Buy a guitar stand

Want to improve your playing – Buy a guitar stand. After your initial investment in your instrument I would suggest your next purchase should be a guitar stand. This will allow you to leave the instrument somewhere that is readily accessible so that you can pick it up when you have a spare moment and get some extra practice in. If your guitar is in its case, under the bed, upstairs in your bedroom and you’re in the kitchen but you have some time to spare, the hassle of going in search of your guitar might tempt you to just put it off until tomorrow. But if you can just pick it up, play a bit and put it back down somewhere handy then I hope it will encourage you to play a bit more. It should be said though that these extra little sessions shouldn’t count as your main practice, they should be used to help you work on something that needs some more time (maybe changing between two difficult chords or a tricky strumming pattern).

For more on this read my previous blog about how to practice

 

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Do I need lessons?

Do I need lessons? I want to learn guitar, there are lots of videos online do I really need to get lessons? I’d follow that with another question – Do you want to learn correctly? Yes there are lots of tutorials on the internet but a video can’t remind you to put your fingers in the right place or make sure if you’re holding the instrument properly and you can’t ask it any questions. Now you might say I’m biased (which I am) but this is coming from years of seeing students arrive for their first lesson not holding the instrument properly and generally falling into what we will call ‘bad habits’. Some of these students might have been playing for years and considered themselves beyond beginner level yet didn’t have the basics right. Bad habits as the name suggests are the opposite of good and usually require a lot of effort to correct. So better to learn correctly at the beginning, a good teacher is not going to let you away with ‘bad habits’.  Another factor to consider here is motivation and having a weekly target (ie. your lesson) will help get you practicing so that you’re not wasting your precious time and hard-earned cash.

Don’t get me wrong the internet is a great resource for learning but you have to consider the credentials of whoever you’re taking advice from. Also, and I know this from having produced my own video tutorials, it’s very difficult to make a video that will answer all questions from every variety of student at every level. I suppose my main point is that the crucial stage of learning an instrument is the very beginning and a good start is half the battle.

Do You Remember the First Time?

My first Rock concert was way back in 1988 when I went to see Ozzy Osbourne playing in the Top Hat in Dublin (sadly this venue is long gone). The ticket was the princely sum of £8.50 (which is in the region of €45.00). I think it might have been Zakk Wyldes first tour with Ozzy and as far as I can remember Geezer Butler was playing bass. I think that was what really sold it for me, half of the classic Black Sabbath line-up on stage. As it was to be my first gig I decided to go out and get a leather jacket, you have to look the part! I had only finished my Leaving Cert in school so I wasn’t working, a strict budget was required. I trawled through the second hand rag shops in Dublin and eventually found a retro 70′s style straight leather jacket, big collars et al, for 50pence! The guy in the shop was distraught, there was no way that was the price, but I stood my ground. The tag said 50p and that’s all I was paying. I was over the moon –  my mother was horrified. She has a mortal fear of second hand clothes (“God only knows who was wearing that before”). She scrubbed it and fitted a new lining into it before she’d let me wear it. The gig was amazing. As a first concert it was a serious induction into the world of Rock. Loud, lots of headbanging, the band played some classic Sabbath numbers too. Some guy dived from the balcony into the crowd below, which unfortunately for him parted and he hit the floor. It’s one thing diving from a stage but off the balcony? Well I guess the people in the crowd weren’t up for being flattened and he was stretchered off. I can still remember being up the front of the crowd watching Zakk playing guitar- absolutely amazing. Thankfully I didn’t emulate their hairstyles. (If only I still had long hair now though.)

How long should I practice?

How long should I practice? You should read the previous blog about practice too. The amount of time you have available will depend on your circumstance (working hours, homework etc.) so you need to decide on a goal for your practice each week and work towards that. (This week I’ll learn how to play an F chord properly or I’ll learn a new scale)

If you have just started learning and have never played an instrument before then about 20mins a day should be fine (if you’re an adult). If you have a  young child starting to learn then 5-10mins daily should be ok to start with, the important thing being to encourage them to practice and develop a routine.

If you are at an intermediate stage and want to make some real progress well then at least an hour a day should do it.

If you’re studying classical guitar for example and your preparing for a grade 8 exam I’d say 2 hours a day minimum.

After some time practicing you will get a feel for how long you need to get all your work done and as you start progressing you will feel the need to practice more.

What’s the best way to practice?

What’s the best way to practice? We’ve all heard ‘Practice makes perfect’. Well I’m going to amend that to careful practice makes perfect. You can change the adjective to diligent or focused or whatever you like but the point is that just playing an instrument for an hour a day might not give you the dividends you expected in your progress. Why? Well because you need to be working on the elements of your playing that need work and doing this in a focused fashion. Even though this might sound obvious a lot of students will admit to just playing what they can already play well and while this might be fun it will not help much in moving along your progress.

The important thing is to have some sort of structure to your practice.

Realistically work out how much time you will have available, let’s say 30mins, 4 days a week.*

Now we need to divide that 30mins so you get the most from it. At the start of your session you should be more focused so work on whatever this weeks goal is…so 10mins on that. Then if you have a new song/piece give that the next 10mins and the final 10mins can be spent playing something you already know how to play. If you’re at the stage where you are learning scales then ‘warm up’ with scales before you start into your practice.

This is not a strict timetable and should be flexible so if today you feel your weekly goal has been achieved you could spend extra time learning a new song – maybe something that includes your weekly goal.

For example your weekly goal might be to improve a technique like ‘hammer-ons’ or improve bending strings or learn a new scale etc. There’s a lot of possibilities…

*I’ve purposely set the practice time low as a lot of students will say they don’t have enough time but 30mins a day should be possible for everyone.  There are 168 hours in a week!! Maybe this TED talk might help to give some inspiration.

 

How do I tune my guitar

Probably the easiest way is to use an electronic tuner, you can buy inexpensive clip-on tuners which are usually very good and will work in a noisy environment, or there are smart phone apps available that will also do the job. It is possible to tune the guitar without an electronic tuner this is called ‘relative tuning’ but in order to be ‘in tune’ we would need some way of making sure that at least one string is correctly tuned from which we can then tune the rest. One solution would be to use a tuning fork, it will give you a reference pitch (normally A440Hz). When you strike the tuning fork it produces the note A so you then need to figure out if your A string (5th string) is higher or lower than this note. Once your A string is in tune you can then proceed to tune the rest of the guitar by relative tuning. Play your 6th string at the 5th fret, this should produce the note A so tune this note until it sounds like the A string you already tuned. Then play the 5th string at the 5th fret (note D) now tune the 4th string to sound like this note. Next play 4th string at the 5th fret (note G) tune the 3rd string to sound like this note. Play the 3rd string at the 4th fret (note B) tune the 2nd string to this note. Finally play the 2nd string at the 5th fret (note E) and tune the first string to this note. Each string needs to be perfectly in tune before moving on to the next one as even a small discrepancy will effect every other string. Tuning this way requires practice to make sure that you can hear the differences between two pitches. As tuning is very important I would recommend beginners to use a electronic chromatic tuner and if you like double check your tuning using the relative tuning method described here, this should help you to start to recognise the difference between pitches. Have fun!

How often should I change strings?

Well that depends on how much playing you’re doing. If you’re playing for 20 minutes once a week you won’t need to change strings very often compared to if you’re playing 2 hours every day you might need to change strings every 2 weeks or less.

While this might seem gross another factor is our sweat. Perspiration from our fingers can contain certain elements that contribute to the corrosion of the strings. I had a work colleague and when he would put new strings on his guitar after about 10 minutes of playing they would already be starting to corrode.  Even if you’re not playing and just leave the guitar lying around the strings will still need to be changed at least once a year.

Generally the best guidelines are:

1. when you notice the colour of the strings starting to look ‘dirty’ and

2. when the brightness of the sound from the strings is no longer there – then it’s time to change.

Also worth noting that worn out strings will lose their intonation (their ability to stay in tune for the full length of the guitar neck) and will probably hurt your fingers more.

New strings will go out of tune a lot for the first week or so, this is perfectly normal, the strings are being stretched under immense amounts of tension so they take a bit of time to settle down. Nylon strings will take a bit longer to settle and they will go out of tune every few minutes for the first couple of days. This is nothing to worry about and you should be tuning your guitar every time you pick it up to play. You do tune your guitar don’t you? Yes every time you pick it up you should check the tuning – what’s the point of playing out of tune?

Cult of Personality

After writing about meeting Dave Gilmour it got me thinking about all the other famous and maybe not-so-famous people I’ve met whilst working in music shops. While the trappings of fame I’m sure has its moments, being recognised while trying to go about your business must be a drag. Everyone feels like they own you and want a piece of you, and your time, and your autograph too – why not? My meetings with celebrities range from the bizarre to banal.  Ronnie Drew (The Dubliners) had a row with me as he tried to convince me that the shop I worked in sold certain strings when, seeing as I had the stocklist in front of me I knew we didn’t. He was a trifle upset. I sat down with Andy Cairns (Therapy?) and helped him choose a guitar. As far as I can remember he came back again months later and bought another one from me too. I sold Chris Martin (Coldplay) a very expensive acoustic guitar that he bought as a present for Gwenyth Paltrow. I had no idea who he was, just some dude who said he wanted to buy his girlfriend a nice present. Pierce Brosnan bought an accordion from me when he was getting prepared for his role in Evelyn. Nice man, very polite and unassuming. (As a kid I’d actually bumped into him years previously when he was shooting Remington Steele in the Phoenix Park, Dublin.) Nils Lofgren (E Street Band) was hilarious, came into the shop with his crew looking to buy a guitar lead I think. A lot of big names just send the crew out to do the menial tasks, but not Nils. It was too long ago now to remember what was said but I do remember we had a good laugh. Put me on the guest list to his show that night too. Great gig, he reminded me of Iggy Pop for sheer raw energy on stage.

There’s definitely more but I need to scour the recesses of the old memory, it’s been a while since I worked the shop floor.

 

 

 

 

Photo of Nils by Gerry Gardner – originally posted to Flickr as Nils Lofgren Ronnie Scotts 97, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6283747

What are the best strings?

We’re going to take a look at Acoustic guitar strings first. There are a few things to consider when choosing strings – the gauge (fancy word for thickness) the material (bronze etc.) the brand. I would also suggest that the level your playing is at will have some bearing on your choice but let’s start with gauge. So this is how thick the strings are and traditionally is measured in inches as most guitar strings are manufactured in USA and they haven’t followed Europe down the metric route. Why is this important, well when you’re buying strings normally we ask for the set by the thickness of the first string. For example if I want a medium set of strings I would ask for 13s because the first string is .013 inches thick. I could just ask for a set of medium strings but the word ‘medium’ can have different connotations to different people. In the world of the acoustic guitar medium strings are about as thick as most people will go so it doesn’t really tie in with the more usual idea that medium might be somewhere in between extremes.

The material for acoustic instruments is usually bronze or some mixture of bronze with another metal. Type of metal affects the sound – phosphor bronze are bright sounding whereas plain bronze would be duller sounding. Remember this is all relative and new strings will definitely sound brighter than the set that’s been on your guitar for the last ten years! This can come as a shock if you’ve never changed your strings because your guitar will now sound very different than before and maybe you’d gotten used to how it sounded with those worn out strings and you quite liked it.

Brand – well like other aspects of our life branding affects our decisions. Maybe you like the name or the colour of the packaging or your favourite guitarist uses a certain brand. As far as brand is concerned I think all the major US makes are good, some of them might use different methods to produce their strings but essentially it comes down to trying out the different brands on your guitar to find out which one compliments your guitar the best.

So finally your playing ability – if you are a total novice you will have different needs than a professional. If you are a total beginner I would recommend getting the lightest possible strings, learning the guitar is tough on the fingers why make it even more so. On the other hand if you are a pro, well it depends on your needs so for tone and volume you want to be going for the heavier end of the thickness spectrum (best for recording) but for every-night gigging especially if using a pick-up you’re not entirely relying on the acoustic properties of the guitar so you could choose a lighter set of strings.

Electric As with acoustic guitar strings some of the factors to consider when buying strings are gauge, material and brand. Also the genre of music and/or the way that you play can influence your choice.

So gauges for electric guitar; probably the most used gauge are 9’s (E 1st string .009) These are fairly light and easy to bend. As with acoustic strings the heavier the strings the more tone so if you’re into blues you might want to go up to 11’s or if you’re into dropped tunings you will want to check out some sets of strings that have heavier bass strings to be able to cope with detuning.

It seems that the majority of strings are nickel plated but you can also get stainless steel (bright sounding) and cobalt (supposedly higher output but I’ve never tried them). Most of the strings I’ve used have been roundwound but it is possible to get flatwound strings which are very smooth but have a duller sound but no string noise when you move your fingers, they tend to be used more on big jazz guitars. Also it is possible to get strings that are somewhere in-between called groundwound.

If you’re starting out and this all seems too much then I would suggest trying a set of 9’s (they most likely will be nickel-plated and roundwound) and see how they suit you. Once you’ve been playing for a while you can always experiment with different strings, remember if you don’t like them you can just buy another set.

One word of caution though if you usually have 9’s on your guitar and then put on a set of 11’s the extra tension from the heavier strings could mean that you will have to adjust the truss rod in the neck. If you’ve never done this before I would suggest going to your local music shop or guitar repairman and getting them to do it.

Classical guitar strings are usually graded by tension rather than gauge. Normal tension will be perfectly fine for most students playing classical guitar. When you get to an advanced level or if you are performing a lot then you should consider high tension strings. A set that I used quite a bit were a mixture with normal tension treble strings and high tension bass strings. These seemed to suit my guitar really well. Also it can be worth experimenting with mixing strings from different sets or even from different brands. The materials used in making the strings will also impact on the sound they produce so that nylon stings have quite a warm sound and flurocarbon will offer a brighter sound and more projection. There are a lot variables here as the wood that your guitar is made from will also have a big impact on the sound, experimenting with different strings is the best way to find what best suits your guitar. For a while I was using an E 1st string from one brand and the rest of the strings from a different brand so overall there was a mix of both materials and tensions.

Time

During the early 90s I worked in a posh music shop called Chappell of Bond Street, which as the name suggests was situated in that exclusive area of London. It thought of itself as being upmarket, (maybe it still does) and was frequented by wealthy sheiks and Queens of African states. I was in charge of the Guitar department  but my accessory counter, (strings, picks etc.) was shared with the Brass & Woodwind dept. so I had to know about any products relating to that department too.  I answered the phone one morning to an enquiry about metronomes; the clock-like device that musicians use to keep time. The basic electronic models began at about £20 I informed the caller, to which I was told that this item was to be a gift, so I countered that we had a very nice wooden clock-work, pendulum type in stock that would make a perfect present for £80. That would be great, could I put it aside for a Mr. Gilmour for collection later that day? Of course sir. I hung up the phone, immediately thinking ‘Wouldn’t it be hilarious if it turned out to be Dave Gilmour?’ You have to remember  that as a young 20year old guitarist and fan of Pink Floyd this was a natural train of thought. I dismissed the idea thinking that  this was London after all and how many Mr. Gilmours could there be in that metropolis? So when later that afternoon a certain guitar player from Pink Floyd stood before me requesting to see the metronome he’d reserved earlier I was star-struck. I tried to remain calm, I did try, but here 2 foot away from me was one of Rocks great guitar legends. My initial professional reaction was to feign indifference but eventually my excitement couldn’t be contained and I asked him was he doing any recording at the moment. It broke the spell a little bit. He  seemed like an affable man but I could see he was uncomfortable as soon as he realised he’d been recognised. He answered politely but without much enthusiasm. Sometimes it’s said that it’s not a good idea to meet your heroes, but to me he came across as an ordinary bloke just wishing to go about his business without being hassled which is fair enough and probably much harder to do nowadays.  I wish I’d kept a copy of his signature though.