How to Play Folk Guitar: Tips and Techniques for Beginners
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 9 min read


  1. What is folk guitar?
  2. Pick the right guitar
  3. Learn the basics of guitar technique
  4. Get to know folk chords
  5. How to strum folk rhythms
  6. Learn folk fingerpicking styles
  7. Start playing simple folk songs
  8. Practice tips and exercises
  9. Explore folk guitar resources

If you've ever been captivated by the timeless melodies of folk music and wished you could replicate them on a guitar, you've come to the right place. This guide will walk you through the steps of how to play guitar for folk music, even if you're just starting out. We'll start by understanding what folk guitar is, and then we'll explore the types of guitars best suited for this genre. Next, we'll learn some basic but essential guitar techniques, get acquainted with folk chords, and delve into the rhythm and fingerpicking styles unique to folk music. Lastly, we'll start playing some simple folk songs, provide useful practice tips and exercises, and explore resources that will help you on your journey. So, grab your guitar, and let's dive in!

What is folk guitar?

Folk guitar refers to the style of playing guitar associated with folk music—a genre known for its storytelling and rhythm. This genre is rooted in the music traditions of various cultures and has a unique sound that's often acoustic and deeply emotive.

The magic of folk guitar lies in its simplicity: folk songs are often stripped down to their core, focusing more on the lyrics and melody than complex instrumental arrangements. The guitar, in this case, acts as a vessel to carry the melody and rhythm, providing a steady backdrop for the lyrics. This makes it a great place to start if you're learning how to play guitar for folk music.

There are certain features that distinguish folk guitar playing:

  • Open tunings: Folk guitar often employs open tunings, which means tuning the strings of your guitar to a chord. This allows for a richer, resonant sound.
  • Fingerpicking: Fingerpicking is a common technique in folk guitar. It involves plucking the strings with your fingers instead of a pick, which gives you more control over the sound.
  • Use of capo: A capo is a device used on the neck of a guitar to raise the pitch. In folk guitar, it's often used to change the key of a song without having to re-learn finger positions.

Now that you have a better understanding of what folk guitar is, we'll move on to picking the right guitar for this style. Remember, the journey of how to play guitar for folk music is as enjoyable as the destination, so take your time and enjoy the learning process.

Pick the right guitar

Getting started on your folk guitar journey begins with choosing the right instrument. The type of guitar you choose can greatly influence the sound and feel of your music, so it's important to choose wisely.

For folk music, acoustic guitars are typically the go-to choice. They provide a warm, rich sound that's perfect for the intimate, storytelling nature of folk music. But not all acoustic guitars are made equal—there are different types with unique characteristics:

  • Dreadnought: This is the most common type of acoustic guitar. It's large and has a bold, loud sound. If you're looking to play with a group or perform on stage, a dreadnought could be a good choice.
  • Concert: These guitars are smaller than dreadnoughts and have a more balanced, delicate sound. They're ideal for fingerpicking, which is a common technique in folk guitar.
  • Parlor: Parlor guitars are even smaller than concert guitars. They have a light, bright sound and are easy to handle, especially for beginners or players with smaller hands.

When picking a guitar, consider your budget, the guitar's playability (how easy it is to play), and the sound you want to achieve. Don't forget to try out a few different types to see what feels and sounds best to you. It's a bit like finding a new friend—you'll know when you've found the right one.

Once you've picked your guitar, it's time to learn the basics of guitar technique. Remember, it's not just about learning how to play guitar for folk—it's about finding joy in the process. So, let's keep going!

Learn the basics of guitar technique

Before you hop into the realm of folk guitar, you need to understand the basics. Think of these as your tools—you wouldn't attempt to build a birdhouse without a hammer and nails, right? The same applies to learning how to play guitar for folk.

First, you need to know how to hold the guitar. Your posture matters more than you think. Sit upright and rest the guitar on your right leg if you're right-handed, or your left leg if you're left-handed. The guitar neck should be at about a 45-degree angle—this makes it easier to reach the frets and strum the strings.

Next, let's talk about fretting. This is when you press the strings against the fretboard to create different notes. Make sure you're pressing down with the tips of your fingers and not the pads. This helps to create a clear sound without buzzing.

Lastly, we have strumming. This is where the magic happens—it's how you play the chords and create music. The key is to strum with your wrist, not your whole arm. Try to keep your movements relaxed and fluid.

Mastering these basics might take some time, but remember, every guitar hero started where you are now. Be patient with yourself, and enjoy the journey. You're not just learning how to play guitar for folk, you're learning a new way to express yourself.

Get to know folk chords

Now that you're familiar with the basics of guitar technique, it's time to introduce some folk-specific know-how. The heart and soul of any folk song lie in its chords. But what are these mystical things we call 'folk chords'? Let's find out.

Folk guitar typically uses open chords. These are chords that include unfretted strings that are allowed to ring open, which creates a full, resonant sound. Some of the most common open chords used in folk music include G, C, D, A and E.

Let's do a quick run-through of how to play guitar for folk using these chords:

  1. G Major: For this chord, you'll need to place your second finger on the third fret of the low E string, your first finger on the second fret of the A string, and your third and fourth fingers on the third frets of the B and high E strings, respectively.
  2. C Major: Your third finger goes on the third fret of the A string, your second finger on the second fret of the D string, and your first finger on the first fret of the B string.
  3. D Major: Place your first finger on the second fret of the G string, your third finger on the third fret of the B string, and your second finger on the second fret of the high E string.
  4. A Major: Your second, third, and fourth fingers will all cluster together on the second frets of the D, G, and B strings.
  5. E Major: Your first finger goes on the first fret of the G string, with your second and third fingers on the second frets of the A and D strings.

Now, these are just the basics. There are many more chords and variations out there. But mastering these will give you a strong foundation to start from. Remember, practice makes perfect—and the journey of figuring out how to play guitar for folk is just as rewarding as the destination.

How to strum folk rhythms

Folk guitar isn't just about the chords—rhythm plays a huge role too. So, how do you strum folk rhythms? Let's dive in.

Folk guitar generally relies on a steady, rhythmic strumming pattern. This often means a lot of downstrokes, with the occasional upstroke thrown in for variety. To keep it simple, let's start with a basic folk strumming pattern: down, down up, up down up. This pattern gives a nice, bouncy feel that works well with many folk songs.

Try this pattern out with the chords we learned earlier. Start slow, and gradually increase your speed as you get more comfortable.

Once you've got the hang of that, you can start to mix things up. Try different strumming patterns, vary the rhythm, or even throw in some palm muting for a bit of percussive flair. The key is to keep the rhythm steady and consistent.

Remember, strumming is all about feeling the beat. So, tap your foot, nod your head, or sway along with the music—it all helps to keep you in time. And before you know it, you'll be strumming folk rhythms like a pro!

Learn folk fingerpicking styles

Now, let's switch gears and talk about fingerpicking. Fingerpicking is a technique used in many styles of guitar playing, but it's especially prevalent in folk music. So, how do you play folk guitar with fingerpicking styles?

Fingerpicking involves plucking the strings with your fingers, instead of strumming them with a pick. This can create a softer, more intricate sound. If you've never tried fingerpicking before, don't worry—it's easier than it seems.

Start by resting your thumb on the top string (the low E string), and your index, middle, and ring fingers on the next three strings. These four fingers will do most of your picking. Try plucking each string individually, and then in different combinations. You might find it helpful to start with a simple pattern, like thumb-index-middle-ring, and then work your way up to more complex patterns.

One popular folk fingerpicking style is called Travis picking, named after the great folk guitarist Merle Travis. In this style, your thumb keeps a steady rhythm on the lower strings, while your other fingers pick out a melody on the higher strings. It might take some practice, but the payoff is worth it—Travis picking can add a whole new level of complexity and beauty to your folk guitar playing.

Above all, remember to have fun with it. Fingerpicking is a skill that takes time to develop, but the journey is part of the fun. Happy picking!

Start playing simple folk songs

Nothing beats the feeling of playing a complete song from start to finish. Once you've got a handle on the basics of folk guitar technique, it's time to start playing some simple folk songs. But how do you start playing guitar for folk music? Let's dive right in.

Begin with songs that have simple chord progressions. Songs like "This Land is Your Land" by Woody Guthrie or "Blowin' in the Wind" by Bob Dylan are great choices. The chord progressions in these songs are fairly straightforward, which can make them easier to play for beginners.

Next, try adding some strumming and fingerpicking patterns to your songs. Remember the strumming and fingerpicking techniques we discussed earlier? This is where they come into play. Experiment with different patterns to find what sounds best to you.

Finally, don't forget to sing along! Part of the magic of folk music is its storytelling element. Singing along to the songs you play can help you connect with the music on a deeper level. Plus, it's a fun way to practice your singing skills.

Playing your first folk song is a big milestone. Don't worry if you mess up a few times—it's all part of the learning process. Keep practicing, keep playing, and before you know it, you'll be a folk guitar pro.

Practice tips and exercises

Once you start playing simple folk songs, you might wonder, "how do I improve my folk guitar playing skills?" The answer lies in consistent practice and targeted exercises. Let's explore some tips and exercises to help you in your journey of learning how to play guitar for folk music.

Firstly, consistency is key. Aim to practice a little bit every day, even if it's only for 15 minutes. This regular practice can help you build muscle memory and refine your technique.

Secondly, make sure you're practicing the right things. It's easy to get lost in playing your favorite songs, but remember to dedicate some time to drills and exercises. These could include fingerpicking exercises, chord transition drills, or rhythm practice.

Thirdly, keep it slow and steady. It's more important to play a song or exercise correctly at a slower tempo than to play it quickly but with mistakes. As you get more comfortable, you can gradually increase your speed.

Lastly, don't be too hard on yourself. Learning to play an instrument is a journey, full of ups and downs. Celebrate your progress, no matter how small, and remember that every guitarist, no matter how experienced, was once a beginner too.

With these practice tips and exercises, you'll be well on your way to mastering how to play guitar for folk music. Keep at it, and you'll see improvement before you know it!

Explore folk guitar resources

Now that you have a good grasp on the basics of how to play guitar for folk, let's take a look at some resources that could help you learn more and further refine your skills. Remember, each resource can offer something unique, so explore as many as you can.

Books can be a great starting point. There are many books available on folk guitar, which cover everything from the history of the genre to detailed tutorials on specific techniques. Some popular books include "Folk Guitar for Beginners" by Paul Howard and "The Art of Contemporary Travis Picking" by Mark Hanson.

Online platforms are another excellent resource. Websites like JustinGuitar and GuitarTricks have extensive libraries of folk guitar lessons, covering everything from the basics to more advanced techniques. These sites often have video tutorials, which can be particularly helpful for visual learners.

Don't forget about the power of listening, too. By listening to folk music, you can familiarize yourself with the genre's unique rhythms and chord progressions. Try to listen to a wide range of folk musicians to expose yourself to a variety of styles.

Finally, consider finding a guitar teacher who specializes in folk music. A teacher can provide personalized feedback and guidance, helping you to improve your technique and understanding of the genre.

With these resources at your fingertips, you're well-equipped to continue your journey in learning how to play guitar for folk. Stay curious, keep exploring, and most importantly, enjoy the music!

If you're looking to improve your folk guitar skills and take them to the next level, check out Debbie Knox-Hewson's workshop, 'How to Get Better at What You Do - Go from Good to Great!.' This workshop is perfect for beginners wanting to learn tips and techniques to excel in their craft, not just in folk guitar but in any creative field.