I was playing a duet version of Bach’s Minuet in G this week with my guitar teacher. It’s one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever composed, even when I play it. It can move people to tears. Of course, my playing has often moved people to tears, which isn’t so bad until they start throwing things. Nyuck nyuck nyuck.
After playing the instrument for more than 40 years, I know a lot about the guitar. Practically everything except how to practice regularly or play it well. For those interested in playing, or who knows someone — perhaps a younger person — interested in taking it up, here are some pointers.
First, if you have a guitar, get it out. If you don’t know where it is, or if you still even have it, you may not be practicing often enough. Ditto if, when you locate it under the bed in the spare room, you can’t tell it’s a guitar because of the dust, or if the snaps on the case are rusted shut.
Change the strings on the guitar. You think you just changed them. Wrong. It was seven years ago. Change the strings.
When you change the strings, have the necessary equipment and supplies: a pair of needle-nosed pliers (trims the long ends after the strings are on, or helps you cut off the old, rusted strings if it’s been 7 years since you played them), band-aids (you WILL stab at least one finger with the little, thin e-string. No way to avoid it unless you’re really good at changing strings, as in doing it a few dozen times a year) and a tuner. Of course, if you have a piano, you can tune to the piano, assuming that you’ve had your piano tuned in the past decade. (You can tune your guitar to the piano, but don’t try to tune your piano to the guitar: no user serviceable parts inside). If you have other instruments around the house, especially a violin or a woodwind, don’t expose your guitar to them; they’re well-known sources of out of tune playing. Regard all such instruments with deep suspicion. If you doubt me, attend an amateur violin recital some time. The parents will say to one another, “Well, that wasn’t as hellish as last year, was it?” But I digress.
If your computer has a microphone, there are groovy on-line tuners on the Web you can use. You can use your phone’s dial tone (UK: dialing tone) if you’re good. The U.S. dial tone is primarily A above middle C, but there’s also an F mixed in there, so it’s tricky. At worst, you’ll be within a couple of full tones. Or, since I know all you faithful Western Skies readers own harmonicas, just pull out the harp in whatever key you have, blow into the fourth hole from the left, and that is the root tone of whatever key your harmonica is in. Easy. If you have a C harmonica, that 4th hole is a C, which isn’t represented by an open string on the guitar, but you DO have all the notes on there if you can find them.
If you’re a beginner or helping a beginner get started and need to buy a guitar, then Happy Day. There’s nothing cooler than buying a new instrument. It beats buying a new car, because you don’t have to deal with all the paperwork and financing and the salesman crying because you’re beating him down and stealing bread from his children’s mouths. Try not to be a snob with your first instrument. It doesn’t have to be an expensive one. Your second instrument can be some slam-bam exotic model as played by Yngwie Malmsteen or Jack White. Especially if you don’t already read music or play another instrument or know something about what notes are in the scale, stick to the basics. There have probably never been more great instruments being manufactured at all sorts of prices than now (purists will disagree, but then, that’s what purists always do, in any age). The Internet is just as great a place to buy guitars as it is to buy used automobiles or property in Florida: if you don’t know a whole heck of a lot about the subject, don’t do it. I speak from experience, both bad and good. Mostly not good. Buy a guitar you can see and try out, at least for the first one. I’ve written before on the dread disease of guitar collecting, HERE.
Whatever you do, don’t look at magazines like Guitar Aficionado, which promote the idea that everyone in the world but you owns a 1937 Gibson “L” model worth fifty thousand dollars. The same type of people own those as own Ferraris; look but don’t touch.
If you can’t play the guitar yet, have the person in the store play it for you so that you can hear what it sounds like. Have them play at least two, just so you can compare. If they can’t play the guitar, perhaps you should be dealing with a different salesperson. In some stores, buying guitars is like buying a car — the salespeople will try to sell you on a more expensive one than the first one you look at. Use your own judgment. What’s their motivation? If you buy a guitar that’s on display, see if they’ll put new strings on it for you without charging you extra. No telling how long those strings have been on there.
Another car analogy: used guitars don’t have full trade-in value except for really fancy ones. Once it’s used, it’s used. There’s no authoritative Kelly Blue Book equivalent for used guitars, though there are a number of guides out there. Don’t consider a guitar an investment unless you’re spending a lot of money on a vintage instrument. Its something to play, not an investment, at least for your first one.
When you are doing your daily hour of practice (ahem), and you need to put your guitar down to go to the computer and type in a recipe you just thought of, put the guitar back in the case, close the lid, and snap at least one of the clasps shut. This avoids several problems: another family member walking through the room reading the second draft of their letter to the New York Times not noticing the guitar lying there and stepping on it. Stepping on a guitar almost inevitably reduces its playability and causes friction in the family. Then, snapping that one lock avoids the problem that once you got to your computer, you got involved in a long Facebook discussion about whether Led Zeppelin will ever tour again, and when you race back into the living room to grab your guitar and hurry to your lesson (I know that’s why you were practicing, because you didn’t practice all week), it won’t flop out and bang the edge of the coffee table, thus reducing the fineness of the finish (on both instrument and table), if not the guitar’s playability. This doesn’t always lead to friction in the family, unless your dad sees it and asks what in heck you’ve been doing with the nice guitar he gave up a year’s worth of visits to Starbucks to buy you, of if your wife sees that big ding in the coffee table. In the latter case, blame the dog. If you don’t have a dog, say a dog ran in when you left the door open while you were taking out the garbage.
Don’t set drinks or plates of food on your guitar. This may seem like a no-brainer, but it must be a widely indulged practice, because every experienced guitarist has a story about someone ELSE doing it and suffering the consequences. Always someone ELSE, mind you. Ahem.
Resist the temptation to play the guitar behind your back. Inevitable result: droppage, reduced playability, damage to nearby wedding gift from parents, family friction. If you must conquer the mental challenge of playing the guitar upside down and backwards, restring your guitar backwards. Of course, after you’re bored trying that for 5 minutes, you’ll have to restring it again, but at least you’ll have a) new strings b) more restringing practice c) a band-aid on the middle finger of your left hand.
Resist the temptation to try strumming the guitar with objects other than a pick (UK and Julliard School of Music: plectrum), such as, oh small espresso saucer, piece of linoleum, South Dakota quarter, random items from top bureau drawer, etc. The variety of sound produced isn’t interesting enough to warrant the likely scratches in the finish, aforementioned friction, etc. Django once played with the broken-off end of a comb when he couldn’t afford a pick, and there are myriad stories of other weird and wonderful items used as picks by noted players. Leave it to the pros, kids.
In early lessons or beginning guitar instruction manuals, they’ll try to get you to play “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore.” Avoid if possible. MRtBA is a particularly pernicious ear-worm, and you’ll be stuck with it repeating in your head for the next three days. You may never pick up the guitar again.
Carrying your guitar correctly can set you apart as someone who knows what you’re doing. Pick up your case with the large, lower end of the guitar facing forward and the lid positioned so that if it flops open, it opens against your body, and not away from you. The first detail means that when you DO bump into something, the stronger, curved bottom takes the blow, not the more delicate headstock and tuners. And, if that lid flips open, your leg will keep it from opening all the way and dumping your guitar on the ground with attendant unplayability, friction, etc.
I hope these tips will be useful to you. As for actually PLAYING the thing, well, take some lessons. Don’t let Jimmy Down the Street teach you. You’ll only learn a crappy version of “Stairway to Heaven” or “Blackbird,” give up, and seven years from now you’ll be wondering where you put your guitar.
Have any guitar tips to share? I know there are a number of musicians among our readers, and we’d be glad to have the benefit of your wisdom.
© 2013 Brad Nixon