Beginning Guitar Lesson 1 (Pick Version) - Part 1

There are many beginning guitar books that endeavor to set every student on the correct path to learning the guitar. In no way is this beginning guitar lesson intended to be the “end all” of every first guitar lesson. This lesson focuses primarily on getting the right and left hands moving on the instrument.

It will cover the general positions for holding the guitar while playing with a pick. It will also cover some information on what to watch out for in your hands when beginning to learn the guitar. However, it is not meant to be the final say or an exhaustive dissertation on the mechanics of guitar technique. It is meant to get the student that has never played the guitar before moving their fingers on the instrument in an effective manner for future development.

Positioning The Guitar

The basic principle for positioning the guitar is to allow the right and left hands to move freely and without undue tension while playing the instrument. Most beginning players begin by playing seated in a chair. This is a fine way to begin, but normally the head and neck of the guitar are too low and cause the fretting hand (hand used to hold down the frets) wrist to be bent too far making the compression of the string to the fret more difficult than necessary. It also prevents pivot necessary on the thumb to move from the lower strings to the higher strings effectively.

When playing in a seated position without a strap it is advised to use a device to raise the left leg up off the ground to bring the body and neck of the guitar higher up (Example 1). This allows for the player to sit in a more upright position and for the left hand to move freely up and down the neck. Not surprisingly, good posture really helps the overall efficiency of movement and enjoyment of playing the guitar.

Example 1


Playing with a strap is another good way of placing the guitar in a good position for the left hand. It puts the guitar in a similar position in either the seated (Example 2) or standing  (Example 3) positions with the strap. The obvious advantage in using a strap is that the seated and standing positions should be almost identical creating the same feeling when playing regardless of standing or sitting.

Notice that when seated, the right leg must angle downward in order to make use of the strap holding the guitar. It is also advised to sit at an angle on the chair to achieve the correct position with the strap. 

Example 2


Example 3


Midrange Motion Of  The Left Hand

The main focus when working on how to position the guitar is in avoiding the extremes of the fretting hand bending. The idea is called the midrange of motion. This is somewhere in between the extremes of bending the wrist in either direction.

The easiest way to begin to feel this mid-range is to feel the extremes and then find the place in the middle. Hold your arm out straight and extend the wrist all the way to the ceiling like telling someone to stop but keep the arm parallel to the floor. Then, flex the wrist in the opposite direction straight down to the floor. After feeling these extremes, find the comfortable spot right in the middle. This is the midrange of movement and the general position the left hand should be in when playing the guitar.

Holding The Pick

Thought everyone will develop a slightly different manner in which to hold a pick, there is a basic starting point for everyone. The most common issue is the lack of control when using a pick by beginners. This is usually because the pick is too far away from the hand. The further away the pick is from the hand the less control the player has over the pick. By the way, the pick is actually short for plectrum even though plectrum is not really used in our common language about the guitar today.

The contrast of table tennis (ping pong) and tennis illustrates this control point. If someone has never played either game, and attempts each, then which one will they be able to play more quickly? The answer is table tennis because the paddle is a much smaller and closer extension of the hand. Most who attempt to play tennis find the ability to control the ball very difficult. It would take much practice just to play the game of tennis when compared to learning to play a game of table tennis.The guitar pick is no different. The closer the pick is to the hand the more control one has over the usage of it.

The Process Of Placing The Pick

To begin holding a pick, place the hand in a position like holding onto a pipe (Example 4). The fingers should be relaxed though some muscle exertion is used to maintain the position. Then,  the pick should be placed on the side of the index finger (Example 5). In this image, an opaque pick was use show the finger underneath the pick. Finally, rest the thumb on top of the pick (Example 6). There will be constant experimentation of how hard to hold onto the pick when playing. It is important to have the pick firmly held but also light enough to allow give in the pick for a more enjoyable tone from the instrument. There will be a noticeable harshness if the pick is not allowed to give a little.

Example 4


Example 5


Example 6


Many will talk about fanning the fingers our or keeping them held in. It is a good idea to begin with them held in like the examples above. This allows for the hand to learn a floating reference for the string location on the guitar. It will also keep the bad habit of resting the pinky finger on the guitar body attempting to create a reference point for playing the strings. This is a bad habit even if the player can play a song well. It creates much tension in the hand and prevents fluid movement from string to string.

In part 2 of this post presents exercises focusing on building solid coordination between the hands. They should not be overlooked as "simple" but hold the key to a solid technique for years of guitar playing. As always, a PDF of the lesson with even more content will be available at the end of part 2.