Learn How to Play Guitar for Beginners: Tips for How to Get Started Without Feeling Overwhelmed or Discouraged

I’ll never forget the first time I laid eyes on my grandfather’s beautiful 1950’s era Gibson acoustic-electric guitar.

Due to an accident with his hands, his fingers were a bit messed up, so I didn’t get to watch him play much at all.

But the thought of playing excited me so much that I began to teach myself how to do it.

A few years (and many sessions of Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star) later, I was getting somewhere, but I hadn’t made much progress.

Everything changed when I learned a method called the Nashville Number System. My friend Jared showed me the ropes, and before long, it became much easier to understand music.

That’s the exact method we use to teach here at Worship By Numbers.

There are some things I know now that I wish I knew starting out, and I want to share some of those with you.

I hope this encourages and inspires you to keep going. Learning the guitar is a challenge, but it’s incredibly rewarding, and opens lots of doors.

The Essentials: First Steps in Your Guitar Journey

It can be exciting to learn how to play guitar for beginners.

You should be proud of yourself for making the decision, but should also understand the commitment you are making. I remember one of the thoughts that kept me going in the beginning: “A lot of people play, surely I can do it too.”

I strongly advise you to latch onto that mindset. You can do it too!

Not everyone becomes a “great,” though—and that’s where it’s important to keep your expectations in check. You can become a great one day. It will take time. And that’s okay!

There are three huge pieces of advice I can give you that will dramatically help when it comes to getting started:

1. Find the right instrument.

The “usual” beginner’s mindset, “I’ll get something cheap until I decide whether or not I really want to do this.”

This mindset is destructive and starts you off on the wrong foot, for two main reasons.

First, there is a major difference between how cheap instruments feel, play, and sound vs how “less cheap” instruments feel, play, and sound. Any experienced musician will tell you this.

And while you shouldn’t necessarily be expected to drop thousands of dollars on your first instrument, neither should you be visiting your local bargain store looking for a beginner instrument.

My advice would be to start with something in the $800-$1,500 range.

In the grand scheme, this doesn’t break the bank, and it will be a nice instrument that lasts for the first few years. (And then, if you decide to quit and sell, these have a better chance of retaining some resell value.)

Second, I believe you should go into something new with an “investment mindset.”

The lesson: It’s hard to feel invested in something that you haven’t invested much in.

Parting with $150 to “see if you like it” is not likely to produce results for you. Parting with $1,500 with the commitment to see it through for at least one year?

Now that’s a different story.

2. Find the right instructor

This hardly needs to be stated, but not all instructors are created equal.

Finding a guitar teacher is nothing like high school, where—to quote a saying we often use with our kids—“you get what you get, and you don’t get upset!”

It’s perfectly natural that one teacher may not fit your styles as well as another, and you should feel very comfortable with whomever you choose.

If for some reason you don’t, then move on. It’s okay.

You will have a much easier time learning if you find the process enjoyable, and finding the right instructor is key to making that happen.

Personally, I didn’t even use an instructor. You may not need to either if you are strong-willed, self-motivated, and finding learning by yourself comes naturally to you.

3. Find the right method.

How you learn is just as important as who you learn from.

The bad news is there are lots of different teaching styles and methods. It might be impossible to know how best you learn before trying some things out.

The good news is there’s a simpler way of getting to the right destination. You can either learn using:

  • Musical notes
  • Guitar Tabs
  • Numbers

I’ve listed them in order of complexity (hardest to easiest) based on my experience as a professional touring and studio musician.

Learning to read sheet music (musical notes) is a skill that can be very important in certain settings. However, there are two major drawbacks.

First, it takes a lot practice and long time to learn. You have to learn many different scales, forms, chord arrangements, and timing patterns. Second, it is not a practical skill that will aid in most situations.

In fact, it might actually harm your ability to learn by ear or improvise, both desirable skills for the casual player or church musician.

Guitar tabs are a bit easier, because they are specific to learning the guitar and are based on finger positioning. The drawback to learning tabs is when you switch the key of music (so, G instead of A, for example) you have to relearn the song.

Tabs are also not very easy to read “on the fly” and usually require a lot of practice and learning time for each song. Plus, they don’t really teach you anything about music—it’s just a framework for helping you play the right note at the right time, nothing more.

Finally, guitar tabs have a close cousin called chord charts. Chord charts are a bit more useful than tabs when reading on the fly, but neither tabs or chord charts are helpful with timing.

However, once again, if the song changes keys, chord charts and tabs alike are not very useful. (Note: experienced users may know that a capo will provide some aid here, but not always, and it takes time for a beginner to work with a capo as well.)

The above reasons (and more) are why we teach using numbers instead of musical notes and/or tabs.

As we describe in our Beginner Guitar course, using numbers—known as the Nashville Number System—provides a simple framework for learning the guitar (or any instrument).

It can help you learn new songs in a very, very short amount of time (even sightreading or playing by ear), teach you about how music works in the process, and it even denotes the timing of songs clearly.

We might be a little biased, but when it comes to choosing the right method to learn, we definitely recommend the Nashville Numbers System, which is how we teach everything here at WBN.

Structuring Practice Sessions for Optimal Learning

Ah… the joys of practice.

Let’s be honest—practice feels like work. At least in the beginning.

It can be frustrating and disheartening, especially when it seems like you’re doing everything right, but the results just aren’t coming.

Fear not! There are a few hacks that we have used in the past, and I think they can help you too.

Hack #1: Invest in Your Learning

I’ve already mentioned the first hack above, so I won’t spend much additional time here.

It bears repeating, though: You pay attention to what you pay for. Jesus said it this way, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

If you show me your bank account and your calendar, I can tell you what it is that you value. If you value something, you will invest time, money, and other resources into it.

This works two ways. It’s true in retrospect—in other words, you can look to the past and you will see this ring true in your life.

But you can also be proactive about this and control it. By investing in something, you can “trick yourself” into caring about it more. That will make it much easier to tough out those practice sessions.

Buy a nice instrument. Invest in a training program. These things truly do matter.

Hack #2: Temptation Bundling

Temptation Bundling is an excellent hack that allow you to tie activities with perceived difficulty or angst to activities with perceived enjoyment.

And depending on the context, it comes with the additional benefit of one activity being more “mindless” than the other, allowing for muscle memory to do some of its best work.

Author James Clear explains:

Let’s say you really want to focus on your health by going to the gym but you really don’t like going. You also love to catch up on your favorite shows on Netflix after work, but you feel guilty after one or two hours of watching TV. You feel like your time could have been spent more productively and that you probably should have gone to the gym instead.

With temptation bundling, you would use Netflix as motivation to get into gym and as a reward for doing what you should be doing anyway. This means you would restrict your Netflix time to the same time you spend working out – only watch your favorite show while you’re in the gym. Once you leave the gym, you’re left wondering what happens next in that show. The only way to find out (that is, if you stick to the plan) is to reward yourself with the next episode while you’re on the treadmill.

So in this context, you would tie practicing some of the more boring and mundane beginner guitar exercises while doing something else you already perceive as enjoyable, such as watching Netflix, the game, or something else.

Don’t misunderstand me—I don’t want to suggest learning the guitar isn’t fun. It definitely is! But let’s be real, it’s a lot more fun when you know what you’re doing 🙂

I’d rather you go into lessons fully prepared for what you will face, and that means being real about the fact that it can be boring at times, especially in the beginning.

If you know that going into it and prepare for it, it will make going through those times much easier.

Hack #3: Don’t Go it Alone

Many people find it encouraging to learn new things or create new habits in a more social environment.

Some studies have even shown that, when working out with a buddy, results and effectiveness goes way up and dropout rates are lower.

Obviously, if you and a friend start learning together, that would be a great motivator. But it doesn’t have to be someone you know.

There are group music classes you can join in many places, and as of this writing, Worship By Numbers plans to add a private community element very soon.

Not only can you work with a mentor to guide your learning path, but you can also learn alongside peers in a similar place as you. This allows everyone to motivate each other, make progress together, and see results faster.

Stay Motivated and Engaged in Early Stages of Learning

With the right mindset, the right toolset, and the right skillset, you can truly do anything. This includes playing the guitar.

No single piece of advice in this article is the magic bullet.

However, rest assured that each of these elements compound together to make a fantastic beginner learning experience.

If you are interested in a simple learning method that can teach how to play 1000’s of songs, please consider becoming a member of Worship By Numbers.

Our instructors are professional touring and studio musicians, with tons of experience both playing and teaching others how to play. We’d love to help simplify music for you and make it exciting and fun.

Are you in? Click here to learn more.


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