Playing Your Passion: From Guitar Student to Guitar Player

The guitar is one of the most popular instruments in the world. It’s been the cause of more social change and parental discomfort than any other modern invention (with the probable exception of the internet). An electric guitar in particular makes a sound that can’t be taken any other way than this: it’s the noise of youth in revolt.

Ever since the legendary Bert Weedon wrote his 1957 classic “Play in a Day” – the book that inspired Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton and Paul McCartney, among others, to pick up the axe and have a go – the electric guitar has been the driving force behind the music kids love to hear and to play. It’s no coincidence that most legendary rock bands, however old they might be now, were originally composed of teenagers. From AC/DC to the Zep, rockin’ riffs and teenage disaffection go very much hand in hand.

Picking up the Guitar

The guitar is made of three basic bits: the body; the fretboard (also called the neck); and the strings. If it’s an electric guitar, it also has a pickup (the metal bit under the strings, where the hole would be on an acoustic guitar); and a lead for transferring the electrical impulses relayed by the pickup, to the amp.

Given that you can’t play an electric guitar without amplification, we’ll assume that an electric guitar also has a fifth bit – the amplifier itself. The guitar student normally uses a practice amp, which is just big enough to give a clean sound. Compared to the electric monoliths used by rock legends, a practice amp is tiny: but it’s perfect for a beginner’s purposes.

The guitar is played by pressing combinations of strings down at different locations on the fretboard. In a standard electric guitar, there are six strings; on a standard bass there are four. An individual string, depressed or released at a specific place, will produce a note. A combination of strings, all pressed down or released together, produce chords. A standard guitar is played with the left hand on the fretboard and the right hand plucking or strumming the strings over the body.

Learning to Play
Picking (or plucking) and strumming are the first things you encounter, when you learn to play electric guitar. Picking involves plucking a single string at a time; strumming strokes all the strings over the pickup, with either a downward or an upward stroke. Playing with your teeth, behind your head, to acrowd of thousands – well, that comes later.

The next things you’ll learn are basic chords. Chords are the basis of all pop and rock songs. Once you’ve got three – normally C, F and G – you can play versions of most well-known songs. The more you master, the more songs and riffs you can play.

Riffs vs Solos

A riff is a recognisable tune, or “hook”, played repeatedly. It’s normally the most famous part of a song, and it’s certainly the bit that makes most students want to learn to play electric guitar. The opening to “Back in Black” is a riff; the opening to “Sweet Child of Mine” is a riff; and the opening to “Layla” is also a riff.

You’ll notice that all of these examples, each of which was originally written and recorded by a different kind of band in different decades, or nearly different decades (“Back in Black” was recorded in 1980; “Sweet Child of Mine” released in 1989), are the openings of songs. That’s normally where a riff occurs first – and it comes back again and again throughout the song. That makes it different from a solo, which is full of notes (a riff has just a few, and may also include chords), and usually occurs only once within a track.