The Easiest Way to Start Playing Guitar Right Now—And Enjoy It!

After years of teaching guitar, I’ve noticed many recurring issues that crop up with beginners trying to figure out how to start playing. If you haven’t played guitar before, it can be daunting and confusing to know what is the “right” way to begin.

I’ve seen many people buy all the latest equipment and goodies, purchase method books and music, and yet still not go anywhere with the guitar. By the same token, there are many musicians who only had a beat up, cheap instrument, and little access to instruction, but managed to develop a sound, style, and presence that knocks the roof off the venues they grace with their guitar playing. Why?

It’s tempting to say it’s due to natural ability or talent. That’s the easiest, lowest-effort rationalization for why things are that way. But in my experience seeing hundreds of people start at the same place and improve, it is NOT the real reason. It’s a much simpler one: Those who practice consistently, improve consistently. I’ll say that again: Those who practice consistently, improve consistently.

Yet as I know from teaching hundreds of people to play guitar, not practicing is the most common obstacle people encounter on their roads to becoming better guitarists and musicians.

I believe that it’s important to set up good “practice hygiene” right from the start, and I’ve been developing several simple techniques over the years to make people more likely to follow through on practicing.

For beginners, I have a piece of advice so simple that it might seem trivial or nonsensical to you at first, but I encourage you to keep an open mind and just try it out: Commit to holding the guitar for 5 minutes each day. Schedule the exact time and place you will do it each day, and commit to doing this for 30 days. Do not do anything else during this time (no outside distractions). If you start to interact with the guitar, let yourself go ahead, but you are not obligated to do so.

That’s it.

Sounds too simple, doesn’t it? But that’s why it works so well.

One reason people don’t practice is garden variety procrastination, caused by overthinking, anxiety caused by too many choices, not enough urgency, and lack of specificity of what do or what the reward will be. Keeping things short and simple ensures that you know exactly what to do, AND the simple, short task tends to feel so easy to do that it doesn’t spook your unconscious, as opposed to trying to make a huge change right away.

The second reason why this technique works well is because in order to get good at anything, you have to enjoy the process of doing it. I’m a big fan of the philosophy that there is no such thing as “practice”, only “doing” an activity. Thinking of “practicing” conjures up associations of “work”, struggle, drudgery, and things one has to endure, rather than enjoy. But remember, we don’t “work guitar”, we “play guitar”!

I’ve used the word “practice” commonly, including in this post, to avoid confusion. But when I sit down with my guitar, I do not think of it as “practice”; I think of it as “I’m going to have quality guitar time now, and it will make me a better guitar player.”

What does this have to do with holding the guitar for 5 minutes a day? Simply holding the guitar takes the pressure off having to do the “correct thing”, and lets you actually be present with the instrument and get comfortable holding and touching it. This isn’t emphasized in most guitar instruction books, courses, and so on, but think of this like the home field advantage. If you practice a sport on the same field for days, weeks, and months, then just playing on that field feels comfortable, familiar, and a place where you’re free to relax and concentrate more. The same is true for just sitting and holding a musical instrument—especially when you’re just starting out and everything about the guitar feels foreign to you.

Third, sitting with a guitar for 5 minutes without distractions often leads to a curious result: You start playing with the guitar. This is a way to leverage our limited attention spans, and desire for novelty and contrast. Sitting with the guitar, with nothing else going on around you, you often start to think, “I might as well pluck a string while I’l sitting here.” Other times you won’t consciously think anything, you’ll just suddenly notice that your hands have found their way onto the instrument and are exploring away.

Sometimes we tend to get caught up in doing the “best” thing, and paralyze ourselves from doing anything at all. I’ve found this to be particularly true with left-brain-dominant people, and musicians who are adept at musical instruments very foreign to the guitar.

I recently spoke to a saxophonist who said he “just couldn’t get” guitar. After talking to him for a while, I found that the main reason why he was struggling with the guitar so much was that he was so adept at the saxophone. In his mind, music worked in a certain way, which he visualized in his head somewhat linearly, as in the keys on a saxophone. This schema is not very useful for visualizing music on the guitar, but he didn’t know that, since he hadn’t yet had much experienced with the guitar.

He also felt that he needed to conceptually understand the guitar first, but since he had no experience with the guitar, he didn’t know how to create a structure or schema for conceptually understanding it. He was stuck in a catch-22.

I suggested the same solution to him (sitting with the guitar for 5 minutes a day, with the option of noodling around), because it would allow him to do something different: To learn unconsciously first. This may seem counter-intuitive, but largely unconscious “playing” learning is exactly how we all learned to speak, walk, write, and do most things we now do with mastery every day. Sometimes it’s best to have the experience first, and then to go about understanding it a deeper level.

Finally, sitting with the guitar for 5 minutes, for 30 days starts and solidifies a habit. When playing guitar becomes a habit for you, then getting good at it immediately switches from an “if” to a “when”. After 30 days, you’ll find yourself wanting to go sit with your guitar without having to consciously remind yourself to, and that is a fantastic place to be.

An added bonus is that you also ingrain the emotional habit of approaching the activity of playing the guitar as play, rather than something that needs to be difficult or like “work’. When you can have fun with it, you’re using your own neurological reward system to train yourself to love playing, which makes playing more and getting better and better easier and easier.

From my own experience I can tell you that it’s often much more effective to start by creating a simple habit or ritual, and to later add complexity, volume, or variety of content to create your ideal practice session. Start with the simple, small habit first.

So commit to becoming a guitarist who loves to play right now. Write down a specific time when you can sit and hold your guitar, free from outside distractions, for 5 minutes, every day for 30 consecutive days. Write a commitment statement saying what you intent to do, and sign it. Then take action—it’ll only take 5 minutes.

Even if you just sit for 5 minutes without making a sound, you’ll be able to stop and feel good knowing that you really have taken a powerful step towards becoming a better guitarist and loving it.

Don’t be surprised, though, if while you’re sitting there, you find yourself strumming and plucking away. And don’t be surprised if 5 minutes turns into 10… or 15… or 20…

Free Guitar Lessons San Francisco — Monday Exercise #5

This is the fifth and final installment in our series on rapidly improving our dexterity, strength, stamina, power, and musicality of our fingers to improve our guitar playing.

So far we’ve gone over four easy, fast, and powerful exercises, and if you’ve been playing along each week and spending a few minutes practicing them each day, you’ve probably noticed some dramatic improvements in your guitar playing already.

What now? Are we going to go through every combination of those four fingers? Nope. It’s not necessary. See the video below:

This week I’m going to ask you to spend the next few minutes trying different combinations and see which ones are the most difficult. Chances are some will be easy for you at this point. That’s great! But we’re interested in the tough ones. We’re going to smooth out those wrinkles and so you can turn yourself into a fantastic and mellifluous guitar player.

Go through different combinations of fingers until you find one that is particularly difficult. Write it down, and practice that one this week.

Don’t think this is a “week off”. On the contrary, this week is more important than any of the others we’ve done so far. Why? Because this exercise involved diagnosing what you need to work on yourself, and setting about working it out for yourself. If you can do that, you can do anything with the guitar, and you’re guaranteed to become an awesome guitar player.

Just in case you’re curious, here are all the combinations of fingers you can do. There are only 24 and you’ve already done 4 of them. You can also repeat some fingers if you like for an even better finger workout.

  1. 1234
  2. 1243
  3. 1324
  4. 1342
  5. 1423
  6. 1432
  7. 2134
  8. 2143
  9. 2314
  10. 2341
  11. 2413
  12. 2431
  13. 3124
  14. 3142
  15. 3214
  16. 3241
  17. 3412
  18. 3421
  19. 4123
  20. 4132
  21. 4213
  22. 4231
  23. 4312
  24. 4321

Free Guitar Lessons San Francisco — Monday Exercise #4

The fourth “linear exercise” in our continuing series on rapidly improving our dexterity, strength, stamina, power, and musicality of our fingers to improve our guitar playing…

Download the tablature for this exercise here: Guitar Finger Exercise #4 Tab

This week’s pattern will be 4-2-3-1. As with the past three exercises, we’ll start on the 6th string, then go up to the 5th string, then up to the 4th string, etc., until we end on the 1st string. Then we’ll go in reverse, starting on the 1st string and playing the pattern backwards (1-3-2-4) on each string in the opposite direction.

I highly recommend using a metronome if you haven’t started yet. Once you can play the exercise for this week completely (playing all four notes in order), set the metronome on the lowest it will go, and play along. If it seems like the metronome is out to get you, remember that it only has one job: keep accurate time. Be patient and keep going, and you’ll be rewarded with some monstrous talent and beautiful sense of rhythm and musicality.

Free Guitar Lessons San Francisco — Tuesday Guitar Tip #3: Playing With a Pick

Today’s guitar tip is all about using a flat pick. If you’re new to guitar or if you’ve only ever used your fingers, a pick can be a fun alternative that will give you severe new options and sounds.

Starting out with a pick can feel a bit awkward, but if you stick with it, in no time you’ll be able to get some amazing sounds.

Check out the video below for info on how to hold and use the pick easily:

Free Guitar Lessons San Francisco — Monday Exercise #3

And now part three in our continuing series on rapidly improving our dexterity, strength, stamina, power, and musicality of our fingers to improve our guitar playing…

Download the tablature for this exercise here: Guitar Finger Exercise #3 Tab

By now, you’re probably getting the gist of these exercises. Intellectually they’re not too hard to understand, which is fine because they aren’t intellectual exercises. These are all about creating new neural circuits in the brain to better control our finger movements.

The first exercise was 1-2-3-4 up and then in reverse. Week two was 2-1-4-3. This week will be 3-2-4-1. Simply follow along in the same vein. If you’re just jumping in now, you might want to simply follow the video and the guitar tabs linked above.

Every time you practice one of these exercises, your playing will get better and better, until you can rocket through these motions without thinking about them. (That’s a good place to be!)

Free Guitar Lessons San Francisco — Thursday Exercise #2: The Minor Pentatonic Scale, 2nd Position

(Continuing with where we started in the last Thursday Exercise, where we did the 1st position of the A minor pentatonic scale.)

Here are the tabs for the 2nd position of the Am pentatonic scale: Am Pentatonic Guitar Scale, 2nd Position Tab

So now you already know how to play the Am pentatonic scale in the first position. You’re golden, right? Well…

It’s true that just learning the 1st position will open up a world of new playing and jamming opportunities to you, but pretty soon you and your listeners might notice that your playing sounds repetitive. Learning more than one scale position will add all kinds of new dimensions to your playing—and it’s really not difficult to do at all. It just takes a little bit of focus and time.

Yet another great thing about pentatonic scales is that there are only 5 positions. You’ve already learned one last week, and after this week you’ll know 2 out of 5. Nearly half!

Once you have learned these 5 positions, you can connect them easily and play the A minor pentatonic scale up and down the entire neck! Not only that, you can shift any of the scale positions you’ve learned up or down to quickly play in different keys.

(But wait, there’s more….) The Am pentatonic scale is actually the SAME as the C major pentatonic scale. So when we get to the major pentatonic scales later, you’ll already know all the positions and notes… you’ll just apply them differently, and I’ll show you how to do it.

Actually, after learning these 5 simple positions, you’ll be able to play 5 different scales in any key, up and down the entire fretboard. In short, these 5 positions have a lot of bang for the buck.

Rather than learning them all at once, it’s much easier to learn one positions well, and then move on to the next one, and then then next, etc. This will help you really solidify your understanding and muscle memory of these scales, and will prevent the dreaded feelings of frustration from being overwhelming by too much new information too soon. (This is precisely why I’m doing one scale position per week, rather than all five at once.)

So all you have to do for now, is learn this one scale this week. Play it up and down a few times, and then see about playing the notes out of order. We’ll come back to this scale positions later and show you how to use it as another linchpin in your soloing, improvising, and lead playing.