I know from my experience as a professional guitar teacher that a large percentage of so-called beginners have actually been playing for many years. While it is true that 99% of the time the reason someone has not succeeded in their efforts to play guitar is simply down to a combination of not knowing how to practice, not receiving quality guitar lessons or always attempting to play things which are beyond their current level, there is in fact a fourth reason which many people overlook.
The fourth reason is your guitar itself.
You should not assume that simply because you buy a guitar new in a music store that it will come automatically set up correctly for a musician to play, in fact even acoustic guitars which costs thousands of dollars still require a dedicated “set-up” in order to make them comfortable to play. A professional setup on a newly bought acoustic guitar is not expensive or time-consuming yet it is one of the most important things any beginner needs to do if they wish to have the easiest time possible learning guitar.
Put simply, a badly set up guitar will make certain techniques much harder to master. You will experience an increased level of physical pain while trying to learn them and mentally you will develop the attitude that it is a chore to play your guitar. In a sense your guitar will ‘feel’ unfriendly and difficult which is going to have a big psychological impact upon you and make the slope that much steeper to climb when learning to play acoustic guitar.
So let’s begin by taking a closer look at the guitar you already own.
Firstly examine the strings. If your strings are old and discolored it is a sure sign that much of the tone will have disappeared from them and you will also find it difficult to tune them accurately. In a nutshell, old strings sound dead and lose their ability to keep their tuning stable. A change of guitar strings is one of the simplest first steps you can do in the process of revitalizing an old or unloved guitar. Before making any other changes this is the first initial step which should be done.
Sometimes even guitars with new strings will still not tune up correctly. This particular problem is known as ]bad intonation’ and to repair it you will need to take your guitar to someone who really knows what they are doing in order to make the necessary minute adjustments which will solve the problem. It’s only common sense to realize that even a world-class player will sound bad on a guitar which will not tune up properly! As a beginner or intermediate player you need to take advantage of every help your guitar can offer you so take the time to ensure your guitar will tune perfectly. Only then will you have a real musical instrument in your hands to learn on.
So, if you have just bought a new guitar, or if you intend to learn on one which has been lying around for years unused, or if you are already playing a guitar which seems to make playing feel really hard work then in all these instances it’s time to take your guitar for a professional set up. Get someone else’s opinion on the play-ability of your guitar and at least experience what it is like to play when professionally set up.
Even if your guitar is old you may be amazed at how pleasurable it feels to play simply through the addition of new strings and a professional guitar set up. You may find yourself thinking that you no longer need to buy that you guitar you were thinking of and more importantly, you may stop blaming your guitar and remove a big mental block which has been preventing you from moving forward.
The point here is that you want a real musical instrument to learn on. With just a small amount of time and expense you can completely rejuvenate and perfect the playability of the vast majority of guitars and as a consequence many of the things or techniques which seemed impossible on guitar before will suddenly feel a whole lot easier to do. Furthermore, your guitar will feel a lot friendlier to play – it will not hurt you as much either! It only makes sense to do whatever small thing we can in order to make the process of learning to play acoustic guitar as flat and has even as we can, right?
As a beginner or even intermediate player I do not believe that it is worthwhile buying an expensive guitar. Musicians generally believe that we all need to ‘earn’ the quality of our instruments. What I mean by that is you shouldn’t own a guitar from which you cannot extract its potential.
Good players benefit from expensive guitars, beginners do not.
Beginners will not have the sensitivity in their ears to notice the subtle sonic differences within the tone produced from different guitars and will furthermore not be able to extract the full potential of a great tone offered through an expensive guitar.
When talking about guitars as a beginner or intermediate player you should not be concerned with price but instead with set-up as we were talking about before. That is by far the most important element to get right and you can have it as a personal goal that only when your playing is better will you make the investment into owning an expensive guitar. That’s doing things the right way.
So to summarize, what are the two most important things to ask for when setting up your guitar and to get right?
1. Tuning and Intonation – as you already know from reading this article, you only have a proper guitar when it is capable of tuning up accurately. A professional will be able to adjust certain things on your acoustic guitar and take sensitive readings with the tuner until your guitar is perfect. As a result your chords will sound much better to the ear and it will lift every aspect of your playing.
2. Action – something we have not mentioned so far is the ‘action’ of your guitar but it’s actually the second most important thing to get right. The action of your guitar refers to the distance the strings are away from the fret-board. A high action means that the strings sit naturally high above the neck of your guitar and as a consequence you have to press down harder and through a greater distance in order to make contact with the frets and produce sound. All of this extra work will make playing or learning on your guitar 10 times more difficult. You’ll feel a lot of unnecessary pain and may even find that performing certain techniques such as Barre chords are next to impossible
When your guitar is correctly set up the action will be lowered closer to the frets so that only the lightest pressure is required in order for the strings to make contact with the frets. This will immediately make Barre chords much easier to perform and you’ll be simply amazed at the difference having a low action makes to playing guitar. You’ll be asking yourself if it is ‘still your same guitar’ as it certainly won’t feel like it.
So to summarize, take your guitar to any repair shop and tell them that you want a guitar set up with intonation and action. It’s that simple.
With this complete you’ll have a much better chance at getting good, everything will seem easier and you’ll stop fighting against your guitar. Your attitude towards learning will improve since you will no longer have a psychological block associating pain and hard work along with physical discomfort anytime you think about playing guitar. With this improved and healthier mental attitude along with the reality that your guitar feels nice to play, you’ll have all you need to make a really decent step forward and break into new ground regarding the quality of your sound whenever you pick up the instrument.