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Category: Acoustic Guitar

Using Alternate Picking

As you play a song, you use both hands at once. After you figure out which notes to press with the left hand, you need to know how to strike the strings with the right.

Alternate picking is the right-hand picking technique that uses both downstrokes (toward the floor) and upstrokes (toward the ceiling). The advantage of alternate picking is that you can play rapid, successive notes in a smooth, flowing manner. Single notes that you need to play relatively fast almost always require alternate picking.

Try the following experiment:

1. Hold the pick between your thumb and index finger of your right hand.

2. Using only downstrokes, pick the open 1st string repeatedly as fast as possible (down-down-down-down, and so on). Try to play as smoothly and evenly as possible.

3. Now try the same thing but alternating downstrokes and upstrokes (down-up-down-up, and so on).

This alternating motion feels much quicker and smoother, doesn’t it? The reason that you can play faster with alternate picking is clear. To play two successive downstrokes, you’d need to bring the pick back up above the E string anyway. But by actually striking the string with the pick on the way back up (using an upstroke) instead of avoiding the string, you can greatly increase your speed.

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Playing in Position

As you listen to complicated-sounding guitar music played by virtuoso guitarists, you may imagine their left hands leaping around the fretboard with abandon. But usually, if you watch those guitarists on stage or TV, you discover that their left hands hardly move at all. Those guitarists are playing in position.

Playing in position means that your left hand remains in a fixed location on the neck, with each finger more or less on permanent assignment to a specific fret, and that you fret every note — you don’t use any open strings. If you’re playing in fifth position, for example, your first finger plays the fifth fret, your second finger plays the sixth fret, your third finger plays the seventh fret, and your fourth finger plays the eighth fret. A position, therefore, gets its name from the fret that your first finger plays.

In addition to enabling you to play notes where they feel and sound best on the fingerboard — not just where you can most easily grab available notes (such as the open-string notes in open position), playing in position makes you look cool — like a non-beginner! Think of it this way: A layup and a slam dunk are both worth two points in basketball, but only in the latter case does the announcer scream, “And the crowd goes wild!”

Playing in position versus playing with open strings

Why play in position? Why not use open position and open strings all the time? I can give you two key reasons:

  • It’s easier to play high-note melodies. Playing in open position allows you to play only up to the fourth or fifth fret. If you want to play higher than that, position playing enables you to play the notes smoothly and economically.
  • You can instantly transpose any pattern or phrase that you know in position to another key simply by moving your hand to another position. Because position playing involves no open strings, everything you play in position is movable.

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Getting a Grip on Left-Hand Fingering

After you figure out how to read guitar tablature, you know what frets to press down, but you still may have no idea of which fingers to use to press down the frets. Well, I can clear that up pretty quickly. Usually, you don’t need any notation to alert you to which fingers to use, because you most often play in position. Stick with me for a moment.

A position on the guitar is a group of four consecutive frets; for example, frets 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5, 6, 7, 8. The first fret in a series of four marks the beginning of a new position; for example, frets 2, 3, 4, and 5, frets 3, 4, 5, and 6, and so on, are positions as well. But the easiest way to play melodies on the guitar is to play them in first or second position — that is, using frets 1 through 4 or frets 2 through 5 — because these positions are close to the nut, allowing you to easily and smoothly utilize the open strings as well as the fretted notes in playing a melody.

Open position itself consists of the combination of all the open strings plus the notes in the first or second position — just as the chords that you play low on the neck using open strings (A, D, Em, and so on) are known as open chords.  In any position, each finger plays the notes of a specific fret — and only of that fret. The index finger always plays the notes of the lowest fret in that position (lowest meaning towards the nut), with the other fingers covering the other frets in sequential order. In first position, for example, the fret numbers correspond to the fingers — the first finger (the index finger) plays the notes in the first fret; the second finger (middle finger) plays the notes in the second fret; and so on. Using one finger per fret enables you to switch between notes quickly.

As you play the open-position melodies, make sure that you press your left-hand fingers down correctly, as follows:

  • Press down on the string with the tip of your finger just before the metal fret wire (toward the nut).
  •  Keep the last joint of the finger perpendicular (or as close to perpendicular as possible) to the fretboard.

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Having Fun with Basic Major and Minor Chords: The "Oldies" Progression

You can play lots of popular songs right away if you know the basic major and minor chords. One cool thing that you can do right now is play oldies — songs from the late ’50s and early ’60s such as “Earth Angel” and “Duke of Earl.” These songs are based on what’s sometimes called the oldies progression.

The oldies progression is a series of four chords; they’re repeated over and over to form the accompaniment for a song. You can play the oldies progression in any key, but the best guitar keys for the oldies progression are C and G. In the key of C, the four chords that make up the progression are C-Am-F-G. And in the key of G, the chords are G-Em-C-D. Try strumming the progression in each key by playing four down-strums per chords.

The fun begins as you sing oldies while accompanying yourself with the oldies progression. As you sing a particular song, you find that one of the keys (C or G) better suits your vocal range, so use that key. Playing oldies can become addicting, but the good news is that, if you can’t stop, you build up your calluses very quickly.

For some songs, you play four one-beat strums per chord; for others, you play eight or two. Below, I have listed some songs you can play with the oldies progression right now. Next to each, I’ll show you how many times you strum each chord. Don’t forget to sing. Have fun!

  •  All I Have to Do Is Dream. Two strums per chord.
  • Blue Moon. Two strums per chord.
  • Breaking Up Is Hard to Do. Two strums per chord.
  • Come Go with Me. Two strums per chord.
  • Duke of Earl. Four strums per chord.
  • Earth Angel. Two strums per chord.
  • Heart and Soul. Two strums per chord.
  • Hey Paula. Two strums per chord.
  • In the Still of the Night. (The one by the Five Satins, not the Cole Porter one.) Four strums per chord.

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Tuning the Guitar to Itself: absolute beginners tips

Relative tuning is so named because you don’t need any outside reference to which you tune the instrument. As long as the strings are in tune in a certain relationship with each other, you can create sonorous and harmonious tones.

To tune a guitar using the relative method, choose one string as the starting point — say, the 6th string. Leave the pitch of that string as is; then tune all the other strings relative to that 6th string.

The fifth-fret method

The fifth-fret method derives its name from the fact that you almost always play a string at the fifth fret and then compare the sound of that note to that of the next open string.

Here’s how to get your guitar in tune by using the fifth-fret method:

1. Play the fifth fret of the 6th (low E) string (the fattest one, closest to the ceiling) and then play the open 5th (A) string (the one next to it).

Let both notes ring together. Their pitches should match exactly. If they don’t seem quite right, determine whether the 5th string is higher or lower than the fretted 6th string. If the 5th string seems lower, or flat, turn its tuning key with your left hand to raise the pitch. If the 5th string seems sharp or higher sounding, use its tuning key to lower the pitch.

2. Play the fifth fret of the 5th (A) string and then play the open 4th (D) string.

Let both of these notes ring together. If the 4th string seems flat or sharp relative to the fretted 5th string, use the tuning key of the 4th string to adjust its pitch accordingly.

3. Play the fifth fret of the 4th (D) string and then play the open 3rd (G) string.

Let both notes ring together again. If the 3rd string seems flat or sharp relative to the fretted 4th string, use the tuning key of the 3rd string to adjust the pitch accordingly.

4. Play the fourth (not the fifth!) fret of the 3rd (G) string and then play the open 2nd (B) string.

Let both strings ring together. If the 2nd string seems flat or sharp, use its tuning key to adjust the pitch accordingly.

5. Play the fifth (yes, back to the fifth for this one) fret of the 2nd (B) string and then play the open 1st (high E) string.

Let both notes ring together. If the 1st string seems flat or sharp, use its tuning key to adjust the pitch accordingly. If you’re satisfied that both strings produce the same pitch, you’ve now tuned the upper (that is, “upper” as in higher-pitched) five strings of the guitar relative to the fixed (untuned) 6th string. Your guitar’s now in tune with itself.

You may want to go back and repeat the process, because some strings may have slipped out of tune.

My tuning tip

Not everyone is able to easily hear if a note is sharp or flat relative to the note being tuned to; so here is a technique I use myself that might help:

Play both notes (as above) and listen for a 'pulse' in the resulting note. Turn your tuning peg and listen to hear if the pulse slows down or quickens. The closer the note is to being in tune the slower the pulse will be - until it disappears all together. As you practice this technique the pulse will become more obvious and you will be able to tune your guitar quicker.

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How to Play a Chord: absolute beginners tips

Chords are the basic building blocks of songs. You can play a chord (the simultaneous sounding of three or more notes) several ways on the guitar — by strumming (dragging a pick or the back of your fingernails across the strings in a single, quick motion), plucking (with the individual right-hand fingers), or even smacking the strings with your open hand or fist. (Okay, that’s rare, unless you’re in a heavy metal band.) But you can’t just strike any group of notes; you must play a group of notes organized in some musically meaningful arrangement. For the guitarist, that means learning some left-hand chord forms.

Fingering a chord

Your best bet in learning to play the guitar is to just jump right in and play your first chord. We suggest that you start with E major, because it’s a particularly guitar-friendly chord and one that you use a lot.

After you get the hang of playing chords, you eventually find that you can move several fingers into position simultaneously.

1. Place your first (index) finger on the 3rd string, first fret (actually between the nut and first fret wire but closer to the fret wire). Don’t press down hard until you have your other fingers in place. Apply just enough pressure to keep your finger from moving off the string.

2. Place your second (middle) finger on the 5th string (skipping over the 4th string), second fret. Again, apply just enough pressure to keep your fingers in place. You now have two fingers on the guitar, on the 3rd and 5th strings, with an as-yet unfretted string (the 4th) in between.

3. Place your third (ring) finger on the 4th string, second fret. You may need to wriggle your ring finger a bit to get it to fit in there between the first and second fingers and below the fret wire.

Now that your fingers are in position, strike all six strings with your right hand to hear your first chord, E.

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You Don't Have to Read Music to Understand Guitar Notation: : absolute beginners tips

Although you don’t need to read music to play the guitar, musicians have developed a few simple tricks through the years that aid in communicating basic ideas like song structure, chord construction, chord progressions, and important rhythmic figures. Pick up on the shorthand devices for chord diagrams, rhythm slashes, and tablature and you’re sure to start coppin’ licks faster than Roy Clark pickin’ after three cups of coffee.

You don’t need to read music to play the guitar. With the help of chord diagrams, rhythm slashes, and tablature, you can pick up on everything that you need to understand and play the guitar.

Getting by with a little help from a chord diagram

Don’t worry — reading a chord diagram is not like reading music; it’s far simpler. All you need to do is understand where to put your fingers to form a chord. A chord is defined as the simultaneous sounding of three or more notes. 

  • The grid of six vertical lines and five horizontal ones represents the guitar fretboard, as if you stood the guitar up on the floor or chair and looked straight at the upper part of the neck from the front.
  • The vertical lines represent the guitar strings. The vertical line at the far left is the low 6th string, and the right-most vertical line is the high 1st string.
  • The horizontal lines represent frets. The thick horizontal line at the top is the nut of the guitar, where the fretboard ends. So the first fret is actually the second vertical line from the top. (Don’t let the words here confuse you; just look at the guitar.)
  • The dots that appear on vertical string lines between horizontal fret lines represent notes that you fret.
  • The numerals directly below each string line (just below the last fret line) indicate which left-hand finger you use to fret that note. On the left hand, 1 = index finger; 2 = middle finger; 3 = ring finger; and 4 = little finger. You don’t use the thumb to fret, except in certain unusual circumstances.
  • The X or O symbols directly above some string lines indicate strings that you leave open (unfretted) or that you don’t play. An X above a string means that you don’t pick or strike that string with your right hand. An O indicates an open string that you do play.


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Acoustic guitar pickers corner: beginners tips

I love to play my guitar - loved it when I played electric, still love it now that I play acoustic. Having said that, I'm not really a 'student' of guitar playing and don't tend to buy records by people who are principally guitarists. I'm more interested in players who know how to groove - and how to serve the needs of the song - than technical displays of virtuosity.

I like Sea sick Steve with his thumping grooves more than say Steve Hicks with his unimaginably complex and accomplished playing; both are of course great guitar players.

Put me up against technical guitar players and they'll leave me beaten and bloodied and lying in the dirt thoroughly shredded. However, in my own carefully defined (i.e. to suit my own prejudices) world of groove and feel my ego survives long enough for me to pick my guitar up again, write some more songs and keep on picking.

So - I'm not qualified to write about technically accomplished guitar playing - however, I play guitar so I'll take the liberty of expressing some of my own thoughts on the matter. I'll start with some beginners tips.

Guitar players beginners tips

  • Play firmly and with resolution: there is nothing worse that half-hearted slapping of strings that fails to extract any tone from the guitar. Limply strumming the guitar is like a limp handshake; it reflects badly on your character.
  • Think about how you are finishing notes more than about how you are starting them; learn to control when a note finishes (damping with your hands) - so that your playing is servicing the rhythm and mood of the song and not getting in the way of it. Practice hitting a note then lifting your finger (while still keeping it touching the string) to stop the note or placing your hand over the note to stop it; a nice quick and sharp stop is what you are after.
  • Forget the idea that there is a magic ingredient to guitar playing that good guitars know and that you have yet to learn. There is no secrets; you already know enough to play well; do what you already do - but do it as well as you can.
  • Learn to play other people's songs; you will learn a store of techniques, chord progressions, and styles that will serve you well when creating your own songs and guitar tunes.
  • Make up your own songs and guitar tunes. Don't for a minute think your songs are not as good as anyone else's. Believe me - if you like it - it's good. conversely if you think it's crap - it's crap. Just keep the good one's. :-)
  • Learn to play rhythm guitar; playing good rhythm is the hardest skill to master; the groove's the thing. Get your groove on first; think about the pretty bits later. With good groove you can have a house party; with only twiddly bits you have a bedroom party with only one guest.
  • Play with other people; you'll enjoy it more and learn lots. As soon as you can play a few chords get together to play with other musicians. The other important lesson this will teach you is how to accommodate those you are playing with; which you do by listening to what they are playing. Playing with other people is like having a conversion; you don't talk over other people unless you want to end up with no friends.

That's all for now. Keep picking up that guitar.

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