It's important than every person get over the fear that they suck at music and learn an instrument. The guitar is an obvious choice because it is a cheap, fixed pitch instrument (they have frets) sold in abundance. It sounds full when you play alone and its easy to be mediocre at it, which is all anyone needs to be a happy amateur musician.
Guitars are also portable and acoustic, two useful things because the most important reasons every person should be nominally good at an instrument is that the world needs amateur musicians to liven up parties, sit at campfires, and protest in the streets.
Which is why I am writing this, because I just played guitar in a 99 mile march from Philadelphia to New York City, as part of the Occupy Guitarmy. We walked along local roads playing and sleeping under the stars to celebrate the 100th birthday of Woody Guthrie and to reclaim the right to make music in public. To be honest, I was pretty bad at the guitar when I left, but with not much else to do but play and walk for 14 hours a day for seven days, I got decent.
While on the march I was struck by how shy people can be about playing together, and how few people actually know how to pluck the most rudimentary songs out on an instrument. Which felt bad to me because we were playing folk music, after all, which is folk because it's freakin' easy as hell to play and sing so any folks can do it. And by 'folks' I mean, just like Woody Guthrie does, you and me. Anyone.
But something happened along the way: the occupy magic of mutual aid. It was awesome to watch the people who were more experienced teach and lead songs, and foster people to abandon their egos and find their voices. It was great to hear the rag tag group grow into an actual well versed group through practice and good musical leadership. It made me wanna be a better musician just so I could be a good teacher.
I do know enough to share this beginner's how-to with you. If you follow these simple steps I personally guarantee you will be able to play and sing Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" in two weeks. What will then shock you is that you will be able to take this knowledge and apply it to 80 percent of the world's guitar-based popular music, including all punk and blues to hair metal ballads and even most things by Neil Young. I'm pretty sure these things are all causally related and for that I thank Woody, and celebrate the guitar as a great thing to learn how to do.
1) Get an acoustic guitar that feels good and doesn't strain your arms or fingers. Look at pictures of how someone holds a guitar and then go to a store and try out 10-15 guitars of different sizes, both on the body (the hollow part) and the neck. Do you not let trifling guitar store jerks talk to you about anything at all. If you are really paranoid, go on a Saturday at 3pm when the store is impossibly busy and just blend in. But really, you should be balls out with your n00b guitar playing self.
So about those guitars. Some necks are wide, which makes it hard for folks with smaller hands to fret them. They have started to make "women's guitars" to accommodate folks with smaller hands, so that should tell you that there is no one universal size that is right for a guitar. They also make 3/4 sized guitars for kids, by which they mean smaller people by which I mean it's totally fine to get on of those. Check the string tuners to make sure they're easy to move. Also, duh don't pay a lot of money and if you can avoid it don't go to Guitar Center because they're owned by Bain Capital and that's a bad
look for an emerging protest singer or for any decent human being.
2) Put light strings on the guitar. Or nylon strings. The thing that will freak you out at first is that your fingers will hurt and be callousing. You can minimize the pain by having the lightest strings on the guitar, or putting nylon strings on the guitar. Don't listen to anyone who tells you this is lame or childish. You are learning, not playing Newport.
2A) Learn to tune. The inter webs has tuners and there are smartphone apps and you can just get a little tuner that clips to the top of your guitar. It's a little meter and you just get the needle in the middle and you're in tune. Otherwise, doing it by ear isn't hard, just keep plucking with your right hand, tuning with your left, and listening to the reference note. Don't play an out of tune guitar, it makes learning harder.
3) The internet's third most common function is to share tips on how to become an awesome guitarist. Among this wealth of information I suggest ignoring everything and only searching for a chart of basic chords. The drawings of chords show how to make the chord on the guitar's six strings low to high (EADGBE) as either left to right or bottom to top. Print these out or bookmark them.
4) Learn five basic chords. E, A, and D first. Once you get really comfortable, add in C and G. Put little star stickers under the spots where your fingers go for one chord and just practice moving your hand away and returning it to the position and strumming. Then do the same thing without the stickers. Then try not to look at the drawings.
4A) If you are having a hard time fretting your instrument because the strings are too high fix it right away. The easiest thing is to loosen all the strings and remove the little white piece of plastic at the bottom end below the sound hole. This piece of plastic is called the saddle. You can remove it easily and then carefully measure how much you want to lower it and color the part you want gone with a marker. Then take some sand paper and sand it down. Once you put it back in place you'll have lower strings. Be careful to not sand it too much!
5) Add the right hand to get sound. There are a couple of ways to do it and none of them are wrong. You can use your thumb to sweep down the strings. You can use the back of your fingernails to to flick down the strings. You can use several of your fingers to pluck specific strings one at a time or together (finger picking is pretty hard, it's not suggested for a first attempt unless you've played some other string instrument and are used to it). You can use a pick, which canbe anything sort of hard and semi--flexible, such as the edge of an old credit card. Cut it to have a small point and to rest nicely between your thumb and first joint of your first finger. Plenty of pix of this on the web, but honestly it will take a while for you to find a way to feel comfortable with this thing.
6) Practice strumming. First just down, then down and up. Tap your foot and do one strum per tap, then two, then three, then four. Try to keep your strumming as even as possible, then change it up by putting an accent on the first of each count. You can do this while you are watching tv or doing something else kind of mindless. It's pretty badass to be sitting on your couch with a guitar in hand kind of spaced out and intermittently strumming. Imagine yrself as Slash and just noodle away the hours.
7) Put the strumming and chords together. Switch chords every eight counts, then every four, then every two. The most important thing is to go slowly enough that you are smooth in your transitions. It actually really, really helps if you kind of sing the name of the chord as you are playing it.
8) You are now ready to learn a song.
"This Land Is Your Land" by Woody Guthrie is really easy in terms of chords and strumming. The chorus and verses have the same exact structure so once you learn one you've learned the whole song.You can use the chords G, C, D for the song if you like.
Then teach yourself to play the song without singing. This might look difficult but it's not. The most important thing is to do it slowly without stopping. For the simple version I would suggest two downward strums per beat. That means two times strumming for each time you see an instance of the letter here:
(G) C C C C
G G G G
D D D D
G G G G
C C C C
G G G G
D D D D
G G G G
9) After you've strummed this until its impossibly boring, add words. Listen to the song a few times and sing along, listening for where the chord changes are on the guitar. Teach yourself a few verses of the lyrics so you know enough of the words by heart. Check out those "alternate" verses about the no trespassing sign and the church steeple. Woody was punk as fuck, as serious as yr life.
And he could he pack a lot of words into a small number of beats. I've made a diagram of basically where the strumming hits the lyrics. The lyrics stretch in the middle and then there are this fast pick ups at the end of a phrase. So you have "from the Redwood" to say really fast, and "waters" is like three beats. It makes the song more fun to sing because the beat and chords are pretty basic.
You see how I put the first three words in parentheses? This is the "pick up" to the first line of the song. If you notice at the last line of the, the lyrics end and there are three beats of lyrical silence. This song is crafted to keep feeding into itself verse after verse by this method, the song's end gives way to the pick up of the next verse. It's like an ourobarias or one of those camp songs that will never end.
G C C C C
(This land is ) your land this land is
G G G G
my land from cali-
D D D D
form ia to the New York
G G G G
Island, from the Redwood
C C C C
Forests, to the Gulf Stream
G G G G
D D D D
This land was made for you and
G G G G
Sing this verse 50 times along with the guitar until everyone in the world hates you and your naive vision of unspoiled commons and your benevolent refusal of all-encompassing private ownership. After 50 times you can move on to the next verse, which you can do 25 times, etc etc. Once you've gotten to the final verse, you have locked the guitar part in solidly and, if there was any chance of it, ceased to be jaded.
10) Okay, now you've learned "This Land Is Your Land" with strumming. You are on your way to protest folk proficiency, which can best be augmented by meeting up with others and sharing songs until you have a small set list and a group of "please don't call us folk" musician buddies. You might even collect yourselves into a guitarmy, when you to happen upon some injustice or protest against it that needs a musical call out, anthem, elegy, ballad, history lesson, rally cry, or
any other kind of rebel song. Or you might find that you have enough strength to go out alone, just like Woody did.