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.