Keys to Practicing Guitar for Beginners

It is very common for people who’ve already made the decision to learn how to play guitar, and gone ahead and purchased their first instrument, to sit down in a chair with their new guitar in their hands and say, “Now what?”.  The purpose of this article is to provide you with some important guitar playing fundamentals and keys to practicing guitar that will enable you to continue your guitar journey without developing any bad habits which would be much more difficult to break later on.

We will focus on the following subjects:

  • Getting in Tune
  • Body Posture
  • Left Hand Position
  • Holding a Pick
  • Practice Routine
  • Recording Yourself
  • Work on Timing
  • Practice with Others

Keys to Practicing Guitar – Getting in Tune

I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, “there are two certain things in life….death and taxes”.  Well for guitar players, there is a third certainty: tuning your guitar.  Unlike death or taxes, this is not something to be fearful of because tuning your guitar is very easy and only takes about a minute or so.

I strongly recommend that you make it a firm habit to quickly tune your guitar each and every time you pick it up to play.  Guitars usually don’t go out of tune too quickly.  So if you play frequently, you may find that only a couple strings need a minor adjustment before you’re ready to play.

There are many different tools available to tune your guitar.  The four most common methods are:

  • Built-in tuners on acoustic-electric guitars
  • Stomp-box style pedal tuners for electric guitars
  • Clip-on tuners for any type of guitar
  • Digital tuner apps available in any smartphone or tablet

Check out my article on guitar accessories which covers each of these tuners in greater detail.  And my accessories gear guide provides recommendations on my favorite tuners in both pedals and clip-on varieties.

Learn.Love.Guitar. Recommendation:  When tuning any string on your guitar, always start by bringing the note flat (down in pitch), and then raising the pitch up until the correct tuning is found.  This method of “tuning up” will help to ensure greater longevity of your strings staying in tune.

Keys to Practicing Guitar – Body Posture

While your favorite guitar heroes stand when they are playing in front of an audience, virtually all guitarists spend their practicing time sitting in a chair or on a stool.  When playing the guitar in a sitting position, rest your feet shoulder-width apart and set the waist of the guitar on your right thigh.  Your right forearm will wrap over the thick part of the guitar body letting your wrist come in close contact with the guitars bridge.

While your left hand will be used for pressing down on the strings, it really should not be necessary to use your left hand to maintain balance of the guitar.  Again, your right arm and right leg should be enough to hold the guitar steady and balanced.

At first, it may be tempting to lurch over your guitar to get a better view of the fretboard and your fingers.  But you will not be doing yourself any favors in the long run.  It is important to find a comfortable position that maintains good posture with your back, shoulders and neck. The last thing you want is to finish a practice session and find that something on your body hurts.  That will only turn you off from playing more in the future.

To play the guitar in a standing position, you will need a guitar strap that is secured to the two strap pins on your guitar.  For most people, playing guitar while standing is a bit more difficult because you’re less able to lean over your guitar the way you do when playing in a seated position.  While insanely talented rock stars like Slash and Jimmy Page are famous for letting their guitars hang down real low to look super cool, trust me, this makes playing really difficult.

keys to practicing guitar position while standing

Learn.Love.Guitar. Recommendation:  One practical technique to getting used to playing the guitar while standing is to set the strap length while you’re sitting in a comfortable playing position. This may sound odd but trust me, when you stand up, the guitar will generally be in the same position that you’re accustomed to while seated.  And as your comfort level increases, along with your wrist/finger dexterity, you can then lower the position of your guitar while standing and mimic your favorite guitar god.

Keys to Practicing Guitar – Left Hand Positioning

The guitar playing technique that trips up the most beginning guitar players is how to correctly position your left hand so that it is both comfortable and effective at being able to fret the notes.  Your thumb should glide along the back of the neck and then it can be used to create leverage for your fretting fingers to push the strings down onto the fretboard, essentially putting the squeeze on the entire guitar neck.

To fret a note, your four fingers should always remain somewhat curled so that the tips of your fingers come straight down onto the string being played.  If you come at the strings at too far of an angle, you run the risk of inadvertently touching one of the adjacent strings.  If this happens when trying to play a chord, you will hear a buzzing noise instead of a clear note ringing out.

Remember that when fretting a note, the tips of your fingers should push down on the string “behind” the actual fret wire, and not on the fret wire itself.  Remember that the purpose of the fret wires is to act as an end point for the vibrating guitar string.  It’s basically doing the same thing as the nut, just a shorter distance away from the bridge.  The middle and ring fingers of the person shown in the image below is applying her fingers in the second fret.  Notice how they are just a little bit “behind” the second fret wire.

guitar fretting on fingerboard

When you first start out, you may find that your left hand gets really tired and possibly even cramped after playing for a while.  This usually results from one of two things:  either you’re squeezing down on the guitar strings way too hard, or the muscles in your fingers and wrist are just not used to this type of activity. Over time, you will learn how much pressure is needed to make the note ring out clearly, and your muscles will develop giving more control and dexterity.

One physical “hazard” of playing guitar to which no one is immune, is that the tips of your fingers will become calloused.  This is actually a good thing, because the harder they get, the easier it will be to fret a note.  Think about using a hammer to drive in a nail.  If the working end of the hammer were made of soft rubber or foam, it would not be nearly as effective as one made of hard metal.  And don’t worry about the how your fingers look, you’ll barely be able to tell visually, but they will just develop a little bit thicker skin just where you need it!

Learn.Love.Guitar. Recommendation:  If at any time your body tells you that something hurts, pay attention!  New guitar players are putting their bodies in positions in which they are not accustomed, and that often results in stiff or sore joints. Take frequent breaks when playing to stretch out and relax your muscles.  Over time, your body will adjust and any aches and pains you may feel will just fade away.

Keys to Practicing Guitar – How to Hold a Pick

how to hold a pick to play guitar

As the saying goes, a picture speaks a thousand words.  The image above shows you the proper way to hold a pick.  A few key points to take away from the image are:

  • Only use your thumb and index finger to hold the pick
  • Only the pointy end of the pick should be protruding from your fingers
  • The tip of the pick should be pointing roughly perpendicular to your thumb and directly toward the strings

Learn.Love.Guitar. Recommendation:  Try to follow these rules closely.  I’ve seen too many guitar players use three fingers to hold a pick, or hold it in a different orientation because they think it feels more comfortable.  While it may feel more natural at first to break the guidelines provided, it will eventually limit your ability to progress, specifically in terms of picking speed.

Keys to Practicing Guitar – Practice Routine

To become a proficient guitar player, lots of things have to come together.  Your finger dexterity and strength needs to improve, you must learn how to read basic standard music and guitar tablature notation and you have to have the eye-hand coordination to read the notes with your eyes while playing the strings with your fingers at the same time.

All of these skills will put your brain and body on sensory overload, so it’s best to attack the process in frequent short bursts of effort rather than infrequent long marathons.  In other words, practicing for 20 minutes a day 6 days a week will end up producing far better results than playing for 120 minutes once a week.  It’s the same number of minutes, but your brain can only process so much information at one time.  After a while the additional time you’re putting in is no longer “sinking in” and if you wait a long time between practice sessions, you have to “re-learn” for a time just to get back to the point where you left off.

It is also important to remember that 10 minutes of focused practice is more effective than 20 minutes of distracted practice.  So when you do sit down to play, give the session your undivided attention.

Learn.Love.Guitar. Recommendation:  Another effective technique is to mix-up the type of guitar playing during each practice session.  So instead of working exclusively on strumming patterns one day, and then single note scales on another day, you’re much better off practicing strumming for 10 minutes, then moving into scales for another ten minutes during the same session.  The same principle of additional effort not sinking-in described above applies even within a single practice session.

Keys to Practicing Guitar – Recording Yourself

When playing a scale or a song, your ears are listening to the music in real-time and your brain is imagining the correct tones that are supposed to be coming from your guitar.  This can lead to a biased impression of how good (or not so good) your sounding.

With the smartphone that is either in your pocket or within arms reach, use it to record yourself playing guitar.  Then listen to what you recorded with a critical ear.  Are all of the notes ringing out clearly?  Are the pitches of the notes being played correctly?  Is the music being played keeping time with the beat?

Learn.Love.Guitar Recommendation:  You might be surprised and/or disappointed by what you hear, but it will give you some clues as to what skills you need to work on.  And trust me, bruising your ego will be well worth it when your able to correct your flaws and improve your sound!

Keys to Practicing Guitar – Work on Your Timing

Speaking of keeping time with the beat, it is very important for beginning guitar players is to work on their timing.  Even if you’re able to easily snap your fingers or tap your foot to the beat of a song, it’s a whole different story when you’re the one making the music.

Playing chords, scales or melodies along with a song that has a defined beat is a good place to start.  You might find for example that it is really hard to make the necessary chord changes in time to stay on the beat.  This is a very common issue for beginner guitarists and usually gets better with improved finger dexterity and muscle memory.

Learn.Love.Guitar. Recommendation:  When you’re just practicing guitar by yourself with no other accompaniment, consider a metronome to help you improve the timing and precision of your internal clock.  Once again, your smartphone is a great tool to use in assisting you in keeping time.  There are dozens of free and perfectly functional metronome apps to choose from.

Keys to Practicing Guitar – Practice with Other Guitarists

Once you’ve gotten the basics under your belt and you have a few ounces of confidence, find a friend that also plays guitar.  There are many benefits to taking the plunge and sharing your music with others.

For example, watching another guitarist play up-close and having them watch you creates loads of opportunities for learning new techniques and sharing feedback on each others strengths and weaknesses.

Learn.Love.Guitar. Recommendation:  If you and your friend end up playing guitar together, you will learn that your mistakes aren’t so glaring and the combination of the two guitars together is greater than the sum of their parts.  This can be highly motivating to continue practicing and improving your skills!