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

 

 

 

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