A Guide to Learning Electric Guitar: What to Learn First

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So, you’ve decided to learn how to play the electric guitar. Congratulations! The electric guitar is a fantastic and versatile instrument that can bring you a lifetime of enjoyment. But where do you start? 

First, there are a few things to learn on the guitar: open chords, power chords, the major scale, the pentatonic scale, basic technique, and a few songs. From there, you can move on to barre chords, the minor scale, lead playing, learning by ear, and music theory.

We will review the basics of what to learn on the electric guitar, including a few easy song suggestions for beginners. Continue your guitar-playing journey with one of our suggested training resources.

The Basics

Before you become the next rock guitar icon, you need to learn the basics first. Everyone has to start somewhere.

How to Hold Your Guitar

You need to know how to hold and tune your guitar to play. The most common way to hold the guitar is to sit with the guitar resting on your right leg (if you’re right-handed). 

Ensure the guitar is comfortable and stable, and you can reach all the strings and frets with your fretting hand.

Some classical guitarists sit with the guitar resting on the opposite leg. This puts the neck at a steeper angle, which can be helpful for specific techniques and with a smaller classical guitar. 

As a beginner, we recommend you start seated, with the guitar resting on your right leg (or your left leg if left-handed).

Later, you can practice using a guitar strap and stand up to play. Starting in a sitting position will be easier as you learn the basics.

Tune Your Guitar

Your guitar needs to be in tune to sound its best. It will likely be in tune if you just purchased your guitar from a music store. But there will come a time when you need to tune it yourself.

Tuning a guitar is easy once you learn how. There are several ways to tune your guitar, but using an app or standalone guitar tuner is the most common. 

Check out our article on how to tune your guitar for details. We discuss all you need to know about the process.

Playing with a Pick or Your Fingers

Once you’re comfortable and your guitar is in tune, the next step is to pick the strings and make some noise!

You can use a guitar pick or play without a pick and use your fingers instead. Either way works. At some point, you will need to learn both techniques.

To strum open chords, you can just use the fingers of your strumming hand. It allows you to focus on learning the chords first. Later, you can introduce picking techniques. 

To use a guitar pick, hold it between your thumb and index finger. Check out the training resources below for detailed instructions on picking and strumming techniques.

Open Chords

Chords are the building blocks of songs. A mastery of basic chords is essential for any guitarist. 

The best place to start is with the open chords: A, D, G, C, and E. Once you have the major chords down, you can also learn the three minor open chords: Em, Am, and Dm.

The open chords incorporate one or more open strings. They are sometimes called “cowboy chords,” as they are perfect for simple songs you might play around a campfire.

Once you learn the open chords, you will find them in many of the songs you play. Understanding these chord shapes is helpful to you as you learn more complex concepts, such as the CAGED system.

Practice transitioning between these chords smoothly, and make sure each note in the chord is clear and audible.

Power Chords

Once you’ve mastered the basics of open chords, it’s time to move on to power chords. Power chords are more straightforward than other guitar chords as they only use two notes. 

Power chords are primarily used in rock and metal music but are also found in other genres. Examples of power chords include E5, A5, and G5.

We break down everything you need to know in our article about power chords. Power chords are deceptively simple but powerful tools in your music-making arsenal.

If you are familiar with the musical alphabet, you might have noticed that we omitted the B chord in our open chord discussion. After you learn power chord construction, you can add the B chord to your repertoire.

Barre Chords

When you feel comfortable with open and power chords, it’s time to add barre chords to your skill set. Barre chords are a more advanced technique due to the finger strength and control required. 

These chords require you to press down multiple strings with the same finger, which can be difficult for beginners to master. 

Even though barre chords are an intermediate guitar technique, some versions are easier for beginners to play. Using just the top four strings, you can play a barre chord without fretting all six strings with your index finger. 

Instead, you just need to fret the notes on strings one through three, depending on the chord. It’s a much easier starting point for barre chords. Using a lighter string gauge and a guitar with low action can also help you master barre chords.

You must learn the barre chord shape to play the F chord at the first fret. At this point, you have A through G chords covered.

With barre chords, it’s easy to add chords beyond major and minor, such as seventh chords. Barre chord shapes are also movable, opening up even more possibilities.

Rhythm Guitar

As you now know some chords, it’s a great time to improve your strumming and picking technique and dial in your rhythm guitar playing.

You can learn multiple strumming patterns but start with the simple ones first. When practicing, move from whole notes to half notes to quarter notes until you are accurate with your strumming. Gradually add in up strokes and accents.

When using a guitar pick, start with down strokes and add up strokes as you gain confidence with a pick. Build up your speed slowly, and focus on accuracy and technique first. 

When refining your rhythm playing, it’s essential to practice with a metronome or backing track to improve your timing. If you are learning a specific song, you can play along with the recording and work on your timing that way.

Record yourself every so often. The recording doesn’t lie, so it’s an excellent way to troubleshoot your playing and work on any problem areas. You’ll often learn something about your technique you might not hear while playing.

Scales

Once you have a good foundation with chords, it’s time to learn scales. Scales are essential to understand the basics of music theory and as a framework for guitar solos. Examples of scales include the major scale, the minor scale, and the minor pentatonic scale.

Major Scale

As this post is more about what to learn as a beginner, we will touch on the basics of scales here without going into much theory.

The major scale is fundamental to Western music. It should be one of the first scales you learn as a guitarist, if not the first. Many guitar players learn the minor pentatonic first, but the major scale is the best place to start.

The major scale consists of seven notes arranged in a specific pattern of whole and half steps. The scale pattern is two whole steps followed by a half step and then three whole steps followed by a half step.

Most guitarists learn the major scale as a series of patterns. This approach works well, but you also want to know the notes you are playing and the notes in each key. You can do this by using the whole-step, half-step pattern mentioned above.

The C and G major scales are good places to start. The C major scale has no sharps or flats, and the G major scale just has one. 

The notes of the C major scale are C, D, E, F, G, A, and B. And the G major scale has the notes G, A, B, C, D, E, and F#.

By learning the major scale, you will better understand how chords are constructed and develop a foundation for additional music theory concepts.

Even if you don’t want to learn music theory, knowing the major scale will help you understand the pentatonic scale and lead guitar.

Pentatonic Scale

As the name suggests, the pentatonic scale has five notes versus the seven notes in the major scale. The pentatonic scale is vital for lead rock guitar playing. 

There are five movable and interlinking patterns to the pentatonic scale. Learning the patterns is the best place to start as a guitarist. 

As with the major scale, you will want to learn the notes within the scale, not just the patterns. 

Learning the notes will help your lead guitar technique and ability to improvise.

You can apply the pentatonic scale to rock and blues genres. By moving the patterns, you can play the major pentatonic scale too. 

As you gain more experience, try adding note bends and slides, and you can take the humble five-note pentatonic scale to interesting lead guitar territory. 

Essential Guitar Techniques

Now that you have a basic understanding of open chords, power chords, and scales, it’s time to learn some essential guitar techniques. These techniques include hammer-ons, pull-offs, bends, slides, vibrato, and palm muting.

Many of these techniques are applicable to lead playing, but you will encounter them with rhythm playing too. Mastering these techniques will allow you to add style and personality to your guitar playing.

Hammer-ons and pull-offs: Using your fretting hand alone, hammer onto a note or pull off of it with your finger. This causes the note to sound out without plucking it with your picking hand.

Slides: To slide, play a note on one fret and slide your finger up or down the neck to a higher or lower fret. You’ll often hear blues players using this technique.

Bends: When you bend a note, you push or pull a string with your fretting hand to change the note’s pitch. You can bend a note a half step, whole step, or potentially higher.

Vibrato: Vibrato is a technique where you repeatedly bend and release a note to create a wavering effect. This effect is often subtle but can be exaggerated depending on the musical genre and context.

Palm muting: With this rhythm technique, you gently rest the edge of your picking hand on the strings near the bridge to produce a muted, percussive sound.

Add these techniques to your practice routine and they will eventually become second nature.

Reading Chord Charts, Tablature, and Music

Understanding how to read chord charts and tablature is essential for every beginning guitarist. 

A chord chart is a simple diagram that demonstrates where to place your fingers for each chord and which strings to play. Chord charts help clarify which fingers to use to play the chord.

Guitar tablature is a simplified way of notating a song. A guitar tablature, or tab for short, represents all six guitar strings and shows which frets to play using numbers. It’s a much easier way to learn a song if you don’t know how to read sheet music.

As you gain experience, you should learn how to read sheet music. This will help you understand music theory and is helpful when learning classical music pieces for guitar.

Songs

One of the main reasons you play guitar is to play songs. You can’t spend all your time practicing scales and techniques! 

Here are a few songs to learn, easy enough for beginners to play. You can find instructions for most of these songs at Justin Guitar or Fender Play (see the resources section below).

  • Come As You Are, Nirvana
  • Wish You Were Here, Pink Floyd
  • Ball and Chain, Social Distortion
  • Good Riddance (Time of Your Life), Green Day
  • Rockin’ in the Free World, Neil Young
  • Smoke on the Water, Deep Purple 
  • You Really Got Me, The Kinks
  • Highway To Hell, AC/DC
  • Patience, Guns N’ Roses
  • Nothing Else Matters, Metallica
  • Redemption Song, Bob Marley
  • (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, The Rolling Stones
  • Seven Nation Army, The White Stripes
  • Hurt, Johnny Cash
  • Dirty Boulevard, Lou Reed
  • Free Fallin’, Tom Petty

Online Resources

There are many resources to help you learn how to play the guitar. It can be a challenge to know where to start! 

Our top picks are Justin Guitar and Fender Play. Both websites are beginner-friendly and offer a guided process to begin playing. 

The Ultimate Guitar: Chords & Tabs app is fantastic for guitar tabs. You can find just about any song you want to learn.

Next Steps

If you have mastered the concepts and techniques discussed in this article, you are well on your way to becoming an intermediate guitar player. When you are ready to delve further into guitar, here are a few concepts to learn next.

  • Lead guitar techniques and improvisation
  • Additional chords, such as seventh and sus chords
  • Triads
  • The minor scale
  • Modes
  • Music theory
  • The CAGED system
  • Three notes per string patterns
  • Learning songs by ear
  • Fingerpicking
  • Chord progressions
  • Different musical genres, such as jazz
  • Develop a repertoire of songs

Learning how to play the guitar is challenging. But with the right training resources, practice, and persistence, you’ll be on your way to being an intermediate player in no time.

Remember to enjoy the process. Good luck, and happy learning!