10 things every beginner guitarist needs to know

Young woman playing acoustic guitar in front of laptop
(Image credit: Getty)

Nobody ever finishes learning the guitar. You could be a master classical guitarist and a novice at blues; or you might be a virtuoso with a pick but uncertain with fingerstyle. Yet some essential skills let you play in a huge variety of situations. Get these down and you’ve completed your guitar apprenticeship.

Here, we break down those essential skills to get you quickly on the road to guitar mastery – the 10 things every beginner guitarist needs to know. We’re taking a look at the chords and scales that form essential learning, and we’ve provided some exercises for you to try out. 

Treat each exercise as something to build up to – and if an example is too tough to play at first, break it down into shorter ‘phrases’ and gradually piece it together as you improve. And why not try recording yourself playing our riffs and licks, too? It’s a great way to track your progress.

1. Learn your amp

TGR355 Beginner Guitar Lesson

Scooped mids: This is a stereotypical modern metal setting, fun for bedroom moshing. (Image credit: Future)

Unsure how to set your guitar amp? Start with treble, middle, and bass at 12 o’clock. Try turning bass to zero and then to maximum, and listen to the differences. Put it back to 12 o’clock and repeat with the middle and treble knobs. Try it with various gain settings and listen to how the amp behaves. 

If possible, crank the master volume. The same settings sound different and the guitar feels different at high volume. These settings are only ever suggestions: even if we all had the same gear, every room sounds different. Try playing in your bedroom, bathroom, and garage and see how much the tone changes. 

TGR355 Beginner Guitar Lesson

Boosted mids: After the scooped tone, this probably sounds harsh and honky when you play on your own. Add bass and drums and it works perfectly for rock and blues. (Image credit: Future)

2. Tune up by ear

TGR341 How To Tune a Guitar

(Image credit: Future)

Everyone needs an electronic guitar tuner, but you should still learn to tune by ear to train your sense of pitch. While tuning, you might get confused whether a note is flat or sharp. If that happens, loosen the string so it’s definitely flat, and tune back up. 

This will ‘reset’ your ear so it’s easier to hear the right pitch. Some machineheads also work more efficiently when tuning up rather than down, so the guitar stays in tune better.

See our guide on how to tune a guitar for more info.

3. Essential chords and scales

The 10 chord shapes shown below are the most important ones you need to know. Many more advanced chords are related to these shapes in some way. And if you only ever learn two scales, learn these. 

The minor pentatonic scale is probably the most commonly used shape in lead guitar, and the major scale is the basis for most music theory. 

(Image credit: Future)

(Image credit: Future)

(Image credit: Future)

4. Finger positioning

(Image credit: Future)

Correct fretting

Aim to fret with your fingertips close to the frets, but not on top of the metal.

TGR355 Beginner Guitar Lesson

(Image credit: Future)

Incorrect fretting

Fretting inaccurately will cause fret buzz or even sound the wrong note!

TGR355 Beginner Guitar Lesson

(Image credit: Future)

Thumb position

This position allows maximum stretch for one-finger-per-fret scale shapes.

5.  Open chord strumming 

(Image credit: Future)

Wondering how pro guitarists change chords at lightspeed? They cheat! Throwing in one or more strums of open strings just before a change buys time to prepare the next shape. 

In the tab, there’s one strum of open strings before most changes, but if you need longer just move your fretting hand earlier while you keep strumming. 

6. Minor pentatonic alternate picking

(Image credit: Future)

For lead guitar, down-up style ‘alternate’ picking is the most efficient way to play: follow every downstroke of the pick with an upstroke so you’re plucking the string every time the pick passes it. 

Once you’ve mastered two pickstrokes per fretted note, as tabbed, you can also try three, four, or one.

7. Hammer-ons and bends

(Image credit: Future)

Your hammer-ons should be in time and about the same volume as the picked notes. The bends need to be exactly in tune. You’ll be able to tell if you do it right, because the first picked note after each bend should be exactly the same pitch as the bent note.

8. Major scale descending sequence

(Image credit: Future)

To improvise confidently, you need to know your scales inside-out. This exercise increases familiarity with the shape as well as being a useable lick. Pick with all downstrokes at first, but it can also be an advanced alternate picking workout.

9. Shifting powerchords 

(Image credit: Future)

Moving cleanly between powerchords is about muting. The gaps between stabs should be silent, so drop your picking hand gently onto the strings to mute them. For the slide, keep pressing into the strings as you shift the chord shape up two frets.

10. Changing between barre chords

(Image credit: Future)

Playing only on beats 2 and 4 like this is a classic soul guitar trick. To get the timing, listen for the snare drum and sync up with it. Use the rests to prepare the next chord shape. Soul greats like Steve Cropper often only strum three strings from within these shapes.

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Jenna Scaramanga

Jenna writes for Total Guitar and Guitar World, and is the former classic rock columnist for Guitar Techniques. She studied with Guthrie Govan at BIMM, and has taught guitar for 15 years. She's toured in 10 countries and played on a Top 10 album (in Sweden).