Your First Guitar
...and maybe even your second
By Paul Adams
Buying a guitar can be a bit of a mystery for beginners. I thought I would offer a little beginner guitar "primer" as an aid for those looking to buy their first guitar, or for those looking to buy a student guitar. I'll also have a few tips for those musicians out there who would like to learn a bit more about the mysteries of stringed musical instrument maintenance.
This page is like a beginner guitar helper, or perhaps guitar for dummies. I was a musical instrument maker (Luthier) for many years before I turned to composing music and focusing on my albums. I'll throw up a few photos in these pages of some of the instruments I have made to give you an idea about my experience (you can click here to see more of the instruments). My guitars were usually on what is considered to be the "high end". But even though they were "pricey", I always had a great respect for those able to manufacture instruments on an industrial scale and believed that there were great choices for amateur musicians available.
I should also say that although I use the term guitar, much of what I write can also be used for those looking for other stringed instruments. All stringed instruments that have an extension arm or neck that is attached to a resonating body are called "lutes". So in this nomenclature, guitars, banjo's, mandolins, dobro's etc. are all classified in the lute family. The structural physiology of many of these instruments are somewhat similar. I hope to eliminate some of the fear that always comes when covering uncharted territory.
BUYING YOUR FIRST GUITAR
One of the biggest concerns I hear from parents and potential buyers is how to choose:
This is an acoustic steel string I made many years ago and still have. It was constructed of mahogany and Sitka Spruce
I hope to take some of the mystery away from buying your first guitar as it's my belief that finding a beginners guitar is fairly easy. Finding that second guitar, or the guitar you are going to play with on a professional basis, is a bit more difficult. It's then you really have to learn about the subtle nuances of tone, projection, and feel. These are very subjective elements and it is helpful to have had the experience of playing other instruments to come up with a choice that is right for you.
THE GOOD NEWS
Well really, it's all good news. The lower priced guitars, mandolins, and banjos of today are far superior to the instruments I began with in the 60's. Then you had to have great concern for the "action" (the height of the strings above the metal frets on the guitar neck fingerboard) as well as strength of construction. We have all seen yard sale guitars whose tops are "bellied" or raised in a convex fashion, whose bridges (where the strings attach to the main body) are pulling off, whose tuning machines don't work, and whose necks are warped and/or separating from the body. Quite often these were old "cheapo's", but I won't name names because there are exceptions to every rule. And every now and then I find an old Sears Silvertone, or Harmony guitar that plays pretty well (Ooops! I just named names).
Check the string height at the "nut" location. It should hold the strings high enough above the 1st fret so there is no "buzz" heard.
If the string height at the fret board around the body joint is too high it can make playing difficult.
So, if the "action" or string height is too high, the instrument will be much more difficult to play. I generally measure the height of the strings where the neck joins the body. A distance of 1/8th to 3/16th" is ideal. Some folks prefer their "action" higher or lower though. It's a matter of personal preference. Acoustic instruments will usually demand higher action than electric guitars. Generally speaking, acoustic guitar strings are also heavier than strings on an electric. This means more pressure on the fingers. If you are just starting as a beginner, you will need to practice and toughen up the ends of your fingers. Please be patient.
The classical guitar is a bit different. It uses nylon rather than steel strings. The nylon is a bit easier on your fingers, but the tone of the classical is a bit different than the steel string guitar. It is usually softer and more quiet. The action is sometimes just a tad higher than on the steel string, and the neck is wider. So, if you have very small hands, the classical guitar may be a bit tough. One of the foundations of my site is to show that there are many characteristics to musical instruments, but no absolutes. What is right for you, what feels good for you, is what is important.
Today's guitars are made fairly well. Long gone are the days when the Japanese are making bad cheap guitars. They became very skilled. Then, the cheaper instruments came out of Korea and Taiwan. Then they got good, and India, China, and Malaysia took over. The result is that they are all fairly well made. I got in a bunch of Takamine Jasmine guitars recently that are made in Malaysia, and they were constructed very well. Granted, they were all plywood, but hey, what do you expect? The real story here is that they function well, and comparatively speaking, are far superior in action height and playability than the beginning instruments I had when I was a kid. Another positive thing about plywood is that it tends not to crack or split. Instruments made of solid wood, while usually superior in tone, show a higher tendency to do that (i.e. if the wood is not seasoned properly before being used in construction). So, generally speaking, the strength of construction has improved greatly, and the plywood bodies make it a great choice as an instrument to take on the road, picnic, or the cookout. Plywood can take more punishment.
THE TRUSS ROD
Another improvement in the newer cheap guitars is the functionality of the "truss rod". This is a metal rod running inside the length of the guitar neck (usually about 1/2" below the fret board) to counter the "pull" of all those strings. The "pull" of the strings can create a "forward bow". If you tighten the truss rod, it creates a counter pull theoretically reducing any warping. The easiest (yet not necessarily the most accurate way) of seeing if a neck has a "forward bow", is to sight down the neck like you would a rifle. If it looks flat, or has just a slight amount of pull, chances are you are OK.
Note that the classical guitar, utilizing nylon strings, does not traditionally use a truss rod so don't worry about your future classical friend not having one. There is usually less string pull or tension on a nylon stringed guitar. And the neck is usually bigger having more mass and strength.
Some guitar necks are actually made of a sandwich of woods glued together. The photo on the right is an example. This sandwich effect makes the neck stronger. Other evidence of a "bowed neck" is if the action - or the string height (the distance between the string and the 12th fret) is high; making it difficult to press the strings and play.
I used to tear my hair out when repairing the earlier cheap instruments because many of the truss rods did not work. My only choice was to toss the instrument, or remove the frets, flatten the fret board, and reinstall the frets. The labor could exceed the price of the guitar. Occasionally I can fix a warped neck by using a heated "neck stretcher" but that is a story for a deeper look into the guitar.
DUDE, LOOK AT THAT PAINT JOB; THERE'S OZZIES FACE UNDER THE BRIDGE!
A Zebra wood electric with brainy fancy electronics and a photo of Meher Baba inlaid with Ebony and Abalone.
One battle a parent will have when buying a guitar for their son or daughter, is the cosmetic aspect. Most professional musicians I know don't really care what the instrument looks like. Well, maybe that's going too far, but I do know that the emphasis is on playability and sound; the two most important features in the relationship between man and musician. Many kids are going to be attracted to that fancy glittery thing shaped like hangman's Ax. Well, here again, the news isn't that bad. Most of these instruments are fairly well constructed as well, and should provide a structurally integrated start. If you are shopping for an electric guitar, you might want to ask the store owner about the strength of the metal hardware like the bridge and "vibrato arm". Even today, they are sometimes made of weakened pot metal and can break. But, this is becoming more rare. The down side about fledgling musicians focusing on looks, is that they may exclude a really great instrument available at a decent price because of a few "dings". I really don't know what to say about this dilemma, I had to have a Madras belt when I was 13. Maybe you can show them a photo of Stevie Ray Vaughn's Strat. It was definitely ridden hard, but very road worthy!! On my third album A VIEW FROM THE PLAIN (acoustic-oriented fingerstyle guitar) I made extensive use of an old Regal guitar I bought for $30.00 at a flea market. Once I re-glued the back to the sides, it made a great slide guitar. Matter of fact, all the slide guitar work on that album was done with the little Regal.
Hint: Have a nice guitar, sounds great but strings very high off the neck? Can't afford to fix it? Voilą, you have yourself a slide guitar!
THEY'RE EVERYWHERE THEY'RE EVERYWHERE! ARGH!
There are many sources for buying instruments these days. Even Wal-mart has guitar packages. Now, here is where I have one slight exception to my belief in the cheaper instruments being well built. I have played the Wal-mart guitar and amp packages. My response was mixed. I was impressed with its tone. It had a very nice Fender Stratocaster sound, but both on an experiential as well as intuitive level, I felt they were assembled rather sloppily. Action a tad high, frets sticking out the side of the neck. Just not a smooth set up feel. But then again, it sure was cheap. And well, I guess I have to admit that I hate Wal-mart's corporate policy of taking over the world. When is enough money enough money? Oh well. :)
We can't avoid Ebay. I have bought a number of instruments there. Because of my experience building and repairing, I can buy with a bit of confidence. If there is a major problem with the instrument I can usually fix it (I wish I could say the same about my car). If you know how to buy on Ebay you are fairly safe. Make sure that the person you do business with has a good track record. Right next to their screen name, is a number that indicates the number of transactions this person has accomplished. You can then check his "feedback" and see if positive comments were left by other folks he's done business with. A few negative comments can really ruin a persons ability to continue to do business on Ebay. Although there are a few bad apples, the Ebay experience is built on the need for a seller to maintain a positive experience rating. He does not want unhappy folks in the world.
When buying a used instrument from an individual you go by three main factors:
When buying from a music store, you ask the same questions as if you are buying from an individual. Now, providing the store operates honestly (and most do since they don't want to make people mad), they can offer a bit more professional advice.
While the stores don't have the depth of knowledge that an instrument builder has, they know what instruments are right for a particular individual based on their size, their musical interest, their budget, and the instruments resale value should you decide to trade to a better instrument or sell this one. Furthermore, most reputable stores can assist in minor adjustments in setting up an instrument to an individual's needs. They can also show you how to restring the instrument as well as provide information about care.
So, you need to weigh the options, and travel the path that seems best to you. I wish there was a way I could download myself to a potential buyers house and go with them to offer advice in making a choice - especially in purchasing a used instrument. But I'm afraid technology hasn't gotten that far yet - thank God!
If you are buying a used instrument from an individual, perhaps if you leave a deposit, they will allow you to take the instrument to a person who is more knowledgeable. It is really a lot to ask, but maybe some of you are bold? And again, the market is very much a buyers market. Today's starter guitars are generally pretty good and you can't go too wrong. The most important thing is to find an instrument you can "connect" with. There is a magic to some instruments. One that "fits" a particular person can encourage him to continue to practice, and more easily see the victories rather than the struggles and defeat.
Non-professionals seem to be more concerned with "appearance" or cosmetics than professional musicians. Many real "pro's" are concerned with sound, feel, and playability. But some of you parents out there who are not sure your child will stick with it, may want to take some consideration in re-salability. I thought I'd drop a few observations.
HINTS ABOUT STRINGED INSTRUMENT MAINTENANCE
First of all, there is a lot of pressure on a stringed instrument. This, combined with other factors such as variances in climate, and the unpredictability of wood, can make things tricky. Wood is a living breathing thing. It isn't as stable as metal, and like people, can be unpredictable. That is also the beauty of wood. It's mass and characteristics make it the perfect medium for making musical instruments. Be aware that wood has a cellular structure and changes in climate, temperature, and humidity, can effect an instrument. In the winter months when we have our heaters on and the level of humidity in the air declines, wood can exhibit some shrinkage. Especially if the wood was not dried properly before the instrument was constructed. Conversely, during the summer - especially here in the Midwest - things can get very humid. This of course means that wood can absorb some of that moisture and actually expand somewhat.
Now, if you were to expose a stringed instrument to drastic and repeated changes in atmosphere, and climate, it can hurt the structure of the instrument. This is one reason why you don't see well known musicians touring with their favorite Martins. Not only do they go from Arizona to Georgia in a matter of one day, frequent jet travel will also expose the instrument to variances of atmospheric pressure. A long time ago I made a beautiful electric guitar for Rick Zunigar of Stevie Wonders Band. It was made of Paduak and had been recently finished with acrylic lacquer. Well at 30,000 feet, the finish cracked. OOPS!!
Here are some links that may offer more resources in learning more about stringed musical instruments as well as offering parts and miscellaneous hardware for working on instruments and learning about how guitars are built. The internet is a rich area and don't forget your local library.
Paul Adams is a multi-faceted, multi-talented individual. His main focus is on his music, but he's also been a Luthier, Ethnomusicologist, and works in the mental health field. He also write stories and poetry. Adams enrolled as a student of Ethnomusicology under Dr. Joel Maring at Southern Illinois University where he became interested in building ethnic and exotic musical instruments. Having received commissions from folks like Daryl Hall, members of Stevie Wonder, The Pointer Sisters, and others was a rich reward in itself but, "making music was really my first love." It was during this period that he began composing commercials for such companies as The Siemans Corporation, Subaru, Motorola, Caterpillar, John Deer, Bryant Air Conditioning, Nordica Ski Boots, Chrysler and others.
Next came his critically acclaimed debut album Various Waves. Various' marriage of Jazz, New Age, World Music, Folk, and other Ethnic traditions struck the right chord with many fans and critics alike!! It was placed in the TOP FIVE of new releases for 1990 by Musical Starstreams, the largest commercially syndicated instrumental radio show in America.
The need to stretch and combine the influences of Gamalon, Indian, African, and other world musics he studied in school resulted in Wonder Dancing On Global Bop, - a fusion of elements that also include Flamenco, Jazz, and a touch of Bluegrass. "John Deliberto from the syndicated radio show ECHO's was an integral part in it's success," says Adams. "His constant air play and very kind review in Tower Records PULSE Magazine helped a great deal!"
Next came the acoustic landscape A View From The Plain. "This CD is my ode to the Prairie, as well as a nod to folks like Aaron Copeland, John Fahey, Leo Kottke, and David Grissman. I wanted to offer a thematic album that utilized the drop thumb style of guitar that was so influential to me. I also wanted it to be sweet and gentle, with an element of energy and humor."