Which style of guitar should I learn first?

If you’re a new guitarist (or are thinking about learning guitar), you’re probably in one of two camps:

  1. You know exactly which style you want to play and are ready to jump in head-first

  2. You have no idea which style you want to play, either because you have too many to choose from or because you don’t know what your options are!

Even advanced guitarists go through periods of self-reflection where they may change genres or styles that they’re into both as a listener and as a player, so it pays to weigh up the pros and cons of them all.

Personally, I started out with a bastardised form of classical, moving into rock and contemporary, then metal (whilst also learning jazz) and exploring more traditional classical, so don’t worry, I’ve been in the same position as you multiple times!

I’m going to show you the pros and cons of rock, pop, blues, classical, jazz, metal and acoustic fingerstyle to help you find the best style of guitar for you.

Learning Rock Guitar

Rock’s a great genre to get into if you’re already a big fan of old-fashioned rock’n’roll, alt rock or any of the subgenres that have been spawned over the last 50 years.

Typically rock guitarists get to play a wide variety of songs, so it’s definitely great for those who like to explore lots of techniques on the guitar, but it’s still considered by some old-fashioned institutions to be less “proper” than other styles due to its rebellious history and reliance on playing “by ear”.

I’d highly recommend this genre for any beginners who like the genre or are a bit unsure of what to play, but it’s also great for more advanced players who want to get a more rounded guitar skillset.

Gear required to play rock guitar: Preferably an electric guitar with humbuckers and an amp with distortion, crunch or overdrive. You can start learning rock on a steel string acoustic, but it just won’t sound the same, and many lead guitar techniques are more challenging on acoustic. You’ll also primarily be playing with a pick.

Pros of Learning Rock Guitar

  • Easy to pick up, as you can download some tabs or watch some YouTube videos and get playing right away without any music theory knowledge, but has a lot of depth to it for more advanced players too.

  • Great for playing in bands - both for playing originals and covers. You’ll always be able to find gigs in a rock band.

  • Opportunities to play

  • Very fun - most rock songs are written around the guitar, so you’ll get lots of memorable parts to play.

Cons of Learning Rock Guitar

  • Most rock guitarists are pretty weak on music theory. That doesn’t mean you’ll have to be too, but make sure you don’t just fall into the trap of learning songs and nothing else.

  • Lots of memorising. Rock guitarists are expected to play from memory, not have charts in front of them when they perform.

  • Can be a little bit boring to play on your own, as most rock songs are written to be played with a full band. This means you’ll probably spend more practice time playing with backing tracks and recordings, and probably won’t be able to perform solo gigs with purely rock songs.

Learning Pop Guitar

Pop’s a pretty wide genre, but generally when we talk about pop for the guitar we’re just talking about popular music from music history. That could include Elton John songs, or it could include Imagine Dragons depending on what you want to learn.

As a genre, pop is nowadays not very guitar-heavy, which means you’ll probably be making your own versions of many modern pop songs by using the same chords played by a piano or keyboard.

All guitarists should learn at least some pop, as the music theory is simple but highly structured and will help you with your own song-writing down the track. It’s also great for building up repertoire, as pop songs are by definition popular with most audiences. For advanced guitarists, I wouldn’t exclusively focus on pop however, as it’s not typically very challenging for the guitarist to play unless you make a more complicated arrangement.

Gear required to play rock guitar: Either an electric and amp or acoustic guitar. It’s really up to you depending on the era and style of pop you want to play.

Pros of Learning Pop Guitar

  • Lots of songs to choose from, so once you get started you’ll be able to learn hundreds of songs of the same difficulty.

  • Very chord focussed, which means you’ll quickly learn all of your common shapes on the guitar.

  • It’s easy to find chord charts for pop songs online - though they’re not always super accurate.

Cons of Learning Pop Guitar

  • It can get pretty repetitive after a while, so at some point you’ll mostly likely want to explore another genre later down the track

  • Not a lot of lead guitar playing (with a few exceptions)

  • Most pop guitarists are strong with fundamental music theory (either by ear or by learning) but struggle to break outside of standard song structures, concepts and techniques as there just isn’t much variety in the genre.

Learning Blues Guitar

Blues is a great foundation for most western styles of music, as we still use blues conventions in almost every style.

It’s a very structured genre, so once you get the basics down learning new songs and even writing songs will become pretty easy. The challenge lies in improvisation, so if you like making things up (within certain “rules”) or jamming with mates, this is the genre for you.

I definitely recommend all players explore blues, if only for a little while, as it helps you understand so many things we do on the guitar. Longer term, if you love listening to the genre, you can push yourself quite far technically (particularly as a lead guitarist) so it can be great for advanced players too, but most blues players nowadays tend to also play either rock, metal or acoustic fingerstyle.

Gear required to play blues guitar: Either a steel string guitar or an electric guitar with an amp. Could be worth getting a slide too if you want to explore that aspect of blues playing.

Pros of Learning Blues Guitar

  • Great for improvising - which is great fun to do with other blues players!

  • Most songs have the same structure, so it’s generally pretty easy to work out blues songs and riffs by ear.

  • The music theory you’ll learn in blues is fairly simple, but underpins almost every other genre, so it’s the perfect stepping stone into other styles.

Cons of Learning Blues Guitar

  • The genre gets a bit repetitive, which is great for learning but can become tedious longer term.

  • If you like following set instructions, the blues isn’t for you - it’s all about following the general flow and ad-libbing here and there.

  • Many blues players only know blues theory and nothing else, so you may need to explore other genres to widen your skillset.

Learning Classical Guitar

Classical guitar covers all of the more “traditional” guitar styles, including Spanish guitar, music from the Romantic, Baroque and Classical periods and basically most styles pre-blues and jazz.

Many private schools will still only teach classical guitar due to its prestige and the fact that you can complete classical guitar exams similar to piano and other instruments, but it’s not a very popular genre for guitarists of today.

That being said, if you enjoy a challenge, like playing on your own (or playing in a duo or trio) or just really like classical music, it’s a very fun style to play.

Gear required to play classical guitar: Nylon string guitar (also called a Classical Guitar). It also helps to get either a footrest or a guitar support as you typically play classical with the guitar sitting on your other leg. No picks, as classical must be played with fingers.

Pros of Learning Classical Guitar

  • Great if you love structure and methodically working through material, as you can follow the exam syllabus (AMEB, Suzuki etc) and work from grade to grade, which are recognised by many schools and institutions.

  • Sounds really nice on solo guitar, so you’ll always be able to play complete songs and have them sound the way they’re intended without any other players or gear.

  • You’ll learn to read standard notation, which is great if you want to explore other instruments like piano, flute etc later on down the track.

Cons of Learning Classical Guitar

  • Pretty much everything you learn for classical guitar only applies to classical guitar. There are some similarities with more modern styles, but they are worlds apart, so if you want to play anything other than classical guitar you’ll need to also explore another genre.

  • Very little room for improvising. Classical is a style that is very much “play what is written”.

  • All classical music is written in standard notation, which takes a lot longer to learn than tabs and chord charts. It’s definitely a great skill but you have to be willing to put in the effort!

Learning Jazz Guitar

Jazz guitar is full of interesting chords and lots of lead guitar improvising so appeals to a wide variety of guitarists. It’s definitely a challenging style, but there’s lots of scope to create your own arrangements of existing songs and understand a lot of music theory by exploring jazz (that’s why most university degrees are either focussed on jazz or classical).

You can play on your own or in duets or trios pretty easily with jazz, so you have plenty of performance options.

However, jazz is pretty tough. I’d definitely recommend spending a while on blues, rock, metal or acoustic fingerstyle before jumping into it.

Gear required to play jazz guitar: Jazz is typically played on an archtop guitar, which are pretty expensive, but any electric guitar will work. Alternatively, if you don’t mind the extra challenge for your fretting hand, an acoustic guitar will also sound nice for jazz.

Pros of Learning Jazz Guitar

  • You’ll get a great understanding of the guitar if you can master jazz, and many tertiary institutions will formally recognise your skills.

  • Excellent challenge with a huge back catalogue of songs (or “standards”) to learn

  • Decent amount of performance opportunities including live venues, weddings, cafe gigs and more as both a lead guitarist or as a rhythm player.

Cons of Learning Jazz Guitar

  • It’s hard. Mastering jazz takes a long time, both technically and mentally, so be prepared for a long journey!

  • It’s a very insular genre, where you’re basically expected to exclusively play nice arrangements of songs from 50+ years ago rather than writing your own songs

  • For some people, jazz can sound a bit too random to appreciate, so definitely try listening to a lot of jazz to see if you like it before committing to it too heavily.

Learning Metal Guitar

I bet you’re expecting me to tell you all to drop everything and just do metal - and you’re right.

Just kidding. Metal is a great genre for those who have explored rock and want more of a challenge or for those who already love the genre.

It’s one of the hardest styles to master, but there’s plenty of easy songs to get into to start with, so it is appropriate for lots of beginners too.

Gear required to play metal guitar: Electric guitar with humbuckers and a high-gain amp. You’ll almost always be playing with a pick.

Pros of Learning Metal Guitar:

  • Lots of variety in both techniques and songs, so there’s a lot you can learn from within the genre.

  • One of the best styles for building “chops”, which are your raw technical skills like speed and accuracy.

  • Similar to rock, most metal songs are guitar focussed, so they’re great fun to play in bands or at home with backing tracks.

Cons of Learning Metal Guitar:

  • Not only is metal not recognised as a proper musical style by most organisations, it’s outright feared in some cultures. If you’re looking to become a professional musician (and not just a metal guitarist), you’ll likely have to learn other styles too.

  • It’s challenging to master! You’ll need lots of discipline and will have to learn to isolate small phrases and make very minute changes to your technique to improve.

  • Many metal guitarists are weak when it comes to theory, rhythm and phrasing. You can definitely master these things within metal without exploring other genres, but you have to consciously focus on these aspects of your playing too.

Learning Acoustic Fingerstyle Guitar

Acoustic fingerstyle guitar is my collective term which covers your John Butlers, Andy McKees and Sungha Jungs. It’s a genre fast growing in popularity due to the rise of YouTube, but it’s also widely appreciated by the general public too.

It’s a genre that is constantly being expanded upon, which makes it a bit of a wild west of techniques, so it’s perfect for those who like to play on their own, love a challenge and want to be at the cutting edge of guitar playing.

Gear required to play acoustic fingerstlye guitar: Steel string acoustic guitar, a capo and a lot of strings! (for all those different tunings that will inevitably break your strings).

Pros of Learning Acoustic Fingerstyle Guitar

  • Great to play and learn on your own as there are heaps of YouTube tutorials and solo guitar arrangements around.

  • Great challenge rhythmically, as you’ll often have to play lots of percussive elements (tapping and slapping the guitar) as well as picking and strumming.

  • Widely appreciated by many audiences, so there should be plenty of gigging opportunities.

Cons of Learning Acoustic Fingerstyle Guitar

  • There aren’t many specialists in this genre yet, as it’s a relatively young style, so finding teachers who can teach it may be hard.

  • You’ll use lots of different tunings, which may make it tough if you want to change between different songs unless you have multiple guitars (or aren’t afraid to break a few strings tuning up and down all the time).

  • The theory side of things can be a little bit harder to understand with acoustic fingerstyle, so it is often good to pair this style with another genre of guitar and try to relate the two (pop is a good one for this, as acoustic fingerstyle versions of pop songs are super popular).

Want to learn more than one style?

Some guitarists argue that you need to focus to be a master. In fact, many people argue this for all aspects of life.

I’m firmly on the other side of the fence. The world moves to fast to focus on one thing and one thing alone. I may not be the best shredder, or the best chord player, or the best fingerstyle player, but I don’t know of any guitarists with the same mix of skills I have, and that’s only happened because I focussed on whatever opportunities came up and kept an open mind as a guitarist.

Filling as an accompanist for pop and jazz singers taught me heaps about both genres that I wouldn’t have learned if I had stuck to my initial goals of being a rock guitarist.

Exploring classical as a personal challenge gave me one of my favourite genres to play at home, and one that I draw elements from in songwriting all the time.

That being said, be realistic about your goals. and workout a plan to get there. If you want to master jazz, maybe start with blues and a bit of pop, then slowly introduce more and more jazz into your repertoire - don’t try and jump straight into jazz, or try and do every genre at once.

And if you do feel the sudden desire to try out a classical piece, go for it! It’s your musical journey you’re charting, and at the end of the day it’s all up to you.

We offer lessons in all of the above styles to varying standards, so if you’d like to find out a bit more about what’s involved, come in for a guitar lesson in Ringwood at our studio.