(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>….


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:

  1. Forget using some old banged up guitar just cos it’s there. Unless you can get an experienced guitarist or guitar tech to look at it and confirm that it has or can be set up to have good playability, you’re far better off looking for something else. Don’t go the false economy route and try to make do with a garbage guitar to skimp on buying something decent. It’s a choice that always backfires, trust me.
  1. Hands down, electric guitars are the far better option for anyone to start out on, even if you also wish to play on a (good) acoustic eventually. Electric guitars have a much more compact body which makes it easier to reach around, and provided they are of high enough quality and in good condition, they can always be adjusted to have the best playability for you. The action can be set just as you want it, as well as the intonation to make sure it sounds in tune all along the fretboard. They are infinitely more serviceable and customizable than acoustic guitars.
  1. Start out with light gauge steel strings, such as gauge 009. Don’t listen to guitar playing friends who swear by heavy gauge strings because they think it makes them sound like ‘experts’ and say things like “Hey man, Stevie Ray Vaughan used 13’s on his guitars. That’s where it’s at it you want to sound like him.. blah blah..”.  That’s fine, but you’re not SRV and most probably neither is your friend. So at least for now, make things easy for yourself. Yes, heavy gauges have their place for some players, depending on experience, skill level and tone preferences. And eventually you may want to try out heavier gauges and graduate to them if you find out you prefer them. But in the beginning, when you still must develop your technique, hand strength and finger calluses, heavy gauge strings will just make things harder and more painful, and your progress will be much slower. Learn to walk before you try to compete in the 110 metre hurdles at the Olympics. 
  1. Don’t fall too much for the mystique of famous guitar brands that cost an eye and a leg, or manufacturers that claim to use fancy super expensive tone woods or special components, supposedly to obtain tonal differences that only the most experienced fanatics could possibly hear, if at all. Chasing irrelevant details is a waste of time, money and effort when 99% of your attention should be focused on learning to play. 
  1. The good news is that you don’t need to spend a lot of money at all to have a guitar that is very playable and perfectly adequate to start on. Nowadays there are many good brands that offer very decent guitars at under 200 dollars or equivalent. Even just a few lessons with a good teacher will cost you that much or more. So, look around, ideally with the guidance of an experienced guitarist or teacher, and you will find the perfect starting guitar for you. Also, get a good guitar tech to give it a set up to make sure its playability is top notch. If you don’t have the cash right now, then start saving up. It’s a vital investment in something that’s important to you, right? Right?? ?

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.

Happy playing!

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.