Hey everyone. I've been playing guitar for around 10 or 11 years now. Looking back, it seems like learning guitar as a beginner wasn't as difficult as you might think. I think some of that has to do with the way I learned how to play, and the way I got into the world of playing guitar.
I think a lot of people may think that the talent is innate, or that you'll have to do a lot of hard, difficult, and boring exercises in order to just be decent at the guitar. I don't really think that's true, as that's not what I did when I started out. I'll try to detail things that I did as I got more and more into guitar. Hopefully, this will help you learn how to play in a more "natural" way like I did.
If anyone wants me to go more in-depth with any of these topics, just let me know. I can answer comments, or possibly make more standalone articles based on whatever questions you have.
Listen to Music with Guitar in It
You may already be doing this if you have an interest in guitar. But having an appreciation for guitar playing in music, whether it's acoustic guitar, electric guitar-based rock, or something different, is important.
Pick music that you like. I was very much into classic rock when I first started out, as a lot of that is extremely guitar focused (with a lot of guitar solos, of course). If that's not your thing, you could go for different genres. There's things like metal, progressive metal, blues, folk, country, or even video game music with guitar playing in it (like the music from the Sonic Adventure series of games, or the band The Black Mages for rock covers of Final Fantasy songs).
Some bands/artists I like now are Plini (progressive/ambient/jazz-ish metal) and TesseracT (progressive metal). Both artists are very guitar-focused. However, you should listen to whatever you want, and whatever you like to listen to. You could even listen to music with no guitar in it at all, and learn how to play it on the guitar (more on this further down).
Watch Videos of Good Guitar Players
This one was hugely inspirational for me. I would spend a lot of time just watching other great guitarists play with my friends (who were also musicians), and I'd spend time watching these guitarists on my own time as well.
There were a few good videos back on YouTube about 10 years ago, but I'm sure there are tons more now. You could just search "awesome guitar playing" in YouTube, and you'll likely find a bunch of great videos.
Don't fall into the trap of thinking "Wow, these people are so good. I'm just not that talented. I'll never play like that". No way! Just watch the videos, let your jaw drop to the floor, and get excited about how good they are. Instead of having a defeatist attitude, just think things like "This person is so GOOD! I want to learn how to play like that!", or "I want to learn that guitar solo!", or "I will be better than him/her. You'll see." (wanting to be competitive can be a good motivator, too. Don't forget that! :P ).
Here are some links to some great players that I would watch in my early days, along with one that I found later on. Watch and be amazed, and be inspired. Watching how they move their fingers and hands, and listening to their choices of notes can be helpful, too.
Guitarist: Arkadiy Starodoub
Just insane, interesting sounding shred metal.
Guitarist: Guthrie Govan
Awesome jazz fusion guitar with a great guitar solo.
Guitarist: Jon Gomm
Insane acoustic guitar with percussion, harmonics, re-tuning the guitar in the middle of the song, all with singing on top. Crazy multi-tasking guitar player.
Some other great/big name guitarists (in no particular order): Paul Gilbert, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, David Gilmour, Dominic Frasca. Look up videos of them, and watch how crazy some of these guys can get.
Make Good Use of Guitar Tabs
Guitarists are lucky, because we don't have to completely learn how to read sheet music (music notation with lots of dots and lines and all that junk. More about it here). Guitar tabs, or guitar tablature, is a way of writing down which frets (the spaces in between the metal bars on the neck of the guitar) to put your fingers on.
They look like this:
First few notes of Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin.
You basically just put your fingers on whatever fret and string it says, and pluck/strum the strings it tells you to. You'll have to know the song in order to get the proper rhythm, though, so have the CD/Spotify/YouTube/song file handy, just in case you forget how the song goes, or to make sure your playing is correct.
As for where to get the tabs: ultimate-guitar.com was the best place for me starting out. They had pretty much any song I wanted to learn, and they probably have more now, as it's been years since I started learning.
Basically, just think of a few songs you like (or even just one song to start out), and look up the tabs for it. You can go on a tab website like ultimate-guitar.com, or just search "song name guitar tab" in Google (just replace "song name" with whatever song you want to learn, like "acdc back in black guitar tab"). Then, you want to have the tab open, and just try to put your fingers where it tells you. Listen to the song if you are confused on the rhythm/which notes to play at what time.
Here's a more in-depth article on how to read tabs, from ultimate-guitar.com:
Figure Out How to Play Songs by Ear/from Memory
This is a big one. Playing songs by ear means you just listen to the song, and you try to figure out how to play it on the guitar/whatever instrument you play. You may think that this is some superhuman feat only able to be performed by prodigies like Mozart himself, but it's not as crazy as you may think.
You pretty much just put the song on, and fumble around on the guitar, putting your fingers on random frets, trying to match the note you hear with the note that you're playing. You just do this one note at a time, slowly building the song one note after another. You want to just listen to the song, or "play" the song in your head, and match the notes.
You will probably hit a LOT of wrong notes. That's fine, and normal, especially when you're just starting out. The goal is to just keep searching until you hit a note that sounds exactly like the current note in the song.
Over time, this can get easier if you do it a lot. I've done this so much ever since I've started out, and now I can figure out songs fairly fast by ear, relate them to certain guitar scales/chords, etc. This will likely be a slow process with a lot of mess-ups at first, but it's all about searching for the correct note that you have to play next.
This technique will not work properly if your guitar is not tuned. Which brings me to my next point...
Learn How to Tune Your Guitar
Don't be scared of this one. It's not that complicated. Tuning the guitar is just the act of turning the pegs at the top of the guitar neck (or at the bottom of the guitar for some guitars) so that the strings are vibrating at the correct note whenever you strum them.
Tuning can be accomplished by tuning by ear, or by using a tuner. I recommend using a tuner when you're starting out, and using it later on in your career, especially if you're playing a show/recording music.
Korg makes great guitar tuners. I have one myself. You can buy one here from Amazon. If you don't want to buy one yet, you can use a web tuner on your computer, or an app. These would just use your phone/smart device's microphone in order to listen to whatever string your playing, and it tells you to tighten the string higher, or loosen the string lower.
Just play one string at a time, and the tuner will tell you to make the string's note higher or lower. Starting from the bottom (the thickest string/closest string towards you at the top), the notes of the strings are E, A, D, G, B, and E. Tune the strings to those notes (I can make a more in-depth article on how to tune if anyone wants me to).
Don't be afraid of snapping the strings (strings naturally break, whether you're a beginner or a pro. Just buy replacements), but don't wind up the pegs too tight. Then they will surely break after too much tightening. Just slowly turn the pegs until they reach the correct note for each string.
Copy Mannerisms and Styles of Other Guitarists (Watch Their Hands and Fingers!)
Going back to watching videos of other pro guitarists... watch their hands and fingers. You can get a better sense of what it looks and "feels" like to play guitar the way they do if you try to copy them. Try to copy how they hold the guitar, how they wrap their hands and fingers around the neck, how they strum and pick, how they slide around and blaze around the neck, etc.
Also, when you're playing from tabs or figuring out songs by ear, try to copy how they played it as well. It's not just about placing your fingers in the right place, but it's copying the style of the playing, too. Did they bend that note a little bit? Did they "shake" or "wobble" the note when they played it (also known as vibrato)? Did they hit this one note really hard, or really soft? Get into the details of how they did it. Copy it, even an exact copy, then add your own expression on top of it, etc. A big part of music is not just the notes, but the expression. Guitar can be a very expressive instrument, with two people playing the same notes, but putting their own personal taste and flair onto it. Don't forget about this aspect of guitar playing, as this can be that extra little bit of secret sauce that can make your playing sound great to yourself and others, and feel great to you.
Go to Guitar/Music Stores and Play Around with New Guitars and Equipment
This is a fun one. You can head to Guitar Center, Sam Ash, or any local music stores in any city or town near you. Always be respectful, always ask permission, and always make sure that you don't damage or scratch any of the equipment inside - treat it very carefully. A lot of guitars and guitar equipment can get pretty pricey, so it's very important to be careful with the equipment, especially because it's not your own. If you're not careful, the store workers may hate you/make you purchase what you broke/kick you out. But as long as your careful, a lot of the workers will generally be fine with you playing with their guitars and equipment (in places like Guitar Center, you're perfectly welcome to try out most of the gear in the shop). They are probably musicians themselves, and are also enthusiastic about the whole thing. They may even have tips for you if you're just starting out.
One of the fun things about music is all the gear that you can mess around with. Guitar equipment is a whole rabbit hole of its own. There are so many amplifiers, guitar effects pedals, different types of guitars, strings... you name it. Going to a guitar or music store and trying out different guitars and effects pedals can be very inspiring, can give you a lot of exposure to all of the crazy gear in the guitar world, and can help motivate you to work harder to get higher quality guitars, to learn different instruments possibly (like the bass guitar), and can make you want to get better at playing so that you can be worthy of some of the cool guitars and guitar equipment out there. Going to music stores with musician friends is also fun.
Play with Other People
This one is big as well. There are so many benefits to playing with other people. They can teach you things you don't know; you can gain confidence because you are better than them; you can create songs together and start a band; you can learn how to improvise; you can learn how to groove and develop good rhythm and timing with other people; you can feel competitive, which can drive you to get better... but most of all, you can just have fun playing.
I started playing with a group of guys when I was around 13-14. We were generally beginner musicians, with varying degrees of prior musical experience. One of the guitarists was a lot better than most of us. I learned some things from him. It's also possible that any experience that they had over me drove me to become better, because I didn't want to disappoint them, bring them down, or look like an amateur. This is a positive thing, though, as I feel like my guitar playing as of this day is better than the average player.
You don't have to throw yourself into a jam session yet. But socializing with other musicians, whether it's online or in real life, and especially playing with them, can help you learn. It can help you stick with guitar and get further into the world of music, and most of all, have fun with music and the guitar. Nailing a great guitar solo can be more fun when you have an audience. Other musicians can help lift you to new heights by writing music with you, possibly kickstarting a career... there's a lot of possibilities with this one.
Screw Around and Have Fun
Sounds cheesy, but it's important. If you like playing the guitar, then this can help propel you forward in your playing. I would spend hours just playing the same song I learned over and over, or figuring out songs from my head/from tabs, trying to play things faster, messing around with my amp or effects pedals, etc. It probably added up to hundreds of hours of playing, maybe thousands, whether I was just playing on my own, or playing with other people. Making it an enjoyable experience was huge for me - I just had fun doing it. Whatever you want out of the guitar, whether it's playing shows on stage, recording your own stuff, playing with friends, impressing girls, or just learning a few songs to make yourself happy... it's important to always think about what you want, and to ultimately just have fun with it. Music can be a very serious and technical endeavor down the road, which is fine. But the overall goal is to have fun with it - to make or play something that you enjoy, entertain other people, or to just entertain yourself.
I hope that this article was helpful to you. I tried to give some tips that didn't get too technical in terms of music theory, scales or exercises, etc. Music theory, exercises, etc. can definitely help, and they can definitely propel your playing to new heights. But, I think focusing too much on that stuff in the beginning can get you away from the thing you want the most: to just play. I feel as though the things I listed helped me do that much more than any exercises ever really did.
Please let me know if you have any questions or comments. If you want me to go in depth about something, you can just ask me, and I can answer you in the comments. I could possibly write entire standalone articles for whatever topic confuses you as well. But overall, I hope this article has helped you, and that it inspires you to start or continue your journey into the world of guitar. :)