How do I learn to play an acoustic guitar?
December 29, 2003 8:32 AM   Subscribe

I got a guitar for Christmas! Acoustic. I've never played before, but I do read music. What now? How do I learn to play? Books, DVDs, videos? Or are private lessons the way to go?
posted by MrMoonPie to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (25 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
I took group lessons in Jr. high, and I would say that private lessons will get you up to speed quickly. Guitar playing for Dummies isn't bad either.
posted by mecran01 at 8:35 AM on December 29, 2003

do you know how to read tab? if not, check this out and then search a tab search engine for a song you'd like to play. if a tab file only has chords listed, try this chord database.
posted by mcsweetie at 8:37 AM on December 29, 2003

Response by poster: I don't even know what tab is. But I'll check the sites, anyway.
posted by MrMoonPie at 8:37 AM on December 29, 2003

I have never gotten good at playing guitar, though I try every few years. That said, when I was looking for materials to help me, many people recommended the Mel Bay series of guitar instruction books and they got me as close to understanding guitar playing as I have ever come. Their website also has a helpful FAQ of guitar terms which is useful for answering questions like "what's a tab?" If you know someone who already plays, a good idea might be to see if they can teach you a song you'd like to learn and along the way instruct you in the rudiments of guitar-talk. Something pretty straightforward like Lenny Kravitz, Ben Harper or Deep Purple will get you into the basics of learning about chord changes and strumming without having to play Michael Row the Boat Ashore.
posted by jessamyn at 8:45 AM on December 29, 2003

If you just want to be able to strum along to songs and jam at parties, learning on your own from friends and the internet might work for you. However, if you plan to acquire a more serious level of skill, you really ought to take some formal instruction.

As someone who learned almost exclusively on my own, i would definitely recommend at least three months of private lessons to start with. You can learn a lot from tab if you're determined, but things like fingering positions, scales, and even how to hold a pick are lessons much better learned from another human being. Just soak up as much correct technique and good practice skills as you can, and then apply them to learning on your own. In the long run you'll be a faster learning and better player for it.

Also, make sure you go to a real professional; solicit some advice from guitar players you know, but don't take lessons from them. It's better to shell out to learn it the right way then to be told you hold a pick wrong four years after the fact, believe me.
posted by krisis at 8:54 AM on December 29, 2003 [1 favorite]

I've had an acoustic guitar for a couple of years, but I never really did much besides strum the first few chords of Bad Moon Rising, and slowly pick out Tom Dooley as I gazed hapless at the pages of the book I bought with the guitar. About two months ago I gave in and ponied up for lessons, and I highly recommend them.

I can play Greensleeves now. White hot!

But yeah, I was in the same boat as you, never having played any instrument before, and now am on my way to reading music. Now if I could just switch from G to D7 a little faster, I'd be golden, baby. Golden.
posted by Kafkaesque at 8:59 AM on December 29, 2003

Another vote for private lessons here. It makes a tremendous difference, regardless of age or experience. Look for a teacher who will not only teach you guitar, but will also help you to teach yourself as you progress. Yes, it sounds hokey, but knowing how to properly practice your instrument and make use of your time outside a lesson is truly the killer skill to acquire.

You say you can read music - lessons are especially important if you aren't used to thinking in chords and harmonic progression. I'm a professional oboist, but the ukelele I got for XMas sometimes causes me to blow a brain cell here and there because the type of musical thinking (vertical, aka chords) is at times so different from what I'm used to (horizontal - melody only). And 4 strings... I mean, WTF, now, really... I'm just so used to "push button, get correct note."

Also, this sounds silly, but one of my friends recently told me he had stopped trying to learn guitar because it was hurting his fingers - it never occured to him he would have to build up calluses. Don't let such a little obstacle get in your way!
posted by Sangre Azul at 9:19 AM on December 29, 2003 [1 favorite]

How about this - learn a few cords, and then try to find people to jam with (patient people) or just sit in with people who are jamming, and watch.

Don't do what I did, which was to learn guitar - beyond simple chords - by a massive frontal attack of trial and error. Endless experimentation. There are upsides to this though - treating guitar practice as exploration and play will likely give you a "voice" on the instrument which is unlike that of any other guitarist. I might sound somewhat like Leo Kottke and somewhat like Michael Hedges, but distinctly different too.

One pointed suggestion : rather than focussing on learning on specific music, try learning lots of technique - chords, alternate chords, different voicings, styles of strumming, picking (classical vs. newer hybrid techniques for steel guitar - and then there's always Flamenco!) Learn scales, and how to transpose chords.

Get a second or third guitar - they're cheap! - and keep those tuned in alternate tunings. Dropped D, Open G, whatever. Make up your own! That's what Nick Drake did- and look at where it got him (well, he's dead. But his tunings were wonderful).

I once spent four years straight playing only in open G. It's a nice tuning for fast, complex picking and bottleneck slide guitar, especially on a twelve string.

Strong hands and fingers are a must (see the "strong hands" AskMeta question from two or three days ago).

Also, I've developed a weird "punctuated learning" style which seems to maximize my efforts to develop my playing - I play a lot for a day or two, put the guitar down for a week or even a month...... Somehow, my overall grasp of the instrument (if not my specific technical prowess) seems to improve in the intervals of not playing. I've put the instrument down for as long as a year at a time, but somehow my playing is, with several days practice and remembrance, always better - deeper. This reflects my acquisition, I suspect, of wisdom. This punctuated non-playing also prevents my guitar hobby from becoming obsessive.

That, I currently reserve for Metafilter.

I'm taking it slow. By the time I'm fifty or fifty-five, I reckon, I'll be a fine guitarist.
posted by troutfishing at 9:23 AM on December 29, 2003 [1 favorite]

What krisis said. Having to unlearn bad technique is a huge timesink, and something you don't need to do if you get good instruction at the beginning.

That said, I found these books to be excellent at making sense of the fretboard. I had my own little breakthrough after working through them.
posted by crumbly at 9:35 AM on December 29, 2003

Do what most of us have done:

1) Take three lessons.
2) In the course of those lessons learn 2 and a half chord progressions (including the blues progression)
3) Pound the shit out of them for the rest of your life
posted by victors at 10:48 AM on December 29, 2003

oh and seriously, add to:

Having to unlearn bad technique is a huge timesink

and you can hurt your hands (and I don't just mean calluses) -- this has happened to me and I had to seriously curtail my playing. big, big bummer; pain, inside and out.
posted by victors at 10:52 AM on December 29, 2003 [1 favorite]

Best answer: get a nice little tuner as helps to be in tune when you are trying to learn.
posted by th3ph17 at 10:55 AM on December 29, 2003

get a nice little tuner as well

Honestly, this is the most important thing you can learn when it comes to music. I went six months from having my first guitar, to buying my first tuner. It was mostly wasted time.
posted by drezdn at 11:27 AM on December 29, 2003 [2 favorites]

Get a metronome as well, learning to play to a beat early on will help a lot.

If you can already learn music perhaps you might not be served too well by tablature. But this all depends on the type of music you'd like to learn.

Definitely go for the private lessons, even if it's with the clear intention of just getting up to speed on the basics with some pointers on where to go after that.
posted by Space Coyote at 11:28 AM on December 29, 2003 [1 favorite]

Avoid tablature. On the surface it seems like a Good Thing, showing you exactly where to put your fingers so you can play exactly what Eddie or Jaymz or *insert favorite guitar god here* is playing, but after years of teaching myself from tablature I was able to play The Beginning of Everything and not much else.

It wasn't until I turned off the electric and learned basic chord progressions on an acoustic that I really felt like I could play some songs.

Check out the Tablature section over at Harmony Central. Avoid the Tab files and stick to the chord files.

That said, learn the opening to Over the Hills and Far away so you can impress the chicks at the party when all the drinkable drink has been drunk.
posted by bondcliff at 11:31 AM on December 29, 2003 [1 favorite]

online metronomes, here, and here.

and does still have its alternate tuning helper thingy? haven't been there in a while.

the problem with learning from tabs, is that you can learn how to hit the notes in order, when you should learn what Chord it is that you are playing parts of, and where your hands should be. I started learning from tabs 11 years ago, and it really handicapped me quite a bit. My wife is trying to teach me how to *really* play. poor girl. it is nearly hopeless now for me....but you can save yourself.
posted by th3ph17 at 12:17 PM on December 29, 2003 [1 favorite]

Welcome to the most difficult-to-sightread instrument you could possibly wish for. This is so because many notes appear more than one place on the fretboard (i.e. you can play note x on a lower-pitched string fretted closer to the soundbox, or the same note x on a higher-pitched string fretted closer to the peghead. For all the notes in the instrument's middle range you have three choices of where to fret them.

The result is that figuring out workable fingering for a piece for which you have only standard notation is son-of-beeotch difficult. You start the piece with your left hand in one position, which allows you to get the first couple of measures but also determines what's easy to reach for the next few measures and what's impossible to reach without an awkward and very audible hand-position shift.

Whereas it's best (and of course more guitarist-macho) to work from standard notation, it's also extremely helpful to see how others have puzzled out fingering for a given passage. Hence the unkillableness of tablature.

If you're into classical or renaissance stuff, you can buy sheet music with indications of fingering that have been done by players who really know what they're doing, but these indications can be pretty cryptic.

N.b. There's tons and tons of beautiful renaissance lute music that exists only as tab, because that's the way lute players wrote it down and nobody has transcribed it into standard notation yet. Unfortunately the lute is tuned slightly differently from the guitar so you can't just pick up lute tab and play it. (Unless you switch your guitar to lute tuning.)
posted by jfuller at 1:13 PM on December 29, 2003

Best answer: Learning to play a few chords, and from there a few basic rock/folk/blues songs, will give you an excellent basis to understand the fretboard and the relationship between specific notes and overall chord structure.

By all means, pursue whatever else you like in parallel, but if you can sit down and bang out Satisfaction in G, and know that you're playing a G and a C and an F, you can from there relate to the notes in a G chord, etc.

Learning a little music theory goes well with this.

Learn things that are extensible and expand on them; don't just memorize tabs. Being able to play Stairway note-by-note is less important than being able to bang out the chords to Stairway. If you can do that, then you can learn to bang out the chords to Stairway in, say, F# (shudder) pretty much trivially.
posted by cortex at 1:18 PM on December 29, 2003

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone! This AskMetaFilter thingie is way cool.
posted by MrMoonPie at 1:57 PM on December 29, 2003

I never took lessons on guitar - I've been playing about ten years now. However, I did also have 12 years of learning the violin before I got a guitar, with gave me a good grounding in musical theory - do you have any experience in music theory? Do you understand what Csus4 or harmonic minor means? These bits of understanding of how music worked helped me greatly on guitar, because it's so easy to think of things in terms of intervals and transposing. If you can learn to think of things in these terms rather than mathematically playing "6th fret, 2nd string...3rd fret, 1st string..." if can help you a lot.

I found some of the "Learn to play Blues Guitar"..."Learn to play Rock Guitar" kind of books enormously helpful when I started out. They helped me learn some of the important chords and scales, and it makes playing other songs and writing your own much easier.

What sort of geeetar did you get, by the way?
posted by Jimbob at 4:11 PM on December 29, 2003

Stephen Grossman's Guitar Workshop has some of the best audio and video lessons I've come across. There's a lot of good information, even in the beginner courses.
posted by tdismukes at 9:21 AM on December 30, 2003

Response by poster: That looks interesting, tdismukes. What about this one?
posted by MrMoonPie at 9:44 AM on December 30, 2003

See here also.
posted by y2karl at 10:37 AM on December 30, 2003

No one mentions OLGA? The original and best.
posted by sonofsamiam at 12:03 PM on December 30, 2003

Response by poster: I found the Guitar for Dummies DVD on Netflix, so I added it to my queue. Got it last night.

I know a chord!
posted by MrMoonPie at 8:36 AM on January 9, 2004

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