I was 6 years old when I took my first guitar lesson.
I still remember it quite clearly. It was the tail end of the great 60’s, perhaps
America’s hallmark musical era. There was a small music store at the top of my street
owned by a cool cat named Rom Guzzo, who was also a musician on the local Cleveland, Ohio scene as well as a teacher. My assigned teacher was a Cuban-heeled, Beatle-Boot clad long hair named Don Evans, who played guitar in the popular 60’s group, The Ventures. The first song I learned was ‘Peter Gunn’ hacked out on a pint sized, junior Harmony acoustic with a book of matches stuffed behind a warped and collapsing neck just to keep it from caving in altogether. But hey, it worked and I learned my basic chords and scales on that pathetic, forlorn excuse of an instrument, although I loved it ever so.
A few years later, after I proved my mettle and resolve at sticking with the guitar, my parents
bought me a full sized sunburst orange Harmony acoustic, which I played for four more years until I spuriously smashed it in a juvenile fit of Pete Townsendesque windmilling rage, the reason which evades me to this very day. Subsequent replacements included several Gretsch and Les Paul electrics, Suzuki and Martin acoustics, and even a Bob Dylan Harmonica holder, which gave me the appearance of wearing a neck brace while strumming and humming “Like a Rolling Stone” to my gee-wizz, hey, that’s my kid!, parents.
Ahh, the bad old days.
So, how does one pick a first guitar? As fore mentioned, most music stores that offer lessons also rent out instruments for a few dollars a week, and this is an excellent arrangement, as it is my observation that most kids will wash out in a few months if they find that guitar is not for them.
If the hobby becomes a habit, then selecting a new or used guitar is in order, so consider these things first:
New vs. Used: Used guitars are fine, and can save you a sizeable sum of money, but be careful. Many unscrupulous music stores (of which the industry is plagued, sadly) will attempt to sell you a guitar with structural damage, the most common being a bowed, or warped, neck. The way to check a guitar for a bowed neck is to stand it on its base, and look down the neck to make sure it appears straight and unskewed. Finger the frets. Try each and every one, and make sure they don’t “fret out” with a Sitar like razzling ping. Pawn shops are great places to buy guitars too, but make sure to take someone ‘in the know’ with you to look them over, and try before you buy. A guitar with a warped neck can be worse than useless.
Acoustic vs. Electric: There are two schools of thought on this. Electric guitars are easier to fret, that is to say, it’s easier to press the string down to form chords and play individual notes, and it is far easier to bend the strings than the heavier, wire wound strings used on acoustic guitars. My personal observation is that it is better to start on an acoustic guitar with medium to light strings. Why? The acoustic is an expressionistic, percussive instrument by its native design, and is almost a mix of a guitar and a drum. While it is truly more difficult to finger and fret, it offers more in terms of expressionism, which is what music is really all about. You can’t get that on an electric, at least at first. Once you’ve built up those trademark calloused fingers, and strong palms from beating on an acoustic, and have learned the notes and chords, it’s okay to switch over to electric for phase two, if you are inclined to go in the electric music genre direction. Plus, once you’ve mastered the acoustic, playing the thin, loose in comparison strings on an electric is a cinch, but most importantly, you will learn to transfer over the expressionism you’ve learned on the acoustic onto the electric, which is what all great guitarists can do. Don’t lose sight of that: The guitar is an expressive instrument, much like the piano. Plus, you don’t need an amplifier for an acoustic, which saves money, and ears, especially of hapless, captive audiences like parents and siblings.
Spend some real bucks and get a real guitar: Why? The better made guitars are built better, and have a silkier, softer neck feel, as well as a cleaner, rich, resonant tone. Cheap guitars, like the 100 buck models available at Target and Walmart, look cheap, play cheap and feel cheap. It is my observation that far more students will stick with it if they are given a good, solid quality guitar from day one, such as a Martin, Taylor, or high end Ovation if you like that brassier tone. If you really can’t afford it though, then rent a better one from the dealer who is offering lessons, if possible.
Make sure to store your new guitar flat, in a suitable case or travel gear bag, and in a climate controlled environment. Too much, or too little humidity can warp a guitar’s neck, which is how they wind up on those bargain shelves in those music stores and pawn shops in the first place.
Always keep an extra set of strings at home, in case you break a few, Remember, the thinnest strings always break first, so keep an extra two or more on hand.
Selecting a guitar pick is a matter of comfort, and playing style. A thin pick is better suited for electric, although some ham-fisted strummers prefer the heavy. Some picks have serrations and jagged edging for string scratching and warping, used mainly on electric. Individual picks can
be bought that are mounted on each individual finger, but this method is for the more advanced. Start simple. One medium pick should do you fine, and hey, most music stores give them away for free, along with their logo on it as the catch.
Oh, and don’t expect miracles. Practice at least a half an hour every day, and you will progress, slowly but surely. Once you learn the five basic chords, A, F, G, C and D, you can literally play tens of thousands of songs, and maybe even a few smash-hit originals of your own. It’s also a good idea to listen to the radio to see what’s hot and what’s not, rather than a few personal favorite CD’s or dusty albums. When the time comes to join a band, you’ll be skilled in the latest styles and riffs. Ahh, yes…joining a band…now that’s another story for another time!