Things Everyone Needs

My students know that I am a bit of a gearhead. During a lesson, I may use my guitars and basses, my Mac, my amps and effects, my monitor speakers and headphones, foot controllers, looper pedal, and music software. Sometimes we do a little recording, and I have a few ways to do that. I have shelves full of CDs and reference books. Picks, slides, and capos are all over the place. I don’t need every tool for every student every week, but it’s nice that it’s all there when I do.

You’ll need to budget some cash for tools of your own. Here’s a rundown on a few things that you will need in order to learn to play better.

Your Guitar

Your instrument gets top priority. Be sure to choose a guitar that’s appropriate for the styles of music you are interested in. A metalhead with a nylon-string “folk” guitar is a deeply unhappy person. So is a Taylor Swift fan with a hot pink ‘80s-style shred machine. Get what you need.

Keep fresh strings on it, and get it set up once or twice a year. Playability, which is mainly about how easy your guitar is to finger, matters even more than its tone. If your guitar is too hard to play, you won’t be able to draw the best sound from it anyway, so make your progress a little easier by playing a properly adjusted guitar.

Parents: many of you try to start your kids out with really inexpensive (less than $100 or so) or borrowed guitars and basses. I am a parent and not rich, and I understand your desire to keep the investment in equipment down, in case your kid loses interest. If you are new to the world of music, buying a guitar can seem complicated and confusing, and a lot of people prefer the least expensive option, for fear of losing money.

However, nobody needs a comfortable, correctly-sized, playable guitar more than a beginner. You want your kids to succeed, right? Trying to force a new player to deal with a junky old instrument, or one that’s too big or small, because you want to save some money will pretty much guarantee failure for that kid. It’s just not fair. Fortunately, there are more decent low-priced guitars available now than there have ever been. If you do a little homework, you’ll make a wise choice, and everyone will be happy.

If you have a borrowed guitar you’d like to use, or one you got from a friend or relative, get it checked over at a local store to be sure it’s playable. Take their advice and get whatever maintenance or small repairs the guitar needs done before you start a lesson program. I can do much of this work in my shop, too, since I also run a repair business. Otherwise you should wait until you can really afford to start. All this stuff will cost some money.

Your Amp and Effects

Electric players need to know that the amp is at least 50% of the sound you’ll get, so don’t cheap out here either. A great guitar through a so-so amp sounds… well, just so-so, kind of thin or dull, and definitely uninspiring. A decent guitar through a solid amp can sound excellent! You want gear that honestly reflects your best playing and doesn’t hold you back. Buy good quality cables, too.

Choose a low-powered (only 5 watts or so) amp for playing at home, and something bigger if you jam or play out now and then. You want an amp that will produce a variety of tones, both clean and with different degrees of distortion. Being able to footswitch between sounds is very useful. An overdrive or distortion pedal helps with this, too.

Modeling amps are the most versatile but are also the most complicated for adults to learn to use. The learning curve can be steep! Kids are ahead of the game here, because a modeling amp is basically just another type of computer. Many players are better off with a basic clean amp and a few pedals to get the extra sounds they need, but this can get expensive fast. The choices you make will depend in part on your willingness to learn to use the gear, and to some extent on how deep your pockets are.

Used gear in good condition from somebody you trust is a great option, and I recommend it. A craigslist deal…you’d better know your way around. Buyer beware!

It’s easy to do research on the internet, and generally free, so get your due diligence done. Haunt local music stores and then buy from them. It’s not fair to use them to shop, and then buy online to save a few bucks. A relationship with your local cool guitar store is very valuable, because they will work hard to get and keep you as a customer. You’ll get extra help from them when you need it.

Your Metronome

It’s still the essential tool for improving your timekeeping, which I consider the single most important skill any player can develop. Buy a good one and use it all the time. There are so many software metronomes out there now that expense is no longer an excuse not to have one. Many basic metronome apps are free! Get one that is easy to work with, and loud enough to hear over the sound of your guitar.

A big drawback to smaller hardware- or app-based metronomes is that you need earphones to hear them, which can in turn make it harder to hear your guitar. I like the Korg KDM-2 because it’s easy to hear in the room, and my students and I can play to it at the same time. It’s more expensive (hardware always is) but it works great. If you connect its headphone jack to powered speakers the whole band can hear it. Hardware or software, whatever you are comfortable using will be a good choice.

Your Pick

Consider picks, their size and thickness, and the material they’re made from. The pick you choose can have a remarkable influence on your tone and your confidence in controlling it. A big problem for many players is feeling the pick twist or spin out of your grip while playing. The first step is to look for problems with how you are holding your pick, and with some corrections and practice, that will often solve the problem. Make sure the pick you use is the right size for your hand.

The smooth, slick plastic that most picks are made from can be hard to hold onto. You want friction, not your muscles, to be doing most of the work. A rougher surface on the part you grip will help a lot. Many picks are made this way (Snarling Dogs Brain Picks, PickBoy, or Wegen are types I use and recommend) or you can homebrew a solution with sandpaper or files and a standard pick. As long as the tip of the pick is smooth, you can rough up the rest of it as much as you want.

Change picks when the edges get rough or uneven, or the tip is worn down. Worn picks will make you sound bad. If the pick was expensive, you can easily sand the edges clean and smooth with a nailboard from the local drugstore. It only takes a few minutes and will make the pick play like new.

Your Tuner

Get one and use it every day. Making yourself listen to an out-of-tune guitar is bad for your ear. Not only that, but the people you live with will rise up and hurt you if you don’t tune often.  At the very least you’ll hear a lot of unkind comments about how you sound, and you’ll deserve them.

Modern tuners are mostly very accurate, and all basically do the same thing. The newest trend is to use a tuner that clips on to the end of the peghead. These are especially useful for acoustic guitars without pickups. I use and recommend the TC Electronics Unitune and Polytune models. The Snark tuners are widely available and cheaper, but not as accurate. I’m not a fan.

Accurate tuning requires patience, so don’t try to rush it. At some point, you’ll need to wean yourself from the tuner and learn to tune well by listening. This is an important part of your ear training. Your teacher will be a big help here.

Strap, Capo, Slide, Fingerpicks…

basically whatever the music styles you like will require you to have. This will become clear as you go along, and your teacher should guide your choices. This stuff is not expensive, though you can certainly spend serious money if you want to. 

Your Practice Space

Try to find a corner where you can keep your gear set up and ready to use all the time. Setting up and tearing down for every practice session wastes time that none of us has. My adult students in particular benefit from grabbing five or ten minutes of playing time as often as possible during the day, but that won’t work if your gear isn’t ready to go when you are.

You need a comfortable armless chair (adjustable for height if you can swing that), good light, and a desk or music stand to lay out your lesson pages. A footstool can help you hold the guitar more easily. Consider using a strap even when you sit down. Keep all your accessories handy.

Most of all, try to create a space where you can get away from other people and all the usual household noises. Concentration is hard enough for most of us to maintain when conditions are ideal, so don’t try to practice with the TV on, or turn practice time into a concert for your kids or friends. Don’t be afraid to be selfish here; you and your music deserve your best efforts.