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I Can’t Read Music. Can I Still Learn to Play the Guitar?

Absolutely! While reading music can be a useful skill, it’s not a prerequisite for learning to play the guitar. In fact, many famous guitarists started out without any formal music training. Here are some tips for beginner guitarists looking to start learning without traditional music notation.

1. Start with the Basics

Before you dive into playing songs, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the guitar. Learn the names of the parts of the guitar, how to hold it properly, and how to strum. Practice basic finger exercises to build up strength and dexterity.

Understanding Your Instrument

The guitar is made up of several parts, each with its own function. The body of the guitar is the large part that you rest on your knee when you sit down to play. You will strum and pick the strings near the soundhole of the guitar. (or pickups if it is an electric guitar) The neck is the long, thin part that you hold with your left hand (if you’re right-handed). The strings run along the neck, and the frets are the metal strips that cross the neck. Make sure to review parts of the guitar including the tuners, bridge, nut, knobs, etc.

Holding the Guitar

Proper posture and holding the guitar correctly are crucial to playing comfortably and avoiding strain. When sitting, the body of the guitar should rest on your right leg (if you’re right-handed), with the top of the guitar leaning against your stomach and chest. The guitar sits at a slight angle, not directly against the body. If you check the picture below, you should get the idea. Your left hand should hold the neck, while your right hand strums or picks the strings. The right elbow may rest on top of the body of the guitar.

Tuning the Guitar

This is the first major challenge a beginner will face. The guitar is tuned to the notes EADGBE from lowest to highest. I recommend using an electronic tuner, mobile tuner app, or this website ( to tune your guitar. The microphone will pick up the sound of the guitar and a simple meter will help you to tune your guitar without needing prior experience. Eventually, it is good to learn how to tune by ear but these methods should be enough to get started.

The Right Hand - Strumming and Picking

Strumming involves brushing several strings at once with a pick or your fingers, while picking involves plucking individual strings. Both techniques require practice to develop a steady rhythm. I recommend practicing strumming various combinations of open strings or picking single strings until you are comfortable holding the pick without dropping it. Once you can accurately hit the strings you are aiming for, it is time to move on to learning chords.

The Left Hand - Fretting

Many find the left hand to be a bit trickier than the right hand when first picking up the guitar. The first step is to press down just behind the fret (not on top of it) with you index finger. When you pluck the string with your right hand you will notice that the pitch has changed. The first exercise I give to a beginner student is to press the index finger on fret 5 and pluck. If it sounds clear, you can then play the middle finger on the 6th fret, then ring on the 7th. I then repeat this process playing three notes on each string. If you’ve mastered that, you can try adding the pinky as well on fret 8 or move on to learning your first chord shape.

2. Learn Chords

Chords are the building blocks of most songs. You can perform entire songs just by reading a few simple chord names written above the lyrics. These lyric/chord sheets are easily searchable on google and most popular songs can be found for free in this format. Start by learning the open chords - these are the simplest to play and are used in a huge number of songs. Once you’re comfortable with these, you can start to explore more complex chord shapes.

Open Chords

Open chords are chords that include unfretted strings that are allowed to ring open, hence the name. These are the simplest chords to play, and mastering them will allow you to play a wide range of songs. Some of the most common open chords include C, A, G, E, D, and Am, Em, Dm (the “m” stands for “minor”, while the regular chords are called “major”). I recommend learning how to read a chord diagram. This is a visual representation of where to press your fingers on the neck of the guitar. Try out each of the open chords listed above until you can clearly play all the notes in one strum.

Barre Chords

Once you’ve mastered open chords, you can move on to barre chords. These are more difficult because they require you to use one finger to press down multiple strings at the same time. However, they’re also more versatile because you can move them up and down the neck to play different chords. If you’ve mastered open chords and are looking to spice up your guitar playing. These are essential. There are many chords that can only be played as barre chords since they don’t include open stings. I recommend learning Bm, F#m, F & B to start out.

3. Use Tablature

Tablature ( TABs), are a simple way to read music specifically designed for stringed instruments like the guitar. Tabs show you where to place your fingers on the fretboard, making them a great tool for beginners who can’t read music.

Reading Tabs

Tabs are written on six horizontal lines, representing the six strings of the guitar. The top line represents the thinnest string, and the bottom line represents the thickest string. Numbers on the lines represent frets, telling you where to place your fingers. Sometimes rhythms or picking directions may be written above the TABs for more specific directions. If you are playing a familiar part, you can simply play the notes written on the TAB and use your memory of the song to find the correct rhythms.

4. Play Along with Recordings

One of the best ways to improve your playing is to play along with recordings. This will help you develop your ear, improve your timing, and get a feel for how different parts of a song fit together.

Developing Your Ear

Playing along with recordings is a great way to train your ear. Try to pick out the melody, the rhythm, or the chords. With practice, you’ll start to recognize common chord progressions and melody patterns. This is an intermediate skill, so it might not be possible to find the chords starting out. However, I’ve found that most people can find the correct notes by simply sliding the left hand along a single string until they’ve found the notes they are looking for. Through this process of trial and error, you can eventually piece together a full guitar part. It takes time, but is worth the effort. Learning songs by ear can eventually develop into a musical superpower that allows you to play anything just by hearing it!

Improving Your Timing

Playing along with a recording can also help you improve your timing. Try to stay in time with the music, and pay attention to the rhythm. This will help you develop a steady strumming pattern and improve your overall sound. I recommend this especially for chord playing. Make sure that your strumming stays in sync with the drums. It is a great way to test yourself. It is also okay to slow down the recording and play it at 75% or even 50% speed while learning the parts. It is always better to play slowly and cleanly than to play fast and sloppy.

5. Take Advantage of Online Resources

There are countless online resources available for aspiring guitarists. From YouTube tutorials to guitar learning apps, these tools can provide you with visual and auditory examples, making the learning process much easier.

Online Tutorials

There are many online tutorials available that can help you learn to play the guitar. These tutorials can provide step-by-step instructions and video demonstrations, making it easy to follow along at your own pace. We offer guitar curriculums tailored to students' needs here at The American Guitar Academy. Please ask us about recommendations and we would be happy to find the right level materials for you.

Guitar Learning Apps

There are also several apps available that are designed to help you learn to play the guitar. These apps can provide interactive lessons, track your progress, and even provide feedback on your playing. However, it is important to consult with a teacher to make sure that you are playing with good techniques and that the materials are accurate and at an appropriate level. There is a shocking amount of incorrect guitar music floating around on the internet and this can impede progress.

6. Practice Regularly

Like any new skill, learning to play the guitar takes time and practice. Try to set aside a little time each day to practice - even just 15 minutes can make a big difference!

Creating a Practice Schedule

Having a regular practice schedule can help you stay motivated and make consistent progress. Try to set aside a specific time each day for practice, and stick to it. Remember, consistency is key when learning a new skill. I recommend putting guitar practice time in your schedule like any other event or meeting. If you take your practice seriously, you will see improvement!

Dealing with Frustration

Remember, every guitarist was once a beginner. Don’t get discouraged if you don’t master a skill or song right away. With patience and persistence, you’ll continue to improve. It’s normal to feel frustrated when you’re learning something new. If you’re feeling frustrated, take a break and come back to it later. Remember, it’s supposed to be fun!

So, don’t let the inability to read music stop you from picking up the guitar. You can use lyric/chord sheets, free tablature, online tutorials, or even playing by ear! With these options available, you’ll be strumming your favorite songs in no time. Happy playing!



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