How to learn social guitar in eight weeks?
November 6, 2011 2:54 PM   Subscribe

I'm going to practice guitar half an hour a day for the next 56 days. I've never played an instrument before, and I'd like to learn basic social guitar. What goals make sense for that timeframe, and how should I practice?

As background, I'm trying to teach myself to finish personal projects that don't have an immediate payoff. So I've made a pact with some friends to meet online at the same time every morning for eight weeks and each practice something we've had trouble sticking with. For me it's guitar.

So what should I practice? I'm pretty much starting from zero -- can't read music, never played an instrument, sing badly. Ideally after eight weeks I'll be able to sit around with friends and play a few basic songs, strum along with my girlfriend's fiddle tunes, etc. -- just the basic acoustic folk-pop-y social music that people often bring guitars out for.


(1) What are some achievable goals to set for myself in eight weeks? What specific skills should I practice? How would you spend the half hour?

(2) Is there a book, online class, video, or something that would fit particularly well with this project? It must be a pretty common goal, but a few google searches didn't turn up anything helpful. I'll probably try to find a teacher to check in with every week or two as well, but it would be nice to have a course to follow at home.

posted by jhc to Media & Arts (20 answers total) 82 users marked this as a favorite
JustinGuitar will get you started. Not sure if video lessons like his are compatible with an instructor, since your instructor will probably ask you to buy a book and follow it during the week (or, mine did, when I was a 10-year-old taking lessons in the early 90s). If you can afford the instructor, definitely go that route, though! Feedback from a real person is invaluable, and a good motivator.
posted by Alterscape at 3:05 PM on November 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

If the money's not a problem, sign up for lessons. Any good teacher will get you going a hundred times faster than you will go on your own. And they'll have stuff for you to play, books, etc. P.S. Good luck!
posted by eleyna at 3:09 PM on November 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm a big fan of learning to play by ear (because that's how I did it, never had a teacher aside from advice from friends.)

One idea would be for each session, finish by trying to follow along with a song you haven't learned. Neil Young is great for this -he's written hundreds of songs using just the basic chords. You could try a different song of his at the end of each session. Since you're just starting out, don't worry too much about getting the full chords right, just try to hit the bass notes at first. And don't be hard on yourself if it's not working, relax and have fun with it.

Good luck.
posted by mannequito at 3:41 PM on November 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: With that amount of time and end goals, here's what I would aim for:

1) Learn the basic first position major and minor chords which don't require a barre. Start with the chords in the key of G: G, C, D, Am, and Em and add more as needed. Practice switching between them until you can do it quickly and cleanly without looking at your fingers.

2) Get yourself a capo and learn how to use it to transpose a song into a key that you are comfortable playing.

3) Learn just a couple of basic strumming patterns and drill them until you can keep the strumming going without breaking rhythm even while changing chords, talking or singing. I strongly recommend you get a metronome and practice with it when strumming.

4) Learn a few simple songs that use the chords and rhythms you've learned.

If you are consistent and disciplined with your half-hour per day of practice, these four steps should be just about doable in the time you have allotted. Don't waste your time learning scales or fancy riffs until you've mastered what I've listed above.

Feel free to me-mail me if you need more detailed practice tips once you get started.
posted by tdismukes at 3:53 PM on November 6, 2011 [12 favorites]

Try following the guitarnoise podcast. I gained quite a bit of skill on the guitar starting from zero. I also used some of the Easy Songs for beginner lessons, like You are My Sunshine. Good luck.
posted by jeffmilner at 4:17 PM on November 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'll add: Learn your pentatonic scale in all positions, backwards, forward and inside out.

Any random collection of folks can play 12 bar blues without any trouble. Throw in a couple of heartfelt leads and everyone will think you're a pro.

I agree with tdismukes learn your first position major, minor and some 7ths. Download some tabs for songs you like ( and play along.

Have fun and enjoy.
posted by humboldt32 at 4:27 PM on November 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

Humboldt32's recommendation of learning the pentatonic scale and some blues lead riffs is a good one for down the line, but I would save that for later. Unless you are unusually talented, you won't be able to learn both usable lead skills and usable rhythm skills in 8 weeks with 1/2 hours per day. If you split your time, you'll end up not having either set of skills up to a usable point within your planned deadline.
posted by tdismukes at 4:58 PM on November 6, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for a bunch of excellent answers! This is all really helpful. I'll follow tdismukes' general roadmap, which sounds perfect for what I'm trying to do, and find a teacher if online videos don't seem to be cutting it.
posted by jhc at 5:35 PM on November 6, 2011

Response by poster: (Please don't let me stop you from passing on other tips or recommendations if you have them -- just wanted to say thanks for the great stuff that's come in so far.)
posted by jhc at 5:45 PM on November 6, 2011

The main thing you'll want to practice is chord changes. Get a metronome (or iPhone app or whatever), set it at 60 BPM for starters, and strum a chord for four ticks, then change chords and strum four ticks, and so on. You can do this with the most recent few chords you've learned, or if you really want to get ready for social guitar playing, practice with the chords for a particular key.

I'm not going to teach you music theory but I highly recommend finding a good book or two. But meanwhile it's easy to look up something ilke this chart.

Start by choosing a key. G major is common for guitar and C major is common for everything so they're good ones to start with. Without going into the theory, the important chords for each key are the I, IV, and V, and later you should add the II and VI. So for the key of G major you'd learn:

G (I), C(IV), D(V), Am (II), and Em (VI).

Practice changing between all combinations of those -- G to D, D to Em, Am to G, etc., and you'll be able to play most songs in G. (example: Brown Eyed Girl).

After you've done the basic chord change practice you can start doing the same thing with various different strumming patterns. here's a video demonstrating 10 different patterns. At that point you only need to look up the chords for a song and you're playing actual music.

Two things to keep in mind as you tackle this as a beginner:

1. There's more than one way to play each chord. You'll run into some difficult chords, like the F barre chord. Be aware there are easy alternatives for most of these.

2. If you learn a bit of theory you can transpose songs into different keys, or use a capo. This will let you play songs that use chords you're not already familiar with. For example, if you put a capo on your fifth fret and play the G-key chords above, you're now in the key of C.

I highly recommend finding a teacher. If you find the right one they'd be able to work with your 8-week plan and your particular goals, rather than handing you a book and telling you to practice scales. Interview a few teachers and find one you like. The best thing about a good teacher is that they'll teach you good practice strategies, so you don't waste your half-hour a day, and evaluate your progress.
posted by mmoncur at 7:26 PM on November 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

What are some bands you like, or some songs you'd like to be able to strum to? If you post just a couple of your favourite bands or songs you like, we can post which ones only use a few simple chords, so that you can learn those first.

Practicing chords and exercises was always a chore for me, but learning to play a song I wanted to play never felt like work.
posted by surenoproblem at 7:36 PM on November 6, 2011

learning to play a song I wanted to play never felt like work.

Yep. If you love playing, a half hour a day won't be nearly enough to satisfy you. If you don't love playing, maybe the project is just silly from the start.

I would choose some simple songs you like a lot -- songs you might sing in the shower already -- and learn those songs. Your efforts to make them sound right will teach you how to switch from chord to chord quickly enough, strum (maybe even pick a little bit) correctly, and keep the rhythm. And you love those songs, so you won't mind playing and singing them over and over until you work them out.

And you want "social guitar"? If that means playing what your girlfriend plays, then you just need to find the simplest songs that she wants to fiddle along to. Ask her to help you choose. But if "social guitar" means learning to play what your crowd thinks is cool, Google up some songs for beginning guitar and select the songs that would get you the most cred in your social group. "Horse With No Name" may be the easiest song in the world to learn and play, but your friends might break your guitar over your head if you try it on them and the chords (other than Em) aren't really all that useful to a beginner, whereas "Knockin On Heavens Door" and "Helpless" (DAG, DAG, DAG, ...) will teach you some fundamental two- and three-finger chords and are a lot higher on the average cool list.

Get yourself a capo so you can quickly move the key up or down to match your own vocal range. You'll be frustrated if you can't sing high or low enough to sing along with the chords as written, and you'll drive yourself nuts if you try to learn how to transpose the songs into other keys this early in the game. And a lot of the guitar tabs you'll see on the net will specify a capo setting.
posted by pracowity at 5:05 AM on November 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks again! I just spent my first half hour using some of the JustinGuitar beginner videos. It was mostly just learning to sit and hold my hand the right way, but I can tell from the time I spent with the D chord that my fingers will be hurting this week. (I'll look for a local teacher, but the 8 weeks starts today, so here we go.)

I really like the idea of focusing on G major and then capo'ing to other keys, at least while I'm getting started. For example I've heard that you can get pretty far supporting fiddle tunes with just A, D, and E, which, hey, is no surprise because it's I, IV, V, and just G, C, D capo'd up two frets, right? Obviously I should be able to play A and E without a capo eventually, but getting good at the G chords to begin with makes a lot of sense.

If you love playing, a half hour a day won't be nearly enough to satisfy you. If you don't love playing, maybe the project is just silly from the start.

I think that's true at some point, but I'm pretty sure for me at least the first few weeks (plus or minus) will be a combination of physical pain and trying to imagine what I would sound like if I was playing ten times as fast, and probably not the most fun. I think I would love playing something at full speed, sounding OK, and not in pain, but it's hard to see that from here.

That's actually the whole point of this project: I'm primarily trying to teach my brain to get up and do something that's hard every morning, without any immediate payoff. There's a world full of things that aren't fun for weeks at a time but are worth doing, and I've had trouble doing them outside of work or school. (Other people in my group are doing things they've had trouble sticking with long enough to get good, like figure drawing, yoga, SketchUp, journalling, etc.) Eight weeks is (according to some studies) enough time for your brain to realign around a new demand you're putting on it, so I'm looking at this as strength training for my executive function capacity. It's a general skill that I hope will translate to all kinds of things I want to do (assuming the things I've been told about executive function and brain plasticity are true).

And hopefully I'll also learn to play guitar. :)
posted by jhc at 5:39 AM on November 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: "I'm primarily trying to teach my brain to get up and do something that's hard every morning, without any immediate payoff."

This is one reason I recommended limiting your goals in the beginning - if you try learning too many chords or adding in scales or fancy riffs at this point you'll delay the payoff of seeing any sort of functional skill and therefore you'll be more likely to end up quitting.

" For example I've heard that you can get pretty far supporting fiddle tunes with just A, D, and E, which, hey, is no surprise because it's I, IV, V, and just G, C, D capo'd up two frets, right?"

Exactly right!

Here are some practice tips to get you started:

Until your fingers toughen up, try splitting up your practice time throughout the day. Instead of spending 30 minutes all at once, try 10 minutes 3x per day (or even 5 minutes 6x per day).

To improve your ability to switch chords easily, there are a few things you can do:

Place your left-hand fingers in position for a chord you have learned. Pluck each string individually with your right hand to make sure they're sounding clearly. Now lift up your left-hand fingers just a fraction of an inch from the strings, but still hold the shape of the chord as well as you can, then place them back down on the strings. Check again to make sure everything is in the right place and the strings are sounding cleanly. Do this over and over again, gradually increasing the distance you lift up your left hand from the strings. What you're doing with this exercise is training your hand to form the chord shape on the way to where it's going.

When switching chords, study the most efficient path of movement that requires your fingers to move as little as possible. For example - when moving from a C to an Am, only one finger (ring finger) needs to move, while your index and middle fingers can stay exactly where they are. When moving from a G to a C, your middle and ring fingers can hold their relative positions to each other and just shift inwards by one string. Practice these transitions back and forth over and over.

Once you start learning songs, practice them as slowly as you need to in order to keep your strumming and chord changes smooth and steady. You can gradually increase the speed once you are totally consistent at a given tempo. The temptation will be strong to speed up too quickly before you are ready for it. Don't give in to that temptation - your playing will be much stronger if you start out super slow and only increase the speed by 5% once you are completely solid at a given tempo.

When you get frustrated at how long things are taking and you don't feel like you are any better than you were the day before, remember you are literally rewiring your brain to support a new skill set. Your intellect may know how a G chord is supposed to be formed, but it takes time for the new synaptic connections to be created that will allow your fingers to automatically grab that shape when you think "G".

Good luck!
posted by tdismukes at 6:37 AM on November 7, 2011 [4 favorites]

Got an Xbox360? Heard about this over the weekend. Just one option...
posted by littleredwagon at 4:33 PM on November 7, 2011

Response by poster: tdismukes, you really knocked this one out of the park. Thanks so much.
posted by jhc at 6:08 PM on November 7, 2011

Your fingers wil feel weak and clumsy and uncoordinated in the beginning. During idle times, exercise them, I found this helps a great lot. I like to fold all the fingers at the two outer joints and squeeze that grip tightly. From there, I move the fingers individually or in pattern at the first joint (where they connect to the palm), both up/down and pulling them apart and together. Starting from the same grip, you can stretch the fingers out one by one while maintaining a firm grip with the others. This will seem impossible at first, but you can take help from the other hand, to sort of make the hand understand what muscles it has to use.
posted by springload at 9:47 AM on November 9, 2011

I think you should forget chords and technique at first and just spend some time experimenting and getting to know your instrument.

Put the sound hole up to your ear and listen to the guitar like a seashell. Move it further away from your ear. What does it sound like? Say something in the hole.

Lightly knock on the face of the guitar with your knuckle, then thwack it with your thumb. Knock on other parts of face and listen to the change in pitch. Play a little tabla on the guitar with your fingertips. Listen to the way the strings lightly vibrate when you do this. Knock on the neck of the guitar and the back, too.

Play with the strings. Run a finger lightly up and down the fattest string. What does it feel like? Do the same with all the rest of the strings. Run your fingernail down one of the fat strings. Thump a bunch of strings randomly at different spots. Put your ear against the face of the guitar while it's vibrating and feel the sound.

Get a pick and strum all the strings gently. Listen to how soft the sound is. Do it again and apply more force, and listen to how loud it is. Strum again and try to stop the sound with your non-strumming hand.

Stand the guitar upright on the floor and pluck the fat string with your finger like a jazz bassist. With your other hand, press the string down somewhere on the neck. Then do it on another spot. Play a weird little jazz tune while you whistle like Miles Davis.

Put the guitar in your lap like it was a cat. Hold your index finger straight across one of the frets, just barely touching the strings. With your other hand, strum all the strings. Go up and down the neck, lightly touching the strings over different frets, and listen to the resonating harmonics when you strum.

Strum the strings at different spots on the guitar, all the way up to the top of the neck. Listen to change in timbre.

Spaz out a little. Just let your hands fly all over the instrument like a kid and don't worry if it's musical or not. Grip the neck with your fist and let it go wherever it wants and let your other hand just bang on the strings. Don't try to do anything, just see what your hands feel like doing.

Pluck the strings on the headstock and do a little indie rock tune.

Look the instrument over like it was a cool old sports car you just found in the grocery store parking lot. Examine the tiny gears in the tuning heads. If you can, look at the grains of wood on the face, notice how far apart they are. That's what gives the guitar its tone, in part. Sight down the neck from the top and see how the frets recede like a railroad. Look at the curves of the body, the straightness of the strings, the roundness of the hole. Look inside the guitar at the skeletal pieces of wood symmetrically holding everything together. Look at all the little trim details, like the fret inlays, the decoration on the edge of the face, the color of the pickguard, the logo on the headstock. Your guitar is gorgeous.

Finally, get close to your instrument and smell it. No other guitar smells like that.

Now that you've become social with your guitar, you can play, and learn, and listen. Don't ever practice.

Have fun!
posted by swift at 12:34 PM on November 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I've been practicing for a little over a week now (though I know swift told me not to) and I thought I'd leave a few notes about how it's going.

- I've decided to focus on learning chords diatonic to G, as several people recommended. I've also learned the word "diatonic."

- Picking up G (I), Am (ii), C(IV), D(V), and Em (vi) was pretty straightforward, in the sense of being able to remember them and get my hand to them eventually, but not necessarily on a beat. I realized at some point that I should be playing G with my 2-3-4 fingers instead of 1-2-3 fingers, which set me back a little bit.

- This got me to a level that was fun, much faster than I expected. Probably on about day four. The first fun thing I was able to do was keep a steady strum with my right hand (with or without a metronome) and, every 8 strums or so, start switching to a new chord with my left hand. It might take me two or three strums to get the new chord sorted out, but it sounded fine to my ears anyway.

- So then I realized that, now I had I - ii - IV - V - vi, I could play basically every chord progression ever. So I collected a bunch of them from the internet: I - IV - V - IV, I - IV - I - V, I - I - IV - V, I - IV - V - V, I - vi - IV - V, V-IV-I-V, vi-IV-V-vi, etc. I had a ton of fun just picking one of those at random and realizing that it sounded like music that I know.

- I realized that if you take the Isley Brother's "Shout", and you subtract me playing I - vi - I - vi, then the difference is what we call "rock 'n' roll".

- I started quizzing a friend about music theory and why some chord progressions sound nice and some random things I choose don't. She told me the rule of thumb in composing is you can always go 1 step up or 5 steps down. So I started bouncing around at random that way and that sounded pretty good too. Here I threw in Bm (iii) and F#dim (vii) as well.

- I'm not very close to being able to play those last two in anything like realtime. But those are stupid chords anyway.

- I tried playing along with my girlfriend's fiddle, and it was mad hard, because (1) I need to learn how to follow along to sheet music (or follow by ear); (2) I still need to look at my hands to make the chord changes, which makes it hard to watch the music; and (3) some chords don't stay for a full measure, and I can't switch that fast yet.

- So one thing I'm practicing is to give myself time to switch before the 1 beat, rather than after. Like, this kind of strum pattern: 1-2-3-4 1-2-[fumble]-[fumble]. I'm hoping that will make the transitions when I accompany someone a little smoother, while I work on switching faster.

- The other thing I'm practicing is switching chords without looking. Today I was working just on G - C - D and I could sort of feel it coming together. It's kind of like the moment when you realize you don't need to look in order to switch gears in a stick shift.

- I know at some point I'll have to work on chords in D as well, because that's mad hard to capo to and it shouldn't be a huge leap.

So ... lots more to work on. But I'm happy with how it's going so far.
posted by jhc at 4:19 PM on November 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

"I know at some point I'll have to work on chords in D as well, because that's mad hard to capo to and it shouldn't be a huge leap."

If you need to play in D to accompany your girlfriend, the quickest way to get there in the beginning is to learn the chords in C then just capo up 2 frets. Since you already know the key of G, you only have to learn one new chord - F. That's a little tricky since you have to use a half-barre, but it's still easier than learning A, Bm, and F#m which you will need for the key of D.

(Of course, you will eventually want to learn all the chords in D, but learning C first is quicker.)
posted by tdismukes at 10:29 AM on November 29, 2011

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