Guitar From the Ground Up 2: What You’ll Need

Alright, here’s what you’ll need to get started.

First, A guitar, duh.

Your intrepid author, aged 2 or 3, practicing his guitar face.

Your intrepid author, aged 2 or 3, practicing his guitar face.

Odds are pretty good that someone you know, like your dad or your friend, has a guitar in a closet somewhere. Steal it.

Ok, wait, that might not be good advice. If it’s anything like the guitar I stole from my dad’s closet when I was thirteen, it’s probably not all that great. For now, you can definitely use it, but be aware that if a guitar isn’t fun to play, you’re not going to want to play it. That said, at this point most guitars will feel the same to you. So, on third thought, steal it.

Eventually though, you’ll want one of your own. Here you’ll have to answer a question- don’t worry, it’s not that hard.

Acoustic or electric?

This is the big one, really. Electric guitars use amplifiers and acoustic guitars don’t. Without an amplifier, an electric guitar sounds like this: “plinkity plink plink, jangle jangle.” With an amplifier, it can sound many different ways depending on the type of amp you use. Having an electric lets you play with all kinds of wacky toys, like wah pedals. This is awesome, but can get more expensive quicker, what with all of the accessories available.

Acoustic guitars are loud on their own. The energy from the vibrating strings causes the top piece of wood to vibrate, which causes the air to vibrate, which causes your eardrums to vibrate. These have the advantage of being extremely portable- you don’t have to be tethered to a power cord. You can take it out fishing or skydiving, or whatever, and all you need is the guitar.

There are some acoustic guitars that you can plug in (imaginatively called acoustic/electric guitars) but this doesn’t change the fact that they feel and usually sound like acoustics.

So which kind should you get? Here’s the easy answer… look at the videos or liner notes of your favorite musicians or bands. What do they use? If you like to listen to punk rock, you should buy an electric. If you like folk music or bluegrass, you should buy an acoustic… etc. Don’t feel that if you really want to learn you “need” one or the other. Though they can differ drastically in the way you play them and the way they sound, ultimately they are the same instrument.

If you are even thinking about a nylon string, you probably already know why. Nylon strings are primarily used for classical and Spanish music, like flamenco. If you’re interested in learning these styles, you should get a nylon string guitar.

For affordable acoustics, I recommend Yamaha or Alvarez. I started on a Seagull, which treated me pretty well too. In the upper end, you can barely go wrong with a Martin or a Taylor (I love my Taylor) both of which are known for their consistent production.

Entry level electrics often come packaged with an amplifier, but they aren’t always that great. The best move is probably to get a Mexican made Fender Stratocaster and a small practice amp. Whatever you do, try really hard not to get a Squire. I know they look exactly the same, I know they’re cheaper, but trust me on this one- I’ve never played one that could stay in tune for longer than 45 seconds. They suck.

The two most important considerations are whether or not the guitar stays in tune and how it feels to play it. If you’re just starting, you won’t be able to discern these things, so if possible, take a knowledgeable friend or teacher along to an actual store, have them play a few, and listen to their advice. It’s tough to know what you want when you don’t know how to tell the differences yet. Even guitars of the same make can feel different.

You don’t have to break the bank to get a good sounding instrument. Expect to spend a few hundred dollars on your first one. You can get a great instrument for 800-1200 dollars. Past around 1500 dollars there is very little difference in the quality of sound of well made guitars, only in the extras. Try to steer clear of super cheap-o’s, the pain of trying to get them to sound good will render the money you save moot.

Second: a tuner and a metronome.

Buy a tuner. Seriously. You can learn to tune by ear later, and you will. But if you’re just starting then you need a tuner. They are really easy to use and usually very accurate. Assuming your guitar can stay in tune, a tuner is the easiest way to get it there while you’re learning. Try to get a “chromatic” tuner, and not just a guitar tuner. It will come in handy down the line, and it will help me teach you, too. That Korg model linked to above is excellent. Don’t worry, you don’t need that rackmount illuminated strobe tuner just yet.

Having a metronome around is the best thing you can do for your practice sessions. As long as it’s variable, you can use whatever type you can find. Once again, I recommend the Korg, but anything will do. As guitarists we are lucky we don’t need a very loud metronome to be able to hear it over our instrument.

And oh the joys of the modern world!

Third: Strings.

Yup, you need these. I like D’adarrio light gauge for either acoustic or electric. Make sure to specify which type of guitar you have to the salesperson. Light gauge will be best at first, they are easier to play.

Other junk:

String winder– I love these things and they cost a buck fifty.

Guitar picks– They come in all shapes and sizes, some thick some thin, some small some big. Everyone has a favorite kind but they’re really cheap so just buy a bunch of different ones until you get a feel for what you prefer.

Wire cutters- You probably already have some of these around, but you’ll need them to cut the excess strings off when you change them.

Guitar Strap- Nothing fancy here, just get something reasonably sturdy.

If you have an electric guitar you’ll need a guitar cable. Monster makes great ones, so does Planet Waves. You can get a cheapy from radio shack that might last as long as those, though.

Thems the basics.

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