A Buyers Guide for Beginners

I have had a number of requests from beginners asking for advice on what equipment to buy when learning the guitar. Here are some of my thoughts on a process I remember only too well. I hope I can make it less painful for some of you:)

Trust your instincts

Acoustic Guitar

If you like the look and feel of a particular guitar, go for it. If any problems arise at a later date, you can always take it back to the shop you bought it from and get them to sort it out under their guarantee policy (make sure they have such a policy before parting with any money). Basically, trust your instincts and don’t let any salesman talk you into buying something you are not sure about, or don’t like the look of. If in doubt, don't!

Go for an electric guitar

Many people are under the misapprehension that an acoustic guitar is what you should buy if you are a beginner. Many also go for the cheapest guitar available, reasoning that if the person who it is bought for doesn’t get on with it, then there has not been too much money wasted. The trouble with this attitude (and I do understand where it comes from) is that you more often than not end up with a guitar with an action like a cheese grater and one that is very difficult to play. This can itself put the learner off because they find it hard to get results from the instrument, and think that it is their fault when it is not.

Telecaster

I would therefore recommend that an electric guitar be your first choice. The guitars now made in the Far East are of a very reasonable quality (not like in the 1980’s), and would do a beginner very well. Companies such as Fender and Gibson offer low cost guitars made under license in the Far East or Mexico.

These guitars are similar in design to their US made counterparts but are about 30% of the price. If and when you decide to upgrade guitars after you have been playing a while, you can use your original as a back-up, use it for slide guitar or even put it into another tuning. The point is that you can get a good quality guitar for a reasonable price which will last for a long time.

But why an electric?

There are many reasons why I would go for an electric as opposed to an acoustic for a first guitar, the main one being that what you can do on an acoustic guitar, you can do on an electric (and often much easier as well). But the reverse is not often true since acoustic guitars do not have tremolo systems, easy access to the top frets and are generally strung with heavier gauge strings which make string bending very painful!

I do recognise that there has to be a compromise between price and quality. By all means stay within your budget, but don’t go for the very bottom end of the market; it will turn out to be a false economy. Go for a well-known brand, look at a few guitar magazines before hand and see which names appear frequently. Check out some prices so you will be armed with some information before you throw yourselves to the mercy of the dreaded music store attendant!

You may also think about using a software modeling amp such as Amplitube, or even a practice effects box such as the Pod from Line 6 or similar products from Vox or DoD. Used in conjuction with a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) such as Cubase or Pro Tools, you can even start recording very authentic guitar sounds!

Get a good amp with reverb

"If I buy an electric guitar I will need an amp!!" This is quite true although electric guitars are resonant enough to allow you to hear what you are doing in a quiet room. Amps are no problem in this day and age because there are lots of good practice amps on the market. They come in the form of 10-20 watt boxes and can sound very good.

Jaguar

Whatever you do when you buy a practice amp, make sure it has got reverb on it. Reverb is a simple effect that simulates the reverberation or echo that naturally occurs when a sound is reflected off a solid object, say a wall for example. Although every sound generates reverb, we may not be able to hear it. A guitar without reverb can sound very ‘dry’ and lacking in depth. When reverb is applied, the guitar sounds ‘alive’ and very rich. I always maintain that if you can provide a good sound to any student, be they learners or experienced pros, they will want to play because the sound itself is inspiring.

Gadgets to make life easier

Using a guitar tuner is not cheating!

I would thoroughly recommend buying a good guitar tuner. You should learn how to tune a guitar by ear, and you will do given time and practice. Your life (and the life of those who have to listen to you practice) will be made much more bearable if you can put the guitar in tune before you play. If you are practicing specific exercises that may be new to you, if the guitar is not in tune you will be getting results that could be very discouraging and it wouldn’t be your fault. You cannot be expected to know how to tune up your instrument from the word go. Pitch pipes just don’t do it for me and you would be well advised to keep away from them.

Avoid the curly lead syndrome!

You will need a good lead to play into the amp. This again is where you do not want to go for the cheap route. A cheap lead costing $5 will last for about 2 months before you start getting crackles and loss of sound (caused by breaks in the cable). For $15, you will get a lead that is guaranteed for 10 years! If you treat the cable right and wrap it in large loops at the end of each session, it will last longer than that. Above all, avoid the curse of the lead that is curly!!

Metronomes can be fun!

Stratocaster

A metronome can be as much a benefit as it can be a distraction. Metronomes are things I would use for teaching and practicing purposes, and they can improve your playing standard measurably. If you buy one, please get one that sounds a ‘click’ rather than a ‘beep’. The ‘beep’ noise is a note at a certain pitch. This will confuse your ear when playing scales to it, especially in keys where the note the ‘beep’ makes does not belong; it will sound as if you are playing wrong notes.

Don't sound like a wasp in a tin can!

If you have to buy an effects pedal, just realise that distortion pedals don’t work effectively until they are put through a loud amplifier. Don’t expect to go home with your ‘Metal Shred’ and sound like Van Halen. It will probably sound more like a wasp in a tin can. Chorus pedals can add much depth and interest to your sound but can get tiresome after a while. I think that the most effective effect you can use on the guitar is a good delay pedal. You can get all sorts of wild effects from a simple and cheap unit. There are dozens out there, experiment and don’t be afraid to ask for advice from the music store's assistants, that’s what they are there for.

Check out some music store package deals!

Many music stores offer packages for beginners that include many of the items I’ve mentioned. The minimum package should include: A guitar, an amp, picks, spare set of strings, tuner, strap, soft case for the guitar, lead and some kind of teaching manual.

I hope I have provided some useful information. Unfortunately some lessons about equipment can only be learned the hard way, but I hope this article can save you some time and money.

Copyright Dale Churchett © 1995. All Rights Reserved.