11 Classical Guitar Lessons for Beginners (+3 Pitfalls to Avoid)
If you’re just beginning classical guitar lessons (alone or with a teacher or program), 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 that danger is this: 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 Classical Guitar)
Over time, we may want to work out a strategic approach to get better on 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 beginning classical guitar lessons 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 beginning 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 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 learning classical, any practice is good practice. Any minute spent with fingers on 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 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. Just do something.
#2: Create a ritual
To set ourselves up for success, 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 awhile.
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.
#3: Set a time to practice each day
For the first month or two, we haven’t yet formed the habit of playing 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 play 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 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 classical 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. We’ll get into a conversation. We’ll spend too much time getting ready, and just 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.
“Where to play guitar” is one decision we can avoid at the crucial moment.
#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 guitar. Maybe a tuner. And whatever paperwork we need to work on whatever we’re working on.
#6: Keep your guitar visible and easy to pick up
The best way to ensure 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 it on the wall (via a rope and nail, or one of the many guitar 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 is no different.
Some beginning classical guitarists wrongly believe that chords are just for strumming folk singers. But nothing could be further from the truth.
Chords get us to use multiple fingers at a time. They train us to recognize patterns. And the 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 beginning classical guitar lessons 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.
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 exercise don’t matter. All that matters is that it’s challenging, but not too challenging. Doable, but not easy.
When beginning 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 guitar, our fingers have little reason to be supple and agile. Very little in everyday life requires the dexterity guitar does.
So, like the daily finger exercises on the 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 in town.
#10: Start reading notes immediately
If our plan is to 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 sheet music. (It is an entirely different language, after all.) But in the beginning 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.
Remember, our goal at this point is to keep going. 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!
- Quit the job and go pro by 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.
- Look at one note on a 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, 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 learn classical guitar, as the days tick by and we continue to practice, we’ll naturally look for progress.
It’s important to gauge success looking at 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.
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.)
3 Beginner Pitfalls to Avoid When Learning 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 guitar.
Below are three common beginner pitfalls. 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 guitar, or some basic music theory.
But in fact, these can be a distraction from what really matters: getting hands on the instrument. The best beginner practice has fingers touching strings.
It’s a mistake to stop practicing finger-movements (chords, exercises, patterns, etc.). Then, momentum flags. We become discouraged or frustrated, and the guitar goes to live in the back of the closet for the next decade.
Instead, when beginning guitar, know that practice means practice. Learning the “head knowledge” is great, but only after the real practice is done for the day.
Beginner Pitfall #2: Expecting It to Be Easy
Guitar is challenging. We ask our fingers to be consistent and accurate to the millimetre. Our hands have to play in perfect unison. And all this with an oddly-shaped wooden box sitting in our lap.
Guitar is not easy, but as beginners, we don’t know 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 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, 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.
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 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.
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 stellar teachers – one focused on the technical, 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. Click here for a sample formula.
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