Top Twelve Tips For Quick Guitar Progression
With most things in life, if you can get the basics right from day one, the more advanced tasks become a lot easier to grasp later on. This is defiantly true when it comes to guitar.
If you get these right from day one they become a habit, however if you do them wrong, they also become a habit that will then be harder to break and re-learn later on.
Here is my twelve top tips for beginners, or more top areas to focus on getting right for beginners that will make progression quicker and easier.
— Strumming Hand Tips —
1) How You Hold The Plectrum
This is something many people get wrong from the start. It will work for the basics but will make it harder when you get to playing faster more technical songs/riffs.
We want to brush the strings on the surface or lightly pick them with a relaxed motion. It is common for people to try and dig at the strings or hammer them. This isn’t needed. The guitar has a sound box or an amplifier to make it loud, your notes will sound nicer and clearer if played in a relaxed manor, plus you’re less likely to snap a string when stop attacking them like an angry ogre.
The two things to avoid are:
1) Too much plectrum exposed to the stings. This can cause the plectrum to go too far into the strings and forces you to dig at the string or will slow you down as you will need to move you plectrum a lot more to move between strings.
2) Pinching with just your finger and thumb tips. This will force your hand into an uncomfortable position.
So what should we do?
1) First of all take you picking hand (dominant hand, so usually right) and do a thumbs up.
2) keeping your thumb up, open your fingers so they are relaxed (enough room for a big marker pen.
3) with your other hand place the plectrum on the top side of your index finger so around 5mm is pointing out over your finger tip
4) close your thumb to hold the plectrum in place. Your thumb should be pointing sideways to the plectrum and you finger.
So now you should have the plectrum between the side of your index finger just pointing out past the finger tip, and your thumb print sideways to the plectrum and your finger. Now the rest of your fingers can relax.
Also with this grip you should be able to relax your index finger and thumb quite a bit as the weight of your thumb alone should create enough friction to keep the plectrum in place.
For more on this you can read my blog all about how to hold a plectrum or watch the video below
2) Strum From The Wrist Not The Elbow
Now we know how to hold the plectrum we need to look at how we use it. It may seem simple but a few people I have taught have struggled so this section may help you. The key is to keep you hand and arm relaxed whilst maintaining accuracy. If you focus on playing the right notes and let the amp or sound box of the guitar create the volume this is quite easy.
Things I have seen in the past and how to over come them
1) Tight fist
Remember to relax your fingers. Some beginners find it easier to keep their middle, ring and little finger as open and straight as possible to start with to help over compensate for the tight fist they start with
2) Locked arm.
We want to play with the wrist and not the elbow (unless we have learnt to be accurate whilst going crazy on stage). It can help to find a place on the body of the guitar to anchor your hand. This can be on the bridge (behind the saddle so you don’t mute the strings) or placing your finger tips of your open finger(s) on the scratchplate area of the guitar.
3) Hitting too many strings
This can be helped with both of the other tips. If you have an anchor point it is easier to feel where each string is. Also if you relax and focus on hitting the correct strings instead of trying to hit the strings as hard as you can you will gain both accuracy and a nicer sound or tone from the notes you do hit.
So relax you arm, play from the wrist not the elbow and use anchor points if you are struggling.
3) Hitting the right strings
This may sound obvious, but there are plenty of students who go full wack into the guitar and don’t take the time to build accuracy. The tips above will help with this point loads, as a good resting point will get you used to the spacing between strings. for this just get used to hitting 1 string at a time, then focus on hitting 2 strings at a time without touching any of the other strings. Once you have this, move on to just the middle 2 strings. If you can hit just the 3rd and 4th string (G and D strings) every time without hitting the other strings at all you will be ready for anything.
4) Alternate picking
This is simply the ability to pick downwards on a string and then upwards. This in the early stages may seem simple and pointless, however this is the main key to playing with speed. Working on this from day one will help your accuracy and your speed both at the start and later on. You can work on this with any and everything you play, even songs that cover multiple strings, and even includes strumming, so strumming down and up not just down.
5) Thumb position
This gets an entire section to itself for so many reasons. This is the main thing I have to mention to all of my students and normally on a regular occurrence. So if you catch yourself doing it wrong you are not alone, however you will be limiting your strength and stretch so much until you get used to holding the neck properly.
So what is correct?
a) Thumb pointing upwards (not along the neck)
Unlike your fingers that should use their tips pointing into the neck, your thumb should be flat on the thumb print and pointing up towards the sky. This gives you the strongest base to pinch and squeeze your fingers towards.
b) Thumb half way up the neck (not under it or over hanging over the top)
This is exactly what it says. Your thumb might move up and down a small amount whilst you play but your thumb print should never be visible to those in front of you watching you play. That means it must always be behind the neck and never above or below. This will make a huge different to the amount of frets you can reach. Below are some images of my maximum fret reach with the 3 thumb positions
c) Behind the frets you are currently using
To get the maximum amount of strength and therefore the easiest way to get clean note you want your thumb directly behind the notes you are playing. So if you are only playing 1 note on 3rd fret your thumb should be directly behind 3rd fret, half way up the neck pointing upwards
If you are playing a chord over a range of frets say 3rd and 5th fret you will want your thumb behind 4th fret as it’s then in the middle and will give you the maximum strength again.
6) Your palm is scared of the neck!
This tip goes hand in hand with tip 5. Your palm doesn’t like the neck, it wants to be as far away from it as possible. The only parts of your fretting hand that should touch the guitar are the finger tips on the strings and the thumb print on the back of the neck. Everything else is open space. The only time we break this rule is when we use 1 finger to play more than 1 string. This is called a barre and the only part of the rule broken is that you use the length of a finger, the palm stays away and so does the rest of the thumb.
Now with tips 4 and 5 you should have the correct thumb and hand positioning on the neck. If you have got it right your wrist should be a tight 90 degree angle. This may feel uncomfortable at first but you get used to it very fast if you practice daily.
If you are doing it right the discomfort will be in the fatty bit at the base of your thumb and in the angle of the wrist (that may lead into the forearm) but as I said, this will fade quickly with practice as you will build the strength and flexibility quite quickly.
7) Use every finger as much as you can
This is to help grow control with all your fingers, grow strength and flexibility. This is known as Finger Dexterity.
This is simply using a song, a riff, a scale etc, that uses 4 frets next to each other and treat each fret as though it belongs to a finger.
The most basic version is to play 1st fret with your index finger (finger 1), then 2nd fret with you middle finger (finger 2), then 3rd fret with you ring finger (finger 3), then 4th fret with you little finger (finger 4).
Just running up and down that on each string will help loads. However it’s not the nicest sounding technique so I tend to get my students to run up and down a scale that covers just 4 frets but on all 6 strings. (most commonly the G Major scale). or I pick a song with a walking bass line and teach that on the guitar. ( I tend to use scales here or the bass riff to “Hey Joe” by “Jimmy Hendrix”).
There is an entire blog on this warm up. Click here to read it or watch the video below to learn more
8) Finger position/angle within the fret (tips of fingers near fret metal)
Point down onto the string with the very tip of your finger! You will need to cut your nails (Sorry, not sorry).
For single notes we should work on the very tips of our fingers so our nails point directly down onto the neck. This will give us maximum strength in the long term, and will create the smallest chance of catching other strings with that finger. For instance, if we play with the finger print instead, we will be bending the top knuckle the wrong way and most likely end up touching the strings above and/or below with that finger as well. This may seem OK when playing single notes at a time, but will really effect us when we progress into the world or chords.
Now we have the angle and part of the finger used we can look at where within the frets to play. This isn’t too important once you have built up strength in your fingers, but from the early stages we can reduce the chance of that nasty fret buzz sound by placing the finger between the center of the fret and the metal closest to your strumming hand. The closer we are to the fret wire (the metal bit) the cleaner the note will be as long as we don’t press on the metal itself.
— Knowledge —
About the guitar and music itself
Music Knowledge will help you progress so much faster, This may not help you to play other peoples songs that much at the beginning but it will help you to improvise, write, express yourself and jam with others in no time. And this knowledge will transfer between instruments so has more benefits that you may think.
9) Learn the basics of music (notes and intervals)
So in the world of western music we have 12 different notes that are collectively called an octave. These notes are:
A – A# – B – C – C# – D – D# – E – F – F# – G – G#
Note: # means sharp not hashtag. Therefore A# is A sharp
Also note that both B and E don’t have a sharp note. (this is quite clear if you are familiar with a piano/keyboard as the black notes are the sharps and the white notes are the other notes)
A sharp note is simple a note 1 fret higher than another note. You can also have a flat note. This is a note 1 fret lower than another note. So we could also name the 12 notes as follows:
A – Bb – B – C – Db – D – Eb – E – F – Gb – G – Ab
The different in pitch between any two notes is called an interval.
The interval between two adjacent frets or notes is called a semitone.
And as with semicircle and circle, a tone is made up of two semitone.
This may seem confusing so let’s look at an example.
If we were to play an A note and then an A# note, we would have moved by a semitone
If we were to play an A note and then a B note, we would have moved by a Tone
and this continues so,
If we were to play an A note and then a C note, we would have moved by a Tone and a semitone, or by 3 semitones.
and so on.
The guitar is awesome because when we stick to the same string, each fret is a semi-tonal difference from the adjacent frets.
There is an entire world of knowledge to gain about music, and I advise anyone interested in any instrument to learn more than what I have covered here.
10) Standard tuning and finding the notes on the neck
The Guitar has a range of tuning but the most common by a huge percentage (probably over 99%) is called standard tuning.
This follows this tuning
E – 6th string
A – 5th string
D – 4th string
G – 3rd string
B – 2nd string
E – 1st string
If we now look at tip 9 and 10 together we can find any note we need to anywhere on the guitar. If you can do this in your head you will progress so much quicker when it comes to performing or jamming, writing or improvising with other musicians.
Here is an example for you. I want to find an F note on each string.
6th string = E (E-F is 1 semitone) so F will be on 1st fret
5th string = A (A-F is 4 tones or 8 semitones) so F will be on 8th fret
4th string = D (D-F is 3 semitones) so F will be on 3rd fret
3rd string = G (G-F is 10 semitone) so F will be on 10th fret
(the notes loop as we go through the octaves so A is a semitone higher than G#)
2nd string = B (B-F is 6 semitones) so F will be on 5th fret
1st string = E (so same as the 6th string) so F will be on 1st fret
It may not seem like the most important thing right now, but this will make a huge difference for you as you progress to master the guitar.
11) Learn shapes and patterns not an order of notes (scales)
Based on the last point, if we learn shapes and patterns instead of set notes, these shapes can be moved into different keys. meaning instead of having to learn 12 different major scales to memory, instead we can learn the shape of the major scale and then just apply it to the key by starting on the correct note.
This is not possible on many other instruments, so this makes mastering the guitar a little bit easier.
12) Improvise to backing tracks
This is the golden ticket. It is fun, it gets you using your theory knowledge in a fun way. and every student that has reached this stage has gone on to great things. so how do we do it?
Learn a scale shape or pattern (a good start is the minor pentatonic scale)
Get used to moving the shape to fit different keys, get used to the shape in different places
YouTube a backing track in the style you want and with a chosen key.
For instance “Rock backing track in E minor (remember the minor or major, it’s important)
Find that key on the guitar and run through the scale to warm up
Play one of the videos that come up
Sticking to the notes in the scale, play them in any order. be random and experimental
This will develop your skills, give you something different to play each time, help with timing, help you understand the scale not just how to run through them in order and will grow your passion and confidence.
— A couple of Extra —
A few tips that made my life far easier when it came to guitar
13) Go wrong – Go wrong loads – Go wrong on purpose
If you can learn from going wrong, then it’s a great thing. I have only gotten to where I am by making more mistakes than you can imagine. I just look at what sounded wrong and then i know to avoid it or do it differently in future.
The other thing is, if you know how to go wrong on purpose, then you know how to avoid it as well. This is something I have revisited recently. I worked out how to create fret buzz every time to help me understand how to avoid it, so I could teach the correct way better/clearer.
14) Play and learn the styles you enjoy!
This probably seems obvious, but if you don’t like metal, don’t play metal. If you don’t like pop, don’t play pop.
The people who learn quickest are the people who enjoy what they’re learning. focus on your style, this again is where improvising is great. you choose the genre when searching for a backing track.
you can even choose a band as a style.
“Guns n Roses style backing track in G Major”
That way you have a style, a key and the words backing track, everything you need. Just make sure you know the shape and location of the G Major scale or a G Major pentatonic first (or which ever scale/key you search for).
- Conclusion -
I hope these tips helped. Let me know if there are any you disagree with, any you think are more important that I missed, or anything you think I need to make clearer or easier to understand. I look forward to your opinions.
To learn more about the guitar please visit www.theguitarninja.co.uk where you can find local Guitar clubs, online teaching materials, guitar forums and more.