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Choosing A Guitar

by Valerie Housdon (vhousden@cix.compulink.co.uk)


The following 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 smitty1@cix.compulink.co.uk).

CHOOSING A GUITAR

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
Flamenco guitar
Accoustic (or Folk) guitar
Electric guitar
Semi-accoustic guitar
12-string guitar (*This can come in accoustic, semi-accoustic and full electric versions*)
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 guide.

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.

Flamenco Guitar

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)

Accoustic 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.

Electric Guitar

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 expert.

Semi-accoustic Guitar

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.

12-string Guitar

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!

Bass Guitar

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.

Of course, 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!

How 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.

The instrument 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.

Finally 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.

If after 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.

So now you have your guitar. Have fun! And invite me round for a session sometime, huh?

1) 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.


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