How to (almost) learn to play guitar

Perhaps your story is similar to mine. Having missed that crucial period in my teens when all my friends were learning to play guitar (because I was studying, or so I tell myself), I’ve tried many times to catch up and accompany my (arguably) good voice with a stringed instrument, and always failed, for different reasons. In this article I try to explain why, and how I got some traction eventually so that I finally (almost) succeeded.

Bear with me as I list my various failed attempts at learning guitar, the reasons why I thought I might succeed, and the reasons why I didn’t, in more or less chronological order. Perhaps your list looks similar, perhaps not:

  1. Got a (not so nice) acoustic guitar. I had it already so I didn’t have to spend any money. Got myself a “learn guitar” book. I reached the point where I could do a couple chords. Didn’t progress beyond because the fingers in my left hand hurt and the chords didn’t sound so good anyway.
  2. So I got myself a nice nylon-string guitar, which should be easier on the left hand, and also on the right. It was a little better but not by much. This time I found that many chords required a lot of finger-stretching, which ended up discouraging me.
  3. Then I got an Ion All-Star “guitar,” where you put your iPad (up to iPad 3) on the body for strumming with your right hand, and press buttons on the neck with your left hand. Didn’t get to the point of making a chord because the software sucked real bad and I could feel neither the virtual strings on the iPad nor my fingers on the neck buttons.
  4. Then I got an electric plus amplifier on Craigslist for $50. Old and with a fret buzz due to excessively low action but sounded good generally. I watched a number of videos from Justinguitar.com. The rationale was that I’d stay more engaged if the guitar actually sounded good. The isolated chords did sound terrific, and the low action of the electric guitar was also easier on my fingers. A friend had told me that engagement, and therefore progress, shoots up once you start joining chords to accompany songs you like. I learned a few chords, but then I couldn’t manage to string them together into a song. Too many fingers were engaged for each chord, and those had to move to completely different positions between chords.

Thus years passed, and then the inspiration: there’s too many strings! Six of them, to be exact, and I only have four fingers that can be reasonably expected to push them down. No wonder I was having so much trouble. The solution then was obvious: get an instrument with fewer strings. I chose the ukulele, which is tuned a lot like a guitar but has only four strings, perfect for my four fingers. Now, there are several sizes of ukulele. After a little research I chose the tenor size because it sounds better to my ear, and is still tuned the same way (thus opening lots of online chords of tutorials). They tend to be more expensive but I found a cheap one of good quality made by Caramel. Thirty-nine bucks shipped from China, arriving in under two weeks. Beautiful striped wood, too. Here’s a picture:

I didn’t realize it back then, but the tenor size is indeed the best for learning because it has more space for your fingers, especially if you’re an adult (physically speaking, that is). The more popular soprano size (my second uke, which I got for travel, $29 shipped from California) still sounds pretty good, but the frets are a lot closer together so it’s harder to place your fingers. I just didn’t care for the way the concert size sounds.

Having gotten myself an instrument, I proceeded to find songs made with easy chords. Here’s where the ukulele really shines. Did you know that the basic C chord needs only ONE finger on the neck?. The C chord usually goes together with F (two fingers) and G7 (three fingers, one in common with the F chord), so I found a number of songs in the key of C, which use those three chords (at most). Here’s a partial list (you will find a lot more in the terrific book “The Daily Ukulele” by Jim Beloff):

  • Ain’t she sweet?
  • Ain’t we got fun?
  • Alexander’s ragtime band
  • Amazing grace
  • Banana boat song
  • Bare necessities
  • Blue bayou
  • Bonnie and Clyde
  • Bye, bye blackbird
  • By the light of the silvery moon
  • Charlie and the MTA
  • Clementine (only 2 chords!)
  • Country roads
  • Dream a little dream of me
  • Five foot two
  • Hello ma baby
  • Java jive
  • King of the road
  • Lava song
  • Leaving on a jet plane
  • Lida Rose
  • (The) Lion sleeps tonight
  • Mairzy doats
  • Oh Susanna
  • On the sunny side of the street
  • Over the rainbow/what a wonderful world
  • Rocky top
  • Stand by me
  • Summertime
  • Sweet Georgia Brown
  • Yes sir, that’s my baby
  • You are my sunshine
  • Wonderful world (don’t know much)

Here’s where it started paying back. Not only are the ukulele basic chords quite easy to make, but it’s also easy to switch between them. F to G7 and back is a piece of cake because you can use your index finger as an anchor. Switching between those and C makes me move all the fingers, but again, the C chord only needs one finger. I was switching between those three chords almost from the first day, and I entered a state of flow, adding more and more songs to my repertoire, which sometimes added an extra chord to spice things up: D7 (two fingers), A7 (one finger), C7 (one finger), A minor (one finger), E7 (three fingers, but boy, does this chord sound good). Here’s a chart with the most important chords. It’s easy to find full charts on the Internet.

Ukulele chords and guitar chords are closely related. Any given ukulele chord shape corresponds to a guitar chord three notes down on the cyclic A to G scale, as far as the four bottom strings are concerned. For instance, the G7 uke chord shape is the same as the D7 guitar chord shape (G -> F -> E -> D). The single-finger C chord on the uke is matched by the single-finger G chord on the guitar as far as strings one to four go (C -> B -> A -> G), with two more fingers to be placed on strings five and six (the top two, fatter strings). This is because a ukulele is essentially the bottom four strings of a guitar, plus a capo on the fifth fret. If you have a guitar lying around and you want to test what a uke would sound like, just mute or remove the top two strings and put a capo on the fifth fret.

The only difference that you may notice is that the uke’s top string is actually tuned an octave higher than the guitar’s fourth string plus capo. This contributes to its mellower sound and its nearly equal up and down strums. But as far as chord shapes, this makes no difference. Now that I’m getting good with the simpler ukulele chords and chord changes my hope is that moving to a guitar will be easier. Perhaps I’ll start putting a capo on the guitar (fifth fret), and just concentrate on adding the fingering for the two extra strings, so that the C will be the same as the uke C (ring finger on first string, third fret), plus index finger on fifth string, second fret, and middle finger on sixth string, third fret; and so on. Then I’ll remove the capo and do the same fingerings at the top of the neck, remembering that the chord values are now three spaces down.

But maybe I won’t do that, and stay with the four strings. The purpose of the top two strings of the guitar, apparently, is to add more range for solos, which I’m not doing. Many standard guitar chords, in fact, omit the sixth or even the fifth string as well, because the fingering would be difficult and those strings don’t add so much anyway. A bit of a hassle when you are strumming up and down, if you ask this beginner. I got a baritone ukulele for $35.99 shipped (with bag, and the color is way more subdued than in the website picture) that is essentially a guitar minus the top two strings. But more on this in the next article.

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