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Guitar Beginner FAQ

Beginner Questions & Answers


This is not another guitar FAQ, it's a guitar beginner FAQ!

You don't need answers to questions like: "How can I refinish my guitar?" or "How do I install a pickup in my acoustic?" Eventually, maybe, but not yet.

The guitar beginner FAQ focuses on you, the beginning guitarist. The fact is, sometimes you don't even know what you don't know, so how can you ask a question about it?

You can either click on one of the questions to jump directly to the answer, or scroll through the questions and answers below.

I hope you find the information helpful. If you have questions not covered here, feel free to Contact Me and mention this Guitar Beginner FAQ.


My 8-year-old desperately wants to learn to play guitar. His school provides lessons and his birthday is coming up. What guitar should I buy?

In general, new guitar players should select a guitar based on the type of music they want to play. In a case like this, there are probably other factors to consider, such as what the school will allow or what you want to hear around the house. ;-)

If your child will take lessons at school you need to consider what they school will expect or require. They are almost certain to prefer either a nylon string acoustic or a steel string acoustic. Unless your son wishes to play classical guitar, stick with a steel string acoustic. The key differences are:

  • Nylon strings are thicker, but easier to press down for new players.
  • Nylon strings are smoother, and won't cause as much early finger-tip soreness.
  • Steel-string guitar necks are usually thinner, so smaller hands can play them easier.
  • Steel-string guitars have better sustain and more volume.
  • Steel-string guitars are a bit harder to play initially, but if you have it setup for him and use extra light strings, he'll be fine. Read more about what a setup is and what it costs elsewhere on this page.

If your son has visions of playing electric guitar, you may need to reassure him of a few things:

  • All guitars play pretty much the same. In fact, if he learns on an acoustic, the electric will come very easily to him (the strings on an electric are often a little closer together and easier to push down, so making the switch is very easy).
  • You can play an acoustic anywhere... but for an electric you need to haul an amp, cables, and have access to electricity.
  • If (this is a BIG IF) he continues to play guitar, he'll end up with an electric. Either you'll buy him one on another gifting occasion, or he'll save his money and buy one himself. It will be the beginning of the dreaded "equipment acquisition syndrome" suffered by all men with hobbies (I speak as one who has refined this art).

In addition to the guitar, remember that you'll also need to purchase just a few accessories for his first acoustic:

  • A chromatic tuner
  • A book of chords (or consider the Planet Waves Chordmaster, an electronic tuner, chord dictionary and metronome, for about $30).
  • A hard-shell case (most inexpensive guitars come with a soft-sided bag, I strongly recommend you protect the guitar with a hard-sided case. A local shop should be willing to credit you for the soft-sided case and give a discount on a more secure hard case.)
  • A few picks (buy a pack of thin and a pack of mediums for your son to try). Materials and styles don't matter much at first, just buy standard teardrop shaped picks.

All of this is fairly general advice. Before you walk into a guitar shop, be ready to answer a few questions:

  • How much do you plan to spend?
  • What type of music does your son wish to play (what does he listen to). You should also mention what type of music you want to hear him play.
  • Do you know what the school will teach? Can you find out if the teacher has specific requirements or restrictions?

Finally, be prepared to listen to some fairly grating 'concerts' for a while. Offer as much praise and support as you can, and you'll be enjoying fine music in as little as a year.

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My new guitar is making a buzzing sound. Is something broken?

Probably not. There are a number of things that can cause a guitar to buzz. I've listed some of the most common causes and solutions in this Guitar Beginner FAQ.

Your strings are tuned too flat.

You tune your guitar by turning the tuning keys at the end of the neck. This changes the tension of the strings: tighter is higher pitched; looser is lower pitched. Too tight and they're "sharp". Too loose and they're "flat". If they're too flat, they'll droop enough to strike the fret wires on the neck of your guitar, creating a buzzing sound.

Solution: Tune your guitar using an electronic chromatic tuner. Learn more about the most accurate way to tune here.

Your strings are too large (in diameter).

Unfortunately (at least when you start out) strings come in a wide variety of sizes (diameters), and you really can't tell what size is on a new guitar. It probably has the strings put on by the manufacturer, but maybe not. If the guitar was available for strumming in the store (almost all are) you just don't know if the strings were changed already. If they were changed, there's a chance the wrong diameter strings were put on. This is more likely with a private owner, but it can also happen in a reputable store.

Fortunately most guitar manufacturers recommend string sizes for every guitar they make. Often they also recommend a specific string manufacturer.

Solution: Look at your owner's manual (or the web-site) for the recommended string type and size. Buy a new set of strings, and get them on your guitar (do it yourself, or pay the local guitar shop... it's very inexpensive.). You can learn more about changing your own strings here. If this is not the cause of the buzzing sound, you'll still get to enjoy the great tone and sustain of new strings!

Your home is too dry (low humidity).

Depending on where you live, how you heat your home, the weather, and how you store your instrument... your guitar can become very dry over a one or two week period.

When wood dries the shape changes... that can lead to lots of problems, including buzzing.

Solution: Get a Damp-it guitar humidifier, or any guitar humidifier you like, and use it. You'll may solve the string buzz problem and you'll definitely improve the life of your guitar. If you want to learn more than is appropriate for the Guitar Beginner FAQ, read more about guitar humidifiers here.

Your strings are worn out.

You may need new strings. Older strings have less 'bounce' to them, and are more likely to create problems such as bad tone, poor sustain, tuning problems, and buzzing.

Solution: Replace your strings. Check your owner's manual (or the manufacturer's web-site) for the right string type and size. Take a look at these other pages: All About Guitar Strings; and How To Change Guitar Strings.

Your action is too low.

The distance from your strings to the fretboard is know as the "action" on a guitar. Most players try to get this distance as small as possible without creating buzz. The buzz occurs when the strings strike the fret wires.

Solution: Take your guitar to a reputable shop, or a local luthier. Ask them to check your action. If you've never had the instrument setup before, now's the time (read about guitar setup below).

Too much force strumming or fretting.

Assuming that you heard this guitar before you bought it, you may simply be strumming with too much force or pulling too much with your fretboard hand.

It takes a while to develop good strumming technique.

Watch and listen to others play. Consider how your strumming is different, and adjust if necessary.

You only need to use enough strength/pull with your fretboard hand sound the proper notes. Any more and you're bending strings, bending the neck of the guitar, or needlessly straining your arm. It takes time and practice to refine your technique, but keep trying, it will come

Solution: It takes time to develop good strumming technique and the lightest possible touch on the fretboard. In the meantime, use thinner picks, strum gently, and practice using only enough force as is required to sound notes.

Incorrect finger placement or too little pressure.

It can take a long time to develop the strength and coordination to properly place your fingers on the frets and apply the right amount of pressure.

Place your fingers too close to the fret wire and you sharpen the note, or partially mute it. Place them too far back and the strings buzz.

Apply too much pressure and your hand hurts. Too little creates fret buzz and deadened tone.

Solution: An friend, who is a very accomplished player, once told me "The key to playing fast and clean is to apply just enough pressure to sound the notes, and no more." But that can take years to master. For now, check with your instructor, a friend, or one of the folks at the local guitar shop for advice on where to place your fingers. Be patient, this is a problem that all new guitar players struggle with, but they all eventually figured it out and so will you.

Anything else...

If none of these solutions work, or don't seem to fit, it's time to head off to see the technician at your local guitar shop, or a luthier.

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My string keeps breaking when I tune. What's up?

The strings that break most often are the B string and the high E string. There are four primary reasons these (or any other) string will break:

  • The string is defective.
  • The string is binding in the nut.
  • You've over-tightened the string.
  • There is a sharp edge on your tuning key.

You can usually narrow down the possibilities by looking at where the string broke. Let's look at each problem.

The String Is Defective: This is probably the least likely cause, but it's certainly the easiest to fix - buy more strings. If the string breaks in random locations, the problem might be a defect.

Computer manufacturing provides increasingly refined specifications and improved quality control, but it is still possible that you'll receive a defective string every now and then. The store may take them back, but you might have to purchase another set.

Some sets come with extra strings (usually the high E string) and some manufacturers sell individual strings. Of course, if you have continued quality problems with the same manufacturer, switch.

The String Is Binding In The Nut: You may notice that your string slips suddenly at the top of the neck, as you tune up or down. You will actually hear a slight 'ping' or other sound when this happens. It means that the slot in the nut where the string passes through is too narrow. The string gets caught, and slips or snaps as you tune.

The string will almost always break at about the location of the nut.

You can solve this with a home-remedy or by seeing a guitar tech or luthier. I'll discuss two home remedies here.

First, you can lubricate the nut with a non-liquid, such as graphite. This will solve many problems where the nut is slightly dirty of only slightly tight. Start by loosening the string. Then sharpen a number 2 pencil to a sharp point. Put the point of the pencil in the slot and move it back and forth a few times. Since graphite is a lubricant, and pencils use graphite, this will reduce the friction and may solve your problem.

Solution two is to remove just a bit of the nut. The safest way to do this is to use very fine grit sandpaper (400 grit or so), folded in half. When you fold the sandpaper in half, make certain you have a defined fold so the sandpaper isn't mashed at the bottom, creating a dug-out area at the bottom of the nut. Insert the sandpaper in the slot of the string that keeps breaking, and gently move it back and forth three of four times. Take care to not remove too much material. It's easy to remove, it's impossible to put back.

You're Over-Tightening The String: This can happen to even the most experienced guitarists under the right conditions. I recall a very talented guitarist who broke a string during rehearsal. Rehearsal time can create a lot of pressure on everyone, and he knew he needed to replace the string. As quick as he could, he got to his gig-bag, pulled out a spare set of strings, and found the right string. The old one was off and the new one in only a couple minutes. Then, looking only at his electronic tuner, 'twang!' the new string popped.

I could tell this was about to happen because he tuned right past the note he should have tuned to. But, under pressure, he kept looking at that needle, and over-tightened the string.

The easiest way to ensure this doesn't happen to you is to tune any newly replaced string to a reference tone and not simply an electronic tuner. Use the "fifth fret" relative tuning method, or harmonics, or a piano... anything that creates the reference pitch you need. Try not to use only an electronic tuner.

When you're over-tightening a string, it can pop just about anywhere.

There Is A Sharp Edge On Your Tuning Key: You tend to discover this problem on new guitars. There may be a small burr created during manufacturing (or by the previous owner if you buy used) that shows up only when you put on new strings. Luckily, the string will usually pop right at the point where the bur exists. For example, if it breaks right at the tuning keys, your problem is most likely there.

One great trick to see if you have a burr, or other rough spot (not just on the tuning key, but anywhere on the guitar) is to take a strip of Glide dental floss and run it back and forth over the suspected location. If it frays, you've got a rough spot that can easily snap a string under pressure.

If the problem is at the tuning keys, take a phillips-head screwdriver, insert the tip into the string hole, and gently turn it back and forth a few times. To much pressure can cause other problems. Just a bit of pressure will flatten or break off any burr you might have.

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I was told to have my guitar "set-up." What does that mean?

Getting your guitar set-up is the same as an inspection and tune-up for your car.

A good technician or luthier will check and adjust a number of items. The most common checks and adjustments are:

  • The nut - Check for proper height (from strings) and width (to prevent the strings from getting stuck, or 'binding')
  • The bridge - Check for proper height at each string.
  • The strings - They'll probably be replaced.
  • The fretboard - Check for correct alignment to the body, and check the height of the strings from the fret-wires.
  • The fret-wires - Check the height, check for wear, check for overhang (fret-wires that extend too far out from the neck).

Just as important as what the tech or luthier does is how and why he does it. He (or she) should take the time to talk to you about your playing style, the type of music you play, the problems you have, what you like and dislike about the instrument, or anything else that might help them adjust the guitar to respond best to you.

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How can I find a good tech or luthier?

The same way you find a good auto mechanic... ask around.

If you're not sure who to ask, try contacting a local college or university that offers music classes. Chances are they use a local luthier and won't mind referring you. If you're embarrassed, blame this Guitar Beginner FAQ ;-) Of course, it's possible their tech or luthier doesn't work with your type of instrument, but they will almost certainly know someone who does.

If your guitar is new, go back to the shop where you purchased it. Take advantage of the warranty or guarantee.

Unfortunately there is no registry for master luthier's. There is a Guild of American Luthiers, but membership is a simple matter of filling out an application and paying a membership fee. You can't rely on membership in the guild as a recommendation of competence.

Some manufacturers have a network of authorized technicians, and will gladly refer you. This is exactly how I found a technician when I had a problem with my guitar. Check your manufacturer's web site, then pick up the phone and ask for the technical support group. While developing this Guitar Beginner FAQ, I found that Martin Guitar's, for example, provides a Service Center Locator on their web site. Click on your state (if you live in the continental U.S.A. or Alaska) to see a list of authorized repair locations. If you don't have a Martin, simply call and ask if they service your guitar. If not, ask for a referral.

You can also look through the yellow pages (under Musical Instruments - Repairs). Chances are you'll find a few stores with techs or luthier's on staff. Call and ask a few questions. If they're patient and knowledgeable... give them a chance. Take your time... a bad tech can cause a lot of problems: Problems that a beginner may not recognize.

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What should setup cost?

Most shops will look over your guitar and give you valuable feedback and advice for no charge. Expect to pay anywhere from $30-100 (US Dollars) for a setup, depending on where you take it, where you live, who you take it to, and the demand that shop/person has on them.

A low-cost alternative is to attend a manufacturer sponsored clinic or seminar. I got a free checkup, new strings, and minor adjustments from Taylor when they sent a couple factory technicians out to a local store as part of a seminar tour! Check your manufacturer's web-site, and get on their e-mail list for special event notifications.

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Why would my new guitar need new strings?

You really don't know how long those strings have been on the guitar. Even if you knew that, you can't know how many times they were tuned up and down, or how people strummed the guitar, just like you probably did before you bought it. I recommend you put new strings on, even on a new guitar. You'll enjoy the tone, and the stability of the tuning. Plus, if the shop will let you watch them, you'll learn how to change them yourself. If you're particularly independent minded, or feeling daring...look at my page on How To Change Guitar Strings. Then read all about Guitar Strings to understand when to change them again. Those pages go into more detail than I can in the Guitar Beginner FAQ.

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My thumb hurts during practice. Why?

Thumb pain (or discomfort) on the fretboard hand (the left-hand for most of you) can be a sign of injury, or simply a sign of tired muscles.

It's not uncommon for beginners to use too much force when forming chords or playing scales. After all, making clean-sounding notes takes practice, and string buzz is a common problem. More pressure usually stops the buzzing, but simply applying more pressure is not a complete solution and may be the wrong solution.

Try to find a balance between where you place your fingers on the fretboard (they should be directly behind the fret wires) and how much pressure you apply. As I said earlier in the Guitar Beginner FAQ, the key to speed is to apply only enough pressure to make the note sound clean, and no more. More pressure bends the note out of tune and leads to muscle ache or injuries.

Keep in mind that you can apply pressure to the fretboard with very light pressure from your thumb (maybe even with no thumb pressure), by using your arms. Try this: take your thumb off the back of the fretboard and form a simple chord (Em, for example). Using only pressure from your left arm (to press your fingers onto the fretboard) and your right (pressing your forearm against the body of the guitar) try to play the chord. Once you get this technique down you can use it to give your left hand 'breaks' as you practice and play.

In general: Take frequent breaks. Change up your practice session (work on strumming, then work on scales and chords, then back to strumming, etc.) to alternate the strain of each hand. As a follow-up from this Guitar Beginner FAQ recommendation, check with your instructor or a friend to make certain your technique is correct.

My article on Preventing Guitar Related Injuries may also help.

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I want to play songs by my favorite band. How long will that take?

Keep in mind that the musicians in your favorite band have done two things you have not, at least not yet: they've been playing a long time, and they've practiced that song over and over.

In addition, they probably worked for weeks in the studio perfecting every passage of each track... recording over and over until they got everything just right. In fact, it's not uncommon for studios to bring in a particular musician to record segments of a song that the artist is struggling with. If they can't do it all as an experienced musician, you certainly can't as a beginner.

Finally, the sound of your favorite band is also affected by their equipment: the guitars, the effects, the studio work, amplifiers, and much more.

Set your expectations now: When you play your guitar, through your equipment, you are not going to sound just like your favorite band... at least not for a long time.

Set aside your ego. More importantly, you don't have to sound just like them. In fact, you don't want to. You want to create your own style and sound. Most people won't care that you don't sound just like someone else. They will enjoy what you do.

Start by learning open chords. Most songs use only a few, such as C, G, D, and Em. Even songs that use other chords for the recording can be played well enough using a few open chords. The song might be recorded in another key, so you won't match the record, but changing the key can also make the song easier to play.

Don't worry that you won't sound exactly like your favorite band, or favorite song, first learn to change chords AND strum in rhythm to the song: That's more important when just starting out.

One day (in six months, a year, two?) you'll start to add new chord shapes, riffs, fills, and more.

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I want to become an exceptional guitarist. How long will that take?

To become one of the best guitarists you have to dedicate significant structured practice time to learning and improving your skills.

A widely quoted research article on this topic, called "The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance," by K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Th. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Romer examines the effects of genetics, practice time, techniques and the environment to draw its conclusions. In the report they state that expertise is acquired through "extended deliberate practice." The term "deliberate practice" is key. Practice for the sake of practice, or to 'get your hours in' is not as effective as practice time that is planned and structured for maximum improvement.

The authors of this report further state that achievement of expert performance requires about 10,000 hours of deliberate practice.

If their theory is accurate, you'll need to practice four hours per day for nearly seven years to become the next great guitarist.

If you'd like to read their article, you can read an HTML copy, or download a PDF version here.

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Where's the battery that powers my electric guitar?

The question originally came up as: "My friend has an acoustic guitar that he plugs into an amp. I have an electric guitar. The other day my friend changed the battery that powers the electronics in his acoustic. I've never changed the battery in my electric. How do I do that?"

The short Guitar Beginner FAQ answer is: Most electric guitars do not need a battery. Some of the newer hybrid electronic guitars, such as the Fender Stratocaster VG, do require batteries. The owners manual will clearly state the type and how to change them.

If you want to understand why most electrics don't need batteries, read Pick Up... The Pieces... on the Electric Guitar Guide page.

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What should I look for in an instructor?

The most important qualities in an instructor are:

  • Your personalities match.
  • The learning environment is safe and comfortable.
  • The instructor can teach you effectively.
  • You have fun!

Choose carefully. You'll be paying this person to provide motivation, clear explanations, patience, and guided improvement. Here are some of the questions you should ask yourself about your instructor:

  • Do you feel at ease around your instructor?
  • If you use a music store, do you get the same instructor, or is staff turnover a problem?
  • Can you ask any question and be taken seriously?
  • Are they willing to explain things over and over, with patience?
  • Are they willing to teach the type of music you enjoy?
  • Are they willing to change your appointment if you can't make it once in a while?
  • If they have to cancel, how willing are they to make up the session?

In addition to this Guitar Beginner FAQ answer, you might want to read all about Guitar Lesson Options. Perhaps online learning, a classroom, or other method is best for you.

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What should I expect at my first guitar lesson? The second?

The answer to this Guitar Beginner FAQ assumes that you're using private instruction. Similar expectations might apply to online, book/DVD, and classroom settings.

If you did not interview your instructor, take time during the first lesson to talk. Get to know the person giving you lessons, and tell them about yourself. Cover things like: your favorite bands and songs; the radio stations you listen to; if you tend to do homework (i.e. practice) or if you struggle with it; discuss your guitar and why you selected it; talk about any other equipment you have. In general, get acquainted and set expectations for yourself and the instructor. If there's a personality clash, end the relationship now, don't put it off.

Next, you'll probably learn basics such as: how to hold the guitar, placement of the fretboard hand and the strumming hand. You'll learn how to hold a pick. You might get some recommendations on pick styles, or thickness.

You'll probably tune up together the first lesson or two, but in the future you'll want to tune up before walking into the room. No sense wasting time your paying for.

You'll learn the names of the strings, and probably learn about frets and their relationship to semi-tones (half-steps). You might learn a simple riff, like the one from the old Secret Agent TV show. You'll probably also see how to play one scale (chances are it will be the C scale, or the G scale).

As you walk through these topics, you'll begin learning the anatomy of the guitar.

The instructor will show you one or two chords, and probably a simple song for you to practice using them.

Finally, you'll set expectations for practice, and learn what your instructor expects you to know and play for the next session.

When you leave, you'll forget at least half of what you were exposed to. That's O.K., learning a new skill requires repetition. Try to take notes. Above all, have fun!

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My electronic tuner goes haywire when I tune my B string. Why?

First, let's look at how many electronic tuners work, then learn a few easy tricks to minimize the problem.

Chromatic electronic tuners need to determine the note you're trying to tune to. This isn't as straight-forward as you might think because vibrating strings create multiple tones (harmonics). Some people hear these harmonic tones quite distinctly, while others don't or can't. The tuner hears them, and it must ignore the ones you don't want. So, the tuner selects the most likely pitch by determining which tone most likely created the other harmonics.

How does a string create other harmonics? Two ways. First, each string actually creates its own harmonics by vibrating in segments. Each vibrating segment produces a different pitch. Second, the vibration of one string can agitate another string, causing it to begin vibrating and add more harmonics to the mix.

The bottom line is: the tuner makes a calculated guess. If it guesses wrong, the tuning needle and note name can suddenly jump around. Fortunately, they tend to guess correctly.

Assuming the tuner does guess correctly, it next tries to lock on to this pitch. When it turns on lights, or moves needles, it's trying to indicate if the pitch of your string is higher or lower than a pitch considered "in tune". The tuner determines what is in-tune from a table of standard pitches.

This system works fairly well, but as you can see, nothing's perfect.

There are a few simple things you can do to improve the tuner's ability to lock on to the correct pitch.

  • Always get the string as close to being in-tune as possible before relying on your tuner. After some time, you ear will be all you need to get really close.
  • Press your hand against all strings, to stop them from vibrating, before tuning the next string. This reduces many of the sounds that can confuse your tuner.
  • The tuning mechanism requires consistent power, so keep the batteries in your tuner fresh.
  • On an electric guitar, use the neck pickup when tuning.
  • Old strings create problems for tuners because they don't vibrate as consistently as new strings. Change your strings often.

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