How to Learn 1000 Songs on Guitar in 30 Minutes
Metroland Magazine, 5-22-03 

by Glenn Weiser

The following article by me appeared in Metroland, an alternative newsweekly in Albany, NY. Hopefully you'll find the instructions below an easy to follow first lesson in playing chords. For information on private lessons on guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle, or harmonica with me in the Albany, NY area, click here.  


I moonlight as a wordsmith here, but my main line of work is teaching guitar and other instruments privately. So for a freebie introductory guitar lesson that will—no kidding—teach you how to play a thousand songs in a half-hour, get your ax, tune it up, and have a seat in a chair that doesn’t have arms.

Hold the guitar in your lap so the neck tilts up at about a 30-degree angle. Then place your thumb on the back of neck behind the first fret and parallel to it. The knuckle should rest on the middle of the neck with the tip of the thumb bent slightly. Curl the fingers of your left hand just above the strings, and place the tip of your middle finger on the fourth string (the strings are numbered from highest to lowest in pitch), just to the left of the second fret. The finger should not touch the strings on either side. If you have long nails on your left hand, clip them before proceeding further.

Press the string hard enough to get a clear note when you pluck the string. Leave the middle finger in place and then put the tip of the ring finger on the second string, second fret, which as before means just to the left of the fret bar. Next place the index finger on the second fret of the third string behind the other two, and scrunch it up as close to the second fret as you can get it without pushing the other fingers over the fret bar. This is an A major chord.

Take a pick and hold it in between the thumb and index finger of your right hand. Strum downward, and use the wrist as much as you can rather than the elbow. The strum should be quick and light; avoid either bashing the strings or letting the pick slowly ripple across them. Next, tap your foot at the speed of a slow walk and count from one to four. Strum the A chord four times, once per tap. This is one measure of A in 4/4 time, which is the time signature of most popular music.

Practice foot-tapping and strumming together, playing consecutive measures of A until you start to get the feel of playing with a steady beat. Do not pause in between measures.

Next come the D major and E major chords, which with the A chord give you the three primary chords in the key of A. The D chord is fingered as follows: first finger on the third string, second fret, second finger on the first string, second fret, and third finger on the second string, third fret. For the E chord, put the first finger on the third string, first fret, the second finger on the fifth string, second fret, and the third finger on the fourth string, second fret.

Now try playing the chords in the following sequence, strumming four times per chord: A-D-E-A-A-E-D-A. In the beginning you’ll find it takes a couple of seconds to change chords, but with practice you’ll be able to do it without hesitating. Here are some pointers for changing chords in the key of A: when going from A to D, or D back to A, hold the first finger in place (it is on the same note in both chords), lift the second finger, slide the third finger along the second string rather than lifting and replacing it, and then replace the second finger. For all the other changes—E to D, D to E, A to E, and E to A—lift the second and third fingers, slide the first finger along the third string, and then replace the second and third fingers. Now play the chord sequence again using these techniques while tapping your foot.

Once you’ve done that, play the following sequence of chords, again with four evenly timed strums per chord at a walking tempo: A-A-A-A-D-D-A-A-E-D-A-A. This is known as the 12-bar blues pattern, and was originated in the Deep South probably around 1890 to accompany the three-line-verse form of the blues.

So what about those thousand songs, you might be thinking. Well, the 12-bar pattern can be found in almost every kind of American music, including rock, folk music, country, bluegrass, and jazz. All you have to do is learn these three chords and the blues form and you’ll know literally thousands of songs on the guitar.

List of Metroland Stories by Glenn Weiser    

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