Beginning Guitar Part 1
It’s hard to imagine, but every famous guitar player was a beginner once. Clapton, Vai, Metheny, Bream et al – each had to learn how to tune a guitar, how to play an E chord, what a scale was, etc. Our Beginning Guitar articles have been written to provide answers to the many questions a beginner guitarist may have.
Beginning Guitar: Types Of Guitar
What’s the difference between an acoustic guitar, a classical guitar and an electric guitar? What sort of guitar do I need?
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The position of the notes and the pitches the strings are tuned to are the same on every standard guitar, be it classical, electric or acoustic – if you can play a tune on a classical guitar, the fingering will be exactly the same on an electric. This is why many guitarists own and play more than one kind of guitar. But, if you are beginning guitar, you’re probably only going to be looking at one kind of instrument to get started on. So, which guitar should you buy?
Beginning Guitar – Acoustic Guitar
An acoustic guitar does not rely on electronic amplification to make a sound. The sound produced by plucking / strumming the strings is amplified within the hollow body of the guitar, and emitted via the sound-hole (the large hole underneath the strings on the front of the instrument). Acoustic guitars are strung with steel strings, and give the ‘twangy’, ‘metallic’ sound that is common in rock, pop and folk music. (Acoustic guitars are also referred to as ‘steel-string guitars’.) Acoustic guitars are most often used to accompany other instruments or singers, although they are played solo too. If you want to learn and play songs, and develop some solo playing skills, but do not wish to play in a band, an acoustic guitar is a good place to start. You can always get an electric guitar later on.
Acoustic guitars can often be more physically demanding to play for the beginning guitarist, as their stings are thicker than those on an electric and often the action (the space between the strings and the fretboard) is higher, meaning the notes are harder to hold down.
Electro-acoustic guitars are acoustic guitars that have been fitted with pickups, allowing them to be plugged into an amplifier. Electro-acoustic guitars are useful in a band and/or recording situation.
Beginning Guitar – Classical Guitar
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A classical guitar, although strictly speaking an acoustic guitar (as it does not rely on electric amplification), is hardly ever referred to as such. Other names for a classical guitar include Spanish guitar and nylon-string guitar. Classical guitars produce a mellow, less metallic sound than acoustic guitars. They are typically used to play unaccompanied classical and Spanish music, but are also used in duets and as part of larger ensembles. Classical guitars are occasionally heard in rock and pop music, being recognisable by their latin or Spanish sound.
Classical guitar playing is more of a rigid discipline than acoustic and electric guitar playing, with a recognised technique and emphasis on music reading and interpretation rather than improvisation and composition.
Beginning Guitar – Electric Guitar
Electric guitars rely on electrical amplification to produce their sound. When played without an amplifier, they only produce a very quiet, ‘tinny’ sound. Electric guitars have pickups under the strings to convert the vibrations into an electrical signal, and have sockets in their bodies into which a guitar lead can be plugged. The other end of the lead is plugged into an amplifier (or an effects unit – see part 5). Electric guitars usually have controls to vary the sound that they produce. Standard controls are volume and tone knobs and pickup selector switches. Electric guitars often have more than one pickup because a string produces a different tone along its length – having more than one pickup allows the guitarist to select which tone they need. Using the bridge pickup results in a ‘brighter’ tone, whilst the neck pickup produces a smoother sound. Electronic effects such as distortion and reverb are often applied to the sound produced by an electric guitar, and it is this tonal versatility that makes the electric guitar suited to playing many kinds of modern music.
Electric guitars, like acoustic guitars, are strung with metal strings, but strings for electric guitars are usually of a ‘lighter’ (i.e. thinner) gauge. (More about guitar strings in part 2).
More information on guitar types here: Types Of Guitar
Beginning Guitar – What Makes A Good Guitar?
Although largely a matter of taste, what makes a good guitar generally comes down to its playability and its sound. Most entry-level guitars are perfectly good instruments, and you may never feel the need to change! It is worth noting that guitars can vary, even between instruments of the same model, so it is recommended that you go to a shop and try before you buy, rather than purchasing online.
Playability is how easy it is to play a guitar, how well it stays in tune, how easily it can be tuned, etc. Generally a more expensive guitar will have better hardware (tuners, nut, bridge, electronics, etc.), will be made of better woods, and will be of higher quality construction. Today, however, even an entry-level guitar is likely to be playable, with a straight neck, adequate hardware, and the ability to hold its tuning, although it may be prudent to avoid the very cheapest guitars (often those without recognisable brand names), which can have tuning and/or playability issues.
Beginning Guitar – Guitar Buying Tips
Check the intonation by making sure that strings remain in tune wherever you play on the neck, and that if it’s an electric guitar they are still reasonably in tune after heavy string bending and tremolo bar usage. Cheap guitars (particularly acoustics) can sometimes have an uncomfortably high ‘action’ (the distance of the strings from the neck). Make sure you try several examples, to make sure that the action isn’t overly high. Don’t buy an acoustic if there is any serious rattling / buzzing / vibration from the bridge or body. A little bit of fret buzz is usually acceptable in electric guitars, and won’t be heard once amplified. A beginner should buy the guitar that is the easiest to play, especially if it’s an acoustic or classical instrument. If the action is excessively high, and notes cannot be formed without a great deal of physical effort, you are less likely to stick with the instrument.
As you progress with the instrument, you will find it easier to recognise what makes a good guitar. For this reason, it is worth taking an experienced guitarist with you to help you choose.