This past weekend I was talking to my buddy Mike who just bought his first guitar. During our conversation, he asked me “what is the best way to learn how to play the guitar?”
And maybe I took that question much deeper and more serious than I should have, but here’s what I told him:
What is the Best Way to Learn How to Play the Guitar?
The best way to learn how to play the guitar is the way that works for you.
I know, I know. It’s cliché and it hurts to even write it, but it’s the truth.
Every single person out there has their unique learning style, preferences and will progress at their own pace.
The result is a limitless number of approaches to learning, and in turn, teaching.
With that said, I have developed a system of principles that you should follow if you want to truly set yourself up for success to learn the guitar.
These principles apply no matter what your learning style is, so I’m sure that if you stick with this system you will be playing your favorite songs on the guitar in no time.
When learning any new skill it is important to set goals for yourself, but this is especially true with learning how to play the guitar.
Because it’s freakin’ hard, that’s why.
Learning the guitar is a slow, often frustrating process. But it’s also an incredibly fun and rewarding process.
Think of it like “starting with the end in mind”. What made you decide you wanted to play guitar? What drew you to the instrument? Was it a certain artist? Genre? Take some time to think about your motivations for wanting to learn the guitar.
Don’t worry, it doesn’t need to be super deep. Just think about where you want to see yourself as a guitarist.
Once you have an idea of what your end goal is (and I say “end” very loosely), you can begin to break that goal down into smaller, more manageable goals.
Utilize SMART Goals
SMART is an acronym that I believe came from the world of Project Management that stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound.
When developing your short-term goals, think in terms of weeks and months and set real, hard deadlines for yourself.
You’ll be amazed how much harder you work when you have a deadline to meet.
Below is an example of a standard goal, and then its SMART goal equivalent.
“I will learn how to play guitar chords”
“I will learn how to play the E Major Guitar Chord by Thursday, April 29th, 2021.”
Once you have a bit more experience it will be easier to make the goals more measurable. For example,
“I will learn how to transition from the E Major Guitar chord to the D Major guitar chord at 60 beats per minute by Thursday, April 29th, 2021.”
Want to know the secret to getting these to stick?
Tie emotion to your goals.
How will you feel when you accomplish that goal? Visualize yourself completing the goal in your mind. Now write that feeling as part of your goal,
“I will feel excited and proud when I learn how to transition from the E Major Guitar chord to the D Major guitar chord at 60 beats per minute by Thursday, April 29th, 2021.”
Get the idea?
Now write out your short-term and long-term goals. And remember to re-visit them often. Our goals can change all the time while learning a new instrument as new techniques and genres catch our interest.
To recap, your learning and playing goals should be:
- Tied to An Emotion
In 2021 there are loads of online guitar lessons available to you, both free and paid.
It’s also more convenient than ever to take private guitar lessons as many teachers, myself included, have adapted and transitioned to Skype or virtual guitar lessons to allow for safe, distanced lessons.
The Case for Private Lessons
Finding a good guitar teacher can honestly be one of the single greatest advantages you can give yourself in your journey to learn how to play the guitar.
Because a good guitar teacher will motivate you, reinforce when you do well and help you from falling astray. A teacher can also constantly evaluate your progress and tailor your lessons to fit your specific needs.
Finally, a guitar teacher is a great resource to bring your questions to as you learn new things about your instrument or music in general.
Private Lessons can also be very expensive, so, understandably, most of us cannot afford regular private guitar lessons, and that’s okay.
The Rise of Online Guitar Lessons
When I started TheBestGuitarLessons back in 2012 there weren’t very many online guitar lesson sites out there. JamPlay, GuitarTricks, and Learn & Master Guitar by Gibson were the big 3 back then and they were all paid options.
Of all the online guitar lesson options I recommend JamPlay. The lesson quality is outstanding and the variety of lessons is incredible. If you’re interested in learning more about JamPlay you can read my full JamPlay review here.
The biggest downfall about JamPlay that may be important to your learning style is that there are so many options it can be difficult to know where to begin.
Whereas with options like GuitarTricks, you follow their “Core Learning System” which takes the guesswork out of your first several lessons. If you’re interested in learning about GuitarTricks and the Core Learning System, check out my full GuitarTricks review.
Trying to decide between the 2 options? Check out my side-by-side GuitarTricks vs JamPlay membership comparison review.
Whatever option you decide to go with for online guitar lessons, I recommend using a variety of resources. You don’t have to sign up to multiple paid membership sites, but be sure to supplement your learning with free resources that are available to you as well, such as all the free guitar lessons offered here at TheBestGuitarLessons!
Learn Building Block Guitar Chords
Guitar chords are one of the first things you will learn when you begin to learn how to play the guitar. They are the foundation for rhythm guitar and excellent at building great finger strength.
But they’re hard and can be very frustrating to try and bend your fingers in the correct way when you are first starting out.
Struggling with chords is a very common reason many new guitarists will give up. Don’t let that happen to you.
Remember how we talked about building smaller goals to work toward a larger goal? We are going to apply that same concept to learning guitar chords.
Many times, you can play only a small portion of a chord and still have it sound in key. This is great for learning some harder 3 and 4 finger guitar chords.
Let’s take the C Major chord for example:
C Major is a very common hurdle for many budding guitarists. Using 3 fingers for a chord and stretching across 3 frets and 4 strings can be daunting.
But what if you only had to put 1 finger down to play the C chord?
I think you know where we’re going here.
The First Building Block
Place your First (index) finger on the first fret of the B string.
Now strum the top 3 strings of the guitar (the G-B-E strings).
Congratulations! You’ve just played a C chord!
Practice that a few times until it becomes easy.
Now things start getting interesting.
The Second Building Block
Place your Second (middle) finger on the second fret of the D string.
Now strum the top 4 strings of the guitar, starting at the fretted D string.
You’ve just played another variation of the C chord!
The Third Building Block
Now all that’s left is adding your third (ring) finger to the third fret of the A string and you’ve got a full C chord!
Similar building block chord examples that you can break down are:
Learn to Play Full Songs
As you start to learn songs on the guitar, I cannot stress this enough - learn the whole damn song.
So many guitarists only learn their favorite riffs of the song and are not only robbing listeners of the rest of the song but also robbing themselves of valuable practice time. There are 3 more minutes to that song!
Learning the whole song will help you develop a better ear for songwriting down the road, as you begin to pick up on the nuances and song structure.
You will also develop much stronger fingers by playing a whole song at tempo than just playing random riffs at their respective song’s tempos.
What Songs Should You Learn As A Beginner?
The million-dollar question. What are the best songs for a beginner guitarist to learn?
Whatever songs you like most!
Forget Twinkle Twinkle Little Star or Happy Birthday.
Did The Beatles inspire you to learn the guitar?
Then start learning some The Beatles rhythms.
You will get bored and likely lose at least some interest in the process if you are only learning songs because you think you should be learning them.
You will get so much more out of the experience if you only work to learn songs that you love listening to.
Now, you will probably pretty quickly find that many of your favorite songs are far too difficult to play at your current skill level.
This is where our building block chords from earlier in the lesson come into play. Try to see if you can break the chords down into smaller, easier to learn and play chords first and build from there.
Have a Structured Practice Routine
There are 5 key factors that your guitar practice routine should have, regardless of your skill level. These are
- Skills work
- Ear Training
The amount of time you spend on each of the 5 categories will vary depending on your skill level.
If you’re interested in learning how to develop the perfect guitar practice routine, check out my lesson on The Best Guitar Practice Routine for All Skill Levels.
Include Some Variety
Don’t just develop a single practice routine. Earlier in the lesson, did you write down just 1 goal or a few?
Hopefully a few...
None of us have hours a day to practice guitar, so it could take a long time to hit all those goals. That is unless you spend your time wisely.
You can accomplish twice as much in half the time by varying your guitar practice routines to work toward your various goals.
I have a different routine on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays than I do on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and likewise, my weekend guitar practice routine is different as well.
Having this much variety helps me progress in more areas of my playing faster, and keeps my practice sessions fun and interesting.
Additionally, it helps fight against getting discouraged. It’s easier to lose motivation if you fail over and over at the same thing, but if you’re constantly trying and accomplishing new things, no one task will break you.
Try it, see what you think.
You’ve probably heard that it’s better to practice for 20 minutes every day than to practice 3 hours, 1 day a week, and that’s true.
The reason for this is repetition. You get far more repetition and develop muscle memory much faster when you return to tasks day after day, as opposed to once every week or so.
Decide how much time you can really devote to learning guitar, and block that time out every day. If all you can do is 15 minutes, that’s okay. Get the most out of those 15 minutes as you can and have fun!
This isn’t a marathon or a race of any kind. It’s a journey. Enjoy it.
This is one of the best ways to stay motivated. What better way to see your progress than to literally see (or hear) your progress?
You don’t need any fancy setup here. You’re not recording for the radio or even for anyone else to hear. It’s only for you.
If all you have is your phone to record with, that’s perfect! That’s all you need.
Use your recordings to hear what parts of the song you need to work on and clean up.
Learn the Fretboard Notes Early
I saved this one for larger in the article because you probably would’ve bounced if I started with it - but just know I wanted to start with it.
Learning the fretboard is a task so many guitarists ignore and never get around to.
And yeah, you can get by without doing it.
However, you will get so much more out of every playing and practice session if you understand your instrument and how the music you make with it works.
I’ve written an entire lesson on how to learn the fretboard notes in 7 days, and I highly recommend checking that lesson out.
You only need to do this once and then it will get reinforced every time you pick up your guitar.
Trust me, it’s worth the small investment of your time in the long run.
Talk to Other Guitarists
I touched on this briefly talking about finding a teacher for private lessons. Having like-minded people to talk to about your new hobby is a very powerful motivator.
Immerse yourself in the world of guitar. Fall in love with it. Soak up as much info and share as much info as you can. The guitar community is truly wonderful.
Some of my favorite ways to connect with other guitarists are:
- Social media Groups
- Blog Comment Sections
Summary of the Best Way to Learn Guitar
While every person learns differently and will need things taught to them slightly differently, there is a system anyone can follow to learn guitar successfully. I have found this system to be the best way to learn how to play the guitar. The system is broken down into: Talking to other guitarists, effectively practicing, having goals and breaking those goals down into smaller goals, and recording your progress.
Let me know your thoughts in the comment section below. I will get back to you as soon as possible, typically within 24 hours or less.
Now get to it!
I can tell that learning to play a guitar could be a remarkable thing. Depending on your age, you can make good use of your learned guitar talents by starting up a band. Or joining one that needs an additional guitar player. Another thing that’s cool about taking guitar lessons, it’s the fact you can learn all guitar types. ex; lead & bass guitar, a open guitar, Steel-pedal guitar, banjo. I guess when you learn to play one type of guitar, you can easily learn to play others.
Thank you for the comment! You are absolutely right, it’s all 1 instrument in the end, whats important is finding the learning style that best fits you.
We all learn different. But I agree with what you’re explaining here. I have begun to learn to play the guitar. And initially I watched videos on YouTube. But there was not a complete course. I just got some bits here and some bits there. However, going to Quora has helped me a lot. And I have begun to see improvement.
That’s great! I am glad you found a method that suits your learning style best. Quora can definitely be a treasure trove of great info. You can find me over there, as well. Thanks for the comment.
Thanks for this very informative post. It certainly helps to motivate us into thinking about taking up the guitar, as while you don’t try in any way to make it sound easy, you do present it in a way that puts it within everyone’s reach.
I think it is important that we find the style that suits us best, as that will give us the motivation we need to keep going when we think we are achieving nothing. The setting of goals is also a good idea
Thanks for the comment! I am glad you found the guide helpful.
Thank you. I agree that there is no one “best way” to learn, but rather you should notice what works for you and seek out more of that type of learning. For me it was helpful to learn a couple of chords, then use them to play a song that only used those chords. I was lucky to have a teacher who found out gems of simple songs for me to practice too — this was much more fun than simply playing chords by themselves!
Thanks for all the helpful tips!
Thanks for the comment! I’m glad you found the lesson helpful. I have a bunch of lessons that outline the process you’ve described. For anyone who is interested in following Aly’s process of learning a few chords then learning songs with those chords, check out my guitar chords resource page.