How to learn guitar

Spurred on by the feast of music that is FF, your fingers are itching for some axework and you’re ready to pick up that six string and play it ’til your fingers bleed.

First, you will need a guitar. Plectrum optional. There are plenty of options out there, charity shops sometimes have an acoustic, music shops may have second hand or el cheapo deals. The main thing here is don’t spend very much money until you get a better feel for what you like to play.

You probably have a song that you heard bouncing around your head and you want to be able to play it. Or maybe the muse descends upon you from time to time with a melody you want to hear.

First, you will need to tune your guitar. There are a number of cheap tuners you can buy, get one that clips on to your guitar – this works by feeling the vibration on the neck rather than using a mic, which can be interfered with by background noise. Some of these also have a setting for cello, banjo and so on. Make sure yours is set to guitar!

In the pic below, we can see we are tuning for guitar (G), I am playing the fat E string and we are tuned for concert pitch where the A above middle C (on a piano) is 440MHz. There was some controversy over this as “specious claims of healing properties from 432 Hz pitch” were to be argued about.

No matter, all of the music you’re going to want to play is going to have A as 440Mhz so that’s what we’ll be using. Your tuner may allow you to fiddle with this, make sure that A=440MHz.

I wish I had dusted that headstock before taking the pic!

The pic shows that the E string is flat – that is, it sounds lower than it should be. Tune the string up to the correct pitch. Pro tip – never tune down to pitch, always tune up. This is because backlash (there is never a shortage of Cnuteneering references in these articles!) in the tuning gears means that as you play, the string will become out of tune more quickly.

The interval between the strings on a standard tuned guitar from fattest string to thinnest is 5 semitones, or 2.5 tones or a perfect fourth.

A “tone” is basically a note, if you remember your school music lessons we have E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, B, C, C#, D and D# in an octave (8 full notes) of 12 half notes, or semitones. This is like if you play the E string open, then fret one fret up at a time. The fly in the ointment is on the G to B string interval, which is a perfect third.

This is so that your thinnest and thickest strings are exactly one octave apart, which means a barre chord is easier to make across all six strings, which are E, A, D, G, B and E from fattest to lowest. There’s a lot of guff you can read about how definitions for strings and notes and what pitch they should be and how they were arrived at over the ages, but this is where we are today and this is what we will work with. “It’s like that, and that’s the way it is!”.

In days gone by you would tune one string, either the A or the E to a tuning fork by ear, and then play about with adjacent strings to adjust them by fretting on the 5th fret of the fatter string, except that 3rd interval on the G and B string.

On the fretboard it looks like this:

Basic tuning pattern. Don’t try to play this, just use each pair of notes (fret 5, open string)

The string notes (if played open – ie not fretted at all – are marked as 0) are listed below the tab and show which string is fretted where. It is up to you to decide which finger to use to do this. In the above, we have a hybrid music notation where the normal music stave is enhanced with a guitar specific tablature, or tab as it is known. This makes music notation a hell of a lot easier to read as you don’t need to know how to turn the squiggles into where to put your hand. So focus only on the numbers on the six horizontal lines for now.

The 5th fret on the fattest string (E) should sound the same as an open string on the next thinnest string (A), then the 5th fret on the A string should sound the same as an open string on the next string down, the D string.

Get used to tuning your guitar by ear, then finishing off with the digital tuner, this builds your ear capability to hear what is off and what is not. Sometimes you have to tune massively down and then back up to hear the difference.

There is another way to tune and this is by natural harmonics. Put your finger on the fat E string, so it is just about touching but not pushing the string onto the fretboard. Pluck the string with the plectrum and depending on where your finger is on the string you will hear a bell like sound.

That’s a natural harmonic, try plucking away at the string while moving your finger up and down the length of the string – you will hear some muted sounds as well as some bell like sounds.

Touch lightly

In the above you can see my finger resting lightly on the string, which is enough to get the harmonic. You will have to be exactly above the fret to get the harmonic though, and carefully pull your fretting finger off the string when you get the sound you want so that it rings for longer.

To tune with natural harmonics you’ll have to find the harmonic on the 5th and 7th fret (4th and fifth for those awkward strings – the harmonic on the 4th is quite hard to get)

5-7 pairs again, not playing through everything. All Natural Harmonics, not fretted!

If you are buying a new or used guitar one of the best tricks is to check the intonation. This basically checks that the guitar is physically set up decently. Fret the 12th fret on the fat E string and play it, then try the harmonic on the 12th fret. They should sound exactly the same, if not then the guitar needs to be looked at by a luthier to correct it, and in some cases there is no truss rod inside the guitar neck to do this so it may not even be possible.

Now, we have a nicely tuned guitar, we need to address how we play it.
I’ve been on about “fretting a note” quite a bit but not really said how it is done. This is a nicely fretted note:

Fretting. Nice!

The pinch point is _just_ behind the fret.

Not in the middle of the fret:

Bad fretting

And not right over the fret:

Very bad fretting

Your note should not be muted, and neither should the string buzz. You may have to compromise this positioning when you’re doing chords.

Now for the other arm. In the below, you can see 3 anchor points where I am in contact with the guitar – at the top near my elbow, the pad of my hand resting across the guitar bridge, and a little hard to see, my pinky resting on the underside of the pickup cage. It is useful for your brain training to get used to having one or more of these anchor points in contact as it helps you get your accuracy of where the plectrum is in relation to the strings.

The pad of the hand over the bridge is also useful for “palm muting” the strings where you roll your hand over a little to dampen the strings. Again, not a hard and fast rule but it does help you get your plectrum back to the right spot if you have one or more of these anchor points in place.

Manly forearms

And now back to the left hand – it is key to get your wrist under the neck like it is in this picture.

Wrist below the fretboard. This will hurt. A lot. Until you get used to it.

This is especially true if you have small hands like mine, as it gives you plenty of clearance on the thinner strings when you’re fretting chords, like this E Major. Twisting your wrist around like this does hurt though, until you get more flexibility.

Clearance sale! Lots of space between the thin E and the C shape curl of my index finger.

Right, that’s the basics out of the way then. In Episode 2 we’ll start actually playing!

© El Cnutador 2023