N00b Usb Guitar for Mac?
February 14, 2008 5:19 AM   Subscribe

So is the iAxe usb electric guitar a worthwhile start for a beginner or am I better off getting a 'real' guitar and a usb guitar cable?

The computer any guitar would be plugged into is a Mac with OS X.

If the iAxe is optimal, which model? There's three of them now, the 393, 624, and 629. Where is the best place to buy, either online or in the Boston area?

If a 'real' guitar is the best choice, I'm not sure what I need. I have no electric guitar playing friends and multiple trips to local Daddy's Junky Music stores have left me intimidated and frustrated, which is why I'm looking to learn solo for the moment.

Ideally, I'd like to have a computer program that can help teach me (I'm coming to this from Guitar Hero and Rock Band, so mimicry of onscreen notes would be a nice bridge from virtual rock god to actual rock newb). Any suggestions? Does GarageBand, which may or may not be on my Mac to begin with (never checked) help out in this regard?
posted by robocop is bleeding to Shopping (73 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I have to admit I knew nothing about the iAxe before I saw this post, and I'm probably pretty keep off my lawn damn kids in regards to my own preference for old fashioned books and tabs and jamming to CDs... but am I correct in understanding that the USB guitar is not some way of transferring actual note data from a MIDI pickup, but is just an analogue-digital converter?

If so, your computer already has an A/D converter. It's called it's mic input - and you can quite happily plug any guitar you want into that (although it's better if it has a gain boost feature, I don't know if Macs do), as well as being able to plug any guitar you want into a real amplifier. And that's they key - quite simply, for the beginner, it's a lot more fun to get some stomp boxes cheap from your local pawn shop, get an amp, and make your guitar sound good. And I'd hazard a guess that a cheap guitar + a real amplifier would sound better to your ears than an iAxe + a computer. And sounding good is what will keep you going.

And, I believe, if you want to plug your guitar into your computer, any music software you can find will work just as well with the guitar attached to your mic input, as a guitar attached to the USB port.
posted by Jimbob at 5:33 AM on February 14, 2008

Please, please, please don't get an iAxe. In fact, please don't get any sort of USB cable thingy at all.

So this would be your first guitar? If you've received no help at local instrument shops I'd be greatly disappointed in them.

By the colour and the name of the iAxe you linked to, I'd imagine you're a bit of a metaller. The main brand names to look out for are Squier, which is Fender's budget range, Epiphone, which is Gibson's (sorta) budget range and Ibanez, popular amongst the metallic people.

The best thing to do would be to just roll up to a shop and state, in very plain English, that you're looking for your first electric guitar to learn on. State your budget, the type of thing you'd like to play on it and then let them guide you around. They should be really eager to help you out.

Why are you looking for a USB connection? Is it to amplify your guitar? I'd highly recommend purchasing an amp of some description instead. There are some decent budget Fenders, Marshalls and whatnot. The Vox budget range are excellent too.

If you're anticipating doing any recording... don't even worry about it yet. At least not until you can string together a few chords.

Speaking of which, if really don't know anyong who plays guitar, I'd recommend getting some lessons. You should be able to find a teacher on Craigslist or by a recommendation from your music shop. There might also be students at a local college willing to teach for a low amount. Honestly, a bit of one-on-one tuition goes a long way.

If you can't get any tuition at all, don't worry too much. It'll be a bit more of a struggle, but there are some excellent interactive teaching guides that I've seen, both online and on DVD. At least one of the disc-based ones supported the Mac. Try to watch some videos, and pay attention to how people hold the guitar, how it rests and how they hold the strings on the neck. Just keep at it, and keep practising, and it will come. Slowly, but it will come.

Lastly, make sure you buy an electric tuner. Doesn't really matter which one. Just stay in tune.
posted by Magnakai at 5:44 AM on February 14, 2008

I basically said everything Magnakai said, and when I hit preview, it was already too late. In any case, Daddy's definitely sells used gear, so if you can find a used Squier or Epiphone that doesn't look too badly abused, pick it up and spend the extra $50 or whatever it costs to get it properly set up. There's a music shop--or there used to be--on Mass Ave., between Harvard and Central with a crazy music guy with a big beard who I'm sure would do a kick-ass setup job, or know someone who could.

Also, do not, under any circumstances, get a cheap guitar with a Floyd Rose-type tremolo system, unless you like always being out of tune. Get something with a Fender-style trem or, better yet, a fixed bridge (most Epiphones, Telecaster-style guitars).

Finally, as a general rule, if Behringer makes it (like the iAxe), it's garbage. This is important when thinking about musical equipment, because they make almost everything. I say this from experience with their cheap mixers.
posted by uncleozzy at 5:54 AM on February 14, 2008

Response by poster: So if I go the non-iAxe route, what all do I need? Guitar, amp, tuner...? I don't want to spend a heckovalot of money on my first go around (in case it doesn't stick) and have visions of being upsold by a lot of technical talk I don't understand at a music store.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 6:04 AM on February 14, 2008

Thirding not getting the iAxe, Behringer gear is cheap but seriously lacking in quality (apart from their patchbays, but...). Get a nice used one without a tremolo (that's seriously good advice there).

I know, for electric guitar, some sort of amplifier is a must, but modelling has come a long way. For example, I can't have an amp these days so I'm using Guitar Rig instead. Alternatively, a cheap stomp-box type multieffect would have amp modelling these days as well. They would have all the effects and a tuner that you need, and they wouldn't sound too bad, not quite "there" though, but definitely enough for non-pros.

If you can avoid it, don't use the mic input on a mac for guitar, it's not really good for your sound.
posted by phax at 6:09 AM on February 14, 2008

Nth-ing the 'don't get a usb guitar' crowd. Check out the reviews on Harmony Central. Treat yourself, spend a bit more on an instrument that can and will last for years and years. You'll find when you own a guitar, that you'll become attached to it, and you want something thats not gonna break on you. Also, paying a bit more then you wanted might encourage you to play more, instead of letting that expensive object gather dust. I got a guitar this summer and spent a bit more than I wanted ($550, + $300 amp), but I am so happy with it, and play it every day I can. Plus, it sounds fucking awesome :)
posted by Mach5 at 6:09 AM on February 14, 2008

Well, my first set-up consisted of a cheap no-name Strat copy and a cheap solid state amp. The combo cost me AU$200 - and it was good enough to learn on, great fun to play, and actually sounded pretty good once I laid another $50 down on an Ibanez distortion pedal, and $25 on a tuner. I've still got that guitar.

So you don't need to spend a lot of money on your first go round. Electric guitars are electric guitars. Cheap ones will go out of tune, the frets will buzz, but they work and they're playable, and when you're at that level you can crank up the volume and they will sound good. Once you know you can play, you can be picky. If you want to know which direction to throw your money, I'd suggest you worry more about the amplifier. Head for a little solid-state Fender or Vox or Ampeg. At the low end of the range, having a cheap, nasty amplifier is worse than having a cheap, nasty guitar.
posted by Jimbob at 6:11 AM on February 14, 2008

What everyone else said. Some cheap guitar suggestions: Squier, Epiphone, Jackson, Hamer, Ibanez.

If you don't want to shell out for an amp right away, you can still have some fun with any $5 walkman:

-Rip the wires off the tape head and connect them to a 1/4" jack instead; this is where you plug in your guitar.
-Connect an unpowered stereo speaker to the headphone output--you'll need to attach an 1/8" plug to some speaker wire, or just cut the end off a normal 1/8" cable. (Do *not* plug the walkman's output into your computer, or into a guitar amp, or into any amp, really. Only unpowered speakers and headphones.)
-The walkman's "play" button is your on/off switch.
-You might want to disconnect the tape motor (just cut the wires), otherwise it'll just sit there running while you play. Doesn't hurt anything, but it's a little annoying.

Sounds like utter crap unless you turn the volume all the way up, in which case you get some glorious, ridiculous distortion. Nearly-dead batteries give you a crunchier sound.
posted by equalpants at 6:16 AM on February 14, 2008

Stay away from Behringer's consumer products. As phax mentioned above, their patchbays are good (so I've heard) but from my experience, anything else from them is crap.
posted by chillmost at 6:21 AM on February 14, 2008

Equalpant's suggestion is cool actually, and it reminds me of a device I once had ($15!) that was a pre-made version of what he's described. You plugged your guitar in one end, plugged your headphones in the other, it had a switch for distortion, a switch for reverb, and a switch for chorus, and for that money it was actually pretty good fun. I wonder if you can find something like that?

There's a reason plugging your guitar into your computer won't sound as good as plugging it into an amp - guitar amplifiers are not just boxes that make your guitar sound louder. They are designed specifically for the sonic characteristics of the guitar. For example, guitar amp speakers cut out all the high frequencies (about about 5khz I think) that make the guitar sound nasty and tinny, and they are designed to distort (even the solid state ones) in a nice way. Go listen to Territorial Pissings by Nirvana - that's the sound of a guitar plugged directly into a soundboard. And yes, it does sound fucking cool in that song, but it's not the sound you want every day.
posted by Jimbob at 6:22 AM on February 14, 2008

Sorry, I should have read more carefully on preview: I disagree with uncleozzy about the Floyd Rose. My first guitar (a cheap Hamer) had a Floyd Rose bridge, and it stayed in tune great. I think the staying-in-tuneness of a cheap guitar is mostly independent of its bridge type.
posted by equalpants at 6:22 AM on February 14, 2008

Response by poster: Oh man, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Semi-hollow vs solid? I mean, I'm looking at stuff like this online and that looks pretty cool.

I like the walkman trick. That appeals to my fiddly and jury-rigging nature.

plz hold my hand, guitarfites.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 6:32 AM on February 14, 2008

This is going to run counter what everyone has said (and, in fact, counter to my instincts), but if you can afford the initial outlay, maybe look for a quality used Gibson. Sure, it'll cost you $500-600 at the start (for the very cheapest, but still very good, SG), but the worst case is that you never play it and sell it in a year at a $25 loss (the market is very good). Best case, you never need to buy another guitar (emphasis on need), and have learned on something that plays and sounds great. I'm not saying it's the best way to go, but it's something to consider.
posted by uncleozzy at 6:35 AM on February 14, 2008

I think starting out on accoustic is better for getting better quicker, but if you want to rock, you want to rock. Feeling intimidated in those places is normal, just work through it. Just go to a local used music store. Look for the band geek guy and say you want to buy an electric guitar and amp. Get a small 15 watt practice amp and an Epiphone or Squier as recommended above.

Learn to strum chords first.
posted by Ironmouth at 6:49 AM on February 14, 2008

My first guitar was a crummy acoustic purchased in a pawn shop. It was good enough for me to learn basics (I am self-taught) and to realize that I wanted to continue. I graduated to a Fender Mustang, which is a perfectly good entry-level electric. I ran it through a small, old amp (don't remember what kind now, this was like 30 years ago). I played fairly seriously for several years, but eventually I decided to concentrate on drums, which I still play. I do still have an electric guitar, an inexpensive Ibanez purchased a few years ago, and a cheapie-do KMB amp. The Ibanez was about $225, IIRC. The amp cost me $40 second-hand.

So I guess what I am saying here is that I am seconding Ironmouth's suggestion of getting an acoustic at first. Then, if you like what you're doing (and can deal with the whole callus thing as your fingers get used to the strings) you can drop coin on an electric.

Forget the USB thing, really.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 7:43 AM on February 14, 2008

I'd definitely suggest going to Cambridge Music, in Porter Square, across from Star Market. Good used stuff and pretty decent guys to help you out. There's also a really good setup guy upstairs. I forget his name, but he did a guitar for me, very cheap, and it was sweet. He's a super right winger, if that freaks you, like it did me, don't let it. He's awesome.
posted by sully75 at 8:16 AM on February 14, 2008

So if I go the non-iAxe route, what all do I need? Guitar, amp, tuner...? I don't want to spend a heckovalot of money on my first go around (in case it doesn't stick) and have visions of being upsold by a lot of technical talk I don't understand at a music store.

Buy used equipment, but buy it from a guitar store like "Guitar Center." You should be able to get a basic guitar and amp for less than $200, perhaps even much less. While there ask about lessons. When you start to take the lessons ask to learn on a musical clef, not tabs. It is harder but will pay long term benefits. The neat thing about a guitar is that you can learn three chords and be playing a song you recognize within a lesson or two.

You don't need a USB or other computer connection until you get good enough that you want to start recording yourself. At that point you can buy something for about $50 to $100 dollars which will allow input from your guitar, and a microphone if you want, and output it to your computer, usually with a choice of a line out or USB.
posted by caddis at 8:18 AM on February 14, 2008

Remember, most people don't stick with it when learning to play, so if you get a relatively nice guitar and change hobbies down the road, you can wrap it up and sell it on Ebay to fund the next hobby. And if it's relatively nice and you do get hooked by the bug, you don't need to buy another guitar if you start playing at gigs or parties (as you would if you bought the iAxe).

You can get a decent DI-USB box if you want to save money on not buying an amp/tuner/etc, and do everything in software. Again, if you get something decent, you can sell it later.
posted by bprater at 8:24 AM on February 14, 2008

You need something to play. You can start out on a cheap acoustic. That's a time-honored method. If you want an electric, you'll need a guitar, an instrument cable, a small practice amp, and an electronic tuner. On the cheap-but-good side, see the Squier electrics and Peavey or Kustom amps (I have a Kustom Arrow 16R that I love).

If you want to go the computer/guitar interface route, you'll need a guitar, a computer, an audio interface of some sort (usually USB2), and some headphones or speakers. When I'm practicing at home, I use my laptop, a TonePort UX2 (and the GearBox software that comes with it, which allows you to simulate different guitar amps and effects), and some cheap Sony headphones. GearBox is a handy practice tool because it has a tuner, a simple drum machine/metronome, and a play-along-with-your-mp3s feature, in addition to the tonal options.

As for instructional media, there's tons of it out there. Get a Netflix subscription and you'll find quite a few guitar instructional DVDs. Books and instructional DVDs can help a lot. Getting some private instruction is also great, and probably the best thing--assuming you can find a good teacher. Playing along with songs you like is also a time-honored method, though it's hard until you have the basics down.
posted by wheat at 8:29 AM on February 14, 2008

Jimbob, are you talking about a Rockman?
posted by wheat at 8:34 AM on February 14, 2008

Basic things you need need need need:

Electric Guitar
Cable (to connect the guitar to the amp)
A few plectrums

Or you could get an acoustic guitar and forgo the amp, but I feel that's not your direction.

That Epiphone guitar you linked to is probably going to be a very nice guitar, and certainly way better than most peoples first guitars. It's going to have a different sound from a solid body guitar. This Youtube video might help a bit. The main thing you need to pay attention to is the difference between the types of bodies here, not the specific guitars etc. They'll be a bit out of your price range.

On preview, wheat has some good advice, and the Line 6 gear is very good. I'd still recommend a practise amp though.
posted by Magnakai at 8:39 AM on February 14, 2008

Yup, don't buy the iAxe. Buying a good guitar that you can sell at a very small loss is good advice... but if you have to buy a cheap guitar, you can actually get an okay quality instrument from Peavey for fairly cheap.

Another nice computer guitar interface is the M-Audio FastTrack USB. I just got one last weekend, and I've been having a lot of fun with it. It costs about $100, and gives you a lot more flexibility than an amp for the same price. Plus, you'll have better luck trying to sell the M-Audio than a piece of junk amp if you the hobby doesn't take.

You'll need headphones or a separate stereo to listen to yourself, but the software that comes with the M-Audio is really cool. Not only can you record yourself (which is a CRUCIAL part of getting better... at least after you get past the awkward learning-to-strum phase), but you can also use a pretty good selection of amp models and digital effects. Most amps don't sound very good unless you turn them up loud, which can be hard for an apartment dweller. Not a problem with the M-Audio.
posted by dehowell at 8:45 AM on February 14, 2008

Ideally, I'd like to have a computer program that can help teach me (I'm coming to this from Guitar Hero and Rock Band, so mimicry of onscreen notes would be a nice bridge from virtual rock god to actual rock newb)

You do know about Guitar Rising, right?
posted by euphorb at 9:00 AM on February 14, 2008

Nthing the "get an electric and a cheap-but-decent amp" route. Tons of upside to going that way. And those Epiphones you link to rule. I have a Dot Deluxe (same thing, but with fancy electroplating on the hardware), and it's one of my favorite musical instruments ever. And I've owned a lot.

Also: what kind of Mac are you using? The built-in mike on a MacBook Pro, while nothing you'd ever want to use for "serious" recording, actually works pretty well for just grabbing sound and plunking it into GarageBand. I did this entirely by putting my MacBook Pro in front of an amp and just using the built-in.
posted by COBRA! at 9:15 AM on February 14, 2008

Response by poster: I have an iMac. I have not done much with its onboard mic, but I do have a usb mic kicking around somewhere that should work.

Guitar Rising looks pretty cool. Here's hoping it comes out for Mac.

COBRA! (or anybody, really) when it comes to an Epiphone Dot, is it worth going for the Studio to save a few bucks, or would one of the refurbished sets work fine? I'm hoping to keep my guitar budget under 300$.

If only Guitar Center's used instrument site was working. :/
posted by robocop is bleeding at 9:33 AM on February 14, 2008

Refurbished items are usually a good deal, most online places will give you the same warranty on them so you can return it if there's a major problem. The more expensive Dots have a maple top in addition to the binding and other cosmetic additions, that will give you a brighter tone overall.

Actually, a semi-hollow might be a good choice for you as a starter guitar. That way you can work with it as an acoustic also, so you don't always need to be plugged in when you practice. Overall the tone on semi-hollows tends to be rounder, with a little less attack-- think more bluesy than metal.

At $300, you can pick pretty much any Epiphone, Squier (or low-end Fender), Ibanez, etc. that you like and be confident it is a decent quality guitar.
posted by InfidelZombie at 10:02 AM on February 14, 2008

Don't get a Squier. If your budget is that tight you might as well make your own guitar out of a cigar box or something. Save a little bit until you can get a real instrument. A Mexican strat would be fine.
posted by ludwig_van at 10:10 AM on February 14, 2008

COBRA! (or anybody, really) when it comes to an Epiphone Dot, is it worth going for the Studio to save a few bucks, or would one of the refurbished sets work fine? I'm hoping to keep my guitar budget under 300$.

Like the zombie said, Refurbished is usually a good way to go. The Studio also wouldn't really be a bad thing-- the differences aren't things that would matter much when you're starting out (although some of them- like the simplified knob setup- might start to matter before too long). Overall, I'd go Refurbished non-studio over new studio, but as long as the particular guitar feels good it wouldn't matter a ton either way.
posted by COBRA! at 10:28 AM on February 14, 2008

Don't decide what guitar you want before going to the store, and don't decide you don't want a certain model just because you played a bad one at the store. Guitars vary greatly, even within marks.

The neck is the most important thing. There are scores of different neck profiles that fit all sorts of hands: if you squeeze a neck and it doesn't feel good, try another one. This is extra-significant with used guitars, as neck profiles change drastically from year to year depending on when and where a neck was manufactured.

Look down the neck from the headstock to the body: it should be straight, or at least shouldn't twist.

The knock on Epis or Mexicasters is quality control, and fit and finish; in recent years technology has helped these cheaper guitars become consistently better. If you buy used or new, look for things like excess glue around the frets (I know, Epis glue the frets on now, and somehow they're still nice necks!) You may find that the frets hang a little over the sides of the fingerboard and poke your hand as you move it up and down the neck. This isn't a big problem if you're getting the ax a professional setup, just ask the guitar tech to file the frets down so they don't poke you.

I recommend the Dan Erlewine book, Guitar Player Repair Guide, so you don't have to drive to the mechanic every time you need your spark plugs cleaned.

A tuner is nice, but you can use a computer to generate a 440 Hz A, and learn to tune by listening for the intervals. Then you can tune any time, anywhere. Check out Richard Lloyd's website for the best way to tune on the fly.

Most guitar store axes are set up with extra light strings (9's) to make them easier to play at the store. You'll probably want to set it up with 10's, which are pretty standard. Don't overlook the utility of 11's, though. They're tougher to bend, so they aren't as good for noodling, but the thicker gauge wire provides an evener, fuller sound, and the stiffness helps remind the beginner that notes are tapped on and lifted off the fretboard with the left hand, and not strummed and dampened with the right. Plus thicker strings don't break as easily under novice hands.

Check online reviews; learn what faults to look for in specific brands; go to pawnshops and little guitar dealers and megastores, picking up lots of guitars, playing them as much as you like. Remember, the sales help works on commission and is thus not necessarily trustworthy.

So: guitar, pro setup, cord, amp, picks (light picks feel good to beginners but teach us a passive approach to the strings. A bright purple Dunlop 1.14 mm pick will teach you to pull notes out of each string, and help you cultivate a light touch from the start), strings, Erlewine book.

Get the best guitar you can afford, and judge it by how it feels and sounds, not by who made it or who plays one like it.

Oh, and most importantly, read about scale length differences between the major electric guitar makers, Fender and Gibson. The slight difference in distance between frets makes a huge difference in how the ax plays and sounds, and is well-documented (and even audible, on just about any rock record).

Oh, and if you suffer from chronic heartburn and find that your sweat corrodes guitar strings after just minutes of playing, you may be lactose intolerant. Get that checked out.
posted by breezeway at 12:19 PM on February 14, 2008

Ok, this isnt like some kind of MIDI interface. Its simply a junky USB soundcard attached to the pickup. You dont want this.

What you want is a simple guitar (the low-end squire brand is fine) and a little practice amp. Now youve got something you can carry to your guitar teacher (if need be) or to a pal's house. Most amps have a line level out. Plug that into your soundcard. Ta da! Free iAxe.

Lessons are very very important at the begining. Its easy to self-teach yourself really bad habits and get things wrong that take more time undoing than learning to do in the first place.

After a couple of months of human lessons then I'd start looking into software-based lessons. Even 5 or 10 lessons by person will get you started for solo learning. Thats what? 100 to 200 dollars at most.
posted by damn dirty ape at 12:21 PM on February 14, 2008

Also, I dont think beginners should ever be worrying about gear. Your first guitar will always be substandard in some way. A year from now is when you should start pricing out nicer guitars.
posted by damn dirty ape at 12:22 PM on February 14, 2008

I'm not sure why so many are dissing guitar-to-computer usb adapters. I personally love my Line 6 Guitar Port USB adapter. It's the best thing to mess around with, and I can experiment with different tones and effects without having to break out the real amps and pedals.

So, at least from my point of view, as long as you get a good guitar, you'll have a blast with the Line 6 USB adapters. Just get a good set of headphones.
posted by brandnew at 12:32 PM on February 14, 2008

So if I go the non-iAxe route, what all do I need? Guitar, amp, tuner...? I don't want to spend a heckovalot of money on my first go around

I would be prepared to spend 300-400 dollars. Less if used. If you want to lowball this you can still go with the metalien, but I would think of it as strictly as a trainer.
posted by damn dirty ape at 12:50 PM on February 14, 2008

I've only recently arrived in Boston but a buddy was hugely unimpressed with Boston music stores in general and Daddy's and Guitar Center in particular.

Obviously, don't go the iAxe route. Get a real electric guitar and a real amp, though modeling has come a long way. I prefer Telecasters over el-cheapo Strats, in large part because Teles don't have the floating bridge which can make tuning frustrating for beginners (and anyone, really).

Computers certainly have their place in music these days but don't be fixated on having to hook your guitar up to your computer. Completely unnecessary for learning guitar. When it comes time to do actual recording you're better off with a decent mic and preamp (or modeling unit) than directly plugging the guitar into the comp, anyway.

Email me if you want more help. I'd be happy to go with you to a few shops. And, shameless plug, I build (vacuum tube) amplifiers if you're interested in that.
posted by 6550 at 1:35 PM on February 14, 2008

Ultra cheap route--and I don't care where you buy your stuff, I'm just using Musician's Friend as an example for pricing purposes--would be a Squier electric ($220), a Kustom Arrow 16R ($130), a cheap tuner ($15), a cheap strap ($12), a cheap guitar cable ($15), and a handful of picks ($4). If you think you really would like to interface your guitar with your computer, pony up an extra $70 for a TonePort GX and some headphones ($20).

So, there you go. You're ready to rock and it only set you back $396-$486. If you stick with this for a year, you'll spend more than that on your next guitar. :)

As to Squier, their Tele Custom is quite good--far better than what I had as a beginner. I'm a bassist, but I have one of these for recording and for an occasional gig sitting in on guitar.
posted by wheat at 1:36 PM on February 14, 2008

Wheat, it wasn't a Rockman specifically, this was very much of late-1980s vintage, but the Rockmans do look cool.
posted by Jimbob at 2:57 PM on February 14, 2008

robocop is bleeding, you are too good for a USB guitar. Get a real guitar, a cable, a Jim Dunlop Jazz III pick, an amp, and start rocking. The Mel Bay books were good enough for me and Eddie Van Halen; they're good enough for you.

Cheap Warlock and a Peavey Rage for $200 on Cape Cod. For $200 you pretty much can't go wrong here.

PRS SE Custom for $500. You could play this guitar for the rest of your life and not outgrow it.

Another perfectly good $200 setup, this one Ibanez and Crate.

A Vox Valvetronic AD50VT for $300. Good price, good amp with a lot of sounds built into it.

I feel like you should probably have a Strat - their ergonomic design makes them pleasant and easy to learn on - but I don't see one on Boston CL that I feel good about.

That canard about Floyds was uttered by someone who didn't understand how to set them up. You can always fix a Floyd so it doesn't go out of tune but you have to understand the 6 or 8 reasons they can go out of tune first.

I wouldn't recommend a Dot. I'm not happy with mine - it's essentially cheap stuff - and it is hard to get at the electronics if you want to tinker with it.

This Hagstrom I is an awesome guitar. It'll be worth more than it's selling for someday.
posted by ikkyu2 at 11:53 PM on February 14, 2008

Response by poster: Guitar Quest: Day 1

Went to Guitar Center in Natick to try out the Epiphone Dot. It was much bigger than I expected. As was the store. The store was big and busy enough that even though I said "I have no idea what I'm doing," they left me alone to plink away. I don't want to ascribe Guitar Center's faults to the Dot, but I wasn't sold. It felt unwieldy, but then again I am a complete newb and doubt I was even holding the thing right. Also, just as COBRA! predicted, they tried to upsell me on a ginormous amp.

Tomorrow, I may head down to a more local store, Cambridge Music Center, to see what they have to say. Also considering one of the First Act SFAs, not a Walmart version, maybe the Lola, as I'm leaning towards Gibson for some reason.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 7:51 PM on February 15, 2008

Response by poster: Guitar Quest: Day 2

So I bought a guitar. Good call on "don't get you mind made up before you play." I went to Cambridge Music, but the guy near the guitars was either hungover or recovering from a gig last night so wasn't hugely helpful. He did recommend one guitar, a Strat of some ilk, but a Very Cool Dad came in and bought it for his ten year old before I got a chance to play it. No doubt VCD then took his son out to sushi and to go used record shopping in the family's mini cooper.

So I went down the street to Guitar Stop, which is a Fender dealer. The staff there was pretty helpful and some random dude in the store gave me some pointers as I fiddled around on a MexiStrat. Service matters and I was leaning towards buying one (either red or sunburst), when some other guy came in with the very model of Strat that I was plinking away at. He wanted to use some sort of trade in plan to trade that Strat, which was his first guitar, in for an American Strat. He had enjoyed the guitar enough that he wanted to step up.

So seeing that I was looking at a Strat, the staff stepped in and acted as middleman, somehow finagling things so that I got a pretty good deal on the Strat and he got some extra trade-in value. They had to have lost money on the deal, somehow, as if the Strat had been there, used, when I came in minus the serendipity it would have been $300, but I got it for $275. I guess they saw an investment in their future as I'll likely look to them for lessons first.

And lo, I walked out of the store with a Strat, soft case, tuner, and amp for under 400$. As I paid for my guitar, its previous owner asked why I decided to learn to play. I said, "Rock Band." He noddled knowingly, pointed at his chest and said, "Guitar Hero."

I forgot to ask if the guitar had a name. I've been plinking away for the past hour and a half while watching intro to guitar YouTube videos and my left hand is sore and my fingertips are red.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 11:01 AM on February 16, 2008 [2 favorites]

Right on, congratulations! It's awesome when it all comes together like that.
posted by COBRA! at 12:22 PM on February 16, 2008

Congrats! Unfortunately the hardest part about learning will be in the first few months. Your hands need to learn these awkward positions. Especially barre chords. Your ears need to learn to hear music, especially when chords are off. You'll feel like quitting a dozen times before you get half-way decent at it. You'll make excuses like "oh my hands are too big" or "i dont have talent" which are a quitters BS realizations. Stick with it and you'll be glad you did.
posted by damn dirty ape at 1:21 PM on February 16, 2008

Good call. I started with a Mexican strat 7 years ago and I still play it. Feel free to Mefi mail me if you have any guitar questions.
posted by ludwig_van at 2:08 PM on February 16, 2008

Response by poster: Guitar Quest: Day 3

Made sure to get at least an hour of practice time in. Fingers still hurt, but I'm getting better at placement and spreading my fingers apart. Today's focus was A, E, and D chords. The D chord is like a girlfriend I had back in college - hard to get to, demanding, and very likely to react poorly to some minor error on my part. Sure, when everything works right, she opens up brightly, but those times are, for the moment, few and far between. I keep cheating on her with the E chord who is the fuck buddy who lives on your floor, always there, easy, and inviting. I think I'll be dwelling on these cords for awhile until I can change between them easily.

I'm following along some really, really happy Kiwi on YouTube. Man that guy is happy. I just want to buy him a muffin to see him be thankful.

Here's the strat.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 10:45 AM on February 17, 2008

Nice looking axe, but that was taken in a mirror, right?
posted by ikkyu2 at 10:50 AM on February 17, 2008

Response by poster: Yeah, the Mac camera takes things in reversi mode for some reason.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 12:06 PM on February 17, 2008

Response by poster: Guitar Quest: Day 4

D chord sounding a lot sweeter now. I'm slowly getting my fingers curled up enough to not hit anything else but what they should. Still doing mostly scales, some chinzy rock phrase the Happy Kiwi taught me, and the A, D, and E chords.

I'm starting to pull out some guitar songs from my music collection to see if I can figure out what sort of effects are used to make that sound. My amp (Fender Frontman 15 R) has overdrive and reverb, but those effects really only work at neighbor-annoying, bunny-terrifying noise levels.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 6:02 PM on February 18, 2008

I used to have one of those amps; they called it the Sidekick 15 back then.

Don't use its built-in overdrive. Get a pedal. A cheap DOD or Boss pedal, beat up thrashed old piece of crap, will serve your needs.
posted by ikkyu2 at 6:41 PM on February 18, 2008

Response by poster: Guitar Quest: Day 5

New chord! Hello, Mr. G. One problem. The Happy Kiwi and the Rock Guitar for Dummies book disagree as to whether or not I have my fourth finger on the first string. One says yes, one says no. Confusion!

Also, the Happy Kiwi taught me the 'chop' today. That's a Big Leap Forward as I've always wondered what made that sort of noise. So now I'll work on the chop, plus actually changing chords in a semi-quick manner.

Thanks for the Boss recommendation, ikkyu2. I was going to go for one of those little plastic 15 dollar pedals, but seeing as I can get Kurt's pedal for 40, I think I'll go there.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 6:39 PM on February 19, 2008

The Happy Kiwi and the Rock Guitar for Dummies book disagree as to whether or not I have my fourth finger on the first string. One says yes, one says no. Confusion!

There are two common voicings for an open G chord. Both of them include the 3rd fret on the 1st string, though. The difference is whether you're playing the 3rd fret on the 2nd string or the open second string -- one voicing is played 320033 and the other is 320003.

A G major chord is made of the notes G, B, and D. The former voicing above goes (bottom to top) G B D G D G and the latter goes G B D G B G, so they both make the chord, but use a different arrangement of the notes for a slightly different sound.
posted by ludwig_van at 6:53 PM on February 19, 2008

Response by poster: Guitar Quest: Day 6

You're right about the G chord, ludwig_van. I get my fingers confused even when typing. ;)

Today the Kiwi showed me a 'blues scale' which, according to the YouTube comments is actually a 'minor pent' and also ghey. I'll need to look that up more. The rest of the practice was taken up by chords and chops.

I think I may get a pedal sooner rather than later as I'm not getting a whole lot of sustain (right word?) off of my set up at the moment and it looks like I'll need it when I start trying for Hammer Ons and Pull Offs.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 2:59 PM on February 20, 2008

Yeah, get the distortion pedal, it makes hammerons and pulloffs easier.

I've never heard of a chop. What is it?

The blues scale is the minor pentatonic scale plus the flatted fifth "blue note."
posted by ikkyu2 at 4:10 PM on February 20, 2008

Not sure if you're being sarcastic ikkyu2, but "chops" is slang for technical proficiency. If you're doing picking exercises, you're working on your chops, a.k.a. woodshedding.
posted by ludwig_van at 6:59 PM on February 20, 2008

Response by poster: Guitar Quest: Day 7, Morning

Well, the Kiwi (who is probably not actually from New Zealand - I just have a dead ear for accents and imagine all New Zealanders to be that happy all the time) used the term 'chop' to describe the act of strumming while the side of your hand is on the strings. It was part of a lesson on up/down strumming (down, up, chop, down; repeat) and may have been a sneaky way of teaching rhythm.

I saw Daniel Johnston perform last night and think there may be hope for me yet. I wonder if I can track down the tab for Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Your Grievience. Ah. There's one. And another.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 6:00 AM on February 21, 2008

Congrats on the guitar and amp purchase and on your first steps in guitar playing. You should set up a blog (a few free options: blogger.com, wordpress.com) and keep this journal going (maybe even add these first posts in retroactively). You're on the right track: learning those basic open chords is the best place to start. Then learning the minor pentatonic and blues scales will let you start playing bluesy melodies without too much pain. The step up from that is to learn the major scale and the [natural | pure] minor scale patterns. Learn songs you like and play along with them. That'll give it all a context.
posted by wheat at 7:27 AM on February 21, 2008

Right, ludwig_van, that's why I didn't understand it when robocop_is_bleeding said he learned "the chop." I had never heard of an individual technique called "the chop."
posted by ikkyu2 at 7:58 AM on February 21, 2008

used the term 'chop' to describe the act of strumming while the side of your hand is on the strings

Oh, not what I was thinking then. Never heard that one.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:46 AM on February 21, 2008

Response by poster: Guitar Quest: Day 7, Evening

I got the pedal. Holy crap.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 5:39 PM on February 21, 2008 [2 favorites]

I always called those 'dead strokes'.

Did you get an SD-1 or a DS-1?
posted by ikkyu2 at 7:48 AM on February 22, 2008

Response by poster: The DS-1. It took me a bit to figure out that I had to turn the guitar up to get the most out of it. Until then I was only turning the guitar up to 3 or so and using the amp for my volume. What a difference!
posted by robocop is bleeding at 11:03 AM on February 22, 2008

The guitar volume is an interesting control in itself. For most of its range it raises volume like you'd expect, but at the high end you get less volume increase and more saturation in the signal (a dirtier sound.) This effect is more pronounced the more overdriven your amp is, and shows more with humbucker pickups than with the single coils on your strat. But often if you play with a lot of distortion you'll hit full volume at about 3 or 4, from that point on the signal gets more distorted but not any louder.

Try turning off the pedal and doing your hammer-on and pull-off exercises at different volumes on the guitar-- say 3, 6, and 10. That will give you a feel for how the volume control affects tone. Then try it again with the DS-1 kicked in-- I think you'll find that the sweetest distorted sounds aren't always fully cranked.
posted by InfidelZombie at 2:01 PM on February 22, 2008

Response by poster: Guitar Quest: Day 8

So I figure if I have the pedal, I might as well start in on power chords. And fiddling with settings. So many knobs! I'm scared to see what happens if I turn on the amp's distortion button while I have the pedal on. Will the world explode?

Probably not. There's no amount of Smoke On The Water (3. 6. 8. 3. 6. 9. 8. 3. 6. 8. 6. 3.) that can shake the roots of the world tree.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 3:18 PM on February 22, 2008

Response by poster: Guitar Quest: Day 9

The bunnies are in open revolt over 'Smoke On the Water'. I keep playing it over and over because I need to work on moving power chords around. Slow progress, there. At least I'm not all 'waitwait' between each shift like I am with most regular chords (except for E minor - it is the Simplest and Bestest chord), but still the ring finger often ends up in the wrong place. And then my hand starts to hurt. And then the bunnies start to stomp.

Maybe it's their method of encouragement?

I've started looking at guitar tabs online and have not found much. It seems a lot of the tabs want me to retune my guitar, which isn't going to happen at this point. I wonder if there is a book of Easy Yet Awesome Beginner Tabs? I need my Guitar Hero-style stars!
posted by robocop is bleeding at 9:02 AM on February 23, 2008

Well, a perfect fourth is the inversion of a perfect fifth. Those are still power chords (which only have two notes), but you're playing the fifth below the root instead of above it. But yeah, that's how I tell kids to play it.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:10 PM on February 23, 2008

Guitar volume and tone controls should be left on 10 for the first year that you play, in my opinion.

I have not used a volume or tone control other than in jest for many years.
posted by ikkyu2 at 2:31 PM on February 24, 2008

Response by poster: Guitar Quest: Day 10

Random chord transition plinking while watching an Inspector Morse marathon. First stirrings of a song, the epic "Don't Get the Diabetes, Inspector Morse!" starting to form. Other than that, it's just a lot of scales, placing chords, and fiddling with power chords.

I'm getting to the point where I'm going to have to shop around for a weekly guitar lesson. I suspect that will be a bit more finicky than shopping for the guitar itself.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 2:58 PM on February 24, 2008

It's more important for sure. For ideas hit the guitar stores. They are tapped in. Don't be afraid to shop around and take lessons from a few different folks, but definitely get someone with musical training who can teach you to read music, understand all the different scales etc. Joe Morris teaches at the New England Conservatory and he would be the best guitar teacher you could imagine. However, I think his private lessons are given in Connecticut and his focus is Jazz. Right now, someone who will be happy to teach you how to play popular songs to keep the interest high, but who will also teach you theory and music reading for a strong foundation for the future, that is the best.
posted by caddis at 3:13 PM on February 24, 2008

Man the DS-1 is a good pedal. But the SD-1 is like the DS-1's drunken, obnoxious uncle who lives down in the trailer park selling scrap metal for a living. Grab one if you can.
posted by Jimbob at 4:39 PM on February 24, 2008

in regards to tabs, ultimate guitar is your one and only resource.
posted by Mach5 at 8:25 AM on February 25, 2008

Learning chords is all well and good, but what sets the best guitarists apart from the masses is the right hand, which "drives" the instrument. Many guitarists never become more than mediocre because they concentrate most of their efforts on the left hand and ignore the subtleties of the picking hand and the interplay between right and left.

One invaluable technique to learn is to lift the fingers of the left hand off of the fretboard to dampen a chord, rather than to mute the strings with the palm of the right hand: lifting the fingers allows for a more precise and subtle stop and is the starting point for many rock and blues techniques, particularly the loose swing on most rock records. It should feel, when playing rhythm parts, as if you're squeezing the riff out of the neck. Muting the strings with the right hand is clumsy and imprecise, and should be deployed sparingly.

All your dynamics come from your right hand; practicing without distortion/compression helps you hear the sifference slight changes in touch can make. Sure, without distortion you can't hear your hammer-ons very well, but that's because you're just starting out: distortion is a crutch, and it's better to learn to walk without it.
posted by breezeway at 9:42 AM on February 25, 2008

Response by poster: Guitar Quest: Day 11

Took breezeway's advice and tried to focus on my right hand some. I'm not sure if I got the left-hand mute stuff right, but there was certainly an effect (when I did it right). Mainly it was some sans-amp strumming, trying to work on only playing the strings I wanted to play without coloring outside the lines.

The rest was working on the Inspector Morse Diabetes Song. Lyrics are easy, but I think I'll need to do some research into proper arrangement of notes and their progression. I'm still one verse down, but the chorus goes like this:

Do not get the diabetes, Inspector Morse.
You are needed on the Thames Valley Police Force.
Who will solve the murders
If you're six feet under?
Please avoid the diabetes, Inspector Morse.

A great work of our times, no doubt.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 5:43 PM on February 25, 2008

Sorry, didn't explain very well.

Say you're continuously strumming eighth notes with your right hand. When you play a chord with your left hand, keeping it continuously pressed against the fretboard, it sounds like "dah dah dah dah dah dah dah dah, etc." The notes ring out for the entire beat and are only interrupted by the next strum.

When you pull the fingers of your left hand away from the frets after you strike the chord, the sound stops abruptly and the dah, interrupted, becomes a dut.

The aim is to return the fingers to the fretboard right on thr beat, in time for the next eighth-note strum. By squeezing the fingers on and off of the fretboard, alternating dahs and duts and strumming straight eighth notes, you get the "dut dah dut dah dut dah dut dah" reverse swing of rock.

It's probably easier to dampen notes with the palm of the picking hand, but it isn't as precise or as fundamental a skill as squeezing notes on and off the neck is.

I hope that makes it a little clearer. It may take a long time to master.
posted by breezeway at 6:31 PM on February 25, 2008

Response by poster: Guitar Quest: Day 13

Skipped yesterday due to the NIN pack on Rock Band. Perfect Drug turns into 5 kinds of a bitch in the middle of the song. It is a code for Trent Reznor.

Today was more scales, but then quickly became all about fiddling with the distortion pedal. I understand more what you were getting at, breezeway, and am working trying to make sure my left hand doesn't come all the way off the strings after a strum.

I need to put together a list of 'Songs I'd Like to Play' for shopping around tutors. I wonder, though, could I expect a tutor to help me convert a non-guitar song (say Spoon's 'Way We Get By') into tab? Or should I just look to the tab sites for that?
posted by robocop is bleeding at 4:00 PM on February 27, 2008

could I expect a tutor to help me convert a non-guitar song (say Spoon's 'Way We Get By') into tab?

Sure, it wouldn't be much different from any other song.
posted by ludwig_van at 7:49 PM on February 27, 2008

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