Once you have found a guitar that fits your hands and body nicely, you want to find the most comfortable way to hold it. You might want to consider how much more efficiently you will be able to play after finding your own individual best position for the neck and body. Ultimately, if you feel more comfortable playing guitar with the body sitting on your head, then that's where you should play it. However, most people would find that very awkward, and I suspect the headaches would be unbearable. So, for those who want a more conventional approach, I'd like to make some suggestions to help you find your own guitar-playing comfort zone.
Many beginners feel and look awkward because the hand and body positions required are alien at first. They mistakenly try to balance the guitar and hold it firmly at the same time. Their wrists get sore quickly and it soon becomes frustrating and discouraging.
For the sake of making it easier to describe the following techniques to right-handed and left-handed guitarists, let's just call one hand your "fret hand" and your other hand the 'picking' or 'strumming' hand. The fret hand is used on the neck of the guitar to press the strings down against the frets, while the "picking" hand strikes, plucks, or strums the strings somewhere over the body of the guitar. Oh yeah, before I forget, I would like to suggest that you keep your fret hand fingernails short because, if you do, you'll find it much easier to press the strings against the fretboard.
After cutting your nails, the next thing to do is to find a chair or stool that has no armrests and sit in it. Place the bottom curve of the guitar's body so it is resting comfortably on your strumming thigh (right-handers on right thigh, left-handers on left thigh)
Now, while holding the body of the guitar with only the inside of the upper forearm and the biceps of your strumming arm, let go entirely of the neck of the guitar with your fret hand. Tip the body of the guitar back toward your chest and then forward away from your chest until you find a good balance. Make adjustments until you aren't holding the entire weight of the guitar with your strumming arm. You might need to shift the bottom curve of the guitar's body slightly toward or away from your knee to get it balanced and comfortable (See Figure 2-1).
Eventually you will be able to play without having to look at the neck all of the time. For now, tip the body toward you slightly so you can see all of the strings and the inlays (dots or rectangles) on the fretboard. Keep the tuning keys on the head of the guitar slightly in front of you (i.e. not parallel with your chest). Figure 1-3 shows the suggested position for the guitar neck and the tuning keys in relation to your chest.
Next, let's get your picking and strumming hand into a good position; You usually don't want to place your elbow against the front of the guitar's body because that will greatly limit the movement of your hand and forearm. Your elbow area, including part of your forearm and biceps, should rest on the top back curve of the guitar, between the bridge and the end of the body. Actually, good placement will depend on the size of the guitar's body, but, in general, your inner biceps should rest on the bulge at the top back curve of the body (See Figure 2-3)
Picking and strumming differ slightly because picking requires smaller, more precise movements of the hand. Strumming requires control as well, however, the movements are usually larger and are generally just up and down across all (or most) of the strings. Both techniques require the use of your wrist to some extent and your wrist should always be flexible. If it is stiff, you will lose speed and control. When you need more control - for example when you are playing individual notes and moving from one string to another - place the ball of your strumming hand (where your hand meets your wrist) on the bridge (or just behind it, to avoid muting the strings). Use the flexibility of your wrist and arch your fingers (using small movements) to pluck each note from string to string.
When it comes to choosing a pick (plectrum), it is totally a matter of personal taste and technique. Here are some guidelines for absolute beginners: Choose a pick that suits your needs. If you plan to play a lot of "lead" or "melody" (single note "riffs" or "licks" and two-note chords) then a rigid or "hard" pick is better than one that is very flexible. Flexible (soft) picks are usually best for strumming acoustic guitars and playing a rhythm on electric guitars. You can also buy triangular picks that are soft on one tip, hard on another, and medium-hard on the third. There are two basic ways to hold a pick. Some players prefer to hold it between their index finger and their thumb. Others like to hold it between their middle finger and their thumb with the light touch of their index finger on the edge of the pick. How you hold a pick is completely up to you. Whatever gives you the most control and flexibility. I'll discuss some techniques for changing note tone and other picking effects in a later lesson.
In order to play a note or a chord on a guitar, you actually use the fingers and thumb of your fret hand to form a clamp or vice. That might sound obvious, but, it is in fact a very complex and flexible clamp created by your fingers pressing the strings to the fretboard in one direction, while your thumb presses against the back of the neck in the opposite direction. Your fingers and/or your thumb will be moving to various positions as you change from one note or chord to another. It is the tiny changes of finger and thumb positions that makes the difference between a clean note and one that buzzes or sounds muted.
It's important that you get your brain to accept the fact that you are asking it to tell your body to do something new. At first, some of your fingers might object to doing what they're told. You are much smarter than your fingers so don't give up and they will soon submit to your will. You'll be amazed at how much you can improve in just one week if you persevere and practice every free moment of the day and night.
With that in mind, let's use an exercise to demonstrate how changing from string to string or chord to chord affects the position of your thumb. Open your fret hand and place the top half of your thumb (above the knuckle) on the back of the neck lightly, right in the middle of the curve and behind the sixth fret (See Figure 2-4).
Now place your index finger on the top string (the E string, the thickest one) in the fifth fret, to play an A note. Leave that finger there and use your middle finger to press the next fret toward the bridge [an A sharp (A#) note]. Leave both fingers there and use your "ring" (or lazy) finger to press the next fret up (a B note). Now use your pinky (little finger) to press the next fret up (a C note) without removing your other three fingers. Move down to the next string (the A string) and repeat the exercise by placing the same fingers in the same frets as above (The 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th frets). The picture at the left (A) in FIGURE 2-5 shows the position of your hand when you started on the 5th fret of the top string. Notice that the thumb is behind the neck. Go to the next string down (the D string) and repeat the exercise, then the next string, and the next, until you've played all notes in those four consecutive frets on all six strings.
The picture at the right (B) in Figure 2-5 shows that your thumb moves upward and begins to wrap around the neck toward the fretboard as your fingers move down toward the thinner (higher pitched) strings. You might also notice that your thumb does not stay vertical the entire time. If your thumb did not move at all or if it moved very little, then you are making things very difficult for yourself. Remember this: Your thumb should not stay in a static position when you move from string to string. If you allow it to, your thumb will naturally move to balance the pressure and to accommodate the finger positions. Therefore, don't squeeze the neck too tightly. Relax and let your fingers and thumb move freely and trust that the hand muscles will develop as needed by practicing.
You now know that the string, the note, or the chord being played determines the part of your thumb being used. Sometimes the base of your thumb, sometimes the tip, and sometimes the middle will be the pressure point of the "clamp". The more you practice the exercise the sooner you will develop the small muscles of your fingers and thumb to increase your hand's flexibility and strength. Use the exercise as a warm up every time you pick up your guitar. Try to make each note sound clean. As you progress, try to time the notes evenly; For example play them one second apart and let them ring.
NOTE: I'm asking you to do something quite advanced for a beginner, so don't allow yourself to get discouraged! If you find it too difficult to start with the thickest string, start with the thinnest string and work your way up toward the thicker strings.