26 Tips to Improve Drastically When Playing Guitar

This detailed post is filled with tips, how-to’s, and exercises on the most popular instrument in the world: the guitar.

The guitar isn’t the only instrument I play, but it IS the one people are most excited about me pulling out. I started playing the guitar around 15 years ago, and I haven’t looked back since. Not too long after I started playing, I became a full-time music teacher and added private lesson students to my work-load. I’ve taught students as young as 6 years old and as old as 86!

I’ve loved every minute of it, and even more than playing, I love helping people (like you) learn more about music and the guitar.

Each section in this post is based on a letter of the alphabet, so all in all, you get 26 sections jam-packed with information on the guitar. Some of these chapters include tips, some are brief how-tos, and some are exercises for practical playing.

This article isn’t meant to be a complete guide on how to play the guitar, but it will give you a lot of information and things to practice no matter what your level.

The information provided is based on my own experiences as a player and teacher for over a decade and also based on my conversations and experiences with other guitarists (some of whom are extremely talented and professional-level players in their own genres).

So kick back with your guitar and read on! I hope you enjoy it!

1. 4 Alternate Picking Pattern Exercises

We’re going to start right out of the gate with one of the most critical exercises I give all of my students, no matter their level: alternate picking patterns.

With these exercises, we’re focusing on picking specific strings, not just strumming them all. I think it’s important to get this started as early as possible because if you ignore these specific-string skills, you’ll never progress far on lead or solo playing, and it’ll be harder to learn the basics later on.

Before we dig into the exercises, here are a few tips to keep in mind as you perform these exercises:

  • Hold the pick firmly but without stress in your hand.
  • Move the pick as little as possible to avoid hitting the other strings.
  • Start each exercise with a metronome set on slow; then make it faster as you gain dexterity.
  • If you mess up, don’t get mad; slow your tempo down and begin again.
  • Spend equal time on each of these exercises; don’t do the easier ones more than the harder ones.
  • Motion for this should come from your wrist, not your whole hand.
  • Strum each string with the tip of your pick, not the body of the pick.

Here are the 4 exercises all players must go through regularly. As you get better, they’ll simply become a part of your warmup, but for newer players (or experienced ones with less skill in single-string picking), this will be a serious chunk of your practice sessions.

The Downs

This exercise is likely to be the easiest. Simply strum each string 4 times in a row to a slow, steady beat (60 beats per minute (BPM) should be fine at first). Without losing the beat, move on to the next string until you go through them all and back again. Then, up the tempo by 10 BPM until you feel challenged. Practice that one until it’s fluid.

Here’s another way to look at it (note we start on the low E string):

  • E6, E6, E6, E6
  • A5, A5, A5, A5
  • D4, D4, D4, D4
  • G3, G3, G3, G3
  • B2, B2, B2, B2
  • E1, E1, E1, E1
  • E1, E1, E1, E1
  • B2, B2, B2, B2
  • G3, G3, G3, G3
  • D4, D4, D4, D4
  • A5, A5, A5, A5
  • E6, E6, E6, E6

Note: These are all down strums or down picks. This means you pick it toward the ground.

The Ups

My students HATE this exercise. Why? Because doing all the down picks feels so natural and sounds good right away. Then, when they do the same thing with up strums, they fall apart.

It’s silly how such a simple exercise can frustrate so many, but it does. This frustration just shows how important it is. You can’t build skill without a struggle.

In this one, you do the exact same exercise as before, only now every pick is an up pick or up strum. This means you’re moving from the ground toward you.

Back And Forth

The back and forth motion (down and then up) is the most common motion when it comes to lead playing. This exercise is your bread and butter and the bedrock for most playing later on.

For this exercise, increase the number of times you play each string to 8, and now you’re going to alternate down and up.

Interestingly enough, many students find this one easier than The Ups. Still, don’t skip the previous exercise as it develops your skill in that area greatly.

Jumping Around

My fourth and personal favorite picking pattern exercise is what I call Jumping Around. My students often dislike it at first because it can be quite challenging, but with practice, it just feels so much fun.

Of course, it helps that this skill will come in great handy with actual solo and lead playing.

For this exercise, you’ll be jumping around the strings while alternating down and up picks. It’s easiest to describe in a list, so I’ll write it below for you.

Please note, I’ll give the letter of the string name, the string number, and the picking direction in that order for a shorthand. So the E6 string down pick becomes “E6D.”

Here it is:

E6D -> A5U -> D4D -> G3U -> B2D -> E1U -> E1D -> B2U -> G3D -> D4U -> A5D -> E6U

Easy as pie, right? Don’t worry; it takes practice.

If you want a challenge, do this exercise but start on the E6 string with an up pick and go from there.

There are millions of other picking patterns to practice, but this one should give you enough of a start you don’t need to worry about other ones for a while.

2. Barre Chord Tips

Barre chords are tough. There’s no way of getting around it. Every newer player looks at them and thinks they’re impossible. Every experienced player wishes they were better at them.

For those who don’t know, barre chords are basically when you use your index finger to press down all the strings at a specific fret while your other fingers make a chord shape. It requires precision, strength, and flexibility.

They’re tough, but I’ve come up with a few key tips that may make them easier for you through experience and talking with others:

  • Start with chords higher up the fretboard; they’re easier to press down.
  • Yes, the F major barre chord is the most common with early players, but it’s also quite hard; do an F7 chord to start.
  • Check the action on your guitar; keep your string height a little low (you may need to take your guitar into a store if you don’t know how to adjust this).
  • Check your thumb position; make sure it’s about halfway on the back of the neck, not wrapped around.
  • Use your thumb and finger in a pinching/pressing motion.
  • Keep your index finger straight and not bent; this makes it stronger.
  • The side of your index finger is less sensitive and closer to your bone; use the side of your finger, not the underside.
  • Make sure you press down close to the fret; you’ll have less to press that way.
  • Avoid a position where the crease of your knuckles lines up with a string; this will mute the string instead.
  • Don’t collapse your wrist! Keep a solid line from your shoulder to your fingers as much as possible.
  • Don’t give up! It takes time and practice to develop muscle memory and strength for these chords.

3. Changing The Strings

Changing the strings doesn’t have to be hard. Yes, you can just take it into a store and pay them a small fee, but you save money over the years if you learn to do it yourself. Here are quick directions on how to change strings:

  1. Loosen each string at the tuner and remove it from the tuning pegs.
  2. Remove the bridge pins carefully to fully remove the old strings.
  3. One string at a time put the correct size string into the bridge pin where the stopper end of the string is and place it back into the bridge.
  4. One string at a time, thread the string through the correct tuning pegs and tie the string off (the video may help).
  5. Tighten the tension until the string is taught.
  6. Repeat with all strings.
  7. Use a tuner to tighten each string until it’s in tune (check out my later section on tuning for more details).
  8. Gently tug on the strings above the soundhole. This stretches the strings.
  9. Repeat the tuning process.
  10. Repeat 8 and 9 until the strings don’t lose much of their pitch.
  11. Cut the extra string with a cutter.

You may also want to check out this quick video by Fenderin in combination with these directions.

4. D Chord Trickery

All players must have a good awareness of how different chords sound when in different voicings. A lot of players just trust a guitar tab when they see Major, Minor, Dominant 7, etc. But they don’t always really understand the difference.

This is an exercise to help you develop your ear and begin to hear the differences in how these chords sound.

Essentially, we’ll be playing a very simple song and replacing the D chord with different spellings of the chord. You’ll then begin to hear what they sound like and how they affect the song.

The song I use is Apples And Bananas. Yes, it’s a kid’s song, but it works well, and most people know it. Here’s a link to the video if you don’t (performed by Raffi, who is a surprisingly skilled guitarist).

Basically, you alternate between G and D chords. In this case, you play G major for 8 beats, D for 16 beats, and go back to G major for 8 beats. It doesn’t get much easier than that.

For this exercise, you’ll play the song, but each time you play the song, change the type of D chord you use. Listen to how it sounds and affects the song. In case you were wondering, D7 (D7) or D major would be the most traditional sounding.

Here is how to finger the different D chords.

D Major

  • First finger third string second fret
  • Second finger first string second fret
  • Third finger second string third fret
  • Only strum the top four strings.

D Minor

  • First finger first string first fret
  • Second finger third string second fret
  • Third finger second string third fret
  • Only strum the top four strings.

D7

  • First finger second string first fret
  • Second finger third string second fret
  • Third finger first string second fret
  • Only strum the top four strings.

D Major 7

  • Use your pointer finger to press down the first, second, and third strings at the second fret.
  • Only strum the top four strings.

5. Enjoying Your Practice Sessions

We all accept that practicing is the only way to get better at the guitar, but so many of us skip our practice sessions. Why? Why do we torture ourselves by not practicing?

Because we think of practice as work and torture in and of itself. 

This is a terrible attitude, and it’s not your fault. You were never taught how to practice and how to enjoy the practice. I want to help, so here are my tips for how to really enjoy practicing and avoid giving into the high levels of frustration:

  • Stop when you get mad at yourself and come back later.
  • Bookend your practice sessions with a song you enjoy playing and are good at.
  • Chunk your practicing into challenging and fun parts, each between 5-10 minutes long.
    • Warmup and fun song
    • Technical exercises and skills
    • New song with challenges
    • Strumming patterns you’re good at
    • Lead or solo work you need work on
    • A song you love and already know well
  •  Make a practice journal and write:
    • One thing that well
    • One thing you need more practice on
    • One thing you enjoyed about your session
  • Add the phrases “for now” and “yet” to your self-talk.
    • “I suck at alternate picking patterns…for now.”
    • “I can’t play this song…yet.”
    • “My fingers don’t know these chords…yet.”
    • “I’m the worst player in existence…for now.”

6. Form: What Is It And Why Does It Matter?

Would you call me crazy if I told you 95% of popular music (the kind you hear on the radio) had been structured the same for the past 60 years?

Most of my students do (especially the younger ones). This doesn’t mean they’re the same or have the same feel at all. But what’s largely stayed the same is the form of the songs.

Form speaks to the sections of a song or musical piece and how it’s structured together. For the past 60 years, almost every genre sticks, with variation, to a form called Pop Song Form, which was famously perfected by the Beatles and others of that era.

Don’t believe me yet? Let’s walk through the common elements of this form.

Introduction – This is the opening of the song. Sometimes it’s just a simple instrumental hook grabbed from another part of the song. Sometimes it’s a small part of the chorus.

Verse 1 – We get into the song with this first section, also called the A.

Verse 2 – Now, we repeat the first section, typically with different words and possibly a slightly different melody, but it stays mostly the same. This is also called A or A’.

Pre-chorus – Now, we reach an optional section that leads into the chorus.

Chorus – Main section of the song, which will repeat later on. Often the title of the song is pulled from here. This section is often called B.

Verse 3 – Same as before, only with sometimes different words.

Pre-chorus/Chorus – Here it comes again. Many times it’s exactly the same.

For some songs, they end it here with a short outro. In modern popular music, you’ll see the next part often. 

Bridge or Solo – Depending on the genre, you’ll either have a bridge or solo here. In the bridge, material from the rest of the song is used but stretched out or broken down in a new way. Solos are largely the same but focus on specific instruments showing off variations of previous song material.

Chorus – It’s back!

Outro/Coda – Now the song is on the way out. If it’s a short repetition of some material (often while getting quieter), it’s called an outro. If it’s a longer section, they’ll call it a coda (think the “nah, nah, hey Jude!” part in Hey Jude). 

Next time you listen to some of your favorite songs, see if this fits. I bet it does.

Here are some great examples to listen to across a few genres that prove my point:

  • She Loves You, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah by The Beatles
  • Fire and Rain by James Taylor
  • Poker Face by Lady Gaga
  • Someone Like You by Adele
  • Red Solo Cup by Toby Keith
  • Smoke On The Water by Deep Purple

7. G Major Chord Progressions

Speaking of the structure of songs, many songs use the same order of chords, although they may start in different places. We call the order of chord progressions.

Some chord progressions are shockingly common and may apply to many songs, although, as I said before, they may use different starting chords.

For this exercise, I looked at many songs and found some really common progressions. I took the progressions and moved them all to the key of G major.

These are progressions you need to practice, so get to it! As a bonus, I include a few famous songs, each using the progression. Don’t forget, though; it may start in a different place if you try to play along with the recording.

Note: Chords with a lowercase letter are minor. Chords with a (7) means it can be played as major or the 7th. Chords with a capital letter are major.

G – C- D(7) – G

Songs:

  • Louie, Louie
  • Wild Things
  • Stir It Up
  • Good Riddance

G – D – e – C

Songs:

  • Let It Be
  • Don’t Stop Believing
  • Hey Soul Sister
  • Someone Like You

G – e – C – D(7)

Song:

  • Stand by Me
  • Unchained Melody
  • Friday

G – C – e – D(7)

Songs:

  • Escape
  • Good Life
  • Hit Me With Your Best Shot

e – C – G – D(7)

Songs:

  • Cheap Thrills
  • Africa (chorus)
  • Zombie

8. Holding The Guitar The Right Way

There is nothing, I repeat, nothing, that will hold your playing back more than holding the guitar the wrong way. With a bad hold and position, you’ll limit your range of motion. You’ll also develop pain, which will lead to quitting altogether.

Here is a quick run-down of how to hold the guitar the right way:

  1. Start with good posture. Sit or stand centered with your shoulders relaxed and body free of tension.
  2. Place the waist of the guitar (the skinnier part near the soundhole) on your right leg (if right-handed).
  3. Let your right arm rest on the lower, top part of the guitar body.
  4. Bring your right hand around the guitar until it’s over the soundhole.
  5. Don’t pull or drop your shoulder. Your arm, elbow, forearm, wrist, and hand should form a single, unbroken curve.
  6. Drop your left hand off your lap and let it hang next to your body.
  7. Feel how the arm, elbow, forearm, wrist, and hand all feel like one device.
  8. Bring your limb up to the neck of the guitar without moving the shoulder at all.
  9. Keep the limb kink-free; think gentle curves.

For visual learners, you may prefer to check out this video.

This video comes from Guitar Tricks, which is one of my favorite online guitar programs.

9. Injuries On Guitar And How To Avoid Them

Related to the previous section, you may end up getting hurt playing your guitar. It’s not uncommon, but fortunately, these are all preventable and avoidable if you know what to look for.

Check out these common injuries and how to prevent them,

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

Avoid bending the wrist too far. Keep it in a gentle line with your whole arm.

Cubital Tunnel Syndrome

Avoid keeping your elbow bent too much. Remember the gentle line with your whole arm.

Tendonitis

Take breaks every 15-20 minutes and stretch your body parts before playing. Stop if something hurts.

Tennis Elbow

Avoid tension while you play. Avoid overpressing the frets. Use only the force you need.

Focal Dystonia

Do stretching exercises with your fingers before and after practice. Consider resting your hands in warm water periodically, especially if tense.

Arthritis

Drink fluids and avoid overuse, taking breaks throughout. Proper posture and less tension help too.

10.Jam Track Fun!

I love Jam Tracks, and they’re awesome tools for practicing your guitar. In this tip, I’ll give you a few ideas on how to use a Jam Track in your exercises and practicing.

First, what is a Jam Track? A Jam Track, or backing track, is basically a song without the singer. It’s a band playing just some music and chord progressions.

How do I use a Jam Track? This depends on your level and what you want to practice. My students and I use them all of the time for different reasons.

If you need to practice specific chord transitions, find a backing track using those chords, and try to follow along.

Need some strumming patterns practice? Turn on a track and practice until your fingers could do it in their sleep.

Want to expand your lead playing and improvisation skills? These are the perfect places to do it.

Basically, you can practice anything you want with a band behind you. It’s motivating and a lot of fun. Normally, you practice in a void, by yourself. Now, you feel like a real rock star.

The best use for Jam Tracks is with improv, though. Improvisation is when you make up your playing on the spot. It’s not just random notes, though. Often, the soloist will stick with a specific scale or use the melody of a song and embellish it.

Try this as an exercise. Take this backing track (found on YouTube) and listen in. Now, start simply by playing the E pentatonic scale up and down with the music. Gradually, add in some more interesting rhythms while still simply going up and down. Get creative. Then, start to change the direction midway. Move up and down with different rhythms at your own pace, but following the backing track.

With practice, you’ll feel more confident.

I follow this YouTube playlist of hundreds of Jam Tracks for things to practice with.

Here’s the fingering for this scale.

11. Killing Your Guitar: How To Keep It Safe

Your guitar is an investment, in money and in yourself. For those who’ve been playing for a while, you know it’s more than that. It’s like a member of your family. This is why you need to do all you can to keep it safe.

I’ve taught many people over the years, and I see the same mistakes over and over. And it kills their guitars. I don’t want you to go through the same thing, so take these 5 things you need to do to keep your guitar safe to heart:

Use A Case – Cases are there to protect your guitar. Even a soft case will provide padding from accidental falls. We all leave our guitar out sometimes whether it be on a bed, leaned against a wall, or simply on the couch.

Don’t do it! I’ve ruined guitars myself from silly drops, and a case will prevent the whole thing.

Keep The Humidity Consistent – Humidity won’t kill a guitar faster than a fall, but it will happen as surely as if you leave your guitar on a ledge.

Moisture in the air warps guitars like crazy. Use a humidifier in your case or store it in a controlled room. 50-60% humidity as stable as possible will stop the wood from warping or cracking and making your guitar unplayable.

Avoid Hand Oils – Our hands are filled with all kinds of oil and grease from all the touching and sweating we do throughout our normal day. This will wear the finish off of your guitar and damage the wood underneath in time.

This can be prevented with hand washing and good drying before your practice. It’s also a good idea to wipe your guitar down after practicing (or at least once per week) with a microfiber cloth.

Don’t Change The Temp Quickly – Guitar can handle temperature changed, but not quick ones. Avoid quick changes as much as you can.

Get A Guitar Checkup – It may seem silly, but take your guitar into a repair shop or skilled luthier every year. They’ll let you know the state of your guitar and what it needs for upkeep.

12. Learning From The Experts

Whether you take private lessons, group lessons, or are self-taught, you’ll need some kind of real program to help you learn better. Going it on your own may sound better, but you’ll end up with big gaps in knowledge.

Fortunately, in today’s modern age, there are a ton of great online programs out there (and a ton of garbage ones too). Here are the four programs I trust and why. I encourage you to check them out.

Jam PlayFull curriculum and guidance for all levels of players, but especially new ones.

Carlos Santana Masterclass – Learn from the legend, including practical exercises and deep musical discussion.

Guitar Tricks –  Massive lessons list, tools, and expert teachers.

Tom Morello Masterclass – Master basic guitar skills and songwriting from a skilled and proven professional guitarist.

You’ll likely hear more about these in detail through my email list as well. I can’t stop raving about how awesome they are.

13. Muscle-ing Up Your Chord Fingers

The fingers of your left hand (unless you’re a lefty, then use your right hand) are responsible for the chords. For brand new players, your fingers will hurt, and you’ll wish they were stronger. For experienced players, you’ll often be frustrated when you watch the pros flit around fret like it’s the easiest thing in the world.

How do they do it?

They strengthen the muscles in their fingers. Through practice, they gain muscle memory where they don’t need to focus on what they’re doing. Through strength exercises, the muscles gain power and make pressing the strings down much easier.

Here are a few exercises you may want to try to strengthen the fingers on your chording hand.

Ready, Aim, Fire!

Your fingers will build calluses and get stronger when you hit the same spot on your finger every time. Practice this by forming a chord you’re comfortable with, a G major chord, for example.

Form the chord and play it.

Now, lift your fingers up and think to yourself, Ready, aim…

As you do this, imagine the exact spot on your finger where you just pressed the string has a target on it. You’re aiming to hit that exact spot when you press down.

Then think, fire! As you think it, press your fingers down, hit the exact spot, and strum.

Now repeat it. Repeat it over and over until you hit the exact spot without thinking or missing.

This builds calluses and muscle memory on where you need to hit the string and finger.

Push It, Ah! Push It Real Good!

This one may seem silly, but it works! You don’t even need a guitar. Whenever you think about it, press on your calluses and fingers. This increases blood flow, which helps heal the pain in your fingers, and it develops more muscle strength.

Are you sitting at your breakfast bar drinking coffee? Press your fingers on the counter.

Waiting in line at the bank? Press your fingers to your arm.

Reading a book before bed? Press into the book.

Some people also do this with the edge of a credit card to help with the thin spot string feeling and to develop calluses quickly as well.

Finger Switching

For this one, you will need the guitar. It’s simple but effective.

Start on your high E string (first string). Use your pointer finger to press down the string at the third fret (and fret will work, but I like the third fret)—strum that string.

Listen to the sound. Is it good? Are you pressing near the fret? Good!

Now, switch to your middle finger and press the same string at the same fret. Does it sound exactly the same? It should.

Repeat with each of the other fingers. Do this slowly and speed up the pace at which you switch your fingers. Aim for pressing the string in the exact same spot with the exact same force to create the exact same sound for each finger.

Of the three exercises, this one is the most practical and one of the first exercises I assign my students.

14. Never Go It Alone On Guitar

In my 10+ years of teaching and working with students, I’ve seen many people go through the ups and downs of learning a new instrument. I’ve gone through it myself; I quit guitar after three weeks of trying to learn it for a whole year before I picked it up and stuck with it.

What’s the difference? How do we raise the chances of sticking with it and getting better? Once you reach a certain skill level, you’ll play forever because it won’t be as frustrating (most of the time). But how do we get there?

You need a community. You need people. It’s when you connect with others learning or playing the guitar (whether they’re at your level or not), you are much more likely to stick with it and reach that point of success. Humans are social creatures. Our brains react positively when learning with others. It also offers some accountability.

So go find an online guitar group to join, make your own, join a guitar class or club, or any and all of these. You won’t regret it!

15. Octave Scales And Beyond

Scales may not be glamorous, but they’re essential in your guitar playing. They help so much by:

  • Increasing your understanding of how the notes work on your strings.
  • Building muscle memory for better solo playing later on.
  • Develop your unconscious knowledge for smoother improvisation.
  • Maximize dexterity and finger strength for easier rhythm and lead guitar playing.

I’ll freely admit: I’m weird (in more ways than one). But when I was in my undergraduate degree, my peers laughed at me and teased me somewhat because I LOVE scales. They thought it was a waste of time practicing them and only spent as much time as they needed to barely pass the scale tests we had to take.

Not me. Every warm-up consisted of scales in some form. Fast forward two years later, I was crushing them in every audition. Why? Because I had the fundamental technique they were getting hung up on.

I could write a whole book on scale exercises (maybe I will someday!), but for this book, I’ll offer a brief explanation of how to play the E major, e minor, and G major scales. Practice these every day as a good way to get started. Then, push out into other keys.

The important thing to note is how the pattern of fingers and frets are similar/the exact same across all scales.

E Major Scale

E Minor Scale

G Major Scale

16. Picking The Right Pick

Do picks really matter? Of course they do! This is especially true with beginners. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve seen come to me with a flimsy pick that barely strums each string. They often exclaim, “Why does my strumming sound terrible?”

Because your pick is no good! 

The most important thing to consider is the thickness. This chart will help you decide what you need (spoiler: get a medium or medium-heavy pick).

Light

Pros – Good for delicate sounds and light acoustic playing.

Cons – Sounds cheap. You hear the pick the whole time. Often break.

Medium

Pros – Good control of tone and sound. Overall balanced. Readily available.

Cons – Not as much projection.

Heavy

Pros – Popular with solo playing. Sounds strong. Clear articulation or the beginning of notes.

Cons – May come across as harsh. Feels larger in your hand.

Extra-heavy

Pros – Popular with jazz solos and heavy metal. Clear, strong sound. Helps to play more quickly.

Cons – Easily has a harsh sound. Feels cumbersome to many.

17. Quarter Practice Trick

This single trick will revolutionize your practice sessions and help you learn anything on guitar. Yes, I said, anything! All you need are 5 quarters and a metronome. Here are the steps:

  1. Target a section or technique giving you trouble.
  2. Set your metronome at 60 BPM (or slower if this is too fast).
  3. Practice the targeted section.
  4. Every time you play it right, slide one quarter over.
  5. Every time you mess up, put all quarters back.
  6. When you get it right 5 times in a row, reset your quarters and bump your tempo up by 10 BPM.
  7. Repeat steps #3-5 until you get it right 5 times in a row.
  8. Then, bump it up again.
  9. Keep going until you get to your target speed. Go over the target speed by at least 10 BPM.

This trick will work with literally any guitar technique or song. It may take you 10 tries to get 5 in a row correct or it may take you 100. This is what the pros do. They practice until they can’t get it wrong. Follow this example, and you’ll master anything.

18. Rigging Your Fingerpicking

There are many different styles of guitar playing out there, and we all have our favorites. I’ll happily admit that fingerstyle or fingerpicking is one of my favorites. The singer-songwriter style of James Taylor and Ed Sheeran just speak to me.

For many, it may not be the first one you think of when learning guitar. You should, though. Even the greatest rock guitarist will bring it back and play a calm ballad.

Fingerpicking is defined by using your strumming hand’s fingers to pick individual strings to create a more mellow type of sound.

Here are my three favorite patterns. They can be applied to any chords. Hold the chord shape in your left hand, and then do the fingers with your right.

Note: The finger shorthand is as follows:

  • Thumb = T
  • Index = I
  • Middle = M
  • Ring = R
  • Little = L (rarely used)
  • The number is the string number.

Also note: The first string played is the lowest string using the tonic note. If you’re playing a G chord, you’ll play the 6th string first. If it’s an A chord, you’ll play the 5th string first. If it’s a D chord, you’ll play the 4th string.

The Classic

Here’s the pattern:

  • T6 (or whatever string is the tonic)
  • I3
  • M2
  • R1
  • M2
  • I3
  • T5 or 4
  • I3

The Bouncy Ball

Here’s the pattern:

  • T6 (or whatever string is the tonic)
  • I3
  • M2
  • I3
  • R1
  • M2
  • I3
  • M2

The Triple

This one is in a triple meter (6/8, ¾, etc). Think of songs like Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah.

Here’s the pattern:

  • T6 (or whatever string is the tonic)
  • I3
  • M2
  • R1
  • M2
  • I3

Obviously, there are a million more patterns and embellishments than this, but master these three to get you started. They work with any song and any chord and sound nice.

19. Strings: How To Find The Right Ones

Your strings are another one of those items on your guitar that often get forgotten about. This is a disaster for your playing. Old strings and worn strings lose their pitch, become less responsive to strumming, are harder on your fingers, and sound worse than fresh ones. For regular players, I recommend getting them changed at least once per month or at least every three months.

When you do need new strings, what should you pick? If you don’t know where to start, you probably don’t need fancy strings. Follow these tips and you’ll be just fine:

  • Go for a light or ultralight gauge string.
  • Make sure they’re steel strings for your acoustic guitar, not nylon (unless you have a classical guitar).
  • Get strings with a polymer coating (it helps them last much longer, though at the expense of a higher tone resonance).
  • Buy them from a music store and don’t just get the cheap ones!
  • OR buy them online from a reputable brand such as Fender, D’Addario, Elixir, or Martin.

20. 3 Ways To Tune The Guitar: Tuner, Drone, And Overtones

If your guitar isn’t in tune, you won’t ever like to play it. It sounds awful. Unfortunately, even getting it tuned at the store won’t work because guitars lose their pitch quite often. Changes in temperature, strings stretching, and many other factors cause them to get out of tune often. You need to learn how to tune your guitar.

Fortunately, there are some easy ways. I’ll briefly go over the three you need to know.

Tuner

This is the easiest method and one that’ll work just fine for most people, though it’s less accurate overall.

Take a clip-on tuner (these work the best) and play one string at a time. Watch for the tuner to show you if it’s high or low. Then adjust the peg until the pitch is in the right spot.

Often, they’ll use a green light to show you when it’s in tune.

Remember, the strings are:

  • E – 6
  • A – 5
  • D – 4
  • G – 3
  • B – 2
  • E – 1

Drone

For this method, you’ll tune your guitar to another sound and make the two match. As long as the sound is in tune, you’ll be just fine. This is usually a little more accurate, though it requires more active listening on your part.

A drone is a single, long tone on one pitch. This video contains guitar tuning drones.

Play one string at a time and listen to the pitches together. When they’re out of tune, you’ll hear a slight warble. As you adjust the tuning peg, the warble will speed up or slow down. If it speeds up, you’re going the wrong way. If it slows down, keep going until it stops completely. Now you’re in tune.

You may find it easier to tune with a tuner first, then perfect it with this.

Overtone

This is the most accurate method because it tunes the guitar with itself. You will need to make sure your strings are close to where they need to be to start. A tuner or tuning with a drone first may help. Note: This method is difficult for new players.

An overtone (also called harmonics) is when you gently place your finger (not press) on a string at a specific fret and pluck the string down near the bridge. This technique results in a soft, long, high pitch.

You pluck two strings at specific frets to get the exact same pitch that rings a while. Then you tune as you would to a drone by adjusting the higher string. Always start from the bottom to the top.

The strategy is tricky to explain in words. Check out this video if you want to learn more.

21. Understanding Chord Progressions

I briefly touched on chord progressions earlier and how they’re used to bring the song together. In the G chapter, I showed some of the most common chord progressions all in the key of G.

With this exercise, I want you to look at a single chord progression in multiple keys.

Chords have a purpose in a progression. Why is it we use G, C, e minor, and D in songs in the key of G? They all have a purpose.

First, understand we use roman numerals to show chords in a key. The main letter gets the first number, and then they go up letter by letter from there.

For example, in the key of G:

  • G = I
  • A = ii
  • B = iii
  • C = IV
  • D = V
  • E = vi
  • F# = vii

Note: An uppercase numeral is major, a lowercase is minor.

If we take the most common progression from before, G-e-C-D, we can translate into the following: I-vi-IV-V. What is the purpose of these chords?

  • I = Tonic. Sounds resolved and finished.
  • Vi = Similar to I, but less finished.
  • IV = Pre-dominant. Leads to dominant.
  • V = Dominant. Leads to tonic.

This progression uses the motion of the chords and their jobs to force the song forward and sound pleasing to our ears.

For this exercise, as much as you can, play this chord progression in these different keys:

I-vi-IV-V

  • Key of G = G-e-C-D
  • Key of D = D-b-G-A
  • Key of C = C-a-F-G
  • Key of E = E-c#-A-B
  • Key of F = F-d-Bb-C
  • Key of A = A-f#-D-E

22. Very Easy Guitar Songs (That Sound Great!)

There’s nothing wrong with going after simple and easy songs first. Remember, simple and easy don’t mean boring. There are plenty of amazing and easy songs out there.

But going for the quicker wins is going to make you feel better about yourself and keep you motivated to keep playing. Whether it’s simple chords, few chords, or repetitive strumming, easy songs are a great list to have mastered for any guitarist.

I’m sure you’ll look at this list and wonder how so many awesome songs are so simple. It’s just the way it is. Check them out and learn them to feel good about yourself and your playing:

  • I Wanna Be There
  • Love Me Do
  • What’s Up?
  • Brown-eyed Girl
  • Three Little Birds
  • Achy Breaky Heart
  • Sweet Home Alabama
  • Radioactive
  • Summer of ‘69
  • Sweet Caroline
  • Ain’t No Sunshine
  • I Shot The Sheriff
  • Stay With Me
  • Stand By Me
  • Knocking On Heaven’s Door
  • Free Falling
  • WonderWall

After you master these songs and as you improve, they will still stay relevant. Then, you can add things like filling in with lead guitar, solos, trickier strum patterns, advanced chord shapes, and voicings, and more for more interesting parts.

23. The Wood Makes A Difference

This chapter is more for those guitar nerds out there who really get into how the wood of your guitar affects its sound. Newer players may wonder (I sure did) if such things really make a difference. Oh yes, most definitely so!

If you ever get a chance to go into a guitar store, ask one of the people to play the different guitars for you. Compared directly, you’ll fall over how different the sound is. Online comparisons work OK if you find one with a good microphone, but it’s hard to pick up (pun intended) the detailed nuances of sound over a microphone.

Still, whether you’re shopping for a new guitar or simply curious, here are the general comparisons of different woods along with their pros and cons.

Composite

Description

Cheap mashing of different woods. Often seen in low-quality guitars.

Pros – Cheap

Cons – Cracks easy, sounds weak and muddy.

Maple

Description

Common wood type for back and sides. Also common in necks. Generally considered a hardwood.

Pros – Amplifies sound. Has good clarity.

Cons – Not as rich or complex in tone as some woods.

Mahogany

Description

Warm wood, common in back and sides as well as furniture.

Pros – Rich tone. Lots of resonance in the lower end. Complex sound.

Cons – Not as clear or powerful.

Basswood

Description

Softwood more commonly used in electric guitars.

Pros – Complex tone rich in the middle range. Offers good sustain without tone loss.

Cons – Not as strong.

Alder

Description

A lightweight and rare wood.

Pros – Great highs and clarity of sound. Gets out of its own way to produce a good tone.

Cons – More expensive and less in the middle and bass range.

Spruce

Description

Often used in guitar tops. Very common. Used best in combination with a different wood for the body.

Pros – Clear, punchy, and powerful.

Cons – Not very rich in tone.

Ebony

Description

Used mainly as a fretboard wood, but it is seen elsewhere too.

Pros – Amplifies sound and resists the oils of your fingers. Offers some darkness to your tone.

Cons – More expensive and rare.

Rosewood

Description

Used mainly in the fretboard. Fairly hard and durable wood.

Pros – Amplifies sound and resists the oils of your fingers.

Cons – Maybe brighter sounding than you’d like.

24. eXacto Strumming Exercises

OK, I struggle with finding an “X” themed one, but strumming is critical, and I made it work. Don’t hate me for it!

Strumming is something that looks easy for most people but actually requires coordinated practice. If you don’t actively work to improve your repertoire of strumming patterns, you’ll end up using the same two for every song, and people will call you out on it. (Plus, you’ll get bored!)

Here are some of my favorite strumming patterns you need to learn.

Note: Your hands move in a down and up strumming pattern non-stop when playing these, but you just skip the ones you don’t want.

So your hands always look like this even when you leave some out to make it more interesting. (By the way, this makes a good pattern too.)

1&2&3&4&
DUDUDUDU

Here are some other ones, you may want to try.

Simple, But Fun

1&2&3&4&
DUDDUD

The Classic

1&2&3&4&
DDUUDU

The Driver

1&2&3&4&
DDUDU

The Lurch

1&2&3&4&
DUDUUDU

Off-Beat Funk

1&2&3&4&
DUUUU

Rocking Off

1&2&3&4&
DDUU

Barely There

1&2&3&4&
DUU

25. You Can Do It! Finding The Motivation To Keep Going

I’m not going to sugarcoat it: learning the guitar isn’t easy. It’s not a walk in the park. In the beginning stages, your fingers will likely hurt some, and you’ll be frustrated because you won’t feel like you can play anything well at all. For those beyond that stage, you’re a little better off, but you’ll still come across times when you hate playing because you don’t see progress and you’re frustrated by how your practices have been going.

It’s a part of the process of learning and mastering anything in life (except the sore fingers part). This doesn’t mean we have to just give in to the difficulties or simply quit. The number one thing that’s going to carry you through is motivation. How much do you want to improve? How willing are you to stick with it?

Increasing motivation is a matter of self-will, but these are some things you can do to raise that determination and keep going when the going gets tough:

  • Make a public commitment (at least to one person) that you will keep playing/practicing.
  • Invest money in lessons or a program. The investment will keep you motivated not to waste your money.
  • Build a community and connect with others. As I said before, accountability and social interaction will help your motivation.
  • Find a mentor who strikes a good balance of being kind while also kicking your butt to keep with it.
  • Set reasonable goals. Don’t expect to practice every single day. Aim for 5-6 days per week and forgive yourself when life happens and stops you.
  • Set lofty goals. Pick a song you’ve always wanted to master. Even if it takes you days or weeks or months, keep this song as your end goal. Mine was Blackbird if you’re curious. It took me two years to master.
  • Take breaks. Don’t practice for hours at a time.
  • Walk away from frustration. Don’t power through your playing when you’re frustrated; it’ll make it worse. Walk away and come back later that day or early the next.
  • Follow a program. Even if it’s not the best, following a program will keep you looking ahead.
  • Make a playing journal. Record yourself playing once per month to show the progress you’re making. Write down things that you need to work on AND things that went well.
  • Listen, listen, listen! No musician would be worth anything without clear ideas on what the guitar is supposed to be. When I listen to the pros, I get motivated. Even if I’m never as good as they are, I can still get a small part of their art. (More on this in the final chapter).

I hate it when people quit, but I understand it. Even if you stop for a while, you can always pick it back up again.

Don’t give up! I believe in you! Believe in yourself too, and never forget to enjoy the guitar!

26. Zeppelin: Listening And Watching With Intent

Music is an aural art. It’s sound. This is why so many blind musicians, such as Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, and Doc Watson (who does my favorite version of House OF the Rising Sun on guitar) find great success.

Too often, we forget this in our practice and get into learning techniques or chords or solos. We forget to listen to music. I don’t just mean listen for pleasure (although it usually is). I’m talking about listening and watching performers with the intent of learning from them.

I was doing well in my undergraduate degree, near the top of my group of musicians as far as skill goes. It wasn’t until I made listening a specific part of my practice that I jumped to the top. Listening improved my playing, made it more musical, and guided my other practicing. Everything became more efficient AND artistic.

Whether it’s Led Zeppelin or Jimi or Clapton, you need to listen and watch your guitar idols. Listen for pleasure, yes, but also spend time listening to learn. 

Here is a brief list of questions I ask my students to reflect on with their intentional listening. Do this a little as much as you can, and you’ll notice a jump in skill, musicianship, and motivation right away.

  • What were your favorite parts of the song? Why do you think they were?
  • Which were your least favorite parts? Why?
  • Where did the player catch your attention? How did they do that?
  • Some parts of the song repeated. How did the guitarist make it different to catch your attention?
  • What changes in dynamics or volumes were made? Why do you think the artist did so?
  • What changes in style or rhythmic speed were made? Why do you think they did so?
  • Did you see anything the guitarist did that you’ve been practicing too?
  • Find a different guitarist performing the same song. How are they the same or different?

This is a short list, but a powerful one. Listen while thinking and you’ll improve faster than you’d expect.

Final Thoughts

If you made it all the way to the end of this article, congratulations! You’re more likely to improve faster than others who don’t.

Why? Because you have more ideas on how to play the guitar, how to practice, and how to care for your guitar effectively.

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26 Tips to Improve Drastically When Playing Guitar
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26 Tips to Improve Drastically When Playing Guitar
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