Six strings or four?
August 13, 2009 2:20 PM   Subscribe

I have never managed to properly learn how to play an instrument before. I'd like to be able to accompany myself when I sing, so I'm thinking of getting a ukulele or a guitar. Please help me figure out what I ought to be looking for.

I have seen several previous AskMe questions about how to learn to play ukulele or guitar; this is not that.

One of the reasons I'm considering getting a ukulele is that in my previous (very brief and casual) attempt at learning to play guitar, I had a lot of trouble getting my hand all the way around the neck of the guitar (I had trouble with reaching things when I took piano, too—my hands aren't tiny, but they sure ain't big). At the same time, I don't want to be just another ukulele girl.

So, what I'd like to know:
  1. Ukulele and guitar pros and cons, specifically in the context of a singer wanting to learn to play her own accompaniment.
  2. What kind of guitar or ukulele should I be looking for, as a beginner with smallish hands and absolutely zero experience? Inexpensive models are a plus.
  3. Where should I go to buy my first instrument?
I'm in New York, if it matters.
posted by ocherdraco to Media & Arts (32 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
 
NY has a ton of great guitar shops. The key is to try out lots of different guitars/ukes. Some have necks ranging from "baseball bat" (read: as thick as a...) to very slender. Also the way the strings are set up - heavy strings, light strings, close to the neck, high up from the neck, makes a huge difference.

48th Street just off of Broadway going towards 6th Ave has a handful of guitar shops & you should be able to get your hands on a lot of different guitars there. Go on a weekday, before school lets out & you should have your run of the place & patient (non-frazzled) sales staff. Guitar Center on 14th street should also have a big selection of new guitars & some ukes.

I have small hands too (for a guy, probably normal size for a petite girl), and I play bass & guitar no problem.

Learn a "G" chord & a "Barre" chord and see if you think you'll be able to pull them off on any of the guitars you see in the shop.

Talk to the guys in the shop & they may have recommendations for guitars with smaller necks.

Also, though the tuning is different on each, the basic motor skills you get playing one would translate to the other, so i wouldn't worry too much about being "stuck" with one instrument forever.
posted by MesoFilter at 2:30 PM on August 13, 2009


Guitars come with various sized necks. I had the same problem, and bought a Martin D-1 that I believe is 1& 11/16" inches thick at the nut compared to 1& 3/4" on many guitars and it makes daylight and dark difference in how it feels. Just get to a guitar store, and try out a few to see how they feel, there is a lot of difference between the feel of guitars, even of the same model. I'm not an expert by any means. Try to get something midrange, not the cheapest thing you can find. It makes a world of difference if you love the tone of your guitar. I can close my eyes, and love just listening to the same chord over and over on the Martin.
For something even smaller, what about a mandolin? Listen to Chris Thile of Nickel Creek. I would love to be able to play even close to that.
posted by ehoenig77 at 2:38 PM on August 13, 2009


One of the reasons I'm considering getting a ukulele is that in my previous (very brief and casual) attempt at learning to play guitar, I had a lot of trouble getting my hand all the way around the neck of the guitar (I had trouble with reaching things when I took piano, too—my hands aren't tiny, but they sure ain't big)

I know at least three girls with _miniscule_ hands that shred on the piano. I have a hard time believing this would really limit you, its probably just something you need to train your hands to do. They'll get stronger and more flexible very quickly if you practice a lot.

So I would go for guitar, unless you really want to play the ukelele. The guitar is a pretty broad instrument used in lots of types of music. Choosing the ukelele over it just cause its smaller...that seems to me a bit like choosing to learn the accordion because the keys are smaller than a piano's.

As for buying, one of the great boons to us Americans of the incredibly abusive and environmentally disasterous labor conditions in China is that really decent musical equipment is insanely cheap now. You can probably walk into a guitar center and buy a perfectly playable acoustic guitar, brand new, for $80.

The thing about cheap instruments is that they vary a lot, there's no quality control. Its going to be hard for you to choose a good one if you don't play, but maybe you can bring a friend who can help you?

I know this is going to be unpopular, but if I was you, I'd go to Guitar Center and see if they have anything decent used, which they probably won't, then I'd look at the low-end new guitars. They will probably be fine and be very inexpensive. Also, everything at GC is negotiable. At least get the guy to throw in a gig bag and some picks and stuff.

We're lucky in New York to be home to lots of really awesome independent music shops, like 30th Street Guitars, Main Drag Music, Matt Umanov and so on. But mostly these cater to people who want special guitars. GC just moves so much product they get insane deals on low-end instruments, and these low-end instruments are now shockingly good. If for some reason, you want to start with an electric, I would consider going one other place: Richie's. Richie will take care of you with insanely good deals on remarkably high-quality electrics, but you also need a friend who already goes there to take you there. Richie's is weird, you need someone to call and vouch for you before you go, and to make an appointment. At least, you used to, I don't know if he still enforces that rule. Richie's kind of an odd dude.
posted by jeb at 2:42 PM on August 13, 2009


I play both and love both.

I wouldn't worry about your hands, I've seen girls with tiny hands shred, it just takes practice. What I'd concentrate on is what do you want to sing and how. Listen to ukelele players (there's tons on youtube, including everyone's favorite and personal inspiration Julia Nunes)

If you really want to be belting it out loud, uke might not be for you. It's really easy to overpower it.
posted by lumpenprole at 2:44 PM on August 13, 2009


If I were in your position, I'd look for a 1/2-sized or 3/4-sized classical guitar on Craigslist. You can get them for ultra-cheap, and they often feel and sound great. They'll also be a lot closer to that nice, mellow uke sound without making you just another girl with an uke!

If you have money to spend, though, go for not ultra-cheap, like ehoenig77 said. Either way, though, a guitar store is a good idea first. Good luck!
posted by nosila at 2:45 PM on August 13, 2009


I went into Guitar Center last week and was just totally overwhelmed. Are there any not-so-intimidating places among the other stores you folks are talking about?
posted by ocherdraco at 2:48 PM on August 13, 2009


Yeah, I'm with Jeb--I'd go for an appropriately sized guitar over a uke any day (though I've definitely heard uke stuff that I've liked, I think the guitar is much more versatile). I have short fingers, and I need a narrow neck guitar, or else my hands get tired. Sadly, the neck on my acoustic is not as small as I'd like, so I can't actually recommend a particular model. Guitar Center on 14th is probably a good place to go to try a lot of lower-end guitars at once. It would be great if you could pay a guitar teacher to come with you to help you choose--this is what I did, and then took lessons with the guy for a few months. Does that guy who looks like Screech from Saved by the Bell still advertise at all the bodegas? Take him with you!

I play a mid-range ($400?) Yamaha I got when I graduated high school nearly a million years ago. It still sounds great (not as great as ehoenig77's Martin, surely), despite having taken a beating over the years.

Playing the guitar is a great gift to give yourself--all the more so if you can sing along.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 2:52 PM on August 13, 2009


Advantages of a ukulele over a guitar: easier to play (because of nylon strings and smaller frets), more portable (you can fit one under an airplane seat), less expensive

Advantages of a guitar over a ukulele: more popular (so you'd have an easier time finding lessons and tabs), has a wider range (which makes it more versatile as an instrument)

I'd suggest picking the one whose sound you like better.
posted by epimorph at 2:55 PM on August 13, 2009


that guy who looks like Screech from Saved by the Bell (Admiral Haddock)

You mean "Dan Smith Will Teach You Guitar"? Yeah, he still advertises in bodegas.

Playing the guitar is a great gift to give yourself--all the more so if you can sing along. (Admiral Haddock)

I'm not going to lie: part of this is so I can post songs to MeFi Music.
posted by ocherdraco at 2:55 PM on August 13, 2009


get a taylor baby guitar. Its somewhere between 1/2 and 3/4 size and has a small neck!
posted by freddymetz at 3:01 PM on August 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


The Martin D-1 was the cheapest Martin you could get at the time. I got it for about $600 new from a Mars Music chain store. (remember them?). It has a solid back and top, but laminated sides. I've seen them on craigslist and e-bay in the $500 to $600 range. Point - a Martin purist would turn their nose up at the D-1, but it sounds great to me.
posted by ehoenig77 at 3:16 PM on August 13, 2009


Yes, Dan Smith! He has been wanting to teach me guitar since I was a wee nipper, and yet I keep eluding him. Too slow, Dan Smith!

We look forward to hearing your MeFi Music! In that case, you might want to look at acoustics with integrated mics. Should be easy to find at Guitar Center (which is, I agree, overwhelming--I want a new electric but dread going there, even though I've been playing for 16 years or so).
posted by Admiral Haddock at 3:29 PM on August 13, 2009


I'm a new player of both. If you learn guitar, you can easily transition to ukulele. Vice versa is not quite as easy, but do-able.

Pros of the uke would be that it's easier to learn, since there are fewer strings involved, not just that the strings are nylon; there are several chords that require pressing down one string only. Portability of the uke is great, too, which means you'll bring it along to more places, which may mean you'll play it more. It also has a plinky-plunky sound which makes it more forgiving of un-expert playing, I think. Ukes come in different sizes, like guitars. A tenor or concert size uke would be easier to learn on than a little bitty soprano, for sure, and would have a more mellow sound.

The guitar is more popular, and sounds better, definitely. There's a lot more variety in guitars, but also in guitar strings and accessories--it's not as niche as the uke. My $100 Johnson was fine to learn on, once I put light strings on it. I've since upgraded, but only to a $300 Takamine, which I think plays a lot better than the low-end Martins (though not, of course, as finely as the real Martins).

I'd get a guitar, then a uke later--that's what I did, in fact. Maybe one day, you can have a ukulele as cool as mine.
posted by MrMoonPie at 4:22 PM on August 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


Okay, I have sent an email to Dan Smith Will Teach You Guitar,* inquiring about his free introductory lesson. His website indicates that he prefers his students to use his guitars, which will be good for me, I think, in that I'll get an idea of how well this will suit me before I go out and plunk down the money for one.

*As far as I am concerned, the man's name is "Dan Smith Will Teach You Guitar," not "Dan Smith."
posted by ocherdraco at 4:43 PM on August 13, 2009


Taylor Baby guitars are full scale (or maybe ever so slightly downscaled, but not much - I have a similar guitar that's a full 24"). But the smaller body will move the neck closer to you, so you don't have to reach as much, and I believe the neck is thin.

I went into Guitar Center last week and was just totally overwhelmed. Are there any not-so-intimidating places among the other stores you folks are talking about?

The smaller shops all tend to carry high-end stuff only. The Sam Ash on 48th street has a decent acoustic room, if I remember correctly, that isn't too big or too small.

Again, go during off hours & talk to the sales staff... Do you have any friends that play guitar that you can take with you?

I can't believe nobody's mentioned getting a capo - if you get a capo you can play open chords higher up on the neck... usually people do it to play in a different key, but using one as a crutch when you're first learning isn't a bad way to get around the small hand problem.
posted by MesoFilter at 4:44 PM on August 13, 2009


Another beginner guitarist here. I haven't tried learning the uke, but I'd still recommend that you pick up a guitar and work on it. Seconding MrMoonPie's recommendation to put light strings to make it easier to play and, depending on your musical inclination, sound better.

I also recommend that you don't spend more than $200. Ideally, find something in the $150 range. You can always upgrade to a better guitar model once you've found your sound. I bought a $150 Yamaha package from musiciansfriend.com. Guitar Center also has models/packages within that price point.

I hope you have a great time learning!
posted by onich at 4:55 PM on August 13, 2009


I'm a long time but casual guitar player, who can't get his hand around a guitar neck as well as he used to. I just bought a tenor ukulele and I can play it easily.

That said, the guitar has a bigger, richer sound, it can make more complicated chords, and there's about 1000 times more music written for it. That's where you start. But if you find after a few months that you're really anatomically unable to play it, you could try switching to a uke -- the tuning's different, but the basic idea transfers over so you won't be starting from scratch.

And definitely post to MeFi Music, because I'm sick of supplying the untutored craptastic strumming all by myself!
posted by escabeche at 5:31 PM on August 13, 2009


One late recommendation from a fellow string-player in NYC: get a tenor banjo and learn how to play Irish music, then play Irish music with other people in perhaps the second best city in the world to play Irish music. That would make you anything but just another uke girl. Just head over to Mandolin Brothers for your axe and then I will give you the email for my friend Dan, a treasure trove of local music resources.
posted by billtron at 5:52 PM on August 13, 2009


I will say in favor of the uke that I've had a tremendous amount of fun learning to play it. There's a very small frustration factor compared to any other instrument I've tried.
posted by paulg at 6:19 PM on August 13, 2009


I teach guitar and ukulele. I think you should get the uke. A playable uke is a little cheaper than a playable guitar, and uke is much easier to pick up. You could learn to be decent on the uke in a month. You've never learned an instrument before so you don't know if you'll love it or hate it or excel or get frustrated or what. You said you want to accompany your singing, not that you want to play lead in a metal band. The guitar is more versatile for sure, but do you want/need that versatility?

Also a uke is more portable. You can play it in the car on road trips.
posted by ludwig_van at 6:45 PM on August 13, 2009


Everyone here is talking about acoustic guitars, but are you considering picking up an electric possibly? The body makes them much, much more comfortable to play, and the necks are generally pretty slim, even for one with small hands. getting a practice amp shouldn't put you back too much and won't annoy the neighbors.

Also, I have to HEAVILY advise against buying a musical instrument on craigslist or ebay. As in, never ever do it ever. As a rule. This is something you hope to play, and you have no way of knowing if that'll work for you until you've bought it. Why the hell would someone do that? (Full disclosure: I've done that and been very disappointed, and it, you know, cost some money to learn the lesson)

If you want an acoustic, look into 3/4 models, and take a friend who knows more about music out with you to be sure, but never buy an instrument you haven't played with first.
posted by Navelgazer at 6:53 PM on August 13, 2009


I think you'll be accompanying your singing MUCH quicker playing a uke. Don't limit yourself to a soprano though. I'd go concert or tenor size. They can both be tuned to standard tuning.

The downside of ukuleles is that that on the cheap ones, the action is usually very high and the first fret is often too big or the bridge is very slightly in the wrong position. All this contributes to a kind of "plongey" sound because with such a shorts scale and stretchy strings the notes get pulled out of tune, depending on what chord shape you're playing. You can get it perfectly tuned when you play a C chord but when you try to play F, a couple of strings sound flat.

Also consider a tenor guitar. You can tune it to match the highest pitched strings of a guitar and be able to play from standard chord diagrams. It has very light strings and because they don't seem to be very popular, you might luck into a cheap one at a pawn shop.
posted by bonobothegreat at 11:08 PM on August 13, 2009


For the love of god - not the ukulele - please. Have you actually heard one? And then imagine that horrible noise in the hands of someone who cannot play the thing properly!!

If you are worried about size get yourself an electric (you can play it without being plugged in and it still sounds good) Electric are smaller and have smaller action.

Try the Fender Hello Kitty (you can always paint over the picture) Or a 3/4 Fender squire strat

I have big hands and struggled with a cheap acoustic - changed to a cheap fender squire and it all came together.

I think electric are more versatile as well - you can play all the acoustic songs as well as simple power chord popular songs.
posted by lamby at 2:00 AM on August 14, 2009


The uke definitely has the best satisfaction to effort ratio of any instrument I've played. I often find it easier to sing over a uke, because I have a quiet singing voice. For what it's worth, my standard way of teaching friends to play the guitar these days is to have them start on my tenor ukulele. I find that having 4 strings rather than 6 makes it much quicker for them to get over the initial hurdle of learning the first few chords. If I'm careful with which fingers I tell them to use, they find the same shapes easy to play when they switch to the guitar. Plus by then they're used to holding the instrument, strumming in a steady pattern, possibly singing along as well.

If you go with a guitar, look into a parlour size model (I play a Faith Mercury and would highly recommend it).
posted by primer_dimer at 2:27 AM on August 14, 2009


The uke definitely has the best satisfaction to effort ratio of any instrument I've played.

As a new uke player who's played the guitar on-and-off through elementary school and high school, I want to second this. It's an incredibly fun instrument that's easy enough to immediately reward your efforts. If you can find chords for a song, you can probably figure out how to play it in the uke within the first few weeks of playing. The neck on my soprano uke is tiny though--my small hands felt big and clumsy at first, but I quickly got used to it.

One late recommendation from a fellow string-player in NYC: get a tenor banjo and learn how to play Irish music, then play Irish music with other people in perhaps the second best city in the world to play Irish music. That would make you anything but just another uke girl.

I also play the banjo (poorly). There's some stigma around female banjo players too. I don't know about tenor, but the five-string is quite a hard instrument to play. When my mother's folk singer friend gave me a banjo in high school, it was an instrument that previously belonged to an ex girlfriend who gave it up; he commented that women "seemed to always get bitten by the banjo bug, but it doesn't last long." Though I stuck with it, I understood why--it's a rough instrument that lacks the immediate reward of either the guitar or, even moreso, the uke, particularly if you don't have much previous string experience.

Also, I have to HEAVILY advise against buying a musical instrument on craigslist or ebay.

A counterpoint to this--on the ukulele forums, musicguymics is almost universally recommended if you can't get to a local shop. And speaking of local shops, when my female friends and I would go into large chain music stores in high school (guitar center or sam ash), it was often very very difficult to get help at them. It's anecdotal, of course, and it could have just been us, but we had much better luck at not being completely and utterly ignored by sales staff at smaller stores.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:40 AM on August 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


For the love of god - not the ukulele - please. Have you actually heard one? And then imagine that horrible noise in the hands of someone who cannot play the thing properly!!

I have no idea what this could mean. It's not a violin. The ukulele is up there with the piano in terms of being easy to sit down and produce musical sounds immediately, assuming you have a halfway decent instrument.
posted by ludwig_van at 3:26 PM on August 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


One good thing about learning guitar, is that you basically also know how to play the bass by default. Maybe not *well*, but you can play it.

I miss my bass 8-( Just have my SRV Strat now.
posted by mrbill at 11:53 AM on August 15, 2009


One good thing about learning guitar, is that you basically also know how to play the bass by default. Maybe not *well*, but you can play it.

Funny, as a bass player I often find the reverse of that to be true... Bass players can always play guitar. Guitar players can't always play bass.
posted by MesoFilter at 7:52 PM on August 15, 2009


So, I just bought a guitar (huzzah!), but I've just come home and discovered that it's a classical guitar, not a normal acoustic one. Am I right in thinking that the two aren't interchangeable?
posted by ocherdraco at 6:13 PM on September 10, 2009


It wouldn't have happened except I went in right before closing and so didn't have much time. I just said, "Yamaha Gigmaker, please!" and didn't notice until just now that it's a Yamaha Gigmaker Classic. Sigh.
posted by ocherdraco at 6:15 PM on September 10, 2009


You'll be fine with a classical guitar. It sounds different than a steel-string and its dimensions and feel are somewhat different, but they can be effectively treated as interchangeable. But if what you want is a steel-string, maybe go back to the store and see if you can exchange it.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:20 PM on September 10, 2009


I exchanged this morning. Thanks for all the advice, y'all!
posted by ocherdraco at 9:13 AM on September 11, 2009


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