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How to learn the electric guitar

From Jon, published on 20/02/2018 Blog > Music > Guitar > Beginner guitarists: pick up the electric guitar!

With over 1.5 million electric guitars sold each year, the world has seen its share of electric guitarists!

The electric guitar attracts many beginner guitarists who want to master the instrument of their favorite guitar-idols like Slash, Jimi Hendrix, Lenny Kravitz and Carlos Santana.

But learning the electric guitar is different from training on acoustic, folk or classical guitars. For one, the neck of this instrument is generally thinner, and the strings are closer to the bridge, producing a sound that resonates better.

But is it easy to learn? Is there a particular method you should be using? What about tricks and secrets for learning the guitar? And are you obliged to take guitar classes?

Differences between an acoustic guitar and electric guitar

These two guitars notably differ in terms of usage and means of amplification, so you should make your decision based on the sound that you want to produce and the music genre that you want to play (generally speaking, electric guitar is ideal for rock and metal and acoustic guitar for pop, country, and folk).

The folk guitar has a more natural amplification: its “hollow” soundbox creates sound naturally, while an electric guitar, with its “solid” body, requires a pickup to emit and amplify sound (by plugging in the amp).

The forms of these guitars are also different: the electric guitar is thinner than the acoustic guitar and its neck is longer. This makes sense when you consider its main usage: to play accompaniment or arpeggios, the acoustic guitar is perfect, but as soon as you have to play a solo, especially in high notes, the electric guitar becomes a very valuable tool.

Floating Guitarist Classic vs Folk. Source: Jesus Solana Fine Art Photography / VisualHunt.com

Advantages of playing the electric guitar

The electric guitar is more versatile than an acoustic or classical guitar. You can do everything you can on an acoustic guitar and much more, like playing guitar solos higher than the 12th or 14th fret.

The electric guitar allows you to play guitar at a high speed, and fluidly alternate between techniques (legato, slide, hammer-on, pull-off, etc.), as its neck is more suited to moving the fingers and sliding the hand. Also, the strings are thinner than those on an acoustic guitar, which further eases playing and movements on the neck.

You can also play the electric guitar at 3 in the morning without waking your neighbors, all by plugging in headphones. Go on, try to do the same thing with an acoustic guitar!

For those who like to play with sound effects, the electric guitar has much to offer: between the different pedals and other effects, in a single riff you can go from a low “heavy” sound to a lighter one, etc.

Learn to play a mythical solo, a la Jimi Hendrix, rock legend and master guitarist. Source: VisualHunt.com

Downsides to playing the electric guitar

As for any instrument, there are both advantages and disadvantages that can sometimes hinder or de-motivate beginner guitarists.

An electric guitar costs more. Indeed, in addition to the guitar, you also have to purchase cables and amplifiers. Tuning one’s instrument and amp is no easy task for a beginner and can be frustrating. Playing and setting up the electric guitar also demands much more preparation than just picking up an acoustic guitar.

How to learn the electric guitar

Just like any other music instrument training, there are different methods, theories and exercises to learning to play the electric guitar.

People who have learned how to play by themselves are very rare, and very few self-taught players attain advanced levels. So, to avoid discouraging yourself and to be sure to acquire a solid foundation, we highly recommend beginning by taking guitar classes.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to go to a music school! There are other options at your disposal! You can even be alone in a “class”, but for it to count as a class you must stick to it regularly and practice in between!

Several types of courses are available according to your personality and learning goals:

  • Private guitar lessons with an independent instructor who usually comes to your home,
  • Private lessons in a music school, conservatory, cultural center or association (in all American cities you can find these by searching for: “guitar class Boston,” “guitar class Omaha,” etc.),
  • Guitar classes on the Internet: you can follow classes in an “e-school” that is specialized in music instruction, or learn from videos or tutorials. Some are paying, but there are also free guitar courses. However, the quality of these two options is not always equal as you might imagine.
  • Courses by paper tutorials: many bookstores, specialty shops and instrument vendors propose such courses, with or without tablature.

A good teacher is first and foremost someone who can listen!

Teach yourself to play

It is completely possible to teach yourself the electric guitar but you must have enormous discipline, motivation and regularity.

Learn to tune your guitar

You’ll need a tuned electric guitar if you want to learn to play well!

For help, you can ask a more advanced musician, a professional or salesperson in a music shop for advice or buy a small electronic tuner (which will become a most useful companion during your training!).

A well tuned guitar will help you improve your intonation and play the right notes, while an out-of-tune guitar will produce a poor sound, quickly discouraging you as a result. Plus, with a well-tuned guitar, you’ll have less finger pain!

Playing my guitar Learn to tune your guitar! Source: VisualHunt.com

Learn your music basics

The electric guitar, like all other instruments, demands a solid base of instrumental and musical knowledge.

The more you familiarize yourself with music theory, the more you can hone your guitar-playing skills. Instead of wasting your time looking for the right chord, your musical knowledge will point you quickly in the right direction.

Learn to read sheet music and a tablature

Doing everything by ear is complicated, especially for the beginner guitarist! This is why it’s important to learn how to read music. Wikipedia tells us the difference between partition and a tablature:

In music, a tablature is a notation system for an instrumental piece that indicates a schematic representation of the parts of an instrument, fingering and rhythm. The information that it provides is different from that on sheet music in the sense that a tablature takes into account the specificities of the instrument, allowing the musician to simplify his or her execution, and guide the musician on the precise use of the instrument. For example, it might be useful when deciding what fingers on the right hand to raise or lower or which string(s) one should play.

Just to be clear, to learn to read a tablature, you’ll need to know to read sheet music. But a tablature will provide you with precious advice for your instrument that won’t be provided on a simple score.

When you want to play a famous guitar solo like “Sultan of Swing” by Dire Straits or the intro to Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters” it’s easier with a tablature!

Listen and repeat

Whatever the piece you’d like to play, whether you already know it or not, you must be able to play it again and again, and practice just until it is inscribed in your natural playing.

Don’t try to play only guitar solos, be attentive to the entire piece, pay attention to the bass parts, read your sheet music and tablatures well, learn to keep time, and to articulate a passage.

The important thing isn’t becoming an electric guitar virtuoso or learning all the solos, but being capable of identifying, hearing and recognizing the right notes to play them perfectly.

If the sheet music or tablatures are not enough to challenge you, try finding tutorials on Youtube.com or other sites.

The easy and the difficult aspects

It’s important to learn to alternate easy and other more complex pieces, so that you don’t loose focus, or become bored and lose your motivation.

After having worked on a difficult guitar song or passage, take a break by playing something easier, something you’ve mastered for “stretching” your fingers, and regaining your confidence.

Train yourself on sheet music that gradually increases in difficulty: evaluate your level regularly and increase it little by little. This is a surefire way to becoming a better guitarist! When you come up against a difficult passage, try to analyze it, and play it note-by-note, increasing the tempo using a metronome.

Play without effects

The best way of learning the electric guitar is to learn in a “raw” manner, which is to say, without using pedals and other multi-effects. These accessories produce incredible effects but they also mask any eventual errors that the beginner guitarist will surely make.

If you have a pure, raw sound, all your mistakes will be more clearly exposed in order to correct them. Don’t use pedals or effects in the beginning, except if you are having fun or jamming with your friends.

Vintage electric guitar Before you can become an advanced guitarist, you must learn the basics! Source: VisualHunt.com

Take electric guitar classes

Of course, one of the best ways of learning to play the electric guitar is to take lessons with a professional, especially in a music school or through private lessons.

Having a professor by your side will completely boost your guitar training: he or she will be there for the good moments, always ready to encourage you, to give you tricks, advice and new techniques to try.

Your instructor will also be there during the bad times, those instances where your motivation shatters, when you feel like you’re not progressing or “forget” how to play. Those are the times you’ll need a teacher to re-motivate you!

Know that when one learns something new, whether it’s the guitar, piano, dance, or any other sporty activity, we make enormous progress in the beginning (it’s normal, when starting from zero you can only improve!), which inevitably stagnates. Progression will begin again but in a slower manner, alternating between phases of progression and of stagnation. Don’t worry about this, it’s a completely normal human response.

Find a good electric guitar teacher

To master your electric guitar, you should take lessons with a good teacher. But what do we mean by that?

Our platform is swimming in Superprofs who are waiting to teach you the guitar! Source: VisualHunt.com

A good teacher is one who corresponds to you, that’s to say, adapt to your needs and desires, who knows to set goals and listen to you. Of course, it’s vital to choose your teacher according to the type of music you’d like to learn: don’t go to a country or blues guitarist if you want to learn to play heavy metal!

Finally, the best way to learn if a teacher is right for you is to test it out! Meet as many guitarists as you can and see if you get the right “feel”! It’s a bit like when we meet someone, we generally know rather quickly if we’re on the same wavelength. If you get along well in the beginning, there’s a strong chance that the class will go well, that you will be motivated and progress quickly!

Read music

Music is not just a succession notes, rhythms, and black and white keys, etc. Playing the electric guitar also means having a perfect understanding of one’s instrument: learn the different parts of your guitar, listen to your teacher’s advice on where to position your hands perfectly, whether it’s for the rhythm with your left hand or to pluck the strings with your right hand.

Practice all the time and never stop

This is a lesson that you must learn and apply as consistently as possible. The best way to learn to play the electric guitar is to practice regularly.

Of course, make sure to attend each of your guitar lessons, but don’t limit yourself to only that. Practice at home and work on what your teacher has shown you, as well as try different things.

Finally, don’t forget to have fun playing your electric guitar: even if your guitar classes demand a lot of work, self-sacrifice, and practice, it is definitely worth all the pleasure you will get out of the result.

Lead guitarist on stage Our platform is swimming in Superprofs who are waiting to teach you the guitar! Source: VisualHunt.com

Know that all the (big) guitarists have had to overcome these same steps. Concentrate on keeping up your motivation, work and fun to reach a high level. You can even sing while playing the guitar!

Learn to improvise: insider testimony

Ok, theory is great and all, and practice makes perfect, blah blah, what you really want to do is improvise on those guitar riffs! But we’ll stop you right there, without an understanding of music theory, this is more or less mission impossible!

Of course, there is a way to learn to play the guitar alone. That’s what guitarist Camille Roux has done. He challenged himself to learn the guitar in six months and learn the art of improvisation. He relates how he’s heard all the typical advice, which didn’t quick sink in: ”begin to play on an acoustic guitar, play with the fingers before using a pick, learn songs by heart, work on your scales… I did the complete opposite!”

Camille’s GarageBand beginnings

Camille started to learn on GarageBand, a free application available on Mac computers. There you’ll find a series of courses that are of a pretty high standard for picking up guitar basics. According to Camille, “The classes are of a high quality, the best I’ve found yet on the Internet.”

You can even enroll if you feel like having a score at the end like on Guitar Hero. This goes far in terms of boosting motivation! However, Camille’s motivation began to wane after 2-3 months. After having completed his GarageBand courses, he scoured the Internet without finding what he was after: improvisation at a beginner guitar level.

Finding an improvisation teacher

This is when Camille turned to a music teacher! We always find ourselves here! Even if you are motivated enough to learn an instrument all on your own, there always comes a time where you will feel limited and where your progress stops. And this is often the case when it comes to learning to play the electric guitar.

Camille’s teacher taught him things he never knew before, which were key to learning how to improvise: “harmony foundation, styles, compositions and chord progressions, modulations, cadences…”  To know how to improvise, as we’ve said, you must have a strong guitar foundation and more—a quality teacher, books, tutorials, and practice!

A good guitar instructor is a teacher who listens to you: if you would like to learn improvisation, his or her classes should be focused on this.

To know how to improvise, practice is essential. It isn’t enough to go to class once or twice a week. Play your electric guitar every day for 10, 20, 30 minutes, or 1 hour, depending on the time you have.

Microphone To measure your progress, try recording and listening to yourself! Source: VisualHunt.com

Record yourself

To keep track of his progress, Camille took up the habit of recording himself: “from the beginning, I recorded myself regularly and every time that I listen to all the recordings from the beginning, I can see clear progress, which really motivates me!”

Improvising is possible to learn, and by recording yourself, you’ll understand what you are not doing right and how to improve your errors. Don’t hesitate to ask your teacher to listen if you have a hard time identifying the spots to correct. He or she will definitely know how to guide you.

Online tools for learning to play the electric guitar

As you may know, the Internet is brimming with guitar tutorials, but we advise taking actual lessons in person for a few months before venturing onto the world wide web. Self-taught training is useful, good and economical, but it is too easy to develop bad habits that you’ll keep over time.

There is no one, perfect method for learning to play guitar. There are many paths that could all lead to your guitar playing goals. But there is one sole certainty—that you’ve surely heard repeated many times—the key to success is repetition and practice!

Finally, we’ll echo what others have said: starting on an acoustic guitar is a good idea. This is in part because the physicality of the acoustic guitar is much harder, so your fingers will learn to be strong. It is also musically simpler.

Guitarist in the wilderness Begin your journey on an acoustic guitar. Source: VisualHunt.com

The electric guitar is just a control surface for the real instrument: the amp. You’ll need to learn a range of information and skills, in the areas of tonality and electronics. So it’s normally best to learn music notions on the acoustic guitar, and save the equipment for later.

There are other online resources that can be very useful for the beginner guitarist, which can notably help you with:

  • Learning your basic chords,
  • Familiarizing yourself with rhythm and tempo,
  • Helping you choose your guitar and tuner,
  • Finding a chord chart,
  • Selecting guitar tablatures for every level.

Electric guitar for idiots

Once you are ready to pick up the electric guitar, why not turn to Youtube? This famous site provides videos that can be really helpful for beginner musicians just starting the electric guitar. Learners can watch a video as much as he or she wants to gradually improve training. You might learn to:

  • Use an amp,
  • Play and pluck strings,
  • Position your hands correctly,
  • Play major and minor chords,
  • Play well-known guitar tunes like “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple, “A Little Help From My Friends” by the Beatles or even “You Really Got Me” by the Kinks.

Just a few things to keep yourself busy for a few hours!

As we said above, it’s completely possible to take electric guitar classes online. They can sometimes be a good compromise between teaching yourself to play the guitar and taking private lessons. What are the advantages?

  • They are probably less expensive than a private lesson,
  • You can quickly learn music passages,
  • You can learn your rhythm from the comforts of home.

To sum up:

  • Learning to play the electric guitar demands a lot of time, patience and perseverance. But what counts the most is the fun you get from it!
  • There are no tricks or secrets to learning to play guitar: you must work and start from the basics! No one learns to run before they walk, and this is the same thing for the guitar!
  • Teaching yourself to play is possible but demands much more motivation than taking a guitar class. A teacher will know exactly what to do to encourage you and help you progress more rapidly.
  • While we recommend taking classes, we also advise that you take advantage of several training sources: Internet, videos on Youtube, tutorials, tablatures… Don’t limit yourself to one hour of class each week, you’ll progress faster the more activities you do!
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