Friday, January 31, 2014

What Kind of Guitar Should I Buy?

So you want to buy a guitar for yourself, or someone else, and don't know what to get? Let me help you. In this blog post, I'll try to give you the guidance you need to start your guitar adventure off on the right foot.

Guitars are either acoustic, acoustic-electric, semi-acoustic, or electric. Most beginners start with an acoustic guitar. They're simple, straightforward, sound nice and loud naturally, don't require amps and cords, and are portable. If your goal is first, just to learn how to play, and maybe play in front of family and friends, and that's as far into the distance as you can see, get a simple acoustic (about which more below).

However, if your goal is to start playing live in public alone as an acoustic guitar player or singer-songwriter, by all means, buy an acoustic-electric. And if your goal is to learn as fast as possible to shred (play super fast solos), or join a rock band, by all means, buy an electric. Keep in mind, however, that if you're serious about guitar as a hobby or profession, you'll almost certainly wind up with at least one guitar from each of the four categories above. They each have different applications, after all. So, for my money, you might as well just grab an acoustic to start with, learn the basics, and go from there.

So what type of acoustic guitar should you buy?

If you are a rank beginner, so that you can't even meaningfully compare things like playability, my suggestion is the Yamaha FG 730S. (No, I have no affiliation with Yamaha, and don't get money for this). These acoustic guitars are the best bang for the buck out there: solid sitka spruce top (that's what you want in a pure acoustic), Indian rosewood sides and back, a fine neck, and a lifetime warranty. You can buy one for what the sales tax would be on an acoustic from one of the big brands like Taylor, Gibson, Martin, or Larrivee - and the Yamaha will probably sound better anyway. Don't believe me? Go into a guitar store which carries the Yamaha FG series, and do a blind hearing test. Choose the Yamaha plus a couple of other options ten times the price, have a friend or employee strums chords on each, and see if you can tell, with your eyes closed, which guitar costs ten times more the other. You won't be able to, and in fact, there is a good chance you'll choose the Yamaha for sound over the others. (Let me add that the Yamaha 720S is a smaller version of this guitar, and also a fine choice).

A few more suggestions. Although your guitar will come with strings, they will lose their sonic brilliance and start to look old and grungy within a few weeks. So while you're at the music shop, I suggest picking up a package of Elixir Nanoweb Acoustic Light Gauge Strings. (No, I'm not affiliated with them, either). The Elixirs sound great, and last far longer than normal strings, due to the thin coating they have on the strings. So even though you'll pay a couple of extra bucks for the strings upfront, you'll save a lot of money in the long run on strings. (If you're bewildered by how to change strings, I'm sure there are plenty of youtube instructional videos on that now).

Also, grab a few picks (guitarists always lose them, so yes, get a few). What type you get is completely a matter of personal preference. Try out as many picks as you want at the store. One good choice is the Dunlop .73 mm Nylon Standard.Why? Because the nylon never breaks (plastic picks break all the time); the ridges on the pick make them much easier to grip than smooth picks; the width is a good compromise between flexibility and solidity; and they sound good. However, again, picks are completely a matter of personal preference, so try a few out and choose which one you like the most.

The mulleted music shop employee might try to sell you a tuner to go along with your starter kit. Don't bother. Simply download a (free) tuner app for your smartphone. Get a guitar case if you want, as well as a basic chord book, and maybe a capo (a clamp-on device which allows you to effectively shorten your guitar's fingerboard) and voila - you're in shape. You can walk out of the music shop with a top class acoustic guitar set-up for around 450 bucks.

One final thought: cases protect your guitar, yes. They're also cumbersome. And with the Yamaha 730S so cheap, my question is, is it really the end of the world if it gets a few nicks and scrapes on it over the next few years? Because you want to bring your guitar as many places as possible with you when you're just starting to learn, I'd consider just keeping your guitar nude. Grab it, throw it in the back of the car, show up at the beach or the camp site, boom, it's there ready to go, and you're not fussing around with a case. This is a personal preference of mine, of course. Just thought it might be worth mentioning.

And the final final thought on your brand new acoustic guitar is this: after your purchase, take your new acoustic guitar to a local luthier and tell him you're a beginner who wants the guitar to be as easy as possible to play. I say this because sometimes with off-the-rack guitars, the action - the distance between the string and the fingerboard - can be unnecessarily high, making the guitar strings difficult to press down. And who wants that? Guitar playing should be fun and easy. So ask your luthier if he can get the action any lower. Doing so will be a pretty simple operation, it won't cost you much, and your guitar will be a lot more fun to play.

What type of guitar should you get if you're eager to get out there and start performing at coffeehouses? Easy - the Yamaha model I mentioned above comes in an acoustic-electric version. Another excellent choice for an acoustic-electric is something from the Yamaha CPX line.

I've mentioned Yamaha a lot, so let me say, it is not the case that other manufacturers don't make fine acoustics and acoustic-electrics. I own a very fine Martin myself, and have played wonderful guitars from other manufacturers. I'm recommending Yamaha here only because the quality for the price is, in my experience, unbeatable.

Anyway, back to your guitar. Let's say you want to buy your first electric. What should you choose?

Well, a quick question: which guitar sound would you prefer to have - the guitar sound at the beginning of Jimi Hendrix's "Hey Joe", or the guitar sound during the solo section on Led Zeppelin's "Heartbreaker" (scroll ahead to the two minute mark)? These are just two samples to illustrate the difference between the two main voices in rock 'n roll (the Fender Stratocaster and the Gibson Les Paul, respectively). The clips are not quite a fair comparison, however, in that Hendrix is playing his Stratocaster clean, while Jimmy Page's Les Paul is distorted. So click here for a fairer comparison. In it, the guy plays the same song (Jethro Tull's "Aqualung") through the same amp on a Fender Stratocaster and then a Gibson Les Paul.

As you can hear, Stratocasters have a more hollow, chime-y, bell-like sound than Les Pauls, which sound fatter and thicker. This is largely attributable to the different pickups they use (the devices which pick up the vibrations of the strings). Stratocasters use a pickup with a single coil; Les Pauls use a pickup with a double coil. Another contributing factor is that the length of a Stratocaster neck is longer, increasing the tension on the guitar strings, which helps produce a twangier, brighter sound. Other differences? Les Pauls have 22 frets, while Stratocasters only have 21. And Les Pauls tend to give you more sustain on your notes. Which voice is better? It depends on what kind of part you're playing on what kind of song, and your own preference. It is hard to imagine the classic Dire Straits song "Sultans of Swing" played on a Les Paul. Likewise, it's hard to imagine Bad Company's classic "Can't Get Enough of Your Love" on a Strat. It would sound weak and ridiculous. (Obviously, if you have the money, just buy one of each!).

But if you must choose one right now, and you decide on the Stratocaster, you have a few options. Luckily for you, Fender (and its subsidiary company Squier) make Stratocasters in all different price rangers. The cheapest are the Squiers. You can get a Squier Stratocaster for under $200, and yes, it will sound pretty much like the guitar at the beginning of "Hey Joe". Proper Fender Stratocasters you can get in the $500-$600 range. That's pretty good. You can also try out a Fender Telecaster. They tend to sound even twangier than Stratocasters (although that twang can be modified through amp choice, of course). Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones has long favoured Telecasters. Bruce Springsteen also plays one. And interestingly, Jimmy Page (known mostly as a Gibson guy) used a Telecaster exclusively on Led Zeppelin I. He also played the solo on "Stairway to Heaven" on a Telecaster. And as with Stratocasters, Fender and Squier give you plenty of choices and price points with the Telecaster.

Les Pauls are a bit trickier. I have no hesitation in saying that the Gibson Les Paul is probably the most over-priced electric guitar out there. They're like two and three grand, sometimes more, and just aren't good enough to warrant that cost. (It's the same with their acoustics, which is again why I recommended the Yamahas).

This is not to say I don't love Gibson Les Pauls. I do. It's just that, right now, they're a rip off for the money. SO, what to do, if you're on a budget?

Buy an Epiphone Les Paul Standard (Epiphone is a Gibson subsidiary company). Those cost a few hundred bucks. Sure, you don't get the Gibson name on your headstock - but who cares? The Beatles played Epiphones. So did Noel Gallagher from Oasis. The pickups aren't great, but the price is (but I have a plan for that. See below). Another choice is the Epiphone Les Paul Ultra III, which is around $750, but gives you some cool features (you can make it sound kind of like an acoustic guitar, as well as a standard Les Paul). The Ultra also has a slimmer neck, and has a few hollowed-out "pockets" in the body, which make it lighter, and also make your tone sound a bit softer than a normal Les Paul's.

But let's go back to the straight Epiphone Les Paul Standard. The price is right, but as I said, the pickups are pretty average. So let's say you want an amazing sounding Les Paul, and the Epiphone for that reason just won't cut it, but you don't want to pay $3000 for the Gibson (whose pickups are better, but still aren't that spectacular). What do you do?

Easy. Buy an Epiphone Les Paul Standard (or any of the Epiphone Les Pauls you like the look of), and then purchase, online, two high end boutique pickups (one for the neck position, one for the bridge). When they arrive, take your Epiphone and your new pickups to a local guitar repair shop and tell the guy to put them in, plus upgrade your wiring and tone pots (he'll know what you mean). Yeah, it's more cumbersome, but when you're done, you'll have spent maybe four or five hundred bucks on the guitar, three hundred for top class pickups, plus a hundred bucks or so for the installation and the wiring upgrades; and for under a grand, you'll have a Les Paul which sounds WAY better than the three thousand dollar Gibson Les Pauls I just told you not to buy. And the name "Epiphone" on your headstock is nothing to shake a stick at. Noel Gallagher conquered the world with one. You can, too (supposing you can write a song as good as "Don't Look Back in Anger" - but that's another blog post altogether).

Which pickups should you order? The good news is that there are many fine independent pickup manufacturers out there now making fantastic humbuckers. Just a few off the top of my head are Bare Knuckle, Wolfetone, Seymour Duncan, Wizz, OX4, Fralin, Lollar, and Electric City. Any PAF-style humbucker set (neck and bridge pickup) from those manufacturers will sound better, and be more responsive and dynamic, than any stock Gibson pickup. (For those keen on their Les Paul sounding exactly like an original '50's Les Paul, consider getting an "unpotted" humbucker. "Unpotted" means the pickup was not dipped in wax, which means it will have more an airy, treble-y sound. The downside is that unpotted pickups are more likely to feed back when around high volume, so...your choice. I know that the Wizz "Premium Clone PAF", the Wolfetone Legend, and the Seymour Duncan Seth Lover come unpotted; there are others out there as well.)

Another (although more idiosyncratic) option, is a combo set from WCR - the set with the Crossroads in the neck position and the Darkburst in the bridge position. These pickups are built to sound like that classic Clapton "woman tone", and they really nail it. I have these in one of my own guitars, and I am blown away by them. They sound awesome, but like no other pickup I know of. For a unique, earthy tone, you cannot go wrong with these.

What about semi-acoustics? Sure, get one if you'd like. Do make sure it's a "semi-hollowbody", or you'll most likely have problems with feedback when you play live. And again, instead of wasting your money on a Gibson, buy an Epiphone (or some other brand) semi-hollowbody and just put the better pickups and wiring in, and you'll be good to go. Clapton played a semi-hollowbody. So did Alvin Lee. So do Noel Gallagher and B. B. King. They tend to give you a slightly richer, warmer tone than a solidbody.

What about other guitar brands? By all means, try some out. Yamaha makes some great electrics. So does PRS (although I personally dislike their big, chunky necks, but you might like them). Gretsch is good for rockabilly (like Brian Setzer), or playing exclusively power rhythm (like Malcolm Young), but tend not to be great for lead work. And if you happen to prefer smaller guitars, try out a Fender Mustang. Ibanez is another brand worth checking out.

Having said all this, I need to stress that in the end, the most important thing is that you find a guitar you love to play. If it needs some tweaking - new pickups, neck adjustment, etc. - a luthier can do that in no time. I've given you lots of information here, and hopefully some guidance to get you started; but honestly, don't sweat it. If you love playing a particular guitar, and you love its sound, that's all that matters in the end.

If this blog has helped you out in any way, or you have any follow up questions, let me know in the comments section below. Good luck!