How to start playing guitar from scratch

ICMP tutor Lee Hodgson tells us what aspiring guitarists need to consider before picking up the instrument…

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Studying guitar in London is undoubtedly rewarding but there are a number of factors new guitarists need to keep in mind before embarking on their music industry career.

From your choice of instrument to the kind of strings you use, there are many decisions facing the fledgling player. So to help, we asked ICMP tutor Lee Hodgson for this advice on how to get equipped to start your musical journey. Lee is a respected authority in the world of guitar players, with decades of experience as a musician, journalist and tutor. Here’s what he advises…

What equipment do I need to get started on guitar?

You need to ask yourself what you mean by ‘start’. If you just want to have fun (maybe entertaining yourself or friends) then buy an acoustic guitar (costing £100–£200 or more) and learn to strum some chords and/or maybe fingerpick!

Or do you want to play electric guitar in a band? If so, then get a decent quality instrument – budget gear is remarkably good nowadays.

If you want to hear your electric guitar sound from a self-contained (portable) unit then traditionally you’d use a ‘combo’ i.e., an amplifier with built-in loudspeaker in the same enclosure. Note that five to 10 watts is more than adequate for home use; 20 to 30 watts would be fine for live rehearsals and small gigs; 50 watts would be adequate for most gigs (no one really uses, or is permitted to use, 100 watts amplifiers in most cases these days). If you want an amplifier with built-in effects (FX), then there are many wonderful devices on the market from the likes of Yamaha, Blackstar or Fender.

If you just want a tone generating device that could be plugged into your lounge hi-fi/mobile device /live public address system (PA) then there are many compact devices (and apps) available at remarkably low prices including “modelers” (e.g. Line 6 Helix, Zoom G series, Vox ToneLab etc.).

If you can afford it, the Kemper Profiler offers state-of-the-art tone generation (containing a vast library of captured sounds or ‘profiles’).

For home (studio) recording using a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) then most computer-based programs (e.g. Logic, Cubase etc.) have remarkably good amp models (plug-ins).

What about any extra devices to help you?

A guitar tuner is essential. Some acoustic guitars have them built in but most guitarists these days prefer to use a clip-on tuner. I’d recommend the Snark range, especially the ST8–Hz, but there are many different brands on the market. The lowest profile one is the Planet Waves/D’Addario NS-1 Micro-tuner. Plug in tuners are a thing of the past! However, multi-FX pedals will almost certainly have a built-in tuner, so plugging an electric guitar into such a device is common when at home or in the rehearsal studio or even for live performance.

A metronome should be regularly used to keep you in time and to record your progress (measuring the tempo in beats per minute or bpm). You can get free apps for mobile devices, which will provide a basic “click” (sound, probably with a visual indication as well), but paying even a small amount extra will get you something with useful facilities (e.g. sounding and/or visual sub-rhythms). Mechanical devices are a thing of the past and even stand-alone electronic devices are becoming obsolete.

A foot stool could also come in handy. Normally only used by classical guitarists playing classical guitar, but really essential for playing any kind of acoustic guitar – resting the instrument on your lap (either side) is a BAD idea and may lead to discomfort and bad habits, and will probably inhibit developing good technique.

A guitar case is also needed. Hard-shell cases are ideal, especially if your instrument might regularly have to be thrown in with other heavy items of equipment, but a gig bag will usually offer enough protection and can easily be slung over your shoulder. A dustbin liner is unsatisfactory!

A capo might be useful for beginner and advanced player alike (to easily change key).

How important is the instrument you learn on? Is there a wrong or right guitar for every player?

40 years ago I’d have said it’s imperative that you avoid cheap instruments because they were usually awful. But nowadays even budget instruments are usually of a good quality. To be more specific, a guitarist needs to feel as comfortable as possible while playing their instrument.

The best advice is to go to a guitar shop, preferably with a knowledgeable, experienced guitar player, and pick up an instrument and see if it feels comfortable to hold and form easy chords." 

If it feels awkward or too difficult to press down on the strings then just pick up another instrument and it’ll either feel better or worse! Or maybe it’ll feel more or less the same. Honestly, it’s like asking what kind of car you should start learning to drive in (anything safe!), or what kind of phone is best (for me). There are too many variables, most of which may or may not have an impact or your prime objective. If you want to learn to play guitar, then find one that makes learning easy! By which I mean one with a reasonably low action (where the strings are not too far away from the fingerboard).

Should I start on an acoustic or electric guitar?

That’s like asking, “which car should I start on, a Ford or a Volkswagen?” A car is a car! A guitar is a guitar! To repeat an earlier answer: buy and use an instrument with a reasonably low action (where the strings are not too far away from the fingerboard). The fact is, electric guitars typically have lower action (are easier to play) and steel-string acoustic guitars 40 years ago tended to have dreadfully high action, but nowadays most acoustic guitars should be quite playable straight off of the rack.

A steel-string acoustic guitar is traditionally used for playing folk/country/blues/rock styles, whereas a nylon string guitar is forever associated with classical music – it’s often referred to as a “classical guitar”; however, its softer sound (warmer tone) works well for, let’s say, Bossa Nova styles (think Brazilian sunsets in Rio de Janerio or, indeed, London sunsets in Clapham…)

How often should I practice?

A little and often is much better than a lot, infrequently. By a little I mean five to 10 minutes per session, by which I mean per item. By item I mean, let’s say, technical development/maintenance OR reading OR theory study. But mixing up items throughout the day (week) is a good plan: technical development/maintenance AND reading AND theory study covered over the course of a week.

What kind of strings should I get?

For electric guitar I’d recommend 10–46 gauge (which is what most professionals tend to use), although 9–46, being thinner or “lighter”, will make string-bending easier, but you sacrifice a bit of tone (girth and power). For steel-string acoustic guitar I’d recommend 12–54 gauge or thereabouts. 11–52 will be a little easier to play and 10-gauge would be easier still, but it’d start to sound a bit thin and plinky. Conversely, if power and projection is what you crave then try 13-gauge; but it’ll feel tough on your fingers! Concerning classical guitar strings, there’s essentially very little choice: normal or high tension. Most professional classical guitarists recommend Normal Tension. High Tension strings will produce more volume and projection for unamplified instruments in a concert hall, but would be rather pointless for home use.

As regards string brands, it’s like asking what brand of car (mobile phone) or TV I should buy – it’s largely a matter of personal preference. It’s wise to find a brand (and gauge) that feels and sounds good to you and stick with it!

What’s the best way to tune my guitar? And have you any tips on keeping it in tune?

Buy a (clip-on) tuner and tune up! Seriously, that’s all there is to it nowadays. (Some displays are clearer to read than others: the Snark ST8-Hz is the best in my professional opinion, although you might like the look of the amazing Peterson Stroboclip HD. As for accuracy (intolerance to out-of-tuneness), cheaper designs are not so good – they show “green” (or steady) even when you’re noticeably out of tune! Again, the two aforementioned brands are good in my professional opinion.

As regards keeping your guitar in tune, the most important thing is to ensure the strings are securely fixed to the tuning post.

Furthermore, give the strings a good “stretch-in”, which is probably covered in the videos just recommended. Oh, also change your strings if they start to sound dull or tuning starts to seem imperfect.

What is the best tip you can give a new player?

Start playing with other human beings (preferably like-minded individuals). Using a metronome is recommended, but they’re boring and they don’t laugh at your jokes or make you smile or console you when you’re feeling down."

Listen to more than one tip … don’t just listen to one person’s advice. Listen to many opinions.

Play what excites you! Play something that challenges you. Avoid playing anything too challenging. Trust your feelings. My final answer here, which maybe should have been my first, is: Don’t give up!

If there was one piece of advice for new players, what would it be?

Buy an instrument that’s as easy as possible to play. (See above) Don’t give up! Sorry, that’s more than one thing. Good luck! MAKE YOUR OWN LUCK!

Visit leehodgson.com for more information on Lee and his various musical projects. 

Study guitar in London in 2018

Are you a guitarist looking to push your skills and technique to the next level? 

Then why not join us here at ICMP London school of music. To find out more, look through our guitar degree courses, part-time courses or book yourself a place at our next Open Day

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by Lee Hodgson, ICMP tutor
January 12, 2018
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