Have you heard the “harder is better” myth?
There is a somewhat romantic myth about the guy who gets a barely functional instrument and through innate talent, persistence, and sheer fortitude manages to make beautiful music with it. I recognize a subtle version of this when potential students tell me they’ve heard it’s best to start on a steel-string acoustic guitar because if they can learn to play on that they will be able to play anything. By this reasoning you should learn to swim with weights strapped to your arms and legs.
It may be possible to bear the pain in your fingertips until you develop callouses by learning on an acoustic guitar, but it is nearly impossible to learn on an instrument that doesn’t work properly. Some of the culprits are a bent neck, high action (the distance between the strings and the fretboard), old dead-sounding strings, buzzing strings, a guitar that won’t stay in tune or that just simply sounds awful.
Learning a new skill is hard enough without having to struggle with the inadequacies of the instrument. When learning a new skill it’s best to lower the bar as much as reasonably possible by practicing on a beginner guitar that works right, stays in tune, is adjusted properly and sounds good.
How Much Should You Spend On A Beginner Guitar?
I really do understand the difficulty in deciding how much you should spend before you know whether there is potential and commitment. First, consider that everyone has potential. That is a given. We are not given a desire without the means to fulfill that desire in some fashion. I have found from my teaching experience that everyone can develop a level of competence with an instrument—at least enough to enjoy playing music—unless they are medically tone deaf.
Second, the way to develop that potential is to make a commitment, not the other way around. You make a commitment by fulfilling the basic requirements to learn to play including obtaining an instrument that is up to the task, getting quality lessons, setting aside time to practice, and sticking with it for a reasonable period of time.
It Doesn’t Have To Cost A Fortune
These days you don’t have to spend a huge amount to get a student guitar that works right and sounds good. If you already have an guitar and your not sure it’s working as well as it could you can have it checked out by a competent repair person. She may be able to adjust it and tune it up to sound and play beautifully.
If you don’t have an instrument or if it would be cost-prohibitive to fix the one you have consider buying a new one. It really doesn't cost a lot to get a guitar that plays and sounds good these days. You can thank manufacturing in Asia for that. I’m amazed at what you can get for a few hundred dollars. Affordable quality instruments like that just weren’t available when I was a child.
Finally, it may be best to rent an instrument. That way you can get a good instrument to start on, and you can decide later if you’d prefer to buy a different type or a more expensive version. Fix an old one, buy a new one, or rent one—that’s all there really is to it. Struggling with an inadequate instrument is not an option if you really want to play guitar.
“Student Worthy” Guitar Checklist
There are a number of factors to consider when choosing the best beginner guitar to learn on including: 1) what type of music you want to play, 2) will you play with other people, and 3) are you a brand new beginner or have more experience.
So with that in mind here are questions I want you to ask yourself about the guitar that you're considering purchasing or that you own already that would make it student worthy.
- Is the size appropriate for the age and size of the student?
- Does the guitar have a reasonably low “action”, or height from the fretboard? Strings will be easier to press down with a low action. Usually 1/8 to 3/16” is about right. Electric guitars generally have lower action than acoustic guitars.
- Do the strings buzz when played by a competent guitarist (i.e. friend, teacher, etc.)? I say “competent guitarist” because the strings may buzz also because a student doesn’t have their fingers in quite the right place.
- Is the neck of the guitar straight or is it bowed badly? A very slight upward can be fine if it’s even across the neck. Back bow is not good.
- Do the tuning keys turn smoothly?
- Does it sound like the kind of music you want to play when played by a competent guitarist?
- Is the guitar of a sufficient quality to support learning and “inspire” you to want to play more.
- Is the guitar structurally made well enough to hold up over time?
- How does it feel when you hold it? How heavy is it? It is likely to be somewhat awkward because you are new, but compare it to other guitars.
- Do you like how it looks? Try to be honest… for some people this is very important.
- Does the guitar have metal or nylon strings? How much pain are you willing to endure?
Ways To Make A Guitar Easier To Play
The best way to go is to buy or rent a guitar that works right, is adjusted properly and is the right size. If you already have an guitar here are some possibilities:
Sore Fingers With A Steel String Guitar?
Change strings. Put very light strings on the guitar, or put a hybrid string call “Silk And Steel”. They feel and sound somewhere between a metal string and a nylon string. Much easier on the fingers, but not that great sounding. You can always change the strings back again when you have been playing for awhile.
Tuning Keys Sticking Or Broken
Actually this may not be that difficult to repair. It can be fairly inexpensive to purchase new Tuning Keys and put them on yourself. It might be wise to bring the guitar to a music store and ask them to recommend the right keys for that guitar. There are some older guitars and odd brands that do not take the standard Tuning Keys. In that case it will be a job for a guitar technician.
Guitar Out Of Tune
I strongly recommend purchasing a guitar tuner and learning to tune early in your guitar adventure.
If you need some help learning to tune watch this:
Guitar Won't Stay In Tune?
This could be caused by dead strings or strings that are worn down in several places. When guitar strings get old they often do not stay in tune for long. It pays to learn how to change your own guitar strings and change them often. The guitar will sound better, tune more easily and be more fun to play. Plan on purchasing a String Winder, String Cutters and new strings.
Another possibility is that a Tuning Key is slipping. That is usually the case if one string goes way out of tune. If you suspect this is what’s happening but you're not sure, you might want to take the guitar to a music store or repair person for advice.
Is Your Guitar Dirty?
Polish that baby! A good time to do this is when you have the strings off. Use Guitar Polish (not furniture polish) and a lint free rag. Make sure and get in all the nooks and crannies while you're there. Go easy on the fretboard. Wipe it off completely before putting the strings back on. If the Guitar Polish gets on the strings it can gum them up quickly.
Strings Too High Off The Fretboard?
The action is the height of the strings above the fretboard of the guitar. High action makes it difficult to press the strings causing fatigue and sore fingers. It also can make the guitar go out of tune when you have to push the strings down too far.
My first choice is to have the action adjusted by a professional repair person. This can be expensive and may even cost more than the price of an inexpensive guitar depending on how bad the problem is and what needs to be done.
It is possible for an untrained person to do some adjustments, but can be a little risky. I won’t be able to cover in-depth repair procedures here (that’s an entire book), but I can direct you to the areas to look at.
- On an acoustic and electric guitar there is a truss rod that can be tightened or loosened. This causes the neck to bend more or less.
- The nut on the guitar can be lowered.
- The bridge on the guitar can be lowered – on an electric it is adjusted and on the acoustic it is usually shaved down little by little.
- Filing frets that stick up higher than the others.
A competent Guitar Technician would look at all of these areas and make necessary adjustments being careful not to over compensate, especially with something that cannot be undone.
There are many videos on making these adjustments on YouTube if your up to the challenge.
Caution! For any alterations you perform make them small! Adjust truss rods by no more than a quarter turn, shave saddles or nuts carefully, and always exercise caution.
The Classical guitar does not have a truss rod. The only way to adjust the bow of the neck is to use a special device that heats up the neck and allow some bending of the wood itself.
Too Expensive To Fix The Guitar?
Not a bad option. That way you can start on a guitar that plays properly and get more experience to decide what guitar you would prefer to purchase in the future. You could even try a few guitars this way.
Save Money By Buying A Used One
If you don’t know what to look for it can be difficult know if the guitar has problems or not. But most importantly there are so many new guitars at reasonable prices it’s difficult to justify buying a used one and taking unnecessary risks. Over the years the price of beginner student guitars (read “inexpensive”) have gotten better and better. With a new guitar you would also usually have recourse if there was something wrong.
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We would love to hear your comments and questions. What specific things are you struggling with while learning guitar?