by Rick Cittar, Bradley School of Music
The beginning player stands at the starting line with excitement and anticipation. A critical component to successful study is the right instrument for the student. Many a guitar left in the closet for years has been passed down, only to be found so out of adjustment that it makes learning more difficult than it has to be.
Today the market offers a great selection of student level instruments priced between $150 to $300. It's important that the guitar or bass can stay in tune, and that it is attractive to the player. The acoustic guitar comes in two basic models. The classical guitar with nylon strings is very traditional and a bit easier to play, and comes in different sizes to accommodate younger players. The plectrum guitar has steel strings and a bit more volume (loudness), and offers a great variety in styles. The acoustic bass is probably too expensive for a beginning player.
The electric bass and guitar are probably the best fit for most beginning players. Acoustic/electric combination guitars are also a good option if you want to play live or do some basic recording. There are guitar/amp and bass/amp combination packages that offer great value and convenience. I recommend the Stratocaster style guitar for a great first instrument. The three pickup array gives you five different sounds, and the voice of that guitar has been in pop music since 1954. With a little effort and shopping, a student can be set up with an instrument that will serve well and sound good.
Many beginners simply don't realize that there is a range of adjustability on most guitars and basses. The first thing to consider is string gauge or thickness. Traditionally string gauges are expressed in thousandths of an inch. For example, the high E string in an electric light set typically measures .010" (ten thousandths of an inch), and is usually called "a ten". A set of electric light gauge strings is referred to as a "set of tens". The beginning electric guitarist, however, will probably want an extra-light gauge set, or a set of nines (high E string .009"). This will ease the early struggles of pressing the strings down to the frets. Most electric guitars are shipped with extra-light strings for just that reason.
Acoustic guitar string sets are gauged a little thicker than electric sets, and many guitars come with strings that are too heavy for the beginning player. Look for a set of extra-light acoustic strings with the high E no heavier than an eleven (.011"). Classical guitars are equipped with nylon strings and are easier to press down to the frets. If the strings on the classical guitar seem too tight, try a set of light nylon strings.
Bass guitar strings also come in different gauges, and today's student basses are usually equipped with light strings.
One thing to remember is that as your hands become stronger and you begin to play with a lighter more expressive touch, you can go up to the next heavier gauge strings. This will give you more sound from the guitar, as the loudness of the tone is directly related to the mass or thickness of the strings.
The next factor to consider is the height of the strings from the frets, or the action. I have seen too many beginning students try with all their might to play an improperly set up instrument with extremely high action and heavy-gauge strings. The resulting frustration usually kills the enthusiasm of the student, leaving the person with a sense of personal failure. That would be like competing in a Nascar race with a '76 Corolla, and then feeling dejected that you were lapped seventy-eight times in an hour.
It is fairly easy to check the action of your instrument. Point the headstock at your nose and look down the side of the neck toward the bridge (the piece which holds the strings onto the body). You can see if the string height increases dramatically as you get away from the nut (the slotted piece behind the first fret which determines string spacing). If the action becomes increasingly higher as you proceed toward the bridge, the instrument will be fairly unplayable above the fifth fret.
Beginning students usually prefer a low action so that it's fairly easy to press and hold the string to the fret. Electric guitars and basses have individual bridge saddles for each string, which allows a custom adjustment to the taste of the player. Acoustic and classical guitars, however, have a one-piece bridge saddle which must be shaped and sanded in order to lower the action. This offers the student a good opportunity to contact either a guitar technician or a luthier to make the adjustment.
The contour of the neck is also a critical factor in the set-up. When a string vibrates, it moves in all planes, both up and down, side to side. If the neck is perfectly straight, the string will touch the top of the fret and "buzz". String buzz causes a loss of sound and clarity of tone.
Ideally, you will want some "relief" (a slight concave contour) in the neck to allow the string to vibrate freely. For example, here are the Fender factory specs for relief on Miss Clarissa, my American Standard Stratocaster. Put a capo on the first fret and press the low E string down at the fifteenth fret. Standard relief is a gap of .010" between the top of the eighth fret and the bottom of the low E string.
If the strings pull too tightly on the neck, a severe concavity, or "bow" will result, causing very high action in the middle of the neck. Conversely, if the tension of the strings is not high enough, a convex contour, or "hump" will result, causing buzzing and some dead notes on the upper frets.
Most guitars and basses have a "truss rod" in the neck, which can be adjusted to get a balance between string tension and neck rigidity. A classical guitar will usually have no truss rod, and will rely on the thickness of the neck for stability. Turn the truss rod clockwise to tighten the neck and remove a "bow"; turn the truss rod counter-clockwise to loosen the neck and straighten out a "hump".
Intonation is accuracy in pitch along the entire length and breadth of the neck. Electric guitars and basses have individual bridge saddles which can be adjusted to set the intonation, by equalizing the pitch of the fretted note on the twelfth fret to the pitch of the harmonic at the twelfth fret. Some acoustic and classical guitars come with a compensating bridge saddle, which can allow for more accurate intonation. A guitar with bad intonation will usually sound terrible, and serves no good purpose in the creation of beautiful music.
We have looked at Instrument Selection, Strings, Action, Neck Contour, and Intonation as critical factors in helping a new student learn to play the guitar and bass. It's important to remember that all factors must be in balance and harmony for the private lessons to be most beneficial. A beginning student should consult with a good guitar tech or luthier for the initial adjustment and set up, which can cost up to $40 or $50 if the guitar needs a lot of work.
Another thing to remember: you get what you pay for, especially with a musical instrument like the guitar or bass. A fairly inexpensive guitar will probably look good and have inferior quality hardware and electronics, and may actually sound fairly good. The higher quality instrument will respond to adjustment better, sound better (see "intonation"), stay in tune better, and play better in the long run.