Tips & Tutorials | March 27, 2023

Acoustic Guitar Playing Guide

Man tuning guitar

The acoustic guitar is one of the most popular instruments for a reason. With it, countless artists have learned to express themselves through music. If this is your first time trying the guitar or the first instrument you've ever played, take heart. Many people have started in your position, and before long, they were discovering the joy that comes with playing the acoustic guitar.

In this guide, you'll learn the various parts of the guitar, some acoustic guitar playing techniques, how to properly hold the guitar, and much more. By the end, we hope you'll have picked up some new tips and tricks and feel encouraged to take the next step on your artistic journey to play the guitar.

Man playing guitar

Tips for Beginners

As a beginner, you can do a few things to make it easier to get started with the guitar. Here are ten tips to help you make the most progress quickly:

  • Use a light string gauge: Lighter gauge strings are easier to press down on the fretboard. This will help your fingertips stay comfortable as you learn to play notes and chords.
  • Use a light gauge guitar pick: Since you're using lighter strings, you should use a light gauge guitar pick. They're more flexible and forgiving, which can help you make quicker progress on your strumming and picking exercises.
  • Press down on the strings lightly: Get your fingertips used to fretting by pressing down lightly on the strings. Make this a habit by practicing guitar fret hand exercises often.
  • Tune your guitar each time you play: Practice will go more smoothly if your guitar is in tune. Tune it every time you play to train yourself how to tune and identify sour notes.
  • Create your own practice space: You need a place where you can practice in comfort, whatever that looks like for you. Creating your own practice space also gives you a place where you know you're supposed to concentrate on playing your guitar.
  • Know what to practice before sitting down: Know what you'll practice before you go to your practice space to make the most of your time.
  • Practice little and often: Make it a habit to practice acoustic guitar often for short periods instead of practicing for long periods infrequently.
  • Learn the songs you enjoy: Practicing songs you already enjoy listening to will help you stay eager to learn them on the guitar.
  • Record yourself: If you record yourself playing on your phone or another device, you can hear and see what you are doing well and what needs more practice.
  • Work on your mistakes: Once you know what needs work, keep at it until it becomes second nature. It will happen sooner than you think if you keep practicing!
Man playing guitar

The Anatomy of an Acoustic Guitar

When you enter the acoustic guitar world, you'll experience new terms and definitions. This is especially true regarding the anatomy of your acoustic guitar. If you understand the parts of your guitar, you'll have an easier time practicing, communicating about your guitar, and researching specific issues you encounter. Here are some key parts of the acoustic guitar:

  • Headstock: Holds the tuning pegs, tuning machines, and the brand or custom logo
  • Tuning pegs: Used to wind the strings and to change the tension/tuning of the string
  • Tuning machines: The small mechanisms that respond when turning the tuning pegs
  • Nut: Sets the string spacing and acts as a string fulcrum at the head end of the guitar
  • Neck: The long, skinny piece connecting the headstock to the body
  • Fretboard: Flat or radiused part of the neck that holds the fretwire and is where you place your fingers to form notes and cords
  • Fret positions and fret wires: The space between/next to each fret bar. This is where you will place your fingers to form notes and chord
  • Fret wires: The metal bars that are embedded in the fretboard with each one representing a note
  • Truss rod: The adjustable tension bar running through the center of the neck
  • Heel: Where the neck joins to the guitar's body
  • Body: The cavernous area of the guitar that includes the soundhole, pickguard, back, sides and cutaway, if applicable
  • Soundboard: The top of the guitar body
  • Soundhole: The hole under the strings in the middle of the soundboard
  • Pickguard: The plastic piece below the soundhole for protecting the soundboard from pick damage
  • Bridge: The device that holds the saddle and bridge pins toward the bottom of the soundboard
  • Saddle: Lifts the strings and provides space for strings to vibrate, acting as a second fulcrum at the bridge end of the guitar
  • Bridge pins: The small pins that hold the strings in place
  • Bracing: The wooden bars that provide support inside the guitar body

Posture — the Best Way to Hold a Guitar

Posture is important when playing the guitar. Keeping the right posture ensures you develop the correct technique while building the stamina needed to last through extended guitar-playing sessions. Essentially, practicing the right posture is part of practicing to become a better guitar player.

Here are some tips to hold an acoustic guitar comfortably when sitting:

  1. Sit on a comfortable chair, without armrests, or sit on a low bar stool. Your feet should touch the ground.
  2. Hold the neck of the guitar securely with your non-dominant hand.
  3. Position the guitar so the thickest string — the low E string — is closest to the ceiling.
  4. Rest the guitar body on your thigh with your knees slightly bent. The body of the guitar should rest comfortably on your thigh and can rest lightly against your body.
  5. Secure the guitar body with your elbow and forearm.
  6. Angle the neck slightly upward and balance it between your thumb and forefinger.
  7. Keep your back straight to maintain good posture.

If you are standing while playing, connect a guitar strap to the two strap buttons on your acoustic guitar. Adjust the strap as needed and position it over your non-dominant shoulder, so the guitar is in the same position against your body as if you were sitting. Remember to keep good posture, even when standing.

Strumming a guitar with a pick

How to Hold a Guitar Pick

Unless you're playing fingerstyle or casually strumming your guitar with your fingers, chances are high that you'll use a pick. Picks make it easier to get louder volume when strumming chords and playing individual notes.

To properly hold a guitar pick, you must relax your strumming hand. Gently hold the pick between your thumb and the side of the tip of your index finger on your dominant hand, closing your other three fingers into your palm. The tip of the pick should be at a right angle from the side of your thumb when playing, and the tip of your index finger should be behind and slightly above the tip of the pick.

How to Strum a Guitar

Once you know how to hold a pick, you're ready to start strumming. It's important to stay relaxed to give your strumming better dynamics and fluidity. When you strum, you'll move slightly from both your wrist and elbow, so avoid locking either of those joints.

Start by practicing downward strumming. Then practice upward strumming. Once you get a feel for these movements, you can start combining them, strumming down and up in a simple pattern.

It will take some practice, and you may accidentally drop your pick along the way. Remember that your dedication to practicing will pay off. Most importantly, remember to stay relaxed!

Fretting Techniques for Beginners

Fretting may feel awkward when you first start on the acoustic guitar, but like anything, playing chords and notes will start to feel much more comfortable over time with dedicated practice. Here are some fretting tips to help you on your way:

  • Finger placement: Press the string just next to the fret wire when playing a note. Avoid pressing directly on the fret wire, as you may accidentally slip into the next fret. Using this part of the fret is the best way to improve acoustic guitar tone when playing.
  • Accuracy: Find the position on your fingertip that gives you the best strength and leverage when pressing frets. This is the area you'll want to practice pressing frets with. Over time, you'll be able to achieve greater sustain from your guitar with accurate fret presses.
  • Thumb position: Your thumb will be on the back of the neck as you fret to give you more strength and leverage when fretting. Practice moving your hand up and down the neck and pressing frets to familiarize your thumb with these new movements. Note that the guitar fret sizes decrease the further up the neck you go. There are also several acoustic guitar body shapes, including cutaway acoustic guitars, that give easier access to the higher frets.
  • Curved fingers: Keep your fingers curved when fretting to avoid pressing other notes or muting nearby strings.
  • Wrist position: Keep your wrist in a comfortable, relaxed position. Avoid bending your wrist too far forward or backward.

Get to know the open notes of each string

While holding your guitar in playing position and looking down, the order of the strings from thickest to thinnest is as follows: E – A – D – G – B – E. The top string is the low E and the bottom string is the high E.

Get to know the fret positions

While holding your guitar in the playing position and looking down, frets are referenced from the nut (near the headstock) to the end of the fretboard (near the soundhole). So the first fret is the one closest to the headstock and they go up sequentially from there to the soundhole. The most common acoustic guitars have 12 or 14 total frets. On may guitars, there are fret markers in the form of little dots on the side of the fretboard to help you find your place.

Four Beginner Chords That Sound Great

Many popular songs throughout history have consisted of four chords. With four simple chords, you can even write a song of your own. Here are four beginner chords you can play right now:

  • G6 chord: Place your middle finger on the third fret of the low E string. Place your index finger on the second fret of the A string. Then strum the chord, playing all six strings.
  • C major 7 chord: Place your middle finger on the A string's third fret. Place your index finger on the second fret of the D string. Strum the five bottom strings, leaving out the low E string.
  • E minor chord: Place your middle finger on the A string's second fret. Then, using your ring finger, press the second fret of the D string. Give all six strings a strum.
  • Dsus 2 chord: Place your index finger on the second fret of the G string. Use your ring finger to press the third fret of the B string. Strum the four bottom strings, leaving out the low E and A strings.

3 Easy Beginner Songs You Can Play Now

One of the best ways to improve your guitar skills is to play existing songs. Here are three beginner songs to master as you begin your acoustic guitar journey:

  • “Three Little Birds” by Bob Marley: This song has a feel-good vibe, and you can play the whole thing with G6, C major 7 and Dsus 2 chords.
  • “Stand By Me” by Ben E. King: You can play the entire song with the four chords above, as the same chord progression repeats.
  • “Songbird” by Oasis: This acoustic song is easy to play, as it only uses two chords — G6 and E minor.

We’re Here for You!

The decision to learn the acoustic guitar is one you will not regret, and we are here to support you throughout your journey. Our artisans have made more than two and a half million guitars with the sole purpose of inspiring artists like you to make music. Played by legends like Eric Clapton, Joan Baez, Johnny Cash, Judy Collins, John Mayer, and David Gilmour, the unbeatable sound of a Martin acoustic guitar can be heard on some of the most iconic songs ever made. Now it's your turn!