Starting with the guitar, part 1: Basic considerations

Let’s suppose you’ve finally decided that you are going to get a guitar. You might have played years ago, or you’ve heard that song with the guitar solo so many times you’ve started to wonder if you could do it yourself. Another motivation might be the approach or arrival of middle age and your decision that it is now or never. Been there.

If you’ve never played before, the standard advice is to talk to a friend who has experience or have a consultation at a guitar shop you trust. This may work out perfectly for you if you have such a friend or know of such a guitar shop. If you know of neither, there is plenty of information online that can help you make an informed decision. If your friend plays but doesn’t really know much about guitars, he or she might do you more harm than good. Similarly, if the only motivation of that guitar store gearhead is to sell you a guitar, any guitar, before you leave the store, then you may quickly become unhappy after you get home.

Think about what sort of music you want to play. It is possible to get the wrong guitar for your intended style. Obviously if you want to strum tender acoustic folk ballads, you might not want to get an electric guitar that is most suitable to death metal. That said, there is plenty of middle ground in your choice of guitar that will allow you to experiment with different kinds of music.

Will you be taking lessons? If so, it’s not a bad idea to choose a teacher before getting the guitar. He or she is used to working with beginners and can recommend something appropriate in your price range. By the way, it’s not a bad idea to talk to two or three instructors before making your final choice. If they give you wildly different opinions about the right guitar for you, then you have more work to do.

Most people I know who get serious about guitars eventually start acquiring more than one. Unless you are going after expensive collectible guitars, don’t assume that you can buy a guitar and then trade it in for a significant amount of money. For a decent guitar, you might only get one-third to one-half of what you paid for it. Therefore, do not buy your first guitar and assume that you will be able to trade it in for a lot toward a new and better guitar. There are worse things than having more than one guitar. Moreover, if you really don’t have the room for another one, you could always try to sell it on eBay, donate it to a school, or give it to an aspiring music student.

If you feel that you are going to have one and only one guitar for a very long time, the stakes go up with respect to your buying the first guitar and getting it right. I bought my first acoustic guitar in thirty years several years ago at a local music store in my town and then bought an electric one on eBay about four months after that. I’m still pretty pleased with the acoustic, but the electric annoys me in several ways. I don’t play the electric much anymore, though I have kept it. I find that it does have sentimental value, and that’s not so bad. That said, I would try to sell it on eBay if I had the time.

You can get a better electric guitar than acoustic for the money, but you must remember that you will need an amp and a cable. Before long, you will also want to get some sort of effects box if only to add a little variety to your playing. If you buy them separately, assume that the cable, amp, and effects (stomp) box will cost at least $200 for decent quality. You can go lower, but you will probably be replacing them sooner rather later if you get serious. You can also go significantly higher, but I wouldn’t spend more than $300 for the amp/cable/stomp box cable is you are just starting out.

The size of the guitar may make a difference to you. For example, guitar necks vary in length, thickness, and shape. Don’t get a guitar that is either too small or too large, or you will get frustrated very quickly. I think that a mid-range Fender Stratocaster electric guitar costing around $350 to $500 probably is of a size that is suitable to most people. The weight is good, the body is a reasonable size, and the neck is comfortable in length and width. Even if you don’t buy one, try one out at a music store to get an idea of how it feels. I recommend this even if you plan to buy an acoustic guitar.

When you play guitar, you use the fingers of your left hand to press down on the strings between the frets on the guitar neck if you are right handed, and vice-versa if you are left handed. When you first start playing, your fingers will hurt a lot. I mean it – you will think you have nerve damage. Eventually you will build up some callous and your threshold for pain will go higher.

Nobody tells you this, but when you first start playing and your fingers are sore, taking a hot shower will cause your fingers to really, really hurt. I warned you. You will need to work through this if you are serious. If you stop playing for a few days, you will start to lose the callouses and may have to go through the experience again, though it seems to get easier over time.

This problem will be more pronounced if you are playing an acoustic guitar than if you are playing something like a Stratocaster electric. There are factors that affect this and things you can do to make it better, but I’ll deal with those in a future installment. Next time I’ll start sharing some thoughts about how much you should pay for that guitar.

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One Response to Starting with the guitar, part 1: Basic considerations

  1. Jerome Davies says:

    With regard to finger pain I can only agree. I’ve been playing a six string acoustic (badly) for years and if I go on holiday my fingers soften up. I tend to use fairy light strings (11guage) which I find easier to bar.

    Then a few of weeks ago I bought a twelve string and my fingers hurt again but differently. I can’t bar chords properly and I need a new capo. Ho Hum. When I do get it right though the sound is great.

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