Do I "need" an electric guitar?
September 9, 2021 8:16 AM   Subscribe

I'm starting to learn guitar (currently on Justin Guitar Stage 2) with an acoustic guitar I got for my birthday. I really am enjoying it so far but am having a lot of trouble getting the notes to sound clear.

So for example if I really focus on placing and adjusting my fingers I can get my D chord to sound clear - each string pressed down hard enough, fingers stretched out enough and close enough to each fret and not touching other strings. However when I'm trying to play and switching chords in a song I get lots of buzzing, muted strings, fingers touching other strings and it doesn't sound good.

So my question is, do I just keep practicing confident my finger placement will get better or do I go ahead and buy an electric guitar as this will be much easier to play? If I just keep practicing any tips on how to improve this aspect? I'm doing well with keeping the rhythm, strumming patterns, learning chords, etc and my fingertips are getting nice and calloused. Thank you.
posted by hazyjane to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (30 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
What kind of guitar do you want to play? You should practice playing that kind of guitar until you can play it to your satisfaction.

It's true that the action tends to be lower on electrics, but if you want to play fingerstyle folk eventually, you're going to need to get to the point where you can play clearly on a steel string acoustic. If you want to play classical guitar you're going to need to get to the point where you can play clearly on a nylon-stringed acoustic.
posted by Alterscape at 8:23 AM on September 9, 2021 [4 favorites]

(I say this as someone who owns three guitars and has not practiced well enough to play any of them to my satisfaction. Gear won't make you a better musician, much as younger-me would like to disagree!)
posted by Alterscape at 8:24 AM on September 9, 2021 [14 favorites]

Yes, keep going. This--the mechanics of playing--is exactly one of the things you're learning as you're "learning guitar". The type of guitar doesn't particularly matter. Once you get proficient at the generic concept of "playing guitar", it translates across all of them. Anytime you pick up a new-to-you guitar it may take a few minutes to get comfortable due to scale length, nut width, arm positions, etc, but not anywhere near the relearning-from-scratch level. This applies equally to changing between types of guitars and to other guitars of the same type. I have a Stratocaster with an absurdly round fretboard that always throws me off when changing from another electric guitar that's basically a plank, but give it a few minutes and it's fine.

For JustinGuitar in particular, comfort with changing chords is what the 1-minute changes and chord perfect practice are helping you learn. Keep doing those. A LOT. I've been playing since I was a kid, but my wife was recently going through the JustinGuitar program (on uke) and there were definitely some magic moments of "ugh I can't do this, ugh this is terrible, oh my god it sounds good now". You'll get there!
posted by Special Agent Dale Cooper at 8:30 AM on September 9, 2021 [7 favorites]

You keep practicing. I say that as someone three years into learning guitar (from an experienced teacher). I have an electric guitar. It hangs on the wall and sometimes I take it down for a noodle, or to dust it. I almost never practice on it.

Acoustic guitars tend to have a wider fretboard, and often a higher action (the space between strings and frets). They're not very forgiving, because you hear every mistake you make. That's what you want if your intention is to get 'good' at playing. On the other hand, if you want a guitar that covers up some of your failings ('good enough') then you might consider an electric on that basis. And of course, it depends what you want to play.

Callouses are apparently not essential. My guitar teacher claims not to have any, despite being a guitar tutor, a session musician, and playing in a band. He says that beginners press hard on the strings, whereas experienced guitarists don't need to.
posted by pipeski at 8:30 AM on September 9, 2021 [4 favorites]

Electric guitar is easier but I'd recommend mastering acoustic for at least a year. Keep practicing and developing those callouses. Practice basic and blues scales. Practice songs slowly enough that you can keep a rhythm and still focus on getting the chords right with minimal muting/buzzing. When you finally pick up an electric you're going to be really shocked at how good you actually are and it's immensely gratifying.
posted by windbox at 8:32 AM on September 9, 2021 [1 favorite]

Keep playing your acoustic. The sheer volume of the notes you produce on an electric guitar will cover up a lot of left hand mistakes, but it won't stop you from making those mistakes. If you want to play well, you're going to have to figure out how to correct your mistakes, not just ignore them. In general, left hand mistakes happen because you're not clean on your chord changes yet. Keep working on that until you get clean.

Source: I learned how to play on an electric and still sound like crap on acoustic. (I sound like crap on electric, too, but that's a different story.)
posted by kevinbelt at 8:34 AM on September 9, 2021 [1 favorite]

In addition to all the good advices here, try to practice slow, _much_ slower than you do now. Don't worry if it won't sound beautiful yet.
posted by Oli D. at 8:36 AM on September 9, 2021

Yes, there is a certain amount of suffering that you will go through before your fingers develop the strength and flexibility to play chords cleanly. So many people give up at this stage because it's just painful. Many of those people have guitars that are not set up right for them. Before trying an electric guitar, I recommend making absolutely sure your current guitar is optimized for your skill level. Bring it to a shop where a luthier can determine if there are any adjustments to be made to the action or the string type. Also, try out a variety of guitars. I believe an "easier" guitar can actually make you better at the beginning, because you are more likely to play it!
posted by oxisos at 8:36 AM on September 9, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: HI! I think I am about even with you in my practice journey. Agree this is how I sound and it does seem like it is getting better.

The BEST thing that helps me is practicing chord changes: I have a metronome app and I turn it on SLOW (like 50 bpm) and practice chord changes once per beat or every other beat over and over and over and it helps a lot. Just straight single strum per beat going from c to d to g to whatever on repeat.

My muscle memory eventually built up and now I can do pretty crisp cowboy chords. Getting close to good on some bar chords too, which makes me remember I need to go back to this technique to get better!

Final thought: I have small hands. Playing got easier on a narrow width neck, but that meant hunting down a late 1960s Gibson. I highly recommend guitar hunting, it is a good time :)
posted by skrozidile at 8:54 AM on September 9, 2021 [2 favorites]

In my opinion, electric guitars are just more fun than acoustics due to the amount of sounds you can get from them with effects, but if you had an acoustic you could plug in, you could get pretty much the same thing. Of course getting unique sounds has very little to do with quality playing, but playing guitar if you do it long enough can drag and get boring, just like anything else.

And making 'hits' on guitar has always been about getting a unique sound, at least for the hook.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:56 AM on September 9, 2021

Make sure you are using the correct hand position - thumb pad resting on the center back of the neck, not wrapped around it - it will give you more room during transitions.

Keep practicing on your acoustic. If you're having problems with muted strings, moving to the smaller neck might reinforce bad habits.
posted by ananci at 8:56 AM on September 9, 2021

If it takes a lot of effort to get each string pressed down hard enough, you might want to go to a music store or luthier and have them take a look at the action. (Action = how high up the strings are off the neck. High action makes it harder to get the strings pressed down). Adjusting the action can make an acoustic guitar quite a bit easier to play, and it's about $50, which is a lot cheaper than a new electric guitar. You might also want to try lighter strings.

Other than that, yeah, keep practicing!
posted by Jeanne at 9:06 AM on September 9, 2021 [1 favorite]

And to get your chords to sound clear just takes more practice. You can also 'chain' chords, which means you move as few fingers as possible between changes, like the G to C or C to F, or the ur-example is barre chords.

So many artists also do full lift off of all strings with an open strum, ( I think technically em11th) between open chord fingerings. The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Foo Fighters, and AC/DC do this just to name some examples.
posted by The_Vegetables at 9:09 AM on September 9, 2021 [1 favorite]

It's better to get confident playing acoustic, clean-sounding chords, confident barre chords, finger picking and strumming are all more challenging on the acoustic, but once you move over to the electric, you'll have more to learn: managing volume, tone, ringing chords out vs. cutting them, palm-muting, hammer ons and pull offs, etc. So keep at it with the acoustic for a bit longer, because your finger strength and confidence will take you far on the electric, while it's not as easy the other way around.

Edited to add: Absolutely get someone to improve the action for you. You don't need to suffer needlessly!
posted by pazazygeek at 9:22 AM on September 9, 2021 [2 favorites]

Just echoing that the problems you describe with the D chord are all about finger strength. Think what an unnatural angle, configuration and pressure you are asking your fingers to do right now. These frustrations are inherent to the instrument, and while different types of guitar can give more or less space on the fretboard or require more or less pressure, it sounds like you are at the stage of learning to scrunch your digits in a way completely unintended by nature, but required by this art.
posted by bendybendy at 9:32 AM on September 9, 2021

I'll re-iterate the 3 points of oxisos, which is what I was gonna say:

- you do have to put in time practicing get to a point where your phrasing sounds clearer.
- you should get advice about your instrument action/set-up. (also, don't use heavy gauge strings at first.)
- go to a guitar shop and try different instruments, because it's fun and helps you know what you like better.

(fun tip: for anyone who likes heavy strings, down-tuning is the way to go.)
posted by ovvl at 9:52 AM on September 9, 2021

skinnier strings are easier to play, but won’t sound as full. Might be a sacrifice that you can make while getting your fingers to adjust to what you are asking of them. Also a good time for a setup, as previously mentioned. After you can “chord” like you want to, you can fatten them up - again with a setup, as that will need adjustment as you change tension with different sized strings. You can talk to your local guitar setup person for recommendations.
posted by kabong the wiser at 10:11 AM on September 9, 2021

Play the kind of guitar that reflects the music you want to play. If you want to play rock, get an electric. You want to play folk, stay with your acoustic. Go to a guitar store and play as many instruments as they'll let you touch, just to feel what feels good to you.

And as others have mentioned, keep practicing. The issues you are describing are about finger strength and muscle memory, and that will improve with time and practice.
posted by gnutron at 10:21 AM on September 9, 2021

"So many artists also do full lift off of all strings with an open strum, ( I think technically em11th) between open chord fingerings"

Beato actually recommends doing this in his beginner video. I'd always done it kind of subconsciously, and so to hear that this is an actual thing is pretty helpful, IMO.
posted by kevinbelt at 10:27 AM on September 9, 2021 [1 favorite]

Practice will make it better in time - lots of good advice upthread about that - but switching to lighter guitar strings may help a bit in the short term while you build hand strength. It'll make your guitar a little bit quieter and less full sounding, but in return it'll be easier to press the strings all the way down. You'll still need to work on precision of your finger placement/not accidentally dampening other strings, but it helped me to separate that out a bit from the hand strength aspects of playing acoustic guitar.
posted by A Blue Moon at 10:28 AM on September 9, 2021

Response by poster: Thank you this is all really helpful. I think I will keep going with the acoustic and then maybe reward myself with an electric after a year or so with the acoustic. It makes a lot of sense that I'm strengthening my fingers through practice and I know I really do need to do the exercises Justin recommends including the one minute changes. I tend to just practice songs as it's so enjoyable but I know I need to be a bit more disciplined about it .
posted by hazyjane at 11:50 AM on September 9, 2021

I came to also suggest getting a qualified guitar tech to look at the action on your guitar. I started doing JustinGuitar a few months back and everything was going fine, but barre chords were excruciating. I got the guitar set up properly and suddenly had no problem with them. A certain amount of discomfort is normal.

An electric would be easier, probably, but you certainly don't need one. And I think even Justin recommends that if you have both instruments to practice doing the fast changes (and especially barre chords) on both instruments because they have such different feels.
posted by synecdoche at 1:51 PM on September 9, 2021 [1 favorite]

Do you have small hands?

Whatever I have been playing for 30 years and have only recently upgraded from mediocre to goodish but it all changed for me when someone gifted me a fake telecaster with low action. Suddenly I could play bar chords! Without wincing, even! In my experience, you should do whatever it takes for a guitar to be comfortable and fun for you. What will make you pick it up? For me, it's playing the Chuck Berry shuffle on a either my Jay Turser tele or my cheapo short scale fake fender duosonic with 09 strings and the distortion way up. Bonus? Now that I play all the time, and with more confidence, I'm better at full scale guitars, too.

There are a ton of professional musicians who play small guitars. John Lennon played almost exclusively short scale guitars with 09 strings, for example, because he had tiny hands. Check out this gleeful video of this professional guitarist putting 07s on his guitar. Check out this article on BB King about his string gauge.

A lot of people will give you a lecture about hard work etc etc but if you have small hands sometimes it doesn't matter and it'll hurt more than it did for them and you have to make it fun enough and comfortable enough to cut through the pain. Electric guitars are more fun IMO.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 1:51 PM on September 9, 2021 [3 favorites]

Nowadays I just play a nylon-stringed guitar, it's easier on the fingers and I prefer the mellower tone.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 3:14 PM on September 9, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I’ve been playing guitar for 47 years and getting paid for it for 43 of them, both electric (rock and country) and acoustic (fingerstyle country, blues, bluegrass, and Celtic). I concur with the consensus here that — assuming the action is set reasonably well and you’re using reasonably light gauge strings (an acoustic set with .012 or 0.013 high E, usually labeled “medium light” gauge) that you should persist on the acoustic to a feeling of fluency changing between open chords. It isn’t all about action. You need to develop the hand strength and finger independence on your left hand and in fact some resistance is crucial for that. Switching to an electric with lighter strings and lower action feels “easier,” but introduces a different set of problems (harder to fret accurately, less spacing between strings, more sensitive to where you finger in relation to the frets, susceptible to accidental bending and buzzes and muting, etc) and thus less forgiving of inaccuracies in finger coordination despite being “easier” to press a string down. Moving between electric and acoustic, which I do constantly, requires a total adjustment of touch and other aspects of technique. It introduces complexity while reducing effort. Just make sure your action is set reasonably low and correctly, as discussed above, and power though. There is no substitute for slow repetition, thousands of times. It’s a physical skill, and not a natural range of motion.

Play electric when and if the music you want to make demands it.
posted by spitbull at 9:23 AM on September 10, 2021 [4 favorites]

Just to add to the already thorough tips: there are acoustics with electric style necks. You might try them out.
posted by signal at 5:56 AM on September 12, 2021

I used to play guitar, until a hand injury ended that. :( I am a fan of trying several different types of strings to see what you like. I preferred light or medium light strings, and was partial to Washburn Slicks, though I think those are no longer made. D'Addario lights were nice, too. I even ran Ernie Ball Super Slinkys on my acoustic for a while. Your action may need some work, as others have said, but don't be afraid to experiment with different strings, as well.
posted by xedrik at 8:44 AM on September 12, 2021

The_Vegetables: " So many artists also do full lift off of all strings with an open strum, ( I think technically em11th) between open chord fingerings. The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Foo Fighters, and AC/DC do this just to name some examples."

Another 'trick' which also sounds good is when you switch from one chord to another play the new one incrementally as you finish setting it up. For example, if you're switching from a D chord to a C, you could first move your the pinky to the D note, (1st fret, 2nd string), and lift your other fingers, and play the 1st, 2nd & 3rd strings (which are all part of the C chord) until you're finished fretting the E note (2nd fret 4th string) and the C (3rd fret 5th string ) before playing the full chord on all 6 strings. It makes your transitions smoother and actually sounds interesting, and is a fairly common technique used by seasoned players for a looser sound. It also works, and has a different feel, if you start with the bass notes and work you way up to the higher ones.
posted by signal at 3:23 PM on September 12, 2021

signal: " you could first move your the pinky to the D note, (1st fret, 2nd string),"

I meant move your index finger, of course.
posted by signal at 3:44 PM on September 12, 2021

Oh for sure the actual strings make a difference to your comfort, regardless of gauge. I’m a huge fan of Elixir Polyweb strings for acoustic playing (80/20 Bronze). They cost a lot but they last forever playing in tune and sounding bright and even. The polyweb coating makes them very slick and smooth feeling. That said I’ve got some monster calluses so for me it’s not the ease of touch so much as the slipperiness that I like so much.

You do want to develop thick calluses if you’re serious about playing guitar at a higher level. Then your fingers won’t hurt from playing and the hardened surfaces of your fingertips give you really solid pressure on the string with a lighter touch. That just takes time and consistency of practice.

However it will make “touch ID” on your phone act wonky.
posted by spitbull at 11:49 AM on September 13, 2021

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