You’ve decided to learn how to play guitar. Maybe you’re doing it to pursue your dreams of rock stardom or maybe you just want to have a new hobby. Strum a few chords by the campfire. No matter the reason, welcome to the club. There are a lot of us.
The fact that there are a lot of us belies a truth about learning guitar: It’s kind of frustrating. Unless you’re moving to guitar from some other kind of musical training, there’s a lot to adjust to right out of the gate. While a piano can sound reasonably good if you simply press a key, playing that same note on a guitar requires you to hold both hands the right way, situate the guitar properly, and make sense out of holding a pick.
Learning guitar with no source material to work with will require many different resources, overlapped to fill the blindspots of each. Most people take lessons, but you’ll be at the mercy and pace of your teacher, with little room for your own interpretation. These days, there are apps and online lessons which have their advantages, certainly. They also come with monthly fees, though these will likely be cheaper than a live local instructor.
The most common route for absolute beginners will likely be a good, old fashioned guitar instruction book. We’ve all seen at least one of these kicking around. They tend to have a guitar and some interesting 80s-inspired graphics emblazoned on the front. The typical format is either an encyclopedia of scales and chords (indeed, some on this list follow that formula), or a series of songs broken down into digestible theory tidbits often accompanied by an ancient information vessel known as a Compact Disc.
While they may be on the dry side, these books are convenient because they’re always available for reference. In an online class or an app, you might have to go digging through files or lessons to find that one scrap of information that was helpful. You also have to be on your phone or at your computer. For some people, the old way is still the best way.
Before you begin, it’s important to understand that a book can’t teach you guitar. They’re great as references and serve as a fine starting point, but soon enough, you need to take what you’ve learned and try to integrate it into a performative craft alongside other musicians. If you find yourself getting stuck, take the exercise you’re on to a jam with like-minded musicians who can help you work practically with the material. At the very least, set a backing track and learn how to time those new skills. So much of playing is about feel, which is a magical combination of timing and groove that only exists in the moment.
Oh, and one final note before you dive in: BUY. A. TUNER. This is strictly non-negotiable. Nothing will make any sense if you don’t start listening for the pitch relationships, which will be difficult to do if you’re out of tune. For help choosing one, check out our best guitar and instrument tuners here.
For those about to rock, we salute you with the top ten best guitar books for beginners.
1. Guitar Chord Bible by Phil Capone
One of the very first things you will play is either an open C or and open G in standard tuning. These are chords and serve as the very fundamental unit of song construction. Getting a new player up and running with a few chords they can strum is one of the first sign posts on the way to playing. It’s pretty rewarding to get that G to ring out clearly. That said, the greatest guitar masters use moveable chord forms to construct thoughtful lead work and intricate guitar lines.
Simply put, intimate knowledge of all the chords will serve you at every point in your playing career. To that end, here are 500 chords across 253 pages in a sturdy little book that will lie flat on a table or music stand. I have it and consider it an invaluable resource. For even more, there’s the Guitar Chord Bible: 500 More Chords.
Price: $14.99 for hardcover, $9.99 on Kindle
2. The Guitar Grimoire: The Exercise Book by Adam Kadmon
According to Wikipedia, a grimoire is a magical text that instructs the user “…how to perform magical spells, charms and divination, and how to invoke supernatural entities…” In order to summon your own supernatural creations, this guitar-focused text compiles a vast selection of exercises that will help you connect patterns across the entire guitar neck.
This 248 page book is part of a series of similar volumes, including The Guitar Grimoire: A Compendium of Formulas for Guitar Scales and Modes, The Guitar Grimoire: Progressions & Improvisation, The Guitar Grimoire: A Compendium of Guitar Chords and Voicings, and so on. You get the idea. Master a few of these and you’re going to to be in excellent shape.
Price: $31.99 for paperback
3. Complete Technique for Modern Guitar: Second Edition by Joseph Alexander
One of the tricky parts about teaching yourself to play is knowing what to focus on. As I said, I strongly encourage you to start by learning as many chords as possible because even tunefully outlining them through a progression will help you keep up in just about any setting. But that’s a pretty broad ask. This book is laser-focused on what modern guitarists need to know to best express themselves. Each of the 200 exercises comes with an audio track to help you learn how to listen, too. Though there are no shortcuts to greatness, consider this a quick-start guide that will help you know where to look. A fine complement to this might be Alexander’s The Practical Guide to Modern Music Theory for Guitarists, which takes a similar approach to learning the theory.
Price: $16.99 for paperback, $5.97 for Kindle
4. Hal Leonard Guitar Method Complete Edition by Will Schmid and Greg Koch
If you’ve ever stepped foot into a music store, you’ve seen a Hal Leonard book. They’re iconic in the annals of guitar-learning lore. They’re not the hippest or the most accessible, but they nevertheless remain key fixtures. This compendium combines the three books of the method into one. Just about everything you need to know is in here somewhere, though it’s commonly said that an instructor is needed to parse the flow of information. Still, it’s a great reference and if it makes sense to you out of the gate, there’s the potential to learn a lot from this classic tome.
Price: $9.66 for paperback, $9 for Kindle
5. Teach Yourself to Play Guitar: A Quick and Easy Introduction for Beginners by David M. Brewster
If the Complete Technique book is good for quick starts, this would be the bullet train. Another Hal Leonard selection, this is a trim 48 pages for teaching you how to hold a guitar for the first time. Tuning up, easy chords, and strumming. If you got a guitar on Friday, use this to put together your first three-chord jam by Monday. Will it sound good? No, no, it will not. But you’ll have started, which is key. Some of the other books on this list are dense with both concepts and pages, which might delay your starting. Don’t let that happen.
Price: $6.91 for paperback, $4.99 on Kindle
Buy the Teach Yourself to Play Guitar: A Quick and Easy Introduction for Beginners by David M. Brewster here.
6. Guitar for Absolute Beginners by Daniel Emery
Establishing a guitar school in New York requires competing with the highest concentration of possible distractions. This book follows a step-by-step method for identifying the essentials, but also details practice plans and highlights how to practice. Everyone will keep shouting about how you’ll need to practice hours upon hours a day to become even a serviceable guitarist, but advice on just how will be scarce. I took lessons for years and even I don’t remember how my teacher told me to practice. This book will lead you through a progression from the absolute basics to complicated song construction. My only quibble with this book is that it suggests that A minor is the saddest chord, when it is, in fact, D minor.
Price: $17.38 for paperback and Kindle
7. Easy Fingerpicking Guitar: A Beginner’s Guide to Essential Patterns & Techniques by Andrew DuBrock
While the books above will pretty much translate to any style, I can’t help but be biased toward rock electric guitar, since that’s what I’ve played for half my life. Usually that means riffing with the help of a pick. Learning how to fingerpick will serve you well, far outstripping the relatively pedestrian world of flatpicking.
Whether you use it to move on to fingerstyle guitar or integrate it into a hybrid technique, mastering the right hand in this finite way will make you a better player. In addition to the progressive book, you can download the song samples, which are enriched with the ability to slow them down, change keys, and set looping points to help you master parts one at at time.
Price: $14.97 for paperback
Buy the Easy Fingerpicking Guitar: A Beginner’s Guide to Essential Patterns & Techniques by Andrew DuBrock here.
8. Guitarist’s Guide to Scales Over Chords — The Foundation of Melodic Guitar Soloing by Chad Johnson
I keep coming back to this point because it’s absolutely essential: learn how to solo over chords. I don’t mean simple chord arpeggiating, even though that has its place, too. If you can follow the chord changes with smooth, soulful playing, you will never be fenced in. You can drop into any style, any band, and any situation. Most of us get stuck playing a given scale pattern for years before something shakes us up. Make this the foundation of your learning with this book.
It’s yet another Hal Leonard book (that guy really wanted you to learn to play), with the same audio perks as the guide above. This guide is perhaps a little over the head of most beginners, but if you grapple with it early, the rewards could be considerable. Fourteen scales across 96 pages means this isn’t an enormous volume of information to digest, so give it a whirl.
Price: $19.99 for paperback, $9.99 for Kindle
Buy the Guitarist’s Guide To Scales Over Chords — The Foundation Of Melodic Guitar Soloing by Chad Johnson here.
9. Learn Your Fretboard: The Essential Memorization Guide for Guitar by Luke Zecchin
Playing guitar is an exercise in memorization. There’s really no way around it. You have to remember stuff, and the primary thing you have to remember is where notes are on the fretboard. Eventually, muscle and ear memory will kick in and the remembering will get easier, but for the first little while, every time you play guitar, it’s like a pop quiz. It’s not fun to memorize something by brute force, but it pays dividends.
This book teaches you how to visualize the notes, which will lead quickly to remembering them. Once you know where the notes are, forming chords becomes easier, which leads to fluid playing in any position. At the very least, if you can identify your root notes, you can bail yourself out of trouble at any time. That skill for resolution serves you in improvisation and the random jams that will provide much of your growth.
Price: $9.99 for paperback, $3.99 for Kindle
10. Guitar All-In-One For Dummies by Jon Chappell, Mark Phillips, and Designer Serna
When in doubt, reach for the Dummies guide. These standardized, annotated guides have taught countless people to do countless things that were once over their respective heads. Like the Hal Leonard complete guide above, this massive, 648 page door stop includes six different sub-books, including three basics volumes and three genre-specific guides. It’s the everything-to-everyone approach. It might be overwhelming, but at least you’ll have everything you need in one place.
Price: $34.99 for paperback, $18.39 for Kindle
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