Whether you're dreaming of being the next Jimmy Hendrix or Eric Clapton, you can't get where you want to go without a good instrument. How do you find a good instrument, and which one is best? The answers to these questions depend on music style and brand preference, cost, gig site, and guitar size.
Since different guitars are used for different musical sounds, the first step in selecting a guitar is to choose a style of music. Electric guitars are best for metal, rock, country, or blues music. Lap steel guitars and pedal steel guitars can also be used to play country music or bluegrass music. A mandolin or acoustic bass guitar can also be used to play bluegrass.
Other types of music may require specialty guitars. Choose a classical guitar for playing classical music. Likewise, bass players will need a bass guitar. Jazz guitars are available for those who want to play jazz music. However, Steel-string acoustic guitars are also good for playing jazz, as well as folk or unplugged rock music.
Playing location can also be important in determining the right kind of guitar to use. Usually, beginning guitarists will want to buy an electric guitar or steel-string acoustic guitar. Electric guitars use lighter-weight strings are usually easier for new players to manage, but they require an amplifier to be heard.
The lead guitar is a key figure in a live band; lead guitarists usually prefer electric guitars. Most also have good amplifiers and many different effects pedals as well. Some, however, prefer an acoustic-electric hybrid. This delivers acoustical sound as well as internal sound pickup so that the sound is properly amplified.
Beware of overspending, however. Many players opt for an extra inexpensive guitar that they can carry around for beach parties or camping as well as a better guitar for playing gigs. This is because weather can be very damaging to guitars.
Size can be important as well. Half-sized or quarter-siz ed guitars are often more comfortable for younger beginners. Guitarists who travel frequently often prefer to use lightweight guitars. Take these considerations, as well as overall size and weight, into account at buying time.
Some people base their buying decision primarily on price. While money is important, remember that a guitar is an important investment and does not lose its value over time. In fact, many experienced players and collectors prefer secondhand guitars because the instrument's sound typically becomes richer and fuller as the wood ages.
Brand isn't everything, but Gibson and Fender, as well as Rickenbacker, are well-known for their quality instruments. Brand manufacturers also offer replacement parts and repairs, which is not often the case with private label guitar manufacturers.
Some private manufacturers do offer high-quality handmade instruments. Get as much information as possible and check out the craftsman's reputation thoroughly before buying. While many non-brand instruments are results of mass production in factory, some are genuine quality instruments with great tonal quality.
The Best Electric Guitars
Turn to manufacturers like Paul Reed Smith, Dean, or Fender for quality electric guitars with excellent sound. Consider budget and size, but don't ignore the rich tonal qualities and superb sound players can expect from Gibson, Epiphone, or Ibanez.
The bodies of most electric guitars are made of hardwoods like mahogany or maple. Some are made of alder or ash instead. Bodies can be solid, semi-hollow, or hollow. Electric guitars with solid bodies may be composed of laminated strips of wood covered with veneer or a single piece of hardwood.
The solid body style is used by the majority of players. It offers excellent sound quality and good amplification potential. Many players use effects pedals as well with their Stratocaster or Les Paul solid body guitar models.
Semi-hollow bodies are hollow except for a strip of wood that runs through the middle. Usually these are manufactured with humbucker pickups and produce an acoustic sound that retains its quality when amplified.
Hollow body guitars are also referred to as jazz guitars. These are about two inches in depth and are hollow in the center. The sound quality is nearly that of an acoustic guitar, but feedback is a problem with high levels of amplification.
The majority of guitars are made with stoptail bridges, but several use tremolo bridges instead, which work well with metal strings. Different electric guitar manufacturers use different scale lengths. For example, Fender guitars feature a 25-1/2 inch length, while Gibson guitars are made with a 24-5/8 inch length. Paul Reed Smith guitars feature a scale length of 25 inches.
The majority of guitar necks are made from maple, rosewood, mahogany, or basswood. Usually the necks have 22 frets, but sometimes they are made with 24 so that the instrument will play higher notes. Choose from three major neck styles. Set-in necks are glued onto the guitar's body. Many guitarists claim that set-in necks provide the best sustain. The Les Paul, manufactured by Gibson, has a set-in neck.
Some guitars have becks that are bolted onto the body with wood screws or bolts. One example of this is a Fender Stratocaster. Other guitars feature a neck that is built into the guitar's body. This is a common feature with solid body guitars.
Necks are further classified by shape, width, and depth. Width is usually described as wide, regular, or narrow. Depth may be regular, fat, or thin. Guitars may be C-shaped, oval-shaped, U-shaped, or V-shaped.
Pickups are responsible for detecting tones. The majority of guitars feature a minimum of two pickups; many have at least three. Pickups may be single or double-coil. Single-coil pickups generally offer brighter tones, but noise interference can be a problem. A double-coil pickup, also called a humbucker pickup, gives a darker tone, but interference is less of a problem.
Guitars should have a switch, volume, and tone adjustment control for every pickup. The switch is designed to allow players to choose the tone of one pickup or a mixture of all the pickups.
Acoustics offer the best tonal quality
Guitarists who want an instrument with a rich, mellow sound agree that acoustic guitars, manufactured by Ibanez, Fender, or Ovation, offer unmatched tonal quality. Other quality acoustic guitar makers include Gibson, Washburn, and Martin. Expect to buy an amplifier, though, for playing in larger venues.
Some acoustic guitars use nylon strings, which are also used with classical guitars. These offer mellower notes and are ideal for classical music, as well as certain types of folk music. Steel strings are better for country, jazz, blues, and rock music. Only use steel strings on acoustic guitars that are designed to use steel strings; steel strings will damage a guitar built for nylon strings.
Like electric guitars, acoustic guitar bodies are usually made from hardwoods like maple or mahogany. The tops of acoustic guitars, however, are usually made from a softer wood like spruce, or from laminate wood (several strips of wood glued together in layers). These are more durable, but the tonal quality is inferior to that made from a solid top. Finish is also important, because heavier urethane finishes prevent denting better than a lighter weight satin finish.
Choose an acoustic guitar with an archtop body for jazz or country music. These feature curved tops with hollow bodies. In comparison, a flat-top guitar looks much like a classical guitar. These are best for folk, blues, and rock music. Most acoustic guitars are sold in standard sizes from 24-1/2 to 25-1/2 scale lengths. Other, smaller guitars are sold for home use or beginning players, and larger guitars are also available for purchase as well.
The fingerboard is attached to the neck of the acoustic guitar, and is also made of hardwood such as rosewood or ebony. The fingerboard holds from 18 to 21 frets on a standard-sized guitar. The fingerboard also holds the inlays.
Once acoustic guitarists have fully mastered a six-string guitar, many move on to 12-string guitars. The resulting sound is much like that of two guitars playing simultaneous. Playing a 12-string guitar is hard, though, and requires expensive strings that take a while to tune.
Try your hand at an acoustic-electric guitar
Performers who want the tone quality of an acoustic guitar will either need to mike their guitars or invest in acoustic-electric guitars. Acoustic-electric hybrids are made by well-known companies like Fender, Yamaha, Washburn, and Jay Turser. These guitars contain built-in pickups for sound amplification.
Some performers prefer guitars with active electronics. These feature piezo transducers which are located beneath the saddle, as well as a preamp that has three bands. This is the most expensive and heaviest type of acoustic-electric guitar.
Others would rather use guitars that feature lightweight piezo saddle transducer pickups that can be connect to an amplifier. Tone, as well as volume, is adjusted with the amplifier instead of the guitar.
Dual source systems are also available. These feature both piezo transducers and mikes within the guitar's body. While they are great for amplification, they also tend to produce a lot of feedback.
Harmonize with a Bass Guitar
Although many guitarists like playing lead or backup, some prefer to harmonize with bass guitars made by companies like Fender, Peavey, or Gibson instead. Beginners should opt for solid-body bass guitars that have four strings, bolted-on necks, and fretted fingerboards. Be sure the beck is straight and the controls operate smoothly.
More experienced players may decide to buy bass guitars that have five, six, eight, or even twelve strings. Most good bass guitars also feature a bridge so that players can adjust each of the strings separately. This offers optimal sound control.
Choose a body made from one of several different hardwoods, like maple, walnut, or mahogany, or opt for a synthetic body instead. Some manufacturers use specialty woods for the tops of bass guitars, but these can be very expensive. Bass guitars with 34 inch scales are most comfortable for playing.
The necks of most bass guitars are bolted onto the bodies, and have fingerboards made of hardwoods such as rosewood, maple, or ebony. The fingerboards may or may not have frets. Boards without frets offer a tonal quality comparable to that of an acoustic base, but are more difficult to tune.
Bass guitars, like other guitars, usually offer players a choice between single coil pickups, humbucker pickups, or a combination of the two. Some guitars have multiple pickups. These should have a switch as well, so that players can choose which pickup to use. Tone and volume controls are also important.
Essential Extras for any guitar
In addition to a guitar, many players purchase an amplifier, one or more effects pedals, and a number of guitar parts and accessories, including strings, picks, and cases. Electronic tuners or pitchpipes are critical for tuning, and most players buy guitar straps as well so that they can play while standing. Guitar stands are handy for displaying instruments, or setting them safely aside while on stage.
The right amplifier will make a big difference. Although beginners usually only require small practice amps with 6-inch speakers, most performers prefer bigger models that have speakers twice as large. Some amplifiers feature more controls than others.
Most players will want their amplifiers to have at least a power switch, volume control knob, treble and bass controls, and a minimum of one input jack. When buying an amplifier, be sure to buy the proper instrument cables so that the amplifier can be connected to the guitar.
Amplifiers that support reverb should also have reverb echo controls in addition to these. Channel switching features are also handy; these clean up audio and minimize distortion.
Usually, the price of amplifiers depends largely on the technology used. For example, a solid-state amplifier requires a transistor for amplification. Solid-state amplifiers are very durable and less expensive than tube amps.
Solid-state amplifiers are very durable and less expensive than tube amps. Tube amps require a vacuum tube for amplification, are heavier and more expensive than solid-state amps, and often wear out more quickly. Modeling amps provide an alternative to tube amps, using digital processors to simulate tone quality without the expense.
Different types of guitars use different amplifiers. Guitarists use traditional amps for their electric guitars, while specially made bass amps are designed for bass guitars. Acoustic guitars that are equipped with pickups work best with acoustic amps. Choose from a variety of electronics manufactured by well-known companies such as Fender, Crate, Vox, Marshall, and Ampeg.
Different amplifiers also feature different configurations. For example, a piggyback amplifier can be set atop a cabinet, and has a separate head for amplification. Stack amplifiers consist of a combination of two different cabinets with a single head. Rack amplifiers contain cabinets for securely mounting a number of speakers and amplifiers. Combination amplifiers use one cabinet for all of the amplifier's electronic circuits as well as the unit's speakers.
Choosing effects pedals
Effects pedals are designed to imitate the effects of different musical sounds. Quality effects pedals can be purchased from Morley, DigiTech, Zoom, Line 6, or Electro-Harmonics. Some pedals deliver a single effect, while some support at least two effects with a multi-effects processor.
Some of the different effects include chorus (which sounds like multiple guitars), distortion (which changes the way a signal sounds), and fuzz (which maximizes distortion and harmonic signals). Modeling pedals allow players to recreate the sound of a vintage guitar, while overdrive pedals cause the signal to sound like that of an overdriven amplifier. One of the most popular effects is the "Wah-Wah " sound, which was made popular by Jimmy Hendrix.
Some effects pedals are designed for delay, while others help to control volume. Compressor effects pedals help to maintain a constant set sound signal. Reverb effects are designed to echo throughout the room, and tremolo effects deliver the sound of two rapidly alternating pitches. Octaver pedals allow the player to raise or lower the signal's tone by an octave and the two signals together.
Other commonly used effects pedals include EQ, flanger, and phasers. The EQ controls signal amplitude, while a flanger splits signals in two. Phaser pedals function much like flanger effects pedals. Vibrato, talk box, and sampler effects pedals are sometimes used as well.
Every guitar needs a case for proper storage. Soft shellcases or gig bags are best for players who travel a lot with their guitars. For live performances, or long-distance traveling, hard shell cases offer the most protection. Some manufacturers sell bass beginner packs or acoustic beginner packs that include both guitars and cases for beginning players.
Other guitar parts and accessories
Invest in new strings, and buy several extra sets of strings; they break easily. For quick changes, buy a string winder. Capos are used to maintain uniform pressure on all a guitar's strings simultaneously. Slides help to change pitch quickly. Many beginners also appreciate instruction manuals, such as videos, CDs, and books, which help them to learn more quickly.
Now that you know the basics, the rest is up to you. Find a good instrument, practice hard, and look for a band or friends to jam with. Who knows, your next gig may help you hit the big time!