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The Trap of Learning Songs

By Chad Crawford, PMI Guitar Instructor

“I want to learn songs … now!”

This sentiment is probably the number one reason that most people who pick up a guitar never make it past a very minimal level of musicianship. It is not that wanting to learn beloved, personally inspiring songs is wrong in itself. Contrarily, learning specific songs is a great motivator, a useful learning tool, and is often the ultimate purpose of many aspiring guitarists. There is not a thing wrong with that. I enjoy coaching clients through the process of mastering songs they love. It is very gratifying and affirming for me to see them work through the process to the end and be able to enjoy playing their favorite songs. Like any teacher who is in it mostly for the love of teaching, students’ successes are the primary reason I do this.

As a teacher of completely voluntary students one of the roles I must reluctantly embrace is that I occasionally have to inform clients of things that they are not necessarily happy to hear, such as the amount of time and effort involved in learning their favorite songs. Sometimes it inspires the necessary results in their approach and all is well, and that is of course what I always hope for. In some cases it results in a client becoming discouraged over things that seem out of reach.

Of course I never wish to discourage my clients, but there is no other way than straight through to get results for a client who is caught up in one of these common self-defeating thought/feeling traps. I have to persistently confront the erroneous thinking as diplomatically as possible and hopefully persuade them to set it aside so we can get on with realistic approaches that actually work.

It is part two of the opening sentiment – “… now!” – that provokes many aspiring guitarists to pull their aim off target and instead shoot themselves in the foot. There is an implication in that latter sentiment that betrays a certain self-defeating misunderstanding.  Despite my ongoing efforts to steer people out of this trap, it persists in hindering the motivation and robbing the hard won gains of many otherwise promising students of music.

Let us then pull that lurking bit of thought poison out of the shadowy recesses and hold it up to the illuminating light of informed scrutiny. We will do so by adding the underlying implications into the original sentiment so that it is more apparent what it really means. Here is the revised statement, “I want to play songs just like they sound on the original artists’ recordings, and I thought the whole point of lessons was to show me how to make the songs fall right out of my fingers.”

If you are thinking in this way then consider these facts about the process of learning songs:

  1. Based on my own 40+ years of playing guitar, 19 years of teaching, and the collective wisdom of the musician community compiled since the days of ancient Greece: if you are in marginal or better health with a mind sound enough to read this and reasonably functional hands, and you cannot play a song that you wish to play, there is one and only one root cause for it: you have not yet applied yourself adequately to the work required to remember and execute the motions required to reproduce the song. Yes, it is that simple.
  2. Simple does not necessarily mean easy. So it further boils down to the idea conveyed in this Southern colloquialism: you either gonna do it or you ain’t. If you’re in the middle of the process, then you are doing it. Keep up the good work and be patient. The results you seek are inevitable.
  3. Once you get the first one done, the next one will still be challenging, but that sense of hopelessness will be greatly diminished and will continue to dissipate with each new success. 
  4. Regarding solos, you do not have to have it sound exactly like the original artist’s studio recorded version of a song for it to sound good. You would need to have the original artist’s gear, fingers, musical personality, and the studio enhancements to make it sound exactly like the original. In many cases the original artists do not even play the exact same thing live that they played on the studio recordings. They don’t even try, because they know it is going to be impossible to remember every single note from their entire catalog. There are exceptions … artists who play really simple songs, or else practice for seven hours a day seven days a week. They are notable because they are exceptions. For hobbyists in particular it is counterproductive to tie up huge amounts of time trying to learn and maintain exact replicas of songs.
  5. Learning songs involves a number elements that can present challenges. If you haven’t done the preliminary work in knowledge and technique, forget playing songs. Before even beginning to approach this, you need to know the required chords and scales, be able to finger them instantly, have a well-developed picking/strumming technique that is well-coordinated with your fretting hand, and have a sufficiently developed sense of rhythm and timing to be able to keep up with the song. Then you must study the song in order to learn and remember the chords, melodies, where they fall in the song, the rhythm, and if you want to learn the solo that adds another especially significant challenge to memory and technique. Study means just that: study! Listen, analyze, decipher. Then start performing repetitions. Eliminate mistakes. Repeat until you can play the song.

 

So the bottom line is, learning songs is not easy, not automatic, and there is no trick, method, or program that is going to make it happen without substantial effort.

The good news is that it is not nearly as hard as some folks allow it to be by allowing frustration to rage out of control. I read of a Civil War commander who continued to lead a battle from a horse after taking a shot in the leg. Then he got half a foot shot off, and continued to lead the battle until he took a body shot, fell off his horse, and slowly bled to death. That’s hard. Sitting comfortably in a quiet climate controlled room and rewinding to a chord change for the fifteenth time so you can figure out the chord and exactly where it is changing … not hard enough to be worth mentioning.

Are there any short cuts? Yes, much more so now than at any time in the history of music. Teachers, transcriptions, slow-down software, and free Internet videos. It is easier now than it has ever been to take a big bite out of the analysis and deciphering parts of the process by having either a person or a piece of paper show you what is being played. Nonetheless, you cannot get around study completely since you will still need to hear/feel the chord changes, melodies, and rhythm for yourself, and you will still need to listen, perform repetitions, eliminate mistakes, and repeat parts until you have the song memorized and physically under control. It is just plain work, and no person, method, or gimmick can do that part of the work for you.

I decided to tackle the solos for Sweet Home Alabama in my college days. At that time I was mostly self-taught as far as popular music styles such as Southern Rock. I was working full time in addition to school, so I had very little time to practice. The classical training that I had been through at that time did not help me with this type of song. I picked up a copy of a Lynyrd Skynyrd tablature anthology and started working on the parts. My fingers were up to it, but I did not have the musical context to see the scales, so I had to memorize the solos the hard way: one note at a time, stacking up one phrase after another until I had them memorized. This took me about a year to learn these solos to the point that I could get through them reasonably accurately and then I had to continue polishing the technique and timing details.

Since I had started learning at the age of six with a full size acoustic guitar that I could barely hold, I don’t have any memories of ever having any perspective about playing guitar other than that progress follows work. I found out only after I started teaching that many folks have terrific misunderstandings about the process of learning music, namely that it is supposed to be easy. Of course I would have liked to pick those solos up faster and moved on to other things, but it never occurred to me that there was anything unusual about it taking longer than I would have preferred. Yes, I did come up with some “creative improvisational lyrics” that I often inserted into those solos while repeating them over and over trying to get them to stick in my memory. Yes, I was often frustrated that I had to do schoolwork or chores rather than spend more time on my solos. But I kept working on them until I could play them. It never occurred to me to give up because it was challenging. And it was worth the effort.

Learning songs will never be effortless, but you can ultimately make it much easier and faster by buckling down in the beginning of your musical studies and mastering the basics of music theory and technique, so that the elements of a given song are not completely new to your ears, understanding, and fingers. This is why I refuse to teach songs outside the context of an overall approach to mastery in the basics. With the decades of experience I have at this I can pick up rhythms almost instantly, and chords/signature licks for most popular music take only a few minutes. I couldn’t pick them up that fast when I started playing guitar, nor even for many years after. If it is a really complex song like a lot of progressive rock, or a style I am not accustomed to, then I may have to spend more time with it, and certainly if there are long or high speed solos then it will take some time to decipher, memorize, and embed in muscle memory through repetition. That’s perfectly normal. It doesn’t mean you are failing at music or suffering some unusual lack of talent. That’s just how being a musician works. There is a great deal of enjoyment, but there is also a lot of work and that’s just the way it is. It is worth it. The sooner you get the basics under control the sooner you can get on to playing your favorite songs, and the more time you spend transcribing songs yourself the better you get at it, just like everything else in life.

In the words of that illustrious philosopher Larry the Cable Guy, like much in life it comes down to this: “Git ‘er Done!”

Copyright © 2005 Palmetto Music Institute. All Rights Reserved.

 

Reviewing Review

By Chad Crawford, PMI Guitar Insrtuctor

 

Retention of knowledge and technique is high on the list of challenges to aspiring guitarists. As with any long term complex undertaking, we can take shorter or longer paths to the same end. While common sense dictates that we take the shorter path, there are a number of ways to step off the shortest path without realizing it. For maximum results in the shortest possible time we need to be aware of these potential pitfalls and make every effort to avoid them.

Repetition is the obvious bedrock of retention, but failure to incorporate other available retention strategies will result in a predictable consequence: review. While review is an essential and unavoidable component of learning, excessive review is counterproductive, frustrating for students and teachers, and inherently robs aspiring musicians of invaluable time that could rather be invested in growth. So our goal should be to maximize every available retention opportunity in each lesson and practice session.

Beyond the obvious need for repetition, retention is a function of a combination of predictable and controllable factors, such that the aspiring guitarist can choose (or not!) to greatly enhance progress rates by consistently implementing a few simple but powerful strategies. Though these may seem like common sense, I routinely observe generally intelligent, talented, and ambitious students slipping in these elements of retention, so do not assume that you can’t benefit from a self-check in these details. The very core of the problem is that these things operate below our conscious view if we do not intentionally choose to give them attention.

  1. Paying attention to instructions – it is very easy to allow the mind to wander off in the middle of an explanation, then practice something wrong all week. In some cases I have seen students so excited about learning something new that in the middle of my demonstration they take off trying to figure out what I am playing by ear rather than concentrating on the demo, which of course defeats the purpose of the demo. While I commend the passion about learning new things, this is an obvious example of not paying attention to the instructions, and the results are predictable – we have to go over it again. Whether your instruction method be a book, video, or personal one-on-one lessons, be assured that you will get better results by controlling the impulse to take off playing as soon as you have the first hint of where to put your fingers, and instead getting your mind around the complete explanation before attempting to apply it.
  1. Following the instructions – assuming you have paid attention to the instructions and thus have a sufficient understanding of what to do, the next step is to apply the instructions. Certain details of optimum physical technique are often at conflict with our natural inclination toward doing what feels easiest for us at the moment. While few would argue whether or not following the instructions is important, some aspects of our motor skills operate at a subconscious level. While attempting scale exercises for instance, we must manage a number of things simultaneously such as note location, timing, coordination of the picking and fretting hands, and management of excess muscular tension. It is very easy in this kind of multi-tasking situation to allow the fingers to revert to auto-pilot while we monitor other details, and then we slip into repeating poor physical technique and allow it to become a self-defeating habit. It is very hard to break ingrained poor physical technique habits. Do not allow this to happen. Follow the instructions!
  1. Maintaining focus – Repetition is a potentially powerful aid to retention, but repetition without deliberate focus on details can actually cultivate less than optimal mental and physical habits and thus hinder progress. It is important to understand that deliberate focus is not the default mode of the human mind. Our tendency is to allow the attention to wander off, and thus sustained focus on one thing or group of things requires some conscious effort. Additionally, there may be no feeling of increased progress while making the extra effort to stay focused, and so there may be no immediate sense of reward in exchange for the extra effort. However, both science and common experience reveal that all types of memory, including muscle memory, achieve their peak power in response to sustained focused attention. So for maximum retention choose to stay focused during your practice!
  1. Context development – Memory responds well to organization. It is therefore important to recognize at the outset of our musical endeavors, or as soon thereafter as possible, that all of music is one total phenomenon rather than a host of tiny parts to remember separately. For example, our big three pitch relationship tools are chords, scales, and arpeggios. While we study these individually for clarity, they are in fact all a single scale or defined subset of the scale. If we recognize a major chord or arpeggio as a subset of intervals from the major scale then it is easier to see the overlap between the chord tones and potential resolving notes from the major scale, major pentatonic scale, or a major arpeggio. If additionally we can look at the fretboard and simultaneously visualize a major scale, a corresponding major chord and inversions, and the major arpeggio, all superimposed over one another, then it is relatively easy to move between playing a chord and applying a fill or solo from the major scale or arpeggio. Likewise, if we can perceive a given rhythm as a subset of divisions of the main beat then it is relatively easy to feel out the main beat and then fill in the divisions. So it is very helpful to retention always be plugging bits of new information into the scheme of the overall context.
  1. Choose the high road – with life in general we often refer to taking the high road as a colloquialism for doing the right thing. I am appropriating this idea for application to the study of music, and I mean it in this way: when you are practicing guitar and you run into a choice between doing the less comfortable but more beneficial thing or the more comfortable thing, do the less comfortable thing. For example, when practicing phrasing with a backing track it is very easy to just settle into playing positions or licks you are already comfortable with rather than experimenting with unknown territory. Likewise, some things on your practice schedule will be more interesting or enjoyable than other things, and it is very tempting in the privacy of your practice space to take the easy low road by minimizing or altogether avoiding the more challenging parts of your practice routine. This is how people stop progressing and get into ruts. Don’t let it happen. When you have something new to work on and it is harder to do relative to just doing further repetitions of things you already know, take the high road by investing yourself in the new material. Half effort will not yield half results. It will yield no results, and you will have to keep going back and reviewing this material until you finally get sick of review and invest the effort you could have in the beginning.

You don’t have time to waste on this cycle of stagnation. Save yourself the trouble and frustration, and invest the necessary effort up front. You will proceed must faster through practicing and will get on sooner with actually playing.

Copyright © 2005 Palmetto Music Institute. All Rights Reserved.

9 Not-So-Easy Steps to Guitar Mastery

By Chad Crawford, Guitar Instructor, Palmetto Music Institute

1. Identify your goals – It is important at the outset of your musical endeavors, or if you are an intermediate player who has hit “the wall” then right now is the time for you, to determine exactly what it is you wish to accomplish. If you look around at the community of guitar players you will observe that most of the iconic players are known for one particular narrow range of musical style. By focusing on one narrow specialty they were able to focus on developing the technique and knowledge pertinent to that specialty to a very high level. It is not necessary and not wise to attempt to master all styles of music, especially so for a hobbyist who is necessarily under time constraints. Determine what kind of music you most want to play and identify the technique and knowledge you need for that style. Then don’t squander precious time on things that do not apply to your goal. You can branch out later, but trying to tackle the whole field of musical endeavor from the outset is a sure plan for catastrophic frustration.

2. Listen to the music you enjoy – For some rare, unusually gifted musicians most of their musical inspiration seems to come from some secret well-spring within themselves. If you are one of these you would have known it before you were able to read, so if you are reading this then odds are you should not waste time trying to bypass the route most of us have to take to musical creativity: learning from those who have gone before. Identify those guitarists who you most enjoy listening to and wish to sound similar to, and spend plenty of time just listening to their songs. This will inspire you to practice, awaken your own creativity, and sharpen your discernment of pitch and time relationships.

3. Work with a good teacher – people who do not know much about making music commonly believe that music is simply an outgrowth of the personality, and so polluting the muse with organization and technical ideas is a sort of poison. That sort of thinking is why these people are not musicians, or not very good ones. For maximum results in the shortest possible time work with an expert coach who knows how to help you refine your goals, steer you toward the appropriate tools, and eliminate common useless side roads and pitfalls.

4. Master the basics – we all covet advanced playing skills and the accompanying freedom of expression. However, we don’t climb mountains by jumping from the valley straight to the peak. Rather we climb up one step at a time until we reach the peak. Trying to start out with guitar by tackling advanced songs from master guitarists is a sure path to overwhelming frustration and poor overall skills. Start with the basics, and practice them to the point that they come automatically. Then start working on the advanced stuff.

5. Practice well – We have all heard that the key to musical mastery is, “Practice, practice, practice.” While that apt cliche is indeed as true with music as it is with any realm of human endeavor, it fails to answer some very important questions: what to practice and how to practice. If you wish to become a great or even just a good musician, you should approach practice as a labor of love, with emphasis on labor. Practice should be an organized effort to achieve clearly defined goals, rather than another session of doodling with the same bits and pieces of songs from yesterday’s practice session. Random doodling is playing, not productive practice.

Here are some keys to effective practice:

Assemble a practice schedule that addresses knowledge and technique relevant to your goa

Follow the instructions – “playing by feel” is the shortest path to going in circles of self-sabotage with your practice routine. It may carry you for a while, but eventually it will lead to a dead end. Whatever manner of instructional materials you are using, practice according to the instructions. When you have mastered the piece of knowledge or technique at hand you will then be able to incorporate it into that body of things which you can effectively apply by feel.

Cultivate good habits – habit is powerful either on your behalf or to your detriment. Habit will respond to whatever you put into it, either great things or mediocre ones. Utilize good technique, proven methods, and pay attention to details during practice. Make it a habit to push your mind and hands for an increment of improvement during every practice session, rather than habitually accepting yesterday’s routine as today’s standard.

Memorization – memory, both physical and mental, responds best to focus, repetition, relation to the already known, and consistency. This is why it is very important to have an organized practice routine and to practice as often as possible. Shorter daily practices will yield better results than weekend marathon sessions.

6. Creativity – self-expression is impossible when one is utterly distracted by managing the basic facets of musicianship. Beyond that, creativity in music is rarely a matter of coming up with something that no one has ever thought of. That is not possible at this time in history. Creativity is more a matter of taking what is already known and putting a new spin on it, or assembling it in some novel way. Every human being is creative. What most folks consider a lack of creativity is really more a lack of technical skills distracting the attention away from what the internal creative muse is trying to deliver. If you want to experience the fullest of what your internal muse has to offer then get past stumbling over the basics as soon as possible.

7. Managing Frustration – mastering music is a complex long term endeavor, and some frustration with the process is inevitable. Don’t let it become a bigger thing in your mind that it is in reality. Feeling frustrated can not stop your progress in any way, unless you choose let it stop you from practicing. Avoid comparisons to other players. That has no bearing at all on your progress and so it is an utterly useless waste of time. Don’t allow perfectionism to creep into your thinking. Even pros make mistakes, and the music is still quite good despite the occasional mistake. Be sure you are following the instructions. Much undue frustration arises from trying to play by feel rather following the instructions. Allow yourself due credit for what you have accomplished, and measure your progress by objective standards rather than how you feel about your progress. Such feelings are typically unrealistically harsh and often adopt the feeling of frustration itself as a measure of progress, or lack thereof. Feeling frustrated has no bearing whatsoever on the objective reality of your progress, so don’t let your mind sabotage you with such tricks.

8. Managing Stage Fright – psychologists identify a phenomenon that occurs when we are trying to perform any kind of challenging task under direct observation. They call it “performance anxiety”. We musicians usually refer to it as “stage fright”. It is one of the most challenging aspects of music, but like all things musical it will respond to strategic efforts to bring it under control. Stage fright is a lower-level instinctive response to stress such that our bodies gear up to respond with vigorous action. Since we need to be relaxed and focused to perform music well, it is detrimental and even crippling to our musical abilities. However, as powerful as this instinct is we can learn to suppress it with practice. And that brings us to step 9 …

9. Play with others – music is ultimately a means of communication, and as such it is rather pointless to do it at all if we are not going to share it with others, kind of like learning a second language with no intent other than continually practicing it alone in front of a mirror. Playing with others is not only fulfilling but also helps identify weaknesses in our knowledge and technique for further study, allows us an opportunity to learn from others, and gives us experience in managing stage fright. It is also important in a general sense to include a social aspect to our experience of learning music, both in regards to celebrating our successes and sharing the burdens of the process. As soon as you can play basic chord rhythms you should seek opportunities to play with other musicians. If you have no musically inclined friends, look online into the local fellowship communities such as Meetup where you can find amateur jam sessions that allow for folks with moderate skills to participate in a group setting.

Mastering music is not easy, but it is possible even for the hobbyist with time constraints. Practice wisely and well, be patient, and never give up!

Copyright © 2005 Palmetto Music Institute. All Rights Reserved.

Beginner’s Guide to Guitars, Strings, & Picks

If you are new to guitar or even somewhat experienced, you may be overwhelmed by all the options regarding types of guitars, strings, and picks. After you read this brief article you will be an expert on guitar hardware!

There are two basic categories of guitar: acoustic and electric. We will discuss the nature and purposes of each below.

Acoustic Guitars

Acoustic guitars have a large hollow wooden box for a body, with a round hole or some other kind of opening to naturally amplify the sound of the strings. There are two main types of acoustic guitars: classical and folk. The classical guitar, as the name implies, is meant for playing classical style music. You can identify these guitars easily by the presence of three nylon strings which look like clear plastic. The folk guitar uses steel strings, with the larger strings also having a bronze wrap. Folk guitars are typically larger than classical guitars and have a more narrow neck to facilitate chords. Folk guitars are louder and have brighter tone than classical guitars. While either of these type of guitars may come equipped with an option for electronic amplification, we still consider them acoustic guitars.

The dobro or resonator is a specialty acoustic guitar which uses internal metallic plates to amplify the sound of the strings. While it looks much like a standard acoustic guitar, the playing techniques and sound are different enough that many consider the dobro a different instrument from a traditional guitar.

Electric Guitars

Electric guitars come in two main varieties: solid body and hollow body. The hollow body has open chambers in the body with holes, similar to an acoustic guitar, for naturally amplifying the sound of the strings. Despite the opened chambers, they are not nearly as loud as a true acoustic guitar and thus require amplification to be of any practical use. They have a warm (less treble) sound quality which is great for blues, jazz, and other clean (non-distorted) tones. Due to the resonant chambers they tend to present feedback (prominent squealing sound) at moderate amplifier volumes.

The solid body guitars have, as the name implies, a completely solid body section with no open resonant chambers. Some solid bodies have internal resonant chambers with a view toward enhancing sound quality, but these chambers will not be opened to the air so they provide no sound amplification and no feedback problems.

Before we go farther with discussing solid body guitar types, let’s take a moment to consider several very important factors in guitar construction: pickups, neck profile, and frets.

Pickups are coils of wire wrapped around magnets. The magnets generate a magnetic field and the coils pick up variations in the strength of the field through electro-magnetic induction. When we strike a metal guitar string placed within the field of pick up, the string vibration disturbs the field. The coils pick up on the changes in the magnetic field and generate a tiny electronic signal, which we send out to an amplifier through a cable.

There are two main types of guitar pick ups: single coil and humbucker. Single coils have one coil of very thin wire wrapped around a series of magnets, usually one magnet per guitar string. Arranged so that each magnet is directly under a string. Single coils produce a sound that emphasizes treble and bass frequencies. They tend to pick up electronic noise such as radio frequency signals generated by appliances and lights.

Humbuckers are made of two magnet/coil sets merged into one big coil. They tend to produce a stronger signal which is helpful with distorted guitar tones. They also have a built-in tendency to reject extraneous electronic signals so they do not make as much noise as single coils. They generally have a more balanced frequency response than single coils so that they do not emphasize treble and bass frequencies like single coils.

Neck Profile refers to the depth of the neck and the radius (curvature) of the fretboard. A low number radius like 9 means the neck is relatively curved which is helpful for making bar chords since it fits the shape of the hand well. Necks with a more flat fretboard will have a higher radius number such as 14. These necks will also tend to have less depth from the fretboard face to the back of the neck. These flatter necks are more helpful for playing scales and arpeggios. A Compound Radius necks have a radius that changes from curved near the nut to flat near the body, so that you can make chords easily near the nut while also having the advantage of flatter neck above the 12th fret for facilitating fast scale runs and extreme bends.

Frets come in different sizes and materials. The standard fretwire alloy supplied with most guitars is reasonably durable and provides a well-balanced tonal quality. Stainless steel frets last longer than typical frets but cost more and tend to emphasize treble frequencies. Medium jumbo sized frets are suitable for most hobbyists. For progressive rock, metal, or other high-speed styles, the larger jumbo frets will serve better for high speed scales, sweep arpeggios, and extreme bending.

Most solid body electric guitars bear a similarity to one of two iconic electric guitars: The Fender Stratocaster and the Gibson Les Paul. The standard Stratocaster features three single coil pick ups, a 25.5 inch scale length (measurement from nut to bridge), and a spring-action floating bridge with a bar for activating the spring action. The floating bridge allows you to apply a pitch variation to the strings through pushing and pulling the bar. The longer scale length means the strings are tighter and the frets are a bit farther apart, so Stratocasters are a little more challenging to play. The body wood is typically alder which enhances the single coil tendency toward emphasizing treble and bass, giving the Stratocaster a bright, glassy chime in the treble range combined with rich, deep bass response. The neck pick up provides a more balanced overall tone which is good for playing cleaner tones, while the bridge pick up provides a more treble enhanced tone which is useful for distortion sounds. The middle pick is reverse wound from the neck and bridge, providing a tone that is in between the neck and bridge in terms of treble enhancement. The reverse winding of the middle coil provides noise cancellation similar to a humbucker whenever the middle coil is activated at the same time as one of the other coils.

Many modern rock guitars are spin-offs of the Stratocaster, often called “super-strats”. The super strats will have more pointy bodies and head stocks, with flatter neck profiles and humbucker pick ups to facilitate high distortion, high speed rock solos.

Gibson Guitars designed the Les Paul around a dual-humbucker pick up configuration, with a shorter 24.75 inch scale length. The humbuckers deliver a strong signal for maximum distortion, while still yielding a great balanced tone for cleaner sounds. The mahogany body tends to de-emphasize treble, leading to a tone that many guitarists describe as “darker”. The shorter scale length means the frets are closer together and the strings are not drawn as tight, so these guitars can be a bit easier to play than the Stratocasters, especially for smaller hands. Like the Strotcaster, the pick up closer to the neck will provide a balanced tone which is great for clean sounds, and the neck pick up will provide more treble clarity which is helpful with distortion tones. The Les Paul also features a fixed bridge for more stable tuning and better sustain than Stratocaster type guitars.

If you are new to guitar and not sure what kind of guitar to start with, I recommend solid body electric guitars for all students of guitar primarily interested in styles other than classical. Solid body electric guitars have small, flat bodies, thin necks, and pliable strings, which altogether makes them easier to play than other types of guitars. After developing a certain level of technique proficiency you will then have a better experience of playing other types of guitars. Both Fender and Gibson offer entry level, low cost Squier and Epiphone versions of their higher end guitars, for very reasonable prices in the range of $100.

Strings

Strings come in different sizes and materials. Bronze strings are for acoustic folk type guitars, and nickel-plated steel is for electric guitars. Thin strings are more pliable and easier to bend, so they are helpful for beginners and those who wish to play at very high speeds. Thicker strings provide a more balanced overall tone with better sustain. String sets with a .010 gauge high E string are a good balance between tone and playability. I use Martin .010 Gauge strings for my acoustic guitars, and D’Addario XL .010 gauge strings for my general purpose electric guitars.

The term “action” refers to the height of the strings above the frets. Lower action means less pressure and less time to fret a note, so it may seem to make the guitar easier to play. The trade off is more fret buzz, more difficulty with bending, and more difficulty with sweep picking techniques. The manufacturer specified string height is typically a good balance.

Picks

Picks also come in many materials, shapes, and thickness. A floppy pick leads to weak pick attack and reduced speed and control. For bronze string acoustic guitars, I use a medium gauge pick of .8 mm for a good balance of control and playablity. For electric guitar I use thicker and more stable heavy gauge 1.5 mm large triangular picks by Clayton. A larger pick will provide more surface area and thus better grip and less unwanted shifting. Different materials provide varying grip, tone, and response. I prefer large, thick acetyl picks for a good balance between durability, grip, and tone. Picks are cheap, so you can afford to experiment to find the one that suits your best.