From The Beginning......

Learning to play the electric guitar is not a task you ever really complete. Like Ali G asked his unsuspecting interview subject, ‘What is the biggest number there is?’ – the answer is simply that you can always add one, there always being something new to add to your repertoire, another chord voicing, a technique, whatever it is – it never ends. You think Clapton just sat down and played like Robert Johnson?

Picking up a guitar for the first time is not actually daunting in itself. It is only when you realise what is ahead of you that it becomes overwhelming and in my experience, the more you learn, the more you need to learn, everything has multiple facets and aspects you never considered or even knew existed until introduced to them.

There will always be a great differing of opinion as to where or how to start learning to play. I would like to say it is easier to learn today as we have all kinds of modern aids such as DVD’s, CD’s/digital – instant playback and looping, plus the internet, monthly publications and countless books, but in many ways it is a lot more difficult. Back in the sixties when I first picked up a guitar, there were no distractions, I remember watching the very first episode of Dr Who (William Hartnell as the Doctor), but the distractions for young people today are numerous. Everyone has a television, often one in every bedroom, cable and sky channels, computer consoles and games, movies on DVD/Video, chatting on MSN, general net surfing, downloading – you name it.
I have five daughters, each is very different in their level of concentration and focus. One started learning the harmonica and gave up after a month, another the clarinet, she dropped out after a year. My eldest however is an accomplished guitarist and never misses a single day’s practice despite driving lessons, dance classes and an active social life. The other two have no interest in music whatsoever, one is an archer and the other has no interest in anything at all.
Going back 40 years, television was nothing like it is today and my evenings consisted of an old valve radio and a guitar.

I guess I was very lucky because my father was a guitarist and I have old standard 8 movie footage of me in the garden with his guitars. Thinking about it though, I have no idea what happened to them. My dad is now in his mid-eighties and hasn’t touched a guitar for probably a quarter of a century – according to a hospital specialist who saw my dad, arthritis is actually the main reason why many guitarists stop playing and in his case, that is true. He started having difficulty in his fifties and his fingers are probably twice the size they were in his playing days, swollen through water retention and heart medication.

The guitar you start learning on can have a tremendous influence on how you progress or even if you give it up after a week. I would estimate that a very high proportion of the people who take up the guitar with the intention of becoming proficient give up within the first few months. This can obviously be for many reasons, but a guitar (doesn’t have to be a cheap one), that is not properly set up or is simply at odds with the player, can stop any real interest in its tracks.
I recently saw a young guy in a guitar shop with his dad buying his first guitar – he walked, well, staggered out the shop with an Epiphone Explorer which although presents no real problem to the experienced guitarist, is not exactly the easiest lump of wood to get to grips with. He was a small person and you could tell he had trouble even carrying it let alone sitting down and learning anything. He bought it on looks alone and it was totally impractical – be sensible with your choice of purchase, don’t be swayed into buying someone unrealistic.
Things have changed a great deal in the past couple of years and the actual build quality of the budget end of the market has improved tremendously. I have a close friend who manages a large music shop and I can get everything trade price and what I am about to type is quite startling;
I have been collecting guitars for about 28 years and have a considerable number so I speak with some experience. I have Gibsons, Fernandes, Schecters, a couple or PRS’s, a Jackson, a Parker, a whole rack of Fenders and all kinds of bits and pieces, such as electric sitar, Speedster Traveler etc. Two years ago I bought a Squier 25th Anniversary Telecaster, it wasn’t even the Standard model, just an Affinity which is the cheapest option in the range but I swapped out the pickups for the Vintage Noiseless equivalent. In the event of a housefire and I could only rescue only one guitar – that would be the one I would jump the flames to get. Why?
For me personally, that guitar is perfection, it is the ideal weight, the action (the distance of the strings from the fretboard) has no equal – it has perfect tone, it virtually plays itself. I have all this other stuff sitting around, but it is the first I pick up and usually the last I put down. High St price would be around £130, plus another £90 (completely optional of course) or so to swap the pickups. There will be those who have had absolutely awful experiences with Squiers, but I genuinely would not part with it for any amount of money. Quite bizarre I know.
One thing I did have trouble with at first was playing it live in front of an audience. There’s a certain amount of kudos attached to using a ‘good’ guitar and playing a Squier will be seen by some as highly questionable. I am routinely asked by those I meet at the gigs I use it, when I am going to buy a ‘better’ guitar?
My advice is forget all this badged nonsense, just because the headstock doesn’t say ‘Fender’ or ‘Gibson’ – if what you have works for you, then why change? Be wise in your selection and be very sure to buy a guitar that is comfortable and doesn’t just look good. I had always hankered after a Gibson Firebird and was woefully disappointed when I eventually got to play one, it was like trying to get a tune out of a coffee table.
Many beginners give up because they have an instrument that proves to be vicious to play (there really are guitars that are easier to play than others). I wouldn’t buy a guitar via the internet, but that is just my opinion – go to a reputable supplier with a large range of stock, taking someone with you who knows something about guitars. Even though you have no real experience, sit quietly and handle as many models as the salesperson will allow. You will be able to tell instantly the ones that ‘feel’ better than others. Make sure that you buy an instrument that is well set up and not one with fret buzz (when you play, the strings don’t rattle on the fretboard), as this will make the whole process even more confusing as you will not be able to tell if you or the guitar is a fault. If in any doubt, put it back on its stand and walk away – there are countless instruments to choose from and many bargains to be had.
There are those guitarists that actually claim to be better players because they had awkward instruments to learn on. That may be true, but I can’t personally see the benefit of making it even more difficult – grasping the basics can be tedious enough.

Before you actually pick up a guitar, it is wise to formulate a plan with which to work – much time can be wasted by simply having no real direction or study program.
One of the first decisions you have to make is if you are going to learn to read notation (proper music – the squiggly note things), alongside actually physically playing. A great many guitarists play to an extremely high level of competence without being able to read a note of ‘proper’ music, instead they rely on tablature (tabs), which is a pictorial representation of where to put your fingers. This removes the need to know anything about music/notation as such, but has the downside of showing how to play a song in a mechanical next fret, next fret, next fret fashion. Learning notation/music alongside actually playing will complicate matters, but in the long run will have many additional benefits and I wish I had learnt music right at the start.

Most budding guitarists simply want to plug the thing in and make some noise, so-

A good basic starting point is to learn the main open-position ‘campfire’ chords before anything else, all the majors and minors, A - G. Learn to play these so they are second nature, become competent at switching between them quickly, accurately and without looking at your fingers. Aim to be able to play with your eyes shut or in a room with the lights off. I can remember the first time I played live and the house lights were turned right down low. The set opened with me playing an opening arpeggio that gradually built and the lights came up as did the cadence of my paying – I wish we had rehearsed it that way – dimmed lights and all, I struggled.
Concentrate on the chords you find most difficult (beginners often tussle a bit on F chords as they are up near the nut and the shape tends to be rather awkward at first). Once these are second nature, then work on all the 7ths and 5ths (also known as power chords – the staple of much rock music).

Move next on to barre chords, again major and minor, both sixth and fifth string root. Committing the shapes to memory is the easy part (there are only two basic shapes for the sixth and another couple for the fifth), the hard part is getting your fingers to correctly fret each note. Once you’ve cracked barre chords, there are also any number of other chord types that you can throw into the mix, but this is getting a bit ahead of ourselves.

Whilst you are learning chords, also spend some time focusing on fretboard orientation, in other words learning where every note is on the fretboard. So at any given moment you instantly know what note you are playing. This may seem an extremely daunting task, but is really quite necessary. There are many fretboard diagrams on the internet, copy one to an A3 document, print it out, get it laminated and keep it next to where you practice.

Learn the minor pentatonic scale in every key – there being five shapes for each key that essentially link together. Although these shapes remain constant and getting to learn them is not particularly difficult, if you learn just one key then try to move the shapes around, it can be confusing - change the key every day so each is second nature. I know guitarists who learnt only A minor pentatonic and find it impossible to play in other keys simply because they cannot visualise those shapes in other positions – remember, regular key changes.

There are also countless exercises you can do to get your hands working in unison. Very important to remember though, when playing individual notes get into the habit straight away of alternate picking (down/up/down/up) and not all down/down. This will greatly improve your speed and dexterity.

The other thing you can do is to learn some simple songs which involve just a few chord shapes and this will get you into playing along to music and thus working on your timing. Of course, these can be your favourite songs, but choose songs that are not too complicated, a common one is ‘House Of The Rising Sun’ by The Animals, the list is endless.
Barre chords are always difficult at first, so as an example, try using ‘Creep’ by Radiohead which is basically four barre chords (again tabs available via the net).

Being a guitarist is a bit like being a bodybuilder, people expect you to show them a muscle and when a relative comes around, once they know you are learning the guitar, they will equally expect you to play something. Be aware though that most tabs are simply someone’s interpretation of a song and in many cases, although it may sound okay, the tabs shown may not be accurate, i.e. true to the original.

Some final points
You have a several options as to how to play, either using a pick, your fingers, or a combination of both. I strongly advise you explore all options as this will open up all kinds of possibilities. Developing a proficiency in as many playing styles as you can will help you be a much more rounded player. I started with my fingers and only used a pick for the first time after some ten years and I found it very difficult.

If you are planning to eventually join a band, spend more time practising standing up than sitting down. It is very common for an accomplished guitarist who has learnt to play sitting on the side of their bed, to flounder around like a raw beginner when suddenly presented with the need to stand up and play. Obviously you will need a guitar strap, buy the best you can afford and be sure to buy the type that simply doesn’t unhook itself. There are different types, I use Planet Waves, it’s your choice who you go with.

Buy a good quality heavy duty music stand – I can absolutely guarantee that you will be trying to read from books and bits of paper balanced against all kinds of makeshift props. Purchase a $15/£10 music stand and get rid of that problem straight away.

Purchase a good guitar stand as otherwise you will be forced to prop up your instrument in corners and against chairs or whatever = recipe for disaster.

If you bite your nails – STOP now. There is nothing worse trying to play with pus oozing out of a sore infected finger.

Look after your hearing, practice at sensible levels. Not everyone has access to facilities that allow them to jack up the volume, but if you do, be prudent. In the early days of being in bands we had access to a basement and I left not being able to hear for days afterwards.

Buy a good amplifier of a minimum of 30watts, you never know when you might need the extra power.

And finally the subject of effects processors;
This has been the cause of great consternation in other threads for I happen to like effects. My advice is once you find the sound that your existing equipment produces has got a bit stale, then try some effects. There are single pedals that essentially produce one effect and variations of it and multi-units that produce lots of different ones. I mostly use effects so I don’t have to keep swapping instruments (if I want an acoustic sound then I press down on a pedal and my electric guitar then sounds very much like an acoustic guitar). I quite like effects for writing material, I’ll choose an effect that I never use live, then choose just four notes and not stop playing until I have a useable riff derived from the use of that effect. They open a whole new world and it is one I explore daily.

There are no shortcuts to being a good guitarist, it takes years of dedicated practice and learning. Back to the bodybuilding analogy – even those taking steroids have to train exactly the same as those training naturally, there are no shortcuts, you have to follow a dedicated regular programme to get any results.

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