There are many methods used to learn to play the Acoustic Guitar and many ways of playing after you learn. The three most popular methods of playing the Guitar are strumming (in the studio this is referred to as rhythm guitar) flat picking and finger picking.
Flat picking and finger picking can take months to become skilled at and years to master but strumming or playing rhythm acoustic guitar can actually be learned fairly quickly. It is advisable to select one method to start out with and stick to until you are efficient and then build on your knowledge
The one thing you must do no matter what method you intend to focus on is practice. It has been said by many master guitar players that the three most important things you must do to learn to play the guitar is practice, practice and practice.
The advantage to concentrating on learning to play acoustic rhythm guitar is you can use the ability in almost any setting whether sitting around accompanying a group of friends, enjoying a sing along, accompanying yourself singing a solo at church or a family gathering or simply for you own enjoyment.
If you are going to concentrate on flat picking or finger picking you will have to spend time learning to read guitar tab or learning to read music. Having played the guitar myself for over 30 years I personally recommend pickers to learn to read music first and then if they wish, later learn to read tab. The reason for this is simple your chances of finding standard music for song is greater than finding tab for that particular song.
Since our subject matter is the easiest way to learn to play the Acoustic Guitar I will concentrate this article on the method of strumming. There are basically two things that you are going to have to concentrate on to learn to strum the guitar; strum patterns and chords.
There are in essence two different strum patterns and six or seven different chords that you should learn that should enable you to play just about any song.
The two strum patterns would be a 4/4 and a 3/4 pattern. The 4/4 and 3/4 is the timing of the song. Don’t worry if you don’t understand time signatures, one of my next articles will be on time signatures. The chords you will need to learn are G, C, D, E minor, A minor, and F. You can pretty much play just about any song you want to with these basic chords, however, you will eventually want to learn the B chord the seventh chords and the minor chords. Of course there are augmented, diminished, major sevenths, minor sixth, ninth chords and a plethora of other chords but you can start out with those six basic chords.
The easiest method of learning to play the Acoustic Guitar and the one that I recommend is actually used by studio musicians everywhere. It is called the Nashville Numbering System. It is called the Nashville Numbering System because it originated in Nashville but is applicable to any genre of music from rock and roll to country and from death metal to gospel. Neal Matthews, Jr. originally developed this system in the late ‘50s for the Jordanaires to use in the studio with Elvis Presley. Charlie McCoy further developed this informal method of transcribing music and this is what is used today. The Nashville Numbering System is used to transcribe chord progressions or chord changes and makes transposing a song a breeze.
It works off what is called the diatonic scale. The diatonic scale is the do re mi scale that probably everyone, even non-musicians have heard of. It follows a pattern of whole and half step increments. Since we are concentrating on the Acoustic Guitar let’s relate whole and half steps to frets. From one fret to the next step is a half step. Go from one fret, skip a fret and then go to the second fret and this is a whole step.
The diatonic scale follows the pattern W – W – H – W – W – W – H (W=whole, H = Half). The simplest scale is the C scale because it has no sharps or flats. The C scale is
C D E F G A B C
If you were to dissect this scale you would discover that from C to D is a whole step (there is one fret between C and D); from D to E is one step; but, from E to F is a half step (there is no fret between them); from F to G, G to A and A to B are all whole steps and from B to C there is a half step.
W – W – H – W – W – W – H
C - D - E - F - G - A - B - C
Every diatonic scale follows this pattern. There are fifteen major keys; they are the keys of Ab, A, Bb, B, (Cb), C, Db, (C#), D, Eb, E, F, Gb (F#) and G. The keys in parenthesis are what is called Enharmonic keys because they are the same scale as the preceding key.
B and Cb are an Enharmonic key because the B scale and the Cb scale are identical (in sound and the way they are played) the only difference is that B is identified with the sharp sign and Cb is identified with the flat sign. The same is true for the keys of Db and C#, and Gb and F#.
The way the Nashville Numbering System works in its simplest form uses the numbers 1 to seven. You have to think of these numbers as movable. What ever key that you are in, let’s use the key of C for instance, the root of the scale (in this case the root is the first note of the scale and that is C) then C becomes the 1. Every other chord in that key is represented by its corresponding number.
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
C D E F G A B
To explain this, let’s look at the song Amazing Grace with the chord changes noted above the words, it is a simple song and everyone knows it. We will use the chords of C even though the song is actually written in the key of Ab.
By the way, this song is in 3/4 timing.
Now, remember our C scale, C D E F G A B?
We said earlier that whatever key we are in the root (the first chord or note in the scale) becomes our 1. With this in mind we can see that our 1 chord is the C, our 4 chord is the F and our 5 chord is the G. Now look at Amazing Grace using the numbers to represent chords instead of the letter name
Here is the beauty of the Nashville Numbering System. Let’s say that instead of playing the song in the key of C we needed to play the song in the key of G. If we were writing out the chord changes using the chord letter names we would have to change all the chord names to correspond to the chord names in the key of G. The key of G has one flat and that is F. Our G scale would then be: G A B C D E Fb.
Our song Amazing Grace notated in the key of G would be:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
C D E F G A B
G A B C D E F#
You will find that most of the time the 1, 4 and 5 chords will usually be major chords. The 2, 3 and 6 chords will be minor chords (except when used as passing chords in which case they will be either major chords or seventh chords). The seven chord will usually be used either as a diminished chord or the chord will be lowered one half step (flatted) and used as a major chord.
In Standard Nashville Numbering System notation you would use a number to represent a chord at each measure even if it is the same as the previous chord. Here is a simple Nashville Numbering Chord Chart for Amazing Grace.
1 1 4 1
1 1 5 5
1 1 4 1
1 5 1 1
Here is a more complicated arrangement of Amazing Grace in Nashville Numbering Notation.
1 17 4 1
6m 2 5 57
1 17 4 1
6m 5 4 1
The great thing about the Nashville Numbering System is it can be used to notate chords for the Piano, Acoustic Guitar, Banjo, Mandolin or Bass Guitar. Once you learn how to use it and learn how to identify interval chord changes (for instance from a 1 to a 4 and back to the 1) then you can easily listen to a song that you have never played or heard before, chart it out and play it as if you have played it all of your life.
Below is a chart of all the major keys and the chords in that particular key. The Keys are all on the left going down and the chords are on the right. Across the top is the corresponding number of the chord.
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