For Beginners

So you’re finally doing it huh? Congratulations! I can tell you that learning to play the guitar or any musical instrument in general is one of the most exciting and rewarding things you could ever occupy your time with. Having been a private instructor myself for the past 7 years, I always hear parents talk about how they “wish” that they had learned to play when they were young or they “wish” that they had never given up their music. This section is designed for those of you who are wanting to learn to play the guitar, or have already committed but aren’t really sure what to do next.

Buying a Guitar

Buying guitar to me is like choosing a lover….just kidding. There’s lots of guitars out there…acoustic, electric…6 string, seven string…and they come in a variety of shapes and sizes. “How do I know which one I should get?” You might ask. Here are a few pointers

  • Find a store in your area that has a large selection of guitars to look at…and look at every one of them…just so you get a sense of what’s out there. In Toronto, Steve’s Music Store on Queen St has by far the best selection, and the most competitive prices I’ve seen. Wherever you buy, be sure to get a sales assistant to walk you through the different guitars. Often they are the most familiar with what’s in stock and what’s available on the market to fit your needs. Once you’ve decided on a specific model, do some price comparison…call other stores in town and see how much they’re selling that model for.
  • Obviously if you’re just starting, it is not necessary to get the most expensive guitar there is….how much money you want to spend is still entirely up to you, and if you’re on a budget, this can actually be a good thing, because it narrows your selection considerably
  • I do recommend to anyone just starting that they get an acoustic guitar first rather than electric. There are several reasons why…price being one issue, because if you buy an electric guitar, you will of course need an amplifier to go with it…and that’s more money. I would also say I think the practicality of an acoustic is the other thing…you can take it anywhere without worrying about having to plug in, plus I would say that the versatility stylistically of an acoustic is really great.
  • Generally acoustics range from $200 and basically can go as high as you like….there are really high end guitars that can go for $3000 and even higher than that. In Canada, it is possible to get a really decent sounding acoustic in the $200-$350 range.
  • Some brands to look at are Simon & Patrick, Seagull, Ovation, Godin, and Fender. All of these companies have excellent reputations and have a long history of providing quality craftsmanship.
  • Try as many guitars as you can. Pick one that feels comfortable to you…not too big in the neck so that you can’t get your hands around it, and not too heavy that it’s going to be fatiguing to handle it for any extended period of time. Also, you want one whose body is not too high otherwise you might find the shoulder of your picking hand too high up….and this can put stress on that shoulder. Find a guitar whose body is suitable for your stature.
  • If possible, bring along someone who is a guitar player, and someone whose opinion you trust. You will want to hear the sound of the guitar, and if you’ve never played…it’s better to have someone play the instrument for you so that you can listen to it. There is somewhat of a dichotomy here of a great sounding guitar and one that is comfortable to play. I’ve had students come in with really great sounding acoustics, but when I watch them play….I can tell that the shape of the guitar is not right for their body…usually because the guitar is too big and it puts their shoulder muscles and hands in awkward positions that can have long term effects on their body. You should find one that strikes a good balance…it’s comfy and sounds good.
  • Grab a few picks too when you pick up a guitar. Picks are rated by their thickness…some will say L, M, or H (light, medium or heavy) and others have a specific number. For beginners I recommend getting medium gauge or anything in the 0.80-0.96mm range. I personally use the Dunlop Gator grip ones…0.96mm because they have a grip on them that helps prevent them from slipping out of my hand…especially on those gigs where it gets really hot and sweaty. Not to mention they’re purple and easy to spot if you drop them.
  • Strings are another factor. When you buy a new guitar, it is not unreasonable that you ask the dealer to put new strings on for you. For beginners I recommend light gauge (strings are all measured according to their diameter). Brands to try for acoustic are Dean Markley, Martin, D’addario and John Pearce (it’s either Jim or John, I forget which…but they’re my favourite out of the bunch…also the most expensive) A pack of strings range from about $6.00 to $10.00
  • The short answer to this in my books are take lessons. Yes there are guitarists out there that are primarily self taught, but a very high percentage of the greatest musicians who have ever lived certainly have had a certain amount of musical training by an instructor(s). Having someone in front of you to guide you, make comments and give feedback on your playing is such an invaluable thing. Having a good instructor can accelerate your rate of learning exponentially compared to trying to figure out everything on your own.
  • I must say though, it is unreasonable for anyone to expect the teacher to hand you guitar ability on a silver platter…that just doesn’t happen. A teacher’s job ultimately is to point you in the right direction. It’s like learning to drive…you can have someone tell you about driving…but YOU are the one that has to drive. Yes you will still have to practice…lol.

Lessons or do it yourself?

  • The short answer to this in my books is to take lessons. Yes there are guitarists out there that are primarily self taught, but a very high percentage of the greatest musicians who have ever lived certainly have had a certain amount of musical training by an instructor(s). Having someone in front of you to guide you, make comments and give feedback on your playing is such an invaluable thing. Having a good instructor can accelerate your rate of learning exponentially compared to trying to figure out everything on your own.
  • I must say though, it is unreasonable for anyone to expect the teacher to hand you guitar ability on a silver platter…that just doesn’t happen. A teacher’s job ultimately is to point you in the right direction. It’s like learning to drive…you can have someone tell you about driving…but YOU are the one that has to drive. Yes, you will still have to practice…lol.

On practicing

I’ll tell you a story. The whole reason I started playing the guitar initially was because there was one night where my family was driving somewhere and we happened to pass by a music store. I saw the coolest looking electric guitar in the window, and being the covetous youth that I was..;) I decided that I really wanted one. My parents were always supportive of anything I or my brother wanted to try, so they agreed they would get me one if I took lessons on an acoustic guitar first..for at least year. I agreed.

I was really small at the time, and I had to get a 3/4 size guitar just so that I could get my tiny hands around it. The teacher that I took lessons with worked in the store that we bought the guitar from. I thought he was a cool guy because he had long hair, and he wore a lot of black. He also had a cool looking guitar…lol. Looking back on it now, I thing it was a Gibson 335. I started out very enthusiastically…hoping to learn all my favourite Bryan Adams and Platinum Blond riffs. As the weeks went by, I found myself sort becoming less enthusiastic about playing….it was hard! I think my teacher was doing his best to disguise his frustration when we had been working on the same chord pattern for almost a month…I just couldn’t seem to get to the freakin’ F major chord in time.

After the year was up, I decided that I didn’t like taking lessons anymore with that teacher. I think he meant well, but we just weren’t clicking. The next teacher I had started off the same way. I just didn’t want to do the assignments…I would rather try and figure out the music I wanted to learn on my own….much to the aggravation of my teacher. There came a point where that teacher threatened to stop coming to teach me because I never practiced…lol.

I think it was around grade 8 or 9 where I really started to log the hours with my instrument. This was mostly due to the fact that I started listening to some really high level players like Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Eddie Van Halen and others. I read interviews by them, learned a lot of their material and basically tried to emulate them as much as possible. It was just…”oh man, I’ve got to learn to play guitar like that!” Unfortunately this was somewhat to the dismay of my teacher at the time because instead of practicing the weekly reading assignments, I would be trying to figure out the solo to ‘Big Bad Moon’ by Joe Satriani. It really wasn’t until I went to Berklee that I fully submitted myself to my teachers. I did what they told me to do and it has paid huge dividends. They were all extremely talented players, and just some of the nicest people you would ever want to study with. Their personalities and their passion for their craft all had a tremendous influence on me…and that’s something I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

My story is not unlike many people’s stories of why they eventually stop playing. Though I did continue (or else you wouldn’t be reading this right now) many people give up after a while. It’s like anything else…people decide they want to start working out, or eating healthier..etc. Why do so many of them stop? Many of them say it’s because it requires too much discipline…but is this really true?

It’s amazing how much time and effort someone will devote to anything if they really like what they are doing. Let’s take a football player…run and hit everyday until your entire body and hair hurts? If you ask one of them, why do you want to do that?….to them it’s called playing the game! To a spectator it might look like torture…but to them…it’s what they love to do.

My whole advice is…whether it’s taking lessons or anything else…sometimes you have to be creative. That is, to try and make the discipline of practicing less of a discipline and more of a labour of love. If it’s not an enjoyable process, you’ll always dread doing it. If you have a clear set of goals in mind as to where you want to get to with your playing, that can be the inspiration for staying with it. When you’re able to get to the point where you can play something you’ve worked on in front of other people…family, friends, significant others…etc, I can tell you that by itself is a tremendous high.

There are some great books now from the Berklee Press series publications that address beginners. I highly recommend that any beginner check them out….particularly the trilogy series by William T Leavitt who was the head chair of the Berklee Guitar Dept. for many years.

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