So you want to be a guitar hero? Here’s how:
Go to your local instrument dealer and buy the following items:
- A tuner. It’s essential to have an instrument in tune, otherwise it will sound bad no matter how well you play it. You will think it’s your fault (and so will your girlfriend), and you will give up on the whole enterprise after day 5 or so. You play with your ears just as much as with your fingers, so you might as well get good habits from the start.
You can get a good tuner for very little money. Make sure you get one where you can choose which tones to tune to, and not just to the standard tuning. You’re going to need that later on.
You don’t have to buy a tuner, of course; there are excellent tuner programs around, which do the job just as good or better than a standalone tuner. I can’t give recommendations of tuner software for Windows, but google “free guitar tuner windows” and you should find something that works.
- New strings. They produce the sounds, not your fingers or your ears. Bad strings — bad sound. Again: your girlfriend will think it’s your fault, and so will you.
- A new guitar. OK, this one is optional, at least until day 12, but even a great guitarist will only sound half great on a bad guitar. Besides, a good guitar will be easier to play on, hence easier to learn on.
Nylon strings are easier on the fingers than steel strings. You will get sore fingers no matter what kind of guitar you have, so be warned.
- A capo. This is not essential at this stage, to be honest, but you will need one eventually, so you might as well buy one while you’re in the store. There are three main types: the cheapest ones fasten with a piece of elastic or nylon. The elastic models cost less than a beer, but are also the weakest, so they may not be able to press down all the strings with the necessary pressure and thus produce a buzzing sound. Besides, they will break, eventually. If you want to stay in the cheaper range, go with the nylon model to the left. The spring based model is more expensive. Many players love this kind. I don’t. Tastes differ. For what it’s worth, I use the lever-operated, no-frills capo to the right: it does what it’s supposed to do, and it will last forever.
Make sure you get a capo that fits your guitar. Nylon string guitars have a flat fretboard and need a flat bar, whereas most steel string guitars have a curved fretboard and need a curved bar, as in the picture to the right.
- You may also want to buy some plectrums. They vary in thickness and elasticity. “Find the one that suits you best,” would be something to say to someone who has played for a while, so I won’t say that. I’ll say: get a Dunlop .71 mm. It’s glaringly pink, but other than that, it’s ideal: not too rigid (which will make it stick between the strings and you’ll loose it), nor too sloppy (which will produce more clicking than real guitar sound). Peter Stone Brown has told me that there is a brown Dunlop plectrum that is identical to the pink one. Ask your dealer.
You can now leave the shop and go home, change your strings (or ask the nice people in the shop to do it for you), tune your guitar (this you should do yourself — you will be doing it a lot, so you might as well get into the habit), and grab hold of your guitar.
Update: You may want to know a little more about tuning. If you’ve been a good student and done as the professor ordered, you can use your tuning device, and all should be fine. If you’re rebellious, obsessed about personal freedom, or for some other reason don’t have said device, here’s a quick run-through:
- The standard tuning of a guitar is (from deepest to highest): E – A – d – g – b – e’
- Tune the deepest string to an E. If you don’t have an instrument to tune to, find a CD, and go to dylanchords.info to find a song that ‘s in E. Most of Blood on the Tracks would do. Shooting Star is in E. Etc.
- When that string is ok, press it down on the fifth fret. The fifth string should sound like the tone you get.
- Repeat with the next two string pairs: the fifth string fingered at the fifth fret should sound like the open fourth string, same with fourth -> third.
- Between the third and the second strings, the distance is smaller, so you will have to finger the third string on the fourth fret.
- Between the two highest string, it’s again the fifth fret.
- The sixth (deepest) and first (highest) strings should sound the same.
Chances are, you are going to read a lot of tabs from the Net. I will get back to the topic of how to read tab later on, two words about it now, before we move on. A common way to write down chords, is as a string of numbers, from the deepest string (E) to the brightest (e’). It is common to number the strings in the other direction, so the “first string” is the brightest, and the “sixth string” the deepest.
“0” denotes an open string, a number indicates the fret to push down the string in, and “x” means that the string should not sound. Thus, 000000 means all strings open, and — slightly more exciting — 022000 means: place fingers on the second fret of the fifth and fourth strings.
This could also be written graphically, like this:
o ooo ====== |||||| ------ |23||| ------ |||||| ------
This time, the numbers denote the left-hand fingers (1=index, 2=long, 3=ring, 4=pinky, and — when we get there: T=thumb from behind the neck).
Above the chart are signs that show what to do with the open strings. “x” means: “don’t play this string.” “0” means: this open string should sound.
There are other signs as well, but this will have to do for now.
The first chord: D
Learning to play the guitar is a drag. The main reason is that the first chord you’ll have to learn, is the most unwieldy chord in the book. I’ve secretly hated it since I first learned it, 35 years ago. It’s a D major chord, and it looks like this: xx0232, or:
xx0 ====== |||||| ------ |||1|2 ------ ||||3|
In other words: index finger on the third string, second fret, long finger on the first string, second fret, and ring finger on the second string, third fret.
The frets are the strips of metal that run across the neck. When I say “at the second fret”, it really means “in the space between the first and second metal bands” — “in the second box”.
Place your fingers as close to the middle of the “box” as possible. The whole point of putting a finger there is to “break” the string with an edge against the next fret band. If you press it down too close to the fret, you will have to press down harder to get that edge, and if you get too far back towards the first fret band, you may not get a sharp enough angle over the next fret to “break” the string. In both cases, you will either get a buzzing sound, or a very muffled sound (or no sound at all).
This is the first challenge with the D chord: to get the ring finger far enough up into the third fret and away from the two fingers at the second fret. I remember having struggled with that, and I’ve seen beginners sweating blood over it. If it’s any consolation, I can’t imagine now what the problem was; it does become second nature, and quicker than you might think while you’re cursing that little bugger of a ring finger. The same goes for all the chords, by the way.
Try also to place your fingers so that they are as perpendicular as possible to the fretboard. This should not be overdone, of course, but it is essential to good playing that you don’t accidentally stop one string with the finger of another string. This risk is minimized by the straighter attack from perpendicular fingers.
According to classical guitar technique, the thumb should be placed somewhere below the middle of the neck. If you’re just going to be playing chords, this is impractical, but the reason for it is well worth keeping in mind: the thumb is not there to hold the guitar, but to give support to the other fingers. Hence, it should be where it is most needed, which will be opposite where you finger the strings. So, don’t grab the neck like it was a stick. Instead, hold your arm out, let your hang hang down, naturally relaxed (like the zombie-posture, or something). Then, holding that position, twist your hand upwards, and you have your starting position.
Again: the goal is to be relaxed. Save as much as your energy as possible for when you really need it.
The D chord is a drag for two reasons. First, it’s boring. I’ll explain why tomorrow. Second, because it’s rigid: it fixes the hand in a certain position, and there isn’t much you can do with it. Both reasons have to do with the two “x”s in the chord chart: you should not play on the two deepest strings. That means that for your first chord, you will not be able to take advantage of the full sound potential of your instrument, which means that your girlfriend will only be slightly impressed — if at all.
But you’ll get there, don’t worry. For the time being, you have what’s needed to play — “Frere Jacques”. Finger your D chord and strike the strings with your thumb or — as I would prefer — the nail side of your index finger. Strike down in a steady rhythm where there is a dot. Try to avoid the two deepest strings:
. . . . Are you sleeping? Are you sleeping . . . . Brother John, brother John? . . . . Morning bells are ringing! Morning bells are ringing! . . . . Ding, ding, dong. Ding, ding, dong.
That may be thrilling, I don’t know. Perhaps not. One is almost nothing; two is almost many. Let’s add another chord.
The second chord: A7
The second chord is a close relative of D. It is called A7 and looks like this:
x0 0 0 ====== |||||| ------ ||1|2| ------ ||||||
Here, you are allowed — even encouraged — to strike the fifth string as well. That’s good news. Even better news is that it doesn’t really matter if you happen to hit the sixth string as well.
I’ll explain the relationship to D tomorrow. At the moment, you may notice that the two fingers that you use here are in the exact same position as they were in the chord of D, only moved one string up. That brings us to the first real exercise (after you have strummed to Frere Jacques for a while):
Changing between chords
The secret of guitar playing — one of them, at least — is to learn how to be lazy, how to economize with your energy. Since the fingers are already in position, don’t lift off the whole hand from D to regroup the fingers for the A7; rather move the two relevant fingers as a group. This may sound obvious, but it does take some time to get it into the fingers, especially since you will also have to lift off the ring finger completely.
The exercise is simple enough: practice changing between the two chord shapes in a regular fashion: two strokes D, two strokes A7, two D, two A7 …:
D D A7 A7 D D A7 A7 D D A7 A7 D D A7 A7 ...
Focus on the index and long fingers — if you wish, leave out the ring finger completely from the D chord. Continue until you can do it as one movement with two fingers, rather than moving two fingers separately. Try to avoid touching other strings than the ones you are fingering.
At last we can play a “real” song:
D . . . Hang down your head, Tom Dooley . . A7 . Hang down your head and cry A7 . . . Hang down your head, Tom Dooley . . D . Poor boy, you're bound to die.
When you can play this without making an embarrassing pause before “cry”, you will probably have fingers that as so sore that you can relate to poor Tom. Time to take a rest and prepare for tomorrow’s lesson.
All the Lessons
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