I have been learning to play the acoustic guitar over the last 6 months and have read and consumed a lot of material around getting the best start and best set up in order to be successful.
Below I share essential acoustic guitar tips for the beginner.
1. Get Your Guitar Setup By A Professional
When you start out learning and playing an acoustic guitar it is likely that you haven’t invested a lot of money into your first acoustic guitar purchase. This is a sensible option in many ways as it is kind on your bank account and also you won’t know if this will be the instrument for you.
However, when you purchase a cheaper end guitar there are some issues that are more likely to come with it that will make it more difficult to play.
Often a cheaper guitar will have a higher ‘action’. The action on a guitar is the distance between the strings and the fretboard. When the action on the guitar is ‘high’ then the strings will be far away from the fretboard. This will mean that it takes more effort to press them down when forming chords and playing notes. When you are practicing a lot this makes a huge amount of difference.
This coupled with the pain from the strings when first learning makes many an acoustic guitar player quit before they have even had a chance to know what a joy playing guitar can be.
To avoid this happening to you, get your guitar setup. Go to your local guitar or music shop and ask for a ‘guitar setup’, this should cost between $50 to $80 and is the best thing you could ever do for a cheap guitar.
If it is your first time getting a guitar setup don’t be afraid to tell them this. In fact, it is important that you do so that they can make the guitar ‘easier’ for you to play.
If you don’t tell them it is your first time then you will likely get questions about how you like it set up and at this stage, you won’t have enough experience to tell them.
The whole process should be quick and if you prearrange it they may be even able to show and talk you through what they do while you watch. This will be hugely beneficial so that you can make changes in the future if and when you need to.
If you don’t get this opportunity and want to learn to do it yourself then read our article here from Gene Imbody an experienced Luthier / Guitar Tech, How To Do Your Own Guitar Setup where we breakdown exactly what you need and how to do it, illustrated with photos and helpful guidance to step you through the process.
2. Use Light Gauge Strings
Guitar strings come in different thicknesses or ‘gauges’ and the reason they do is that they all provide a different purpose and a different sound.
If you have recently bought an acoustic guitar or are thinking about buying one then it is important that you choose a forgiving gauge of guitar string for your fingers and your frustration levels!
Thick gauges of a guitar string are harder on the fingers and within the first few weeks of learning this can make a huge impact on learning. Many potential guitar players quit at this point because they find it too uncomfortable so it is important to choose a string gauge that will give you the best chance of succeeding.
Often, a brand new acoustic guitar is set up with a particular gauge of strings. Now the important thing to realize is that when you change the gauge of strings this may require some adjustments to the ‘setup’ of the guitar. So it is a good idea to change the gauge of strings when you get the guitar professionally set up as mentioned in point one above.
A good gauge of strings for a beginner playing acoustic guitar is ‘custom lights’, these are what I have been using and I find them kinder on the fingers too. Most new acoustic guitars come with ‘Regular Lights’ which are one gauge up from ‘custom lights’.
We have an entire article on the best acoustic guitar strings for sore fingers and provide recommendations on the best strings for the type of music you want to play here What Are The Best Acoustic Guitar Strings For Sore Fingers?
3. Press The Strings Down Lightly
When you first start learning to play acoustic guitar you will find that the strings really dig into your fingers on your fretting hand and it can be painful and uncomfortable and for many, off-putting.
The main reason that this happens is due to the steel strings on a soft fleshy part of your finger and this is partly unavoidable. However, there are few things you can do to make the whole thing a little easier for you.
Place each finger for the chord or note you trying to form just behind the fret. Now strum the chord or pluck the note and make the sound ring true. Now slowly release the pressure of the fingers on the string while still strumming or plucking.
You will notice that the string still rings true with a lot less pressure than you think you need. There will come a point where the strings will sound ‘dead’ and no sound will ring out. Add a little more pressure back down so that the sound does ring out and ‘hey presto’ this is the level of pressure you require.
This technique will help avoid the ‘death grip’ that many of us suffer from when first learning. There are many more tips for dealing with the finger pain that comes when first learning guitar and I cover them here 21 Guitar Finger Pain Tips (Blisters, Calluses, Sore Fingers) if you want to know more.
4. Use a Light Gauge Guitar Pick
When you are first learning Acoustic guitar it is a good idea to learn to play rhythm even if you have the intention of becoming a lead guitarist on an electric. Rhythm guitar will help improve your timing and when you play rhythm then you should learn to use a pick.
Guitar Pick’s come in many different thicknesses and are cheap and you can even make your own but when you first start out it is a good idea to use a light gauge pick.
The two that I would recommend are:
.38mm Dunlop Guitar Picks – This is the lightest gauge that I have used it and is very thin and forgiving and best for strumming. I say forgiving as when you start to play you often hold a pick too hard or too light and it takes time to get this right. Often when I was playing I was holding it too tight and would catch strings heavily, the high e string in particular and after a while I always noticed it when playing a song, it was really annoying.
.46mm Dunlop Guitar Picks – These are the best guitar picks I found when needing to pick out individual strings along with strumming on acoustic guitar. Having slightly more rigidity helps when playing individual notes.
So I tried both of these light gauge picks and it helped a lot but it isn’t the only thing that you need to know when using a pick.
For example, when I first started playing, and to some degree now too, the guitar pick would rotate or slip in my hands. Whether I was catching the strings too hard or I was a little overzealous in my strumming, the fact was that the guitar pick would move and on occasion even drop.
So I learned about how to hold a guitar pick in the correct way and this stopped a lot of the issues I was having. If you have a similar issue and want to learn how to hold a guitar pick in a way that prevents it from moving then read my article here How To Stop Your Guitar Pick Moving, Slipping or Being Dropped.
5. Tune Your Guitar Every Time You Play
By tuning your guitar every time you play you not only do you get a guitar that sounds correct but you also get to hear what the strings should sound like and create a good habit.
There are other reasons why and you can actually prevent the guitar from falling out of tune of so often which we get in to in my article here How Often Do You Need To Tune A Guitar?.
When you do tune the guitar, however, engage in it. What I mean by this is to focus on the sound that you are hearing for each string and say the name of the string to yourself when it is in tune. This helps to reinforce your ‘ear’ and learn what each note / each open string should sound like. It will help build your ‘intonation’ or ‘pitch accuracy’ and will help you further down the line in your guitar journey.
I use an app called Guitar Tuna (iOS & Android) which is fine when playing on your own and is simple to use. It is part of my routine, once I sit down to play it is the first thing I do and it only takes a minute.
6. Create Your Own Practice Space
Having a dedicated space to learning to play acoustic guitar is a huge game-changer when first starting. It will help you build the habit, encourage you to sit down and play and also keep you focused when you do.
Even if it is just a corner of a room it can be very beneficial. Often the biggest hurdles preventing us from progressing quickly is regular and consistent practice. When you have a dedicated space and your guitar is ready to play along with anything else you need like picks and a capo (click here to find out the best capo under $20 for an acoustic guitar) then you will feel more encouraged to pick it up and this half the battle.
Also if you are playing in a room with other people it can be very distracting, I know this first hand because I have two young children. Just being asked to do something for 5 minutes while practicing can be very distracting and you can lose your train of thought.
So find your own space and claim it! Well, as much as you can.
7. Know What To Practice Before You Sit Down
If you are anything like me then your time is limited and when you are thinking about sitting down to practice it can be a bit unmotivating if you don’t know what to practice.
This for me is where a structured course of learning is best when learning to play acoustic guitar. With a structured course you can pick up where you left off and trust that the course is teaching you the fundamentals that you need.
It takes the thought of ‘what should I practice now?’ away and you aren’t moving from one YouTube video to another without really getting anywhere and it helps you learn efficiently by making the most of your limited time.
The course I would recommend, that you can go to by clicking the following link, is the Justin Guitar Beginner Course. It is 100% free and is an excellent resource and is what I have been using for the first 5 months of learning. You can see my progress in this video below.
8. Practice Little and Often
When first starting out learning to play acoustic guitar, the most important aspect of learning is actually a mental one. You need to build a habit.
You need to make playing guitar ‘what you do’, ‘your hobby’, ‘your passion’ and this only comes through consistent practice. The compounding effect of practice, the layers upon layers of learning that you consistently put down make the guitar easier to play. Once the guitar is ‘easier’ to play then you will begin to enjoy the instrument so much more.
It is much more effective to practice a little every day than once or twice a week for larger chunks of time. The repetition of playing every day helps to build muscle and brain memory and improves your playing quicker.
9. Learn The Songs You Enjoy
What is the point of learning to play guitar if you are not learning to play the songs you love? These songs are the ones that will make learning to play guitar fun and motivate you to keep learning.
The only issue with this can be that if you want to learn songs that are way beyond your level then it is likely to prove to be a frustrating experience. What you really want to achieve in the early stages of learning to play acoustic guitar are some ‘easy wins’ and you can get this by learning some simple but really great songs.
As previously mentioned, I have been learning through the Justin Guitar Beginner Course and he has a separate area dedicated to songs. Each song is categorized by stage of learning and also style so you can choose to learn a song appropriate to your level of skill. It is a really useful tool and I would urge you to check it out. Not all songs will be to you liking and that is fine but it is a great way to begin to learn some songs and keep motivated.
10. Start Slow Then Speed Up
When you first start playing an acoustic guitar your timing may be the last of worries and it will be more important to you to just make some noise that sounds remotely musical. This is the way I felt and still do a lot of the time but there is one regret I have that I wished I had started to learn earlier.
That is to use a metronome or a drum loop when learning to speed up your playing of a song. Every song has a bpm (beats per minute) and often you can get these with a quick search on google. For instance, I am learning Blackbird by The Beatles currently (I have been for almost 3 weeks, it’s a big challenge for me!) and when I search it comes back with mixed results around 92-95bpm.
Now using a metronome (or drum loop) you can set it to this speed and then try to play along with it. When you first start it will be a struggle, so just adjust the metronome to a slower bpm and then try to play with that until you can get to a level where you match the metronome. Once you have this you can practice alongside it and try and increase the bpm as you go until you get to the desired bpm for the song.
It is a great way to practice rhythm but also track your progress as you will know that you are improving and getting closer to the desired speed for the song.
11. Work On Your Mistakes
Often when learning a song we get to a point where we are able to play some of it but then struggle with a part and then start the whole thing again and repeat this.
You need to focus on your mistakes or the areas that you are weak on.
Make the area /portion/bar of music that you struggle with the area that you practice. Go note by note and work slowly through it making sure that you get it exactly right. Don’t try to do it quickly, try to do it accurately, speed will come later.
Last night I was starting to learn Guaranteed by Eddie Vedder, it is a fingerpicking song with Travis picking and mini barre chords. Now I have learned to play full barre chords a while ago on the Justin Guitar Beginner Course but the mini barre I really struggle with. I could not make all the notes ring true, it was frustrating but I just stuck with it because I know from experience that I will get it eventually.
So I literally spent 30 to 40mins experimenting with my finger position to get the chord sounding reasonable, it was slow progress but it is what I needed to do. By the end of my practice session, I was able to play three chords of the song (not perfectly) with also a good understanding of the fingerpicking pattern. I had made progress and more importantly, I had learned this small area of the song correctly.
As Justin Guitar says ‘Practice makes permanent’ so make sure you work on your weaknesses and take the time to learn things correctly. Otherwise, you could end up playing the same portion of music over and over again without making any real progress or playing a song incorrectly.
12. Record Yourself
This is huge! I can’t stress enough how much recording your acoustic guitar playing can benefit you.
To name a few:
- You get to see your mistakes.
- You can study your finger position between notes and chords.
- You can see your rhythm and speed and how it compares to the song.
- You get to see your progress over time and this is a huge motivator
- You can share it with others who are likeminded, for example, the Justin Guitar Community Page here and get feedback.
- You can look back in years to come and feel proud of how far you have come.
I personally find it very useful and rewarding and would recommend it all beginners. I have recorded my entire progress on YouTube also, so if you haven’t checked it out then you can see My Guitar Journey Here.
If you have any more suggestions, I would love to hear them in the comments below.