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How to Finally Play the Guitar: 80/20 Guitar and Minimalist Music

When will you stop dreaming and start playing? (Photo: Musician “Lights”, Credit: Shandi-lee)

I’ve always wanted to play the guitar.

It started as a kid, listening to my dad play around the fireplace during the holidays. The fantasy continued with Guns N’ Roses and the iconic Slash. From hyperspeed Slayer to classical Segovia, I was mesmerized.

But I never thought I could do it myself.

Despite tackling skills as esoteric as Japanese horseback archery, I somehow put music in a separate “does not apply” category until two years ago. It was simply too frustrating, too overwhelming.

My fascination with guitar wasn’t rekindled until Charlie Hoehn, an employee of mine at the time, showed me the 80/20 approach to learning it.

This post explains how to get the most guitar mileage and versatility in the least time…

Do you have any additional tips, whether for guitar or applying the 80/20 principle to another instrument? Piano, violin, flute, or other? Please share in the comments!

Enter Charlie

Almost everyone has fantasized about performing music in front of a huge screaming crowd at some point in their life. For me, I’d always dreamed of playing guitar with the same mastery as Jimmy Page, Allen Collins, or Mark Knopfler. Sadly, I could never stick with guitar practice.  I ended up quitting multiple times for a host of reasons: the material was boring, my teacher moved too fast, my teacher moved too slowly, my fingers were killing me, my wrists were sore, I wasn’t making enough progress, and so on.

Then my friend Jake Ruff taught me two simple exercises that changed everything, and I’ve been able to stick with guitar ever since.

Some guitarists proclaim that you need to tackle music theory first, while others will tell you to learn sheet music while you’re practicing chords. I found it most effective to focus on a few easy exercises, while minimizing boredom and pain. In other words, the process for learning that you enjoy the most is the best one, even if it isn’t comprehensive.

Comprehensive comes later.  First, we need to get you hooked.

The Ground Rules 

In order to get past the initial pain period that comes with learning guitar, it’s critical to manage your expectations. If you don’t have a clear understanding of what these first few weeks will be like, there’s a good chance that you will get frustrated and give up.

Here are the three things you need to know before learning guitar, under my plan or anyone else’s:

1. You will feel clumsy. Remember when you first learned how to type? You wanted to hammer out 100 words per minute, without ever making an error. The reality? You constantly had to look down at the keyboard, and you’d get frustrated whenever you made a mistake. Guitar is the same way. As much as you’ll desire the ability to play all your favorite songs beautifully, your body and brain simply won’t be able to. Your fingers will move slowly, your hands will feel awkward, and the sounds coming from the guitar will not be easy on the ears. Relax, and give yourself permission to suck. Allow yourself several weeks to build “muscle memory” – getting comfortable having your hands in positions they aren’t used to.

2. Your fingers will be sore. Expect the tips of your fingers to hurt for at least a month while they’re developing calluses. If your fingers get extremely sore, take a day off, and never play until your fingers bleed.

The pain you’ll feel is largely unavoidable, but you can reduce it by using a capo (a clamp you fasten across the strings of the guitar – read more on this in “Getting Started” below). The most important thing, of course, is to not quit playing altogether because of the pain. Whenever you want to quit because it hurts your fingers too much, say to yourself, “Justin Bieber taught himself to play guitar before he was 12.” Yes, that’s right. That effeminate kid successfully got through the same pain you’re feeling, and so has every other guitar player on the planet. You’re more than capable of pushing through.

3. You need to practice for at least 10 minutes each day. There is no quick path to mastering the guitar, but there is a fast track to failing: a lack of practice. During the first month, you need to make playing your guitar for at least ten minutes into a daily habit. Playing every day will help you build calluses faster, and increase your comfort level with the instrument.

When I first started, I aimed for at least two 10-minute practice sessions each day. I found the most convenient time to practice was while watching TV. The two exercises you’ll be focusing on won’t require intensive periods of concentration, so it’s totally fine to watch your favorite show while strumming away.

Getting Started

First and foremost, you’ll need to buy a guitar (See guitar recommendations below in the Gear section). I know it’s obviously possible to learn with a friend’s guitar or one that’s been given to you as a gift. However, I found that my desire to learn increased substantially only after I put some skin in the game. Buying my first guitar only cost me $100, but spending that amount made me much more committed to learning.

I strongly recommend starting with an acoustic guitar, rather than an electric. With an acoustic, you don’t have to plug it in to play and there’s less of an upfront investment (i.e. you don’t need to buy an amp). Learn on an acoustic first; if you decide to play electric later, the transition will feel much easier than it would have had you only learned to play electric.

Next, you’ll want to buy a capo. This is a clamp that raises the pitch of the strings. You’ll be using it for a different purpose, but to start, it will help reduce the pain in your fingers.

Capo on the second fret.

The capo pushes down on the strings, putting them closer to the fret board and thereby making it easier for you to push them all the way down with your fingers. When you’re doing the exercises, I suggest putting the capo on the second fret.

You don’t have to use a capo, of course, but it can really help while you’re still developing calluses.

Once you have your acoustic guitar, capo, and a few other essentials (see the Gear section at the end of this chapter), you’ll need to put the strings on and get them in tune. Here are a couple videos that will help you do both of these things:

Changing acoustic guitar strings tutorial

Tuning your guitar

For tuning, the $3.99 ClearTune app works really well and is convenient to keep on hand when playing, particularly in the beginning. It’s available for both iPhone and Android.

Now that you’re all set up, it’s time to take a seat in a comfortable chair and get in position to play.

The most important thing about your posture is to stay relaxed. Because you’ll be pressing down hard on the strings, you’ll often feel your upper body tense up. Take a deep breath and only maintain pressure in your fingers.

One final note on your positioning: Your thumb should not wrap around the neck of the guitar; it should be pressed against the back of the neck. Sure, you’ll see a lot of professional guitar players who don’t comply with this, but it’s much easier on your hand to learn chords this way.

Without further ado, let’s get started!

Exercise 1: G-C-D

The number of chord variations you can learn on guitar is seemingly endless. We’re going to start with three of the basics: G, C, and D.

Before we get into explanation of this exercise, take a look at how to hold the G, C, and D chords: [Note the use of the silver capo in the photos]

The “G” Chord

Index finger on the fifth string, second fret.
Middle finger on the sixth string, third fret.
Ring finger on the second string, third fret.
Pinky finger on the first string, third fret.


The “C” Chord?1

Notice that, from G, fingers 1 and 2 are each dropping down one string.  Otherwise, the hands are the same.  So, for C:

Index finger on the fourth string, second fret.
Middle finger on the fifth string, third fret.
Ring finger on the second string, third fret.
Pinky finger on the first string, third fret.


The “D” Chord

Index finger on the third string, second fret.
Middle finger on the first string, second fret.
Ring finger on the second string, third fret.
Pinky finger stays off the fret board.

In the G-C-D exercise, you’ll be working on switching from chord to chord. Here’s all you need to do:

  1. Form the G-chord. Strum.
  2. Transition to C-chord. Strum.
  3. Transition to D-chord. Strum.
  4. Transition to C-chord. Strum.
  5. Repeat steps 1-4.

Each time you switch to a new chord, you should first pluck all six strings individually to ensure that six crisp, clear tones ring out. If any of the strings sound muted or dull when you pick them, check your fingers to ensure that (A) you’re holding the strings all the way down on the fret board, and (B) each finger is only touching/holding down one string.

Once all six strings sound nice and clear individually, you can begin strumming to hear the full sound of the chord. Strum lightly for 10-15 seconds, making sure that the chord sounds nice and clear with each strum, then transition to the next chord.

After you’ve reached a point where you’re fairly comfortable with transitioning between these three chords, you’ll want to try playing along with actual music. Jamming to your favorite songs is definitely the most fun way to learn in the beginning, because it really feels like you’re producing a better sound than you actually are. It also forces you to get better at matching the correct tempo of a song while strumming.

Here are several popular songs that are great for practicing the G-C-D exercise:

Lynyrd Skynyrd – Sweet Home Alabama (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
Green Day – Good Riddance (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
Sublime – What I Got (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
AC/DC – You Shook Me All Night Long (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
Van Morrison - Brown Eyed Girl (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
Steppenwolf – Magic Carpet Ride (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
Violent Femmes - Blister (YouTube, Guitar Tab)

Really listen to each song. Try to distinguish the difference in tone between the G, C, and D chords, and see if you can match what you’re hearing. If you have trouble, find the the song on www.ultimate-guitar.com to see (1) what chords you’re hearing, and (2) when to make transitions between these chords.

The songs are all heavy on G-C-D. Some are comprised entirely of those three chords. Here’s the breakdown:

“Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd

“Good Riddance” by Green Day

“What I Got” by Sublime

“You Shook Me All Night Long” by AC/DC

“Brown Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison

“Magic Carpet Ride” by Steppenwolf

“Blister” by Violent Femmes

Exercise 2: The Fret Climb

The purpose of the second exercise is to get you comfortable with moving your fingers up and down on the fret board. The below images will give you an idea of what the Fret Climb looks like. You can use a pick for this exercise, or just use your fingers to pluck the strings.

Index finger, 1st fret.

Middle finger, 2nd fret.

Ring finger, 3rd fret.

Pinky finger, 4th fret.

Here are the exact steps for this exercise:

  1. Push down on the first string (the one furthest from you), 1st fret, with your index finger. With your other hand, use your index finger to pluck the string. Ensure that a clear, crisp tone emits. If it sounds dull or muted, press down harder on the string.
  2. Push down on the first string, 2nd fret, with your middle finger. With your other hand, use your middle finger to pluck the string.
  3. Push down on the first string, 3rd fret, with your ring finger. With your other hand, pluck the string with your index finger.
  4. Push down on the first string, 4th fret, with your pinky finger. With your other hand, pluck the string with your middle finger.
  5. Move your index finger down to the fifth fret.
  6. Push down on the first string, 5th fret, with your index finger. With your other hand, pluck the string with your index finger.
  7. Continue “climbing” the fret board until you’ve reached the 12th fret.
  8. Once you’ve climbed all the way up to the 12th fret, it’s time to do the exercise in reverse. Go all the way back down the string, moving up the neck of the guitar one fret at a time, and plucking the string each time your fingers move down a fret.
  9. After you’ve gone up and down the first string, switch to the second string. Do this exercise on all six strings.

Again, it’s important to ensure that you’re getting nice, crisp tones each time you pluck the string. Don’t rush through the exercise if the tones aren’t perfectly clear.

Once you’re comfortable with the Fret Climb, try to increase your speed.

Next Steps

Once you’ve mastered the G-C-D and Fret Climb exercises, you’ll have a nice solid foundation that you can build upon in the months to come. But what do you do after you’ve perfected those two exercises?

I suggest mimicking the Axis of Awesome, then picking and choosing your favorites to learn.

Axis of Awesome

First, prepare to have your mind blown.  Then, watch the The Four Chord Song by Axis of Awesome.

This comedy trio plays 38 pop songs in five minutes using just the E, B, C#m and A chords.  Pick up those new chords, use www.ultimate-guitar.com to look up the below songs for ordering, and you can play them.

How’s that for Minimum Effective Dose?

1.      Journey – Don’t Stop Believing (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
2.      James Blunt – You’re Beautiful (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
3.      Alphaville – Forever Young (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
4.      Jason Mraz – I’m Yours (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
5.      Mika – Happy Ending (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
6.      Alex Lloyd – Amazing (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
7.      The Calling – Wherever You WIll Go (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
8.      Elton John – Can You Feel The Love Tonight (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
9.      Maroon 5 – She Will Be Loved (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
10.     The Last Goodnight – Pictures Of You (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
11.     U2 – With Or Without You (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
12.     Crowded House – Fall At Your Feet (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
13.     Kasey Chambers – Not Pretty Enough (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
14.     The Beatles – Let it Be (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
15.     Red Hot Chili Peppers – Under the Bridge (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
16.     Daryl Braithwaite – The Horses (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
17.     Bob Marley – No Woman No Cry (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
18.     Marcy Playground – Sex and Candy (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
19.     Men At Work – Land Down Under (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
20.     Banjo Patterson’s Waltzing Matilda (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
21.     A Ha – Take On Me (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
22.     Green Day – When I Come Around (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
23.     Eagle Eye Cherry – Save Tonight (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
24.     Toto – Africa (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
25.     Beyonce – If I Were A Boy (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
26.     The Offspring – Self Esteem (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
27.     The Offspring – You’re Gonna Go Far Kid (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
28.     Pink – You and Your Hand (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
29.     Lady Gaga – Poker Face (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
30.     Aqua – Barbie Girl (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
31.     The Fray – You Found Me (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
32.     30h!3 – Don’t Trust Me (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
33.     MGMT – Kids (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
34.     Tim Minchin – Canvas Bags (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
35.     Natalie Imbruglia – Torn (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
36.     Five For Fighting – Superman (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
37.     Axis Of Awesome – Birdplane (YouTube, Guitar Tab)
38.     Missy Higgins – Scar (YouTube, Guitar Tab)


Next, you can learn more chords and tabs by tackling the songs you most want to learn (search “[song name] chords” or “[song name] tabs” on Google). One of the reasons people abandon the guitar, even after nailing down the basics, is because they’re learning from material that isn’t fun or interesting enough. It took me (an embarrassing) three full weeks to learn the intro solo from Heart’s “Crazy on You,” but it never felt stale or boring because I loved the material. So pick three of your favorite songs that you really want to learn, and practice each of them until they sound great. When you get bored, concentrate on perfecting the nuances of those songs or move on to new material.

After awhile, you might start thinking about what you’d like your guitar career to look like. Perhaps you want to learn music theory and take classes. Maybe you want to play your favorite songs with your friends at parties. Maybe guitar will be your vehicle for meeting people while traveling. Or maybe you’ll be happy just to have a new hobby that keeps you sane.

Whatever the case, always make sure you’re enjoying the process.

Once you get past these first few weeks, it’s smooth sailing. Have fun!


Fender Squier SA-100 - This is a great beginner’s acoustic guitar that won’t break the bank (about $100). I learned on a similar Fender model, and have been playing it regularly for five years.

Taylor 110 Dreadnaught - For those wanting a nicer model than the Fender, this acoustic guitar is fantastic and runs for about $600.

Kyser Capo - The most popular quick-release capo. Use it to quickly change the pitch on all six strings, and to reduce soreness in your fingers while practicing.

D’Addario Acoustic Strings - It’s in your interest to buy nice strings for your guitar, as they will last longer and be more comfortable. Get at least two sets, in case a string snaps.

String Winder and Cutter - This handy little tool speeds up the process of restringing your guitar, and has a built-in wire cutter so you can trim the ends of the strings off.

Guitar Picks - You can learn guitar without ever using a pick, but I can guarantee you’ll eventually want to use one. Picks give you a crisper sound and more precision in your playing. You won’t regret practicing with one.

Tools, Tricks, and Resources

Justin Guitar - Justin Sandercoe, a London-based guitarist, assembled more than 500 free lessons, many of which contain video and audio tutorials. This is one of the best resources online if you really want to dive headfirst into learning all things guitar.

Ultimate Guitar - This is my favorite spot for finding free song tabs. One of the site’s most helpful features is its quick display of how a chord is held when you hover your cursor over any chord listed in the song.

“Ocean” by John Butler - My favorite guitar instrumental, by far and away. This song is motivation for me (and several of my friends) to keep practicing. [TIM: Here’s a video of a separate friend, Maneesh Sethi, playing Ocean after one week of 4 hours/day practice.]

This is a variation on the more commonly used C-chord, as this one is easier to practice for beginners. With this variation, you won’t have to change the positioning of your hand when transitioning to/from the G-chord.

[Quelle/Source (Link): The Blog of Author Tim Ferriss]