THE SUREST WAY TO GIVE UP ON LEARNING GUITAR
(Don’t do this!)
By Aldo Chircop
I have a proposal for something which should become a universal, unbendable rule in the guitar world. I’ll call it the N.G.G. rule.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen. None other than the…..<drum roll>….
“NO GARBAGE GUITARS” RULE!
Here’s something which I’ve seen countless times.
On meeting a prospective student for the first time, I always ask them some questions about what kind of experience they have had on the instrument. Whether they took lessons in the past, or tried to learn on their own, or are complete beginners, and so on.
A very common thing I hear is something like: “Oh, I just tried learning something on a guitar I had / a guitar someone gave me but found it too hard and quit soon after.”
On asking them just what kind of guitar it was and where it came from, 9 times out of 10 it turns out that it was some cheap, nasty, very old, very banged up acoustic guitar that they or some friend had lying around at home for ages. Probably something handed down from their parents or even grandparents.
My thought is always: “Yeah, no wonder you quit almost right away! NNNNNNGGGGGGHHHHHHH!”
That noise was my own sense of frustration bubbling up at hearing this heresy yet another time. If you are wondering why it’s such a big deal to me, I can explain that quickly with an analogy:
Trying to learn as a complete beginner on a crappy guitar, is like strapping a backpack full of rocks on a baby and hoping that’ll help it learn to walk!
Learning to play guitar, like many other physical activities that require fine motor control, is hard enough as it is in the beginning. The worst thing you could do is to make it even harder on yourself by trying to learn on something that works against you.
That dear old banged up acoustic guitar that’s been handed down in the family for the past 50 years may have emotional value to you, but in all probability, as far as its usefulness as a musical instrument goes, it’s barely fit for lighting a fire. I know it sounds harsh, but experience has shown me it’s the truth in almost all cases.
Trust me when I tell you that especially in the beginning when everything feels unfamiliar and awkward, you want to have a guitar that feels easy to play. It’s no coincidence that in the guitar business, we refer to this quality as the ‘playability’ of a guitar.
As a starting point, most acoustic guitars, including some pretty expensive ones, are in general harder to play than electric guitars. This is because they typically have heavier strings and have a much higher ‘action’. The ‘action’ is the height at which strings sit above the frets. In other words, it determines how far you must press a string down to hold it on a fret and sound a note clearly. The higher the action, the harder it feels to play the guitar.
That is not the whole story however. The consistency of the action along the whole fretboard is also very important. On a good and well set up guitar, the action feels consistent everywhere along the neck, with only a very slight gradual change if at all.
And this, dear readers, is typically the bane of most banged up acoustic guitars which so many hopeful beginners try to learn on.
You see, on acoustic guitars, the neck and body are joined together with glue. What happens on many acoustic guitars as they get older and get banged about, is that the glue shrivels and weakens over the years and the neck to body joint loses its strength. As this happens, the string tension gradually pulls the neck out of alignment, making it tilt inwards. This always results in horrendous playability, with the action maybe being somewhat passable around the lowest frets, but impossibly hard to play as you move higher up the fretboard.
Knowing this, it’s easy to picture what will happen to most beginners who try to learn on such a useless pile of dross. They will find it immensely hard and frustrating and will give up and quit very quickly, probably thinking that they are not ‘talented’ enough to learn guitar, or that their hands are not of the right size and shape, and so on.
Such a tragic and totally avoidable waste, when you think about it. Who knows how many thousands if not millions of people wanted to learn guitar only to quit and never try again, just because they didn’t get a decent guitar to practice on!
So, what’s the solution, you’ll ask? Do you need to spend thousands on a new guitar before you even start? Not at all. Here is my recipe to ensure you start learning with the greatest chance of success from the very beginning:
Follow the above advice, and you will have set yourself up for success from the get go. Your guitar journey will be far more enjoyable and rewarding as a result, guaranteed.
About the author:
Aldo Chircop is a guitarist, composer, producer and guitar teacher based in Malta. He is president and chief instructor of Malta Rock Academy, home of the best blues, rock and metal guitar lessons in Malta.