How to hold the guitar
Welcome to lesson 2 in the “How to play guitar” series. There is a lot to cover in this lesson, so try not to be intimidated, you can do it. If you study and practice every day you will be a master in no time. If you haven’t already read Lesson 1, I highly recommend that you go back and take a look at it before moving on. In this lesson we will be learning how to actually play the guitar, starting by teaching you proper techniques for holding the guitar.
First, if you are playing the classical guitar or you don’t have a guitar strap, take a seat in a chair. If you do have a guitar strap you may put it on and play standing up. I recommend switching between both styles so that you are comfortable playing both standing and sitting down. When playing the guitar standing, the instrument should rest near your stomach, if it is too low and is hanging down near your waist it will be extremely difficult for you to fret notes and play the guitar, the professionals play this way just to show off. Take some time to adjust the strap to find the perfect spot that is comfortable.
When you are sitting down the guitar should be a little higher and closer to your chest. For the standard style of playing the guitar the instrument should be on your right thigh, you can try crossing your legs to elevator your leg a bit. Assuming you are right handed, whether you are standing up or sitting down, your right elbow should comfortably rest on the top of the body of the guitar and your right hand should also be resting near the sound hole. Because electric guitars are smaller your elbow will be resting near your body instead.
Classical guitarist play sitting down with the curve of the guitar’s body resting on their left knee with the neck of the guitar tilted up near their head and the bottom end of the instrument slightly tilted towards the floor. To get your left knee high enough you may need a small foot stool to elevate your leg. This playing position allows classical guitarist’s left hand to fret the notes with ease while their right hand is down low to pluck the strings.
You should find which position works best for you, being relaxed and comfortable is very important when playing the guitar. You shouldn’t ever feel pain or discomfort while playing. Do you have the guitar comfortable? Good, let’s move on to the next step.
How to pluck the strings
Alright, now we learn about plucking the strings, it is very easy. Play the bottom three strings with your index finger, middle finger, and ring finger. The top three strings will be played with your thumb. With this method each finger is assigned to a string. When playing Spanish guitar, the fingers are named:
Pulgar = Thumb, abbreviated to (P) in music notations.
Indice = Index finger, abbreviated to (I) in music notations.
Medio = Middle finger, abbreviated to (M) in music notations.
Anular = Ring finger, abbreviated to (A) in music notations.
Most of the time your pinky little finger does nothing.
This is important to learn because, as named above, in music notations they will sometimes have the letters above each note to give you an idea about which fingers to use to play certain notes. However, in this guitar lesson series we will keep things simple and call the fingers by their English names. When using your thumb you will alternate between the top three strings, it may seem confusing at first but it gets easier as you practice. When you play with your thumb you will do almost a sweeping motion and move your thumb down and then bend it towards the palm of your hand, this is to avoid hitting too many strings at once. Take a bit of time practicing this motion on the top 6E string. If you can play the string without hitting any of the other strings below it, then you did it correctly. The bottom three strings are almost plucked the same way. Let’s practice on the bottom 3G string with your index finger. Sweep your finger up while bending your finger towards the palm of your hand. Again, practice this motion so that you don’t hit any other strings. Now try plucking all six strings one at a time. In later lessons we will use this same method to play multiple strings at once, for now though just take things slow and practice the basics.
How to play with a plectrum
Some players, especially for steel string acoustic and electric guitars, don’t like playing with their fingers because the strings hurt. Although you can overcome this problem and play with your fingers, most choose to use a pick (AKA a plectrum). Picks also give a more distinct and clear sound opposed to using your fingers. The method to play with your fingers or a pick is entirely up to you. There are two ways to hold a pick, you can use either one because although some will say there is a “Right way” to hold the pick, there really isn’t a “Right way”. The best way is whichever way you feel the most comfortable playing. The first way is the easiest way; you will simply hold the pick between your thumb and index finger. The second way is to move your index finger so that your knuckle is bent all the way, the pick will rest on the bent part of your first knuckle and you will use your thumb to hold it firmly in place. The pick should be facing the guitar’s sound hole. Don’t grip the pick to the point your hand cramps up, but just enough so that you don’t drop it. The second method of holding the pick with a bent finger is a bit harder to do, but allows your fingers to be out of the way so that you don’t accidently touch the strings while strumming. The second method is the one most guitarist will recommend that you use to play the guitar.
Now for your left fretting hand, we’ll explain why it is called the fretting hand shortly, but first we learn how to position your hand.
Learning how to fret notes
Your left hand should come around the back of the neck and form a claw shape. Your thumb should rest on the back center part of the neck; you should not be squeezing the guitar. When you play a string you should use the top of your finger tips, not the round fatty part of your fingers, but the part closest to your fingernails. In order to fret notes correctly you will need very short nails on your left hand so that the nail doesn’t get in the way. But don’t file them down to the point where they start bleeding or anything.
As mentioned before in Lesson 1, the fret is the metal wires going down the length of the neck. When you want to play a new note you simply place your finger just before the metal fret wire. Try to place your finger as close to the fret as possible without actually touching it. If your finger is too far away from the fret it may buzz, and if you touch the fret and then play the note you will either make the string buzz or you will get a dull sounding note. So the key is to place your finger just behind the fret wire for the perfect sounding note. This is actually harder to do then it seems, so we will do a few exercises to help you fret notes perfectly. As you may have guessed, this is why your left hand is called the “Fretting hand”.
If you recall in lesson 1 there was a little saying that goes “Every boy goes down a elevator” to help you learn all of the open standard tuning strings, which are: E, B, G, D, A, E.
So here is a small example of how you fret notes: First you play the open 1E string on the guitar and now you want to play a new note. To play the 1st string F note, you will place your index finger on the 1st string, just in front of the first fret on the guitar. Your finger should not be near the Nut or touching the fret, but in the space just in between both. If you get a clear sound then you played the note correctly.
We’ll go over an easy exercise to get your fingers used to fretting notes. Here is a quick lesson about playing in position. Start from the headstock of your guitar and place your fingers in a straight line across the 6E string, one finger for each fret. If your index finger is on the first fret, then you are playing in First position. If your index finger is on the second fret, then you are playing in second position, and so on. Some books will have exercises teaching you how to perform that exercise by playing the notes in a certain position. Here is a easy exercise in fifth position:
Count your way to the fifth fret of your 6E string, so that you will be playing in the fifth position. You will line your fingers in a straight row across the neck, one finger for each fret. Your index finger should be on the fifth fret, your middle finger on the sixth fret, and so on. The exercise is called the “Caterpillar”. Hold each finger above the frets named above and one by one you will slowly put them down to play each note, like a Caterpillar walking. Fifth fret, sixth fret, seventh fret, eighth fret, they should all sound out clearly when you play them. If done correctly, move your hand down by one string to the 5A string, and start again. Try to keep all of your previous fingers down as you play until all four fingers are resting on the fretboard, and continue playing the notes in the Caterpillar exercise from the top 6E string all the way to the bottom 1E string.
This exercise is not only a good warm up exercise, but it will also help get you used to fretting notes without messing up, as well as building finger strength. Don’t speed through and try to play the notes fast. Take your time and play nice and slow.
That ends lesson 2. In our next lesson we will learn a easy way to memorize all the notes on your guitar’s neck, as well as some actual songs.
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