Calling all future guitarists.
Why is it some people try the guitar and give up right away? Most teachers will start you out with a scale, or a book on how to read standard notation. AVOID THESE TEACHERS! Believe it or not I used to be one of them, until I remembered why I even started to play the guitar. We are all here to play our favorite songs! There's no reason you shouldn't be able to play a song that is well known on the radio from the first time you pick up the guitar. The second biggest pain and reason for quitting is not getting something simple enough, and I don't mean, "Oh, this song is only three chords that everyone plays." I'm talking even simpler chords than the classic "Cowboy Chords" that require three fingers stretched across three frets and all six strings. What's wrong with playing chords that only need one finger, or none? The answer, is NOTHING! Some of the best songs have guitar parts that only need a single finger to play. So, let's start there, and our song of choice is going to be Eleanor Rigby by none other than The Beatles!
Holding The Guitar - Whether you have an acoustic or electric guitar, it doesn't matter too much other than the size and weight are different. As long as your index finger can reach the first fret you'll be in good standing. There are two ways of holding the guitar while sitting down. There is the casual way (mostly used) where the guitar is resting on the lap of your right leg.
The second way to hold the guitar is actually borrowed from the classical guitar method and it is the way I typically practice. To do this properly you need to elevate or raise your left leg. Ideally, you will use a footstool but you can use a stack of books or a small tree stump (seriously I've seen it, it's brilliant!) and then rest the guitar on your lifted left leg around 45 degrees angled up. The top tuning pegs should be roughly level with your eyes (give or take). If you have shorter arms, fingers, or have some shoulder or back pain, this is a very helpful way to practice. The reason this works is, by putting the guitar on the left leg then pitching it up actually brings the first fret closer to you and aligns your shoulder and elbow allowing them to relax more.
String Numbering - This is a pretty quick and simple topic, but very important to commit to memory so if I mention a string you can go straight to it. There are six strings. The first string is the skinny string then count all the way through to the sixth string which is the fat one.
Tuning - Tuning your guitar can be a tricky deal at first, but lets take some of the pain out of it. First, if you don't have a separate tuner, don't run out and buy one for $20 at your closest music store or even get one from Amazon. If you have a smart phone you're already half way there.
I have Android, so go to the Play Store and download the app "gStrings" (my preferred tuner) for Apple users (and also on Android) "Guitar Tuna" is the way to go. If you've never used a tuner, Guitar Tuna might be a better start as it's visuals are much more intuitive to follow. I'm a little old school so that's why I like gStrings less vibrant design, but they both get the job done well.
Once in your tuner app, start with your low E or 6th string (fat one) and when you pluck the string make sure you let it ring out. You've got all day so don't rush it and choke the note out right away, otherwise the tuner will have a harder time understanding what you're playing. As your note is ringing out turn the tuning peg up or down depending on what the app is telling you. When your note is in tune your note will light up green or the needle will hit the middle and then you can move on to the next string and repeat the process until you get through all the strings.
Right Hand - People often wonder if you should start with a pick or use your fingers. I play both ways, but I usually recommend starting with a pick simply because holding one piece of plastic to play your strings is easier than controlling five fingers and it's easier on your fingers. You're already going to get slightly sore fingers on your left hand, lets not double upon the discomfort in both hands. The quick and dirty on holding a pick is to make and "L" shape with your thumb and index finger, then put the pick on your index finger with the pointy side extending past your finger. Finally, just clamp your thumb down on the pick and you're ready to roll. One other short recommendation, when holding the pick I tell my students to make the "OKAY" sign instead of making a fist. You're hand won't get as tired with a relaxed "okay" as opposed to a clenched fist.
Left Hand - So our "fretting/playing" left hand is a little busier than our "strumming/picking" right hand, so this part will be a little more involved. I'll boil it down to the basics in bullet form. Here goes.
- Good left hand technique starts at the shoulder, so do your best to make sure your shoulder is relaxed.
- Elbows! In a nutshell, let gravity do its work here, just let it fall naturally to the side. However, if you're unsure there are three elbow positions to AVOID! 1. Don't flare out your elbow. We're not birds ready to take off for flight. 2. Don't tuck in your elbow, we're not putting someone in a headlock. 3. Under no circumstances ever, ever, EVER, rest your elbow on your lap. That's the worst thing you can do. It limits your mobility for everything else you will want do.
- Thumbs up, dude! As for the thumb, pretend you are giving the world the "Thumbs Up" gesture. Then take your thumb and put it right in the middle of the neck pointing straight up at the ceiling. Everyone's thumbs are different (I have short stubby toe-thumbs, thanks genetics!) so your exact thumb position will be different from everyone else. Also, don't view this as a commandment, this is just the best thumb position for now (we'll break that rule later) but just know that your thumb will move around depending on what you are playing, so it will give here and there.
- The U-Turn. I hope you like all my hand shape gestures. The U-Turn is describing your hand from your thumb to your index finger and that shape is a "U." The reason for this is to give maybe a half an inch clearance to the bottom of the neck. You don't want too much meat of your hand in contact with the back of the neck, it just slows you down when you need to move. Additionally, this will give your fretting fingers access to all the strings with ease.
- Don't forget to leave a Tip! Now that we're approaching the end of our left hand journey we have to close it up by having a good curl to your fingers and then play the notes with our finger-tips. The reason behind playing with your fingertips is to get a good clear sound. If your fingers are too flat or you play with the pads of your fingers you risk getting muted and buzzy notes. All the good tone from a note comes from the string making contact with the fingertip and all that energy goes straight to the bone as opposed to getting diffused by all the fleshy, flabby parts of our finger.
Learning the chords:
Time to learn to read the chord charts so we can prepare to play our song. So let's take a look at our One Finger Chords sheet.
Looking at our chord chart sheet, lets look at the second chord, C Major (C). The chart displays the guitar neck in a vertical pattern. The vertical lines are the strings, and the first string is on the far right, working your way left you reach the fat sixth string, you should see that string on the far left is thicker than the others.
Then we have the thick horizontal lines, those are the frets. Each chart will show the first five frets of the guitar. The big dots with numbers are where you will place your fingers, this one shows a "1" so just use your index finger. (For other chords you'll use other fingers, "2" is your middle finger, "3" your ring finger, and "4" your pinky.)
Lastly, the "X" and "O" are not kiss and hug, but rather a string you do NOT play notated by an "X" or an "open string" which is when you play a string but don't press down on the string at all with your left hand. An open string is notated by an "O"
And to tie it up with a bow we have the chord name at the top.
So for the C Major chord, you will put your index finger "1" on the second string in the first fret. Once there, you can take your pick and strum from the third string down towards the floor to the first string. If all the notes rang out clearly you just successfully played your first chord! Good Job.
Think you can do E Minor (Em)? It's the easiest chord you will ever play. (I'll give you a hint, strum the three skinny strings just like C except no left hand fingers are needed.)
Take a few minutes and play C and Em up and back. Take your time. Once you feel good about those chords try the chords Em7 and Em6. They are very similar to C, just move that first finger to the third fret for Em7 and then move to the second fret for Em6.
Okay, hopefully by now you are feeling comfortable with playing chords and reading the chord charts with accuracy. It doesn't matter right now if you can read it fast, as long as you get it right.
Alright, lets talk the strumming pattern for Eleanor Rigby. Another great reason this is a great beginner song is when you listen to the song it's a simple, yet steady 4 beats (or downward strums) per measure. You've already strummed each chord, now lets strum C four times and then Em four times. We'll start with that, just up and back, C, Em, C, Em, and so on. Remember, four times for each chord. Do that for a few minutes.
Now that you've got some repetition switching from C to Em, why don't you grab the Eleanor Rigby PDF and we'll check out the arrangement.
Great job getting this far! Now, this is where we put everything together and learn the song note for note, or, I guess, chord to chord is more appropriate.
Let's use the Intro of the song to get our feet wet. We've got our C Major chord and each of those slashes is one down strum (one beat) and you will play it four times. Those four strums will equal one whole measure. So far, you've already done that. However, before switching to Em like before you have to strum C four more times (or another measure). In total we have two full measures of strumming C, or 8 downward strums of C, but it's best to get used to thinking of it as two groups of four. You should count it 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4. Now we can switch to Em, and looking ahead, you've probably noticed you strum Em for another two measures. To play the entire intro, you strum C for two measures then Em for two measures, then repeat all of that once more. There's the intro in all of its glory!
The verse of Eleanor Rigby is still only C and Em, you'll just have to count and pay attention to how many measures of each chord you play. WATCH OUT! Measures 9 and 14 have two beats of C and two beats of Em.
The chorus is very fun, this is where you get the most movement during the song. You will play one measure each of Em7, Em6, C, & Em. You'll see the genius of the Beatles here. Em7, starts with your index finger on the 3rd fret, then Em6 on the 2nd fret, C on the 1st fret, then no fingers for Em. It literally just walks itself down! Very cool.
Once you have completed the three sections, (Intro, Verse, & Chorus) the rest of the song continues in this order: Verse, Chorus, Intro, Verse, Chorus. That is it. Other than maybe getting a little lost in the sea of Em's in the verse, it's actually a fairly simple arrangement.
Now that you have completed the entire song of Eleanor Rigby, you will need to listen to it multiple times. Listening to the song regularly will not only help you memorize it, but help you internalize it, and know it on a much deeper level. Oh! Make sure for as much as you listen to the song passively, like in a car, running, doing chores, try listening to it "actively." For example, with headphones on, sitting down, and no other distractions. That one simple act is a huge part of becoming a better player.