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:)
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!
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
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.
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!
"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.
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.
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.
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!!
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.
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.
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.