Monday, July 12, 2010

Making it work so it doesn’t hurt: Guitars

I had a guitar when I was 14. My grandparents loved to travel, and would take road trips to El Paso and come back with treasures galore – silver jewelry, leather handbags, etc. On one visit, they brought me a guitar! I was in heaven!

I was also taking piano lessons at the time, twice a week, so that pretty effectively squelched the thought of guitar lessons. No matter, I thought, I have songbooks that have guitar chord diagrams.

Now, this guitar had The Strings From Hell. You know, the kind that slice your fingertips to ribbons. So, after some months of fighting it, I gave up.

Do you know how many times I have heard a variation on this story from someone? I’ve heard it 3 times just this past week! There are an awful lot of lonely guitars out there, and just as many frustrated musicians-at-heart who feel like “well, music’s just not for me.” ARGH!

There are things you can do to make it easier to play – other than buying a new guitar. You see, if it hurts, you won’t play it. It doesn’t matter if it’s a Wal Mart guitar or a Martin guitar; you won’t play it.

“We bought her/him a guitar for Christmas, but s/he never plays it!” If you’re saying that about your child, ask your child if it hurts. Or maybe it’s you who wants to play, but it hurts. Good news: There are several things you can do to make it easier.

The String’s the Thing. I’m going to assume that your guitar is an acoustic (hollow body, no amp needed). Most people start with an acoustic.

Guitar strings come in gauges ranging from extra-light to heavy. They also come in “Acoustic” and “Electric” variety. There are many other variations as well, such as steel, bronze, bronze wound, micro-treated, phosphor bronze, etc. Don’t worry about these right now.

Why different gauges? Different tastes, and the type and gauge make a difference in the tone. But if you don’t learn how to play first, what the heck difference does TONE make?

(In my mind’s ear, I now hear a chorus of guitar-slingers gasp and faint over my last statement. Sacrificing sacred tone? Oh, NO! Yeah, right, get over yourself.)

In general, we refer to string gauges in terms of light, extra light, etc. or as “tens,” “elevens,” and so on. That number refers to the gauge of the first (lightest gauge) string (each string will be of a different gauge).

Right now, I’m looking at a set of “Custom Light” (Phosphor Bronze) for acoustic, 1st string is .011. I also have a set of “Extra Light Gauge” 80/20 Bronze Wound for acoustic, and the 1st string is .010.

To make life simple, we can refer to these as “acoustic, elevens” and “acoustic, tens.” The lower the number, the thinner the string, the lighter the gauge. Again, don’t worry about the “bronze wound” or “phosphor bronze.”

Of course, if you go into your locally owned music store and ask for “acoustic tens” they might think you know a lot about this and say something like “coated or not?” At this point, you shrug, try and look cool, and buy the lightest gauge at the cheapest price. Once you are playing more, you can join the guitar-slinger-string-discussions on coated strings, but for now, don’t worry about it.

GET THE LIGHTEST GAUGE. Don’t assume that “starter guitar” is really set up for beginning players.

In fact, you can get ELECTRIC strings for your acoustic guitar. Why? Because electric strings come in even lighter gauges, and will be even easier on your fingers. Ahhhh, relief.

You might hear “you’re gonna mess up the neck” or “it’s not gonna sound right.” However, this is a temporary thing. Having electric strings on your acoustic for a few months before you move up to light gauge acoustic strings is not going to damage your guitar. If it's a rare vintage breed that's finicky, I’d suggest you switch to another instrument for learning and have a good, trustworthy guitar tech give that baby a tune-up.

As for tone, yes, it will sound a bit more “twangly,” but you are doing this in order to make learning easy. So what?

You could get a set of electric extra lights (or super lights) which would be nines. (The lightest gauge string in the set is .009). Put these on your acoustic guitar and your fingers will love you. Tone be damned, you’ll be playing.

In addition, you can use a capo on the guitar, and / or have a guitar tech lower the action.

Huh? OK, that’ll be the next post.