Christmas is around the corner and shopping is already in full swing. You’ve probably got seven or eight tabs open on your browser, hunting for the best smelly soaps, the fastest-flying drones, the warmest pair of slippers, or the sturdiest cast iron skillet for your loved ones. Around this time of the year we sometimes buy things without completely understanding them. How were you supposed to know the crockpot you bought didn’t have an auto-off function, thereby turning your great-uncle’s kitchen into a blast site? It’s not completely your fault; you can’t be expected to know everything about everything. Even Wikipedia can’t do that. What we can all do, however, is learn as much as we can about about the things we buy. For this reason, Brightest Young Things presents the First Time Buyer’s Guide.
First Time Buyer’s guide: Acoustic Guitar
A brand-new guitar under the tree. It’s a memory that’s launched thousands of careers. It’s also an memory that haunts a ton of former emerging musicians, who never could coax a good sound out of the instrument. Believe it or not, a person’s first guitar will have a direct influence on the way he or she will play, or if they ever play at all. It’s got a lot to do with expectations. We want to have the things we want right away. Taking the time to get good at something is a mentality reserved for things like school, or going to the gym, or learning a language. It’s work.
Learning how to play guitar is no different. It takes effort, patience, a mild amount of discomfort, and the will to continue trying, even if what you’re playing sounds terrible. But, if you’ve got someone in your life who’s expressed interest in learning guitar, and seems like they’re up to the challenge, let’s get you started on what to get the prospective guitarist for Christmas.
Used Versus New
I know what you’re thinking: “why should I have to buy a brand-new guitar, instead of just getting a used guitar? Aren’t used guitars cheaper?” The short answer is “not really.” Buying used guitars can be a tricky process. A lot of first-time buyers are lured in by a substantially lower pricetag, and the promise of an instrument being “like new.” The only issue is that a guitar isn’t really an instrument; it’s a collection of components working together to produce an instrument. Sometimes, particularly for first-time buyers, it’s tough to spot which components have suffered typical wear and tear. How worn are those frets? Does the nut or saddle need to be replaced? Is the bridge lifting? How old are those tuning machines? These questions and more are the ones we should all ask before buying a used instrument. Unless you know exactly what to look for, it’s best to just buy a new guitar, especially for someone’s first time.
Acoustic Versus Electric
When I worked for a local guitar shop, this was the question I’d get more than any other: “Shouldn’t a beginner start with an acoustic, then move on to the electric guitar?” The answer is a plain and simple “no.” If you’ve got someone in your life who’s expressly said they want to learn the electric guitar, you should get him or her an electric guitar with an amplifier. A guitar is a guitar, regardless of the materials used. Both instruments have six strings, both have necks and frets, both are real instruments; not toys. There are plenty of first-time electric guitar packs (amplifier and guitar combos) on the market, most of which are pretty good, if not completely acceptable for beginners.
However, the acoustic guitar does have some advantages over the electric. For one, you don’t need an electric current to play an acoustic guitar. Electric guitars need to be plugged into an amplifier to make sound. This counts for a lot, believe it or not. You can bring your guitar with you on a business trip, and have something to do when you’re bored and alone in a hotel. You can bring it on a camping trip, and play with friends. You can bring it to a family gathering, and strum quietly in the background while your in-laws fight about election results. Negating the need for an amplifier makes playing the guitar easier.
The key here is to look for a solid top. The top (the “face” or “front” of the guitar) is responsible for about 80% of how an acoustic guitar will sound. Some woods work better for this task than others. Historically, guitars tops are carved from spruce, cedar, maple, or sometimes mahogany. These are old-growth trees with tight grain patterns. The closer the grain, the more evenly string vibration will move across the top. Naturally, one layer of solid wood transfers that sound better than several layers of plywood, or what guitar companies call “laminate.” Solid wood also ages; this means it will actually sound different over the years. The more you play it, the more the wood fibers will vibrate and move apart (guitar techs call this “opening up”). There’s a noticeable difference between guitars that have been kept in a case for decades, and guitars that have been played, loved, and used for what they were built for.
After that, you need to consider the build quality. Using good, solid wood is one thing. Conversely, if you slap those quality parts together with insufficient amounts of glue, or you install frets into wood that hasn’t cured yet, or you over-spray the guitar with lacquer, you’ll wind up with a six-stringed turd. It will look, feel, play, and sound like shit. This is where most people fuck up in buying their first guitar: They want something inexpensive, and something they’re not terrified of breaking. They opt for the cheaper guitar, inevitably get sick of it, stop playing it, then leave it in a closet to rot. This happens to a significant number of guitars.
The real goal is to look for a balance, which can be tough. The novice guitarist needs something they can play, and not get worried about damaging. Most importantly, though, they need a guitar they can actually play. So, keeping that balance in mind, here are some guitars that are built well, don’t sound like turds, and come with a conservative price tag.
The Yamaha is a natural first choice. Most guitar players who’ve amounted to something beyond the status of “beginner” started out with something like this. Nothing about this guitar screams “toy.” It’s a real, bona fide beginner’s guitar, and a solidly-built, inexpensive instrument that can withstand a shit-ton of abuse. I think the price has gone up by $50 since 2005, when I got my first Yamaha for Christmas. I had been playing guitar for a few years up to that point, but the Yamaha was my first guitar, not my dad’s. I played the hell out of it, and eventually handed it down to my nephew.
The S6 is Seagull’s flagship model. When Godin wanted to start making affordable, flattop, steel-stringed guitars in the mid-1980’s, he had a brilliant concept: start with the wood. All of the wood used in Seagull guitars is harvested responsibly, and is allowed the appropriate amount of time to cure. It’s a little more expensive because of the kinds of wood they use, and the amount of time they spend on building it. However, I believe in our grandfathers’ maxim, “you get what you pay for.” These guitars are built like tanks, and can be dragged behind a bus before they go out of tune. They’re marvelously built, and will continue to sound better the more they’re played.
The Epiphone has something that the Yamaha and the Seagull don’t, and it surprisingly counts for a lot: it’s got a pretty sunburst finish, which makes it look cool as fuck. I can hear you rolling your eyes now, and you’re completely justified in doing so; the looks have absolutely nothing to do with the overall sound of the instrument. Actually, one could even argue that excessive stains or lacquer can prohibit the fibers in the spruce from resonating properly. However, what you need to remember is that this is someone’s first guitar. They’re going to want something that looks seductive, something that looks worth the effort of calloused fingers and aching wrists. Learning guitar is an ugly process, and having a pretty guitar sometimes makes it easier.
Got your guitar picked out? Great. Now, you’ll need to consider the peripheral accessories, or as I like to call them, “items that are extremely fucking necessary to the learning process.” It’s important to avoid the “all-in-one” packages when looking at guitar accessories. Inevitably, when four or five things are thrown into a bag, and sold together for $30, someone, somewhere along the way, has done some serious corner-cutting. Ignore the big-box packages, and cherry pick the best items. You’ll wind up spending a lot less in the long run.
Every emerging guitarist needs the following:
- Gig Bag: A gig bag with backpack straps is recommended over the hardshell case. It’s less protective, but a lot more portable. No need to look at Mono bags, Reunion Blues, or any of the other deluxe options. A TKL bag will be just fine. I toured the country three times this year with my guitar in a TKL bag.
- Guitar Tuner: This isn’t really up for debate; the guitarist has to learn how to tune the instrument. The clip-on variety is the absolute best, as they are hands-free, and allow for a less-than-clumsy tuning experience.
- Extra Strings: handy after about a month of playing. Eventually, the player will break a string. When that happens, the guitarist ought to replace all of the strings (if one breaks, it’s a clue that the other ones will soon be on their way). Strings generally should be replaced about once a month, but beginners can go for once every other month.
- String Winder and Cutter: These do nothing more than make life easier for the one performing the arduous task of changing guitar strings. Some of the new winders have a set of wire cutters built into the handle. This cuts down on the time spent looking in the kitchen drawer for the needle-nose pliers with the wire cutter bit near the handle.
Ready, Set, Strum!
You’ve got the guitar, the accessories, the bag to put them all in, and a big bow for its appearance under the tree, now what?
That’s kind of up to the guitarist. Some people learn best in a group or class, while others might do better with one-on-one instruction. Some might even prefer to take a look at lesson videos for free, and learn without having to be embarrassed by a teacher. There isn’t a one, singular solution that works for everyone. The important thing for the guitarist is to keep playing.
That said, it never hurts to just have a look at a chord chart, learn a few chords, and strum along to a recording…