Bite-Sized Practicing

Practicing even just a little bit every day will probably help you more than practicing for an hour once a week. If you’re pressed for time, try working on just one idea when you pick up the guitar.

The one idea could be, “I’m going to get really good at this E to G chord change.” Or see if you can memorize that new scale you learned a few days before.

It can get overwhelming when you feel like you have to practice everything you know, every time you pick up your instrument, so streamline it: give yourself a simple, tiny warmup that you do every time, and then work on one, maybe two ideas. That’s fifteen to twenty minutes of practice, right there.

I’m not saying you should limit your daily practice to twenty minutes, but if that’s all the time you have during a crazy week, do what you gotta do. Just keep playing every day!

How To Read Guitar Tab

Guitar tablature, or “tab,” is a music notation system that uses six horizontal lines to represent the strings of your guitar. The bottom lines are your bass strings, the top lines are your treble strings. Numbers are placed on the lines to show which frets to play on which strings, and you read them left to right. The order of the strings looks upside-down to a lot of people at first, but you get used to it.

Example #1

E(1st)- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
B(2nd- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
G(3rd)- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
D(4th)- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
A(5th) - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
E(6th)- - - - 0- - 3- - 5- - - - - 0- -3 - 6- 5- -

In the example above, you are playing notes on your low E string (the 6th string). You start on the open string (“0”), then play the 3rd fret, then the 5th fret, and so on. This example should sound like “Smoke on the Water,” by Deep Purple.

Example #2

E(1st)- - - 3- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
B(2nd- - - -0 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
G(3rd)- - - 0- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
D(4th)- - - 0- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
A(5th) - - -2 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
E(6th)- - - 3- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

When you see notes aligned vertically, it means to set up all the notes and then strum them simultaneously. In this example, it’s a G chord.

Example #3

E(1st)- - - - - - - - - - - - - -3 - - - - - - - - - - - -
B(2nd- - - - - - - - - - - - -0 - - - - - - - - - - - - -
G(3rd)- - - - - - - - - - 0- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
D(4th)- - - - - - - - 0- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
A(5th) - - - - - -2 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
E(6th)- - - - 3- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Here we’re playing one note at a time, starting on the 6th string (your lowest bass string) and moving up one string at a time. It can help to look at the frets and try to figure out if a familiar chord is being spelled out by the numbers. In this case, it’s the G chord again.


Guitar tab does a good job of telling you which strings and which frets to play, but it doesn’t tell you which fingers to use, so you have to experiment with different fingers until you find a fingering that’s efficient. Once again, it’s really helpful if you can spot when scale and chord shapes you already know are being used.

Rhythms & Using Your Ear

Basic tablature doesn’t usually indicate the exact rhythm, just the order of the notes, so you’ll need to consult recordings to really get a feel for the timing. While there are more complicated versions of tablature out there that do include rhythm notation, in my opinion, it’s more important to develop your ability to listen closely and then use basic tab to give you a starting point when you’re learning a song.

This is especially important when browsing user-generated tabs online, since they may not be totally accurate. You don’t want to spend hours learning from a tab, only to find it doesn’t sound right when you play along with the original recording.

It’s a tough call sometimes, since maybe it’s the tab that’s not correct, or maybe you’re just not playing it right! When I’m learning a song I’ve always wanted to learn and it’s important to me, I usually buy an official “Recorded Versions” tab book so I can be sure of its accuracy. It’s worth thirty bucks for the peace of mind, plus you usually get an album’s worth of songs.


All notation systems take some getting used to, whether we’re talking about tablature, standard sheet music, chord charts, or the scribbled song structure diagram your bass player hands you at rehearsal. Tab is a great tool for learning riffs and picking patterns quickly, and like everything in guitar playing, you use your ears, your eyes, and your fingers together to make the sounds you want.

How To Read Chord Charts

In the chord charts on this site, the chords are lined up approximately over the word where they arrive in the song.


G               C       G            D
Hey, where did we go, days when the rain came?
G           C        G        D
Down in the hollow, playing a new game

Each chord lasts one measure (four beats) unless it’s followed by a number in parentheses. “E(2)” would be an E chord that lasts two measures (eight beats).


        A           D             E(2)
"We'll meet again someday on the avenue,"
G       D      A
Tangled up in blue.

For waltzes, the measure lasts only three beats, and I’ll make a note at the top of the chart. Most songs have four beats to the measure, though.

Also worth noting: some songs change chords every two beats. Jack Johnson’s “Waiting Wishing” and James Taylor’s “Carolina in My Mind” fall into that category. Two beats is half-measure, so look out for a (1/2) after those chords.

Occasionally, there are other combinations, too. You might see a chord with a (3/4) followed by a second chord with a (1/4) after it. That would mean the first chord lasts three beats, while the second chord lasts only one beat.

Here’s a great shorthand notation for chord fingerings that was invented, as far as I know, by Rob Hampton of

G 320003       D xx0232     C x32010    Em 022000

From left to right, the numbers tell you what frets to play from your lowest bass string to your highest treble string. So “G 320003” means “third fret on the low E string, second fret on the A string, open D string, open G string, open B string, and third fret on the high E string.” An “x” means to skip that string.

Strum Patterns
If you don’t have a lot of strum patterns in your repertoire yet, try just strumming each chord once and singing the words. The rhythm of the words will keep the beat moving, and you can start to get a feel for the song.

If you’re quick at switching chords, try four quarter notes, or eight 8th notes. Either of those patterns is four beats long, so they’re good for one measure each. I’ll write “D” to indicate a downward strum and “u” for upward strums:

D   D   D   D
1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +


1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +


D u D u D u D u
1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +

Hopefully that gets you started! Ready to try some of my free chord charts?

How To Use An Electronic Tuner

I’m all in favor of learning to tune by ear, but when you’re starting out, it’s probably more important to get your guitar in tune quickly so you can spend more time learning to play.

An electronic tuner listens to your open string and tells you what note you’re tuned to, usually using a horizontal dial that swings left when you’re too low, and right when you’re too high.

With this type of tuner, you know you’re in tune when it displays the correct note name and gives you an arrow that’s straight up the middle.

To get started, just pluck the open string, reach over and find the correct tuning peg, and then turn it slowly while the string is still ringing. If you go slowly and watch the tuner’s display, you can see if you’re getting closer to the middle of the dial or farther away.

String Names
You’ll need to know the string names: E A D G B E. That’s counting from the 6th string (the lowest-pitched bass string) to the 1st string (the highest-pitched treble string). It helps to play the strings in order, either 1-2-3-4-5-6 or 6-5-4-3-2-1, rather than jumping around, so you don’t mix up which strings you’ve tuned and which ones still need to be adjusted.

Common Problems:

1. You can be perfectly in tune to the wrong note.
Make sure the note name on the tuner matches the correct note name for the string, without any “b” or “#” symbol after it. There are usually three versions of each note: flat, sharp, and natural. Ab is A-flat. A# is A-sharp. A is A natural. You want all natural notes.

2. The tuner gives the wrong note name.
Sometimes your tuner will flip between two totally different notes for the same string, for example B and F#, seemingly at random. Try playing the 12th fret rather than the open string. It’s the same note, played an octave higher, and in some cases, the tuner will hear that note more clearly than the open string.

Or better yet, play a harmonic on the 12th fret. Lightly touch the string directly over the fret and pop your finger off just after you pluck the string. It helps to position your pick close to the bridge (where your strings attach to the body of the guitar). A harmonic is a high-pitched, chiming version of the open string note and leaves both of your hands free to adjust the tuning.

Why Use An Electronic Tuner?
In the long run, tuning by ear will be more valuable, since it teaches you to listen closely and develop your musical ear, but for right now, it’s more important to get your guitar sounding good quickly, so you can focus on learning the hand skills that guitar requires – using the tips of your fingers on the strings, strumming, and always stretching out to get close to the fret.

Plus, a clip-on or plug-in electronic tuner will help you get in tune anywhere, even in a noisy environment. Music is often a social event, and if you want to share your music with others, it’s a GOOD sign when you can’t hear very well: it means you have lots of folks to play for. But a crowd does make tuning by ear difficult, so get good at using your tuner.

Guitars For Kids

100_1522-150x1503/4 Size
I think children under 10 should probably play 3/4-sized guitars. As far as acoustic vs electric, there are good arguments for both…

Electric Guitar
For kids, I think electric guitars are easier to hold and play, and they also have a “cool factor,” which is motivating! Accessories: a small amplifier, an instrument cable, a guitar strap, a clip-on electronic tuner, and some picks.

Acoustic Guitar
On the other hand, acoustic guitars are great for kids also. The strings are a little harder to press down, but they don’t require an amplifier, which makes practicing and traveling simpler. Accessories: a clip-on electronic tuner and some picks.


Electric guitar is cool and easier to hold and play. Also, it rocks.

Acoustic guitar is a little harder to play, but has a richer sound. It doesn’t require an amplifier, so you can be more spontaneous.

Get whichever guitar you want! If your child sticks with it for a year, get them a second guitar of the other kind, and they’ll have all their musical options covered.

Your First Guitar

Buying your first guitar can be daunting for a beginner, on par with getting work done on your car. “So you’re saying I need to replace my trans-rotary gyro belt…hmm, well I guess you’re the expert…”

To help with this situation, here are some things to consider:

Look and Feel
You want a guitar that’s the right size, and which looks, sounds, and feels good to you. Kids under 12 often can’t reach the 1st fret on an adult-sized guitar, so they’ll need a 1/2 or 3/4 scale model. Are you left-handed? You’ll need a lefty guitar.

Low Action = Easier To Play
Whatever guitar you get, try to avoid ones whose strings are high off the fretboard. That’s called “high action” and it makes it harder to fret the notes. You need all the help you can get when you’re starting out, so either get a guitar with low action or have your high-action guitar adjusted at the shop so it’s easier to play.

Electric Guitar?
Speaking of easier to play, consider starting on the electric guitar. Especially for kids, its lighter strings are easier to fret, and no, you’re not cheating by giving yourself a break. You’re giving yourself time to actually get hooked on playing the guitar. Plus, electric guitar is cool, and it makes you cool, by extension.

I’ve played mostly acoustic guitar for the last fifteen years, but I wonder if I would have stuck with it this long if I hadn’t built up my confidence by playing electric guitar for the first five years. There’s something to be said for getting directly to rocking, especially when you’re a kid.

Musical Style
Another important consideration is the style of music you want to learn. Steel string acoustic guitars lend themselves to strumming, fingerpicking, songwriting, and playing outdoors, maybe around a campfire. Electric guitars are rock ‘n roll and can easily be amplified to play with a drummer. They’re also good for noodley improvisation, and can use effects processing to get experimental, space-age, avant-garde sounds. By contrast, the nylon-string acoustic guitar is the sound of Latin America, Bossa Nova, classical music, gypsy and flamenco music.

Nicer instruments generally last longer, sound better, and are easier to play, so get the best instrument you can afford. Better acoustic guitars tend to have solid wood backs and sides, and better electric guitars have more reliable electronics, as well as tone-specific wood. Try out a bunch of guitars at the store, and check Craigslist for used guitars.

You’ll probably want a case, an electronic tuner, some picks, a backup pack of strings, and a string winder. The case can be hardshell (better protection) or a soft gigbag (lighter, with backpack straps).

Lots to think about. Here’s a quick summary: get a guitar that’s easy to play, with low action, which is the right size for you, and which fits the style of music you’re excited to learn.

Book Recommendations

I create my own lesson worksheets and song charts for students, which in essence builds you your own “book” customized to your needs, but it can also be nice to have additional reading. Here are some recommendations from my library:

Guitar From Scratch (Bruce Emery)
Simply the best book I’ve found for helping complete beginners learn chords in a straightforward, organized and musical way.

The Beatles Complete Chord Songbook
Once you know your basics, a Beatles fan can have endless fun turning to any page in here. I love books like this that lay out the entire song on two facing pages, with chord symbols. No piano arrangements, no page turns required, just the lyrics and where to switch chords. This book is unique in that it gives capo suggestions.

Hal Leonard Guitar Chord Songbooks
Inexpensive and straightforward. They make books on individual artists (Adele, Bob Dylan, Taylor Swift, Johnny Cash, Green Day, etc) and also anthologies of folk-rock, country, classic rock, worship music, and more. Note: you’ll probably want to take your copy to Staples and have them cut the spine off and put in a spiral binding so it lays open.

A Modern Method For Guitar (William J Leavitt)
Want to learn to read music on guitar? Start here. It’s a series created for the guitar program at Berklee School of Music.

New England Fiddlers Repertoire, (Miller & Perron)
Learn to pick some fiddle tunes and go play at your local contra dance slow jam! Also provides chord symbols so you can strum along while others fiddle. You gotta be able to read music to use this, but the tunes are short and catchy. Once you start, it’s addictive. Eventually, you’ll also want The Portland Collection and The Waltz Book.

How To Play Jazz and Improvise (Aebersold Vol. 1)
Not just for jazz fans. Theory basics and improvisation are important for everybody. Aebersold provides straightforward instructions, musical exercises and a play-along CD for jamming (!!!) As you progress, you can pick up additional volumes for more tunes and topics.

The Advancing Guitarist, Mick Goodrick
For intermediate to advanced players. Deceptively simple, often witty, conceptual suggestions that will turn your mind completely inside out and change they way you look at the guitar. Addresses fretboard mechanics, scales, harmony, and ways of thinking about improvising.

Recorded Versions & Transcriptions
For intermediate players who are comfortable reading tab, invest in the accurate, official transcription books of your favorite albums. It can be slow going, but amazing insights await. They’re maybe $20 each, and you’ll be digesting this stuff bit by bit for years.

Spiral Binding
I recommend getting spiral binding put in on any music book that’s over a quarter-inch thick. Your local printing and photocopy shop can do it for around $6 per book and it allows the book to lay open in front of you without closing accidentally.

Where To Buy A Guitar

Shop Local!

(electric & acoustic, vintage / used)
38 Washington St, Keene, NH 03431
(one block off Central Sq, by old middle school)
(603) 357-9732

Acoustic Strings of New England
(acoustic, buy or rent)
16 West St, Keene, NH 03431
(on Central Square)
(603) 354-7979

Fiddlers Choice
(acoustic, new & vintage)
New Hampshire 137, Dublin, NH 03444
(upstairs at Del Rossis Trattoria)
(603) 563-8800

Peterborough Music Company
(acoustic & electric)
19 Wilton Rd #4, Peterborough, NH 03458
(603) 924-2145

Guitar Gallery
(acoustic & electric)
5 New Hampshire 101A #4, Amherst, NH 03031
(603) 672-9224

Guitar Center
258 Daniel Webster Hwy, Nashua, NH 03060
(603) 891-5777

Maple Leaf Music
23 Elliot St, Brattleboro, VT 05301
(802) 254-5559

Online Vendors

Sometimes convenience and bulk pricing wins out…

An online search for guitars will find you additional stores.