Choosing a suitable, good-quality instrument for yourself or your clild.

The guitar is one of the most popular musical instruments on the planet and found in millions of homes in the US today. If you're considering starting your child on guitar or even considering learning to play yourself, here are some tips to help you find a suitable instrument.

To achieve success in learning to play guitar it's absolutely necessary that you have an instrument of acceptable quality which is setup appropriately to accommodate the player. There are many sources for good guitars both new and used including garage sales, pawn shops, individual and retail online sellers or via craigslist or Ebay. But be aware that if you buy an instrument site-unseen, unless you have the option to return it, you may end up with something that's nearly unplayable. My suggestion is to deal locally where you can actually examine the instrument in person before making a purchase.

Don't forget to consider the option of purchasing a new instrument from a local dealer who will normally setup the instrument to suit your needs at no additional charge. New guitars come with warranties and are generally very affordable. Music stores will also be able to change strings for you when they become worn or start to sound "dead." They will also have other supplies like cases, humidifiers, and guitar picks, capos, and publications for beginning players.How much should it cost? If you purchase a new instrument you can expect to pay several hundred dollars for the instrument itself, and perhaps another hundred for a case to protect your investment as well as accessories as previously mentioned. This is true even if you buy a used instrument from an individual or a pawn shop. While there are cheaper instruments, many are of poor quality and difficult to play. And while the lower price may be attractive, the downside of not being able to play the instrument comfortably will stop you before you even get started. So be prepared to spend between $300 and $500 to get something of suitable quality. Remember, if you decide that playing isn't for you it will be much easier to recoup a reasonable portion of your investment if you've purchased an instrument of higher quality.

Acoustic or electric? If you're a beginner you may not realize that both acoustic and electric guitars are basically the same instrument with the exception that the electric guitar must be plugged in to some kind of amplifier (a home stereo or boom box can work) in order to be heard beyond a whisper. Electric guitars are easier for beginners to play because the strings are of a lighter gauge and the action (distance between the strings and the fingerboard) is generally smaller (lower) making the strings easier to press down. There are also acoustic-electric guitars that have features of both types of instrument that you might consider too. A good example of an affordable acoustic-electric guitar would be the Ovation line of guitars. I generally recommend these guitars for beginners because they are nearly indestructible, easier to play, very affordable, and much more versatile for performing if you take your playing to a level beyond just playing at home for friends and family or your own enjoyment. The Ovation Celebrity model is a great choice at around $250-$450 plus case and accessories, depending on the dealer.






Regardless of whether you choose to buy new or used, here are some guidelines to help you make a good choice.
  1. Playability- the strings of the guitar should not be so far above the fingerboard that it's painful or difficult to press them down. Your fingers will normally be sore for a few weeks when you first begin playing, so you want an instrument that will minimize the discomfort of your initial playing efforts. If you buy a new guitar, the dealer should adjust this for you. If you buy from a pawn shop this may also be the case. If you buy from an individual you can bring the guitar to a music store or guitar dealer and have the instrument adjusted for a reasonable fee.

  2. The Neck -of the instrument should be relatively straight when sighting down the fingerboard from the tuning peg end (peg-head) toward the body. It should not be bowed excessively in any way. Actually a properly adjusted neck should have a slight bow or concave appearance toward the middle, which is most obvious near the 6th or 7th fret, to allow for better playability. The quickest way to check this is to hold down any string at the first and twelfth fret simultaneously (takes two hands) and then view the distance between the string and the 6th fret. A properly adjusted neck will have a slight space. There should be no twist in the neck whatsoever. In the case of a used instrument, check the frets for wear (groves under the strings). Deep grooves may cause the instrument to play inaccurately, or to buzz when played. A fret job can solve the problem but can be expensive. Avoid a neck that needs this kind of repair unless you can get it done inexpensively by a professional luthier (instrument builder/repair person).

  3. The Body- of the guitar should not have any cracks or warping of the wood surfaces. On used instruments, especially acoustic instruments, there may be some minor finish checking or cracks but the wood itself should be free of such defects. Also check the seams where the sides, back, and top meet for separation in the joints. Check the bridge of the guitar (where the strings attach) to make sure it is firmly seated on the top of the guitar and that there are no cracks or separations where it meets the body. In the case of a used guitar, a worn finish does not necessarily indicate problems with the instrument, and in the case of vintage instruments some wear is actually desirable and to be expected. Check to see if the instrument appears to have been refinished. If so, the finish should be smooth and even with no bubbling or peeling. Refinished instruments can be a cause for concern if the job has been done poorly or to hide other imperfections. In any case, you might ask the seller to allow an independent evaluation of the instrument if there is any doubt as to it's soundness. An independent luthier or a music store will sometimes provided this service for a small fee.

  4. The Sound - of the instrument should be clear and bright, not muddy and muted. And there should be no buzzing of any kind when the strings are strummed. This can be a sign of loose bracing inside the body of an acoustic guitar indicating more serious problems that can be expensive to repair. In the case of an electric guitar, plug it into an amplifier of some kind, and check the volume and tone controls and pickup switches for any sign of static or electronic noise when the instrument is strummed.

Finally, don't be afraid to negotiate on the price, especially if this is a new instrument. The musical instrument market is a very competitive one and good deals abound. Check the internet to determine the price range for the instrument you're considering purchasing and use that information to negotiate the best deal you can. Most dealers have a policy of matching or beating a legitimate advertised price for the instruments they sell. Print out the ad for the best price you find and bring it with you when you're shopping.

If you've followed the guidelines above you should have acquired a fairly decent quality instrument with which to begin learning to play the guitar. The next step is to find a good teacher or self-teaching manual to get you started, which is the subject of another article. My recommendation to anyone just beginning to play guitar is to take lessons from a qualified instructor for at least a month or two just to get you started properly. Your local music store can usually recommend a teacher, or you can check the internet for teachers in your area.

Remember, that your progress will be determined by how much time you devote to learning about and practicing the instrument. I recommend short practice sessions of 15-minutes a few times a day when you're getting started, rather than long sessions that tax your patience and make your fingers sore. Learning to play is a long-term structured process. For sore fingers, try an old guitarist's remedy: Mix a small amount of glycerin and rubbing alcohol (available at most drugstores) in a small capped bottle and apply it to your fingertips after each practice. The alcohol will help eliminate soreness and the glycerin will keep your calluses supple and prevent peeling.

Above all, have fun and enjoy your new musical adventure with the guitar.

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Bob Buford, Instructor
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