Learn to Play Contemporary Guitar

Chapter 1: The Basics

1.1 Introduction

There’s no denying. The basics are the least interesting part with learning any skill. But I cannot stress more on the importance of having a good foundation. So take time to read through this chapter; it’ll benefit you in the long run.

1.2 Types of Guitars

Guitars come in all shapes and sizes. The two most common guitars are the: (1) classical guitars (with metal + nylon strings) and (2) folk guitars (with metal strings).

To learn to play the guitar, I would strongly recommend that you use a classical guitar: (1) the strings are further apart so it is easier to position your fingers correctly for chords and (2) the strings are less painful on your fingers.

1.3 Parts of a Guitar

Just like you don’t need to know all the parts of a car to be able to drive it, you do not need to know every single part of a guitar. Knowing the parts shown in the diagram would suffice.

1.4 Basic Theory

Notes are sounded when the strings vibrate. The open strings on the guitar (without pressing on any fret) correspond to the following notes:

Standard tuning

1st string: E
2nd string: B
3rd string: G
4th string: D
5th string: A
6th string: E

Pressing each higher fret corresponds to a half-step/ semitone in music theory i.e. C → C#; E → F (see diagram)

1.5 How to tune a guitar

As a Chinese saying goes “one must have good tools in order to do a good job”, an in-tune guitar is important for effective learning. There are many ways to tune a guitar; I’ll just introduce two of them.

Method 1: Use a Chormatic Tuner

When I was learning the guitar, electronic tuners were a luxury alternative to pitch pipes and tuning forks. But thanks to the brilliance of Steve Jobs and company, there are now several (free!) chromatic tuner apps available.

How to use:
  • Open the app and position your iPhone microphone near the guitar.
  • Pluck the 1st string and check the app.
  • If the string is in-tune, you should see: (1) the needle stopping at the middle of the scale for E note, and (2) a green light.
  • Otherwise, tighten or loosen the tuning key for the string until you get it.
  • Repeat for the rest of the strings for their respective notes.

Method 2: By Ear

Click on the 1st string on the guitar flash below (also found on the left sidebar of the website) and listen.
Adjust the tuning key and pluck the string simultaneously until you get the same pitch. Repeat for the rest of the strings.

1.6 Finger Notations

To aid in the learning of the fingerings for the different chords and later fingerstyle plucking, the fingers on your hands are given the following notations:

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