If you’re beginning to play guitar, learning the basics will help you to progress more quickly, develop healthy playing habits and avoid the pitfalls that most beginning guitarists encounter. If you’re an intermediate or advanced guitar player, you might discover a fresh approach by checking out the concepts that I consider basic to good guitar playing. (In addition to reading about the basics here, beginning guitar players can gain a deeper understanding of the basics and see how to implement the concepts by watching the DVD in Getting Started.)
The way you think is your most valuable basic tool and ultimately determines your success as a guitar player. Qualities like dedication and commitment, lack of self-judgment, a positive attitude and an open mind are essential to your progress and are key elements in your package of guitar playing basics. The ability to rehearse mentally or the capacity to visualize the music, the fretboard and your hands will deepen and solidify your knowledge and expression. I’ll talk more about enhancing and utilizing these abilities throughout this site and in my instructional video and ear training course. For now, you might want to take a few minutes to consider those basic qualities and how they apply to your life and music.
Healthy Body Use
As you work with your guitar, allow your body to feel expansive. It is typical for most of us that the longer we sit in concentration, the more we contract and distort our bodies. Allow plenty of space in your body for blood and energy to flow. Monitor your way of sitting to avoid compressing the vertebra in your spine. Wrapping your arms around your guitar often results in “hunching” and can cause pain in your arms and hands as nerves are constricted. To avoid problems such as these, consciously open your chest and lengthen your spine.
You may find it profitable to check out some of the material available on the Alexander Technique for musicians. For a brief, to the point education on risks and solutions, read The Musician’s Survival Manual by Richard Norris. Healthy body use is a basic guitar playing skill that you can’t afford to neglect! If you’re interested in my response to a player with small hands or you want to read about the small guitar that I love to play, go to this page.
Holding the Guitar
The basic guitar playing skill which you probably will want to approach first is one that will help you produce a good sound. In order to get a clean sound on all of the strings, it is essential that you learn to hold your guitar properly. If you’re having trouble getting a clean sound on your chords, chances are you’re not holding the guitar parallel to your body (perpendicular to the ground). Most beginning players want to angle the guitar when they are sitting (the bottom of the guitar further away from their body than the top) so that they can see the strings. The problem with this is the arm and hand have a long and curved path to the fretboard. You will still be able to see your hand if you hold the guitar up, it will simply be a different view than the one you might hope for initially. But try it. It works. And it won’t take long at all to adjust to the view.
Once you’ve established a proper plane for your guitar, consider the angle of the guitar on that plane. In other words, is the neck pointing toward the ceiling and the body toward the floor, or the other way around? You want to avoid reaching for the fretboard. The closer to your body you hold the neck (and, consequently, your left arm and hand), the easier it will be to play well and the lower your risk of injury.
Look at your left hand. Your fingers should curve over the fretboard, so that they don’t kill the vibration of the string below the one being fretted. Unless your hands are very large, this will require you to drop your hand to the point that your left thumb contacts the back of the neck on or close to the apex of the curve. You’ll want to find a position where your wrist is down enough to have space between the palm of your hand and the guitar neck, but not jutting out and causing strain. A good rule is to look for a rather straight, or only slightly curved line from elbow to knuckles. If you avoid gripping the guitar neck as if it were a tennis racquet, you will not only get a cleaner sound, you will have a lot more reach – probably two frets, easily. Plus, you will suffer far less strain in your left hand.
The Quiet Hand
Once you have established a position for your body and hands which seems comfortable and correct, take a moment to check for tension, especially in your neck, arms or hands. Take a deep breath, gently lift and open your chest and let your spine lengthen and widen. As you play, move your left hand as little as possible: the thumb will stay in the same place for most of what you play in a given position and the fingers will stay close to the fretboard. Let your left hand be soft and quiet. Remember, it is your right hand that sets the strings vibrating!
You may find that you learn the basic guitar chords easily enough, but have pauses when you attempt to switch from one to another. If you’re having trouble changing chords, you need to know the chord shapes more deeply. Study and rehearse them mentally. Practice drawing them on a chord chart. When you can visualize the chord shapes clearly and can see your hand making the changes in your mind’s eye, you will be able to make the chord changes smoothly on your guitar. Once you really know the chords, you may still have unnecessary pauses when you change chords. By that I mean that if you would keep your right hand going (strumming a regular beat), you would find that your left hand is actually changing chords soon enough, your right hand just doesn’t believe it!
The solution is to go very slowly and insist that your right hand keep an even, uninterrupted strum, even if you think your left hand is not in place. Really push through this. If you’re still not making it, establish a slower tempo and try again. Watch your left hand, think ahead, and mentally aim at the upcoming chord. Although you may initially have to form the chord by placing one finger at a time on the fretboard, try to move beyond this as quickly as possible. As your hand strengthens and you become more sure of the chord shape, you will actually form the chord over the fretboard, so that all of your fingers will go down simultaneously.
Playing Single Notes
In order to avoid “fly away” left hand and a choppy sound, practice leaving each finger down until you’ve played the next note. The following exercise will help you with this basic, important guitar playing skill: Play the first fret of the first string with your first finger, followed by the second fret, second finger, third fret, third finger and fourth fret, fourth finger, As you play each note, keep the previous finger or fingers down, so that by the time you have the fourth finger down, all four of your left hand fingers are pressing a fret. Repeat the top note (fourth finger) and come down one note at a time (4,3,2,1) Move to the second position (first finger on the second fret) and repeat the exercise. Continue to repeat the exercise, moving up one fret at a time and using the pick with a down, up alternating motion and a regular beat. Go slowly enough to have a clean sound and guard against tension in your left hand.
When you have progressed in your playing to working with scale patterns, you can use this more advanced exercise: Play a scale pattern (using no open strings) without lifting any finger until you must use it for another note. This means you will sometimes have all four fingers down at a time, and will always have fingers down on different strings simultaneously. You will need to go slowly with this at first. You may be surprised at the amount of concentration and dexterity required. Before long, you will be able to play a two octave scale with perfect sustain and you will be increasing your finger independence at the same time.
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