Tips for Beginning Guitar Players Interview

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Guitar; Image used with permission from Wilkes Communications

In this tips for beginning guitar players interview, guitarist and Complete Idiot's Guide author David Hodge shares advice for new guitar students. In a previous interview, David shared tips on choosing the right guitar. Now it's time to get tips that will help students begin playing.

Tips for Beginning Guitar Players Interview

Where to Begin

LoveToKnow (LTK): David, what is the first thing any beginning guitar player should learn?

David Hodge (DH): The very first thing to learn is how to tune your guitar and know which note each string is tuned to. From there, you want to learn how to hold your guitar properly when playing (whether sitting or standing). It's easy for beginners to fall prey to bad posture or playing position, but this often makes learning to play much more difficult than it should be.

From there, you have many choices of what to learn next. Notes, chords, scales - it becomes a matter of where your interests lie. However, I'd like to point out that you're going to want to be able to read some sort of music at some point - whether guitar tablature or standard notation. Do yourself a favor and learn both. Don't fall into the trap of thinking it's an "either/or" choice. Neither is difficult to learn, and both will give you access to literally millions of songs to play and enjoy. Anyone who wants to play can learn to read musical notation in less than a month without working hard at all.

LTK: Now let's talk for a moment about preparing the hands. Why is it necessary for players to trim the nails on their fretting hand?

DH: Optimally you want the very tip of the finger to press down on a string to fret a note. If your nails are long, you tend to cheat a bit and let your fingers flatten out. This may give you the note in question, but flat fingers also increase your chances of unintentionally muting or deadening adjacent strings. This leads to muddy-sounding chords and frustration.

Keeping the nails of the fretting hand short helps you fret the notes cleanly. A good rule to follow is that if you look at the palm of your fretting hand and can see the fingernails over the tops of the tips of the fingers, they're too long.

LTK: What about students who intend to take up fingerstyle guitar? What can they do to better prepare their fingers for playing?

DH: If you play fingerstyle, you may also want to grow out the nails of the hand that picks and strums so you can use the nails to pluck the strings. You don't need to grow them all that long, but you do want to keep them filed and shaped. A lot of players use clear lacquer fingernail polish to add strength to the nails. Growing the picking hand's nails too long can lead to nails getting snagged on the strings and breaking, so you have to find out which length works best for you.

That said, there are a lot of fingerstyle players that don't grow their nails on the picking hand, preferring the touch and sound of the pad of the fingers on the strings.

LTK: Is there any preference between learning scales or chords first?

DH: The preference would depend on your goals as a student, as well as your initial abilities. If you want to play songs you can sing along to, get going on chords right from the start. You will ultimately learn that scales are closely intertwined with chord shapes, so having a handle on chords often makes learning scales easier. If you're familiar with using chords in a song, the bass lines, riffs or fills you create from scales can help you improve your arrangements for many songs.

If, on the other hand, you're younger or having initial difficulty with fretting notes cleanly and accurately, starting out on scales will help you develop finger strength and improve your fretting so that you'll be able to handle chords. Chords are ultimately more important, so you want to begin learning them as soon as you can. Even if your intent is just to be a lead guitarist, you will find that most of the solos and complex scales are usually tied into a chord shape.

Practice Tips

LTK: How often should beginning guitar players practice, and how long should practice sessions last?

DH: You should practice whenever you have the chance! Seriously; every time you pick up the guitar and play a chord or change from one chord to the next or even do a simple "one finger, one fret" warm up exercise, you're developing the muscle memory you'll need to play guitar your entire life

As a beginner, you're going to have to deal with the "sore finger syndrome" until your callouses develop, so make the most of any chance you have to pick up the guitar and do something with it. If you've put something in the microwave and you're waiting for it to heat up, play some chords.

For the first few months, your guitar practicing is going to be in fits and starts, so don't be surprised if your fingers only hold up for ten or fifteen minutes at a time. Practice when you can, and for as long as you can, until your fingers get sore. Ten minutes each day (or better still, three ten minute sessions a day) will do you more good than one painful, hour-long session each week.

LTK: Do you have any tips about how to deal with those sore fingertips?

DH: Just take a break. Your first few months of practice are going to be very dependent on your fingers and your attitude toward playing. If your fingers start hurting after ten minutes, take a break and see if you can do ten more minutes later in the day. Getting in three ten minute sessions a day is good!

Everyone who ever took up the guitar has gone through the sore fingers routine, so take comfort in the fact that your favorite guitarist was once in the same boat. Eventually, you'll find the that ten minutes of playing turns into fifteen or twenty minutes and then finally into hours. Take your time and enjoy it all.

Latest Guitar Instruction Book

LTK: Tell us about your book, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Guitar.

DH: The Complete Idiot's Guide to Guitar is a totally new book that will replace the old Complete Idiot's Guide to Playing Guitar by the late Frederick Noad who was an incredible player, teacher and writer. Needless to say, anything he's written is already a classic.

The new "Complete Idiot's Guide to Guitar" takes a different approach from the old book, and it teaches the guitar much like the way a student would learn in a group class. You start out almost immediately learning the easiest chords. Most standard tutorial books start you out learning the notes on each string, and then learning the C, G and F chords. These are often the hardest chords for beginners to finger well enough to sound good.

This new book starts you out with E minor, E major, A minor and A major, and this immediately sets you on the path to strum and play songs. Instead of just playing along with exercises on the CD that comes with the book, you'll play songs with a single guitar and a singer, much as you would at home. In the first section of the book, much of the attention goes into rhythm and strumming.

After that, you'll begin adding to the basic rhythm and strumming by addings various guitar techniques like hammer-ons, pull-offs, playing arpeggios and more. Way too often, these techniques are only used to improve speed and soloing, but they are essential to any guitarist who wants to become more than just a simple strummer.

There's a bit of theory in there, mostly to help the beginning guitarist learn that much of the seemingly complicated parts of music really aren't that complicated at all. If you can count to thirteen and you can patiently work through things, there's very little about music that you can't figure out.

You'll also get a look at a lot more of the very basics of guitar than you will in most books. There's an introduction to using capos and transposing as well as a quick look at alternate tunings. You also start in on learning how to create fills and solos on your own, as well as get short lessons on chord melody and crosspicking. You also get a sampling of many different styles and musical genres (rock, blues, folk, country, Celtic, jazz, classical and pop), and you'll learn to play some fun song arrangements.

LTK: Can a player use this book as the sole means of learning how to play the guitar, or is it better to use it in conjunction with lessons with an instructor?

DH: Like almost all books in The Complete Idiot's Guide series, this book gives you a whirlwind introduction to the world of guitar. Still, there's absolutely no way that any one book can serve as a sole means of learning to play.

This book gives a beginner a great grasp of the fundamentals and also has advice on other books, DVDs, Internet sites and other tutorials to use to further your studies. It also tells the reader to definitely make use of a teacher and gives advice on how to go about finding one. Sometimes finding a teacher is like finding the right-sized guitar!

Additional Tips

LTK: Do you have any other tips for beginners?

DH: The biggest challenge for any beginner is to not get frustrated. It's easy to think that playing any musical instrument is easy (or that it should be), but no one gets good without a lot of repetition and practice.

Think about this; if you're just picking up the guitar at the age of 20, you've spent more than 19/20 of your life not playing guitar. I have one student that started at seventy! That means she didn't play for 69/70 of her life! Those percentages are going to be there no matter what you do, and the only way to get your hands and fingers doing what you want them to do is to practice and play.

Making music is magic, but magic still has to be learned, absorbed and practiced. If a beginner players can remember the fact that they will be playing their entire lives and not focus on everything they can't do yet, playing will be fun and rewarding. Turning playing into a competitive sport to see who can play faster, play more chords or play better solos will not make anyone a better musician.

The other thing to remember is that music is meant to be shared. Find other people to play with. Playing with others is one of the easiest, quickest and most fun ways to learn. Good musicians want everyone to play well, learn and have fun. Don't worry that you're "not good enough" to play with others. Just get out and play, and then go home and practice so you can go out and play more.

Never turn down a chance to play music, and never turn down a chance to go hear live music.


Many thanks to David Hodge for sharing his tips for beginning guitar players and for sharing his obvious love of playing. Surely many new players will feel inspired enough to believe that they truly can learn to play guitar.

Tips for Beginning Guitar Players Interview