If you’ve ever listened to electric guitar masters like B.B. King, Eric Clapton, or Les Paul, and felt tiny hairs on the back of your neck tingling, you might just want to learn how to do what they do.
Learning the electric guitar is no walk in the park. Truthfully, when most people think of the guitar, they think of someone strumming an acoustic guitar and singing along, but when most people think of rock and roll or the blues, they think of the electric guitar.
Taking on any new instrument can be a challenging task, but trying to work your way into the world of the electric guitar is an entire league of its own.
Whether you have dreams of professional stardom, or simply just want to play for your own personal fulfillment, there are some things you need to know when learning how to play electric guitar.
To start things off, let’s clear the air.
What Is an Electric Guitar?
Generally speaking, a guitar can be loosely described as a wooden box with a neck and strings attached. When it comes to an electric guitar, the major difference is, well, electricity.
The electric guitar on its own is an extremely quiet instrument. It requires magnetic (and sometimes electromagnetic) pickups to detect the vibrations of the strings. That signal is then sent to an external device, like an amplifier, to be transformed into the various sounds that we all know and love.
Not all electric guitars are created equally though. Some are constructed of solid wooden bodies, some have semi-hollow bodies, and some have completely hollow bodies.
The construction of the guitar body often helps to shape the sound that the electric guitar is capable of producing.
For example, a hollow-bodied electric guitar is capable of producing a full, natural tone suitable for comping chords in a jazz combo that a solid-bodied guitar would have difficulty producing.
Some electric guitars are a hybrid of an acoustic and an electric guitar. These are simply just regular acoustic guitars with electric pickups installed so that they can be plugged into a sound system or amplifier.
Body Parts of an Electric Guitar
The majority of the parts on an electric guitar are similar to those on an acoustic guitar. There’s the body, the bridge, neck, fretboard, fret bars, fret markers, nut, truss adjustment, head, tuning machines, and strings.
What makes an electric guitar unique (and in some ways more complicated) compared to an acoustic guitar are the electronic components.
Pickups: The pickups are essential to how an electric guitar functions. Without them, you won’t have any signal for your amplifier to project.
Pickups can come in a few different variations. Single-coil or humbucker, and active or passive. At this stage, you don’t need to know the details, but I encourage you to learn about the science behind them. For now, just know that active pickups will be more expensive, but most electric guitars will come with passive pickups installed anyway.
Pickup Selector: Most, if not all electric guitars will come with at least two sets of pickups installed. The pickup selector is used to select which one you want to use (or both), depending on what sound you like.
The pickups closer to the bridge will produce a brighter, more metallic tone, while the pickups closer to the neck will produce a darker, warmer tone.
Tone Control Knobs: The tone controls are used to adjust the tone of each individual pickup. To experiment with the sounds, select one pickup and use the corresponding tone control knob to hear how it changes the sound when you turn it.
Volume Control: This knob is pretty self-explanatory. The higher you turn it, the louder your guitar gets!
Now that you understand the basic anatomy of an electric guitar, let’s take a closer look at how to learn to play it.
How to Play Electric Guitar for Beginners
1. Get the necessary equipment
The biggest downside to learning how to play electric guitar is the extra equipment necessary to get the most out of your instrument. The list of items isn’t too long, but it could add up pretty quickly if you’re not careful.
Because you’re just starting out, don’t worry about getting anything too fancy. There’s no need to fork out thousands of dollars for a Marshall JCM 2000 half-stack if you’re only going to be playing as a hobby.
Even if you intend to make a professional career out of playing the electric guitar, steer clear of the big shiny stuff for now. You simply won’t be able to get the most out of it at this stage.
Aside from an amp, your extra gear list should include a quality instrument cable, a tuner (one that clips onto the head of your guitar is recommended), a strap so you can stand and play, and guitar picks.
At the end of the day, your career as an electric guitarist won’t be made by having the best gear – it’ll be made by being the best player. So get something you like that suits your needs, but it’s not necessary to refinance your home in order to pay for it all.
You can find all of the gear you need online these days, but I recommend heading to your local guitar shop to give things a test drive before making a purchase. On top of that, it’s always good to support local businesses!
2. Find the perfect electric guitar to get you started
The nature of the electric guitar makes it one of the most versatile instruments in the world and allows players to play in multiple styles, creating an endless array of tonal possibilities.
Having an idea of what style you’re interested in playing might help you decide on an electric guitar to purchase though. If your heart is set on big-band jazz or B.B. King-style blues, a hollow-bodied electric might be your first choice. If you’re more interested in rock and roll, a solid-bodied guitar will likely suit your needs better.
If there is a guitarist that you love to watch or listen to, look up what type of guitar they play and use that to help you with your decision, but don’t get stuck on the idea that one type of electric guitar is only suited for one style though.
Choosing your perfect starter electric guitar is a personal choice and as long as it’s easy to play, stays/plays in tune, and works as it should, the sky’s the limit.
On the other hand, just like your extra gear, there’s no good reason to spend thousands of dollars on a new or custom electric guitar. As a complete beginner, it’s not likely that you would notice the nuanced differences in the quality of the instruments anyway.
A good starter electric guitar shouldn’t cost you more than $800, and realistically, you’ll be able to find one to suit all your needs for a quarter of that price.
After some time developing your skills and your ears though, you should revisit the idea of purchasing a high-quality instrument!
3. Learn the basics
Knowing how to tune your guitar is like knowing how to put gas in your car, or knowing how to boil water. It’s absolutely essential that you learn how to tune your guitar, and practice tuning it every time you pick it up and constantly re-tuning it throughout your practice and jam sessions.
Tuning your guitar helps to train your ears. A professional guitarist always hears when something is slightly off – even by just a few cents. The only way to reach that level is to constantly feed your ears with in-tune guitar playing.
It’s not difficult to pick up a few chords on your own. The narrow neck and lighter tension strings of an electric guitar will make it easier to learn many of the open chords in the first position. Check out a video on YouTube or subscribe to an online lesson platform like Guitar Tricks (more on that later) and teach yourself how to play a song by learning only three chords.
“Shredding,” is a hallmark of the electric guitar. Whether it’s Eddie Van Halen or Yngwie Malmsteen, guitar solos are part of what makes the electric guitar so cool.
Learning to play scales early on will make it easier to develop your soloing skills later. Try out a simple major scale in the first position, or learn to play all of the natural notes in the first position as a scale, both ascending and descending.
At this stage (and every stage), focus on accuracy over speed. You need to teach your fingers how to move efficiently before they’ll ever be able to move with lightning speed.
4. Learn to use an amp
As I mentioned earlier, you’ll need to purchase a guitar amp, but you also need to have a basic understanding of what it is and how it works.
A guitar amp is an electronic system that works similarly to any PA (public address) system, except instead of amplifying the signal from a microphone, it amplifies the signal from your guitar pickups. It takes the weak signal sent from the pickups in your electric guitar and projects it through a speaker so that the instrument can be heard.
If you look at any guitar amp, there’s usually a series of knobs that affect the sound the amp projects in various ways.
Master Volume: Controls the overall volume of your guitar amp
Gain or Drive: Controls how distortion or break up your guitar amp produces. A high gain or drive setting is what you hear in rock music, hence the name, “overdrive.” Be careful with this knob, overdoing it will sound too abrasive and unappealing to most. Use the Gain knob in moderation and with good taste, turning it up in small increments until you hear the smallest bit of distortion. This will be suitable for most applications.
Presence: Controls how bright or dark your amp will sound overall. The higher the setting, the brighter the sound (more high frequencies), and vice versa.
Bass: This allows you to adjust the volume of low frequencies your amp will project.
Mid: Controls the volume of mid-range frequencies your amp will project.
High: Controls the volume of the high frequencies your amp will project. This isn’t to be confused with presence though, which uses a different filter shape.
Using your amp for the first time might seem a bit overwhelming with all of the knobs and buttons, but once you find a good sound, you don’t have to mess with it much anymore.
To find a sound that you like, start by setting all of your knobs to twelve o’clock. So if you imagine the knob as a clock, the mark on it should be set to the twelve o’clock position (pointing up).
From there, all you have to do is play and listen carefully as you adjust one knob at a time. Make sure you only focus on one knob at a time too, as it will make the whole process much easier.
5. Take some lessons
Once you’ve got your perfect starter electric guitar and a good amp setup, you should consider taking some guitar lessons. If you prefer to take lessons in person, look for college students majoring in guitar at a university near you, and ask for some lessons.
If you know somebody who plays the guitar, ask them to show you a few things to help get you started, but take their advice with a grain of salt if they’re not an experienced guitarist.
At this stage, it’s important to receive quality instruction because the habits you form early on will affect how you learn and play later.
Taking in-person guitar lessons can be expensive though. If you’re worried about the cost of lessons, you should look into signing up for an online lesson program.
6. Learn online
Traditional in-person guitar lessons can cost $120 per month or more. With that kind of investment, you should be getting the best of the best in terms of quality, but sadly that’s not always the case.
Learning how to play electric guitar using online guitar lessons is, in many ways, even more effective than taking traditional in-person lessons.
If you’re seriously interested in learning how to play the electric guitar, I highly recommend checking out Guitar Tricks. This platform offers thousands of high-quality instructional videos in everything from fundamentals for complete beginners, to advanced and extended techniques for seasoned players.
The instructors you’ll find on Guitar Tricks are some of the best in the world, so you know you’ll be receiving high quality instruction, and it’s all online, so you can work through lessons from the comfort of your own home, at your own pace.
To top it off, you can access all of the lesson content and interactive practicing tools for just around $20 per month. You can also meet virtually with an instructor if you feel like you need to for an additional cost.
The beauty of learning guitar online is the freedom to learn at your own pace, but it requires some serious commitment if you want to move forward and improve your skills in any real capacity.
If you’re motivated and self-disciplined enough, learning online might just be the right move for you!
7. Learn music theory
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone tell me that they don’t want to learn music theory because they’re afraid it will make them sound cold and rigid. Many guitarists have an aversion to learning music theory simply because they see it as a set of rules that you have to abide by. Fortunately for us, that’s simply not true.
Music is a language, and music theory is grammar. You can learn to communicate in any given language without knowing the grammar, but your ability to communicate will be limited.
If you want to be well-rounded and articulate as a musician, you need to learn music theory. To be clear though, learning music theory isn’t something you learn once and know everything about. It’s a constant, lifelong process, so work it into your daily routine.
There are countless resources online to get you started, and it can take as little as five minutes a day to begin to grasp.
Start by learning how to read note names on a treble clef, then begin to learn how to read and play all of the notes in the first position on the guitar. Take some time to learn how to read rhythm, then chords, then chord function, voice-leading, and eventually you’ll be able to read and understand music in an entirely new way.
The goal of knowing music theory isn’t so that you can follow the rules, it’s to know the rules so that you can break them in a cool and tasteful way.
8. Watch, listen, and learn from your favorite guitarists
Learning new things on the electric guitar doesn’t only have to come from your guitar teacher. If you have a favorite guitarist, follow them on Instagram or YouTube.
Take some free time and watch them play in slow motion on YouTube. Try to follow what they’re doing as best as you can, and you’ll likely learn something new or hear what they’re playing in a whole new way.
Learning how to play the electric guitar can become tedious and even tiresome. Music is a beautiful thing that should be enjoyed, but practicing the same things over and over again every day will get exhausting (if you’re doing it right).
When (not if) this happens, listen to some of your favorite music. Go back and rediscover the music that made you want to learn how to play the electric guitar in the first place, and you’ll find some renewed charisma and inspiration.
Then take that energy and go practice!
9. Practice as much as possible
Perfecting any skill takes massive amounts of time spent practicing. If you’re not practicing, you’re not getting better. If you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward.
The famous composer and concert pianist, Frank Liszt once said, “If I miss practicing one day, I know it; if I miss two days, my friends know it; and if I miss three days, the public knows it.”
You may not be set on becoming a touring concert artist, but this old adage holds true regardless. The fine-tuned coordination and motor skills you need in order to play the electric guitar require constant upkeep.
Guitar skills are perishable, so just because you learn something really well one day doesn’t mean you’ll still remember it, let alone be able to play it, after two or three days.
Twenty minutes of practice each day is better than five hours of practice in one or two days. The best way to make sure you’re staying consistent is to have a practice and lesson schedule.
This can be as simple or as detailed as you like. The whole point is to ensure that you’re practicing daily, and practicing well. Remember to focus on accuracy over speed, and use a metronome (more on that later).
Also remember to mind your posture while practicing. If you start to feel some aching in your back or shoulders, you’re probably playing with bad posture. Good practice is mindful practice, so be aware of how you’re sitting or standing, and be aware of how accurate your playing is.
If you’re missing notes, go slower! Sometimes all you need is a little break to stretch so you can get right back to it.
10. Use a metronome
Speed is often the end goal when playing electric guitar at a higher level. It’s counterintuitive, but in order to play with speed, you need the majority of your practice to be slow and controlled.
The best way to ensure slow and controlled practice is through the use of a metronome.
To attain speed, you first need to train your hands to play efficiently and in time. If your playing is lopsided at a slow tempo, then it will be lopsided at a fast tempo as well. Using a metronome to balance your rhythm will ensure that your playing will be even at higher speeds later.
A metronome is simply a device that plays a short tone or a click repeatedly, and in perfect time. Imagine the second-hand ticks on an analog clock. Each tick is spaced exactly one second apart. A metronome works in the same way, except you can change the rate at which each click sounds.
You should use a metronome during every practice session. A good example of practicing with a metronome would be setting it to a slow tempo, and practicing a scale while playing each note of the scale at the exact same time the metronome clicks.
If you’re unable to play the scale in time with the metronome then you might have it set too high or too fast. In many cases, you may need to set your metronome speed at a rate that allows you to play with every other click instead of every click.
By subdividing the time between metronome clicks, you’ll be able to feel the rhythm even at slower playing speeds.
If you’re unable to play in time with the metronome even at extremely slow speeds, you should take more time to teach your hands how to move from one note to the next. Isolate your left hand, and go through the movements of the musical passage without using your right hand. Repeat this until you’re comfortable enough to include your right hand.
The biggest thing to remember here is that accuracy is most important. Observe your hands carefully as you practice, ensuring your finger placement is effective each and every time to produce a clear tone.
After a while, you’ll find that you’ll be able to play faster and faster. You just have to get through the grunt work of using a metronome slowly and increasing the speed little by little until you reach your goal.
11. Challenge yourself
Eventually, you might want to get out of your comfort zone a little bit and play music for other people. You’re an electric guitarist, so why not meet up and jam with a group of friends?
If your goal is to play gigs with a band or audition for a spot in the jazz band at school, you need to spend some time in the woodshed first.
“Woodshedding,” is a term commonly used in the music world, and it comes from an old jazz legend.
An unnamed musician is said to have spent their life preparing for the professional spotlight, and when they finally got a chance to show off their skills during a performance, they choked and were laughed off the stage.
As you can imagine, this would be an embarrassing experience for anyone, but instead of giving up on their dream of performing, this unnamed musician retreated to a woodshed in their backyard where they worked day and night to refine their skills even more until they felt ready to come back out.
The next time this person performed on stage, the audience was left in awe at the musician’s skills, and the term “woodshedding,” was born.
Before you get out into the spotlight, make sure you’ve done your time in the woodshed, but at the same time, you have to get out into the spotlight to see what you’re really made of.
“The spotlight,” can mean anything to you. Maybe it’s a public performance, or maybe it’s a jam session with some friends. Either way, don’t be afraid to push yourself to see what you can do.
Playing in front of other people will reveal all the weaknesses and strengths in your playing, but rest assured, you’ll always have the woodshed to retreat to, and you’ll know exactly what you need to work on.
12. Play with other musicians
There’s always something mystical that happens when a group of people gathers and plays music together. I can’t explain it, but you’ll know exactly what I mean when you get out and experience it for yourself.
Make friends with other guitarists, drummers, or anyone you know who plays music. Organize a meetup in someone’s garage on a Saturday and see what happens. Get your creative juices flowing. You might create something really special!
Final Thoughts on Learning How to Play Electric Guitar
Learning to play the electric guitar might seem daunting or even unattainable at first. There are countless options when it comes to gear and guitars alone, and getting set up with the right equipment for you is just the beginning.
However, if you take the time to learn how to use your gear, find a sound you like, practice consistently with a metronome, work through online lessons at your own pace, and continue to challenge yourself to keep going, you’ll be well on your way to becoming the best electric guitarist you can be – just remember that the only competition is between you and yourself!