Your guitar is your new friend. It needs love, attention, time and care. There will be times of joy and times of challenge, but with persistence and discipline your friendship will continue to grow and flourish. It’s time to learn a few basic things about your new friend. Before you start planning overseas trips and bunji-jumping adventures together, you need to get to know each other.
There are a few basic things that every guitarist should know before even playing one note. We are going to go over these fundamentals so that we can move on to playing and making music. You might already know most or all of these things. If you do, that’s great, this lesson can act as a check-list, to confirm that you are on the right track.
Before we go on, I want to mention the following – for the sake of clarity and consistency, all of the lessons in this series use a right handed-guitar as the default guitar. I’m basically assuming that everyone is right-handed and plays a right-handed guitar. I know of course, that in reality this is not the case, but rather than saying things like ‘use your right hand to strum if you are right-handed or your left to strum if you are left handed’ etc… It’s easier just to use right-handed guitars as the default. If you are left handed, simply make the switch in your head when reading.
Have a look at the image below and then read through the explanations.
Parts of the guitar:
There are 6 strings on the guitar. These are the things that we pick, strum and finger to produce sound. Each string has a name, but we’ll discuss that a bit later.
The frets are the little pieces of metal that divide the fretboard into small areas where we can place our fingers. The image above points to three frets, but there are more frets spread along the entire fretboard. Just like the strings, the frets need a bit more attention, so we will discuss them a bit later too.
The fretboard and the neck are actually two different things, even though they have been grouped together in this image.
The neck is the piece of wood that looks (just like the name implies) a long neck. The neck is the entire piece of wood itself, with frets on the front and the curved surface on the back.
The fretboard is just the front or face of the neck, where the frets are found. The fretboard is the surface of the guitar where you push down on the strings, to execute notes.
Fret markers are usually small decorations on the fretboard that are used to give the guitarist a visual cue as to which fret is which. For example, on the diagram above, the first fret marker is on the 5th fret. Therefor, if I was playing the above guitar and needed to move to the 5th fret, rather than counting, I could use the first fret marker as a reference point. Most guitars have fret markers in identical positions, but you will occasionally find slight variations from one guitar to the next.
The body of the guitar is the big piece of wood that (again, just as the name implies) looks like a big body.
The sound hole is the hole in the body of the guitar that allows the guitar to resonate with sound. Electric guitars generally do not have sound holes, as the sound is transferred to an amplifier.
The pickgaurd (also known as a scratchplate) is a bit of plastic that protects the wood of the guitar from being scratched and damaged by the pick.
The bridge is the piece where the saddle and string pegs reside on.
The saddle is a small bit of plastic found on the bridge that elevates each string slightly to give them tension.
The string pegs hold each string in place at the bottom end of the guitar. Some guitars (especially electric guitars) don’t have string pegs – they use a different method of holding the strings in place.
The nut is a very small piece of (usually) plastic that elevates the strings slightly at the top end of the guitar to give them tension.
The head is the piece of wood at the top of the guitar which is joined to the neck. It contains the machine heads that are used for tuning.
The machine heads are used for tuning the guitar. Each machine head corresponds to one of the six strings. Rotating a machine head one way will increase the pitch of the corresponding string. Rotating it the other way will lower the pitch of the string.
Electric Guitars and pick ups:
There are a few other small bits and pieces that we could mention but aren’t as important as the above list. Some parts are unique to certain guitars (for example not all guitars have a whammy bar). Some parts are found on most guitars but can differ significantly in design from one guitar to the next. Electric guitars have pick-ups – which are effectively microphones used to capture the sound. They also have knobs that are used to control the electrified sound. But all of that aside, if you learn and become familiar with the parts in the diagram, you will have a good knowledge of the most important parts of the guitar and anything else can be learnt easily as you come across it.
Strings – Knowing The Names And Numbers
Now that you know the parts of the guitar, you need to learn which string is which. Each string has a name and number. The numbers are easy – 1 to 6 – if you know which string is the 1st and which is the 6th, the strings in between are logical. The names are not as obvious. Each string derives its name from the note that is heard when the string is played on its own. Let’s have a look at an image that shows where the 1st and 6th strings are. Keep in mind that this is a right handed guitar:
The reason why this image is important is because it’s easy to get these two strings around the wrong way in labeling them 1 and 6. Once you have this sorted out, the string numbers are logical. It can also be helpful to identify the 6th string as being the ‘thick string’ and the 1st as being the ‘thin string’.
Now that we have established which string is the 1st and which is the 6th, let’s look at each each string and name with another image:
This is a boring but important picture. Here we can see the names of each string. It might seem like the strings should be the other way around, because when you hold the guitar, the 1st string is lower than the 6th string. This is just the way that the strings are illustrated. It has a relationship to how music is notated, but don’t worry about that right now. Just make sure you know which string is which.
You should memorize the string names straight away. Acronyms can be helpful. Think of the following (going from 1 to 6)…
Or (going from 6 to 1)…
There are only 6 strings. Each is important. Each has a name. Learn them!
As the original guitar diagram indicated, the frets are those thin pieces of metal that are spread across the entire fretboard. When we play the guitar by placing a finger on a ‘fret’, we actually need to place our finger between the pieces of metal, not on them. We are effectively placing our fingers in the space between the frets. It is this ‘space’ therefor, that we identify with as being the ‘fret’ for the purposes of playing. This can be confusing. It is probably easier to think of the pieces of metal as ‘dividers’ and the frets as the space in between these dividers. The following picture should illustrate this further:
The numbers in the image above indicate the the 1st fret (1st space), 2nd fret (2nd space), 3rd fret (3rd space) and 4th fret (4th space).
How To Play One Note
Playing one note on the guitar simply involves placing a left hand finger on a string and on a fret and then striking that string with your right hand. That’s why it’s important to be familiar with the strings and the frets. They are the two variables that determine which note you are playing. Want to play a G#? – 1st string, 4th fret. Want to play a Db? 2nd string, 2nd fret. You get the point.
On our left hand, we use our 4 fingers to play notes:
1 = index
2 = middle
3 = ring
4 = pinky
This is logical. Just remember that the thumb is not counted as a finger. Our thumb supports the fingers by resting on the back of the neck. Some guitarists like to use their thumb to play bass notes, but that is an advanced technique.
Let’s get practical now. We’re going to play a note.
Just like the image above, we’re going to play a note by placing our 1st finger on the 1st fret of the 1st string. This is an F. The image above demonstrates a good technique with the 1st finger – the finger is rounded so that the fleshy tip is pushing the string directly into the fretboard. There is no flattening of the finger at all. Don’t pay too much attention to the other fingers in the above image. They have deliberately been kept out of the way so as to clearly display the 1st finger.
You should aim to place your finger just to the right (it’s to the left as you look at this image) of the center of the ‘fret space’. If you place your finger in the middle and your technique is good, you should produce a clear sounding note. But the ‘sweet’ spot is just to the right (as you are looking at the guitar when playing).
How To Hold The Pick
Now all we need to do to hear our sweet sounding note is strike the pick that is being held in our right hand.
You should place the pick between your thumb and first finger, like in the image above. Pick grips do vary from player to player, but a good rule of thumb (pun intended) is to use only your thumb and index finger. A good exercise is to let your right arm and hand dangle loose, by your side. The tip of your thumb should naturally touch the tip/side of your index finger. This is a great way to produce a natural pick-grip. Just insert the pick so that the tip faces out.
Now let’s go back to that F note. With your 1st finger pushing down on the 1st string and on the 1st fret, strike the string with your pick in a downwards motion (your right hand should be near the sound hole of the guitar – or where the pick-ups are on an electric guitar). You should hear a nice and clear note sounding. If you don’t, or the sound is not quite clear enough, make sure you are pushing hard enough with the first finger on your right hand. Sometimes it just takes a few practice sessions to gain the strength and technique necessary to produce a clear tone.
You can also strike the string (on your right hand) without a pick. This technique involves using your thumb and fingers on your right hand. It is a technique that is very commonly used for classical and spanish guitar and is generally known as ‘finger picking’. In this series of lessons, we will cover finger picking, but for now, we will be assuming that you are using a pick.
Now You’re Ready
Congratulations, you’ve gone through the basics – not the most exciting stuff just yet, but very necessary. We haven’t done much playing yet, but it is important to put the fundamentals in place first. Now that you know all the parts of the guitar and can play notes, we can move on to some more interesting material.
In the next lesson, we are going to learn how to read guitar tablature. Guitar tablature is a very easy way to transcribe music on the guitar. Once you know how to read it (which you will in only one lesson), the sky is the limit to how much music you can learn.