“What should I learn to play first?” is a really common question for beginner guitarists. And although it’s somewhat subjective, there are certain staple essentials. Your stylistic tastes may determine how you explore these key elements (more detail below), but still this is ground that needs to be covered.
Here’s a list of the categories of things to learn first, with a few examples of how that may then play out, depending on the music you like and the kind of guitarist you want to be.
1. Open strings / tuning
Just a note before we get properly into it. Make sure you understand the absolute fundamentals first. This means knowing what notes the open strings are (EADGBe), and in which order, and how to tune the guitar. Please look below for reference on how strings are tuned.
Often times, strings are referred by their numbers, and usually the heaviest, or thickest string is the 6th string, while the lightest, or thinnest string is the 1st string. The 6th and 1st string is also usually tuned to an E note. See below.
6 – E
5 – A
4 – D
3 – G
2 – B
1 – E
2. Basic Chords
A chord is the generalized term for anything comprising two notes or more. Chords are used to create rhythm guitar parts, textures, canvasses, walls of sound, and very often a backdrop to a lead vocal or lead guitar part.
Usually you’ll start with “open chords,” i.e. those that include a combination of open strings and fretted notes, played down the low end of the neck near the nut. This is as opposed to “barre chords” in which one finger stretches across the whole neck of the guitar. These come a little later and can famously a stumbling block if attempted too soon.
Beyond playing open chords (make sure you remember their names, and how they’re drawn/written on chord diagrams/tabs) it’s really about how you use them. If you’re into pop/rock you’ll be wanting to try to strum these open chords, as opposed to maybe wanting to fingerpick them if you’re into folk. And if you’re into heavy rock / metal for example, you could even begin by learning two-note “power chords,” which are low end, heavy crunchy simplistic chords used in heavier styles of music.
3. Basic Melodies / Riffs
Terms like “melody” and (usually) “riff” refer to single lines played on the guitar, rather than textured chords. Perhaps more simplistically described as a “tune.” It’s important that you learn some of these at the beginning too, as doing so develops a whole different set of skills to learning chords.
Again, let your genre preferences act as a guide. If you’re an aspiring classical guitarist, you’ll probably be learning a “top-line” melody from a classical piece — a simple tune to be played with your fingers, that you’ll perhaps later accompany with your thumb playing bass notes. If you’re a rock guitarist, this could be a classic rock riff such as beginners’ guitar staple “Smoke On the Water” — famous for its simplicity.
Thus, the application of this new knowledge is different depending on your tastes, but the same key bases of skill development are being met.
4. Basic Scales
It’s important to learn a scale or two early on. Doing so is the beginnings of further dexterity, music theory, and helps your picking hand to move between strings without getting lost.
Your first scale should be (and most likely will be) one of only two possible scales:
- The Major Scale. The center of all Western music theory and harmony, and the distinctive “doh-ray-me” scale. Useful in all sorts of ways, particularly at the early stages with playing melodies and developing fluency and dexterity. Classical guitarists may be taken down this route.
Check out the major scale in C below. Black notes are the root note.
- The Minor Pentatonic Scale. A very simple scale and a fairly easy and memorable pattern. This scale is the basis of the majority of rock / pop / blues guitar solos, even at quite an advanced level. For that reason, it’s widely regarded as the guitarist’s scale of choice.
Check out the pattern for a minor pentatonic scale in C below. Black notes are the root note.
This advice could also be expanded to every category and item on the list. You’ll only become a better guitarist and musician by opening up to more styles of music, so by all means start with what feels right, but by open to other ideas as you progress.