Learning the Guitar: A General Timeline

So it goes without saying that not everyone can pick up the guitar and master it in a couple of weeks. Not all of us have that kind of luck.

Some of us learn quickly, others rather slowly. The varying speeds at which people learn and process new material are almost as numerous as the population of guitar players. In other words, we all learn at different paces. That said, regardless of where you fall in your pace of learning the guitar, the common denominator between slow learners and fast learners is dedicated practice. And while everyone learns at different paces, there are generally only a few classes of different students when it comes to dedication and practicing.

1) The Ideal-The ones who are naturally and incredibly gifted, with equal dedication and drive. They’re few and very far between.

2) The Virtuoso- The very talented ones, who lack motivation and discipline but excel at playing at the level without necessarily working to refine it.

3) The Talented- An average to considerable measure of natural talent, but ability compounds only by regular, dedicated practice and committed effort.

4) The Committed- Players who may lack considerable natural talent, but have incredible drive and love for music that could eventually escalate them to great ability.

Most of us fall within the 3rd and 4th category. This shouldn’t necessarily be a point of discouragement, though.

Major musical contributions, at least in this day and age, are being made without getting signed onto a label, winning awards, and being aired on the radio. In fact, many musicians (if that’s indeed the goal) are finding that the freedom from those avenues is more gratifying than the temporary fame that may have otherwise been achieved.

Saying all that to say, regardless of where you fall in any of these categories, practice is unquestionably the most reliable means of improving your playing. Period. Again-regardless of your natural talent, practice is the best thing you can do to improve your playing. It’s such a common sense point, it’s almost embarrassing to repeat, but it’s worth repeating.

One of the more common questions is “how long does it take to play the guitar?”. This is a nebulous question, because as soon as you strum the guitar, you’re playing it! But assuming that means “how long until I play the guitar reasonably well?” or “how long does it take to play well enough to play in a performance setting?”, these are questions that have potential for more solid answers.

A simple, generalized timeline may look something like this, assuming that you’re (you guessed it!) practicing!

1-3 Months: Very young students can expect to be plucking out simple melodies and can expect to learn a few simple chords to strum along to. Adults and young adults can expect to be taught enough simple chord shapes to be strumming along to music they’re familiar with.

3-6 Months: Kids should definitely be introduced to chords by this stage, and should be learning a few simple and common strum patterns, as well as learning the principles of rhythm in conjunction. Older students should be learning these same principles as well, and can expect to graduate to more technical strumming patterns within a short time. Some instructors may even begin discussing scales and the principles tied to them as well as barre chords and their role in music.

6 Months-1 Year: There’s absolutely no reason that even an absolute beginner should not be graduated to at least a lower intermediate degree with 12 months of playing. It’s at this point that many students can (and in my opinion, depending on the student, should) consider working toward playing out in a public setting, if only for the experience.

 

This timeline is by no means absolute, and is only based on my conversations with other musicians/teachers, and is in no way scientific. But that said, as I have met only a small, tiny handful of musical geniuses in my lifetime, it’s safe to bet that most of these students also fall in the 3rd and 4th categories mentioned.

 

 

The 6 Absolute Essentials for the Beginning Guitarist

As hobbies and activities go, playing guitar is comparatively a low cost/high action pursuit, demanding far less money to get started and progress than other pursuits. As discussed in other posts, music equipment manufacturers have made it seem like there is item after item that will solve all musical woes and no person can advance in their playing without their widget.

This isn’t true. In fact, while there are a handful of things that can be purchased that will simplify or enhance playing the guitar, not all of these popular widgets are necessarily “essentials”. Here, we’ll cover the bare minimum that a mom or dad or new student should consider buying to consider the case closed regarding those essential guitar items and accessories.

1) Guitar tuner-obvious as it may seem, it’s definitely worth mentioning. They’re low-cost, and come in many different shapes and sizes. My personal favorite is called a “Snark” and responds fast and very accurately.

2) Guitar stand-also mentioned in prior posts, a guitar stand will prevent mishaps and falls with your instrument, and also keep it within eye shot, which means it will be played more frequently. They can be found for as low as $8-10 and last forever.

3) Gig Bag or Case– Otherwise, just something to transport the guitar in. This is all the more necessary for any student enrolled in guitar lessons requiring travel. Gig bags are undoubtedly the less expensive option, although a case is a must for any mid priced ($300-$900) or high priced ($900+) guitar. Gig bags can be found for anywhere between $20-50 while a decent hardshell case will run from $60-120.

4) Extra picks– assuming you use a pick, having extra picks prevents the silly excuse of “I’m out of picks so I can’t practice,” specially with younger players. Again, they last forever, and are usually lost long before they’re worn completely down.

5) Chord book/learning material– while it’s ideal to have an instructor providing you guitar lessons as well as your material, it’s possible to be entirely self taught with guitar. If this is your aim, then you can pretty much throw a stick and hit some kind of . In fact, there is an enormous amount of guitar-related how-to stuff out there that it can be overwhelming. Don’t hesitate to invest in more than one resource.

6) Capo– for those of you who are so new that this word doesn’t ring a bell, it’s the “clamp thing” you see attached to the neck of the guitar. This is a simple, and incredibly helpful device that allows a player to quickly change the key that he or she is playing in without necessarily transposing. In other words, you can play in any key knowing only a few chords. While this can be used on an electric, I’d really consider it an absolute essential for the acoustic guitar.


Guitar String Basics-Sorting Through the Options

If you’ve spent any significant amount of time playing guitar, chances are that at some point, you’ve either broken one (or several) or worn them in enough to the point they no longer hold their tuning. Either scenario is a good time to change out strings, but another good indicator would be if they’ve lost the “tone”, or the brightness and sound quality they exhibited when they were first put on.

These days, there’s an almost overwhelming number of options available for players in the way of picking a decent set of guitar strings, varying in material, gauge (aka, “thickness”), winding, coating, as well as color. Fortunately, the vast majority of options available, with a few exceptions, are likely to at least be decent quality. Naturally, some options are better than others, and here you’ll find a simple outline covering the need-to-know elements to picking a new set of strings.

In terms of string changing technique, we’ll be covering that down the line. For now, just know that it’s a good idea to change your strings every 30 hours of play. This number is actually determined by many guitar manufacturers, instead of string companies. This timeframe is intentionally conservative-old guitar strings will cause unnecessary wear to your guitar’s fingerboard.

Color

Easily, the least consequential or all the different options. Color will hardly effect the sound, although the paint used to coat the string will almost definitely effect the strings’ feel. Eventually, though, this coating will wear or chip off, sometimes ending up on the guitar’s finish. Not a big deal, but something to be aware of before spending the extra money on them. At this time, easily the most popular colored guitar strings are by DR Strings, and are available in orange, pink, green, blue, red, black, and silver (which is silly, as normal strings are pewter-nickel wound, but hey, they apparently sell!) Be aware that they are currently only being made for electric guitars. Will it harm your acoustic guitar if you slap on a set of colored electric strings? No, but it will make your guitar’s sound come out a bit tinny sounding.

 

Metal

Perhaps second to how the strings are wound, the aspect of the strings that most dramatically effect the strings’ sound is the metallic compound that makes up the string. Frankly, there isn’t a material better for beginners any more than one is better for professionals. The materials used in manufacturing acoustic guitar strings are different than those used in making string for electric guitar strings. Here’s a quick and dirty comparison of the different guitar string materials.

They’re divided up accordingly:

Electric Guitar

Steel: Or specifically, stainless steel strings are very bright and therefore ideal for many forms of rock and country. They’re the longest lasting, and resistant to corrosion, rust, as well as moisture and oil. Unfortunately, they wear down your frets quicker than any other string and aren’t entirely smooth in feel. As such, they’re somewhat of an acquired taste for some of us.

Pure Nickel: To be fair, “pure nickel” isn’t actually pure nickel. It’s the name of the alloy that stuck back in the 50s when they were innovated. But hey, they sound great-mellow and warm, and feel smooth and are good for any number of musical styles. They’re a great all-around string.

Nickel Plated Steel (aka Nickel Wound, or NPS): Not surprisingly, NPS strings blend the previous two strings, taking the strength and some of the brightness of steel at the string’s core, and wound with nickel wound around it. The result is a versatile, long lasting string that feels as good as it sounds. These strings account for guitar string sales these days. Again, they’re excellent for just about any musical style.

 

Acoustic Guitar

80/20 Bronze: Easily the most popular on the market today. 80/20 is a simple reference to the metallurgical composition of the string, meaning they consist of 80% copper and 20% zinc, making the string an alloy. Copper is extremely susceptible to corrosion, and the zinc counteracts much of that sensitivity. The result is a very bright out of the box sound, but a pleasant, long-lasting warmer sound once the strings are “broken in” after a few hours of play.

Phosphor Bronze: My personal favorite, phosphor bronze acoustic guitar strings are known for their well-balanced sound. Due to their lower zinc content, however, they tend to be darker and warmer than 80/20 bronze strings. As an aside, and perhaps it’s in my head, but I find the percussive scrape of the guitar pick is slightly less than with 80/20 bronze.

 

Gauge

String gauge is an indicator of each string’s “thickness”. At this point in history, it’s not necessarily the smartest thing to rely on each manufacturer’s definition of “light” or “medium”, since those definitions aren’t yet standardized. In other words, D’Addario may call their NPS electric guitar strings “light” (which would be .10 gauge) but Ernie Ball may call their .09 gauge “light” as well. It’s best to rely on the actual numeric to minimize confusion or an accidental purchase.

For beginners-specifically, and especially beginners on the acoustic guitar-it’s best to stick with .10-.12 gauge, for no other reason other than to gradually build up finger strength. Starting with .13s is bound to end in frustration and unnecessary discomfort. The downside to thinner strings is their weakness, of course. But if you’re not beating the crap out of your strings, then they should last as long as their brightness does. For beginner electric guitar players, .09-.10 are usually just fine. Which is what many long time players prefer anyhow.

As a point of clarification, when guitarists refer to which string gauge they want, they usually simply refer to the gauge of the thinnest (high E) string. Each string has its own thickness, of course, since it’d be incredibly strange to see a guitar with 6 identical guitar strings.

It’s tempting to view thicker string gauge as an indicator of guitar playing advancement or skill, but really it is a matter of player preference. In terms of tone, it’s unlikely that the normal human ear will be able to detect the difference between one set of strings and another, with less than 1 mm of difference between sizes. Some would argue this, of course, swearing up and down that thicker strings produce thicker bottom end or transmit more ferromagnetic energy or what have you, but in my humble opinion, I think a lot of that is purely psychological. Kind of like how your car seems to drive better after you’ve increased your car tire PSI by all of 5 PSI. Perhaps, but marginally, and hardly enough to make an enormous difference.

 

Other Considerations

Like I said, this is a quick and dirty outline of the basics about guitar strings. Some other factors to consider, which I’ll address down the line, are:

  • Coated Strings
  • String winding; flat wound, half round, round wound, etc
  • Classical and silk & steel strings
  • Guitar string evolution
  • Obscure guitar string alloys (pure copper, etc)

 

-Dane Whitley

 

 

 

5 Insanely Simple and Cheap Ways to Improve Your Guitar Playing in the Short and Long Term

I’ve been talking off and on with the guys at RedPhish here in Rocky Mount and a couple of the employees at the shop in Wilson, and have been picking their brains (whether they like it or not) about some of the simplest ways that guitar players (young and old can improve their playing. Being a guitar instructor, I’ll resist the temptation to shamelessly promote myself by saying “take more lessons” as that’s not really even the answer.

In fact, these ideas aren’t anything technical in nature; some musical, some just common sense, and a couple of them even “what? really?!” ideas. Nevertheless, they’re all excellent ways to ensure that you’re continually learning the instrument or aspiring toward excellence in various ways.

 

Idea #1-Invest in a Guitar Stand and Put It Where You Spend Your Leisure Time

This is primitive and dirt cheap… and incredibly effective. We’ve all heard the saying “out of site, out of mind” and the principle applies to children as well as adults. In fact, it could be argued that as adults, we’re more likely to forget to practice at the end of a long day unless we’re reminded by someone else than a child who has become obsessive in his learning. As a kid, I’d daydream at school about getting home to practice, and as such, needed no reminding. As adults, we rarely have anyone hanging over our heads to offer a reminder to put in a few minutes of practice, unless you’re paying your instructor a daily reminder fee. But I suspect that’s an idea that won’t take off.

Put it in plain sight-next to your recliner, hung up on the wall, next to the computer desk while you’re wasting time on Facebook (guilty as charged), out in the garage, or wherever. For younger students, if you’re at home and your parents have a problem with your guitar taking up floor space, simply say:

“But mom, in order to optimally leverage the financial investment you’re making in my music education, it’s vital for me to frequently impress on my conscious and subconscious mind the physical presence of the guitar. This recurring visual reminder will inadvertently result in increased frequency of practice!” Seriously, try it. Message me the results. (Please!)

 

Idea #2: Practice Dexterity Exercises and Scales During Leisure Time

This is somewhat of an extension of the previous tip, but it’s the practical version of it. If the above tip results in you picking up the guitar and pulling out your lesson from the previous week and all that, then that’s awesome. Keep it up.

But if you’re wiped out from a long workday and just want to zone out in front of a listless stream of YouTube videos or a riveting marathon of Jersey Shore episodes (lol), multitask a bit, and play the routine stuff while you absorb what you’re viewing. We all know the brain is capable of turning on autopilot, and there are some things in the world of guitar that are 100% muscular development once this autopilot is activated.

Scales and dexterity can be developed while your brain is shut off. I have no exact figures, but I know of at least a half dozen guitar players who can play the theme songs of just about any TV show you can mention. It’s a great way to get in some routine practice.

A word of warning though, if you’re trying to develop speed in your scale runs, apply focused attention and a metronome. Otherwise, you run the risk of developing some bad habits.

 

Idea #3: Record Your Practice Sessions

This is the most effective, obvious, and tragically neglected nuggets of musical development wisdom of our tech ridden age. We have all this technology, and we’re experts at wasting on the most superfluous distractions. Every iPhone, Android, and smart phone in existence has at very least, some kind primitive recording device that takes all of one button to activate, and the amount of storage space mp3 formatting occupies is next to nothing.

Unless you’re planning on doing home recording, there’s no need to go waste a bunch of $$$ on microphones, audio interfaces, and cabling (We do not call them wires in the music world, FYI. And mic “cords” and guitar “cords” are acknowledged, but often with a grimace. You play a “chord”. You don’t plug it into anything… ergo, cabling, is most unambiguous…hooray English language!).

However, if you’ve got the itch to spend some cash on some music gadgets, we’ve witness a deluge of fantastic simple recording devices that produce incredibly good quality recordings, are relatively easy to operate, aren’t unreasonably prone to breakage, and can store enormous amounts of (digitized) content. There may be reviews in the future, but above are some affiliate links.

In the interest of disclosure, should you choose to click through and purchase, I must thank you. Amazon awards a commission for affiliated sales. 

 

Idea #4: Learn To Play At Least One New “Thing” Per Day

This is as fundamental as it gets, especially if you’ve managed to make it to this site, the assumption being you came here to learn something about the guitar. Some days, you’ll not be very interested in playing guitar. If you’re studying the instrument in a formal education setting, this doesn’t as much apply to you, since it’s really in your financial best interest to stick it out and play even if you don’t feel like it.

As for the rest of us, it’s a good idea even on the days you’re not brimming with motivation to spend at least 5-10 minutes, if not working on your current week’s assignment, then definitely something else.

It can be a new chord shape or progression, a new scale, a new lick, or a new strumming pattern. It doesn’t take a lot to stick it out for five or ten minutes, and by the end of one year, you’ll have an enormous sum of guitar related information stored up in your brain.

 

Idea #5: Find Another Person to “Jam” With (regularly is preferred)

While many guitar players are learning for the sake of learning and keeping their mind sharp, many are learning in hopes of finding and playing with a band of some type or other. Others are content just to play solo. While playing without other musicians is absolutely, 100% fine, and often understandable (music isdeeply personal, after all), one of the best things you can do is find another musician to just chord, strum, or pick alongside.

Some say “find someone better than yourself to play with!” I simply say “find someone to play with!”. Yes, from infancy, we’re wired to learn via observation. Nevertheless, you can learn a lot just playing alongside someone of equal skill to yourself because of what happens when two like-minded people get together and just “jam” (One of those overused musical terms that simply means “play music without the expectation or pressure of necessarily creating anything to be performed or recorded”. Otherwise, just playing music for the sake of music.)

If, however, you have no interest whatever in playing in front of another person other than your husband, wife, kids, dog, or mirror, then that is also just fine. These days, technology steps in where people once stood, and options are available to give you a similar experience. In the absence of a band, guitarists are taking to “jam tracks” more and more. Why? Because it used to be common knowledge that you get better, faster by playing with other musicians. Sometimes, that’s just not feasible. Jam tracks have made the band setting accessible 24/7 and are available in every genre since we were beating on drums and chanting. More on jam tracks at a later date.

 

Why We’re Dead Wrong About What We’ve Told Our Kids About Music and Music Education

It’s no secret that our society has long valued left brain thinking over right brain thinking. Up until now, it’s left brain thinking that has more or less paid the bills for a lot of us for the last few years, and was definitely taught to us within most education systems. Prioritizing analytical thinking skills at the expense of creative thinking, while well enough intentioned, has proven to be more of a disservice to society than anything else.

To clarify, left brain thinking is the common reference to most logical, calculated forms of reasoning. Things like mathematics, the sciences, and deduction occur in this hemisphere of the brain, and are thus given the highest esteem when they translate into business practice. Generally, the types who are born or successfully work to develop an acute ability to exercise this hemisphere are the ones who go on to illustrious careers in traditional career fields. Doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc are the ones that most often come to mind.

By contrast, right brain thinking – as you might have used your left brain to figure out – is responsible for the abstract, creative, “out-there” kind of thinking that characterizes us musicians, artists, theatrical types, poets and writers, and the like. Those of us who long ago expressed a logically inexpressible need to try to do something impossible to recreate to the T, those of us were discouraged from pursuing what we loved because “it would never pay the bills”, and those of us who may have listened or didn’t.

Now, was that counsel misguided and untrue? No. At least, for the most part.

The streets are full of brilliant cellists, guitarists, songwriters, artists, actresses, writers who just knew they would be the exception. The “starving artist” stereotype is in place for good reason, and largely because it’s true.

Ultimately, it’s not within the scope of this article to explain why left brain thinking is superior or inferior to right brain thinking or why you should develop one over the other for the purpose of greatest economic gain. That’s an argument best left to dedicated scientific types; a population I am far from part of. Personally, I see merit to logic and think we could a whole lot more of it. But all that is beside the point.

The trend in just about every phase of our society’s developmental architecture, where young people experience their most dynamic years of development are decidedly, ardently, and unarguably against developing right brain thinking.

Some would contest the validity of that statement, and the simple way to respond to that skepticism is examining the financials. Elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, even colleges are routinely cutting or completely eliminating budgets for art and music departments entirely. Seriously? If ever there was need for evidence of an imbalance, there you have it.

It’s also not within the scope of this article to get into the incongruencies within the education system as it applies to music and art, in spite of the juicy, compelling fact that there is now more money being pumped into our education system than at any point in (American) history. However, it is within the scope of this post is simply trying to break down the why? behind the paradigm shift and whether the new paradigm has merit.

Once upon a time, America was a thriving, envied contributor to both the global economy and a trendsetter for the rest of the world in all things cultural. What changed? We’ll ignore economics for now, although the two are surprisingly linked.

When it comes down to it, you can argue the politics/bureaucracy, the economics, the applicability, the real productivity of the arts for years. Indeed, the argument has been going on for some time and to no useful end. In a way, this article is just a continuation or extension of those arguments. Unfortunately, the issues discussed at board meetings high up in the schools’  food chains are missing the mark, for most part, by a long shot.

In fact, those discussions are an enormous waste of time because they have no regard for the nature of art.

It’s more or less in the abstract mission statements of our school system to produce promising young people and in some way or another prepare them for the workforce or whatever it is that people do after high school. Unfortunately, much of these decisions are made based on estimations, numbers, and projections or otherwise concrete notions. Obviously, the arts don’t have much of a place in those kinds of discussions.

Why is it such a disservice that young people are blatantly or not so blatantly (To me, ousting it from standard curricula is pretty blatant. But hey, is a white lie still a lie? Same argument.)  discouraged from pursuing art or music or theater? It doesn’t start with the school, it’s simply propagated there.

It starts in the home, and that’s often where we end up back at an economic argument. Mom and dad want Little Johnny and Suzie to have nice things when they grow up, a college education, a home, financial stability, and the classic American dream. Mom and dad think back to how little they used any of that mandatory recorder (or tonette) training they experienced and then discount it. Add to that the pressure many young men experience to commit to conventionally masculine pursuits and then you start running out of hours in the day. At some point the balancing act becomes unmanageable. (Ironically, save for <1% of athletes, there’s not a lot of economic gain in sports either, but stay with me.)

The parents then take these concerns to the schools, and because they don’t see a need for it, they don’t want Little Johnny and Little Suzie’s time being wasted on stuff that won’t get them anywhere in the real world. While a legitimate concern, and with absolutely wonderful intentions, many, many parents also completely miss the point.
Ignore the economics. Ignore the politics. Ignore the bureaucracy. And certainly ignore the stereotypes that come with the arts. None of that stuff is the point of music, it’s not the point of traditional, it’s not the point of theater.

The point of developing right brain thinking, embracing art, and encouraging it in young people is to instill an ability to think outside the realm of the known. The point is to encourage making the unknown less daunting. Art and embracing it encourages something I’m told used to be called “gumption”. Or rather, the acknowledgement of the rules, but the willingness to bend or break them when necessary.

This is a common trait found in entrepreneurs, who see the world in a flexible light, while by extreme contrast, others view their worlds as fixed and only marginally subject to augmentation, but over the course of a great period of time.

Again, the point is not embracing art and music for the sake of paying the bills, but for the sake of coming up with innovative solutions to pay the bills. It’s about developing and having the capacity, imagining what’s outside the realm of probability, and the gumption to test the one’s ability against the currents of possibility. How could this be a bad thing?

I admit, the science isn’t in my favor. Not many studies have been conducted in defense of what musicians, artists, and other creatives have long suspected. In many, if not all of us is this deep-seated suspicion that “I don’t think I think like all the others”. Personally, left brain thinking is a wonderful thing, and I’m grateful for the balance my insatiable curiosity in leaning both directions at differing intervals has provided me.

At the heart of the argument, then, is that music, art, and its counterparts are far too often discredited as things to be taken with a grain of salt. Activities best left to pursuing on the weekends and if it makes you money great, but don’t put a lot of stock in your abilities, because there are so many other people doing the same thing, there’s always someone doing it better than you, blah, blah, blah. Continue inserting whatever excuses you like. The point is that although the arts merits are a long way from being measurable, doesn’t mean they’re not formidable. And if you’re questioning the value of art and the type of thinking it promotes, perhaps you just have a limited capacity for challenging the “impossible”.

-Dane

Guitar 101: Lesson 1 Guitar Strings and Their Order

Guitar 101-Guitar Strings and Their Order

The Basics!

 Every song you hear is kind of like a jigsaw puzzle. With music, however, the puzzle pieces are made of sound. Each of these puzzle pieces are known as notes.

 On the guitar, every time you pluck or pick at a string, you are playing a single note. When you hear a song, you’re simply listening to musical puzzle, where there are many notes put together to make musical picture!

Thickest  <———>  Thinnest

(reverse for left handed players!)

 Drawn above is a picture of the upper part of your guitar’s neck. You’ll see a lot of these when learning chords, which are simply bigger pieces of the musical puzzle. Chords are made up of two or more notes, usually played at the same time.

 We know that we’re hitting the proper notes, because each note has its own name. They’re not very interesting names, since they’re named after letters of the alphabet. Anytime you come across musical notes, you’ll only see letters A, B, C, D, E, F, and G.

 On the guitar, strings are tuned to E, A, D, G, B, and back to E. An easy way to remember the order is to remember “Every Afternoon Dad Goes Bowling Early”

The Psychology of This Amp Goes to ’11’ & What You Buy When Buy a Guitar (or other gear)

If you’ve spent much time around musicians, be they bass players, guitarists, pianists/keyboardists, or even drummers, you’ve probably sat in on conversations that-to the non-musician, or new musician-revolved around stuff that you couldn’t possibly believe matters to playing music. Guitarists talking about what gauge pick offers the optimal amount of resistance for the most desirable pick attack, bassists swearing up and down that nickel-wound strings are too “jazzy” for the sound he’s going for, drummers who have sworn off birch shells because they’re only marginally as punchy as maple.

For a lot of us, there is no detail in the music equipment world not worth analyzing.

As with just about any other activity (“activity” is very weak word… just know I’m not trying to minimize the significance of the music community!) that has an enthusiastic following, manufacturers of music equipment have graciously given all of us access to more options than one lifetime would allow exploring. These options allow us to sculpt, in every imaginable way, our own musical identity, provided that we have both the cash to fund that identity and the gumption to pursue it.

Back in the 90s (when I entered the guitar world), there was a fraction of the STUFF that we now have at our fingertips. Everything from devices to clean underneath guitar strings, to strings made from cobalt, to guitars made from wood scraps, to the Ebow, to amps that double as analog to digital/USB converters is now available that scarcely existed even 15 years ago. Technology and capitalism have managed to make it all so.

In light of this enormous amount of STUFF, it’s incredibly difficult for beginners to wade through all the superfluous and move directly to the real stuff. On the other hand, it’s incredibly easy for the budding guitar player to be seduced by the overwhelming draw of all the gear and lose focus of what’s really, genuinely important, which is, has been, and always will be playing the guitar. 

There’s little wrong with loving the spoils of our hyper commercialized corner of the world. In fact, for many years, I made a decent living doing so (more about that on another day). Suffice to say, guitars, basses, drums, amps, and all that is a multi-billion dollar industry that goes out of its way-like all industries-to add as much allure to their merchandise as possible. It just so happens that the guitar industry is able to market a highly personal product. Not guitars and amps and beautiful paint jobs/finishes, not black market materials illegally shipped in from Madagascar. That’s just stuff. And the music instrument industry knows that.

They’re selling identity. 

At the outset, not unlike a teenager and his first car, what’s important to us? Color and body shape. That’s it. That’s why guitar shop employees will have the distinct, highly memorable pleasure of demonstrating guitar after identically built, identically setup guitar to new musicians, going over each dust fleck and possibly each nick before a decision is made. At the outset, this is what counts because we’re paying for the appearance of the instrument. Traditional psychology will tell you that the only reason we invest as much time as we do in appearances is what? Identity. A sense of uniqueness. Parts of who we are packaged into a physical thing.

For the sake of clarification, there is nothing wrong with this!

In fact, it’s one of the most enjoyable (unless you’re the guitar store salesman, and its 5 minutes to closing time and you’ve got to be at a gig in an hour) aspects of being a musician. For better or worse, buying gear (to start with, for the color and the body) is an exciting experience, and rarely results in buyer’s remorse-assuming you’ve done your homework and thought about your purchase, and spent a little bit of time with the guitar or amp or whatever before making the decision to buy. Impulse buys, just like with any other purchase, frequently result in a sense of regret.

Back to the sense of identity, it’s why Nigel iconically felt compelled to persistently reiterate that his Marshall cranked to 11. This is as good of a demonstration as any. A room full of guitars for any practical reason? Nope. It’s not a rational, logical compulsion. It’s purely emotional, and something we’re (almost) all inclined toward at some point or another. With music gear, it’s because it’s incredibly fun. If that weren’t enough, consider the runaway success of such incredibly personal merchandise sold by Victoria’s Secret. Is it necessary to own $70 underwear? No. What’s being sold, in that case, is beauty. Again, not a long way from identity.

Ultimately, the point is that as anyone who has been in the guitar community for a while can tell you, all the gear in the world will not make you the next Steve Vai, Stevie Ray, or Jeff Beck. Enormous amounts of practice over long periods of time, a set of definite musical goals, and an unwavering passion for music, however, will help. Even if you’re plucking away at your $40 pawn shop special. Keep at it.

-Dane

Tuning Your Guitar: Guitar String Order, Tuning It (for Free!), Why You Should Tune Regularly, and Common Guitar Tuning Problems

Learning to tune your guitar should be one of the first lessons of any guitar training or teaching program, including learning the guitar string’s order, tuning, and how to keep the strings in tune. It’s important to learn early on for several reasons:

-An in-tune guitar sound far better than an out of tune guitar!

-The sooner you figure out how to tune your guitar on your own, the faster it becomes a habit to do so.

-Especially when playing with other musicians or your instructor, being out of tune draws attention to yourself (and not the attention you want!)

-If you’re out of tune, even hitting the right notes will make you sound like you’re playing incorrectly.

Would you go for a walk without tying your shoes? You could, but it’d be silly and for some, even risky.

If you’re beginning guitar, consider the practice of tuning a necessity. Just like tying your shoes, it’ll take a bit of getting used to, but soon it’ll become second nature. The sooner you make it a habit, the better, as it just happens to be an important practice. There are few things more unpleasant, and certainly discouraging, than thinking you’re playing the right notes without them sounding right.

 

How to Tune Your Guitar

1) Learn your guitar string’s order, illustrated to the right.

For the sake of clarification, this image is as if you’re looking straight at the guitar. If you were holding the guitar as if you were playing it, the thickest string on the guitar will be closest to you, and the strings will become thinner as they approach your lap.

The numbers will come in handy later, but for tuning purposes aren’t altogether necessary.

The best way to remember them that I’ve come across (or a “mnemonic”, which is a memory aid) is remember (thickest to thinnest string)

(E)ddie (A)te (D)ynamite, (G)ood (B)ye (E)ddie

Pretty clever, huh? It’s not original, I’m afraid.

2) Learn the appropriate “pitch” of the strings.

Pitch simply refers to identifying if the string is a “low” note or “high” note.

For example, your “low” E string (the closest string to you as you hold the guitar) needs to sound more like, say, Morgan Freeman while your “high” string should sound more like Justin Bieber. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

Every string in between your low E and your high E will increase in pitch, or put another way, should get higher in pitch.

 

3) Bringing each string “up to pitch”. 

If you’ve messed around with your tuning machines (aka: tuners, tuning keys, tuner thingies, etc) you’ve probably noticed that turning them one way or the other changes the pitch, and subsequently makes the string tighten or loosen up. Obvious as it may be to some, I’ll say it anyway. The tighter the string is, the higher the pitch. The looser the string, the lower the pitch.

As a matter of trivial knowledge, each string, once up to the appropriate pitch could be measured according to pounds of pressure which is generally between 14-17 pounds per string on most guitars. Why is this important? Because when you get into guitar maintenance, this will explain a lot about why guitar necks undergo some pretty funky changes- assuming the average amount of tension per string is about 16 lbs, 16 x 6=96 lbs total pressure. This weight is CONSTANTLY being applied to the guitar neck. But more on that later.

Once up to pitch, using the online guitar tuner here, watching a YouTube video, using a piano to tune, or whatever, you are now good to go.

 

Common Tuning Problems

Having changed well over 3,000 individual guitar strings in the last 5 or so years, I’ve noticed some common things when coming across tuning issues.

99% OF GUITAR TUNING ISSUES ARE A RESULT OF THE GUITAR BEING STRUNG IMPROPERLY

How is this best remedied? Well, proper stringing technique will be covered in other writings. If you keep falling out of tune, tug gently 2-3 times on each string, bring it up to pitch (back into tune), and repeat one or two more times. If this doesn’t correct the problem, your strings may be poor quality or simply defective. Drop by your local guitar store and get some assistance if you think you fall in this population.

Other possible explanations may include:

 -Slipping tuning keys (tuners, tuning machines, etc). This is what many people end up suspecting, and unnecessarily spending money to replace when the fact is that the above action could much more cheaply solve their problem. These days, even generic tuning machines are pretty reliable. There are obviously exceptions, but in most cases, even cheap guitars have decent enough tuners to keep the guitar in tune.

-Defective, soft guitar neck. This will invariably cause the strings to go flat (or loosen, bring them below pitch). In one or two cases, I’ve seen guitar with hairline fractures (broken necks) that bring the guitar out of tune.

-Cheap strings. As you might expect, this is also very common. There’s no need to spend $12 on strings every single time, but anything by D’Addario or Ernie Ball will prevent this from being your problem without shelling out more than $6-9 for a set. Many guitar shops will even put them on for a small additional fee of $10-20. Guitars with special bridge systems (namely Floyd Rose bridges) will often cost between $20-30, as the process is considerably more involved. On the other hand, if you’re being asked to pay any more than this by an establishment, you might consider going somewhere else. (They’re asking too much)

 

 

 

What Beginning Guitar and Weight Lifting Have In Common (But really, a post for beginning guitarists)

Chances are good you’ve stumbled onto this page because you have some ambition leading toward the guitar that you’re wanting to explore further. Whether you’ve been playing for 20 years, or you just saw John Mayer’s “Where the Light Is” live DVD and it changed your life and made you say “Oh man I want to do that”…ultimately, it doesn’t matter. The point is that you’re interested in going deeper into something that has proved to be rewarding on so many levels for an innumerable population of guitar players.

For veteran guitarists, you may have hit a plateau years back in your skill development, and that’s okay. Hopefully, if you’re anything like many of us, you woke up and for some reason experienced that renewed passion for the instrument and are desperate and eager to get back into the saddle. The guitar, the music community, gigging, recording, and the life of the musician have that effect.

Wherever you’re at in your playing, the one question that is vital to achieving any further progress is this:

 

What do you want to achieve in your guitar playing?

Every student I take on must answer this question. Fortunately, there are no right or wrong answers, as long as there is an answer. “To become a better guitarist” is, I suppose an answer, but it’s so nebulous, so abstract that it could mean two weeks of practice and bam! You’re better, but simply “better” is not an definite destination point. It’s part of the journey, for sure, but not the destination.

It can be a loaded question, though, too. And that’s also okay. For beginners sometimes there’s the feeling of: “I don’t even know enough about the guitar to come up with a goal in my guitar playing!”

Which is an answer that is full of appreciated honesty. In these situations, I often ask students to keep the achievement question in the back of their mind as they go throughout their week. Eventually, he or she may happen across something musical (guitar related or not) that strikes a chord (pun not intended, but it definitely was low hanging fruit humor-wise). With most players there are a few key defining moments that motivated us to start playing at the beginning. For whatever reason, they acted as continued motivation to suffer through the frustration, physical discomfort, and confusion that often comes with starting something new.

 

What’s the point of identifying an anchor point of motivation?

It’s pretty simple. Learning to play the guitar isn’t that different from learning anything else in some respects. What separates learning to play guitar from any number of other activities is the deep personal significance for every monumental achievement. In addition, your achievements can be shared via performance, if you choose to pursue performance opportunities (more on this later, but suffice to say, gigging isn’t for everyone. Many people like to keep it quiet and personal, “playing out” may simply mean taking the guitar to the front porch). This possibility adds a whole new dimension to musical fulfillment that little is written about, even though we see it everywhere we go.

Within the world of weight lifting, for example, goal setting is vital for anyone truly wanting to make progress in their efforts. This approach is something that I believe the musical world would benefit greatly from, but unfortunately is often touted as new age, pop-psyche mumbo jumbo. An anchor point of motivation keeps the student engaged when the feelings of fun and excitement of playing for the sake of playing have started running low.

An example of an anchor point may be:

-The mental image of seeing yourself playing guitar on stage or in a studio

-An image (mental or physical) of one of those gritty-but-oh-so-cool photos of a basement full of gear, beer bottles, cables, and your band working on a project

-A chill-inducing song. We all have at least one of these.

-The idea of writing an album’s worth of songs.

-Dreaming of being able to play every song by Eddie van Halen, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Stevie Ray, etc. (or anyone else for that matter!)

-Seeing an old, beaten up guitar that’s clearly been loved, cherished, and played every day for years. If you see one of these and think “that guitar is beautiful…I want one” then you’re well on your way.

-You feel that you sometimes lack the words to express feelings that you suspect music will allow you to express.

 

And Soooo… How Does This Help My Guitar Playing?

It’s not uncommon for people to feel embarrassed or sheepish if you try to get them to talk about what got them started playing guitar. I don’t like blanket statements, but I think every serious player has at least one of these. Personally, I don’t remember my original reasons for playing, but as time’s gone by I adopted new points of motivation.

These are important to identify because playing the guitar, albeit fun, rewarding, fulfilling on a multitude of levels, occasionally glamorous, impossibly cool, and generally beneficial… there will come a day where it feels like work. Figuring out that motivating concept, image, or idea keeps you on track and keeps you moving forward.

This kind of self awareness is what takes those of us who are not born with enormous amounts of natural talent into the arenas of people who were born with “it”. And even if you never arrive at that point or don’t even particularly care to, it ensures that you minimize moments of stagnation and complacency!

-Dane Whitley