Have you decided to learn how to play guitar? Congratulations! Guitar is a wonderful and versatile instrument that you can quite literally play for the rest of your life. The guitar plays a role in all kinds of music: rock, metal, pop, jazz, blues, country, orchestral, pop − you name it!

Learning guitar for beginners can be quite overwhelming due to the sheer amount of information available online. That’s why we’ve written this article – because sometimes the best way to learn guitar is by just sitting down and starting rather than wasting time searching for the best online guitar lessons.. Everything you need for your first guitar lesson is here. 

In this article you’ll learn:

  • the names of each string
  • how to read chord diagrams
  • how to play chords
  • how to pluck notes
  • how to develop finger dexterity 
  • how to play a basic strumming pattern

The exercises and information here work equally for electric and acoustic guitar.

Before we dive into playing, we'll start with some fundamental exercises for your picking and fretting hands to get you set up for success. Lastly, we'll work on coordinating your hands so you can play your first set of chords. 

This way, you can build a sense of awareness of what each hand is doing when you're playing guitar.

First free guitar lesson for beginners

Let’s quickly discuss how the guitar works. The guitar is a stringed instrument where the notes on each string are separated by metal frets (unlike a violin or a cello where there are no frets).

The typical guitar has six strings. In standard tuning, each string is tuned to a specific note, and we refer to that string by the note it plays when you pluck it without putting your hands on the fretboard. This is called an open-string note.

Starting with the lowest-sounding (AKA thickets) string on the guitar, the strings are:

  • 6th - E (low/thick)
  • 5th - A
  • 4th - D
  • 3rd - G
  • 2nd - B
  • 1 st - E (high/thin)

The lowest string–in terms of pitch–is the one closest to your chest when sitting with a guitar in your lap in a normal playing position. 

  • Since this is your first guitar lesson, you might not be familiar with how a properly tuned guitar sounds.
  • It’s important to keep the strings in tune so you learn how the pieces you’re practicing are supposed to sound.
  • If the guitar isn’t in tune you aren’t actually playing the note you’re trying to play. 

If you keep playing and training your ear long enough, you’ll eventually be able to hear when your guitar is out of tune. As a beginner, it’s best to always use a tuner before playing. If you don’t have a guitar tuner at home, you can use a online guitar tuner.

You can watch the video below for a demonstration on how to tune your guitar.

Chords for your first guitar lesson

Fundamentally, music consists of three elements: melody, harmony (chords), and rhythm. The guitar is a great instrument that enables you to manipulate all three elements into music.

  • For your first lesson, we'll focus on the harmonic and rhythmic side of guitar playing – this is also known as rhythm guitar.
  • We'll also take a look at how to play the most common chords, then look at a basic rhythm pattern for you to practice. 

Below is an image of a chord box or chord diagram.

  • As you can see, it resembles the fretboard on the guitar.
  • Each vertical line is a string.
  • Each horizontal line is a fret.
  • The string furthest to the left is the low-E string.
  • The thick black line at the top represents the nut– the small strip of material found where your guitar neck meets your guitar headstock. This helps hold your strings in place.

Now it’s time to learn your first chord! 

  • We advise all our beginner guitarists to learn to play with a pick.
  • Many guitarists don’t use one, and it’s by no no means necessary.
  • However, fundamental picking technique is a foundational skill for any guitarist.
  • If you don't have a pick, don't worry. Just use your thumb or finger to strum the strings in a way that's comfortable for you.

Looking at this image with our instructions above in mind, you can see the black circles telling you where to press your fingers on the strings– in this case, the second frets of the A (5th) and D (4th) string. 

  • Note: You should place your fingers in between the metal frets, not on them.
  • In the diagram above, you'll place your fingers between the 1st and 2nd metal frets on your guitar neck.
  • We refer to this as playing "on the 2nd fret" – technically, you're really playing behind it.

The numbers inside the circles tell you which fingers to use. Each finger is given a number:

  • 1 - Index finger
  • 2 - Middle finger
  • 3 - Ring finger
  • 4 - Pinky finger

The white circles above the thicker black line means you play those strings but don’t fret them when you are strumming the chord. These are also called ”open strings.” Give it a strum!

  • The chord you just played is E minor.
  • If it feels awkward and difficult to play, don't worry – that's to be expected.
  • Aim to get a clear sound out of the chord so that all strings clearly ring out

This next chord is D Major. Here you will add one more finger to the mix, your ring (third) finger. 

Notice how for this chord, you don’t play the two lowest strings when you strum, as shown by the ”X” above each string that isn’t played in the chord box. You do, however, play an open D string.

Exercise #1 - Chords for beginner guitarists

Practice fingering the chords below. A few tips before you get started:

  • After you fret a chord, pick each string separately and make sure it rings out clearly 
  • Focus on how your fingers feel in respective chord shapes. 
  • Start learning chords separately, then practice switching between them.

You will play (some of) these chords later on in this free guitar lesson, but for now just practice the chord shapes and build that awareness (muscle memory) in your fingers.

The last chord, F Major, will most likely be the trickiest at first. Your index finger has to fret two notes on two separate strings. A chord like this will be easier once you’ve built some strength in your fingers and hands.

Lastly, pay close attention to when you are playing all six strings and when you don’t. Playing a string that doesn’t belong in a chord will either change the chord’s sound (since you’re adding notes) or make it sound muddy - especially if you play the open low E.

Members of Pickup Music can get our official guitar chord chart, a perfect resource to easily glance at chords and learn all the basic shapes you need to play popular songs in any genre – or write your own!

Practice finger dexterity

Working on these chord shapes, you probably noticed it was quite challenging for your fingers. Pressing down the strings can hurt your fingertips, even to the point of breaking the skin. 

This is totally normal for a beginner. As you play more, your fingers will get stronger and more comfortable fretting. The skin on top of your fingertips will harden with time.

Exercise #2 - Finger practice for beginner guitarists

Place your fingers on one string, one finger per fret, like this:

The goal is to move one finger without moving any of the others. So when you play the first note, only move your first finger on and off the fretboard. Do the same thing with your second finger. Take care to ensure you don’t move any other fingers – go as slow as you need at first. 

Continue this exercise with all fingers and across all six strings.

Why is it important to move your fingers independently? The more you play, the more you’ll realize that you don’t always have to move your fingers much to play different chords. In certain chord progressions you can let some of the fingers stay on the same frets the whole time. 

”Wonderwall” by Oasis is a good example of this. Take a look at that chord progression:

As you see, the third and fourth finger stay in the same place the whole time. 

For more dexterity training, we have an article on finger exercises for beginner guitarists in our blog. Some may be too advanced for your very first guitar lesson, but others are great for absolute beginners. 

Exercise #3 - Another finger exercise for you

Place your first finger on the first fret of the low E string and pluck it with the pick. Then, keeping that finger in the same position, place the second finger on the second fret and pluck it. Do this again with the third and fourth finger. After the fourth finger you’ll have all fingers pressed down on the E string simultaneously. 

Now reverse the order, starting with the fourth finger moving down towards the first finger on the first fret.

Develop Good Habits

Before you sit down to play it’s a good idea to warm up your fingers. Stiff fingers may cause you to practice poorly and develop bad habits. For example, you don’t want to lift your fingers more than 1 cm from the string as you move to different frets.

If you haven’t stretched or warmed up properly, you won’t have as much dexterity in your fingers and they won’t move as smoothly as you need them to. We summarized essentials finger stretches for guitar here.

As beginning guitarists we might get overexcited and want to learn as much as possible as quickly as possible. This can lead to bad habits, which in turn leads to sloppy playing.

Take your time learning the fundamentals of guitar playing and build your knowledge from the ground up with good habits and clean technique.

Exercise #4 - Strumming patterns

So far in your first online guitar lesson you’ve learned how to play a few chords. As mentioned above, music is simply chords and melodies played in rhythm. Let’s now take a look at some rhythmic chord − or strumming − patterns.

When you are strumming open chords, you can either do an upstroke or a downstroke. A downstroke is the strumming motion when your hand moves across the strings in a downward motion towards the floor. The upstroke starts low and moves across the strings towards your chin. 

Exercise #4A:

When you strum, you want the main movement to come from your wrist. The rest of the arm should move to support the wrist movement when needed. Your arm should be relaxed and rest against the body of the guitar.

With your left hand, mute all six strings by resting your fingers on them. Practice strumming the muted strings with your right hand at the beat using only the downstroke (indicated by the ”D” in the chart below). Use either a metronome or tap your foot for a beat to strum with. Strum every time the metronome plays or every time your foot hits the ground. 

Practice this for a couple of minutes, until you get a good feel for how to strum the strings.

Make sure you don’t hit the strings too hard - or too slowly. Strum in one swift motion touching all strings as you go - in a sweeping motion. When you play an actual chord, you want all the strings to ring out as one, rather than hearing each individual string being plucked.

Exercise #4B:

Staying on beat (as described above), alternate between downstrokes and upstrokes.

Excercise #4C:

Next we will go back to downstrokes, but add one upstroke between beats 3 and 4. If you’re tapping your foot on every beat, the upstroke in the pattern below should be played when your foot is up, before it lands again on the fourth beat.

When you’ve found the right feel for strumming, we can move on to real chords!

Exercise #5 - Switching chords in rhythm

Now practice these basic patterns with chords. Switching chords in rhythm requires coordination between the right and left hand. 

Pick two chords that you feel most familiar with and practice strumming and switching between them.

We suggest starting with two easy open chords, E minor and A minor.

Play one bar of E minor, then change to one bar of A minor. One bar is equal to four beats. So you play four beats on each chord. Once you get comfortable playing the chords, add a third chord to the mix, then a fourth. 

This exercise helps to coordinate your left and right hands.

Conclusion of your first guitar lesson

You have now completed your very first guitar lesson. Well done! Return to this article to practice  the chord and strumming exercises with different chords to add variety.

Learning any instrument is a journey with plenty of ups and downs - guitar is no different. Sometimes it'll be easy, other times you’ll get frustrated that you can’t do something seemingly simple. The important thing is to take your journey one step at a time. Develop good habits, learn the foundations and enjoy the process. 

At Pickup Music we have an article on how to set guitar goals for yourself, whether you’re a beginner or an advanced player. Learning how to set goals for yourself and break them down into smaller milestones is a great way to track your progress and stay motivated.

What’s next? You can either browse through Youtube and try to find some videos that will teach you the basics or you check out the Beginner learning pathway for beginner guitarists just like you! This pathway has a structured 3-month learning plan and help you set the foundation for your ambitious guitar goals!