Help make my musical journey a great one!
January 21, 2011 10:34 AM   Subscribe

As an adult, I'm finally trying to explore my musical side. I'm leaning towards electric guitar and/ or piano. Lots of special details and questions inside!

So, I broke up with my live-in boyfriend a couple months ago, and now I'm feeling seriously in need of a new hobby. I want to learn to do something musical. It's time.

Background: I know NOTHING about music. My parents didn't want to pay for it when I was a kid, so I grew up doing art instead. I can't sing or even whistle- I think my talents mostly lie in hand-eye coordination, so an instrument seems to be the way to go. I have been going back and forth between piano/keyboard and electric guitar, and after reading this helpful thread I think I'm leaning towards guitar. Well, to be honest, I kind of want to do both. I was thinking of getting one of those cheap $100 keyboards at Target or something just so I can learn to read music, etc. But I think for my long-term goals (of having fun, rocking out and generally kicking ass), electric guitar is what I want. For now I just want to learn how to play songs I already know and love. But in case I decide at some point to try writing a song, I'm hoping that practical lessons learned on the keyboard will come in handy. I don't have any specific time frame in mind for my musical goals. I just want something to fill my time with that's more useful than hours on end wasted in front of my laptop!

I can't afford lessons, really, at all. (I shouldn't even be buying intruments actually, but fuck it, you only live once.) But I enjoy the challenge of teaching myself new things, so I want to give it a crack.

So here are my questions:
1. Will trying to learn both keyboard and guitar simultaneously be useful in any way? Or is it really best to start with one?
2. Will a cheap keyboard be sufficient for me to learn all the *good stuff* that people say comes from learning piano? Is the Target special reasonable for learning the basics, or should I go to a music store? (Any recommendations welcome.)
3. How about recommendations for a decent electric guitar for a beginner on a budget? (I have small hands, so it can't be huge.)
4. What other things will I need to buy with my guitar and how much does that stuff cost? (amps, etc?) If I put this plan into action what is the lowest amount of $ I could reasonably be looking at spending?

Like I said, I really know NOTHING about music or instruments, so please explain it to me like a 5-year-old. However, I do know a lot about art (theory, composition, different mediums, techniques, etc.) so any metaphors relating art concepts to music ones would probably be really helpful. But yeah, otherwise generally explaining to me like I'm five would be great.

Important: I live in an apartment building and have neighbors below. I don't want them to hate me. I figured the keyboard is no problem with headphones, how about the guitar? I know I can plug headphones into that too, but in another AskMe thread some people said it was important to learn with an amp. If I do this on low volume on a rug or something, will the noise level be reasonable? I don't want an acoustic.

I live in the Chicago area, so any specific recommendations for places to go are welcome. I was just going to go to Guitar Center or something unless I get a better suggestion.

Last but not least, any links to great websites, books, videos, etc. I can use to teach myself would be great!
posted by GastrocNemesis to Media & Arts (31 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Well, some things to keep in mind:

-If you want to learn to read sheet music, you might want to go with piano (or both). You *can* learn to play guitar using sheet music I guess, but with popular music and so forth, you generally use tabulator, which is a whole different ballgame.

-As long as a keyboard, cheap or not, has enough keys/octaves, it shouldn't be a problem to learn with it. Just keep in mind it won't be the exact same experience as a piano - still not quite as many keys, no pedals to work, and so on. But no reason you can't learn on the keyboard.

-Although they may make scaled-down guitars for kids or something, generally the frets are going to be all the same width, distance, etc. If you have really tiny hands you may have a problem playing some of the chords or whatever, but generally you can figure out a way to work around things.

-To learn an electric guitar you'd probably want the guitar, an amp (just a practice amp should do to start with), and you could look at pedals for effects. Distortion would be the main one you want, but there are some other ones you might want to play with eventually. Extra strings are going to be good, because even if none ever break you're eventually going to want to change them. Some sort of tuning device, whether it's as simple as a tuning fork/pitch pipe up to the electric types. A strap and probably a case for the guitar would be handy (you *can* play an electric guitar just sitting around, but chances are at some point you're going to want to stand up and play, and cases are good if you want to take it anywhere). Oh, and some picks, at the very least until you see if you prefer finger picking or... uh... pick-picking. (There are other toys, like glass slides and so on, but that can come later!) Sorry, I have *no* idea what this stuff would cost these days, but it'll add up, sorry.

-As for learning both simultaneously, I don't see why not, as long as you have the time to spend on both! I don't know how useful it'd be since they're pretty different critters, but at the very least it'd give you two different perspectives on making music.
posted by Stormfeather at 11:01 AM on January 21, 2011

Blah, stupid spellcheck. That's tablature, not tabulator. Didn't catch that on preview.
posted by Stormfeather at 11:03 AM on January 21, 2011

I would buy an electric guitar and learn to play just that instrument. Don't try to learn keyboard at the same time. You don't know any instruments; don't overburden yourself by suddenly trying to learn two at once. People make arguments for why keyboard/piano is the best instrument to start on, but I think guitar makes more sense as a first instrument (especially since it's what you're leaning toward anyway).

Taking in-person lessons is probably best, since your teacher can tailor your lessons to be appropriate to your level, tastes, and goals. And you can get feedback on what you're doing right/wrong. No matter how good a website or DVD you can find, you'd need to rely on your own self-critiques, and critiquing your own performance (especially when you're brand new to the whole art form) is really hard.

Commit to practicing at least half an hour a day. If there's a day here or there where this is impossible (e.g. your Wednesdays are just too booked up), that's OK, but still stick to the minimum half-hour for the other days. This is a per-day minimum, not an average (e.g. it doesn't count if you practice for 3 and a half hours on Saturday and don't practice at all the rest of the week).

Basic things you'll need to buy to learn electric guitar (you can Google any of these or ask someone working at a music store):

1. The guitar.

2. Electronic tuner -- so you don't waste time and get frustrated trying to tune by ear (though that's a good skill to develop eventually).

3. Amp with headphone jack. As you mentioned, you can use headphones so you don't bother your neighbors.

4. At least 1 cable to plug your guitar into your amp.

5. A guitar case. This can be "hard" or "soft."

6. Picks. You'll lose them, so get plenty. I prefer picks that are relatively heavy and with a sharp point. Many are thin and rounded, but to me these have a flimsy, weak feel.

7. Strings. You'll be break strings, so you need spare sets. Ask the salesperson for help in getting the right "gauge" (thickness) for your guitar.


1. Capo. This is a cheap little device you attach to the fretboard that gives you more flexibility about which key you can play in. Some songs require a capo to play them properly, e.g. "Here Comes the Sun" by the Beatles.

2. Effects pedals. You don't need any of these, but 1 or 2 can be fun; no need to go overboard. First see if your amp has built-in effects, which are common (especially reverb/echo, distortion/gain, and tremolo). If you use a pedal, you'll need at least 1 extra cable (1 to plug the pedal into the amp and another to plug your guitar into the pedal). The most important pedal to get might be a distortion pedal -- if your amp doesn't have it built-in and if you want to play music with distorted guitar. (If you want a quick reference for what a "distorted" as opposed to "clean" tone on guitar is, listen to "Heart-Shaped Box" by Nirvana: it starts quiet with a "clean" tone, and the guitar suddenly gets "distorted" when the band gets loud for the chorus -- the "Hey! Wait! I've got a new complaint!" part.)

3. Guitar stand. (Actually, I just keep my guitar in a case in the corner of my room.)

I know I haven't recommended any specific products; I recommend going to a music store and asking a salesperson for help with that. Of course, have a price range in mind and be aware of what's essential vs. what's just a salesperson trying to get you to buy one more thing (see my list). If you want to keep your costs down, you could try a used guitar store.

The first guitar and amp you get don't need to be the perfect ones for you. You just need something to practice on that's reasonably affordable. After you've started getting good, you'll have more of a feel for what you need, and you can replace them (maybe sell them). I'm sure people will have recommendations for guitars and amps, but those will be based on their tastes and personality, which may or may not be in line with yours.
posted by John Cohen at 11:12 AM on January 21, 2011

Best answer: 3. How about recommendations for a decent electric guitar for a beginner on a budget? (I have small hands, so it can't be huge.)
4. What other things will I need to buy with my guitar and how much does that stuff cost? (amps, etc?) If I put this plan into action what is the lowest amount of $ I could reasonably be looking at spending?

I recently started myself, so here you go: the minimum amount of stuff you need is a guitar cord (about $10-15), a handful of picks ($1), a cheap strap ($15-$25), a small amp ($50-$150 used), and a guitar ($80-$200 used). I also recommend a guitar tuner. This is a little electronic box with a meter that'll tell you when each string is in tune. They're about $15. Get one with a mic on it as well as direct (cord) input, that way you can still use it if you ever get an acoustic guitar. A guitar stand and/or case ($25-$50) is also really handy, as they're sort of awkward to store otherwise.

You should go to a place that has lots of used musical instruments -- Music Go Round is a common one, and Guitar Center might also work. Go in when it's not busy, be honest about not knowing anything, and have the staff help you pick out a used guitar and amp (I also have tiny hands, and have been able to handle a full-sized guitar well enough, so don't worry too much about that to begin with.) I paid about $250 total for mine, but I spent $150 of that on a nicer amp -- if you go with a cheap one, you can probably walk out of there with everything you need for $150 or $200.

Important: I live in an apartment building and have neighbors below. I don't want them to hate me. I figured the keyboard is no problem with headphones, how about the guitar? I know I can plug headphones into that too, but in another AskMe thread some people said it was important to learn with an amp. If I do this on low volume on a rug or something, will the noise level be reasonable? I don't want an acoustic.

A small amp should be no problem. You can turn it down to an I'm-listening-to-quiet-music level. My music teacher favors the Pignose for this -- it's tiny, runs on batteries if you need it to, and very quiet. How quiet, you ask? I take lessons in a massage therapy office. Any small amp will work, though. Try it out in the store and see if you're happy with how it sounds when it's turned down.
posted by vorfeed at 11:13 AM on January 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

I know you said you are interested in guitar, but have you considered getting into electronic music?

Get a midi controller, get ableton live and start doing some tutorials. Way lower barrier to entry to proficiency in my opinion.
posted by dobie at 11:16 AM on January 21, 2011

You can get the same guitar my daughter has, with an amp, strap, tuner, etc., for $189. Guitar Center should have something comparable. She's been playing it since she was 13, and she's an average-sized child, so the guitar should be a good fit for you. Yes, it will work with headphones.
posted by MrMoonPie at 11:17 AM on January 21, 2011

Best answer: Last but not least, any links to great websites, books, videos, etc. I can use to teach myself would be great!

YouTube has plenty of "How to play [song]" for both guitar and piano, as long as the songs you want to play are relatively popular.

For guitar specifically you can get tabs (which are basically a diagram of the chords you need to play and how you should physically play them) from a ton of different sites, ultimate-guitar is probably the best in my opinion. Also at the same site you can get tabs in Guitar Pro format which (if you pay for Guitar Pro) will show you the exact notes in more detail, usually including the full band including drums and base and whatnot.

For piano, Synthesia (formerly Piano Hero) will give you a Guitar Hero-like visual indication of how to play a lot of songs. You can load in midi files of popular songs, and there's learning pack you can buy that adds in more features directed at learning to play.

Also I would personally suggest picking either guitar or piano first rather than both at the same time because you're going to need to put in a lot of hours of practice to become competent and it's probably better to focus your limited amount of free time and effort on one. And as John Cohen said, an in-person instructor is really a much better way to learn, if only because it forces you to practice enough to not look bad during your next lesson.
posted by burnmp3s at 11:19 AM on January 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Salespeople tend to make me nervous because I never know whether they have an incentive to push one particular brand over another, for example. So even something like which brands are a good value and which should maybe be avoided is probably a good place to start. I agree that I probably need a saleperson to help me but I want to go in with a little background info so I don't end up buying something that sucks because their store is overstocked and trying to unload it. (Never worked retail, so I don't know if this happens. But when I worked at a restaurant, this sort of stuff happened, which is why I don't totally trust the process.)

Anyway, after perusing Guitar Center's website further, I saw that they have value packs for newbies. Are these generally a good deal, decent quality? How do I narrow it down between these options?
posted by GastrocNemesis at 11:23 AM on January 21, 2011

Although they may make scaled-down guitars for kids or something, generally the frets are going to be all the same width, distance, etc. If you have really tiny hands you may have a problem playing some of the chords or whatever, but generally you can figure out a way to work around things.

This is not true -- different makes and models of guitars have slightly different scale lengths, which alter the feel of the instrument despite the relatively small differences. Read this page for details. Aside from that, different guitar necks will vary in terms of width, thickness, and shape. It's always a good idea to go to the store and get your hands on a few different makes and models to see what feels most comfortable.
posted by Anatoly Pisarenko at 11:35 AM on January 21, 2011

I found the salespeople at Music Go Round to be really helpful and not too interested in pushing more expensive stuff. This may be different when you get into new instruments, but they seemed pretty laid-back about selling the used ones (for one thing, they will have a large range of used $75-$125 guitars, and they're all roughly the same as far as the money goes -- they have no incentive to lie to you with regards to which ones are decent and which aren't).

Just as an example, this package has the same guitar I got from Music Go Round, only I got a much better amp with it, and it wasn't anywhere close to $300. Think I spent $80 on the guitar and $150 on the amp... and again, I could have easily spent just $80 on an amp better than the one in the package. If money is an issue, it is really worth it to go used.

For $180 I think you can do better than those starter packs, in terms of quality.
posted by vorfeed at 11:38 AM on January 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

The low end of the guitar market is all pretty comprable these days, and the quality is much better than it used to be. Squier is the low end of Fender and Epiphone is the low end of Gibson, those are probably the best of what you linked to along with the Ibanez ones (though the Dean or Peavey ones would be OK if you like the feel better.)

The best way to narrow down your choices is to think about what kind of sound you like, and what kinds of guitars your heros play. If you like it bright and twangy, you want single coil pickups and should probably go with a Squier. If you like it thick and heavy, an Epiphone with humbuckers is the way to go. This Yamaha has both, which would give you some variety if you're not sure which you'd like best.
posted by InfidelZombie at 11:41 AM on January 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

I know you're looking for low-budget solutions, but I really strongly feel that taking at least one introductory set of lessons to get the fundamentals learned right will make your experience teaching yourself later much much much more fun.

For that reason, if I were you (and of course I'm not,) I would choose piano. Here's why: the local community college near you probably has a beginning piano class. For the price of starting guitar equipment, you could get lessons from a real person, get to meet other people at the same level and interested in the same thing, and likely get to use their pianos whenever you want.
posted by ctmf at 11:48 AM on January 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Wow - I could have asked this exact question four months ago (see self-link here for description of my motivation). My short answer: if you want to learn about music, you would do best to have access to both a guitar and a keyboard. Also, cheap guitars and cheap keyboards are fine for learning the basics.

I bought the absolute cheapest electric guitar kit I could find, and it's playable. I don't exactly sound like David Gilmour when I play, but I can tell when I hit a bad note (you know, because the strings are moving). You can also get cheap headphone amps that work just fine (the Hannah Montana headphone amp I got my niece sounds better than mine!). I also got a used keyboard off of Craigslist - I'd recommend a 61-key keyboard to give you a five-octave range, but just need the keys to work - the Target special will be perfectly adequate, but if you get a used keyboard, you can get a better machine for cheaper. If you can find one with touch-sensitive keys, that's a great bonus, but not entirely necessary to learn the art of music creation.

I wanted to learn something about music - not necessarily to play any instrument particularly well, since I don't have time for lessons, but just to understand the rudiments of our musical heritage. I have since discovered that the standard musical system is full of really weird stuff. For example: an "octave" (Latin for "eight") contains 12 "semi"-tones, six "whole" tones, and seven scale steps, but eight of absolutely nothing. Intervals are routinely given indeterminate names (e.g., there are many types of "fifth" intervals, where a "perfect fifth" is an interval of four scale steps - referring to the interval between the first and fifth notes of a major scale, even when you're playing in a minor key or other mode). And much of the confusion stems from the fact that Pythagoras built a musical system that doesn't really allow for unfettered translation to different keys, but we used that system for some two thousand years.

It turns out that the guitar and piano are each very well suited to elucidating different aspects of that weird historical baggage. For example, simple examination of the placement of frets on a guitar shows that the standard octave is a 12-tone equal-temperament scale, which means that it is absolutely arbitrary to designate some pitches as proper "notes" and the others as sharps or flats of those notes. And you can translate any song on a guitar to a different key simply by changing the tuning or using a capo. Also, guitars are great for understanding harmonics and the nature of the octave, because you can experiment with what happens to tones as you change the length of the vibrating string, and you can directly induce harmonics on the string. But the piano helps a ton in exploring chording and harmony generally, in part because chord names are based on basic triads you play on just the white keys (mostly - there are some minor caveats here). The piano is also really useful in exploring the other "modes" besides the standard major and minor scales - you get a new mode by playing only the white keys just by starting at a different note. For example, my current favorite mode is the Phrygian mode, which is what you get if you play a seven-note ascending scale on the white keys starting with the E key.

So my longer answer is still: grab both if you can swing it - they complement each other nicely. I think learning both simultaneously makes understanding each a lot easier.

One final note: you can get small-scale guitars, and the frets are scaled appropriately, so these may work better for you (contra Stormfeather - when you cut the string length in half, you raise the pitch an octave - so if the string length starts out shorter, your twelfth fret has to be a shorter distance from the nut as well, and all the others follow). But normal strings on small-scale guitars must be set to lower tension, making them a bit looser to play and more difficult to keep in tune, so be prepared to fight that a bit.
posted by dilettanti at 11:52 AM on January 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Guitar Center has the same package I recommended at Musician's Friend (aren't they really the same company?).
posted by MrMoonPie at 12:02 PM on January 21, 2011

I won an electric guitar a few years ago. All that came with is was the guitar. I live with a musician so amp and cable were not a problem. It seems like there are cheap little amps out there if you're not picky. I have yet to acquire a strap, which means sitting down to play it. It lives in the cardboard box it arrived in. Playing it without an amp is really really quiet. Living in an apartment I would always use headphones when plugged into the amp. I once had to listen to someone practice Brown Eyed Girl over and over again for months in their dorm room and pretty much swore I'd never be that person, hence the headphones.

The guitar I won happened to be made by Daisy Rock which makes guitars with smaller necks for smaller lady hands. I still found some chords a bit difficult to form. They also claim to make lighter guitars, fwiw. You may want to try some out and see what you think. Do you have any musician pals? They're usually pretty helpful with finding stuff. They're also useful for picking a decent instrument in your preferred price range. Sometimes they might even have things like extra straps they can give you.

I studied piano as a wee lass and am comfortable with reading music. I also studied viola for a bit. This seemed helpful to me, but there were times when it was a bit of a mindfuck when trying to remember chords due to my brain thinking of strings in terms of fifths instead of fourths. Starting with guitar would probably mean fewer mental gymnastics in that respect. I checked a few basic guitar books out from the library and stuck with the one that worked best for me. This was all a couple of years ago and I gotta admit that after my initial few months of interest, I haven't picked up the guitar since then. Someday...
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 12:14 PM on January 21, 2011

In my highly inexpert* opinion, your best bet in terms of learning to understand how music works is a piano. On a piano, all the possible notes are laid out in front of you, and it doesn't really require any hand-eye coordination to learn to play a C or a G or understand what a chord is or the difference between a sharp and flat note. You also learn to read traditional sheet music right away.

With a guitar, there's a steeper learning curve for picking up the chords - you have to learn quirky and inexact hand positions. What I found intensely maddening when I tried to pick up the guitar is that you can remember the proper hand position and still not make the chord sound right because some minute thing was slightly off. Whereas playing a certain note on a piano is as simple as pressing a button. And guitar for the beginner is all chords, not "play a G, play a B flat, try a fourth, here's a triad". Learning songs for the guitar, you start out with a system of musical notation called a tab which doesn't really relate to traditional music notation and isn't conducive to understanding music theory.

So, to sum all of that up, you will probably learn more useful and flexible information about how music works by studying piano or keyboard - and you can then apply that information much more easily to other instruments or even voice. As much as I hated piano lessons as a child and was never a very good pianist, those lessons gave me important building blocks.

That said, a guitar is a lot cheaper than a good quality keyboard. And a well-tuned piano might be hard to come by, or hard to store if you don't have a lot of room (I have a strong feeling that your local craigslist has some out of tune pianos free or cheap as long as you can pay to have them transported and tuned up). If you choose guitar, I'd start with an acoustic because you don't need any secondary equipment - just the guitar. They're also a lot quieter, which means you can practice anytime. Most people I know who play electric guitar either have to be careful about when they practice or have to rent a separate rehearsal space where they won't bother anyone.

*Childhood piano lesson drop-out, here - and then of course when I was actually old enough to appreciate music lessons and wanted to play the violin, I wasn't allowed to because "well you quit piano..."
posted by Sara C. at 12:21 PM on January 21, 2011

I know you're leaning against lessons, but since you're in Chicago, you should consider the Old Town School of Folk Music. I have friends who swear by the place, and I hear it's affordable.
posted by naju at 12:31 PM on January 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

I vote piano, then guitar. That's the way I learned them, and the basics you learn reading sheet music for a piano (and learning about chords and stuff) are things you would never learn on guitar.
posted by tacodave at 12:34 PM on January 21, 2011

1. No reason not to have both if you want to spend the money/time. They won't detract from each other or anything. Which one do you prefer? Which one features the most in the music you'd like to play? If you want to be cautious with money, start with just one. If you want to spend freely, get both. There's no musical reason to differentiate between those options.

2. A cheap keyboard will be perfectly adequate for learning to read music, getting your basic rhythm down, learning music theory, etc. It won't be good enough for truly mastering piano technique, but you don't need to worry about that for a long time yet.

3. What everyone else said--Squier, Epiphone, Ibanez, Jackson, any of the cheaper offerings from "name" brands are fine. (As opposed to some no-name thing you might pick up in Target or Chinatown.)

4. Amp (just a little one is fine), tuner, stand and/or case, picks, cable, strings (eventually). I think $300-400 will cover everything. Look for used stuff to save money/increase quality.

I know only very very basic things about the piano, so I'll leave that to others, but here's my guitar advice:

You don't need to turn the amp up loud. Well, I mean, eventually you'll need to play loud if you want to learn how to play loud (subtle differences and all), but you certainly don't need that for the basics. Headphones are fine, unamplified is fine.

There is an abundance of free guitar tabs on the web, but bear in mind that nearly all of it is wrong, often flagrantly so. So if the music you're reading doesn't seem to match what you're hearing on your stereo, don't be afraid to trust your ears. Do seek out the tabs, though. Some are actually correct, and usually they at least have most of the chords right.

IMO the best way to start on the guitar is to learn a bunch of "closed" chord shapes--those with no open strings, which can therefore be freely moved up and down the neck--plus some basic music theory (look up "Nashville numbers", or for the fancy-pants version, "Roman numeral analysis"), so that you can quickly get to a point where you can start picking up songs by ear. Then the next step, once you're good at identifying chords, is to start figuring out voicings--where on the neck is he playing that A minor?, etc.--and this is where the open chords will become very important.

There are plenty of places on the web where you can learn how to hold a pick, how to tune the guitar, etc. Same goes for proper fingering of chords.
posted by equalpants at 1:01 PM on January 21, 2011

Uh, I should've read more carefully on preview, so before someone yells at me, let me correct myself slightly on point #1: there is a musical reason to get both instruments; they'll complement each other well, and you'll probably learn faster. But I think it'll be a couple months before you're at the point where you'll see any extra benefit from the synergy, so at the very start, it's basically a monetary decision.
posted by equalpants at 1:08 PM on January 21, 2011

Re cheap keyboards and keyboards without the full complement of keys. Piano lessons begin by focusing on Middle C and the few octaves surrounding that middle portion of the keyboard. Eventually you'll branch out and start using more of the keys, but there's no reason that a small keyboard with a limited range won't be just fine for your immediate needs.
posted by Sara C. at 1:16 PM on January 21, 2011

Also: if you do go the electric guitar route, make sure to watch some videos or talk to an expert on how to set it up properly. When I pulled my guitar out of the box, it was absolutely unplayable, and took quite a bit of work to get the truss rod adjusted properly and to set the intonation and string heights. There are a ton of videos on YouTube to show you how - but expect to put an hour or two into fiddling with your guitar before you're able to strike a single decent-sounding note. I found the expertvillage series on setting up a Stratocaster to be pretty useful.
posted by dilettanti at 2:12 PM on January 21, 2011

If you decide on guitar, I'd suggest taking a few lessons. Either when you start, or very soon after you learn a few basic chords.

It's taken me about 4 years, but I've taught myself guitar to the point of being a competent rhythm player. However, I KNOW that some of my techniques are wrong, especially with regards to barre chords. Now I'm trying to unlearn bad habits that I should have never formed in the first place.

Also, electric guitars are extremely fiddly, you could find yourself fooling with settings for days. Have you considered going acoustic?
posted by bodaciousllama at 2:17 PM on January 21, 2011

Also, electric guitars are extremely fiddly, you could find yourself fooling with settings for days. Have you considered going acoustic?

Yes, the OP said she considered it and decided against it. And this is probably a good move, since acoustic is harder than electric in many ways.
posted by John Cohen at 3:14 PM on January 21, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for all the input, everyone!

Although I might consider lessons at some point, I'm probably not going to right away. Like I said, part of the appeal of doing this is the challenge of figuring out/ learning something on my own. (I used to frequently tackle "projects" like this when I was younger and I really loved doing it, but it's been a long time. I need to reclaim that part of myself.) Or to put it another way, I spend a lot of time at my apartment, so I want to fill it with a complicated object that I have to spend a bunch of time figuring out and bonding with. It was only one sentence at the beginning of my original post, but it's important too, that I'm doing all this in the wake of a breaking up with someone who lived with me for a long time. So I spend a lot of time alone, in my (formerly our) apartment trying not to feel bad about myself. Beyond just learning music, I'm trying to reclaim my space for by own by doing something entirely of my own inside it. Something difficult but rewarding. Know what I mean? (I considered moving, but this apartment is so awesome that I've decided I just need to aggressively re-invent it as MINE!!) Plus it's colder than should be legal here, and probably will be this way for a while, so I'm looking for a hobby that I can do holed up in my apartment for hours at a time. I go to school during the day and it's a bitch, so the thought of any more formal training in anything, and paying for it, and the guilt should I not find the time to practice, is not appealing to me right now. Maybe in the summer when I'm off school and can make some money, I'll do some formal lessons. But this is also why I want to start cheap- in case it doesn't take off. I might not end up finding the time to do this as much as I want. But if I buy a guitar/ keyboard, then at least it's here when I decide I do want to fiddle around with it. Even if it takes me a long time to learn stuff. Like I also said above, I have no time frame for becoming proficient in anything, I just want some toys in my home to occupy my hands and my brain when I need a distraction. So, sorry for the touchy-feely background story but I guess it might help explain what I am going for here.

Anyway, turns out there's a Music Go Round about 30-40 minutes away. I think I will start there. Someone said to go when it's not busy, so when might that be? I kinda want to go at the crack of dawn tomorrow, but I could also wait until a weekday (I have some afternoons off.)

Thanks again and keep the suggestions coming, if you have them!!
posted by GastrocNemesis at 4:21 PM on January 21, 2011

Anyway, turns out there's a Music Go Round about 30-40 minutes away. I think I will start there. Someone said to go when it's not busy, so when might that be? I kinda want to go at the crack of dawn tomorrow, but I could also wait until a weekday (I have some afternoons off.)

I'm sure opening hours tomorrow would be fine. By "go when it's not busy", I just meant you should come back later if it seems like the staff are too busy to spend some time with you. I doubt they'll be swamped tomorrow after they open, though, and even if they are, you can always stare at all the lovely guitars until they're not...
posted by vorfeed at 5:04 PM on January 21, 2011

One thing you will find is that in the low end of musical instruments you get what you pay for.

I have owned a craptacular bottom end electric guitar and when I could upgrade I gave it away - fast.
I ended up building my own (I don't recommend this to start) which is comparable with the lower end of high.
I bought a Hello, Kitty branded Fender which is equivalent to a Squier and the bridge is pure shit. The neck is OK, but it needs work. The electronics are bare minimum (and there's not much in any electric). It is in every way a student instrument, made to torture students.

Cheapo keyboards are worse than cheapo pianos. For grins I play the ones set up in CostCo if I have time and the feel of the keys is appalling and I'm happy with a Clavinova, which still feels wrong compared to a piano, but not so wrong that I won't play it.

Between the two, I'd say you'd be better off with a guitar. If you were budgeting for both, put the money for one into the other.

When you buy a guitar, no matter new or used, be ready to drop another $50 to get it "set up". Chances are the bridge is off, the frets might need some dressing, and if it's used it will need a cleaning.

If you can, bring someone with you who knows guitars. This is really the best bet.

What you need at a minimum:
Practice or headphone amp
Case or stand - you don't need both. I'd lean towards case.

Be prepared to buy an extra set of strings too.

If you can afford more:
Music stand
Wire cutters from a hardware store

And I know you don't want to, but the two very best things you can do when learning a musical instrument is to have a very good teacher and practice time. Without these, your chance of success goes way down, then you find out why guitars end up on Craig's List after they become laundry drying racks.

You might also consider looking for group lessons. Many rec departments or community colleges have those and they will get you past that first hump.

So how do you tell a good private teacher? You think about what you want to play. What's your goal? Then you ask at a store that has teachers for that or you start looking in the yellow pages. When my second child was due, I decided that I wanted to play more guitar for my kids, but you know what? Babies don't like Van Halen. They don't like Dire Straits. They don't like Joe Satriani. They don't like Boston. I bought an acoustic guitar and tried to learn on my own. I'm an experienced musician, right? Fail. Mrs. Plinth bought me a set of 4 private lessons from a local store and the first lesson, I saved us both a pile of time by putting my goals right out in front - I want to be able to play Polly Wolly Doodle (which incidentally, babies love) without sounding Polly Wolly Crappy (plus a few other side goals).

You can do the same. I don't know what you really want, so I'll just guess: "I want to learn to read music and play 3 chord rock." You can do that in a month of lessons (4) if you practice 30-60 minutes every day.
posted by plinth at 5:40 PM on January 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: But if I buy a guitar/ keyboard, then at least it's here when I decide I do want to fiddle around with it. Even if it takes me a long time to learn stuff. Like I also said above, I have no time frame for becoming proficient in anything, I just want some toys in my home to occupy my hands and my brain when I need a distraction.

Good for you! Excellent reason to consider getting an instrument. As I said above, I think it can be quite good to have both guitar and keyboard around - particularly if you're wanting to tinker, as opposed to serious study. But I have noticed that I enjoy tooling around with the guitar more than the keyboard, in part because you can fiddle with the guitar itself to change its sound (changing pickup heights, different pickups, different strings, tone knobs, and later, if you can scrape up a bit more cash, effects pedals or amps with built-in effects). Sure, most keyboards have a bunch of different voices, but it's not quite the same in terms of the sheer fun of tinkering. Also, it's great to have an actual guitar to rock out with, rather than the ol' air guitar. And for some reason, I get much more enjoyment out of playing recognizable tunes on the guitar than on the piano, even though I am able to play much more complex arrangements on the piano given the same amount of work. So many of my favorite guitar riffs are quite simple, and it's amazingly gratifying to jam out just a few bars of my favorite songs. I don't get the same raw thrill from playing a melody on the keyboard. So if you're choosing one to start with, and you're anything like me, I'd recommend the guitar.

And I disagree with plinth and others who say you need to spend much money for a starter guitar. To learn fingering, all you need is a neck with some strings - doesn't matter what it's attached to. You can learn proper fingering on an oil can guitar. The strings themselves are probably the most important thing to pay attention to - and the difference between the price of crap strings and great strings is about $5. As long as you make sure you get something with decently "finished" frets (essentially sanded down on the ends so you don't kill your fingers trying to move down the fretboard), you've got yourself a fine learning rig. And if you're not playing through a thousand-dollar amp, or trying to recreate a precise tone or effect, the cheapest pickups will suffice to transfer your string vibrations to your headphone amp. Of course, if you really need a better sound, you can get some fantastic pickups for $40. plinth is right that you'll eventually want to get a better guitar, but you can save for that killer American strat for when you're ready to start serious study or when you start playing gigs. That being said, I've seen some amazing deals on decent used guitars on Craigslist here in Denver - I have to imagine that in Chicago, it's even better. As for setting it up - if you can get a pro to do it, fantastic - but you'll want to learn to do the basics yourself, anyway - you may have to adjust the intonation if you change you string gauges, and you'll be fiddling with string and pickup heights forever. So you may want to spend a bit of time to see if you can get it in playable shape on your own before shelling out a bunch of money for a professional set-up.

To answer your original question 4: you can get a cheap 3/4 scale guitar for $70; you can get a decent 3/4-scale starter guitar for $100. Strap, picks, and extra strings will run you $10 total. You can get a headphone amp for $25-30, and some of them don't require a cord - they plug straight into the guitar. You can get a stand for $5-10 if you shop around on the internet. You won't sound amazing, but you'll be able to play.
posted by dilettanti at 8:41 AM on January 22, 2011

Best answer: One thing nobody else seems to have mentioned is that the guitar has a definite physical learning curve that keys don't: It hurts to play the guitar! I.e. in addition to learning everything else about playing any kind of music on any kind of instrument, on the guitar, your hands and fingertips are going to have to go thru a callus- and muscle-building initiation that may feel punitive, and will take a while, like a few weeks at the very least for the calluses and much longer for the muscles. Everybody's different of course, and obviously these are surmountable, but if you have sensitive hands, this is something to consider. (I mention this because I do have very sensitive hands, which didn't keep me from choosing to play guitar seriously—sometimes through considerable pain—for decades, but it has left some very indelible memories of not being able to play at all, too, several times, such as when trying it out in my teens, and recently when I tried to pick up the guitar—electric—again after a few years away. NOT typical, but real…)

Another thing nobody's suggested is that you can use that laptop to excellent effect with either keys or guitar; no need to buy an amp at all, either at first or perhaps forever, especially if your dreams don't have you performing, or jamming round the campfire anytime soon. With this kind of thing for the guitar (or even this), or this for the keys (all digital keyboards will have MIDI jacks that those interfaces go into, and many recent ones will already have USB jacks so you can skip the interface), you'll be able to access a huge variety of often quite inexpensive software for sound- and music-making--and music learning. With the laptop at hand you can buy a keyboard controller without paying for any built-in sounds, and use it to drive an endless array of virtual instruments on the computer. And for guitar, you'll have instant access to digital amps and effects that would cost a fortune to duplicate in hardware. If you've got a Mac, GarageBand is free and it works wonderfully with both plug-in keys and guitars; and even comes with lessons. No doubt there's some PC near-equivalents…

Headphones into your laptop (or even iPad/iPod Touch/iPhone; there are similar instrument-in jacks for these and other mobile devices, and lots of way-fun apps, too, more every day, including lots of ways to just play on the device itself), and nobody will hear you. Audio cable from laptop to stereo system and you're playing for the room at any volume you like.

Finally, making music theory easy is quite an industry these days, and it makes a lot of sense to consider something like you'll find in those links if you're thinking mostly about song-playing and -making. The whole teach-yourself-to-play arena is vast, too. These guys have been around a long time and serve beginners particularly well. And don't overlook kids lessons!
posted by dpcoffin at 2:30 PM on January 22, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks a lot everyone! I didn't make it to Music-Go-Round/ Guitar Center this weekend, so I'm going to try to squeeze it in sometime this week or the upcoming weekend. So any other suggestions on brands/ what to buy are welcome even though this thread is a few days old now. I'm checking back!

Once I buy one I'll come back and pick some best answers. But seriously, they have all been quite helpful. I am so excited about this. Yay!
posted by GastrocNemesis at 7:14 PM on January 24, 2011

Response by poster: Wow. So, after posting this I realized it wasn't really within my budget after all, at the time. But now I finally have enough money to go out and do it. So I did!

I took the trip out to Music Go Round, about 40 minutes away, and it was totally worth it. The sales guys were really helpful and attentive and didn't mind that I asked a zillion questions. I asked him what brand he thought was best and what features I should be looking for, and we both looked together, and I found a pretty Fender Squier in a banana cream pie color for $80. The salesman agreed that it was one of the best deals in my price range, so I went for it. $30 for a used Fender amp, plus a strap, cord, an electronic tuner and a $5 book of songs from a band I used to like. They threw in a guitar bag and a pack of picks for free. So I walked out with all that, for about $160. If I knew I could do it for so cheap I'd have done it a long time ago!

Best of all, I've signed a lease for a new apartment that I'm moving into in a month- a coach house above a garage, which means no directly adjoining neighbors at all. Which means . . . I can turn up the amp and rock out. I can't wait! I think I will take some lessons at Old Town but I might wait and see if a Groupon pops up. If I don't see one by summer I'll just pay full price. Til then I'm learning from books and the internet. And wow, it's really hard, but it's what I wanted (a time consuming challenge.)

Thanks again everyone. Your advice on this has really been excellent and I think I got a much better setup for cheaper than I would have if I didn't make an Ask about it.
posted by GastrocNemesis at 8:39 AM on March 26, 2011

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