Pay the Piper

So you want to play a musical instrument?

You think you'd like to learn the guitar? We tell you the advantages and pitfalls, where to buy one, how to get lessons, what it will cost - everything you need to know

Why play an instrument?
What instrument to play
How to buy an instrument
Other costs
Where to get lessons
How much progress will I make?
Doing your practice
Music exams
Upgrading your instrument
Finding opportunities to play
Switching instruments
Violin & Viola
Double Bass
French Horn
Trumpet & Cornet
Other brass instruments
Your questions answered
What's copyright?
Links to other sites

The Guitar

Family: String
Cost: from £40
Best age to start: 8 years upwards (electric guitar much later, though)
Easy to start? It depends what style you wish to learn. Folk-style is easy, classical style is hard and progress slow

The first thing you have to consider is what style of music you want to play on the guitar, because this makes all the difference to the cost and the ease of learning. Broadly speaking your choice is between classical guitar, Spanish guitar, folk guitar and rock or pop style played on an electric guitar. In making this choice you must expect to be influenced by the guitar teacher you have found - you can hardly learn classical guitar unless you have a classical guitar teacher, can you? Teachers do like to teach the thing they do best themselves, so if you have a classically-trained guitar teacher, he or she might be reluctant to teach you in any other style. On the other hand if you have a folk guitarist for a teacher, he or she probably won't feel competent to teach you Spanish or classical styles.
The guitar is a simple instrument, with six strings stretched along the fingerboard and across the curvy body of the instrument. You play by plucking with your right hand or by "strumming" - sweeping your hand or a plastic plectrum across the strings - and obtain differently notes by stopping the strings against the fingerboard with the fingers of your left hand. Unlike most other string instruments the guitar has raised frets across the fingerboard. Their purpose is not so much to show you where to put your fingers, but to stop the string more securely when you press it down.
If you want to play classical, Spanish or folk guitar you will need an acoustic instrument, where the sound of the six strings is amplified and modified by the hollow body of the instrument. Acoustic guitars of "student" quality are pretty cheap, starting at about £45, and they can be obtained in different sizes which is handy if you're small.
Electric guitars have a solid wooden body which does not amplify the sound at all, so they rely on an electric amplifier to do this. They usually cost more than acoustic guitars, but not by very much. Of course, you have to buy an amplifier as well. Electric guitars don't seem to come in different sizes, so you can't start until you're big enough to hold and control the instrument.
Classical guitar is a beautiful, atmospheric style of playing. In our view it is very difficult to learn, and your progress is likely to be slow. You will learn to read music, and will become adept at playing several different parts - just a tune and a bass part at first, but becoming quite complex later on. The finger picking can be very intricate. Some guitarists grow the nails of their right hand rather long for the purpose. The classical guitar is quiet, and therefore not well suited to playing with other instruments, so playing it could well be a solitary pursuit.
Spanish guitar is closely related to classical, but is noisier and more energetic. You will need a teacher who specialises in this style, which may be hard to find. There are no opportunities to play with groups such as wind bands, orchestras etc., so if you want to play with other people it will be a question of finding other guitarists like yourself.
Folk guitar is easy to learn - in fact, some guitarists manage to teach themselves, and this is really the only instrument where we would recommend the "teach yourself" books sold in many music shops. Basically it is a chordal style - you stop the strings in a certain pattern and strum with your right hand. If you want to accompany yourself or others singing, this is the style for you, and you could make yourself quite popular at school, church or youth club. One thing that makes this an easy style is the fact that an awful lot of songs can be accompanied using only three or four chords.
Many people teach themselves to play electric guitar too, but they tend to do it by copying each other or copying their favourite musicians, and by dint of long hours of practice.
Jazz bands do often use both an electric guitar and an electric bass guitar, but on the whole the opportunities for playing with others will depend on you being able to find friends who want to form a group with you. The fact that most secondary schools in the country have at least one rock group, and some of them several, indicates that this is not as hard as it sounds. If you're a successful group you may find that your music has more of a social side than you had bargained for, and that you're kept busy fending off the groupies. You wish!
The bass guitar is very different from the ordinary instrument. It has only four strings, you never strum it and in fact it's a lot more like a double-bass than a guitar. Some double-bassists play bass guitar as well, because the fingering is identical.
The main expense once you have bought an instrument is replacing strings. These are not very expensive, though. An acoustic guitar is usually carried in a soft case which offers only limited protection to the instrument, and the wood is pretty thin so accidental damage is always a possibility. If you can't find a specialist guitar repairer, try your local violin repairer. Electric guitars are pretty tough, but of course there is the electrical side to worry about - one loose wire or badly-soldered joint can spoil your fun completely. Shops that sell electric guitars usually have their own tame repairer either on the premises or on call.
If you do decide to try and teach yourself the guitar, here are a couple of books that might help. You can buy them online at discount prices by clicking the links. They are Learn to play guitar and The first stage guitar book. The "Tune a Day" series of books is fairly old and they may not be the best tutor books available, but we think they are quite useful for students learning by themselves. They come in two versions, one for classical and one for folk guitar.
To learn more about playing the guitar, try The Rough Guide to Acoustic Guitar or The Rough Guide to Electric & Bass Guitar. Our associates Amazon list lots and lots of books about guitar-playing - enter "guitar" and "play" in the search box below and hit "enter". If you'd like to get an idea of the kind of music the classical guitar can play, we recommend this CD which includes music for the mandolin as well.
You can get a free eBook about learning the guitar from Learn to Play Guitar, and at Hot Frets you can find FREE guitar lessons online!
We also like the look of, a modestly-priced software guitar school for beginners with videos, midis, pictures and useful interactive features. It includes chords, rhythm-patterns, accompaniments, 28 exercises/songs in different degrees of difficulty, test feature, tuner, Guitar Teaching Support, user zone with workshops and an easy song-archive. Click here or on the banner below to learn more. Their links page is worth a look, too.
Learn how to play guitar on Your PC - Gitarrero Beginner  

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• Decide what style interests you, and take advice from your teacher
• Finding a teacher should not be difficult. Some people manage to teach themselves on folk and electric guitar
• Instruments are fairly cheap to buy and maintain
• Folk-style is easy to learn, classical is hard with the other styles in between
• For classical and Spanish-style guitarists the opportunities for group music making are not good. They are better for folk guitarists. Electric guitarists usually make their own opportunities


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Copyright © David Bramhall 2005