The year was 1976. Jimmy Carter was elected, the Son of Sam made headlines, and The Eagles released “Hotel California”. It was also the year I stopped playing guitar.
I’d been playing since I was 15. I played in a few bands and had fun. But I never really got past basic chords and strumming. Looking back now, I wasn’t a “gifted” player or anything like that.
College eventually won out and took over most of my free time. So I put the guitar away.
I graduated college and officially joined the “rat race”! A lot’s happened since then — married a beautiful lady, had 3 kids, climbed the corporate ladder — but I always felt as if I had slipped into a music coma.
There were times when I’d “wake up” and start playing again. False starts. Life always seemed to get in the way. Besides, I wasn’t that great at teaching myself anyways.
The moment it all changed.
Fast forward 39 years to 2015.
My wife got me a beautiful Martin guitar for Christmas. It was a big surprise. She said: “Now that you’re retired and have all this time on your hands, you should play again!”.
I guess she was right — this time!
So I started my guitar journey again. I was determined to get to the point where at least I could enjoy my playing. But the question loomed “Can you teach an old dog new tricks?”.
Well, I’m here to tell you, you CAN! But only IF the old dog practices a LOT! And practices far enough away from said old dog’s wife. (You don’t want to make her regret getting you that present now do ya?!)
I’ve learned more now than I ever did as a teenager. It’s the perfect hobby for me at this stage of my life. Let me tell you, learning guitar is so much easier than it was back then. No more pitch pipes, boring books, and playing “Mary Had a Little Lamb”. Good Riddance!
The days of moving the needle back on the record player to learn songs are over too. Now, you can pop on the internet and within minutes have the chords and lyrics to any song. And wait until you see guitar tabs! The internet is changing the way the world learns… and that’s a great thing for us!
It’s given me a whole new lease on life. I feel like a kid again… learning how to play guitar! At first, my son was like “oh no, what’s dad up to now?!”. But now I think he is a little jealous the old guy can play some of his favorite songs!
And I’ve found that it is a GREAT stress-reliever. I can turn off all the news and politics and just decompress with my guitar. I actually read a great article about this recently here. [nam article]
And that’s not even the half of it! My first gig was playing “Happy Birthday” at my wife’s birthday party. Now I play in a couple of groups. We’ve progressed to playing open mic nights and parties for fun. We practice and jam whenever it works for everyone’s schedules. Playing guitar has given me the opportunity to meet some wonderful people. I really feel like I’m a part of something now. I can speak a language — a music language — and it puts me into an elite club.
So that’s my story up until now. I hope this article encourages you to start playing guitar or to get back into playing it. I had some stumbling blocks along the way. And I’ve laid out what I believe are the best steps for getting up to speed fast on learning guitar. I believe if you follow these steps, you’ll avoid those stumbling blocks and have even more fun. With that said, here’s how to learn guitar as an adult in record time…
Step 1: Get a good guitar and get it set up.
There is some debate over whether to get an acoustic or an electric guitar when starting out. An acoustic is definitely harder to play. The strings are tighter and the action is higher. That means it requires more pressure to press the strings down on the fretboard and make chords. Your fingers will hurt quicker with an acoustic. But, there are cons to learning on an electric too.
I go into further detail about Acoustic VS Electric guitar here.
The main thing you want to avoid is getting a cheap guitar. Get something in the $400-500 range minimum to start out. If you feel like your guitar is just too hard to play, take it to a guitar shop. Have a luthier look at it and set it up for you. This can cost anywhere from $50 to $150.
Step 2: Tune your guitar.
Nothing sounds worse than an out of tune guitar. So get that thing in tune. Standard tuning is E, A, D, G, B, E. There are plenty of tuning apps for cellphones. Here is one for your computer.
How to tune a guitar in a nutshell:
Pluck the string. Move the tuning pegs to lower or raise the pitch. Make the pitch of the string match the pitch of the tuner.
And here is a great video tutorial on how to tune your guitar:
Step 3: Understand how to practice guitar.
Before you make your first sounds on the guitar, I want to drive home 2 principles that I wish I’d learned sooner. If you get these 2 things, you’ll get a lot more enjoyment out of playing. And you’ll go a lot further, in a lot less time. Trust me!
Constantly assess your tension and force your body to relax. Is your shoulder tense? Is your elbow locked? Are you straining on your fret hand? Make sure your body, arms and hands are completely relaxed while playing. This is more difficult for some than others but it’s crucial.
It’s tempting to try and play a new piece up to speed quickly. Don’t do it. Start slowly, learn the piece. Get it under your fingers. And gradually raise the tempo. This is not new advice. It’s as old as time. But I stupidly ignored it at the beginning. I thought I knew better. I didn’t.
Take the age-old advice. Practice slow at first. You’ll get there don’t worry.
Step 4: Make your first sounds
Your first step in learning guitar is to practice making the 5 most common guitar chords. Most people can learn these in 30 minutes or less. These basic chord shapes are used in countless songs. And many other chords are built off of these shapes too.
Learn the G Chord
Learn the C Chord
Learn the D Chord
Once you can strum these 3 chords, it’s time to switch between them. Switching between chords in series is what’s known as playing a chord progression. Chord progressions are the basis for all songs. Many songs use the same chord progressions. So once you learn these 3 chords, and can switch between them, you can play thousands of songs!
Step 5: Switching Chords
Here’s how to practice switching chords:
Finger the G Chord. Strum Downwards.
Finger the C Chord. Strum Downwards.
Finger the D Chord. Strum Downwards.
Once you can do that, start using a backing track or a metronome. Use a “4/4” rock beat and set your tempo to something really slow like 60 BPM. Then strum on one beat give yourself the other 3 to transition to the next chord.
You can speed up the tempo and also strum every 2 beats instead of 4 to challenge yourself.
Here is a free metronome website.
Here is a free metronome app.
For backing tracks, go here.
Check yourself to make sure that each string is ringing clearly as you strum the guitar. You can pluck each string individually to double check.
Your fingers will hurt. Sore finger tips are a rite of passage for new guitar players. But the good news is that over the next couple of weeks, the soreness will subside as you build up calluses. When the pain transitions from uncomfortable to “ouch!”, that’s when it’s time to put the guitar down for the day. Come back the next day and keep at it!
It goes away, I promise!
Step 6: Strumming Patterns
Ok this is where it starts to get really fun. Form a chord with your fret hand. Then strum downward on the guitar with your other hand. As you stop at the end of the strum, reverse it and come back up. Make sure to strike all of the strings.
Now, put your metronome or backing track on. Start off slowly at 60-80 BPM. And practice alternating between a down and an up strum. Try to line up your strums with the beat of the song or click of the metronome.
Don’t worry if this seems awkward at first. If you can walk, you can strum. It just takes a little practice.
Congrats! You’ve just learned your first strumming pattern on the guitar! Below you will find the must-know strumming patterns that cover most songs. You create different rhythms by moving around your strums on the beat. You might skip a beat or you might have 2 downs and an up.
Have fun with it!
[ strumming patterns ]
Here’s a good video I recommend for learning how to strum on the guitar:
Step 7: Learn Songs!
You’ve got 3 simple chords down. You can switch between them. And you can strum the guitar. Now it’s time to play some songs! This is the trick to staying motivated and practicing (even on days when you don’t feel like it.)
Popular songs I recommend you learn with these 3 chords:
AC/DC – You Shook Me All Night Long
Van Morrison – Brown Eyed Girl
Steppenwolf -Magic Carpet Ride
Bob Dylan – Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door
The Rolling Stones – You Can’t Always Get What You Want
The Monkees – I’m a Believer
Johnny Cash – Ring of Fire
John Denver – Leaving on a Jet Plane
This is just the tip of the iceberg. There are sooooo many more songs you can easily learn. There are many places to learn songs online. These sites use tablature (aka tab). I recommend Songsterr and Ultimate Guitar.
In very little time you will have 10-20 songs under your belt. So what then? Probably the most rewarding thing about playing guitar is playing for other people. So with that in mind, I recommend you play with others as soon as possible. Find a group of musicians to jam with and have a blast. Beyond jamming there are plenty of places to play out. Assuming you live near a decently populated city. And open mic nights are great too!
Sites like Craigslist or Band Mix https://www.bandmix.com/ help you connect with other musicians locally.
Or you can go online and collaborate with musicians all over the world with sites like Jam Kazam.
I hope that this article inspires at least a few of you to dust off your chops and start playing again. There has never been a better time to be a guitar player. The gear is better, the guitars are better, the learning curve is much shorter thanks to online learning. And if you’re like me, you have the time to invest as well.
Don’t hesitate. Jump on in, the water’s fine!