Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Guitar Gear for Beginners - Part 1 - The Guitar

I have been teaching guitar lessons for about 10 years. I have had students ranging in age from 7 to mid 40's. But usually, most of the kids are 10 to 18. Generally speaking they have a hand-me-down guitar or something that was picked up at a yard sale. Occasionally they have a nicer used instrument or something that a parent went out and picked up so their kid could check it out. It has generally been the exception to the rule that one of these instruments is quality. I have seen my share of 'walmart' instruments or things that I would put more in a 'toy' category rather than an 'instrument' category. Over the past few years with the popularity of games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band, I have certainly seen a surge in interest in guitar lessons. Also with that I have seen parents who are a lot more interested in getting their kids a quality instrument to play on, or at least something that is not junk, but at the same time they want to minimize their investment in case their kid figures out that playing a real guitar takes more effort than beating Slash on Expert on Guitar Hero. So after helping several folks figure out what their next move for their kids are this Christmas, I decided that a post might be in order.

The Guitar

Undoubtably the centerpoint of new gear for a kid when doffing the plastic virtual guitar is the axe itself. There are certainly many tiers of guitars covering a wide variety of prices. I have been asked many times if acoustic is a better way to start guitar, well personally, I don't think so. I'll probably write another whole post on that later. So these suggestions will all be electric.

The Starter Guitar $100-$180

The Squier by Fender - This is a staple starter guitar. The bare bones essential starter. There are 2 types the Bullet which is around $100 and the Affinity which is about $170. The affinity has a slightly better hardware on it. There is also the Squier Mini which is a 3/4 size guitar. If your child is  a younger starter or has overly small hands a 3/4 size might be a good idea. Otherwise your average 9-10 year old should be able to handle a full size.

The Epiphone Specials - The other big player here in starter guitars is the Epiphone "specials" The SG Special and the Les Paul Special II. These guitars run about $170 - $180. They are solid "no frills" versions of the higher level Epiphone SGs and LPs, or if you like, very low versions of the original Gibson versions of these instruments.  

For most kids the difference between the Affinity Strat, The LP Special II and the SG Special are looks and there are several colors available in each. I would recommend trying to get an idea which style and color your beginner likes best as they will be more likely to want to play an instrument that has a personal feel to it. As for quality, these 3 instruments are pretty close. 

The Next Step $300+

Once a player has shown that they are committed to playing and devoting the time needed to 'stick with it', it is a good idea to move them up to the next level. If their starter is still in good condition, you can probably get a fair amount out of it, or hold on to it so they can always have "Their first guitar" (I wish a shelf hadn't fallen over on my first guitar and cracked the neck). 

Now this next step is different for every student. A big part of the next step is dependent on a couple factors.
  • Seriousness of the student
  • What are they wanting to do with it?
  • Financial Considerations
If your student has been playing for a couple years and couldn't care one way or another if they continue, it might not be a wise investment to upgrade them. Now I know this seems like common sense, but I put this in the same category with folks who by a $600 guitar for a student who has never picked one up before and plays it for 2 months. 

Next is what they want to do with it. Are they wanting something to strum on every once and a while to get away, or have they already started their own band in the garage and are in the process of recording a CD? It goes hand in hand with how serious they are. But if they plan on playing "out" a higher quality instrument may serve them better. 

Finally there are financial considerations.  If you are like most parents, you do not have a limitless supply of cash. If you are reading this than you probably have a child in lessons at $15-$25 a week, plus who knows what else.  You want the most "bang for your buck" and you want something that will last. Let me make a few suggestions. When I was at this point myself, I was 14, I had been playing for a couple years and was in need of a guitar (see note on starter guitar). My father told me that he would not buy me a guitar outright. He had purchased my starter guitar and amp, but this time it would be a little different. He set up a matching program. He would match me dollar for dollar on a new guitar. Little did he know that I had a pretty cleaning job lined up for that summer and was able to put together about $500. So armed with $1k he and I went down to Daddy's Junky Music Store in Portland, ME and I picked out my guitar, an Ibanez 540S LTD. This was a major step up for me and it was my full time guitar for about 17 years.  So this step can be a big one, but having the student invested in it as well can make a world of difference.

 If you go with a oddly shaped guitar (not a standard strat,lp,sg,tele, etc style, not necessarily the brand name ones mind you) you may be getting something that will be 'dated' in 10 years. If this is a 10-20 year investment, then getting something a little more timeless might be in order. That is not to say that funky shapes and such don't have thier place, I'm just saying that a 14 year old picking a $1000 guitar can be scary. 

Also what style of music does your student ENJOY playing? When I give lessons my students understand that although I am teaching them to read music, they are free to explore whatever styles of music intrest them. What types of guitars are their favorite artists playing? And please realize that it is ok for them to like xyz type of music (lyrics aside, that is a whole different conversation). Even though it may not be your thing, allowing them to explore while being as open (musically) as possible is a good thing. So I say ALL this to point out that the 2nd guitar is a lot more personal for a student and may last them a long time. When the time, interest level, and finances all line up then you are ready to make that purchase that will inspire your musician for years to come.

Next time we will talk about the next part in getting set up for the beginner...the amp.

If you have advice for the beginner, please feel free to comment!

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