Photo: NessieNoodle

GUYS, HOW CAN you sit idly by while guitar dude swoons all the girls? And ladies, you do know how sexy it is to see you pluck out and sing Me and Bobby McGee, right?

Previously, we brought you the 50 Greatest Campfire Songs of All Time (more like 100 with all our readers’ great additions).

Now it’s time to learn some yourself, and it ain’t even that hard.

Guitar lessons schmitar schmessons

Yes, you can easily go down to your local laundromat and find a handwritten ad with tear-away phone numbers for guitar lessons. And yes, you can hop on Craigslist and have someone over in a jiffy, eager to take your money and teach you Blowin’ in the Wind.

But why pay for what you can have for free? All you need is a cheap guitar and the Internet. So, assuming you now have both, let’s begin.

Tablature: Sheet music for dummies

Dummies like me, that is. I pretty much learned how to play guitar solely through tablature (‘tab’ for short). What’s this you say?

Tablature is a graphic representation of the strings and frets of the guitar, and where your fingers go to make pleasant sounds when you strum the strings.

In this way, you don’t need to know how to read sheet music. All you need is a tiny bit of patience while you work out how to place your fingers on the guitar.

First, some basics you should know
  • Guitar strings are numbered 1 to 6. 1 being the first string from the bottom — when you’re holding the guitar in a normal position (as opposed to swung over your head like an axe?) — and 6 being the topmost string (lowest note). When each string is plucked open (nothing pressed down) they each play a note. From top to bottom (6 to 1) the notes are: E A D G B E (this last E is an octave higher than the first one — don’t worry if you don’t know what an octave is, just know it’s higher in pitch).
  • A fret is a section of the guitar neck. When a string is pushed down inside a fret, it produces a lovely note. Frets are numbered starting at the first fret, which is at the top of the guitar. To make things easier, most guitars have little markers indicating the 3rd, 5th, 7th, 9th and 12th frets, so you can quickly find your way along the neck. After the 12th fret, the notes repeat themselves.
  • For the purposes of guitar tab, your fingers are numbered: 1-index, 2-middle, 3-ring, 4-pinky (you would rarely have need for your thumb).

So, here is an example of how to make an E Minor (Em) chord — chosen for its simplicity:

Screenshot: ChordBook.com

From the above graphic, you place your 2nd (middle) finger on the 5th string/2nd fret, and your 3rd (ring) finger on the 4th string/2nd fret. Now strum all the strings. You’ve just played an Em!

A website like ChordBook.com is money when it comes to learning how to play a specific chord. You can also hit strum to hear what it should sound like. If you know the tab for a chord but don’t know what the chord is, you can also do a reverse lookup to find out what the chord is called.

Say you want to learn how to play Neil Young’s Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World. You could pop over to UltimateGuitar.com, search for the song and find that the verse is simply Em, D, and C (chuck in an A for the chorus).

Now go find those chords at ChordBook.com, take a few minutes to learn them, then play along with the song.

So where do I start?

Find artists/songs that use minimal and basic chords, played in the “open” position (this means forget barre chords for now, which are harder to play for beginners). For this reason, most of the first songs I learned were Bob Dylan and Neil Young; both musical geniuses. Perhaps the most genius thing is that their songs were so simple. Here are some very easy songs to get you started:

1. Bob Dylan – Knockin on Heaven’s Door (G, D, C)
2. The Wallflowers – Three Marlenas (G, D, Am)
3. Neil Young – Keep on Rockin in the Free World (Em, D, C, A)
4. Guns ‘n’ Roses – Patience (C, G, A, D)
5. Bob Dylan – Blowin in the Wind (G, C, D, Em)

Online resources

There is no shortage of websites that teach you how to play guitar, all for free. Guitarnoise.com and Learn-Acoustic-Guitar.com both have a section for beginners with easy songs to learn.

YouTube is fantastic. There are all sorts of people dying to teach you how to play songs for free. And besides learning how to play guitar, you can also learn how to bake naan bread, change a tire, and unclog a drain. But you’re here to learn guitar songs, right?

Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here

The Beatles – Let It Be

Pearl Jam – Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town

Lastly, don’t listen to what anyone says about Stairway to Heaven. It’s not an easy song to play, and when done right, is pretty sweet. The truth is, most guitar players know how to play it. So it’s kind of ironic that they make fun of it.

While it’s not difficult to learn to play guitar, it’s not super easy either. Don’t get frustrated and let the guitar sit in the corner gathering dust. Keep at it.

Rock on!

This post was originally published on August 5, 2009.

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