Here's my prototype beginners guide to the guitar, written by a bona fide beginner. This is a bit under 1500 words.
Inspiration has struck and I want to learn to play guitar. Now what?
This is intended a brief guide to help you get started, so you can learn from other people’s experiences.
Decide what type or genre of music you want to play. This is important because you can’t make a lot of other decisions until you’ve made this one. You can learn chords, scales, runs, and riffs, but you need to think about what you want to do with them. So take a while to think about what style you want to play. Even if you want to develop a style of your own, it will probably be rooted in an existing one.
You also need to decide how seriously you want to take this. If you are doing this because you want to develop a new recreation, you may have a lot more latitude in later decisions. If you want to develop a career, than you are likely to be more focussed, perhaps even aggressive, in making your decisions.
Once you’ve made that decision on genre, you can make the next important one.
What sort of guitar do I need (as my first guitar)?
Electric or acoustic? It does matter. You can’t play fingerpicking style on an electric, and speed metal on an acoustic is just wrong... Now that you have made the decision on genre, you can make that decision. While certain genres may favour certain makes or variants, you will probably be better starting off with a good basic model from a major manufacturer. Do lots of research and draw up a list of candidates. I’m not going to recommend specific models, because while my guitar is good for the path I am following, you may find that the general opinion is that a quite different model is the best place to start for the direction you want to go in.
How much should I spend?
No more than you can afford, but not necessarily as much as you can afford. If you are a complete beginner, you may find that the guitar is not for you. Even if you can afford a $2,000 Gibson or $4,000 Martin, you’re going to feel awfully foolish putting it up on E-Bay after six weeks.
Most major manufacturers, including Fender, Gibson, and Yamaha, sell starter kits for the neophyte guitarist, so that you can get everything you need to get started for $200-300 (in the US.) The guitars range from acceptable to really a lot better than their price. You will pay more for an electric guitar setup because need a small amplifier (a practice amp.). One thing that comes with these kits is an autotuner. As tuning is a major pastime for guitarists, the autotuner is essential. If you have perfect pitch, you won’t need one, but most of us do not have that good an ear, and the tuner will be a big help. Some of the add-ons, like the strap, can be a bit cheap and nasty. Don’t bother with extras like effects pedals until you have developed basic skills, and don’t start buying subscriptions to guitar magazines until you are certain you’re going to stick with it.
Where should I buy my guitar?
If you need to be careful with your money, chains like Sam Ash Music or Guitar Center in the US can save you a fair bit on the initial cost, and there will be a warranty accompanying a new guitar or a second-hand one that has been reconditioned. Once in their system, you will also get offers for workshops, podcasts, and discounts. However, the service can be quite variable when you do need help. It depends on who’s in the shop that day. If you go to a specialist dealer, or a guitar maker, you will be pretty much guaranteed knowledgeable service, and you may well end up with a much better match for you. It may cost more to go to the specialist, but good information is of great value, and poor information is valueless. The specialist and the chain dealer may also be able to help you find a tutor (see below.)
If I want to buy second-hand, what should I look for?
If you want to try and find a cheap guitar in a second hand shop, you need to be careful. The guitar is wood, so it’s like a piece of furniture, and look at it the way you would look at a piece of furniture. It should look complete, integrated, and finished. If it looks warped, or the varnish or veneer are cracked or damaged, or the metal parts show signs of corrosion, then you have a problem. Specifically, you need to look at the action, which is the distance between the strings and the fretboard of the guitar. It should be minimal and uniform along the length of the guitar neck. Also, try and take a guitar-playing friend with you when you go shopping.
Do I need an instructor, or can I learn everything I need from a book, the web, etc.?
Even if you can’t afford regular lessons, try and find a guitarist friend who can look at what you’re doing every now and again and give you some pointers. Books have their uses, you can take your own time, and information is a lot less volatile than the partly-heard instructions from a tutor while you’re breaking your wrist trying an F chord for the first time. Also, the music on the CDs that accompany most books is played far too fast for a beginner to really follow.
Books can tell you the right way to do things, but they can’t tell you when you’re doing things wrong. A tutor can tell you, and work with you to correct things. It’s worth the money. Left on your own, you can develop bad habits that hinder progress (one of mine was placing my left thumb.) A good tutor can also be a friend and mentor to your development. If you have the luxury of a number to choose from, use it to find the best one for you.
Tutors will use teaching manuals, such as those from Mel Bay and Hal Leonard, but they are best when used with a tutor.
There are great guitar players out there who never had a lesson, but they are the exception, not the rule.
How much should I practice?
At first, no more than you can manage, but practice regularly. It is generally accepted that half an hour every evening is better than one three hour session on the weekend. If you find yourself really enjoying the exercise you have been given, keep on going. Once you get to a stage where you are making real progress, you can “practice until you bleed, then practice some more,” but you should enjoy the practice and the growth and development of your skills, especially in these early stages.
Is this going to hurt?
At first, it might well do. If you spend your day sitting at a desk, working on a keyboard, then the first few practices will be uncomfortable, especially as you develop calluses on your left hand from pressing the strings. It will pass.
Should I take board grade exams?
For those outside the UK: schools of music in Britain publish syllabuses for development of abilities in essentially all instruments. There are eight grades (1-8) with 8 being the highest and essential if you want to study the instrument at university level. Most of the time this is applied to children in the 12-18 year range, and most are happy to finish their education with a grade 5 or higher. The syllabus for guitar is for the nylon-strung classical guitar. While this would be a good way to drive progress, it might not be something you have the time and resources for. Some boards also examine in other countries (including the US.)
What about internet resources?
There are a lot out there, and probably too many for guitar for any one person to filter. So, if tutors or friends recommend something to you, look at it, and consider it an adjunct to your training. Once you have a little experience, you will be better able to select sources that help you develop.
May the long time sun shine upon you,
All love surround you,
And the pure light within you,
Guide your way on.