Encouragement for New Guitar Players

Posted: November 15, 2010 in Uncategorized

I remember the joy and excitement when I started guitar lessons. There was a span of several years from that day in 3rd grade when I knew I wanted to play, and the day I began one-on-one lessons in 7th grade. The deferred gratification worked. Once I got a guitar and teacher, no one needed to prod me to practice. But there were several frustrations to overcome right off the bat.

If you’re a new player or the parent of a new player, you’ll experience those challenges, too. Hopefully this post will reassure you that: 1) you’ve got plenty of company; 2) you are not untalented or hopeless, though you might be frustrated. With regular practice you can work through these early challenges quickly and start to really love playing in two or three months.

Here are the early realities that new players face:

The fingertips of your fretting hand will be sore for about 2 weeks

To get good clear sound, you need to hold down the strings with adequate pressure. It’s uncomfortable at first. Can you put up with it for 2 or 3 weeks? That’s all it takes to fly past this first hurdle. Many teachers, including me, suggest just 15 minutes of daily practice for new players. Once your fingertips toughen up, do 30 minutes or more if your schedule allows. Shorter sessions when first starting out will keep you from becoming discouraged before you’ve even given yourself a chance. If you have great eagerness and passion for playing, by all means practice longer right from the start. I practiced well beyond fifteen minutes because I was eager to learn fast. But the main thing is to keep up your enthusiasm for learning guitar! Don’t let a brief period of fingertip soreness interfere with your desire to play- get past it with short daily practice and move on!

It takes awhile to get clean, clear sound from the notes or chords you’re working on

There are 5 things to be alert to in order to get good clear sound on the guitar. With the piano, all you need to do is press a key and a nice sound happens. With guitar, there are five things to juggle to get clear sound– 1) place your fingers right behind the fret, 2) hold the strings down with adequate pressure, 3) relax your wrist so you get a better approach to the strings, 4) keep your thumb out of the way, and 5) make sure when working on chords that none of your fingers accidentally lean into a neighboring string, cutting off its sound.

So if you’re a new student, or the parent of a new student, encourage yourself with the knowledge that it takes time, and many repetitions, to get all these adjustments working automatically. The key is daily focused practice of at least 15 minutes– 30 is better and will get you there faster. But regardless of the length of your practice sessions, you’ll need to get good at troubleshooting the sound of your chords- taking time to listen to them string-by-string so you can hear where the problems are, and then correcting the problems. With focused practice and lots of repetition, you’ll eventually get consistently clear sound from all the basic chords and be able to form them quickly, without thinking about it.

It will take many successful repetitions in order to change smoothly from chord to chord in a song

Like any other motor skill, you’ll need to do a number of successful repetitions before it becomes natural and automatic. Focused daily practice is the key to owning these new skills and starting to really enjoy playing. Make practice a part of your daily routine, not something you do only when you feel like it. You’ll be making real progress very soon if you do this. When working on smooth chord changes, it helps to become aware of chords that have similar shapes on two or more strings. For example, the change from C to G and back becomes less of a challenge when you realize that the 2nd and 3rd fingers of your left hand can simply move over to the neighboring strings as a single unit to accomplish most of this chord change (assuming that you use the 2nd, 3rd and 4th fingers to form the G chord). Another very easy change is Em to Am and back- same story with the 2nd and 3rd fingers. And if you play a E major chord and move that EXACT fingering to the next higher strings, you’ll be playing Am.

You’ll encounter similar or identical fingerings all over the guitar as you continue to learn and grow as a player. When you’re alert to these similarities, it will help you change chords efficiently and smoothly. With enough focused practice, you won’t have to think about it at all- your fingers will just go where they need to go.

Avoid lifting your fingers far off the strings and starting from scratch when forming every chord! Watch for places where fingerings can simply be moved over, up or down, to the left or right. Spend some of your time simply moving from one chord to another, strumming once, then moving on, going at a steady pace. It can be a slow pace, but should be steady. As your fingers continue to build muscle memory and become very familiar with these movements, you’ll be able to speed up gradually until you’re able to play along with your favorite recordings!

When you reach this point, you can begin to really enjoy playing guitar!

This is when you’ll begin to notice that the guitar is a friendly instrument. You’ll find that even a small set of skills and knowledge will let you play many, many popular songs- not just exercises or lame tunes no one wants to hear, but real music that made you want to learn guitar in the first place! As you continue to improve your skills, it gets better and better. But even in the early stages of playing, you’ll be able to play real music.

Keep after it! The early lessons will be a mix of success and struggle. Encourage yourself, encourage your child- and stick with it! With daily focused practice, you can overcome these three early obstacles, and in two or three months a whole new world of music will open up to you. Or even sooner than that, if you’re able and willing to devote more time to your daily practice. Keep going! You CAN do it- and it’s worth it!


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