An Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Playing Acoustic Guitar
From knowing how to choose the right guitar to using your ear and understanding chords and scales, this beginner’s guide will give you the tools to get started on your musical exploration.
Learning the guitar is a personal and spiritual experience; you’re learning about yourself through discipline and creative expression. Playing guitar is like therapy and can be healing through these new practices. In this lesson, I’ll share my personal story and what I have experienced for the past 15 years as a performing artist and educator, as well as the details to consider when starting to learn the guitar, including new chords, music theory, and exercises to help you along your journey.
Table of Contents
I was first inspired to play the guitar as a child when I heard Jimi Hendrix, and then Prince. In high school I was inspired by India.Arie and Lauryn Hill; it was the first time I had seen black women use the guitar as a primary instrument as a solo artist. My first guitar was a black steel-string acoustic gifted to me by my parents, and in 2002 I started taking a classical guitar class in college. I remembered how to read music from playing clarinet in elementary and middle school bands, so I thought I was prepared; however, the first day of class I realized that I didn’t have the appropriate guitar and, additionally, I needed a footstool.
After my first semester I purchased a classical nylon-string acoustic and was ready for the next few years of studying classical guitar. At the time, I didn’t know that this same instrument would be used for the next 15 years as my only guitar for practicing, teaching, and performing. Today, it’s used as a student instrument for my program Swan Strings, a 501c3 non-profit organization for free music education and sound therapy services for North Texas individuals without access.
Selecting Your Guitar
Once you decide on a budget, it’s best to visit a guitar or music store to try out different instruments. You’ll be spending a significant amount of time practicing, so it’s important to select a guitar that’s comfortable to play and connect with tonally. A few starting points include deciding if you want a steel or nylon-string acoustic guitar. Let’s look at some of the differences between the two types.
Classical Nylon-String Guitar
Classical nylon-string guitars are easier on the fingers, and I usually recommend this style for beginners. Nylon-string guitars produce a warm and buttery sound. The body can be slimmer than other acoustic styles, and they have wider necks that can be more challenging for beginners when playing barre chords.
Suggestion: Yamaha C series ½ or full-sized guitars are affordable and durable without sacrificing its warm tones.
Steel-string guitars are typically tougher on the fingers and have a twangier sound. Make sure you sit and play it for a bit, as the body style of steel-string guitars are usually larger than other acoustics; however, they also have slimmer necks that allow for easier movements for your chord progressions.
Suggestion: Yamaha F series ½ or full-sized guitars are great starter guitars for quality and playability.
When trying out these guitars, it’s important to know how to sit when playing. Ideally, you would sit on a chair that doesn’t have any arms so that there’s space to hold your instrument—I often use my harp bench without a back because it forces me to correct my posture. You can purchase a keyboard bench at any music store for the same results.
If you’re right-handed, the waist of the guitar can be placed on your right leg. Your thumb on your left hand will be placed behind the neck of the guitar. I keep my nails long on my right hand for tone and finger picking, but do what feels comfortable for you. Be sure that the nails on your left hand are trimmed enough to get the string to the fretboard for a clear tone. You don’t want to put your fingers on the frets as you will have a muffled sound, and you also don’t want to place your fingers too far away from the fret as that will produce buzzing. You’ll find the right tone in the middle.
Note for Lefties: Do not assume you need a left-handed guitar; I am left-handed but play right-handed guitar. I think we lefties have an advantage with building our dexterity on the fretboard—give it a try first before purchasing a lefty guitar.
Now that you’ve selected your guitar, the first thing to learn is how to tune it. You have six strings on your guitar. The first string is the skinniest string closest to the waist of the guitar. The numbers and names of all the guitar strings are as follows:
6 – E
5 – A
4 – D
I normally teach two phrases to help remember the names of the strings on the guitar. For children and adults alike, the most memorable is “ Elephants And Donkeys Grow Big Ears,” and my personal favorite is a daily affirmation for beginner students: “ Each Additional Day Guitar Becomes Easier.”
The musical alphabet starts with A and ends with G. There are seven letters in the musical alphabet and 12 including the accidentals that are sharp and flat notes. Sharp notes are a half step after the natural note. Flat notes are a half step before the natural note.
See all music notes below:
Ready to Play
Your guitar is in tune and now you’re ready to play. In the beginning of my teaching career I thought that it was important to teach how to read music; however, I realized that I had limitations as a classical musician to improvise to guitar chords, and additionally, I learned that students just want to jam out. Learning how to read music is an extra layer and at times can be challenging. I changed my curriculum about three years ago while teaching for a non-profit program that didn’t have the resources to buy music books. I wanted to still include music theory, so I started teaching my students the circle of fifths. The more I taught my students this method, I noticed that I became a better improviser as a performing artist. I expanded my skills, was embraced by the avant-garde jazz and experimental community in Dallas, and was able to take opportunities in other genres where there wasn’t a musical director.
Circle of Fifths
The Circle of Fifths is a diagram that helps to remember the number and names of sharps and flats in a major scale. Starting with the key of C, it is natural with no sharps or flats. The right side of the circle (G to F#) contains the number of sharps, while the left side (F to Gb) contains the number of flats.
Major chords are brighter and happier sounding chords that use notes 1-3-5. For example: in the key of C, the C note would be the first note, and the entire chord is C-E-G played together. Accordingly, the G chord consists of notes G-B-D.
See below for reference:
Counting your notes and chords before playing is what creates music. Most music is created in common time (4/4 time), which is four beats in a measure. Tip: Listen to your favorite song and see if you can count along to the beat. Make sure that you tap along to the beat with your foot.
For additional help keeping time, Metronome is a free app to help with your timing.
1-4-5 progressions are very common for major chords. These progressions are pleasing to the ear because they are usually resolved with returning to the 1 which is the tonic/root key. 1-4-5 progressions are the foundation of Western music including classical, rock, and pop songs.
Rhythm: Play the following exercise by strumming down using your thumb/pick for each beat.
See the exercises below:
Key of C: CFGC
Example: “La Bamba” by Ritchie Valens.
Key of G: GCDG
Example: “Good Riddance” by Green Day.
1-4-5 progressions are also common because they are the foundation of 12-bar blues.
Example: 1-1-1-1 4-4-1-1 5-4-1-5
Rhythm Challenge: Try strumming twice in one beat. You will strum upward with your thumb/pick on the up beat (v – strum down, ^ – strum up).
See example below:
1 + 2 + 3 + 4+
v ^ v ^ v ^ v ^
Now that you’ve learned two major chord progressions, let’s add minor and seven chords. Minor chords are warmer or moodier sounding because the third note in the major chord changes to flat. For example: a D major chord is D-F#-A, but a D minor chord changes the F# to F natural. So, the notes of a D minor chord are D-F-A.
See below for reference:
Seven chords add the flat seventh note in a scale to the major chord. For example: a G7 chord is a G major chord with a F note (G-B-F). Accordingly, a D7 chord is a D major chord with a C note (D-F#-C).
I iii vi ii V Progressions
I iii vi ii V progressions are a 1-3-6-2-5 order that includes minor and/or seven chords. The smaller roman numerals represent the minor chords. This is a great way to expand on 1-4-5 progressions.
See the exercises below:
Key of C
Key of G
Single Note Exercises
Now that you’ve learned a series of chords, it’s time to start working on single notes and lead picking. This exercise will help you build strength and dexterity. Be sure to use fingers 1,2,3,4 on your left-hand to match frets 1,2,3,4. Play each note using your thumb/pick on your right-hand in a downward motion.
Right-hand Challenge: Play every other note using only your index and middle fingers.
Once you’ve completed your single note exercises, you can start working on scales. Scales are a series of eight notes that start and end with the same note. The notes of a scale are called steps. A major scale goes as follows: whole step-whole step-half step-whole step-whole step-whole step-half step (W – whole step, H – half step).
See below for reference:
Key of C
Open C Scale
Key of G
Open G Scale
It’s time to put your exercises to the test by learning to play melodies. This is a good ear training exercise to play music that you are familiar with hearing and singing.
For reference: the following songs are in the key of C.
Ode To Joy
Throughout this lesson you’ve learned how to play a series of chord progressions and scales to help with your creative expression. The second step is practicing these exercises daily for at least 30 minutes. If things are not progressing as you would like, please don’t be hard on yourself; practicing a musical instrument is a spiritual workout. Just remember to keep trying and continuing to move forward. The most important thing to know is that you are a creator of not only music, but your thoughts as well—do not compare yourself to other musicians. This is your voice, so remember: “Each Additional Day Guitar Becomes Easier.”
Combined Chord Chart
About the Author
Jess Garland is a Dallas-based multi-instrumentalist, singer/songwriter, and recording and performing artist. She has opened for musicians such as Madame Gandhi at Babes Fest 2019, and Academy member Gingger Shankar for Fortress Fest Presents Modern Music Series 2018. Jess is the President and Founding Director of Swan Strings, a 501c3 non-profit organization for free music education and sound therapy services to North Texas individuals without access. She recently released her first single, “GLOW,” available now on all streaming platforms.