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Beginner Guitar Tips: How To Find And Select Your First Guitar

May 22, 2008
Learning to play guitar is a major decision, and getting a good starter guitar involves more decisions still. If you're shy about committing to a purchase of a brand new instrument, here are a few ways you can obtain a guitar:

If you have a friend or a relative who plays, ask them if they have an extra guitar to loan or sell to you. Maybe they will even give you some instructions on guitar playing. If you have any musician friends or relatives, ask if they have a spare guitar that you could borrow or buy. Most guitar freaks like myself have more than one guitar, and you can only play one at a time! So ask around first.

If you can't borrow, but don't want to commit to buying just yet, you can rent a guitar. Most music stores rent out instruments to beginning students on a weekly or monthly basis. This is an affordable option because it requires a weekly or monthly rental fee. If you then find that learning the guitar is not for you, then at least you won't be stuck with a guitar that you bought and now no longer want! And if you don't like the instrument you rented you can try another one instead.

When you go to rent a guitar, explain to the store clerk that you're just starting out and ask about their rental policy. Make sure you can change the instrument if the first one doesn't work out for you.

Ask about a repair policy, just in case you accidentally damage your rented guitar. Try out several of the guitars in the shop -- window-shopping will not do, you need to have a comfortable feel for the guitar. You should be looking for a guitar that isn't too wide or too large to hold, that you can hold comfortably in your lap with enough room for the strumming arm to hang down and easily strike the strings. Your elbow of your strumming arm should be able to hang down from the edge of the guitar in a relaxed fashion. Comfort is key! You will be spending hours and hours in guitar practice, so make sure you feel comfortable holding and playing the guitar. If you fall in love with a particular guitar, so much the better! Practice will be fun and not a chore, which will make a huge difference in your mastery of the instrument.

If you decide to buy a used guitar you need to make sure it's playable and doesn't have flaws that will impede your guitar playing. Small chips or nicks in the top, neck or body can be overlooked, because that is normal wear and tear. Belt buckles can scratch up the back side of the guitar body, but just scratches or nicks won't affect the sound or playability of the guitar.

What you need to look for are cracks, big dents, poor action, buzzing, and warped guitar necks. Do not buy a guitar with cracks in the body or top, or dents that go through the surface. The top, whether flat or archtop, must be free of any cracks and should be flat and not warped or curved.

Does the guitar buzz when played? Buzzing can come from a problem in the tuning pegs, the nut, too low an action, a warp in the neck, or an uneven bridge. Do not buy a used guitar that buzzes unless the store can have it fixed. Sometimes buzzing requires only slight adjustments to be fixed, but sometimes it may indicate a major problem with the guitar that you don't need to deal with. Buzzing in a new guitar can usually be remedied with a few slight adjustments, but buzzing in a used guitar is bad, unless the store can fix it before you buy it.

Buzzing can also occur when you don't press down your finger properly on the fret to produce a note. Since you don't yet know how to play, ask the store clerk to play the guitar for you to make sure it doesn't buzz.

Try the guitar out. Do the strings stay in tune? If not, there can be structural problems with the tuning machines and you definitely do not want to deal with that. Play the guitar for several minutes in the store, or ask someone else to play it so that you can determine whether the strings stay in tune. It's like buying a used car: you don't want to inherit someone else's headache. Generally, a reputable guitar store will take care of problems with used guitars before they place them for sale. But pay attention if you are buying used guitar: check the guitar out from headstock to bridge. If something seems amiss, look for another guitar! If you buy on eBay or another online vendor, make sure there is a return policy.

Next, check the action. When you press the strings down against the fingerboard with the fingertips of your playing hand make sure there isn't a lot of space between the strings and the fingerboard. The space between the upper fingerboard and the strings is called the "action,"and it makes a huge difference in the ease and speed of playing. A small distance between the strings and fingerboard (without buzzing) is very desirable for the beginner guitarist and in fact for all guitarists.

A large distance makes for very difficult playing and can discourage the beginner altogether. You'll need to develop hand strength to play in any case, so don't make it harder than it already is by getting a guitar with poor action!

You also want to check the guitar neck. A warped neck will be a real problem; it ruins the action and makes the guitar hard to play. Sight down the neck of the guitar from the headstock looking toward the guitar body, as if you were looking down the sight of a rifle. There should be a very slight curvature or dip near the body, not a big one, and the fingerboard should appear even from side to side.

If the guitar is otherwise comfortable, sounds good, fits into your body easily, and looks halfway decent, then it may just be the one for you. Follow your gut feeling on this: if the guitar feels really right, and has no major flaws, and you feel drawn to it, there's your answer. After all, the guitar is going to become your daily companion that you spend a lot of time with, so make sure you can make friends with it easily. If you're buying a used guitar from a shop, ask if there is any return period, just in case you find something wrong with it when you begin to practice.

The used guitar should come with a case or at least a lightweight gig bag. A cardboard box is not an ideal storage place for any guitar, used or new. If the case in not included then try to bargain for a new or used hardshell case, which is the toughest, most durable type of case, complete with felt inner lining and a durable exterior. A regular guitar case is cheaper than a hardshell, and will do fine if you are not in transit a lot with the guitar. Or you can probably get a new "gig bag," which is made of a lightweight plastic material, for about $20-30.

When you buy a new guitar, follow the above guitar tips just the same. Just because it is fresh from the factory doesn't mean it is perfect! Check the action, the neck, and the body for flaws. If the guitar buzzes, it may need some setup work so ask the vendor about that. Buzzing is not necessarily a sign of a major problem and can be corrected with some adjustments, but you shouldn't have to make them yourself. Finally, when buying a new guitar definitely inquire about a return period, and a warranty for parts and labor in case something goes wrong. Find out if you can bring the guitar back to the store where you bought it, or whether you would have to ship it back to the manufacturer directly. And until you are sure you want to keep the guitar, save the box it was delivered in! Having to return a brand new guitar is difficult enough without having to buy a guitar box to return it in.

Once you get your guitar, practice, practice, and play it as much as you can! Playing the guitar is a fabulous hobby that will reward you with years of enjoyment in exchange for practice and dedication.
About the Author
Barbara Salerno is a hobby guitar player and writes articles about the basics of guitar playing for beginners and those needing advice and encouragement. See http://www.guitar-playing-for-beginners.com .
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