More than 1.5 million electric guitars are sold in music stores each year. That’s a lot of people out there who are learning to play the electric guitar - or who at least want to learn how to play guitar, or dream of being a guitar player.
Learning the electric guitar is a bit different from learning on an acoustic, folk, or classical guitar, however. There's a lot of different guitar techniques that you need to learn - and a whole different guitar shape you need to get comfy with.
The neck of an electric guitar is generally much skinnier, and the strings are closer to the frets to make them easier to play. The electric guitar is often very attractive to beginner guitarists who want to learn the instrument of their favorite music stars like Slash, Jimi Hendrix, Lenny Kravitz or Carlos Santana. It's good for beginner guitar players, as its technique is based more heavily on chords - including power chords - and pentatonic tonalities, at least at the beginning.
Is it easy to learn? Is there a specific method to follow?
What are the things you need to know when you first begin learning the guitar? Should you start with guitar chords or dexterity? Should you learn to play songs or focus on a guitar technique such as fingerpicking?
Should you sign up for guitar classes, a guitar course, or online guitar lessons?
The Main Differences Between Acoustic and Electric Guitars
The main difference between the two kinds of guitars are their uses, and the way they sound.
You can pick the type of guitar to learn to play according to the music and style of sounds you want to make. If you want to play rock or metal, an electric guitar will be a good choice. And if you prefer pop, country and folk music, an acoustic guitar might be better.
An acoustic guitar will play all on its own, without any external speakers or amplifiers. The design of the guitar means it sounds on its own, while an electric guitar is solid, and needs to be plugged into an amp to make noise.
The two types of guitars also have different shapes. The electric guitar is generally thinner than the acoustic, and has a longer neck.
The difference in form makes sense when you consider their different uses. An acoustic guitar will be perfect to play arpeggios or certain rhythms, but if you want to play a solo, especially one with sharp notes, the electric guitar will be more suitable.
The Advantages of Playing an Electric Guitar
The electric guitar is more versatile than an acoustic or a classical guitar. You’ll be able to do anything you could do on an acoustic guitar, plus much more. An electric guitar will let you play proper solos up to the 12th or 14th fret on the fretboard.
On an electric guitar you can play music with a faster tempo, and put together different techniques without pause - styles like legato, slide, hammer-on, pull-off, etc. The thinner, longer neck is easier to move your hands along and transition from chord to chord. The strings are also thinner than on an acoustic guitar, which is easier and less painful on your fingers.
You can also play an electric guitar at 3am without bothering any of your neighbors - all you need is to plug in some headphones. You can’t do that with an acoustic guitar!
If you want to get to a point where you can play the guitar with one hand, you’ll have to really work on your technique and practice your playing.
If you like to add different effects to your playing, the electric guitar will be perfect for you.. With all the different pedals and effects, you’ll be able to turn any piece of music from grunge to classical and back again.
The Downsides to Playing an Electric Guitar
Just like any instrument, there are advantages to the electric guitar, but there are also challenges that will frustrate and demotivate beginning guitarists.
An electric guitar is more expensive than an acoustic guitar, and in addition to the guitar itself, you’ll also have to buy all the chords and amps that go with it (or at least a cable to plug it into your computer). Maintaining and tuning your instrument and the amp aren’t always easy for a beginner either, and may become demotivating. Playing an electric guitar takes a bit more prep and kit than an acoustic guitar.
|You can plug it in. This means, you can use headphones at night to be quiet, and rock out as loud as you want whenever you can.||Usually more expensive.|
|Playability: the neck of an electric is designed to be really easy to play on.||Things are more likely to go wrong - what with all the wiring inside.|
|Versatility: make your guitar sound however you want it to, through the variety of different plug-ins, effects, and amps.||You need all of the extra equipment: pedals, amps, leads. Without these, the guitar doesn't work.|
How do You Learn to Play an Electric Guitar?
Just like learning to play any musical instrument, for the guitar there are plenty of different exercises and ways to kick off your musical career.
People who manage to teach themselves how to play the guitar on their own are really rare - it’s generally only the kind of people who can speak ten languages and do complex math problems who can manage that feat.
Therefore, to avoid early disappointment and make sure you’re learning all the basics about your new instrument, it’s a good idea to start playing the guitar by signing up for guitar classes.
Guitar classes don’t necessarily mean you need to find a school; there are many different ways to start learning. You could even try and teach yourself, so long as you have regular study sessions and then practice in between!
There are many different kinds of classes that are possible depending on your goals, circumstances, and learning profile:
- Private guitar lessons with an independent teacher, who comes to your house to teach you how to play the guitar
- Organised classes that you can find in any town or city around the country (just type guitar lessons london, guitar classes Portland or guitar lessons in Boston into your web browser) organized by your local rec center or music school
- Online guitar classes - it’s possible to sign up and take classes in a ‘virtual school’ that specializes in music classes, or to follow different YouTube videos or tutorials. You can usually find some free ones, but the quality can be hit or miss, so it’s worth shelling out for a proper class.
- Guitar classes from a book - many libraries and music stores will sell various guides that use sheet music, music tabs, or another method.
It is totally possible to teach yourself how to play the electric guitar, but it will take discipline, motivation, and regular practice.
Know how to tune your guitar
Having a well-tuned electric guitar will make it easier for you to learn how to play.
You can have it tuned by a professional musician, ask for advice from a teacher or at a music store, or buy yourself a little electric tuner which will quickly become your favorite accessory as you learn and practice your playing.
A well-tuned guitar will help with your intonation and hit the right notes. Having a badly tuned guitar will quickly leave you discouraged, as nothing will sound the way you want it to.
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With a well tuned guitar, your hand hold will also be less painful, and your fingers won’t hurt.
Learn the basics of music theory
Playing the electric guitar, just like any other instrument, will require you not only to learn the basics of your instrument, but also of music theory.
The more you know about music theory, the more you’ll be able to develop as a guitarist.
Instead of wasting your time searching for the right chord, your musical background will quickly help you hear which combination of notes sounds the best.
Learn to read sheet music and music tabs
Trying to do everything by ear is difficult, especially as a beginning guitarist! That’s why it is important to learn how to read both normal sheet music, as well as music tabs. Here’s a basic overview of the difference between the two:
In music, a tab is a system of notation for a specific instrument which shows the finger placements and rhythm on a schematic representation of different parts of the instrument. The information shown is not the same as sheet music - tabs reflect the unique nature of that specific instrument and represent a simplified version of the music which tells you precisely how to play it on that instrument. For example, it will tell you which of the fingers on your right hand you should use to play the string or strings to make a note.
In order to understand how to read a tab, you’ll also need to have an understanding of how to read music. But tabs will give you specific advice for the guitar which aren't there in normal music.
When you want to learn how to play a famous solo like the Dire Strait’s ‘Sultan of Swing’ or Metallica’s ‘Nothing Else Matters’, it’ll be much easier using tabs!
Listen and repeat
Whatever piece of music you’re trying to learn, whether you know it already or not, you’ll need to play it again and again until you can play it naturally and instinctively.
Don’t just try to play the music solos, but try to learn the whole piece of music. Understand the bass guitar parts (you can also get bass guitar lessons), read the sheet music and tabs, and learn how to speed up or slow down a piece of music to really understand its bones.
The goal isn’t to become an electric guitar virtuoso who can play all the famous solos, even the hard ones, but to be able to understand and listen to a piece of music, recognize the right notes and then recreate it perfectly.
To help you, here are the top ten guitar solos in history.
If you’re struggling just using guitar tabs or sheet music, it’s also always worth searching YouTube for a tutorial.
The good with the bad
When you’re learning, it’s important to alternate harder and easier pieces of music. That way you won’t be bored or frustrated and tempted to give up.
After working on a particularly hard piece, give yourself a break to play something easier. Try something you’ve already mastered to unknot your fingers and restore your confidence.
Train yourself by working on pieces of increasing difficulty - evaluate your skill level and begin to increase the difficulty bit by bit. It’s only by stretching yourself that you will improve your playing.
When you get to a difficult passage, try to break it down and play it note by note. Slow down the tempo by using a metronome.
Skip the special effects
The best way to learn how to play the electric guitar is by mastering the raw basics. It’s best to skip the special effects and the pedals, etc, when you’re first learning.
These ‘accessories’ make some really cool sounds, but they’ll also prevent your from hearing and correcting your errors.
If you have a pure, raw sound, all of your mistakes will be easy to recognize for you to correct.
Save the special effects and the pedals for when you’re playing around with your friends, at least at the beginning.
Learn by Taking an Electric Guitar Class
One of the best ways to learn how to play the electric guitar, is to take professional guitar classes, especially at a music school or with a private teacher.
Having your teacher by your side will help accelerate your learning - your teacher will be there for the good times to keep you encouraged, and will help you learn new skills in order to keep improving.
Your teacher will also be there for the bad times when your motivation plummets or it seems like you just aren't improving and aren’t ever going to get better. Your teacher will be able to keep you motivated.
You should know that when you first start a new activity, whether it’s the guitar, dance, or another activity altogether, you rapidly improve at the beginning (and it’s normal to see lots of improvements when you’re starting at 0!), but then you stagnate. You’ll start improving again, but it will be slower, and you’ll alternate through times of progression and stagnation. There’s nothing to worry about and it’s totally normal.
Finding a good electric guitar teacher
To really master the electric guitar, you need to sign up for classes with a good teacher. But where can you find them.
A good teacher is one with whom you can build a good rapport, who can adjust their lessons to your goals and needs, and who understands how to set objectives that will keep you motivated.
The best way to find someone is to try them out! Meet a few different guitar teachers and see if you gel. Just the same as when you meet someone for the first time and you can quickly tell whether or not you’re on the same wavelength, it’s pretty similar with a music teacher!
If you get off to a good start, it’s likely that the classes will go quickly and you’ll quickly be able to improve.
Obviously, it’s important to take the style of music you’re trying to learn into account when you choose your teacher. Don’t pick a country music player if you have your heart set on learning metal!
Be sure to select a teacher who can educate you on everything guitar; not just how to play!
Music isn’t just a series of notes and rhythms, of black and white marks on a page.
Playing the electric guitar will require a perfect understanding of your instrument - you should learn all the different parts of the instrument and listen to your teacher’s advice as they show you where to hold your hands, whether it’s sorting out the beat of you left hand, or showing you how to strum the strings with your right hand.
Practice Again and Again, all the time
You’ll often hear that you need to practice as regularly as possible in order to improve.
The best way to learn how to play the electric guitar is to practice regularly.
Clearly, make sure you go to all of your classes with your teacher, but don’t limit yourself to just going to classes. Make sure you play at home too, to practice what you've learned with your teacher and to try out new pieces.
And don’t forget to enjoy playing the electric guitar! Even if your guitar classes take a lot of work and investment, the results are truly worth the effort!
You should know that all (great) guitarists have trod the path you’re on now and taken the same steps. Focus on your reasons for learning the guitar, practice, and take pleasure in the small victories.
You can also start singing while you play the guitar.
Learn to Improvise: a Case Study
Okay, so you get the idea - work on your pieces of music and practice until everything is perfect - but you want to start improvising and jamming!
I’ll stop you right now…without learning the basics and music theory, it will be almost impossible.
But of course, there are ways to start. That’s what Camille did. He accepted a dare to learn to play the guitar in six months and especially to learn how to improvise. He flew in the face of standard advice:
“I began playing on an acoustic guitar and playing around with my finger positions before I started using a pick, learning pieces by heart, and working on my chord combinations…I did everything in reverse!”
Starting out using GarageBand
Camille had started learning guitar on GarageBand, a free application on the Mac. Using the app you can follow a few different lessons that cover the basics fairly well. “The courses are of very good quality, I still haven’t found anything better online!” said Camille.
You can even sign up properly if you like, and get a ranking at the end of the course like on Guitar Hero. Now that’ll motivate you to learn!
But Camille’s motivation hit a low after 2-3 months. After he had done all the Garage Band lessons, he searched the internet for more classes, but struggled to find what he was looking for - how to improvise as a beginner guitarist.
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Finding the right Improv teacher
That’s when Camille started looking for a music teacher!
It always ends the same way! Even if you’re motivated enough at the beginning to learn an instrument on your own, you’ll still get to a point where you’ll struggle to improve or your progression will stagnate for too long. It’s especially true for the electric guitar.
Camille’s teacher helped him learn “tons of things - the basics of harmonies, different styles, compositions and transitions between chords, cadences…” - plenty of things that Camille hadn’t known anything about. And as he explains, “in order to be able to improvise, you first need to understand what you can play and when.”
As you’ll see from Camille’s story, in order to learn how to improvise, you need to know the basics… and more! The more you can learn from a good teacher, books, tutorials, and practice, the better you will be.
A good teacher is one who listens to what you have to say - if your goal is to learn how to improvise, the classes should be set up to help you achieve that goal!
In order to learn how to improvise, I’ll let you in on the secret - practice is essential. It’s not enough to just take a class once or twice a week. You should be practicing the electric guitar every day! 10, 20, 30 minutes, even an hour if you have the time to spare. You’ll improve so much more and much faster!
In order to understand how he was progressing, Camille began recording himself. “In the beginning, I recorded myself regularly and every time I listened to all the recordings in order, I couldn’t help but notice my progress! That kept me motivated.”
By improvising and recording yourself, it’ll help you recognize what isn’t working, hear your errors, and begin to improve bit by bit.
Don’t hesitate to play your recordings for your teacher if you’re having trouble recognizing and correcting your errors. They'll be able to help.
You can read Camille’s full account (in the original french) here.
What Tools Can You Find Online to Learn the Electric Guitar?
It is true that there are all kinds of tutorials online, but it’s a good idea to take some lessons in person, at least for a few months.
Learning on your own can be really useful and budget friendly, but it is easy to pick up bad habits that you’ll have trouble changing over time.
There isn’t just one way to learn how to play the guitar.
There are many different ways that’ll help you achieve your musical goals.
You’ll hear it often, but it’s worth repeating - the most important thing is to keep practicing.
I’ll also second those other people who recommend starting out as a beginner on the acoustic guitar.
One of the reasons for this is that the acoustic guitar is more demanding physically and your fingers will need to hold and strum the strings harder.
The other reason is the the acoustic guitar is easier musically.
The electric guitar is just the switchboard for the real instrument, which is the amp.
You’ll need to learn all the complexity around different tones, the electronics behind it all, and more.
Learn all the basic music principles on an acoustic guitar first, and then put everything together later.
Besides GarageBand, books, and guitar classes, there are also a few online tools that can help the beginner guitarist. Here they are:
- Guitar for Dummies - this always dependable brand has a series of free articles on their website that cover everything from restringing an electric guitar, learning to read tabs and music, plus more. You can have a look through their resources here
- This popular blog post, Tropical MBA, has helped a lot of people through the basics of buying their first guitar and learning to put together their first chords into a piece of music. It’s definitely worth a read and a great place to get started
- There are also a series of good YouTube lessons for beginner electric guitarists. They can be a bit hit or miss, but this one from Simon Smith has more than a million views - that must be worth something!
- Learning to play the electric guitar takes time, patience, and perseverance! But the most important thing is enjoying the music that comes as a result.
- There's no secret to learning how to play: you need to work hard and start with the basics! No one runs before they can walk, and the same idea applies to learning to play the guitar.
- It’s possible to learn to play on your own, but you’ll need more motivation than if you sign up for classes. A teacher will also help keep you motivated and make sure you’re improving.
- But if signing up for classes seems like a painful chore, there are still many different ways to learn - websites, YouTube videos, tutorials, tabs… Don’t just stop at one one-hour class per week, and you’ll learn more quickly!
Now discover how the electric guitar has evolved over time...