I’ve taught a lot of people to play guitar over the years — at one point I had more than 50 students per week — and the following lesson is the result of hundreds of hours of teaching, as well as thousands of hours of riffing. This is really for the beginners, but it never hurts to brush up on the basics, even if you’ve been playing for a while.
It seems that these days everyone at least knows the mechanics of how to play guitar: hold the pick, press down the string behind the fret and hey presto, you’re off! It’s also pretty easy to tune a guitar thanks to any number of free tuning programs online or smartphone apps such as Gibson’s Learn & Master Guitar app. This lesson is going to assume that even if you’re a beginner, you can find out how to tune a guitar.
The musical examples in this lesson are presented in tablature. For the uninitiated, imagine that the row of 6 lines are the 6 strings of your guitar. The bottom line represents the thickest string, and the top line represents the thinnest. The numbers represent the frets to put your fingers down on (actually, you’ll get the clearest note if you press down just behind the fret, not on top of it and not too far away). A 0 means you don’t fret that note, you just pick the string. If you see two numbers stacked on top of each other, play them at the same time. Like everything to do with guitar, tablature can be as simple or as complicated as you want to make it.
There are notes all over the guitar neck. Every fret on every string represents a note, and a lot of them are duplicates of notes you can find elsewhere on the neck. We’re going to focus just on the low E string for the purpose of this lesson, for reasons that’ll become apparent a little later. For now, just know this: the great Tony Iommi from Black Sabbath only needed the bottom two strings to write and play such classic riffs as “Paranoid,” “Iron Man” and “War Pigs!”
So here we have all the notes on the low E string, beginning with the “open” (unfretted) E note.
You’ll see that as you move along the string you get a mixture of natural notes (E, F, G, A, B, C, D), and sharp notes (F#, G#, A#, C#, D#). The magical secret to help you memorize these notes is to focus on learning the positions of all the natural notes. You can kind of fill in the rest, and once you know where an F and a G are, you’ll know that the note in between is an F# (also called a G flat depending on factors we won’t go into here!).
Once you’ve learned where the natural notes are, you’ll be able to break the fretboard up into groups of notes in your mind, rather than 12 individual ones. I like to think of them in the following groups: E-F-G, A-B-C, then D-E. Once you get to that next E at the 12th fret, the whole thing repeats. So after a while if you think of the 10th fret on the E string, you’ll instantly know it’s a D, and therefore you’ve got C# on one side and D# on the other.
The next step on the way to rock superstardom is mastery of the chord. A chord is basically two or more notes played at the same time. The foundation of rock music is the power chord (it’s technical name is E5). The power chord is loud and it’s angry and it’s awesome.
You’ll notice from the little chord charts that every single one of these chords is the same shape. All you need is two fingers (usually the first and third) or, in the case of the first E5, only one finger, as the bottom E note is an open string.
So once you’ve learned the names of the notes and the shape of a power chord, it’s time to turn it into rock! I’ve provided a simple riff here. It consists of four power chords, each played eight times in an even, steady rhythm. Just 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8 for each chord. Experiment with picking in different parts of the string and with lightly resting the edge of your picking hand against the strings right up at the bridge where they attach to the guitar. Vary the pressure until you hear that cool “chug” sound. That’s called palm muting and it’s essential for metal, punk and rock styles, so you might as well start learning to do it now!
Next, we need something to play over the top. Here’s the E Minor Pentatonic scale, in both the open and 12th positions.
The Minor Pentatonic scale is very common in rock and blues. The important thing to remember with scales is that even though you typically learn them by playing them up and down as an exercise; when it comes to using them in a song, think of them as notes to choose from in creating your melody. Even if you randomly choose notes from the Em Pentatonic scale to play over the power chord riff above, the notes will fit and they’ll sound pretty cool.
The most important thing is to not be shy about your note choices, and to really just go for it. Realize that even if you make a mistake, it’s really not the end of the world: just keep playing. I can’t stress that enough! Don’t be afraid to hit a wrong note, because one wrong note will never sound as bad as a whole solo full of right notes played by someone who’s so scared about hitting wrong notes that they never relax enough to play something expressive.
Finally we have open chords and barre chords. I’ve listed the four most common chord types, Major, Minor, 7th and Minor 7th, in both open and barre positions (for a barre chord, lay your index finger flat across all the strings).
Once you get the barre chord shape down, you can play those chords anywhere on the neck. Want to play a G Minor? Take the minor shape and play it starting at the 3rd fret, where the G note we learned earlier is. Want to play a C#m7? Start at the 9th fret. Easy! The only hard part is this: for the barre chord shapes you need to lay your index finger across all 6 strings, and hold it down firmly enough that each note rings clearly. This won’t sound right at first because your fingers need to develop calluses. Keep trying because it will sound right eventually. As for which fingers to use, the diagrams will help you there. The chord boxes once again represent the guitar neck, this time with the thickest string to the left and the thinnest to the right. The numbers along the bottom represent which finger to fret each string with.
Finally we have a simple chord song to give you an idea of how to use several of these chords in context. I’ve only provided a single strum in the music but try to add your own rhythm. A lot of players get really hung up on strumming patterns when they’re first starting out but don’t be afraid to approach it in a pretty relaxed way at first, and build up to inventing complicated up-down picking patterns and rhythms.
So that’s the quick crash course in playing rock guitar. Hope it all makes sense — it seems to have helped my students out, or at least none of them ever told me my teaching sucked, so I hope it helps. Happy shredding!