I started playing guitar in August 2020 during the pandemic to give myself something to do. This is kind of a made up excuse, because between working from home and having three kids, I rarely go out anyway. Pandemic life didn’t change much for me, but I got interested and went for it.
Here’s what I learned as a guitar noob that I think might be helpful for other people wanting to get into guitar. Things nobody told me that are just kind of obvious to experienced players.
1. What Kind of Guitar to Get
If you’re not already familiar with guitars, the best thing to do is get a starter kit. It’ll include everything you need to get playing in one package. If you have $300-$500 to spend, get one of these.
- Squier Stratocaster - Squier is a subsidary of Fender
- Epiphone Les Paul Player Pack - Epiphone is a subsidiary of Gibson
If you don’t want to spend that much (and I recommend you don’t if you don’t know how committed you’ll be to this hobby), then just go to Amazon or eBay, search for electric guitar, sort by lowest price and get the cheapest thing that includes an amp. It’ll be shit, but you’ll get to figure out if you find this fun or tedious.
If you find it fun, then by the time you figure that out you’ll know a bit more about guitars and probably what you’re interested in when it comes time to get an upgrade. Remember, if you enjoy playing guitar then this is your first guitar. Not your last guitar.
If you find it tedious, then sell it (or give it away) on OfferUp, Craigslist, or (if you must) Facebook Marketplace.
2. Where to Buy Gear
The easy answer is Amazon. I don’t even need to explain why.
That being said, there are noteworthy alternatives.
- Sweetwater - IMO, the best online music store. If it exists, they probably sell it. Often times cheaper than Amazon. Sweetwater is immensly popular with the guitar community online.
- Sam Ash - Also a brick and mortar store that probably has a location near you.
- Guitar Center - The Walmart of guitar stores. Not great, but better than nothing. I prefer Sam Ash if you have that option.
- Reverb - For buying/selling used gear. It’s like the eBay of music, but everything is “buy it now” and no bidding. Anybod can post what they have for sale. If you’re looking for something that’s rare or hard to find, there’s a good chance you can find it on Reverb.
- Any local guitar/music store. Search Yelp for guitar or music. There’s almost certainly several nearby. Support local businesses. But, their selection is not going to be nearly as good as Guitar Center or Sweetwater
3. What gear to buy
The first thing to know about gear is that there’s a lot of cheap crap out there. You’ll want to avioid it. If you want a thing but you’re not sure which thing among a sea of choices, get the Fender one.
Why Fender? Fender seems like they want to be a one stop shop for all things guitar. If a guitar accessory exists, Fender makes one. Fender is good quality at a decent price. It may not be the best, but it’s solid.
That being said, here are a few accessories I recommend, in order of importance.
- PolyTune Clip - I like this one a lot better than other clip-on tuners. You definitely want a clip on tuner. Tuner apps, in my experience, aren’t that great.
- Fender nylon picks - For a beginner, you’ll want the thinnest, flimsiest picks you can find because the pick will glide over the strings no matter how bad your technique is.
- String winder and wire cutter - This is a bundle pack with both a winder and cutter. You can buy them separtely if you like, but you’ll definitely need this when it comes time to change strings (more on that below).
- Neck stand - When you’re performing maintenance on your guitar you want the head floating above your work surface.
- G7th Capo - I find the design much easier to use than most other capos. It’s easy to clip on, has a quick-release, and applies pressure evenly to any neck radius.
I listed capo last because as a beginner you probably don’t need one. At least not yet. If you don’t know why you need one, then you don’t need one yet.
I also didn’t list a guitar stand. I recommend keeping your guitar in a case rather than sitting out getting dusty (no matter how much you play it, you will have to sleep eventually). When I set my guitar down it’s generally in the case. I prefer hard shell cases, especially as your guitar gets more expensive. The extra protection will be worth it. I don’t mean to say don’t get a guitar stand. But don’t store your guitar on a guitar stand. It’s useful if you want to set it down for a moment during a session without having to unplug it and you know you’re coming back in a few minutes.
4. When to change the strings
You won’t need to worry about this straight off, but eventually you need to change those strings. This is what prompted me to write this article. When exactly should you change your strings? How do you know they need changing?
Most of the discussion of this around the Internet I found very frustrating. Pretty much everyone says that it’s time to change your strings “when they don’t sound as lively”, and that is actually the best way to describe it. But, as a beginner, what the fuck exactly does that mean?
When you pluck a string normally it will ring out. The string will continue vibrating and producing sound (especially if plugged in) for several seconds, possibly minutes if you’ve got good sustain and just let it go. I’ve found that “when they don’t sound as lively” means that the strings will ring out a shorter amount of time. Sometimes it’s hard to tell, especially because there’s no performance cliff for strings. They’ll gradually get worse and you won’t really notice as it happens. But one day you’ll notice that plucking open strings won’t ring out as long as it used to. That’s when to change them. You’ll notice a drastic difference putting new strings on. Over time you’ll become better at recognizing this. If you’re still not sure, go for about every 3-6 months.
5. How to change strings
Changing strings is a pain in the ass, especially if you’ve never done it before and you don’t have anyone to show you in person. The biggest issue you’ll have with changing strings is that they’ll slip as you’re trying to wind it. There are myriad terrible videos out there on changing strings that don’t address this issue.
I don’t remember the first time I encountered the Luthier’s Knot technique, but I’ve found it’s the least frustrating way to change strings. There’s a good video on it here: https://youtu.be/oWf6eaoeMs0
6. What to Learn
I highly recommend Justin Guitar. These are free courses available on the website, broken down into grades. This will take you from beginner day one through at least intermediate level.
There’s also an app that you can use instead of the web site. It has a subscription, but it includes thousands of songs you can play along with. You start playing along with songs from day one, which, in my opinion, is much more satisfying.
I’ve tried several other apps, but Justin Guitar worked really well for me. I wanted to like Simply Guitar, since I’ve been using Simply Piano for learning piano, but no amount of tuning would get Simply Guitar to recognize my plaing, even with an amp cranked loud, and even with a direct interface.
A supplemental app is called FourChords Guitar Songbook which is by the same app developer but it’s just songs without all the Justin Guitar lessons. Each of the two apps have a different list of songs, but there’s a substantial overlap as well. In total between the two apps there somewhere around 2,000-3,000 songs.
If you’re new to guitar, or interested in starting out, hopefully these things will give you a bit of a head start. Things I wish I had known earlier than I did.