Guitar Lesson #1

If someone came to you and said, "I just bought my first guitar, how should I begin?", what advice would you give them? Send your lesson to, subject heading: "Guitar Lesson #1.")

Matthew Dewey

From a beginner to other beginners. Very long, but heartfelt.

Learn how to change the strings. Learn how to tune.

Tune to E-B-E-G#-B-E, or D-A-D-A-D-E, or any other tuning that, when strummed open, sounds sweet and clean and true. Strum open until you can't resist the urge to do something on the fretting side.

Start fretting with one finger, pushing it up and down and all over the place, chunking on all six strings if you want. Count 1 to 4, 1 to 3, 1 to 6, or just 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1.....

Do this until you know where to put that one finger to reflect what you want to hear. Do it until, when you have that finger in a certain place, and in your mind you hear what comes next, you can put your finger where your mind suggests.

Start using two fingers, pushing them up and down and all over the place. Notice the patterns-some close together, some straddled, some split wide. Hear what works and what doesn't. Then, notice how anything can work, depending on many things. If you've been using a pick, put it down. Pinch your index finger between middle finger and thumb, and use the index to pluck. Do this until until your two fret fingers and your index plucking finger begin to form calluses.

Stop. Put the guitar away. Go to a museum or a baseball game. Paint a picture. Read poems. Study the films of Roman Polanski. Stay away from the guitar until your fledgling calluses vanish, or until you can't stand being away from it any longer. Then pick it up again.

One finger, two fingers. Then on to fretting with three. Rebuid the callus on your plucking index. Allow loose pluck-hand fingers to strike open strings whenever and wherever they want. Start humming as you play.

Start tapping your foot as you play.

Sit down and play for an hour straight, without stopping. If you can go longer, go. Go until your hands feel mittened by heat, and you're not thinking about anything anymore, but maybe there are tears going down your face. Then, when you realize what has happened to you, it will all fall apart, and you'll have to put the guitar down, maybe for several days.

The rest of your life, you'll be trying to get back into that feeling that just fell apart.

Play the guitar while doing things-while watching TV, while having a conversation, while sitting on the toilet, while falling asleep. Play the guitar in your lap. Use a slide or an aluminum can. Play smiling and frowning and laughing and shouting.

Once in a while, play gibberish.

If you're here on earth to learn to take things less seriously, don't take the guitar too seriously.

If you're here on earth to learn to take things more seriously, take the guitar completely seriously.

Don't show off in guitar stores. If fact, don't show off at all. But take time to go out and try as many different guitars as you can. Try electrics and acoustics and resonators and hybrids of every different stripe. Try wood and plastic and carbon and fiberglass and every other material of which guitars have ever been made.

Try old guitars. I love old guitars. They teach you undiscovered songs.

There is not a single person who could benefit from every single thing I've suggested.

That's about all I know, at least right now. Maybe more later, if it comes.

--Matthew Dewey

Huskybones, Phx, AZ

Here are two ideas:

1) Take your three favorite CD's. Lock yourself in a room where you can listen and play along at a comfortable volume. Start song #1, CD #1, and play. Play the wrong notes and play out of time. If you happen on a good note then play the hell out of it, but don't be afraid to suck. Don't worry about the exact parts. Act as if it's all perfect even though it probably won't be. Experience the act of playing with feeling and passion. You can get more specific about notes later.

Ask yourself this question "What's the worst that can happen?". As a teacher, one thing I find is that people are scared to just start. They think they need all the answers before they begin. And I think anyone who's asking this question of someone else probably needs a little help jumping in.

2) Sing something into a tape and then pick up your axe and learn to play what you just sang. You might be surprised at the music that's inside you already without any training whatsoever.

Matt Caranante

My best advice to a beginning guitarist is try to avoid tablature. It is good to use in the very beginnings. Use it to learn some songs or whatever else you choose, but learn to read music as fast as possible. DO NOT rely on tablature. It will only hinder you in the future.(believe me, I know that for a fact) Tablature is the easy way out, therefore many beginning guitarists fall into this trap very easily. Learning to read music can seem like a very big task, but you will learn that everything else in music is the same thing. Learn where the notes are on the neck and read every day. You do not even have to have your guitar to practice reading. Bring some music to the doctor's office, to Grandma's house, into the bathroom, etc, and just read it. After a while it will be like reading a book. Because in the end, music is just another language. In order to become fluent in this new, exotic language, you must learn to read and write it. You wouldn't learn Italian or Russian without learning how to read and write it would you? If you did you would not be a master of it.

So if your goal is to strum a few chords and impress people at parties, which is fine, than tablature is for you. But if you are serious about learning the language of music, do yourself a favor and learn to read it.

Ken Brown

Having taught guitar for over 30 years, and seeing the struggle that many students have gone through, I would say this:

Find the best teacher you can, and get launched correctly. A good teacher can save you years of struggle, and set the technical foundation that is so important to being able to express your musical ideas, and perhaps more important, if your teacher is a master, you will almost by osmosis learn the proper attitude to learning that makes the journey easy and fun. The ZG book addresses the mental aspect of this in "Beginner's mind." There are also physical expressions of this attitude, like how you bring your hand to the fingerboard. A good teacher can see where the energy is blocked, or where you are holding excess tension. S/he can lead you to effortless playing where the chance of communicating your spirit and soul will be so much greater because you and your technique will be "out of the way," so to speak.

Ken Brown, Menlo Park, CA

Todd Berry

First and foremost: Get a fretboard chart and learn where all the notes are on the fretboard. Then, using that knowledge, learn how to tune in different alternative turnings (there are books out there illustrating these tunings). Finally, just spend as many hours as you can playing with the guitar and getting your ear familiar with all of the sounds of the notes. This, in my humble opinion, is the first important technical key to jamming, learning chords and scales, understanding fingering, and even arranging and composing.

Peter Prout

It took me 27 years to figure out what I should have learned first. I figured this out just before reading ZG but I've since put it into practice with my mom and daughter.

First, pick out a bunch of songs (the more the better) you like to sing and can sing moderately well (you're not killing yourself to try to reach notes). I don't care if it's "Mary Had A Little Lamb," if you like it and can hit it, go with it.

Second, learn the 5 basic major open chords (E,A,D,C,G) and the 3 basic open minors (Em,Am,Dm). Also learn a basic strum pattern in 4 (down/down-up/down/down-up works). You don't need to be able to play them, just be able to recognize them when you see or hear them. These are things you can get from a music book, teacher, or most any guitar playing friend.

Third, look for sheet music on your list of songs. Probably 80% of the songs on the list can be made to work with just these tools. A real big hint: Most printed music makes things way too complicated. Ignore the extra stuff in the chord symbols (7, 9, 13, etc.). If there are way too many chords in a small space, try ignoring every other chord or entire blocks of 3 or 4 chords.

Finally, start to play. You'll hear where the chord changes go. Stick to simply trying to make the changes smoothly and learning to sing and play the song from beginning to end. Start slow and be patient. Play the songs at every opportunity, and don't worry if some are too hard, you can come back to them. Once you learn to make music, you can decide where to go from there.

Alan May

First: Decide what you want to do with the guitar, (pro, semipro, entertainment).

Second: Find someone who naturally teaches who you think you can learn from (mentally, physically, and emotionally).

Third: Find a way to enjoy practicing

Fourth: Always remember to listen to music.

Jim French

If someone asked me that I would first tell them to have a good time with the guitar, just mess around and get a feel for the instrument. I would also tell them not to expect learning the guitar to be easy and try to learn as much rhythm as posssible, because even if you're the best lead guitar player in the world you will never be in a band if you can't hold a rhythm Then I would tell them to learn some open chord songs, something with a good beat that you can have fun with. They also need to learn some boring stuff like tuning and finding different notes on different frets. That's basically what I would tell a begining guitar player.

Velma the Fischwire

The best thing I could tell beginning guitarist (or musician, for that matter) is that ear training is invaluable. I am still working on it, but with my little knowledge I'm still seeing great use for it. The best way I know to begin ear training, at least the method I've found most useful, comes from David L. Burge. He has a series of tapes and worksheets on ear training available through mail order. As much as I hate to advertise, or say that you need to spend money to gain this valuable tool, I have found his method very thorough. He advertises that one can gain a full amount of relative pitch within 90 days, but after a year and a half, and still working on lesson 7 of 48, I find that it takes longer. But the journey, not the destenation, is what counts. He includes a free "help me" tape that goes right alongside the Zen Guitar method, to my surprise.

After finishing the course one will have full knowledge of all the intervals and chords, including spelling, hearing, and finding them on you instrument. He teaches a method of easy listening with little effort. And not straining your ear by trying too hard is also addressed.

There are other ways to train the ear for listening, but as I said, I find his method far above the rest. And I think it is a definite thing to look into to, for the matter of unlocking the music in your mind, and finding your own sound.

Bill Trevaskis

The only thing that I would tell a person who came up to me and asked that question would be, "Wanna jam"?

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