How To Purchase The Right Guitar So You Love Learning And Don’t Quit
How To Purchase The Right Guitar So You Love Learning And Don’t Quit
By Leo Smith
There comes a time in every single person’s life who ever lived or ever will live when that person realizes they want to study guitar. For the brave few who act on that noble impulse, the first substantial obstacle is often obtaining the guitar itself. Many would-be fret blazers feel overwhelmed by the seemingly endless variety of makes, models, styles, and options. Others don’t know enough to be overwhelmed, and gleefully plunge headfirst into a reckless purchase that derails their ill-fated guitar career from the start. These poor souls struggle valiantly with the wrong tool for the job until, exhausted, they conclude at the last that they simply aren’t cut out for the glamorous life of a guitar player.
It doesn’t have to be that way, and purchasing a guitar as a beginner really isn’t so complicated a proposition as it may appear! As you develop your guitar skills, gain experience, and play around with other musicians’ different guitars, you’ll gradually develop increasingly specific preferences. At this stage in the game, however, you really only need to find an inexpensive, reliable workhorse suitable for the music you want to play. So let’s get started!
First, I’m going to take you through a few common misconceptions and make sure you get all that hooey out of your head. Then I’ll talk a bit about the different kinds of guitars out there, and what benefits they offer. Finally, I’ll give you some general advice for your search once you’ve narrowed it down to a particular category of guitar.
Debunking The Myths
Myth #1: Beginners should start out with the cheapest guitar they can find, so as to make sure they really want to play before they invest any money.
If you just go out and buy the cheapest guitar you can find, then in all likelihood you will ultimately decide you don’t want to play. Low-quality guitars, or even decent guitars that aren’t set up well, can be very difficult to play and may sound terrible even in the hands of a professional. There are few surer ways to make your early guitar education a tale of frustration and woe than to struggle with an instrument that just isn’t functional. And when you aren’t making progress, you’ll question your own potential rather than your choice to cut corners when selecting your tools.
You don’t need to go out and buy professional quality instruments, but you need something that works and that will (often) require investing in something better than the cheapest model around. I’ll talk more about what to look for when I discuss the different kinds of guitars.
Myth #2: Beginners should always start on acoustic, and then graduate to electric when they’ve become more advanced.
I don’t even know where this idea came from, or what the alleged rationale is, but I hear it all the time. I’ll make this very clear: nothing about the acoustic guitar makes it inherently suitable for beginners, and nothing about electric guitars demands any prior playing experience. If anything, beginners will find electric guitars more readily playable. They tend to have smaller bodies and lighter strings, making them less cumbersome to hold and easier to manipulate.
Whether you should purchase an electric or an acoustic guitar depends solely on what sort of music you’d like to play. Your experience and skill level are both irrelevant, and neither kind of guitar will ‘prepare’ you for the other.
Myth #3: Beginners should start with classical guitars first, because nylon strings are easier on their fingers.
If you’ve never played a stringed instrument before then your fingers are going to hurt when you start playing guitar. That’s okay. That’s just the feeling of pure, white-hot skill tearing into your flesh and grafting itself to your bones. That’s no reason to start with a classical guitar, for a couple reasons.
First, your fingers will hurt even if you’re playing nylon strings instead of steel strings. The tender flesh on the tips of your digits just isn’t used to pinning wires to slabs of wood, because you’ve never use it for such an odd purpose. (It doesn’t help that you’re probably pressing those suckers down way too hard, but that’s a topic for another article). The only way to get over this is to start playing in small chunks, and gradually increase the amount of time you spend playing guitar without rests. After a few months of this you’ll be able to play for hours without feeling a thing.
Second, even if starting with classical guitar did help you build up calluses without pain – and even if, in that case, moving on to steel strings wouldn’t still cause you pain anyway – such a paltry benefit is hardly worth the drawback of starting out on the wrong instrument. The only reason you should be playing a classical guitar is because you want to play some sort of classical or other fingerpicking style. Otherwise, you’ve selected the wrong tool for the job and made things much harder for yourself from the start. More on that when I discuss classical guitars in their own section.
Myth #4: Beginners should start out on classical guitars and/or study classical style in order to get a solid technical foundation before moving on to other styles.
I can only imagine that this idea is based on apparent parallels in other disciplines, such as learning to draw realism so as to understand what you’re stylizing before you being to apply your own style. Suffice it to say, the principle does not apply in this case. Classical style playing will not prepare you for modern playing styles. The picking technique is completely different, and the classical guitar is also built (and so feels and plays) differently from modern acoustic or electrical guitars. By starting off with a classical guitar and/or learning classical style, when you really want to play a non-fingerpicking style, all you’re doing is setting yourself up to have to re-learn when you try to switch over.
So now that we’ve trudged through all of that balderdash, let’s talk about what you do need to know and consider before you go out looking for your own personal axe!
The Broad Categories of Guitar
Most guitars fall into one of three general categories: classical, modern acoustic, or electric. Begin your search by determining which of these categories is right for you, and you’ll have narrowed things down considerably. Each category has its use, and is appropriate for different playing styles and musical genres (or roles within a genre). I’ll discuss each of them in turn.
The classical guitar, a kind of acoustic guitar itself, is the grandfather of all guitars today. Venerable, tried, and true, it is set apart from other acoustic guitars because of several unique characteristics that separate it from the rest of the guitar world.
The classical guitar has a smaller body than other acoustics. It’s meant to be played sitting down rather than standing up, and the smaller body makes it a little more comfortable to sling your arm over top of it while in a seated position. That’s also why you won’t find any pegs for a guitar strap on these.
The classical guitar has a significantly wider neck and fretboard than electric or even modern acoustic guitars. It is designed for fingerpicking technique, and a little more distance between the strings helps make it easier to get big fat people-fingers in between them rather than just a thin little guitar pick. The classical guitar can still be strummed or used for lead lines with a guitar pick, but it’s a very different feel. Switching between classical and modern guitars will be an awkward transition, and the classical guitar will never be optimal for pick-specific techniques like string skipping or inside picking.
The classical guitar is also strung with nylon strings, giving it a very distinct, mellow sound. This sound obviously works great for twinkling, fingerpicked arpeggios, but it’s not so hot for blasting chords or trying to rip out some powerful lead guitar lines. (Note: the nylon strings should not be replaced with steel strings, because that would put too much tension on the neck and cause serious damage over time).
The classical guitar is definitely right for you if you want to study a fingerpicking style such as classical, flamenco, bossa nova, folk fingerstyles, etc.
You’ll want a guitar built from solid wood – avoid the word “laminate” in the technical description – unless you’re truly strapped for cash. (Even in the event that money is really tight, you’re probably better off getting a higher-quality instrument with a payment plan from a music shop so you can take it home right away and avoid having to buy another guitar later on). Solid woods will give you much better sound quality, so I don’t recommend you skimp on this unless you just want a beater guitar that you can destroy and not lose sleep over.
What you absolutely cannot skimp on is the tuning pegs. The hallmark of a crappy classical guitar is its slippery tuning pegs. If you can’t keep the guitar in tune, everything you make it do will sound absolutely horrendous. Purchasing from a trusted brand will probably avoid this issue, but this is something to check yourself anyway. Play with the pegs (with a store sales rep or more experienced guitarist present), and check to see that they turn smoothly and that the strings tighten and loosen smoothly along with them. Catches and sudden jumps in tuning are a bad sign!
Takamine, Cordoba, and Yamaha are some well-known brands in the classical guitar industry.
Modern Acoustic Guitars
The modern acoustic shows up across genres, from the singer/songwriter busking on the corner to the tracks of countless classic rock albums. Unlike its classical forefather, the modern acoustic has steel strings and a bigger body for a sharper attack and greater volume. Modern acoustics will typically have pegs for a guitar strap, so you can stand on up to play it. The modern acoustics will also have thinner necks, similar to acoustic, because they are built with guitar picks in mind.
Acoustic guitars tend to have shorter necks than electrics, however, often lacking the body cutaways that grant easier access to the higher frets on electric guitars. Furthermore, the strings on acoustic guitars tend to be much heavier than those on electric guitars, making high-speed playing and lead techniques like bends and vibrato much more difficult.
A modern acoustic is likely the right choice for you if you want to play acoustic or folk type music. Look to the artists you want to emulate. Are they playing acoustics? That’s a good, though perhaps not definitive, place to start.
As with classical acoustic guitars, your best bet is to get a solid wood body and avoid the word “laminate” in the instrument description. You’ll get more volume and a much better sound that way. Taylor, Cordoba, Yamaha, Martin, Takamine, Washburn, Ovation, and Seagull are all prominent brands.
Finally, my personal favorite… The electric guitar is in a completely separate category from the classical and modern acoustics. Electric guitars most often have solid bodies, though you can find them with hollow or semi-hollow bodies if you want an acoustic sound. They have thin necks like the modern acoustic, but often have longer fretboards and dramatic cutaways from the body to allow easy access to those higher frets. Although electric guitars will almost always sport pegs for a strap, their thin bodies make them pretty easy to play sitting down, even for smaller children. Electric guitars are usually equipped with much lighter strings than their acoustic counterparts, allowing for faster playing and the use of dramatic lead techniques such as string bending and vibrato.
What really sets the electric guitar apart, though, is its own namesake: the exclusive use of electrical amplification to produce performance-level sounds. Magnetic “pickups” in the electric guitar sense the vibration of the steel string and send an analog signal to an amplifier and speaker to produce the sound listeners actually hear, perhaps passing through a chain of effects pedals along the way. This use of auxiliary electronic equipment allows the electric guitar a versatility of sound that completely blows acoustics out of the water.
Through the use of effects pedals, as well as sound controls on the amplifiers themselves, electric guitars can be played clean or at any level of natural or artificial distortion. The EQ on the electric guitar can be adjusted in real time by selecting which pickup(s) to engage or by turning knobs on a pedal or amplifier. Any number of special effects can be applied, including sound effects like chorus, flange, or wah pedals, or temporal effects such as artificial reverbs, delays, or even looping. The electric guitar can be made to sound like anything, from a sweet acoustic whispering in your ear, to a wailing demon spitting Hellfire through your face, to an improbable space creature demanding your “earth pizza.”
Classical and modern acoustics sometimes come with electric pickups installed in the body, so as to gain some of the benefits of electric guitars, but they can’t do what electric guitars do anything like electric guitars can do what acoustics do. Unless you’re planning to study a fingerpicking style, or an exclusively acoustic style, you’re going to want an electric guitar. Jazz, pop, blues, RnB, metal, rock, funk, and more, all suggest or require the use of electric guitar.
Some of the biggest names in the electric guitar world are Fender, Gibson, Ibanez, B.C. Rich, ESP, Schecter, Dean, Yamaha, Squire, Jackson, PRS, and some electric guitar brands specialize in certain genres and playing styles. If you know specifically what you want to play, it can pay off to do some homework!
1) Don’t get caught up in brand name.
I know, I concluded each overview of the broad guitar categories by listing some well-known brands and now I’m telling you not to worry about it. I only gave you those brand names so you have something to cling to, some meager flotation device in these stormy seas. They can give you a place to start, a way to keep your head above water while you search for dry land.
There are many quality brands, though, that I haven’t mentioned, to say nothing of terrible brands that sometimes accidentally produce decent instruments. I didn’t even get into the world of custom guitars, as that’s not a route I would recommend until you have some experience and know exactly what you want from your instrument. Further, in many cases you will end up paying for the name on the guitar in addition to the qualities of the instrument itself, even though there may exist a suitable and less expensive knockoff, and even though there will be significant variation in sound and playability even among the same models of the same make.
Hey, that brings me to my next point!
2) Don’t buy a guitar without playing it yourself.
Ultimately, only the sound and feel of a guitar matters. This principle trumps even my specific suggestions such as purchasing solid-wood acoustic guitars. Makes and models provide general guidelines for how a guitar will sound and feel, but sometimes cheaper models or brands will surprise you, and there are variations even within the same model anyway. You want to get your hands on the one you buy before you hand over your dollars. Go to your local music shops and play around on what they have to offer. Make note of the guitars that feel good to you. Have an employee show you how to fret a C chord and give that bad boy a strum. How does it sound?
If it’s an electric, test the sound clean. Distortion and other effects will make it harder to notice the quality of the instrument itself. Be sure that you’re running the guitar through a decent amp. A crap speaker will make a beautiful electric instrument sound crap. Alternatively, you can put your ear up to the back of the electric guitar neck and then give it a strum. Do its sonorous tones make your heart melt?
Aside from how the guitar feels and sounds, you’ll want to be sure that it stays in tune. This is especially important if you’ve found a cheaper or off-brand model you like. Have a sales representative tune the guitar for you, and make sure they stretch the strings to get any slack out of the tuning machines. Starting playing the guitar, just strumming a single chord if that’s all you can do. (Again, ask the sales rep to show you a C chord or something). Go ahead and strum like you wanted to play loud. You don’t need to amplify this, you’re just going to bang around on it for a bit to see if it goes out of tune on you.
3) Deal with music stores.
If you’re a beginner, you’re quite susceptible to making a bad purchase. You can get great deals by purchasing from an individual or a pawn shop, but it’s also a lot harder to try out a large number of guitars, a lot easier to buy a lemon with a problem you didn’t notice, and a lot easier to buy a stolen guitar and end up with no instrument and a thinner wallet. By heading to local music shops you can try out a large number of guitars, one right after the other, get help from sales representatives you trust, and enjoy some protection against shady dealing. (Many music stores will have some insurance in case a second hand instrument turns out to have been stolen and you’ll get some coverage there).
4) Get some decent accessories to go with your instrument.
Even if you’re getting an acoustic with no electronic components, there are a few musts. Electric tuners such as the “Snark” help you get strings accurately tuned very quickly, even in noisy environments. (Even professionals, who can tune by ear, often opt for this method just to make things faster and easier). A guitar strap will allow you to stand up with the guitar, and if your guitar is heavier you’ll want to make sure the strap you choose is a reasonably comfortable one. You’ll likely want at least a cloth gig bag for the guitar, in case you want to transport it anywhere, and a quality, hard case would be a good investment if you’re planning on traveling.
If you’re going the electric guitar route then you’ll want to pick up decent cables and a good amp to go with it, and make sure any effects pedals you want to purchase and run the guitar through are good quality as well. If there is even one weak link in the chain, the chain will be weak. A nice electric guitar played through crap equipment will sound crap, every time.
5) Know what gauge strings are on the guitar.
Guitars come with different gauge strings, meaning the strings can vary in thickness. The basic idea is that thicker strings will produce a nicer, fatter tone, but the tradeoff is playability. Thinner strings tend to better facilitate faster playing and lead techniques such as string bending and vibrato.
What gauge you prefer is a matter of personal preference. Many rock and metal guitarists opt for thinner strings, and find that other components of an electric guitar – as well as other links of the chain from guitar to amplifier – are more determinative of the ultimate sound anyway. (.09 gauge and .10 gauge are pretty common for rock and metal).
The important thing is to be aware of what gauge you’re using. You may want to change gauge, opting for either heavier or lighter strings as your needs dictate, but you certainly don’t want to buy a different gauge by mistake. If you do, you’ll be in for an awkward surprise when you try out your newly-restrung instrument.
There’s an awful lot to consider when you are purchasing a guitar, much more so than for many other instruments. I hope that this article helps you narrow your search and be aware of some things that might otherwise have escaped your notice. Investing in a quality instrument is a great first step to becoming the guitarist you want to be. A great next step is to invest in quality guitar instruction! Like purchasing the guitar itself, you’ll be faced with many choices here, and going with the cheapest option often means wasted money, time, and plenty of frustration. Be sure to arm yourself with the information you need to make an informed decision in that area as well, before investing your time and money!
(c) 2015 Leo Smith