Valerie Housdon (firstname.lastname@example.org)
is reprinted with permission. It was originally published in Issue 5 of
*Clear Skies*, the Logres Weyr newletter (editors Smitty and Teddy may
be contacted at email@example.com).
Apprentice Guitarists Start Here!
In her article last issue Anne Walker stated that learning to play the
harp is easier than learning to play guitar. Now, Anne is a very good
friend, but that is fighting talk! Learning to play simple accompaniments
is *not* difficult and can be lots of fun. Of course attaining the standard
of, say, Julian Bream or Eric Clapton does take practice.
Choosing your Instrument
To state the obvious, if you want to play guitar, you need a guitar
to play on. However there are a number of different types of guitar
and the type you get depends upon what you want to do with it. And the
answer "Learn to play the thing, of course!" just isn't good enough.
The main types of guitar are as follows:
Classical (or Spanish) guitar
Accoustic (or Folk) guitar
12-string guitar (*This can come in accoustic, semi-accoustic and full
Bass guitar (*Accoustic and electric*)
If you want to play Baroque concertos, you would not buy a bass guitar.
Similarly if you want to play Heavy Metal, you would not buy a Flamenco
guitar. But apart from those obvious examples, how does a complete beginner
know which sort of instrument to get? If you are planning to take proper
lessons, then your teacher will give you very good advice. If you are
teaching yourself with the help of a book, then read what is has to
say on choosing your instrument very carefully. The following is a general
Classical or Spanish Guitar
The instrument traditionally used for playing "classical" music comes
originally from Spain. It is made of wood with a large, hollow sound-box
with a shape reminiscient of the female torso, which is probably why
so many male guitarists give their instruments female names. (Both my
Spanish guitars have male names, as indeed do all my instruments, which
allows me to be rude about them!) The long fretboard is made of solid
wood, and the machine heads are geared to facilitate fine tuning. Historically
the instrument was strung with gut strings. Nowadays nylon strings are
used - NEVER, NEVER, NEVER put metal strings on a classical guitar!
- which gives a sweet, gentle, slightly muted sound. This instrument
is ideal for any melodic work but particularly suited to classical music.
Cons: The fretboard is wider than on an accoustic guitar, which could
cause problems for people with small hands and/or short fingers; nylon
strings "learn" a tuning and don't "like" change, which makes experimenting
with different tunings difficult and/or expensive; heavy strumming styles
(e.g. heavy rock) doesn't sound quite right when played on nylon strings.
The main difference between this and a classical guitar is that the
fretboard is even wider. Apart from that, the two guitar types are pretty
much the same.1)
or Folk Guitar
This is similar in looks to the classical. The main differences are
that the fretboard is narrower with extra
strengthening to cope with greater tension, the sound-box is sometimes
extra large (e.g. "Jumbo" guitars), and the strings are made of steel.
The sound these make is thinner and more "brittle" and on a very cheap
instrument can sound tinny. However it is very popular with folk musicians
on both sides of the Atlantic who have little problem playing complex
finger-picking styles on them. If you want to play rhythms, do a lot
of heavy strumming, take your first steps in rock, use a variety of
tunings or if you want to play blues and its variants, e.g. slide or
"bottleneck" guitar, you should give this type of guitar serious consideration.
Cons: Not suitable for playing classical music; the metal strings cut
into the fingers much more than nylon strings, and you may need to wear
finger picks; the sound is harsher.
An electric guitar is a guitar which needs to be plugged into an electric
amplifier for any appreciable sound to be
heard. Many are completely solid and can be heavy. Always wear a comfortable
shoulder strap. Some electric guitars have a thin, hollow sound-box
in which the electric gadgetry is concealed. These are usually more
lightweight, and there are some machines on the market which can make
a variety of sounds from "classical" through to a Stratocaster. The
electric guitar is used for rock, pop and performance playing in venues
where amplification is needed.
Cons: Requires additional equipment such as an amplifier, leads, effects
pedals etc., to use as well as a power supply; all this comes expensive;
everyone hears *all* your mistakes; requires frequent servicing by an
A semi-accoustic guitar is a proper electric guitar with a large enough
hollow sound-box to make enough sound so that you don't have to plug
it into an amplifier when playing in a smaller area such as the living
room of an ordinary house. Because the sound-box is usually metal, it
does not have the depth or quality of sound of an accoustic. Please
bear in mind that accoustic guitars often come with a built in pick-up
to facilitate electrical amplification when necessary, so be sure you
really want a semi-accoustic before parting with hard cash.
Cons: As for electric guitar; a compromise between electric and accoustic.
Guitars usually come with six strings. Twelve strings therefore double
the sound - there is no need to learn new
chords! This type of guitar is particularly useful where you want loud
strumming with a depth of sound, but can also be use for picking out
tunes where you want twin sounds an octave apart, although this takes
practice to master. It can also be used as a percussive instrument.
I have seen people finger-pick accompaniments on twelve-string guitars,
and indeed have done so myself, but watch out for your fingers. Warnings
about metal strings operate with a vengeance with this instrument, and
I have yet to see a nylon-strung version. The fretboard is extra long
and many people tune their instrument down a tone to ease the tension
thus lightening the action. I tune mine down so that I can sing in F
and play in G!
Cons: Less flexible than a six-string guitar; it can't be used for classical
music; less suited to melodic work,
unless you want a particular effect; tuning the instrument is the greatest
form of masochism known to guitarists!
A bass guitar comes with four or, less usually, five strings, and occasionally
with a fretless neck. The tuning
is the same as for the bottom four (or five) strings of a guitar but
down an octave, and the strings are therefore
thicker and heavier. The instrument is used for laying down a bass line,
and sometimes for the rhythm. In some rock bands the bassist rather
than the drummer holds the band's playing together - no, I do not have
anyone in particular in mind!
Cons: You are limited in what you can play; electric basses require
as much equipment as any other electric guitar; the extra equipment
for electric basses can be expensive; solid electric basses can be very
heavy, so check the weight.
The Pernese Connection
There had to be one, didn't there? Most of the above instruments are
not Pernese and would not used by members of the Harpercraft. Being
very practical people the inhabitants of our favourite planet would
not waste their scarce metal and energy resources on metal guitar strings
and electric amplification. Their guitars would be strung with gut,
and the sort of music they played would suit the sound that produced.
Which is not to say that no songs would be accompanied by heavy strumming.
Of course some would. And no doubt someone would lay down a heavy rhythm
line on an accoustic bass with thick gut strings. If you are thinking
of taking up guitar simply because your persona is an apprentice harper,
(and why not? As you learn, you can pepper your stories with anecdotes
based on experience as you master hurdles such as bar chords) then apart
from deciding that the most suitable instrument for you is the classical
or Spanish guitar, there are a few other points to bear in mind. I mentioned
earlier that modern guitars usually have geared machine heads to facilitate
fine tuning. This means that you can turn the pegs through quite a large
angle (e.g. 1800) and only marginally alter the string's tuning. Changing
the note completely will require quite a few twists. This is not true
of an ungeared (or pegged) intrument, where the strings are wound directly
onto the tuning pegs. A small tweak can materially alter a string's
tuning. I have a pegged banjo and speak from experience! If tuning a
geared 12-string guitar is the greatest form of masochism known to guitarists,
trying to tune a pegged instrument is sheer torture. Pity the poor journeyman
charged with teaching the new apprentices - his nerves would be raw
from the cacophony of a large number of pegged instruments not quite
in tune with one another.
There are, of course, no electronic tuners on Pern, and Harpers would
tune their instruments by ear. Members of the Craft who have achieved
significant rank are quite likely to have perfect, or near perfect pitch.
Other, lesser mortals would no doubt get their pitch from pipes not
too dissimilar in concept from the pitch pipes that can be bought in
any music shop. On Pern such pipes are more likely to be made from reed
or wood, rather than metal. Picks for heavy strumming are likely to
be made from bone. The solid part of a capo is more likely to be made
from wood, although a Harper should be able to play in any key. Cases
would be made from canvas, leather or wood. And in the hot, dry atmosphere
of Central Weyr, the wood of the instrument would have to be kept well-oiled
to prevent it drying out and warping.
if you really want to play Heavy Metal (or whatever) but thought you
would write a Harper persona at the same time, you must buy the instrument
that is most suited to what you want to do, rather than a classical
because it is the most Pernese. Once you have started learning you will
get to know other guitarists who may have nylon strung instruments which
you could try out, for research purposes naturally!
Much does a Guitar Cost?
How long is a piece of string? It is still possible to buy a brand new
guitar for under GBP50, though if money is
tight you might do better going for a second hand instrument. The usual
advice is to spend as much as you can afford, as you are much more likely
to progress with an instrument that is nice to play. I would advise
trying to afford at least GBP100, and if you can afford over GBP200
the extra expense will be worth it. But be sensible - don't spend GBP2,000
simply because you have the money. You don't know at this stage how
you will get on with the instrument. Also once you have set a maximum
price for yourself, stick to it, don't exceed it. If the salesman suggests
you try something that is "only" GBP10 more than your maximum, just
say no. Finally, don't feel you have to buy the most expensive one that
you can afford if you really prefer one that is cheaper. Price is just
one of many considerations.
I am not
familiar enough with the US market to suggest guide prices in US dollars.
So why not talk to some guitar-playing filkers at the next con. They
should be able to point you in the right direction.
What should I Look Out For When I Buy a Guitar?
Whether you are spending GBP30 or GBP300 you should take the same care
when buying your instrument. You may want to take a friend with you
for moral support. Don't feel you have to. Also, don't feel you have
to buy the guitar that the salesman likes best. He (or she) is likely
to be an enthusiast and will have tried out every model in stock, but
what is right for the salesman is not necessarily right for you. But
whatever you do, don't buy a guitar without trying it out first! How
do you know what is right for you? Well, it helps if you have tried
out a friend's instrument beforehand, and have learnt a few chords,
but even if you haven't, if you bear in mind the following pointers,
you should buy something that is reasonable to get you started. How
does the guitar feel? Accoustic and classical guitars should not feel
heavy. If you are buying a solid body electric guitar, how heavy does
it feel hanging from a strap round your shoulders? Are your arms or
shoulders going to ache after less than three minutes? You should be
able to play comfortably for hours. How high are the strings from the
fretboard? This is known as the action. The higher the action, that
is the greater the distance between the strings and the neck, the more
the strings will cut into your fingers and the greater difficulty you
will have with techniques such as bar chords. It can also make the muscles
in your forearms ache. Knowing two or three easy chords will help you
assess how comfortable the action is for you.
should feel nice to play. When you hold down a chord, does the instrument
buzz? This could be poor technique on your part, so check that you are
pressing the strings down firmly in the fret, and are not touching the
ridges. If the instrument still buzzes then don't buy it. Is the neck
straight? This is a particularly important consideration if you are
buying a second hand instrument, but should not be overlooked when buying
something new. You could try looking down the neck to see if it is warped,
but a complete newcomer need not recognise distortion. Another test
therefore is to check the octaves. Play a string and note the sound.
Count twelve frets from the head and hold down the string you have just
played. Play it again, and the note should be exactly the same an octave
higher. Play it few times, alternating between open and held down on
the twelfth fret. The only difference between the two notes should be
the pitch. Do this for each string, and if the octave is not true, then
there is something wrong with the guitar. On some accoustics, the neck
can be adjusted, so if the octaves are still not right to your ears
after adjusting, even if the salesman says it is alright, then that
is not the guitar for you.
do you like the sound? If it does not make the sound you like, then
don't buy it. If it sounds just right, then that is fine. Don't buy
a guitar because someone else prefers the sound, if you don't.
all this this instrument feels nice and sounds the way you want it to
sound, and it is within your budget,
and it says "Buy me!" then go ahead. Buy it. You should also buy a protective
case (preferably a hard one, although at around GBP70 this can be expensive),
and you may also want a capo (very useful!) and some light picks.
you have your guitar. Have fun! And invite me round for a session sometime,
Since writing the above article, I have been reminded that another difference
between the "classical" and the flamenco guitar is that the latter has
a finger board on the sound box, to protect the finish. This is generally
true, but is not absolute gospel, particularly if you are buying a secondhand
instrument. In the late sixties many different types of guitars, including
the steel strung acoustic, had finger boards, and the older of my two
"classical" guitars, which has the narrowest neck I've ever come across
on a Spanish guitar,has a fingerboard.