Playing Guitars

18. How should one practice? 

There are many ways to practice, some people need to schedule time, others just like to keep their instrument handy, so that they can keep picking it up and playing whatever it is they’re trying to learn over and over and over again. You have to identify passages that you need to work on, then you need to play them many times until they become easy . If you play it a hundred times you’ll know it a lot better than you did before. You should have clearly identifiable goals, and you need to make time for all the repetition. A book could be written about this, but it boils down to just do it.

19. Is bass guitar easier to play than 6-string? 

Yes and no. The bass guitar traditionally only has four strings, and so it has less range than the guitar. But bass players have to be very good musicians. They have to know exactly the right note to play at all times, and they need to have a really good sense of rhythm. Playing the bass guitar on a very simple level is pretty easy to learn, but the same could be said about the guitar.

20. How long does it take to get good? 

In six weeks you can learn to play things very well on the guitar. You can accompany songs around the campfire, in church groups and even with some rock bands. In about two years you could reach a level of competence on the classical guitar that would allow you to play a wide range of beautiful music. There’s a lot of music available for that intermediate level of the guitar. But you could spend a whole lifetime studying the instrument and playing all kinds of music knowing you’ve only scratched the surface. 

21. How old do you have to be to start guitar? 

I’ve had success teaching students as young as 4 ½ years. Younger than that they should do singing, clapping and dancing exercises. The motor skills necessary for stringed instruments develop at 4 ½ years. The important thing is not to traumatize the child and have it be fun. A lot of people believe eight-years old is good time to start.

22. How do you play solo guitar? 

Solo guitar is when you play all the music on the guitar because a guitar has six-strings and a fairly wide range, you can play bass lines, chords and melody all at the same time. The trick is to organize your ideas through fingerings. It’s a kind of juggling act. Beyond that I could write a book about the subject.

23. How do you accompany on the guitar? 

The guitar is a wonderful accompaniment instrument and it’s relatively easy to learn to strum or fingerpick an accompaniment to a song. The first thing to do is to figure out the time signature of what you’re playing – you know, 4/4 or 3/4, etc. – and come up with a rhythm pattern that’s appropriate for the song. Then all you have to do is change your chords a the right time. Of course accompaniment parts can be very elaborate and require a lot of planning.

24. How do you play lead guitar? 

Lead guitar is when you play a melodic line above a rhythm section. Leads are generally improvised using scales. Often they are variations on the melody of a song, which the guitarist noodles around with using scales. The best advice, if you want to be a lead guitarist, is learn some scales.

25. How do you play rhythm guitar? 

Rhythm guitar is chords in rhythm to accompany a melody like a singer, a horn, or a lead guitar player. These chords can be strummed or finger picked.

26. How do you write a guitar solo? 

A guitar solo is generally a melody and an accompaniment combined. So the two have to fit together. You may have to re-voice your chords in unusual ways to accommodate the melodic structure of the song. There are all kinds of guitar solos out there. But the most successful ones tend to be those that have a discernable melody. As far as writing the piece down is concerned classical guitar notation is the most accurate, but tablature is more widely known.

27. How do you play a bass line? 

To play a bass line on the guitar, you should know what bass players know. Most bass players don’t like to repeat a note, so they alternate the bass. They walk up and they walk down. The first thing you need to do is play the root of the chord. If you have time you might want to alternate to the fifth like C, G, C, G. When it’s time to change chords you might want to walk up the scale to the root of the next chord. Like if you want to change from C to F, the bass line would be C, D, E, F. Study bass if you want to play good bass lines on your guitar.

28. What are alternate tunings? 

Alternate tunings are just that. Different ways to tune the guitar. There are many of course. But the most popular are drop D, which means the sixth string is tuned down a whole step, open G, where the guitar is tuned to a G chord, open D, where the guitar is tuned to a D chord, and Irish tuning, where the guitar is tuned to DADGAD. 

29. What is slide guitar? 

Slide guitar is guitar played with some hard object on the left hand that slides on top of the strings. You change the notes not by fretting, but by sliding a glass or metal tube up and down the strings. It’s believed that this way of playing originated in Hawaii in the 19th century and had a huge influence on mainland American music in the 20th century. Some popular forms of slide guitar are bottleneck blues, lap steel and pedal steel guitar, not to mention dobro, and Hawaiian guitar.

30. Can you read music for guitar? 

Yes. The standard notation for guitar has been around for more than two hundred years. It uses the same notes as other instruments like the flute or piano. There are some differences in classical guitar notation, things like the direction of the stems of the notes indicating whether a string is played with the thumb or the fingers. There are also special markings peculiar to the guitar like bar chords and string numbers. The written language of guitar is all worked out.

31. Is tab better than the staff? 

No, I don’t think so. Tablature only gives you the placement of the notes on the fingerboard. It doesn’t tell you very much about the rhythm or how to actually play the song. You kind of have to know the song to be able to play it. It won’t tell you what the notes are you’re playing, just where they are. If you read on the staff, you have everything you need to understand the piece right there in front of you. 

32. How do you read the staff? 

Get a book: Mel Bay, Hal Leonard, Aaron Shearer, or whatever. Just get a book and work your way through it, preferably with a good teacher.

33. How do you read tab? 

Tab is very easy to read. The six lines represent the six strings of the guitar. So if you see a number two on the top line, you should play the second fret of the first string. If you see number one on the third line, then play the first fret of the third string. And so on… That’s all there is to it.

34. How do you read a fingering chart? 

A fingering chart is usually a picture of a guitar fingerboard as it faces you. There would be six vertical lines and thirteen horizontal lines. The vertical lines represent the six strings, and the horizontal lines represent the nut and twelve frets. There will be little circles on this chart representing where your fingers should be placed on the fingerboard. If there are numbers in these circles, they represent the fingers you should be using. 

35. How do you learn to play by ear? 

If you want to play by ear, it’s good to know your instrument pretty well. But it’s also very important to train your ear. If you can listen very carefully to music you can hear the intervals between the notes. And you can tell what chords are being played. If you’re trying to figure out the chords in a song, listen for the root of the chord. Match this note with the notes on your guitar so you know what the root of the chord is called. Once you determine that, decide whether it’s a major chord or a minor chord, a seventh, a ninth or whatever. Do this may take some practice, and I recommend you start on very simple songs. like Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star or Skip to My Lou. 

36. How do you learn to write music? 

If you want to write music, first you must learn how to read music well. And it helps to have had a large amount of experience reading music. Another thing to do is to copy music: take songs from books and copy them on staff paper by hand to learn how music works. Notation isn’t really difficult for music. It’s a lot easier for music than it is for language, say English for instance. There are many rules to learn. The best thing to do is to learn to copy music first.

37. How do you learn to read music? 

To read music I suggest you buy a book and you go through it exercise by exercise, page by page. Start easy with the notes on the first string, and just work your way up in levels of complexity. Reading music is not difficult compared to reading English for instance. But it requires practice because you have to find the notes in time, as in you have to play notes at a specific time. So to get the flow requires a lot of practicing. So start on easy songs in a book one and work your way up.

38. Whose records should I listen to get a good idea of what the guitar is capable of? 

I recommend listening to the recordings of Andrés Segovia, who established the classical guitar in the twentieth century and transcribed a great deal of music from other instruments for the guitar. Beyond that you might listen to some steel string players like Michael Hedges, Leo Kottke, Joe Pass playing jazz guitar. If you want to listen to some historical figures that are very interesting, an old blues, Blind Lemon Jefferson, who recorded before electronics were used when they used the large cone to engrave music on wax discs. Robert Johnson is very interesting to listen to. After you listen to these people you can of course listen to many other classical, steel string, jazz and blues guitarists. Steve Vai is very interesting to listen to if you’re an electric guitar player. Of course Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix. Some other very interesting people are Eddie Lang from the 1920s and 30s and Chet Atkins. They’ll all give you a pretty good idea of what the guitar is capable of.

39. When will my fingertips stop hurting? 

It depends on how much you practice. You have to build up callouses and the only way to do that effectively is to roughen them up. Don’t practice too long when you’re first starting out so that you bruise your fingertips, but if you have some pain, it’s probably a good thing because if it hurts a little bit for awhile, you will develop callouses. Then they won’t hurt anymore. Most experienced guitarists have no pain whatsoever in their fingertips when they play long hours.

40. How do I build up my strength in my left hand? 

There are a number of exercise devices on the market for strengthening the left hand of for guitarists. My advice is don’t get any of these things and use the guitar as an exercise device. Play chords, play scales, play little pieces with notes in them that you can bang out. Practice until your hand or forearm gets a little tired, and then rest and then go hit it again later. You’ll build up the muscles in your forearms and your hands the same way you’d build up your muscles if you were a weight lifter. The same principles apply. You rough up the muscles a little bit, and then you rest. Soon you will develop more strength.

41. Which is harder to play, electric or acoustic? 

Acoustic is more challenging, and if you’re a beginner and are up for it, start on that. All guitars have the same notes, but sometimes people develop bad habits from playing electric guitar. In a way electric guitars are too easy.

42. How can I find different kinds of music to play? 

My advice is to start with rhythm. The guitar is one of the very best rhythm instruments you can get. You have strings you can strum or pluck in nearly infinite varieties of ways, and you have thousands of chord possibilities. Listen to a lot of different kinds of music and analyze the beat. You might start by searching midi rhythm tracks online or the CD collections at your local public library. 

One of the things about living in the U.S. is that the popular music scene is dominated by basically only two rhythm patterns: blues/rock consisting of eighth notes with the accent on the second and fourth beats (i.e. Ah-Boom-Ah-Chick-Ah-Boom-Ah-Chick...) and folk/country consisting of quarter notes followed by a pair of eighth note twins (i.e. Boom-Chickah-Boom-Chickah...). These two patterns evoke essentially two psychological effects: blues/rock beats makes people want to dance and country/folk beats makes people want to listen to a story. We have quite a few variations, but at heart they are from the same two patterns. 

And they are fine patterns. I have enjoyed using them since I was a young teen. But it’s a big world, and there are many more rhythms out there to explore. I like to combine Latin American rhythms with my fairly Eurocentric English-speaking North American sensibilities. When I perform I notice how people react to these slightly exotic beats. I might play a tango or a cumbia in between something bluesy or folksy, or I’ll insert a little bomba or an abakua unexpectedly and I notice that people become very alert to these variations. They respond with smiles, foot tapping and grooving their bodies. I think people are very adaptable to variations in rhythm because it’s a primal and universal language of music.

43. How do you tune a guitar? 

There are many ways to tune a guitar. The easiest is probably to buy an electronic tuner, but one very simple way is to match the fifth fret of one string to the next open string. What I mean is if you play the note that's at the fifth fret of the sixth string, it should match the open fifth string. Likewise, the fifth fret of the fifth string equals the open fourth string, and so on...with the exception of the third string where the note at the fourth fret equals the open second string. 

You can also tune a guitar with harmonics and octaves. This may require a little bit of study.