byline picby Pappy

Inspired by Rocksmith 2014, a few of my friends have expressed interest in learning guitar.  They plan on getting the game and… what’s that other thing they need?  Oh yeah!  A guitar!  They need a guitar.  One said he was going to the pawn shops to look for the cheapest (but best) guitar he could find.  One said he was going to Target.

I asked if the pawn shop guy was going to bring a guitar playing friend and he said no, he was just going to find the cheapest (but best) guitar he could find.  But, I countered, if you have no experience how can you find anything but the cheapest guitar?  If you have no concept of what makes quality “quality,” then how can you spot it?

And Target?  Really?  Come on!  That’s just crazy talk.

It’s obvious that the main goal these people have in mind is getting something cheap.  The problem is that cheap is EXACTLY what they’ll get.

Look, it’s not that I don’t understand: playing guitar is constantly reported to be a difficult pursuit and new players are jumping into a hobby with no reference point – no base that they already have upon which to build.  This is a risky proposition.  Good intentions aside, what guarantee do you have that you will pick the skill up with minimum difficulty or even enjoy the progress (regardless of challenge)?  It makes total sense that, put in a situation like this, you’ll want to mitigate your financial risks and spend as little as possible so if it turns out to be wrong for you, you aren’t out TOO much money.

You just can’t argue with that logic.

Well… I can.

If you go about investing in a new hobby like this, with the seed of doubt not only planted, but growing enough for you to think that there’s actually a pretty good chance that this is a doomed pursuit, YOU’VE ALREADY QUIT.  You’ll go through the motions, you’ll learn the opening riff of “Come As You Are,” you’ll hurt your fingers and say that you’ll give yourself a couple of days to recover.  These couple of days turns out to be a week, then two weeks, and then something needs to be moved in your bedroom or living room and your guitar is relocated to a closet or under your bed.  Months later someone will ask you if you’re still playing guitar and you’ll say “nah.  It wasn’t for me.”  Failing was easy – way easier than it should have been – because you PLANNED to fail, not to succeed.

It doesn’t help that cheap guitars – really cheap guitars – suck.  The action (distance from frets to strings) is usually high , which makes you have to expend more effort (causing more pain to sensitive fingers) pushing them down.  When I was about six or seven years old, I told my mom I wanted to learn guitar and she let me use her ancient Silvertone acoustic with 30+ year-old strings, a radically bowed neck, and action measured in inches, not millimeters.  Playing was torture and when I quit, everyone thought it was because I didn’t like guitar.  The thought that perhaps it was because I was trying to play on what could have been a torture device never crossed their minds. They also often sound like garbage, don’t look all that great, and are uninspiring.  If you aren’t inspired by the feel, sound, or look of your guitar, what is going to make you WANT to pick it up when you’re sitting on your couch watching TV?

With this in mind, I offer an alternative approach to the first guitar purchase, as well as several other tips to help give you an edge toward guitar success:

1)  Buy bigger.  You don’t have to spend a ridiculous amount of money – especially on your first guitar – to get a good guitar, but the goal here is to spend an amount of money that you would be upset to lose.  That way whenever it catches your eye you’ll say to yourself you really should play it (after all, you spent $XXX.XX on it!).  When you don’t play it, it should sting knowing that the money – your hard-earned money – is just WASTING away somewhere in the house.

Price alone isn’t the only thing you should be looking for, though.  Here are some other tips:

2) Buy an electric guitar.  Not an acoustic guitar, not an acoustic/electric guitar, purchase a full-blown electric guitar.  The common myth is that everyone should start out on an acoustic “to build finger strength,” and to make playing an electric guitar so much easier.  The people who push this myth forward have a name: buttholes.  Why on earth would anyone start a brand new student on a guitar that is admittedly more difficult to play?  Say a guy enters a gym for the first time, his arms spaghetti noodles hanging limp at his sides.  Would you say “We’ll start you out bench-pressing 300 pounds.  It totally makes sense because later on whenever you lift twenty pounds, it will be SO much easier!”  No!  You work UP to things, not DOWN to them.  You should start out on the easiest guitar to play as possible (an electric guitar).  The action is lower, the strings are thinner, the guitars are more comfortable for playing in a variety of situations, and if you ever want to play acoustic they’re always out there.  For later.

3) Buy a guitar that you think looks good.  if it looks good, you’re going to want to play it.  The more you play it, the more comfortable you’ll get with it, the better player you’ll become and the more satisfied you’ll be with your progress.  Don’t feel bad if you find yourself wanting to rock out in front of a mirror to see your cool guitar being played either, regardless of your age.  It’s natural (and fun) and the whole point is to have fun here.

4) Try to minimize the amount of moving parts.  “Tremolos,” (incorrectly named vibratos), springs, a ton of knobs or switches, and locking nuts are all things that require extra attention and add time and hassle keeping you from playing guitar RIGHT NOW.  That’s why I recommend guitars with fixed bridges and no locking nuts.  The Telecaster is probably among the most user-friendly guitars with minimal controls, not a lot of moving parts, and a general bullet-proof durability.  It can take almost everything you can dish out.  The Telecaster shape if offered from a variety of manufacturers, too, so don’t think that you’re locked into companies like Fender or Squier.  If the Tele shape is for you, do some hunting and find the one that looks the most right for you.

5) Do not put it in a case.  Ask any guitarist and almost all would say that your guitar will be safest in the case.  You want to protect your investment.  Why wouldn’t you want to keep your guitar in your case?  Well, mainly because when it’s out of sight, it’s out of mind, and if playing isn’t a habit, you won’t play it.  Instead, buy a guitar stand and keep your guitar in a frequented spot of your dwelling.  I keep a guitar next to my couch – so close I can grab it without even getting up.  My wife doesn’t really appreciate the aesthetic value, but I play so much more than I used to when my guitars were in my office or bedroom.  All that time adds up and it makes me a better player.

Those tips again:

Buy bigger and plan on succeeding and continuing your guitar playing.  Do NOT buy cheap, planning to minimize the financial loss WHEN you quit.  That’s not a healthy mentality at all.

Buy an ELECTRIC guitar.

Buy what looks good to you.  It should inspire you with its shape, color, or features.

Try to minimize the amount of moving parts.  The less you have to maintain, the faster you can get to playing and the more you can focus on making music.

Put it in a stand in a frequently visited spot so it’s always near where you are.  The more you see it, the more you’re reminded of it and your financial investment or the fun that have playing, the more likely you’ll reach out and grab it to play for a while.  That time adds up.

These tips won’t guarantee guitar playing success for a beginner, but they’ll give you every opportunity to make you want to play and, like I said before, the more you want to play, the more you’ll play, and the more you’ll play, the better you’ll get and the more fun you’ll have as you progress on your journey learning the guitar.