Learning a new instrument is as exciting as it is daunting, though some instruments get a bad rep for being more of the latter—the guitar being no exception. Learning how to play guitar looks easy until the time comes to navigate its six strings and roughly 20 frets; after that, musical novices are likely to get confused, frustrated, and quit.

If you’ve had a guitar sitting in its case or staring at (ahem, judging) you from the corner of the room for months, it’s not too late to dust off your axe and get to chopping. Playing guitar can be easy; the trick is finding the right place to start.

First Things First: No Pain, No Gain

Melanie Davis

Guitar strings come in either nylon or steel. Nylon is typically reserved for classical guitars; steel strings are used on most acoustic and electric models. Whether playing on nylon or steel, the first learning curve to conquer is the dreaded callous-building stage.

The pressure from pushing strings down onto the fretboard will inevitably lead to sore ridges on your finger pads. Eventually, this soreness fades away and transforms into tough calluses that allow you to play for hours without any finger tenderness. We can only encourage you with tough love: it sucks, but you have to push through it to get better.

Learning Through Doing

We’ve found the most efficient way of quickly mastering the guitar is to learn by doing. By that, we mean skipping the scales (for now) and diving straight into building up your repertoire or list of playable songs. Not only do you quickly develop a base knowledge of chords and strumming patterns, but you also have something to show for it in the form of a song.

Online chord and tab databases like UltimateGuitar.com are invaluable resources for beginner players. Most chord sheets display the lyrics under the chords, with the chords spaced out according to when they change in relation to the words. This eliminates the need for knowledge in sheet music, tablature, or even basic music theory; all you really need are the chord shapes.

Reading Chord Shapes

Melanie Davis

Chord shape diagrams are an aerial view of the fretboard from the low E string to the high E string, left to right. On UltimateGuitar.com, most chord diagrams can be accessed by hovering your mouse over the chord name.

Some diagrams will also include numbers that indicate which finger goes on which string. Sometimes the finger arrangement is obvious (because bones can only bend so many ways), but other times, a chord can be played differently depending on what’s comfortable for you or what you’ve been taught in the past.

As your confidence in your instrument grows, you’ll be able to pick up and remember similar patterns in chord shapes that will make learning new, more complicated songs a breeze. For now, it’s best to stick with manageable chords and simple progressions.

We’ve picked out some of our favorite beginner songs to learn on the guitar, from classic rock to today’s biggest hits.

"Love Me Do" - The Beatles

ChordBank/Melanie Davis

A classic song with classic chords, Love Me Do is a great place to start to get comfortable with the über-common major chords: G, C, and D major (shown above).

Tip: If you’re having trouble getting the hang of your G major to C major transition, try rearranging your fingers on the G chord. By playing the low E string with your 3rd finger, the A string with your 2nd finger, and the high E string with your 4th finger, you can decrease the amount of re-setting your fingers have to do. Work smarter, not harder!

Other songs with similar chord progressions:

"What's Up" - 4 Non Blondes

ChordBank/Melanie Davis

In addition to being one of the best songs to scream at the top of your lungs, What’s Up also provides a great opportunity to practice the oft-used A minor chord.

UltimateGuitar.com indicates that a capo should be used for this song, and we can’t recommend capos highly enough when first starting on guitar. A capo is an affordable and wildly handy device that clamps onto the neck of the guitar and raises the pitch of all six strings.

Raising all six strings at once effectively changes the position of the nut on the neck, allowing you to play songs in new keys without changing the chord shapes you’re playing. Capos are incredibly useful when working around barre chords, which we’ll discuss later.

Check out this rundown on how to use a capo, and play on!

Other songs with similar chord progressions:

"Zombie" - The Cranberries

ChordBank/Melanie Davis

Because who doesn’t want to practice their best Dolores O’Riordan impression now and then? The smash-hit Zombies by the Cranberries will not only get stuck in your head for days; it also familiarizes you with the E minor chord.

This particular chord sheet indicates D major as “D/F#”—the letter to the right of the slash refers to the lowest note of the chord, in this case, F#. Generally speaking, any slashed chords can be played like the normal, open chord on the left (in this case, D major) with minimal difference in sound.

Tip: If you want to play the true D/F#, try using your thumb to press on the second fret of the low E string. It won’t get you an A+ in Guitar Technique 101, but it gets the job done!

Other songs with similar chord progressions:

"Dreams" - Fleetwood Mac

ChordBank/Melanie Davis

Channel your inner white witch with this quintessential Fleetwood Mac number featuring only two chords. F major and G major make up the majority of this song, with small variations in the chorus that are easy to manage for even the greenest of guitarists.

F major is typically the first barre chord that people learn, and just like calluses, they develop and strengthen over time — not overnight. Acoustic Life on Youtube offers some easy-to-follow tips and tricks for creating beautiful-sounding barre chords.

Other songs with similar chord progressions:

"Summertime" - George Gershwin

ChordBank/Melanie Davis

A true classic, Summertime by George Gershwin is most commonly associated with jazz greats like Ella Fitzgerald despite its origins in the musical, Porgy and Bess. Whether you slow this number down to up the sultry-factor or keep it moving at a faster pace, Summertime is a timeless tune to have in your back pocket.

Summertime incorporates two chordal heavy-hitters, D minor and E major, both of which have been used endlessly since this jazzy number’s creation in 1935.

Other songs with similar chord progressions:

"Fade Into You" - Mazzy Star

ChordBank/Melanie Davis

Throw it all the way back with this 1993 smash-hit by Mazzy Star, Fade Into You. Once you’ve mastered the A major in this song, you will have learned all of the open chords (major or minor chords that don’t require a barred finger). Congrats!

This song does contain one barre chord, though; B minor can seem a bit tricky at first, but it’s essentially an A minor moved up the neck by two frets and barred with the pointer finger. Luckily, the ultra-mellow, very-much-’90s pace of Fade Into You is perfect for playing along in real-time as your fingers get comfortable making new shapes.

Other songs with similar progressions:

The key to unlocking the rest of the major and minor barre chords is thinking of the shape of the chord. Both the A minor and A major shapes can be moved up the neck by using a barred finger; each fretted shape is a new chord. One fret above A minor is A#/Bb minor, then B minor, then C minor, and so on.

E major and E minor chords can be moved up and down the neck in the same way. (Take a look at the F major in Dreams and the E major in Summertime — it’s the same shape on the same strings moved slightly up the neck.) If you were to slide that F major shape up one fret, you would be playing F# major, then G major, and so on.

When in doubt, consult chord diagrams and take it slow. Try to pick up the guitar at least once a day, if only for fifteen minutes — consistent practice is the true secret to getting good at guitar.

Plus, you’ll be benefitting from the many mental and physical health benefits that come from learning and playing an instrument, a win-win-win. Happy playing!

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