Guitar 101
June 2, 2012 8:00 AM   Subscribe

I want to learn how to play guitar. I know nothing about guitars. Help me!

I've wanted to play guitar ever since I was a little kid, and I figure there's no time like the present.

Unfortunately, I haven't progressed much beyond that. I figure I'd want to get an acoustic guitar, but what kind? Is one brand of guitar better than the other? What sort of strings should I get, do I need a pick to start or should I just learn without one, that sorta stuff.

(for what it's worth, I'm planning on going to the House of Guitars as I live in Rochester.)
posted by Lucinda to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (17 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Why acoustic? Electric is much easier on the fingers for a beginner. If you do go acoustic, consider a nylon-string (classical-style) guitar.

Learning to fingerpick it will develop skills in both hands, rather than just clamping onto a pick with your right hand.
posted by supercres at 8:05 AM on June 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

This is going to be a kind of guitar player-y non-answer, but:

1) Totally depends on what you want to play (classical? rock? jazz? folk?)
2) Oh, definitely. I happen to really like my Fender acoustic-electric, but it came out a long time ago. Guitar store people will rarely steer you to something shitty, just don't ask a teenager. I wouldn't spend less than $400 on a guitar (well, maybe a Stratocaster- no offense electric people). Martin makes beautiful acoustics.
3) Nylon! They're like the silly putty of guitar strings (no offense classical people).
4) You should definitely learn to play with a pick. Finger picking comes later. Or never, if you're into metal. Pick skills are very important.

A couple other things:
Electric is much more forgiving for a beginner's hands than acoustic, and if you want to learn to needle and play awesome solos, you should start there anyway. If you don't want to ultimately play acoustic, don't learn on an acoustic guitar. It's not 100% analogous to learning to play electric bass on a standup, but it's not far off.

I've been playing for 12 years and have never taken a single lesson nor learned to read music. I haven't bought a fake book since I was in high school. Tabs on the internet will be your life until you learn how to play by ear.

Your fingers are going to get calloused. Try to play every day or every other day for a couple of weeks, and then they'll never hurt again!

Start practicing barre chords pretty much immediately. You need to build up particular muscles in your fingers to do them, but it'll be helpful to learn scales and play pretty much everything.

Good luck and have fun!
posted by libertypie at 8:13 AM on June 2, 2012

The strings on an acoustic guitar are much tougher for a beginner than those on an electric. If you start with an acoustic you can always move to an electric, but the reverse is more difficult. It's roughly analagous to manual versus automatic cars.

An under-appreciated value of the acoustic is also that it requires zero set-up - you can just crash on your couch, pick it up and start playing. Turning on the amp for your electric is hardly the most onerous of tasks, but I find it makes a difference - the electric requires a mindset of 'I will practice my guitar now' whereas the acoustic can just be the background of watching TV or starting into space or whatever.

In answer to your specific questions, and assuming that you want to be able to play standard late-night-house-party type acoustic guitar:

- Yamaha make nice cheap acoustic guitars. But really, any decent entry-level guitar will be fine. Decide on your budget and then choose the guitar that you most like in that range. Get a guitar-playing friend or the guy in the shop to play it for you so you can see how it sounds.

- Guitars often come with heavy strings, so get something lighter that will be easier on your fingers. Ask them in the shop if they will put them on for you and save you a job, though it's not difficult if you need to do it yourself. You should find lots of video instructions on YouTube.

- Buy a pick and see if you like it, they're very cheap. Play a chord with your fingernails and with the pick to hear the difference.

Other things:

- is a wonderful resource and has everything you need.

- To get started, identify a song you like that has easy chords (mostly A, C, D, G, E, Am, Em, which covers a staggering amount) and learn that. This is four billion times more fun than learning one chord at a time

- The strings can really hurt at first, but you'll get used to it in a week or two and they won't hurt any more.

Good luck!
posted by StephenF at 8:24 AM on June 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

Oh and just to disagree with libertypie above - I would suggest leaving barre chords for a few months. You can learn loads and have a lot of fun without playing them, and they can be pretty difficult to learn. You absolutely do need to learn eventually, but walk before you can run. YMMV.
posted by StephenF at 8:27 AM on June 2, 2012

Justin Guitar - answers to most of your questions plus a complete beginner course of YouTube videos. If you can get over his incessantly perky tone, it's a genuinely excellent set of instructions.

And I'm sure I'd be far better and learn far quicker if I actually followed the lessons (and practiced regularly).

Oh - and get a capo. Every song I wanted to play needed a capo - and it's far easier to learn and practice if you play songs you actually like.
posted by Hobo at 8:30 AM on June 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

Modern acoustic guitars above the ultra-cheap level are all pretty good. The neck is straight, the tone is acceptable, they don't have sharp pointy bits poking out, etc. In the firehose of guitar information on the web, I n'th Justin Guitar as a good starting point.

Someone once made a point that Guitar Center's oldest, hairy-est employee is likely to offer calm, reasonable advice. The younger employees will direct you to high profit items.

Really, though, I came back to guitar after quite a period away, and I can tell you that modern inexpensive guitars are pretty good. They hold their tone, they don't sound bad.

Think of an acoustic guitar as strings, a stick and a flat piece of vibrating wood with some strings. The back and sides don't contribute all that much to the sound; they make a volume of air for the front of the guitar to vibrate. The price differences are due to the quality of the woods, the quality of the tuners, and the quality of construction. Computer controlled manufacturing in low-labor-cost countries means that most low end guitars are good, today. House of Guitars in Rochester seems to offer Fender, Yamaha, Guild, and Takamine among their other brands. All of these brands make good low end acoustic guitars.

The most important thing about any guitar to me is that it feel okay in your hands. Some women like a smaller body guitar (heck, some men do as well.) The larger the guitar body the more sound (in general).

I find lessons force me to practice more. I recommend them, especially when new.

And be patient with the fingers. It took me three weeks of playing every day to get callouses at the tips and make guitar playing pleasant. Short periods of practice frequently, helped me more than an hour of finger torture.
posted by blob at 8:55 AM on June 2, 2012

Don't buy a guitar without a trusted guitarist in tow. Someone you know knows an experienced player. Don't be shy. Ask a pro to help you choose.
posted by Jode at 9:33 AM on June 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

The main reasons to start with an acoustic guitar would be that it's cheaper, portable, and requires less fussing with electronics. Not only are acoustic guitars themselves generally cheaper than electrics, but you also don't need to buy as much extra stuff.

But if you're willing to spend the money, I recommend starting on an electric since it's easier to play. Go to a music store, be very clear about your exact situation, and ask for recommendations on everything you'll need to get started. They should give you guidance in choosing a guitar, amp, cable (to plug the guitar into the amp), guitar strap, picks, and tuner. (If you have an iPhone, you can get a tuner as an app — try "Guitar Tuner" or "Cleartune.")

It's hard to make recommendations on which kind of guitar to get since you haven't told us anything about what kind of music you're interested in playing. But here's what I'll say. An electric guitar can do almost anything an acoustic can do, plus a lot more. If you have any interest in playing guitar solos, you'll want an electric. (It's possible to play a good solo on an acoustic, but it can be a struggle just to make it sound half as good as it would on an electric). OK, if you only wanted to play Simon and Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, and Ani DiFranco, then it would make a lot of sense to get an acoustic. But if you want to be able to play some of that kind of music while having the potential to branch out into anything that has lead-guitar parts or anything as "heavy" as even the Beatles or Rolling Stones, I'd recommend an electric.

The most popular brands of electric guitar are Fender and Gibson. I prefer a Gibson because of its warm, rich tone. Some of the classic models are the Fender Stratocaster (which was played by Jimi Hendrix, for instance), Fender Telecaster (Keith Richards), Gibson Les Paul (Eric Clapton), and Gibson SG. If you want a cheaper model, you could get a Squier (made by Fender) or an Epiphone (made by Gibson).

A full-size guitar is best. This isn't gender-specific — I don't know of any serious guitarist who exclusively plays a miniature guitar. The only reasons not to play a full-size would be if you plan to do a lot of traveling with the guitar or if you find the full-size very uncomfortable (keeping in mind that any beginning guitarist is going to have to deal with some level of physical discomfort).
posted by John Cohen at 10:45 AM on June 2, 2012

If you're not sure you're going to put in the time it's going to take to learn to play, I wouldn't spend a lot of money on your first guitar. I browsed through the listings at your House of Guitars link for a while, and while they have a lot of very nice instruments, spending upwards of $1,000 on your first guitar just doesn't make any sense. They may have starter instruments, but I lost patience before I found any in their online listing, so be prepared to go someplace else.

I think I'd spend around $200 on the instrument. You want a reasonably good, solid-top acoustic guitar like the Yamaha FG700S.

Add another $100 or so for a capo (Pick your favorite color, but get this one), tuner (Definitely get one with a needle-type display), picks (Gold HERCO is the best for acoustic in my opinion; ask for them by name), strings (Spend the extra money on the Elixir strings; Try light gauge .012s first; switch to extra light .010s if they're too much for you), and strap. Make them throw in a string winder for nothing.

It's worth the extra $50 to get a hard shell case. It's better for the guitar to live in a case rather than on a stand anyway. Although of course a stand is much cheaper.

As for actually learning to play, if you'll forgive the impudence, I'm just going to quote myself regarding how to learn to play rock guitar:
Get the Mel Bay chord book and a decent fake book. Pick a few songs and play them every day until you can play them with your eyes closed. At some point, when you're not hesitating as you make changes, learn "Hotel California", because if you can play all the chords in that song on a guitar-type instrument, you can play just about any popular song from the past 75 years. After you get comfortable with the instrument, take the time to learn the pentatonic/blues scales so you can take a passable solo when the time comes. Keep adding new songs as you go. If you do that every day for a year, you'll have learned to play (rock) guitar.
posted by ob1quixote at 12:41 PM on June 2, 2012 [5 favorites]

Honestly, I would ignore all the well-meaning advice above on how much more "difficult" the acoustic guitar can be. If you stick with it and the guitar becomes a lifelong passion, it won't matter what instrument you started on. And frankly, "acoustic and electric" are not different types of guitar. Rather, acoustic guitars and electric guitars are different types of instrument. So pick the instrument you want to play, and get that instrument.

As far as making a good purchase, if you have no idea what you're looking for, you won't succeed on your own. Either bring a friend to help you decide (by asking you helpful leading questions), or put your trust in a friendly sales associate who can help you meet your goals.

And what should be your goals? You need a guitar with strings, a case, and any essential elements for making sound (picks, a tuner, cables and amplifiers, etc. are all good answers here). Other items to consider include capos, straps, stands, extra strings (you will need them eventually), etc. In the end, you shouldn't have to spend more than $250 total for everything you need to start playing real guitar, regardless of which instrument you choose. Of course you could spend more if you like, but you'll only see a return on investment if you can distinguish what makes one purchase better/worse than another. Part of being a beginner is that you can't make those distinctions (yet!), so it's always good advice to encourage a beginner to invest less money, rather than more.
posted by grog at 1:36 PM on June 2, 2012

Six months ago, I was you. I found a used Squier (Fender's value brand) Strat with a cheap amp. I think it sold new as their "So your 15 year old wants to learn to play guitar" package.

I practiced for a while on that until I knew that I liked playing and was going to stick with it. It also helped to get an idea of what I did and didn't like about that guitar since everyone is a little different. Then I invested in a more serious instrument (the wide neck version of this and I love it!).

The nice thing about buying a used guitar on craigslist is that I was able to sell it for what I paid for it. If you end up buying a guitar the same way (especially an electric) you'll want to take it to a good luthier to have it setup (adjust the truss rod, string height, intonation, etc).

I think it's easier to learn on an electric because they have more adjust-ability so it's easier to get something cheap that's still playable. It's also easier to get in tune because you can get an inexpensive tune that just plugs into your guitar.

I used to get the basics down.

Soaking my fingertips in vinegar before and after practice helped a lot until the calluses got built up.

Picks and strings are both really cheap so try out different ones until you figure out what you like. I get most of my consumables and accessories from musician's friend.

After learning on my own for a while, I started taking lessons at a local mom and pop music store and that has been wonderful. If I had it to do over again, I would still absolutely start with lessons from and then add lessons with a teacher again.

I've since added a cheap used acoustic just to have something more portable that doesn't need to be plugged in (though I did buy a headphone amp too). The acoustic is just okay and is much harder to play. I'll probably replace it with a mid-range Yamaha next year.

What you'll find out pretty quick is that the solution to almost every problem with your guitar playing is, practice more. If something is hard, do that thing more and it will get better.
posted by VTX at 7:25 PM on June 2, 2012

Add another recommendation to the list for Look on his site before you go as he has a video on what you should by. With the advice you are getting here, you will be set.
posted by Silvertree at 8:15 AM on June 3, 2012

Response by poster: Wow, fantastic advice, everyone! Thanks so much.

I'm leaning towards an acoustic guitar because I can see myself being a "practice chords quietly while everyone else is watching TV" sort of player.

Didn't know about - will definitely check it out!

I also have a friend who plays guitar and I'll ask her if she wants to come with me.

Yay! I'm so excited now!
posted by Lucinda at 8:51 AM on June 3, 2012

I bought a solid-bodied electric guitar in order to have a practically silent instrument to practice on. Never bought an amp for it.
posted by Jode at 9:39 AM on June 3, 2012

Yeah, don't let volume be the thing that makes the decision. You might be surprised by how loud an acoustic is when you play it at home (or may not, I don't know). I used to have a roommate who played his acoustic in his room in the basement and we could sometimes hear it while we were watching TV upstairs.

I practice unplugged on my electric all the time. Otherwise I use my headphone amp or just plug headphones into my regular amp.
posted by VTX at 3:24 PM on June 3, 2012

Response by poster: although..........apparently you can plug an electric guitar into a Mac and use Garage Band?

That could be cool.
posted by Lucinda at 10:44 AM on June 4, 2012

Response by poster: So I ended up buying a Fender Modern Player Marauder. My fingers are sore, but it's a good thing. :)
posted by Lucinda at 7:21 AM on June 12, 2012

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