Okay, I know what you’re thinking: “learning an instrument is hard. It’ll be months before I can play any songs I like, let alone rip a mean behind the head solo. My fingers are weak; I don’t know any scales, and the Gripmaster Hand Exerciser I bought last week for 25 bucks makes me look like an insane person.”
Well, lucky for you all of the above is false (except the last part—if you think buying hand strengthener is a good idea you may as well just start wearing a 16 cm top hat and referring to yourself as ‘hatchet’). The truth is, there are plenty of great alt-rock songs for all skill levels on the guitar. All it takes is grit, determination, and the tiniest bit of guidance and you’ll playing along to tracks by artists like Arcade Fire, Weezer, and Neutral Milk Hotel in no time.
Below are 10 songs for the beginner guitarist that you’ll actually want to play.
Neutral Milk Hotel – In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
Like most songs from Neutral Milk Hotel, this is full of all manners of weird and wonderful sounds, psychedelic textures that only Jeff Magnum and co. could produce. At its core however, “Aeroplane” is a simple track with very few changes. A perfect fire pit strummer for the hip ‘over-30’ crowd.
Arcade Fire – Wake Up
Arcade Fire’s greatest gift may be their ability to mine profound meaning out of musical simplicity. It should come as little surprise then that they have so many excellent songs for beginner guitarists in their catalogue. Three simple chords is all it takes to play “Wake Up”, a rollicking, sing-along anthem off of the band’s 2004’s debut, Funeral.
Radiohead – Creep
The band may no longer enjoy playing it, but it doesn’t mean you can’t. For singers who aren’t afraid to get a little moody, this is a perfect first song. Four chords endlessly repeated and lyrics you already know; it doesn’t get much easier than that.
Sufjan Stevens – Casmir Pulaski Day
Speaking of endlessly repeating four chord songs, why not give “Casmir Pulaski Day” a whirl? One of the great narrative folk songs of our nascent millennium (from a master of the form), “Casmir Pulaski Day” is a gorgeous, heartbreaker of a track that will hold any audience’s attention regardless of how smoothly it’s played.
Violent Femmes – Blister in the Sun
Not only can you strum the verse and choruses, but you can play that nifty little intro riff as well. Given that it only has three notes, it’s a great way to stretch your playing beyond simple chords to the arena of ‘lead guitar’. More than 30 years into its existence, “Blister in the Sun” is still one of the GOAT (greatest of all time) indie rock starting points for aspiring guitarists.
Bloc Party – Blue Light
The chords may look a bit funky, but they’re actually not all that tough to play. Take it from me, “Blue Light” was one of the first songs I ever learned. Hushed and introspective, it’s a great track to perform for your special somebody under the summer stars (or in my case, in my parent’s basement during another ‘no-plans’ Friday night in 2004).
Weezer – Say It Ain’t So
Sure there are easier Weezer songs in existence (e.g. “Island in the Sun”), but few are as fun to play this Blue Album smash. Combining a neat little strumming pattern with killer arpeggios, “Say It Ain’t So” is a great way to stretch your beginner skills. It may be awhile before you’re playing that solo, and the rhythm parts will most likely need to be modified, but with enough practice you’ll get it.
Chad Vangaalen – Willow Tree
Can’t play the picking parts? Just strum it. Guitar playing (especially if you’re planning to sing along) is all about infusing styles and patterns you learn with your own personality (or, you know, something like that). “Willow Tree” is perhaps the prettiest song you’ll ever hear about funeral planning and a great way to jump onto the guitar-bandwagon.
Coldplay – Yellow
Speaking of colour-themed love ballads for beginners, “Yellow” (or I guess you could go with “Green Eyes” if you feel so inclined) is an excellent first song for fans of the sap-rock kings. Coldplay may not be de rigeur like they used to be, but for my money, nobody did soft rock better than Chris Martin and the gang back in 2000.
Daniel Johnston – True Love Will Find You in the End
Johnston’s guitar is way out of tune in this one so don’t try to play along to the recording. You won’t need to. The track is so simple—so encouraging of sloppy playing—that it shouldn’t take more than a few times through to have it down pat.
Honourable Mentions: Cat Power – Sea of Love, The Mountain Goats – Love Love Love, The Cranberries – Zombie, Green Day – Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life), Okkervil River – Lost Coastlines, Bright Eyes – First Day Of My Life