Learning to Play The Guitar

Here's a little advice from a seasoned musician for beginners who are learning to play the guitar.

| November/December 1981

learning to play the guitar - Marc Bristol

Marc Bristol, seen here performing at a local festival, knows a few helpful tricks for beginnings learning to play the guitar..


Even homesteaders need to relax and enjoy themselves from time to time, right? And almost everybody these days wants to cut his or her cost of living. So how about a little do-it-yourself entertainment?

That's what this column is about. Homegrown music... and sometimes homemade musical instruments to play it on. 

In all the years that I've been writing this column, I've never once delved into the one aspect of teaching homegrown music that I know best: learning to play the guitar. (Of course, I've been singing, clapping my hands, whistling, and listening since before I can remember, but the ol' gitbox introduced me to the world of musical instruments some 16 years ago.) And although I certainly don't know everything there is to know about pickin'—or even close to half the story—I have learned a trick or two along the way. I'd like to take this opportunity to pass along what tips I can, while asking you to remember that there are lots more ways to go about it than my way.

For the beginning picker, simply forcing clumsy fingers through the chord patterns is usually the most difficult task. And the second worst is waiting until calluses build up so the fingers can press the strings down long enough to play more than a song or two. All I can tell you novices is, hang in there! Learn at least a couple of chords, and some songs you can use them on. Instead of just practicing scales and chords, play the songs and concentrate on the music. Really, if you stick to it, in a short while your hands will start getting used to the yoga positions you're putting them through, and suddenly those insurmountable obstacles will look easy!

Once you've mastered the first few chords, learn more, and try songs with more complicated arrangements. There are a great many books on the market containing diagrams of chords (many even include pictures of someone's hand playing them), and such manuals can be all but indispensable at the beginning. You can find the books at most music stores, or mail-order them.

Chord Data

As you improve, you'll notice that most American pop and folk music is constructed around a three-chord progression. Of course, many songs have four- or five-chord progressions, but the major movement even in most of those is through the tonic, subdominant, and dominant chords.

Now those are pretty big words, so I'll give some examples. In the key of C, the tonic chord is C, the subdominant is F, and the dominant is G. The numbers 1, 4, and 5 refer to the position of each chord's "name" note in the diatonic (eight-tone) scale: In the key of C, C is the first note, F is the fourth, and G is the fifth.

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