This article is for those who are looking to play anything they want on the guitar. After years of playing and teaching songs to students, the author has devised a step-by-step systematic approach to playing virtually ANY song on guitar.
To truly play anything you want on the guitar, you have to be able to play tabs and chords. This article is organized accordingly. There are 2 major sections: the first section covers guitar tabs and the second section covers guitar chords. Tabs are generally for single note playing and riffing/soloing and chords are for strumming out the rhythm of songs. Chords, by the way, are also for guitar players who wish to play and sing songs.
Please watch the video for a basic introduction to the parts of the guitar.
01. Playing Guitar Tabs
To play riffs and solos, you must first learn to read a tab and understand what a tab actually is and why it is used. The word tab is short for tablature, which is a form of musical notation for stringed instruments. Basically, it’s easier-to-read sheet music for the guitar. To be specific, it communicates many of the same things as sheet music except speed, time signature, and the timing of the notes. Because of this, in order to read a tab properly, you must first hear it.
To save time, you can read my in-depth article about how to read guitar tabs!
02. Playing Guitar Chords
On the guitar, to play any song you want by way of chords, you must first familiarize yourself with the 3 elements it takes to make this possible.
- Strum Patterns
- Smooth Transitions
This section will be broken down into these 3 categories and then tied together at the end.
Chord is a combination of 3 or more notes played at the same time. Therefore, to play a chord, you must typically play multiple notes with your fretting hand at the same time. In order to do this effectively, you must first make a “claw” when doing so and use the very tips of your fingers for fretting notes. This is to prevent the involuntary muting of adjacent strings. Due to having to use your fingertips to play notes, if you have fingernails that are long, it will make playing these notes very difficult if not impossible. So keep your nails short!
Listed below is a chord chart containing most of the essential basic guitar chords you will need to play many songs on the guitar. Not all chords are covered in this article, however, this will be plenty to get you started playing songs and fast!
Once you have some chords in your skill set, it’s time to put them into motion. We do this by using strum patterns. Strum patterns primarily exist in 4/4 time on the guitar so this is what we will cover here. 4/4 time simply means we will have 4 beats per measure. A measure is a small phrase in a song. Think of it as a word in a sentence. Verbally, say this out loud: 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and. That’s a typical measure in music. Visually it looks like this.
Do you see the count in the top row? Good. Now look at the larger row with the “down arrows” in it. There are 4; one for each beat. The beat is always on the “numbers” and the “ands” are always off the beat.
To strum these, use your pick and let it glide gently down from the low E to the high E string. This is called a “down strum.” Repeat this 4 times and you’re done!
To add to your skill set. Here are a bunch more!
In the strum pattern above, you must now perform an up strum on the last “and” of the measure. Up strums should sound equal in volume to the down strums. To perform this up strum, simply glide your thumb up from the high E string to the low E string.
To perform this one, keep a down up down up kind of swing but skip the 3rd beat in the measure. Watch the video to really understand.
This one is extremely common and isn’t too hard. It’s exactly the same as the one above except we now skip the first “and” as well. Master this one ASAP. Trust me. It is used a lot in guitar!
Finally, we come to the last of the 3 steps to playing any song you want. Smooth transitions are critical to truly playing any song because, if you can’t transition smoothly, you will not keep an even tempo. Tempo means a consistent speed or pace. No one likes a song if it stops in between every chord change! So take the time to first memorize your chords and your chord changes and strap in for the final chapter.
Okay, to start off, let’s get you doing some push-ups. What?! That’s not what you signed up for? Haha, don’t panic. When I say push-ups in guitar world, I mean changing chords back and forth. I call them push-ups because they aren’t particularly enjoyable, however, they are a very good way to exercise a foundation item in playing ANYTHING on the guitar. Just like a push-up in real life, it’s not exactly fun, but great for core strength and building up the basics. Here is a list of chords that I want you to start playing back and forth right away. To perform this exercise, simply down strum once for the first chord, then change chords and down strum for that one. Then go back to the first and so on.
This list is to give a start on the most common chord transitions you will see on the guitar. It can never hurt to go above and beyond this list so go ahead and do so! The better you are with transitions, the easier songs will be to play. But what about using strum patterns?
Okay, that’s when things get real. Once you’ve built up enough skill to go back and forth with the above chords comfortably and quickly, it’s time to try a strum pattern. Start with the first strum pattern covered. No stopping in between measures! Also, take your time and go slow with these while counting out loud. There is no need to rush through something you’ve never tried before. I would much rather listen to a slow and clean sounding musician than a fast and sloppy musician any day.
Once you can play the chord changes with that strum pattern, it’s time to try the next one. This one is harder because you have an up strum on the last “and.” To perform this smoothly, you actually want to lift and be in transition to the next chord on the “and.” I know it sounds weird when it’s slow, but trust me, this is how it’s done by the pros! Add in the other
strum patterns when you are comfortable with all the techniques involved and you will have a very solid foundation for playing ANYTHING on the guitar.
03. Putting it All Together
Most songs will have 4 chord progressions. Basically, this means songs are composed of phrases and in those phrases there are usually 4 chords. It would look like this: G – Em – C – D (I – vi – IV – V – a very common chord progression).
For each of the chords, we would choose a strum pattern that sounds like the song and use it consistently for each chord. For this example, we will use the 2nd strum pattern (down, down, down, down, up). By applying this to each chord, we have completed a full 4 chord progression in a song.
Demonstrating this information is best by video so be sure to tune in for this final chapter to get the whole picture.
Once you have that down, you have a solid foundation for playing ANYTHING you want on the guitar!
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