The 10 easiest masterpieces to play on guitar

A beginner’s guide to masterpieces.

By Tom Taylor

Nobody has ever said that learning to play the guitar is easy, but it is made a lot harder by striving to tackle Igor Stravinsky compositions one week into the journey. Technicality takes time, a hell of a lot of it. You have to face up to the reality that Jimi Hendrix might always be out of hand, and finger-plucking like John Fahey is for a select few.

However, that does not mean that you can’t have fun learning the guitar. In fact, within a few weeks, you may well be able to play a masterpiece. Some of the greatest songs of all time are a mere two chords, and, in fact, many of the greatest songs use just four. That is the beauty of pop music, and it gets sweeter still when you can even simplify that further to a beginner’s level that strips a song to the bare bones but remains recognisable.

Our first tip is to learn on an electric. This might sound counterintuitive given that the very notion of an acoustic seems to simplify things, but the slimmer neck of an electric makes it much easier to handle, the strings are harder to snap, and if you don’t plug it in the more muted tones are a blessing that won’t serve to discourage you.

So, when you’ve picked one up, learn five or six simple chords and try to change between them on a single strum. Then when you’ve got that dexterity nailed down, you can move on and give the masterpieces below a bash. From the riffing ways of Black Sabbath to the sing-along stylings of Ben E. King, these epic tracks are all within reach of even the most primitive beginners.

The 10 easiest masterpieces to play on guitar:

‘Paranoid’ – Black Sabbath

Everyone assumes heavier songs are tricky to play because of the wall of sound they produce. However, one of the most orchestral wallops in rock history entails just a few very simple power chords. Two slow downward strums on the E power chord on the 7th fret, and you instantly get a feel for the whole song. With time, you can learn to throw in the quick hammer-on hammer-off that follows, but for now, that chord should give you enough flavour.

Then you simply rattle off A and D power chords in the same position – all with a steady slow downward strum – and you’ve pretty much got the track in the bag, and you’ll build up the strength of your power chords as you go. Of course, Tony Iommi is one of the most inventive guitar players of all time, literally helping to invent a genre, so there are flourishes to his work, but with that simple power-chord riffl, you’ll have tapped into the essence of the 1970s dark side.

‘Free Fallin” – Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers

The dreaded Dsus4 chord throws a horrible curveball into the mix when you view the tabs for ‘Free Fallin”, but all it offers is an easy exercise to introduce your pinky to the fret. In fact, this track offers you arguably the easy opportunity to do so because it follows an easy E major. The simplest way to play this melodic piece of purified nostalgia is to pop your cap on the 3rd fret, then play open D, A, and E chords, and then your Dsus4.

All in standard tuning, with the same chords repeated throughout. It is also helped along enormously by the fact that the melody is a driving one that stays in our ears. By which I mean that its distinctiveness and repetition mean that you can strum along to it in a free-form manner without having to truly learn the pattern and just letting the natural riff dictate your hand. Below you can see the simple way that John Mayer plays it (just ignore his intricate plucking for now).

‘Love Me Do’ – The Beatles

The coupling of distinctiveness and ease is arguably what made The Beatles the biggest band of all time. It takes great skill to make the same tired chords instantly recognisable; it’s like a chef making a Michelin star meal from the scraps in your pantry. Made up of good old G, C, G7, and D – essentially three chords – the trick here is in the strumming.

While The Beatles play it with the capo way up on the 10th fret, which makes it much more fiddly, you can just as easily transpose it to the top of the guitar. Then it comes to timing your upstrokes as you master the up-down-up-down-up-down-down-down pattern. With a bit of practice, even the bridge is easy on ‘Love Me Do’ by simply tossing a quick E in there and rearranging things a little.

‘Big Yellow Taxi’ – Joni Mitchell

Joni Mitchell is a very difficult guitar player to learn. She’s forever changing her tunings and the way she plays an indicated arrangement approaching songs like a one-woman band. However, as if to welcome guitar-playing fans into her wonderful world, she opened the door to her discography with one simple track; like all the others, it harnesses a mystic spring-like beauty.

The song can be easily simplified down to an eight note strum pattern over open G, D and A chords. You simply do a down strum on the beat and then an upstroke on the off beat. You can add a few ad4ths in the mix to get your basic melody closer in time, but for absolute beginners, you can get the gist from the open chords alone. And that is about as accessible as Mitchell ever gets.

‘Clay Pigeons’ – Blaze Foley

There is an argument to be made that ‘Clay Pigeons’ is one of the most beautiful folk songs ever written. While Foley’s folk plucking might layer the track with delicate intricacy, he merely embellishes a very easy structure. There are echoes of what guitar playing is all about in this track; sincerely abiding by the wayfaring storyteller motif, this is a timeless beauty that you can pick up easily.

The simplest way to do it is to place the capo on the third fret and then make your way through G,C,G,D with a single strum on each. So, if you’re playing along, you simply strum a G as he sings “I’m goin’ down to the Greyhound Station,” then a C as he sings “gonna buy a ticket to ride”, then back to a G for “Gonna find that lady with two or three kids”, before finishing with a quick D for the lines “and sit down by her side”. And there you have it; the first verse for a masterpiece is under your belt.

‘Three Little Birds’ – Bob Marley & The Wailers

‘Three Little Birds’ is a song that asks for nothing and gives peace back in return. It might be saccharine, but it’s the best saccharine song there is, kept afloat by a sense of self-aware bliss like the pig in shit feeling that comes with floating on a lilo. And thankfully, it is just as easy to play along with.

Reggae strumming is notoriously tricky, so just stick to a basic rhythm in the fashion of the advice regarding the Blaze Foley track above, and you should be able to play it in no time. The song consists of three little chords A, D, and E, and you can just strum away in an interpretive manner and just repeat that beauty over and over.

‘Stand By Me’ – Ben E. King

In a fitting fashion, the benefit for beginners that ‘Stand By Me’ brings to the table is that it is very easy to sing along as you play. This is a tricky thing to master, as a divergent topline melody can often make you feel like you’re reading something aloud and writing something different at the same time. However, C, Am, F, G chord progression and tessellating melody and strum pattern mean you can belt out the vocal with ease.

Much of this has to do with the song’s gospel origins. It was literally made for singing along to. This is perhaps why no fewer than nine artists have had a US top 100 hit with it. As King commented: “David Ruffin from the Temptations did a great version of it. And, of course, the one that held up in my head the most was John Lennon’s version. He took it and made it as if it should have been his song as opposed to mine.”

‘House of the Rising Sun’ – The Animals

There’s an argument to be made that ‘House of the Rising Sun’ is almost a mythic right of passage for any guitar player. The song itself tells the world-weary tale of an ambitious life gone awry in the city of New Orleans. However, with its roots believed to be in traditional English folk music, the geographical placement of the tale likely comes from a later permutation. The fact that the song remains to this day of unknown authorship only adds to its timeless appeal.

Thus, it seems fitting that a band from Newcastle, England reclaimed the definitive version and allegedly encouraged Bob Dylan to go electric with their work. The song – at its most simplified – consists of Am, C, D, E, and F but rather than strumming the sequence, you pick each note, making it a great entry point to folk stylings.

‘Break On Through (To The Other Side)’ – The Doors

This was the track that introduced the world to The Doors, and it’s hard to think of a more fitting debut album opening song in history. From the get-go, they purr with suffuse power of the puma in the jungle, magically managing to create a wave of adrenalised atmosphere with only two chords.

At its most basic, it is just an E minor chord with the occasional D thrown in. Now this might be flared beyond recognition by slides and some soloing, but you can get the melody captured with down strummed E minor chords, then throwing in to D down strums for the pre-chorus just as you sense Jim Morrison is about the growl. And there you have it; that’s how you write a song that changes the world.

‘Heroin’ – The Velvet Underground

The Velvet Underground pretty much invented the art of missing a few notes, so with ‘Heroin’, it is more about honing your ability to capture the energy of a song than getting things note perfect. And what we’re dealing with here is an energy that has reverberated through more modern music than just about any other song.

Feverishly expressionist, Lou Reed and the gang drive a subversive smokescreen of beat poetry through a rolling D major chord strum before moving onto a G while still peddling off the D note. In essence, you continually pluck the D string along with the rhythm of the song, then alternate between D and G chords with a few thrills thrown in there. Just ignore the wailing viola in the background too.

Source: The 10 easiest masterpieces to play on guitar

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