Getting better at guitar when you’re at the beginner stage requires practice and dedication, but if you want to improve quickly, it’s important to be practicing the right things.
By using specific techniques and drills, you can fast-track the process of improving your skills. In this post, I’ll break down several methods that are sure to take your guitar playing to the next level.
Basic Guitar Theory
Although it’s the aspect of guitar playing that is most commonly overlooked by guitarists, learning basic music theory concerning the instrument will speed up your progress immensely.
I’m not suggesting that you need to start notating sheet music right away, but simply taking the time to memorize where each note is positioned in standard tuning on a guitar is a foundational practice that will be of great benefit to you.
One method that I found to be helpful when first learning the music theory of a guitar was to memorize the notes that are positioned on the frets that are labeled with dots. On most guitars, these frets are the 3rd, 5th, 7th, 9th, and 12th.
Let’s use the low-E string as an example. The open string plays an E, the 3rd fret is G, the 5th is A, the 7th is B, the 9th is C# and the 12th is an E again. If you’re a complete beginner, then simply strumming each note once and saying the letter out loud will help you to remember them initially.
You can then repeat this exercise on every string. On the A string, the open, 3rd, 5th, 7th, 9th, and 12th frets are the following notes: A, C, D, E, F#, and A. By completing this drill on every string, you will start to notice patterns which will make it easier to navigate the fretboard.
When you get to the high-E string, the notes are positioned the same as the low-E, which makes things easier. You can then try to memorize every A, for example, on the fretboard, once you become more familiar with the note positions.
I know this exercise may not sound like the most exciting thing you could be learning on your guitar, but trust me, it is highly important and will put you in a much stronger position as you move onto the physical, technical aspects of playing.
Once you’ve grasped the basic positions of the notes on the fretboard, it’s time to move on to the most important skill required for guitar playing – strumming. It’s a common misconception that most of a guitar player’s skill comes from the fretting hand.
In reality, without good strumming technique, it makes no difference what your fretting hand is doing.
Improving your strumming technique is easy, as long as you are willing to commit to practicing it regularly. Half an hour a day will be enough to see vast improvements within a week, but if you want quicker results, simply put more time in.
It’s best to start with the absolute basics. Set a metronome to around 90 bpm, or any other tempo that is comfortable for you. Then practice doing four downstrokes, followed by four upstrokes with your strumming hand.
Try to pay attention to the metronome, and stay on time when strumming. Once you’ve got the hang of doing four upstrokes followed by four down-strokes, you can halve the number of strokes to two.
At first, it may be difficult to stay exactly in time with the tempo of the click track. Don’t let this deter you – this exercise is not about playing perfectly in time. It’s about developing your rhythm, and the muscle memory of your strumming hand.
Once you’ve mastered two upstrokes followed by two downstrokes, it’s time to attempt alternate strumming. This is where you strum down on the strings, then instantly strum upwards, in a fluid motion.
When you practice this strumming exercise, you can gradually increase the tempo of the metronome as you improve. With each practice session, you will notice quick advancements as your rhythm and coordination becomes a force of habit.
The most frustrating part of learning guitar for a beginner is the struggle of trying to get your fingers into the correct positions to play chords. Most guitarists use their weaker hand for fretting, so it takes time for muscle memory to be achieved.
Thankfully, if you work at chord shapes for just a few hours, you’ll notice your finger strength and technique improving very quickly. I’d recommend starting with the most simple chord shapes, all of which are located at the low-end of the fretboard.
These chords consist of C major, D minor, D major, E minor, E major, F major, G major, A major, and A minor.
The reason that these chords are easiest to learn initially, is because they don’t require you to bar the strings. Barring is when you press down across all of the strings with your finger to create a chord.
When you’re first starting, barring is a very difficult skill to go straight into, because it requires a considerable amount of finger strength and stamina. Therefore, the chords I listed before are a much better option.
All you need to do to improve your fretting, is research the finger positions of each chord shape, replicate them with your fretting hand, and keep playing until you hear the sound of each string ringing out nicely and forming the chord.
At first, just concentrate on memorizing each of the aforementioned chord shapes and applying enough pressure with your fingertips to create the sound. It’s perfectly normal to muffle the chords at first, as your fingers are getting stronger and more capable.
If you invest just twenty minutes per day learning the positioning of a single chord and repeating it until you can play it perfectly, you’ll have a collection of chords at your disposal within a week or so.
Switching between Chords
Once you feel confident that you can play all of the chords I listed individually, then it’s time to start switching between them. Again, you can use a metronome set to a tempo that feels comfortable for this exercise.
This exercise consists of playing three chords in a progression, without missing a beat. The chord progressions are all made up of the previously listed ones, but we’re going to play them in their correct key signatures.
G Major Chord Progression: G major, C major, D major.
C Major Chord Progression: C major, F major, G major
D Major Chord Progression: D major, G major, A major
A Major Chord Progression: A major, D major, E major
These chord progressions all consist of three major chords in the 1, 4, and 5 positions within the key. Don’t worry if that doesn’t make sense right now, you’ll learn about chord positions as you go along.
The important thing about this chord switching exercise is ensuring that you retain your timing throughout. You can start by playing eight beats on each chord, and focusing on smooth transitions to the next one.
Then, when you become more confident in your transitions, you can shorten the length to four beats per chord, until eventually, you can play a single beat on a chord before quickly switching to the next. This will improve your finger strength, technique, and timing considerably if you stick at it.
If you’ve completed all of the prior exercises, you should now have developed your knowledge of note positions, strumming technique, finger strength, chord positions, and transitions.
These skills make up the foundation of playing the guitar. Once you feel like you’ve reached a good balance of them, you’re ready to move onto scales. Although scales can seem daunting and complex at first, they’re simple once you understand how they work.
A scale is a series of notes that are included in a certain key signature. To simplify, they are the notes that sound “correct” if they are played over certain chord progressions. There is a multitude of scales, but for now, we’ll stick to the most simple: the pentatonic scales.
Pentatonic scales come in two varieties: major and minor. I’ll explain this exercise using the key of A minor pentatonic, but you can use any key that you wish, once you understand the pattern.
For the key of A minor, start by placing your forefinger on the fifth fret of the low-E string. This note is the “root note”, which in the key of A minor is A. Place your four other fingers over the following frets, with no gaps in between.
This is the simplest way to play the A minor scale:
- Low E String: 5th fret, 8th fret
- A String: 5th fret, 7th fret
- D String: 5th fret, 7th fret
- B String: 5th fret, 8th fret
- High E String: 5th fret, 8th fret
If you slowly go through the scale, you’ll notice that the position of your fingers doesn’t need to change at all, and you can get into the habit of using all of your fingers in the fretting hand.
Again, use a metronome and play around with different tempos, strumming each note four times, two times, or singularly depending on how confident you are. You can then simply move the position of your starting note to play a different minor scale.
Stick at It!
Learning guitar can be frustrating at first, and there have been many points on my journey when I lost enthusiasm for it. The key is to push through those moments and have faith that your perseverance will eventually be rewarded by newfound skills.