How to Learn Guitar: A Roadmap for Becoming a Great Guitarist

Why should you learn guitar?

Learning a musical instrument is one of the best things you can do for yourself. For many novice musicians, guitar is the obvious choice for several reasons:

Affordable Price

Good guitars aren’t ridiculously expensive; you can buy one for a couple hundred dollars without having to make extreme tradeoffs in quality. With a lot of instruments, this simply isn’t the case; you have to pay a lot up front or buy a low-quality instrument.

Portability

A guitar can be taken anywhere; you can play it by a campfire, on your front porch, at the beach, or in your room, all without having to hire a moving crew.

This seemingly small advantage of the guitar is a big reason why it’s so popular. People love playing music for or with other people, and a guitar is one of the easiest instruments to move.

Simplicity

You’re probably thinking: Guitar seem rather complicated. There are so many frets, six different strings, and your right hand and left hand are doing completely different things simultaneously.

That’s true, but here’s the thing: Basic guitar skills are extremely easy to learn. Sure, you won’t be playing Eruption on your first go (or even within the year, realistically), but learning the basic open chords is a comparative piece of cake.

This means that you can learn how to play along with “campfire songs” without much trouble at all; it takes less than a day of drilling chords for most new guitarists to be able to play a few songs.

So, while advanced guitar may not be all that simple, there’s a low barrier to entry and a shallow learning curve for beginners.

Popularity in Music

Unless you’re into modern-day pop, rap, electro music, or perhaps a handful of other small genres, a lot of the music you listen to features a guitar.

From Bluegrass to Rock ‘n’ Roll, Country, Americana, Metal, Blues, you name it, almost every genre is heavily influenced by the guitar.

This means that most of the songs you want to play probably use a guitar. The best way to replicate this sound is to use the same instrument.

Take Eric Johnson’s Cliffs of Dover, for example. Can you imagine playing this (or hearing it, for that matter) on a piano? It would be an entirely different song; there would be no string bends, no slide, and the tone would be massively different.

In short, if most of the songs you want to play use the guitar, you’ll probably be most satisfied playing them on a guitar.

Variation

Last but not least, few instruments have the same range of variation as the guitar. Slides, bends, hammer-ons, pull-offs, and a range of other tricks are all possible with the guitar.

All of these techniques create a wide range of sounds that you can’t replicate on very many instruments.

Then there’s tuning customizability; only stringed instruments allow a practical way to change your instrument’s tuning on a whim. If you want to play a slide guitar song in Open G and then switch right back to standard tuning, you can do this with little effort.

For electric guitars, add to this list the virtually infinite range of tones you can achieve with different effect pedals and amps. The combinations are never-ending; guitar feels fresh even when you’re not learning anything new.

How to Learn Guitar

Becoming a great guitarist is much like developing any other skill; it won’t happen overnight, and it won’t happen at all unless you invest a good bit of your time.

If you’re not willing to put in a lot of effort and time, learning guitar probably isn’t for you. After you learn the basic chords, it gets a lot trickier.

If you do want to build this valuable skill, though, we’ve put together a roadmap for doing so. It’s not exactly linear; most of these steps overlap.

Additionally, every step may take a different amount of time. Learning chords is easy, but learning to solo is hard. It’ll likely take you several years to make your way through the following steps.

During this process, it’s easy to experience stagnation; you’ll reach a certain point where you’re not sure what to work on. We hope that in reading this guide, you’ll have a better idea of what skills to pursue when this inevitably occurs.

With that said, let’s look at the basic path to guitar greatness.

Learn the Open Chords

If you’ve decided you want to learn guitar, you’ll have to start somewhere, but where?

Easy, open chords.

These are the easiest-to-play guitar chords. They’re referred to as “open” because they use open (untouched) strings as part of the chord.

This means that you don’t have to press down as many strings when playing an open chord, and you won’t have to stretch your hand as far.

Open chords also make up a large portion of rhythm guitar in music, so you’ll be able to play along with almost any song once you learn these.

We recommend reading our list of the most important open chords for beginners if you want to learn how to play these.

Learn Rhythm Guitar for Songs

When you’re familiar with the most common guitar chords, it’s time to start learning some songs.

You shouldn’t start out trying to solo, or even fingerpick. Start small, with strumming and open chords. Master the strumming patterns for a few of your favorite tunes.

Look up songs you like until you find one that has only familiar chords. In other words, you probably won’t want to start out with Hotel California.

Practice this song, or a few that you’ve picked out, until you get to the point where you’re comfortable playing them at full speed.

Learning familiar songs is one of the best ways to master chord transitions and become even better-acquainted with all of the common chord shapes.

Learn Barre Chords

barre chord

By this point, you’ve hopefully learned an F Major chord, but you probably haven’t perfected the full barre chord.

This is an important step in the guitar-learning process. Barre chords allow you use the same shape to play any chord of the same quality (any major chord with a major shape, any minor chord with a minor shape, etc.).

This gives you incredible versatility in your playing; you can play the same chords at different places of the neck.

Another aspect of barre chords that’s often overlooked is their importance in the understanding of scales and soloing.

If you learn to play major and minor scales in the shape of their respective barre chord, you’ll learn how to solo in different positions on the guitar neck.

Start out by learning these barre chord shapes:

  • E Major Shape
  • C Major Shape
  • A Major Shape
  • E Minor Shape
  • A Minor Shape
  • E7 Shape
  • A7 Shape

Barre chords open you up to an entirely new way of playing, and are an essential first step to understanding soloing.

Learn Some Basic Music Theory

If you’re going to foray into the more complex areas of guitar, a simple understanding of music theory is an invaluable asset. While some phenomenal guitarists never learned theory (B.B. King comes to mind), these are the exceptions, not the norm.

Understanding how the musical notes interrelate allows you to understand why music works the way it does. You’ll pick up on patterns more easily; you’ll see chord progressions and recognize them from other songs.

You’ll be able to figure out different ways to play songs as well. If a song calls for an E Major, you’ll know that an A Major Barre shifted down to the 7th fret is synonymous with the more traditional E.

Understanding music theory allows you to connect the dots from one concept to the other. In the long run, it’s well worth it to learn the basic theory behind scales and chords, if nothing else.

Start Learning Scales

Just as chords are the building blocks for rhythm guitar, scales are the foundation for lead. If you ever want to effortlessly rip through an epic guitar solo, you’ll need to start learning some scales.

Start with the minor pentatonic scale, followed by the major pentatonic. These both follow easy-to-learn patterns, and you’ll begin to see how they’re related (they’re the same scale but from different starting points).

After you’ve mastered these, move on to full-blown major and minor scales at different locations on the fret board.

Scales are also the best starting point for building picking skills. Whether you want to follow in the footsteps of Mark Knopfler with a fingers-only approach, or you want to use a flatpick like most rock legends, you’ll begin to get a feel for picking.

When you’re practicing, don’t worry about ripping through scales at lightning speed right out the gate. It’s a lot more important to play all of the notes correctly and cleanly; speed will come naturally with time.

Learn New Techniques

With guitar, there are an endless number of techniques to learn. Even with an acoustic guitar, the variety of unique sounds you can produce is pretty expansive. And when you amp up, it only gets better.

Here are just a few of the techniques you can add to your arsenal:

All of these will add flavor to your playing. You can employ them when freestyling or use them to add your own spin to already-familiar songs.

As you learn new songs, especially on lead guitar, you’ll pick these skills up as you go.

Learn Alternate Tunings

While standard tuning will probably encompass the bulk of your guitar work, learning open tuning and slide guitar is a ton of fun.

If you find yourself getting bored with guitar, try learning how to play in alt tunings. We recommend starting with Open G, as this is the most common one.

Alt tunings are especially common in Blues and Rock and Roll, so if you’re trying to master these genres you’ll come across your fair share of alt-tuned songs. If you’ve already learned how to play in a few alt tunings, they’ll be that much easier to learn.

Learn Lead Guitar

A. Vente, CC BY-SA 3.0 NL https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/nl/deed.en, via Wikimedia Commons

Learning lead guitar is frequently thought of as the “final” step to guitar mastery. The common consensus among novices is that if you can play lead, you’ve finally made it.

The truth is, there are a million levels to lead guitar; some guitar solos are twenty times easier than others, so being able to play one song’s lead doesn’t mean you can play it for all, or even most, songs.

With that being said, learning lead is an essential step, and if you can play somewhat complex solos for a few songs it’s probably safe to say you’ve made it to the “intermediate” level.

Pick a couple of songs that you’re very familiar with and learn your favorite riffs. As with anything, start simple and work your way up to the more complex licks.

The best way to learn lead is by reading a song’s tablature. Our guitar tabs are free, and we have over 100,000 songs.

Learn to Improvise/Play By Ear

One of the best feelings in the world is when you can hear a tune in your head and perfectly replicate it on an instrument.

For most people, it takes intentional work to develop this skill. To improvise, you’ll need to have a very good feel for the fretboard, and for how each string and fret relates to the others.

Knowing some scales will make this a lot easier, but a lot of musical intervals aren’t encompassed in traditional scales. Make a concerted effort to struggle through songs, making sure to correct yourself when you hit a sour note.

This is usually a slow process, but well worth it when you reach the point where you can play songs by ear.

Keep At It

Lastly, keep working at it. As we said before, learning guitar isn’t an overnight process. It takes a massive amount of dedication to reach your full potential, and it’s an ongoing process.

Ideally, you’ll never reach your peak; you’ll continue to steadily improve. If you’re new to the instrument, don’t get bogged down when you have a hard time picking the right string in a scale or hitting the right chord in transition.

Learning guitar is at times a frustrating process, but once you get over the metaphorical hump it gets a lot better.

Garrison Bates
Garrison Bates loves music. He started playing and learning piano at age four and guitar at eleven. He began studying music theory when he was young and especially enjoys rock 'n' roll, old country, and folk music.
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