11 Classical Guitar Lessons for Beginners (+3 Pitfalls to Avoid)
If you’re just beginning your classical guitar journey (alone, with a teacher, or online), or you’re picking it back up after a hiatus, you have one main obstacle. There is one danger that looms larger than any other.
And the danger is: quitting.
If you get past the first few months, you’ll be much more likely to continue. Most people, when starting anything new, quit after a brief time. Knowing this, we can stack the deck in your favor, so you stick with it and see the results that attract you in the first place.
Avoid Complexity (Simple is Better when First Learning Guitar)
Over time, we may want to learn strategic approaches to get better on classical guitar. We may choose pieces to work on specific skills. We may do exercises to build specific muscles.
But at first, all that complexity just gets in the way.
Instead, our main goal when starting classical guitar is to just keep going. And to do that, we need nuts-and-bolts tactics. We need to make it as easy as possible to sit down to practice today.
Our main goal when we begin studying classical guitar is to just keep going.
We raise our chances of success (not quitting) if we keep it simple. We can always work on the “big picture” later. For now, less is more.
Some of the lessons below are one-time tasks. Others we do each day. Still, others are perspectives we can take. If any rub you the wrong way, disregard them and keep going. Do whatever helps.
Failure is part of success. The more we try and fail and learn from those failures, the better we get. The trick is to keep going long enough to transform all the little mistakes into noticeable guitar progress.
So our only goals are to see progress and form the habit of picking up the guitar. Everything else comes later.
“He who would learn to fly one day must first learn to stand and walk and run and climb and dance; one cannot fly into flying.” Friedrich Nietzsche
Here we go…..
Classical Guitar Lessons for Beginners:
#1: Just do something
When first getting started on classical guitar, online or in lessons, any practice is good practice. Any minute spent with fingers on our nylon strings is time well spent.
Yes, we will form bad habits at first. And later we’ll have to work to fix them. But that’s the way it is. Like childhood, none of us get out unscathed. We will make messes and have to clean them up later. The goal is to keep playing long enough to want to.
Here’s the technique: Put your fingers on the strings. That’s it. Just do something.
If we nitpick guitar technique and details too early, we’ll get frustrated and quit. We’ll get confused and overwhelmed.
Instead, here’s the technique: Put your fingers on the strings. That’s it. Nothing fancy. Just do something.
#2: Create a ritual
To set ourselves up for success to learn guitar, we can do a minimum of planning on the front side.
Every decision we have to make in practice is a trip-wire. Any moment we don’t know what to do next is a moment we may put down the guitar.
So a simple ritual will help us keep going.
We can decide a few things we’ll do (more on these below), and be content with those for a while.
The order doesn’t matter. The exercises or things we practice don’t even matter. All that matters is that we have something to do, and we do it.
Tip: Write down a short list of things to practice, so you don’t have to recall them later. You’ll find some suggestions below. Keep this short list in your classical guitar practice space and easy to find.
(Bonus: This also goes for lessons. When we track our practices, we’ll be more prepared.)
#3: Set a time to practice each day
For the first month or two, we haven’t yet formed the habit of playing guitar every day. So after the initial glow (“puppy love”) wears off, we may “forget” to practice.
To avoid quitting, we can set a time to learn guitar each day.
If we’re truly serious, we can put it on the calendar or daily planner. We can set an alarm.
Again, we’re doing anything we can to reduce friction and increase the chances we’ll show up and get fingers onto strings. To go from beginner to intermediate-level classical guitar, we need to log the time.
Note: 5 Minutes is Fine
Some days, long practices are impossible. Life intervenes. On these days, anything you can do is a bonus.
It’s a success to pick up the guitar and play for five minutes. Even three minutes is fine.
The main point is that you’re touching the guitar, and reminding your fingers and brain that they are learning guitar.
#4: Set a place to practice each day
If we have to figure out where to practice guitar, we probably won’t do it. We’ll get distracted by the computer or the dirty laundry (our own or someone else’s). We’ll get into a conversation. We’ll spend too much time getting ready, and then do something else instead.
The best place to play guitar is somewhere quiet and free from distractions.
Other people interrupt us. Other tasks lure us.
We can face a wall or corner to narrow our visual field focus more on guitar practice.
“Where to play guitar” is one decision we can avoid at the crucial moment. We can decide in advance and then simply sit down and get to it.
#5: Set your practice space up with everything you need
Another classic guitar-sabotager is not having what we need. When we go to the other room to get it, we may not make it back. We may get chummed into “just a quick….”.
Instead, we can have everything we need ready. This way, we can sit down and play.
And we don’t need much.
A classical guitar (but an acoustic guitar will do). Maybe a tuner. And whatever paperwork we need to work on whatever we’re working on.
The most important part is that we can focus during our practice. So quiet and freedom from distraction are more important than fancy gizmos.
#6: Keep your guitar visible and easy to pick up
The best way to make sure we never play guitar ever again is to put it in its case in the back of the closet.
Out of sight, out of mind.
Instead, we’re more likely to pick up the guitar if it’s in plain sight.
The case can be out and open. Or the guitar can lean in a corner. Or, if we’re serious, we can hang our classical guitars on the wall (via a rope and nail, or one of the many wall-hooks on the market).
#7: Focus on learning chords
And now that we know where and when, the question is: What do we play?
Guitar is organized around chords. Classical guitar music is no different. Whether we use online classical guitar lessons, a book, or any other method, chords are foundational.
Some beginner classical guitarists wrongly believe that chords are just for strumming folk singers. But nothing could be further from the truth.
Guitar chords let us use multiple fingers at a time. They train us to recognize patterns. And they sound good.
They also offer a clear objective: “switch 20 times between these two chords” is something we can sink our teeth into. No decisions. No ambiguity. Just put fingers first here, then there, then back. Great practice.
#8: Include at least one finger exercise every day
One of the biggest improvements we can see and feel when practicing guitar is how well our fingers move.
At first, our fingers are clumsy and move on the strings like sausages trying to thread a needle. But with a little practice, we can see definite progress in our classical guitar-playing.
We’re motivated by progress. We like to feel like all our good work is doing something.
Finger exercises are anything that get the fingers on the strings. It could be as simple as playing each finger on a string, one at a time (1234 on each string).
The specifics of the classical guitar exercise don’t matter. All that matters is that it’s challenging, but not too challenging. Doable, but not easy.
When first getting started on classical guitar, we’re building strength and agility. And we’re building synapses and calluses.
#9: Do off-guitar exercises and stretching
When we haven’t been playing classical guitar, our fingers have little reason to be supple and agile. Very little in everyday life requires the dexterity classical guitar does.
So, like the daily finger exercises on the classical guitar, we can do some work off the guitar and see quick improvement.
An exercise as simple as fully opening and closing your hand several times gets the muscles toned and the joints lubricated.
And easy stretches (nothing painful!) improve circulation and tell your fingers that there’s a new game to play.
#10: Start reading notes immediately
If our plan is to sight-read music (play from musical notation), we’ll benefit from getting started on this immediately.
It may take quite a while to feel comfortable and effortless using classical guitar sheet music. (It is an entirely different language, after all.) But in beginner classical guitar stages, it can feel extremely rewarding to be able to play something (anything!) from notes on a page.
We may not know all the fine details of each dot of ink, but when we start to recognize a note on the page and can play it on the guitar, it feels good.
The music we play doesn’t need to be classical music. It can be any sheet music available. Remember, our goal at this point is to keep going at our own pace. And progress is motivating.
#11: Create a low bar for success
At first, it’s easy to set our sights high:
- An hour a day practice!
- Play Malagueña by next Wednesday!
- Begin playing flamenco guitar Friday!
- Quit the job and play classical music concerts by next January!
But these types of goals get us into trouble. Why? Because they set us up to fail. And when we fail, we get demotivated and find other things to do.
Instead, we can set the bar to success as low as possible:
- Pick up the guitar.
- Play through my new chords at least once.
- Do a simple exercise or two.
- Look at one note on a sheet music page and play it on guitar.
Any of these, or any other we choose lets us win for the day.
Usually, we’ll do more than just pick up the guitar. But if we’re in a rush and only have 30 seconds for classical guitar practice, we can still check the box and get the win for the day.
Showing up is the marker for success. Everything else is gravy.
Easy wins create momentum. They tell our subconscious minds that “It’s easy.” They “take the fangs off the dog”, so we’re more likely to win again tomorrow.
Showing up is the marker for success. Everything else is gravy.
Bonus Tip: Measure success from where you’ve come FROM (instead of comparing)
As we study guitar, as the days tick by and we continue to practice, we’ll naturally look for progress.
It’s important to gauge success by looking at how far we’ve come, rather than how far there is to go.
We all have an idea of “good”, and chances are, we’re not there yet. So judging our progress by comparing it to the ideal will only set us up to feel bad. It’s unfair to judge ourselves in comparison to a professional classical guitarist with decades of lessons and study behind them.
Instead, we can think of how our fingers felt on the first day as an absolute beginner. We can remember the first time we saw a page full of notes and how scary and confusing they looked. We can compare our current speed switching from one chord to another with our speed in the past.
When we judge success looking back, we always feel good. We’ve made progress.
(Tip: Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you should be further along by now. That’s just another comparison to some imagined ideal. You’re exactly where you should be, because you’re exactly where you are.)
What about Online Classical Guitar Lessons?
Online lessons can be extremely helpful. You can find a curated classical guitar course that takes you step by step through the basics and leads you to advanced levels. The Woodshed Program is one good option.
But with any formal study comes risk. You also have to learn to use the platform (which could be fast and easy, or slow and confusing, depending on the website). The important thing is that you know what to practice, and where to find the resources you need.
Online lessons can provide materials and learning-aids you wouldn’t otherwise have. And if the course has been strategically developed, the work you do will pull you forward safely and quickly. And the techniques you learn will be suitable for the long term (instead of needing to re-learn in a few years because of ingrained bad habits).
Many people thrive learning classical guitar online. It well may be worth a test period to see if this in a good option for you.
3 Beginner Pitfalls to Avoid When Learning Classical Guitar
When beginning anything new, there are common traps we’re likely to fall into. This is true for cooking, skiing, and drawing. It’s true for all types of education. And it’s true for getting started on classical guitar.
Below are three common pitfalls for a beginning classical guitarist. These are mental traps. And they are very common.
But when you’re aware of them, you can notice if they arise, and keep them in check.
Beginner Pitfall #1: Needing Too Much Knowledge
As a beginner, we often assume that we need a base of “head knowledge”. This is usually abstract vocabulary.
It appears logical on the surface – of course we need to know the names of the different parts of the classical guitar, which nylon strings we want, or some basic music theory.
But in fact, these can be a distraction from what really matters: getting hands on the classical guitar. The best classical guitar practice has fingers touching guitar strings.
It’s a mistake to stop practicing finger movements (chords, exercises, patterns, etc.). When we stop, momentum flags. We become discouraged or frustrated, and the classical guitar goes to live in the closet for the next decade.
Instead, when beginning classical guitar, know that practice means practice. Learning the “head knowledge” is great, but only after the real (physical) practice is done for the day.
Beginner Pitfall #2: Expecting It to Be Easy
Classical guitar is challenging. We ask our fingers to be consistent and accurate to the millimeter. Our hands have to play in perfect unison. And all this with an oddly-shaped wooden box sitting in our lap.
Classical guitar is not easy for anyone, but as beginners, we don’t know yet how hard it can be. We’re not yet aware of the nuance and detail.
Here’s the trap: we think we should be progressing more and faster than we are.
When we take this stance, we always feel behind schedule. We feel like we’re failing in some way, like we must not be as smart or coordinated as the rest of the world.
These self-critical thoughts lead to disappointment and frustration. And when we feel these, classical guitar doesn’t seem as fun. So we stop practicing.
Beginner Pitfall #3: Giving Up Too Early
Often due to numbers one and two above, the ultimate pitfall is giving up too early.
Classical guitar takes time. The progress we make may not seem substantial or meaningful in the short term. It’s only over weeks, months and years that we see the results we aimed for at the beginning.
Just starting out on classical guitar, we do best to suspend any judgement. We stay the most engaged when we focus not on progress, but on good practice.
It’s best to not even look for improvement until we’ve practiced for twenty focused hours. After this, we can look back and witness our growth and improvement. But before, It’s better to keep attention on the current moment and enjoy the ride.
Common Questions Answered
What is the best way to learn classical guitar?
Many of the skills we need to play classical guitar are not intuitive. If we do what “feels natural”, we’ll likely create bad habits that will require more work later.
So the best way to learn guitar is with quality instruction. There are options available to learn via online guitar lessons. This could be with a comprehensive program like The Woodshed. Or by working with an online guitar teacher each week.
Learning from beginner classical guitar method books is problem-prone. Most people find mediocre results from books alone. The same holds true for video lessons and DVDs. These are better than books, but not as good as an online program.
Is it hard to learn classical guitar?
Classical guitar (sometimes referred to as spanish guitar) uses the fingers of both the right hand and left hand. This makes it more complex than playing guitar with a pick (plectrum).
We usually study classical guitar from sheet music. And while TABs are available, it’s best to learn to read music notation. This adds another layer of study to classical guitar and classical music.
All this said, beginning classical guitar is no physically harder than any other style of guitar. We learn many of the same things (chords, exercises, etc.)
Can I learn classical guitar on my own?
Yes, you can learn many classical guitar skills on your own. You can use free lessons that include video tutorials and other resources to progress and improve.
But eventually, you will likely get to a place where progress slows. At this point, you may want to consider online classical guitar lessons.
There are many techniques and skills best learned through a teacher. Personal feedback and critique in a guitar lesson can help you spot problems you didn’t know you had. When you remove the obstacles you can continue to improve on your own.
How long does it take to learn classical guitar?
Classical guitar progress is often measured in years (not days, weeks or months). Classical guitar is a lifetime pursuit, and we can always grow and improve.
But here are some common benchmarks when learning classical guitar.
- 20 hours – When we’ve practiced for about 20 hours, we start to feel more comfortable on the guitar. We probably know some chords, and our fingers do what we tell them to (more or less).
- 100 hours – At this point, we are feeling more confident and secure on the guitar. We are probably sight reading new sheet music (at least slowly). And we are gaining more strength and dexterity in our hands. We may have a collection of pieces that we can play.
- 1000 hours – At the thousand-hour mark, we are likely at a solid intermediate level. We can play complex pieces using the entire guitar neck. We have strategies to learn and memorize music. We’ve worked through many of the common problems guitarists face. We practice effectively and see perpetual improvement.
Hi, I’m Allen Mathews.
I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
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