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Introduction to the Guitar

a) Parts of the guitar
b) How to buy a guitar
c) Common guitar types
d) Strings
e) Holding and hand position
f) Tuning
g) Standard chords

Worksheet #1 | Worksheet #2

Practice Piece #1 | Practice Piece #2 | Practice Piece #3 | Practice piece #4 |

Why Music?

a) Parts of the Guitar

external image parts-of-the-guitar.jpg

Notice there are some features on the electric that aren't represented (necessarily) on the acoustic and vice-versa. For example, the electric doesn't have a sound hole for reverberation while the acoustic doesn't have (usually) the pickup selector (unless it's a custom guitar).

b) How to buy a guitar


You’ve decided to buy an acoustic guitar. So you empty your bank account, and head down to a local house of ill repute: a music store. You navigate your way through the racks of gear and gaggle of fools trying to play the solo to “Stairway to Heaven” to find the acoustic guitar room in the far reaches of the building.

As you close the glass doors, you take a deep breath and survey the room. Hundreds of acoustics of all sizes, shapes and colors hang, meat-like, from the walls and ceiling. You really want to take one of those lovelies home today, right now, but a sudden thought stays your trembling hands: I don’t have a clue what I’m looking for.

This will hopefully give a pretty good idea of what you’d like in an acoustic guitar.

The Buck Stops Where?
Your first question must be: How much do I want to spend? While there are respectable guitars to be had in any price range, the fact is that you do get what you pay for. And if a wily salesman convinces you that he’s got “just what you’re looking for, and it’s only a tad more expensive,” you need to be able to make an informed decision.

If you’re a beginner or just want something to bang around on in your bedroom or at the beach, you’ll still probably want to spend at least $300 for a guitar. Anything less will almost certainly get you something that not only will be very difficult to play but will sound lousy, besides. Say you’ve got a spending ceiling of around $700. Guitars at this price range should have a solid spruce stop. Raise that to $1,200 and you’re talking about a solid- wood instrument. The word “laminate” should not appear in descriptions of guitars that cost close to or above four figures.

Guitars in the range of $1,200 and $2,500 must get you nothing less than a pro-level instrument that you will love and never outgrow. Anything above that, and you’re in highly specialized and hand-crafted territory—a danger zone because if you buy a lemon for this kind of money nothing will ever blunt that sour feeling in your stomach.

If you are particularly budget conscious, here are a couple of friendly suggestions. Don’t put your cash into expensive accessories—say, handtooled leather straps, or even more practical items like a high-end tuner. Instead, put all that money into the best guitar you can get. Remember that nobody in his right mind pays list price these days; discounts of ten to thirty (and often forty) percent are standard. Large music stores are no different from cut-rate clothing establishments and audio shops—they’ll use any holiday or other excuse to have a “Blowout Sales Event of the Century” that in truth won’t offer you much of a real savings.

Choosing Your Weapon
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There is no such thing as right or wrong when it comes to choosing a guitar. Bigger does not always mean better, and the popularity of a particular guitar does not necessarily mean that it’s for you (Taylor/Martin). Acoustics come in all shapes and sizes, and (this should be your mantra) what someone else finds appealing may not be right for you.

The traditional workhorse of acoustic guitars is the dreadnought, of which the Martin D-28 is the standard bearer. Powerful, versatile and extremely cool-looking, this model has graced countless recordings and is the classic rock acoustic guitar. The D-28’s success over the years has spawned countless imitations, good and bad. Pick one out, give it a few good strums and then go on to something with a different look, feel and sound—a small guitar, like a Grand Concert size Taylor, a jumbo Gibson or an Ovation Adamas. Even if you can’t afford any of these instruments, playing them will give you at least an idea of the kind of guitar you’re most comfortable with.

Set Up, Man
Obviously, whatever guitar you ultimately choose must be comfortable to play. If the action is too high—the strings are too far from the fretboard— your fingers will pay a price, and it may be an indication that the neck is bowed. Look for low, even action up and down the fretboard, with the strings slightly higher at the 12th fret. Check for fret buzz by playing chords and single notes at different spots on the neck. Some pro players like their action higher for a clearer, punchier sound, but if you are a beginner or an electric player buying your first acoustic, you will probably find light strings and a low action to be more suited to your needs.
external image action02.jpg
You may have heard players discuss how good or bad the “intonation” is on a particular guitar. This refers to how well a guitar is in tune up and down the neck. The easiest way to check this is to play an open D chord and then play the same D chord at the 14th fret. If the guitar sounds out of tune up there you know it’s got a problem.

Although tuning and other problems like fret buzz can often be alleviated with simple neck adjustments, they sometimes require more involved bridge work. The odds are that this is something you don’t want to get into when buying a brand new guitar. On the other hand, if you’ve really fallen in love with a particular instrument that needs a little work, have the dealer take care of the necessary repairs and then try the guitar again before finalizing your purchase.

Sound Decisions
How does one confidently access something as subjective as sound After all, a guitar whose deep bass knocks me out may strike you as being too boomy. Every guitar style—every individual guitar, really—is unique, and there are no universal guidelines for what constitutes a “good”- or “bad”- sounding guitar. Again, you are the final arbiter—it’s your money, and your ears are the only judge and jury that matter.

The best way to really hear how a guitar sounds is to have someone else strum it as you listen from a distance of a few feet. A guitar heard from this vantage point will sound completely different than it does when you play it.

Lumber Party
The type, quality and combination of woods used in the construction of a guitar all help determine its tone. Entry-level models are typically made of laminated wood, which does not mature as it gets older; what you hear is what you get. Intermediate guitars, on the other hand, generally feature solid wood tops combined with laminated back and sides. And the best instruments are made of solid wood, which produce a richer and more resonant sound.
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Guitar tops are most commonly made of spruce or cedar, while standard woods for the back and sides are rosewood, mahogany and maple. Synthetic materials are also used effectively by companies like Ovation and Rainsong.

Spruce - The most common choice for an acoustic guitar top. It has a very good strength-to-weight ratio that makes it possible for the top to be relatively thin yet still be strong and very resonant. Spruce tops can take whatever you dish out and will remain responsive even when played very hard. Spruce is perfect for strumming and flatpicking styles.

Cedar - You will recognize a cedar top because it has a darker color than spruce and has a slight reddish hue. Cedar responds nicely to a light attack, and is an excellent choice for fingerpicking and lowered tension tunings. Because it is softer and not as strong as spruce, cedar can be overdriven if played too hard, causing the sound to compress and lose some integrity.

Rosewood - This darkcolored wood imparts a deep warmth and complex richness to the tone of a guitar. Brazilian rosewood is the holy grail of tone woods and is much prized by luthiers and players alike. The scarcity of Brazilian, however, makes it very expensive. Indian rosewood has similar timbre qualities but is not as striking visually.

Mahogany - This is an excellent wood that falls in the middle of the tonal spectrum, imparting a bright and warm sound with sweet highs.

Maple - A maple body will produce a bright, dry tone with a very clear, well-defined high end. Quilted or tiger maple can be quite dramatic visually.

Synthetics – Although synthetic guitars will never totally replace the wooden variety, they have been around for decades and are quite popular. Ovation uses a fiberglass composite for the body and sides of its rounded body guitars, combined with a solid wood top, while Rainsong produces instruments made mostly of graphite. In general, synthetic guitars are less susceptible than wood to climatic changes and offer distinctive tonal characteristics. On the other hand, they tend not to improve with age.

c) Common guitar types

1) Acoustic - There are two main types of acoustic guitar namely steel-string acoustic guitars and classical guitars. Steel-string acoustic guitars produce a metallic sound that is a distinctive component of a wide range of popular genres. Steel-string acoustic guitars are sometimes referred to as flat tops. The word top refers to the face or front of the guitar which is called the table. Classical guitars have a wide neck and use nylon strings. They are primarily associated with the playing of the solo classical guitar repertoire. Classical guitars are sometimes referred to as spanish guitars in recognition of their country of origin.

2) Electric - Electric guitars are solid-bodied guitars that are designed to be plugged into an amplifier. The electric guitar when amplified produces a sound that is metallic with a lengthy decay. The shape of the electric guitar is not determined by the need for a deep resonating body and this had led to the development of contoured and thin bodied electric guitars. The two most popular designs are the Fender Stratocaster and the Gibson Les Paul.

3) 12-string - The twelve-string guitar is a simple variation of the normal six string design. Twelve-string guitars have six regular strings and a second set of thinner strings. Each string of the second set corresponds to the note of its regular string counterpart. The strings form pairs and therefore you play a twelve-string guitar in the same manner as you would a standard six-string. Twelve-string guitars produce a brighter and more jangly tone than six-string guitars. They are used by guitarists for chord progressions that require thickening. The twelve-string is mainly used as a rhythm instrument due to the extra effort involved in playing lead guitar using paired strings. Twelve-string guitars have twelve tuning pegs and double truss rods and are slightly more expensive then their corresponding six-string version.

4) Others - Include the archtop (has small f's in the resonator), the steel (played horizontally on your lap), the bass guitar (slapa 'da 'base), the electro-acoustic (Ovation), resonators (like Muddy Waters - distinctive blues sound), ukelele, banjo and "customs" like the double-necked guitar etc...

d) Strings

EAT A DARN GOOD BREAKFAST EVERYDAY (from low to high) they are represented by the following keys on the piano


Or, from the source - PRINTABLE


String sizes are as follows (where the dark cells are bronze-wound for extra strength - which aids resonance):
Extra light (10–47)
Custom light (11–52)
Light (12–53)
Light/Medium (12.5–55)
Medium (13–56)
Heavy (14–59)

e) How to hold the guitar and hand position

Sitting - Whether you're sitting with your legs crossed or uncrossed, ensure your knees are high enough to support the guitar at (or just below) chest height. Rest the dip of the guitar (most guitars have a dip for this purpose) on your lap. Rest it on the same side as your strumming hand (e.g. if you strum with your right hand, rest it on your right lap). Rest the guitar flat against your chest (although some people prefer to slightly tilt it towards them - emphasis on the word slightly!) Don't hunch your back. Make sure your elbow points out towards the top corner of your guitar. It should also rest so your forearm and wrist can pivot over the strings while at the same time supporting the body of the guitar against your body. The arm of your fret hand (the hand that presses the strings) should be at no more than a 90 degree right angle. The more acute the angle, the less strain is put on your wrist to reach around the fretboard.

Standing -Don't loosen the strap too much. It's not cool, and it's really bad for your hands/wrists. If the guitar gets too low (i.e. down at your knees) you will have problems wrapping your fingers around the neck properly to play chords. As a general rule, the guitar should be positioned so that your fret-hand arm is at no more than a 90 degree right angle. Again, don't hunch! Still make sure your forearm is square-on and angled out towards the top corner of your guitar (not back behind you) so it can pivot smoothly over the strings.

holding the guitar neck - top view
holding the guitar neck - top view

holding the guitar neck - rear view
holding the guitar neck - rear view

thumb over the top of the guitar neck
thumb over the top of the guitar neck

So as you can see, your thumb should rest comfortably towards the top edge of the guitar neck. Your wrist should be relaxed but not hanging too low. The wrist should be bent, but only slightly. If your wrist is bent too much, it will cause problems later on. If you have smaller hands, you're thumb will be positioned further towards the center of the back of the neck. As long as you get this initial, relaxed position first you'll be fine.

When we begin to look at chords, obviously your fingers will be moving in many different positions, so at the moment, just focus on getting comfortable with the general positioning of the guitar.

Note: Guitarists with larger hands may find it more comfortable to bring their wrist up and curl the top of their thumb over the top of the neck slightly (see photo on the left).

Comfort always comes first, but be aware, if you do choose to have your thumb over the edge of the neck like this, you will need to move it back to the center of the neck for certain chords. It will require more thumb movement, in other words.

With pick in hand, we can see how the straightness of the thumb supports the base of the pick, and the index finger supports more towards the tip of the plectrum.
Holding the guitar plectrum
Holding the guitar plectrum

See how the thumb is kept relatively straight...
Holding the guitar pick - front view
Holding the guitar pick - front view

f) How to tune the guitar

There are a number of methods to tune the guitar to standard (not including the alternative tunings we'll talk about later in the course). For beginners typically we use a chart like this:
external image how-to-tune-a-guitar.png

So playing the 6th string (low E) at the 5th fret plays the note A. This should exactly match the A of the open 5th string. Proceed up the strings to the 1st string. What you're listening for is first - to get the pitches to sound very similar then second, when they're close, the beats (constructive/destructive sound interference) will diminish in their duration until they're gone.

A more precise (and frankly cooler) technique for tuning involves harmonics. That said, it's harder for beginners to get this technique.

Try these steps:

Play the harmonic on the 5th fret of the 6th String and play the harmonic on the 7th fret of the 5th String. Adjust the tuning pegs on the 5th string until the 2 chimes match.
Play the harmonic on the 5th fret of the 5th String and play the harmonic on the 7th fret of the 4th String. Adjust the tuning pegs on the 4th string until the 2 chimes match.
Play the harmonic on the 5th fret of the 4th String and play the harmonic on the 7th fret of the 3th String. Adjust the tuning pegs on the 3th string until the 2 chimes match.
Play the harmonic on the 7th fret of the 6th String and play the open 2nd string. To play it open means you do not fret or do a harmonic anywhere, just simply pluck the 2nd string. Adjust the tuning pegs on the 2nd string until the 2 notes match. Tip: Try not to play the open 2nd String too loud or else it might overwhelm the sound of the harmonic. Try to pluck it softly enough so the 2nd string matches the harmonic note in volume.
Play the harmonic on the 5th fret of the 2th String and play the harmonic on the 7th fret of the 1th String. Adjust the tuning pegs on the 1st string until the 2 chimes match.

g) Standard Chords


simplified version (typically always played with first finger)
full version
Also chords can sometimes be seen as if the guitar was straight up with the butt of the guitar resting on the ground and you're looking at the fretboard

external image Guitar%2BMajor%2BChords.gif

MINOR CHORDS (common - the others involve barre chords)

there are no simplified versions only full versions of these
Also chords can sometimes be seen as if the guitar was straight up with the butt of the guitar resting on the ground and you're looking at the fretboard (root denoted with a dark open circle)
external image Guitar%2Bminor%2Bchords.jpg

Full guitar chord charts are abundant online. Find your own - though I find the one below convenient because it also has the keys on it.
external image guitar~1.gif
But for complete fingerings this one is better
external image BigChartLandscape2big.png

h) How to read music

On the guitar - a sharp indicates you will play the note a fret higher while a flat means you will play the note a fret lower than the natural note. Looking at the guitar neck above, let's say you are going to play low G. That's 6th string 3rd fret. A G# (Ab) is 6th string 4th fret while a Gb (F#) is 6th string 2nd fret.


What is Timing? In order for music to flow and sound even, you must develop your sense of timing. There are other terms that are used to describe timing in music such as: rhythm, beats, and note values. A rhythm is a pattern of beats, usually repeated in a song for predetermined length of time. The beats are also played for a set amount of time. These are called note values. There are common note values that you can look at and memorize:

Notice that the largest value here is the Whole note. To get the next note value, you just divide the whole note by 2. This produces the Half note. In the example the notes a broken down until the Sixteenth note. But you can go further to a very small value like a 128th note, which is a very short period of time. In guitar, the smallest note value you will probably play is a 32nd note (not in this course).

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Rhythms from beats

To play a rhythm, you must first place beats in to a pattern:
external image counting_rhythm_1.gif
The above diagram illustrates a rhythm made up of: Whole, Half, Quarter and eighth notes. Notice that the count is in groups of 4 beats. These beats that are put into groups called bars or measures. The example has a total of 4 Bars (or measures).

Time Signatures

In order to determine how many beats can be placed in a bar, you must place a Time Signature at the beginning of each section:

Simple time signatures consist of two numerals, one stacked above the other:

The lower numeral indicates the note value that represents one beat (the beat unit). [clarification needed]

The upper numeral indicates how many such beats there are in a bar.

For instance,
external image Common-Time-Signatures.jpg

I) Scales

A musical scale is basically a group of notes with well-defined intervals between them. A musical scale could consist of the notes A, B, C, D, E, F, and G (this is, in fact, a C major scale). Or a musical scale could consist of the notes A, A#, C, C#, D#, E, F#, G. A scale can be any group of notes. However, there are common scales that are used in Western music. These scales are the ones that are familiar to most musicians.

Major scales are defined to have intervals of a whole step, another whole step, a half step, and then three whole steps followed by a half step back to the root. Ok, so what does all that mean? A half step is just a single interval between notes (for example F to F# is a half step, so is B to C). On a piano keyboard a half step is sliding right (or left) by one spot. That might mean going from a white to a white key (if there are no black keys in between - as in going from E to F, or B to C), or going from a white key to its adjacent black key (for example going from G to G#). A full step or tone means you pass two semitones (two half steps). For example, from A, a full tone would be going through the half-step to A#, then another half step from A# to B. Alternatively, going a full step from E would be first taking the half-set to F, then another half step to F#.
external image PianoNotes.gif

On a guitar this is MUCH easier.
external image wholeandhalfsteps.jpg

A whole step is two half steps, so it is two intervals between notes (from F to G, or from B to C#). On the guitar, then, a half step is equivalent to one fret, and a whole step is equivalent to two frets.

A root of a scale is the note that the scale starts on. So how is it possible to determine what note a scale starts on? Let's say there is a scale where the intervals between notes were defined as whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half (this is a major scale). Given the notes: A, B, C#, D, E, F#, G it can be determined that this is a D major scale by looking for the correct pattern:

There is a lot more that could be said about musical scales. (musical scales are quite mathematical -- which the reader may or may not find interesting). We’ll talk more about this in the semester. Learning about musical keys and song structure are more important than in-depth theory on musical scales. Scales are good for improvisation but too advanced at this stage in the game.

J) Chords

The starting point in many music theory tutorials is the C major scale:


The C major scale (also called the Ionian scale) is the foundation on which the most of Western music is built.

The letters in the scale are the note names: C is do, D is re, E is mi, F is fa, G is sol, A is la and B is si. The numbers are what we call the function of the note in the scale or chord. The 1 is also known as the 'root'. The first type of chord we'll have a look at is the triad. A triad is a chord that has 3 different notes. Triads are built by stacking thirds. A third (also written like 3) is a particular interval between two notes.


We'll construct our first chord by stacking 2 thirds on the first note (C or 1) of the C major scale. First we count 4 half notes beginning from the first note: from C to C# to D to D# to E. Then we count 3 half notes from the E: from E to F to F# to G.


This results in a C major triad. C to E makes a major third and E to G a minor third : this structure is typical for every major chord and can be written in a chord formula.
Note number
Example 1 - C Major
Example 2 - D Major
two full tones up
full tone and semitone up

Minor chords are very similar, yet the structure of the triad is such that from Root you progress Tone/Semitone - to the 3rd, then Tone Tone Semitone to the 5th

Note number
Example 1 - C minor
Example 2 - D minor
two full tones up
full tone and semitone up


More detail to triads and sevenths

Triads form the foundation for modern music. There are 4 ways to write a triad:

1. Major triad. It has a major third (4 semitones), then a minor third (3 semitones) in determining the triad. E.g. C triad has root C, then 4 semitones higher is E, then 3 semitones higher is G so C-E-G
C major triad

2. Minor triad. It has a minor third (3 semitones), then a major third (4 semitones). E.g. C minor triad has root C, then 3 semitones higher is D# (or E flat), then 4 semitones higher is G so C-D#-G or C-Eb-G
C minor triad

3. Augmented triad. It has 2 major thirds (i.e. 4 semitones, then another 4 semitones). So a C aug. is root C, then E, then G#
C augmented

4. Diminished triad. It has 2 minor thirds (i.e. 3 semitones, then another 3 semitones). So a C dim. Is root C, then D#, then F#
C diminished triad


When we extend out the triad another interval we include the seventh. The seventh chord has another interval after the 5th.

1. Major Minor Seventh (also known as dominant 7th): As guitar players we typically see the 7th written as G7, or E7 This is in fact the Major Minor seventh. We count 3 semitones higher than the 5th and play this note. So a G7 would be G, B, D, F where F is the major/minor 7th. E7 would be E, G#, B, D
E major-minor (or dominant) 7th triad

2. Major Seventh: the default seventh in guitar is the major minor seventh. The major seventh is less common, so when written we add “maj” or a capital M to the chord root. EM7 or Emaj7, CM7 or Cmaj7. A major seventh includes the note 4 semitones higher than the 5th to the chord. Gmaj7 thus is G, B, D, F#. EM7 is thus E, G#, B, D#
E major 7th triad

3. Minor seventh is the minor triad plus the minor seventh (3 semitones higher than the 5th) as in case 1. Note the minor seventh has a small m and the number 7. E.g. Gm7 is G, A#, D, F. Em7 is E, G, B, D
E minor 7th triad

rarely used sevenths
  • Half-diminished seventh. Is a diminished triad that also includes a diminished triad as well as 4 semitones higher the 7th.
  • Diminished seventh, is the diminished triad AND a diminished 7th (three semitones higher than 5th)