The “Acoustic Guitar” term includes both the nylon strings and the steel strings hollow-body guitar.
However, the vast majority of people when they refer to the acoustic guitar, they usually mean the steel strings version. And the nylon strings guitar is referred to as simply the “Classical Guitar”, a guitar used mainly to play fingerstyle classical music and flamenco.
In this article, I will focus on the steel strings acoustic guitar only, and show you everything you need to know in order to properly learn how to play on the acoustic guitar.
This will be a guide for beginners and up to the intermediate level.
As for the nylon strings acoustic guitar (the classical guitar), I will leave this one for another post. So, without further ado, let us begin!
So, What IS the Acoustic Guitar Really?
In very brief words, the acoustic guitar is a wooden hollow-body instrument with a long neck called the fretboard, frets and strings.
It works by transmitting the energy of the vibration of the strings, through the soundhole (the circular hole beneath the strings), into the soundbox (the hollow-body), and then that energy leads to the vibration of the soundbox in sympathy with that of the strings in order to create “amplified” sound waves emitted from the guitar, of which you recognize as the “voice” of the instrument.
This is a very brief introduction to the acoustic guitar. If you want to learn more about it, I've made a post giving a more in-depth information about the acoustic guitar, you can find it HERE.
When playing the acoustic guitar, there are a few techniques that you will encounter:
1. Strumming Techniques and Patterns
2. Fingerstyle Technique
3. Picking Techniques
If you manage to master all the techniques above, you can play everything on the acoustic guitar.
However, these comprise the basic layer only of your playing, and upon them you will build your signature as a musician, as well as your entire unique style and techniques.
By “unique style and techniques” I mean how you, yourself, as a unique musician, will express yourself on the instrument and portray your own emotions, skills, and ideas, through your playing.
The way you play a certain piece of music is important, and how you improvise on the instrument, add your own tricks during the performance like harmonics, slides, legato and etc, is also important, and will distinguish you from other musicians and performers.
Playing a piece of music note by note is one thing, playing it to actually sound like “real music” that have the power to move people is a whole different kind of story, and that's what sets the difference between a beginner, and an expert. Between a good player, and a medicore one.
Nevertheless, you've got to master the basics. Without this crucial understanding of the basics and how to implement them correctly, you are going to limit yourself greatly as to how far you can go with the instrument and succeed.
Strumming Patterns and Techniques
Strumming could be the first or the second thing you are going to learn when you begin training on the acoustic guitar. It depends on the guitar teacher to decide.
Some teachers prefer starting out with teaching their students about the simple basic chords and how to play them, and this normally goes along with basic strumming patterns.
I've made a post about 5 of the most basic strumming patterns for beginners, you can check it here and learn them right now.
Strumming is something that is often overlooked by a lot of players and taken for granted as something trivial or less important. I totally disagree.
Just as you have the role of a lead guitarist in a band, a vocalist, a bassist, a drummer and any other type of instrument player, you also have the rhythm player.
What is the rhythm player? It's a guitar player that is responsible for generating the “groove” and the right atmosphere for the music being played. It's done strictly with strumming techniques and strumming patterns and it normally goes hand by hand with the bass.
A great example of some groove action is these two songs:
Daft Punk – Get Lucky
Stevie Wonder – Superstition
Even the best lead guitarists and soloists in the world have learned how to play rhythm guitar and expressed how important this is, because even as a lead guitarist in a band, you WILL be required at some point to play rhythm, whether it's for letting other instrument player do his solo while you provide the rhythm background for him, or to simply fulfill the requirement of a song or piece of music.
Besides, nothing beats a good ‘ol guitar strumming near a campfire or on the beach with your friends and loved ones!
With this technique you will learn how to use your fingers to pluck the strings and play arpeggios and solo passages of notes.
The basic format of the technique dictates that the thumb is assigned to the three highest strings and plays the strings in a hammer-down fashion, while the index, middle, and ring fingers are assigned to the other three strings respectively and play the strings in a “pull-up” fashion, or in other words, to pluck the strings.
Now this is certainly NOT the only way to play fingerstyle technique, and you will easily notice pro players sometimes stray away from the basic technique above for specific parts of the song they're playing, but why and when to do that, you will learn when you become more advanced with the instrument.
Allow me to mention here a fingerstyle technique called the Picado, which is a Flamenco guitar technique used to play passages of single-note lines as quickly as possible. Picado is a technique where you only use your two fingers, the index and the middle, to hammer down on the strings and play solo notes comfortably. In most cases, it's used to play very fast solos on the acoustic guitar. Learn more about this technique and other flamenco techniques HERE.
I say “techniques” because there are more than one way to “pick” the guitar. I'm talking about using the Pick, or the Plectrum, of course.
The basic and standard way of holding the pick can be found in The Basics page, it's how all the guitar teachers will instruct you to hold the pick, and I say it is HIGHLY recommended that you work toward getting yourself acquainted with this position, as well as the correct motion of the pick which is leveraged mainly from the wrist.
It will be extremely hard at the beginning getting used to this position and training your wrist to execute the correct motion when playing both alternate picking, and pick-down only. This is especially true when starting to play fast, be prepared to feel some pain until your wrist gets physically fit for this sort of action.
But don't worry, pain is normal, this only means that your muscles are being developed, and over time if you keep yourself dedicated and disciplined, and keep on practicing your wrist, you'll eventually feel that it's natural to play and hold the pick this way, and you will be able to achieve AMAZING picking speed and stamina. So, just hang on to your guitar and don't give up your practice.
Some guitarists, and even pro guitarists, hold the pick a little differently. Some hold the pick with the tips of their two fingers, the thumb and the index, and they manage to play really well and fast. Some are used to holding it slightly different than the standard way, with the pick slid a little deeper toward the palm.
Bottom line is, if you can hold the pick in any way that makes you feel comfortable and doesn't prevent you from doing whatever you want to do with the guitar pick and convey your motion to the strings, then there are no restrictions or any rules that say you must adapt to one way or another regarding picking. If it works then it works and that is enough.
However, the standard way of holding the pick is made “the standard” for a reason, it is physically proven to be the best and most efficient way for picking, and it's the best position to be in in terms of the ability to convey your wrist movement with the motion of the pick to the strings as accurately and efficiently as possible, and that's why I recommended exerting the extra effort to learn it and master it, you will have it easier than others who don't, trust me.
Once you learn the basics, and learn how to use your fingers properly to play on the instrument, the sky is the limit for you.
You can decide to focus on one genre of music or learn them all.
You can deeply study various of other techniques like harmonics, legato, sweep picking or any other technique you want, and integrate them in your style.
In that regard, anybody can take inspiration from the one and only Tommy Emmanuel fawlessly playing artificial harmonics below:
If you're looking to learn how to play on the acoustic guitar from the beginning to the end, and really be good at it, if that is a thing you've been wanting for a long time, and you're looking for an alternative to a private instructor because it's either too expensive or ineffective, I can suggest a few authentic online sources that specialize in teaching guitar for beginners.
Two of the most popular sources online are GuitarTricks and Jamplay. They have great material on the acoustic guitar for beginners, as well as lots of training on how to play acoustic guitar songs, music theory and chord progression for the acoustic guitar, and much more with thousands of video guitar lessons that you can watch online and new lessons added frequently. Read my reviews about them below and give them a try, you can try for free:
Another source that I liked is a website called Elmore Music. They have courses for a wide range of guitars and styles that are delivered by a 20+ years experienced CF Martin certified guitar instructor. I focused on their acoustic guitar course and wrote a review about it, you can CHECK IT HERE.
That's it for now. I hope you enjoyed this brief guide about playing the acoustic guitar, and was helpful enough for you. If you have any questions on this topic, don't hesitate to leave a comment below. Good luck!