basic strumming technique. These fundamentals are extremely important to get right in the beginning to then build upon later down the track.