A lot of guitar teachers tend to teach their beginner students how to play three-finger open chords in their first lesson.
Don't get me wrong – sometimes this can work. If the student is astute and hardworking, they might be able to use this experience as a launching pad to learn other skills and techniques.
But there are many cases where this doesn't work. If the student is particularly young, if they aren't a born prodigy, if they have no prior experience with the guitar, then you're only going to frustrate them.
That's why I created a method for teaching my students how to quickly progress from playing a single string to playing three strings on the guitar. This typically takes no more than two to three lessons.
So, if you're a beginner, and you've been frustrated by other teaching methods or beginner lessons in the past, these tips will hopefully get you off to a better start. Let's take a look at how to go from one string to three.
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Playing On One String On Guitar
You're new to guitar. You need to build up finger dexterity and coordination between both hands. More than likely, you aren't ready to tackle the finger gymnastics you'll later have to perform.
So the first thing you should do is learn to play a simple scale on the first string (the thinnest).
Here is the E major scale on the first string:
The great thing about this pattern is that you can apply it to any string. If you play the same frets on the second string, you get the B major scale. If you do the same on the third string, you get the G major scale. I definitely recommend doing this on each string, as it will allow you to get more out of a single exercise.
The next thing to do is to learn a simple single-string riff. I recommend The White Stripes' “Seven Nation Army“, and would encourage you to look up the song on your own. The main riff sounds like it is being played by a bass, but I'm pretty sure Jack White is just using an effect to drop the pitch on his guitar.
Once you feel comfortable playing one string, you're ready to move onto two.
Playing Two Strings For Guitarists
At this point, I tell my students that there are basically three different techniques you can perform on two strings.
The first technique is simply playing single notes like we already were. The only difference is that you're now transitioning between two adjacent strings.
Here's a simple “bass line” for you to try:
If you'd like to look up another similar riff, you can also check out the bass line from “Mission Impossible.”
Once you've gotten a good feel for that, it's time to try what are known as “double stops” or “dyads.” This is where you play any two notes simultaneously. A lot of students find this a little tricky because you need to “strum” just two strings without hitting the others.
A great example to look up is “Smoke on the Water”, and to some extent, the intro from “Frankenstein.” But I've prepared my own example here for your convenience:
In the above example, the goal is to play the third and fourth strings (the middle strings) together. Don't worry too much about getting the rhythm right. Focus first on figuring out how to play those two strings together without hitting the others.
The last technique is known as “string-skipping.” This is where you pick one string, and jump over more than one string to pick another.
We don't want to get too carried away in terms of complexity, so I would suggest looking up the intro to “Secret Agent Man.” Also, here's a custom example for you to try:
Now you're ready to graduate from playing two strings.
Playing Three Strings
As you can probably imagine, there are a lot of different things you can do with three strings. You've already seen the possibilities with two strings.
I like to keep things simple, and usually I will just show my students how to play the intro from U2's “Sunday Bloody Sunday” when we're beginning work on three strings. This involves holding a few simple “triad” shapes and picking the notes within them. If you remember what was said earlier about dyads, we're just upgrading from two strings to three.
One more thing I will say about triads is that they are real chords. Eventually, you will learn the traditional open chord shapes, which typically involve playing anywhere from four to six strings at a time. But a triad contains the necessary ingredients to be a full-fledged chord, namely that it is made up of three unique notes (i.e. B, D, and F#, which would make a B minor triad).
Here's a simple exercise in which you pick individual notes from the triad shapes you're holding down. I've made it so that you don't have to shift shapes until a full bar is over. Take a look:
The only tricky shape is the one that appears in the first and final bars. Here's how to hold it. First, place your index finger on the second fret of the third string. Next, place your middle finger on the second fret of the first string – yes, you will need to “tuck it under” your index finger. Finally, place your ring finger on the third fret of the second string.
If you'd like to do more with triads, I'd suggest looking up the intro from Weezer's “Island in the Sun”, which includes strummed triads. From there, you can go on to learn how to play power chords.
We just packed two to three lessons worth of material into a single guide. Hopefully you were able to keep up!
The “throw them in the deep end and see if they can swim” approach to teaching guitar can be cruel and unusual punishment. This is why I took the time to develop this simple method that allows you – literally – to see a logical progression from playing one string to three. If that's not gratifying, I don't know what is.