A Guitarist’s First Steps

25 02 2009

People ask me stuff…

You know, stuff like;

“Dude… Did all those amps make your hair fall out early, or was it the drugs?”

Nope, it was the women…

Or;

“Can you recommend a guitar for my kid? He’s a real good player! He plays almost as good as you!”

To which I usually respond;

“I’d recommend you go home and break his fingers. The music biz is full of  “ponytails” that want to pick his pocket!”

Actually, a lot of the mail I get asks the same question;

“Can you recommend a good starter guitar?”

And here’s where years of playing (both studio and stage) and all that expertise jump right off my foot, and end up right in my mouth!

We’re gonna take this first trip together, aimed at a place called “generality.” Later on, as the road trip progresses, we’ll delve deeper into what makes a guitar work, and what you should learn to look for.

Picking a first guitar is like kissing your first girl. You tremble when you touch her, your mouth starts to salivate, and then, you drool like a kid fresh out of the dentists office! 🙂

There are as many “first guitars,” as there are cars, or bikes, or even blonds. The way I see it, it’s all about “feel.”

You have to reach out and pick her up, and then let your fingers walk all over her, just to test the fit. You’ve got to hold her close, just to see it she squirms, and then, you need to strum her a few times, just to hear her coo!

I’ve heard a lot of guys tell students that a “first guitar” doesn’t need to be expensive. I’ve heard guitar salesmen tell a new guitarist wanna-be that the “first guitar” will set the pace for every guitar that follows…

And, I think that the truth lies somewhere inbetween…

That first guitar is going to be the one that either lead you to the door that opens up on your life as a guitarist, or it’s gonna break your heart.

A lot of guys will disagree with me, but I’m “old school” when it comes to learning your licks…

I tell new guitarists that it’s essential to consider the acoustic, before you pick up an electric. That acoustic will teach you fundamentals about fingering and technique, and you’ll be able to practice, practice, practice, anywhere you happen to be, no matter where it is.

Obviously, there’s a difference between playing an electric and an acoustic. The technical approaches are indeed different. The approach to chords, notes, and scales is different. But the theory and skills you learn with that acoustic will pay off, in spades.

It used to be that “real guitarists” played electric, and the “other guys” played acoustics. Now, it’s pretty common to see that Guitar God you idolize reach over and grab an acoustic dreadnaught from a tech…  And the sound that comes off those strings is amazing! Don’t believe me?

“Real Men” don’t play Acoustic Guitar, right? Bull!

Steve Morse Classical Lesson – Northern Lights

A little bit of investigation will reveal that a LOT of those Metal Gods you worship, have Acoustic “Classical training…” And, even saddled by those “uncool acoustic boxes…” They totally rock!

Some of us (even though we’re OLD) actually know our way around that hunk of maple that you call a guitar neck!

Hey, I know that it’s cool to rush out and buy a hot electric guitar, an amp, and a pedal or two, but most new guitarists aren’t flush with cash. That’s why guitar shops are jammed to the rafters with “packages.” Avoid these like a Madonna album!!! The salesman will talk you into a compromise, and you’ll end up with a mediocre guitar, a crappy amp, and some electronics that you’ll replace, as soon as you figure out what you’re doing!

(Hey, that gives me an idea! I’m pretty good with hand tools… Maybe I’ll teach you how to build a lamp out of that crap-assed Chinese guitar you just bought! No sense in letting it go into a landfill. That wouldn’t be “green.”)

If you start with an acoustic, you can buy a really nice guitar (for much less than that “electric rig”), a quality guitar that you can grow with… one that won’t end up disappointing you later.

Oh just stop it, you bunch of “whining guitar-shredder wanna-be’s!”  PSYCH!

I know that some of you would rather cut your own hands off with a dull steak knife, than touch an acoustic. So…

This post, I’m gonna talk about Acoustics. Next post… I’ll talk about your damned Electric Guitars…

Why? ‘Cuz that’s how I roll… That’s why!

Here’s a few “rules” for you to consider;

Buy your guitar from somebody that you trust, that knows guitars. Your guitar should be inspected and adjusted, not “infected and neglected.” A cheap guitar in a pawn shop is usually trouble unless you know what you’re looking at!

Brand names don’t mean anything. Just because it says (insert your favorite brand here) on the headstock doesn’t mean it’s a sweetheart! It could still be assembled in a factory by somebody who doesn’t care about anything but a paycheck.

Choose a guitar that fits your body. Trying to play the wrong size guitar makes everything that much harder. And frustration equals failure.

There is no such thing as a “good” cheap guitar. You get what you pay for!

Choose a guitar finish that really makes you smile! A happy guitar is a well-played guitar! If you really like looking at it, you’ll like playing it even more!

And, buy an electronic tuner. It looks cool to tune by ear, but you aren’t ready for that, yet. That tuner will train your ear.

Would you like “paper or plastic?”

The next mountain to conquer is this;

Do you want nylon or steel strings?

Acoustics come a bunch of ways, but the most fundamental differences are “Nylon,”or “Steel” strings.

Nylon String Guitars Are Typically Used for Classical and Folk Music, but the mellow tone and responsiveness of the nylon strings can be enjoyed for folk or any other style of music.

Steel String Guitars are for Rock, Country and Most Other Styles. Steel string guitars are used for rock, country and many other styles of music, but it is a matter of personal choice. You can hear the difference, because steel string guitars produce a crisp, bright tone as compared to nylon string guitars.

Your best bet is to listen to different recording artists that perform on nylon and steel string guitars. This will help you find the sound that is the most appealing to you.

You’re going to get sore fingers, no matter which path you decide to follow.

Initially, playing on either nylon or steel strings will make the fingertips a little tender and sore, but with a little time and practice, the pain will go away.

Nylon strings are made of a softer, less dense material and are under less tension than steel strings. As a result, they are slightly easier to push down, provided the instrument is properly adjusted.

As a result, those nylon strings need to be tuned more frequently. But, that’s a good thing, too. Over time, it allows you to hear the “differences” and it teaches you to tune. It’s all good!

Steel string guitars are under a higher amount of tension and therefore the strings  are somewhat harder to push down than nylon strings, but the difference is not great as long as the guitars are correctly adjusted for easy playability.

But don’t let anyone tell you that it doesn’t matter which strings go where! You can’t exchange steel for nylon! The guitars are actually built for specific strings, and switching up will make your guitar sound like crap. Steel string guitars are designed and manufactured for steel strings and using them will provide you with the most playability, intonation and sound possible. And, using steel strings on a nylon guitar will damage the guitar. That Nylon Guitar isn’t built or braced for steel strings and the tension they require!!

And you can still buy that amp, if you have cash burning a hole in your pockets!

Acoustics come in both “Acoustic,” and “Electric Acoustic” models. You can buy an acoustic that plugs into an amp, if you’re looking for a “big” sound. Again, it depends on what you have to spend.

I usually steer new guitarists at guitars by figuring out what they have jingling in their pockets. And, surprisingly, it’s usually about $500.00

So, just for the sake of starting an argument, here’s a good looking, great sounding, versatile, “high quality entry level guitar” (left-handed of course) that can be bought  brand new for less than 5 Bills, including bag…

Wechter Pathmaker 3135 Left-Handed Guitar

3135

I have one. And, I play it all the time, even though I’ve got a pair of Martins (a D-28 and a D-18 1934) sitting right here. Okay, so I take the Wechter camping, and it goes along when I go out in the RV to find fish or look at girls…

In fact, I own several Wechter guitars;

Wechter USA Florentine Cutaway Model 9303c 6 String Guitar – Nylon
Wechter Scheerhorn Model 6530-F  Dobro, and;

My own pair of Wechter Pathmaker 3135s

I found several of these through a pal who watched the “trades.” It’s been discontinued, but they’re still out there, for cheap. I bought (5) of them, and I spent $1500.00  (I sent 3 of them to a music school I sponsor in Israel.)

I just jumped out on the ‘net, and I found 12 of them for sale… all in the $300-$500 range (new).

This guitar has a patented double cutaway headblock design that gives you 19 frets clear of the body and the most stable neck to body joint found on any acoustic guitar today. It feels great in your hands, too! It feels like a solid body neck on an acoustic body. Hand scalloped bracing and a quality thin finish allows the soundboard to respond to the lightest touch for clear and balanced acoustic tone.

Here’s some of the “good stuff;”

  • Spruce top
  • Lacewood back and sides
  • Mahogany neck
  • Natural Finish
  • Tortoise shell binding and abalone trim
  • Rosewood bridge and fingerboard
  • Reinforced adjustable truss-rod assembly for stable neck action
  • Die-cast chrome tuners
  • Bound top, back, neck and fingerboard
  • Dot position markers on both top and side of fingerboard at 3, 5, 7, 9, 12 (2), 15,17, 19, 21
  • Pro quality amplification – the versatile 3-pickup system
  • Final setup with Plek Pro and electronics installation
  • Super heavy-duty padded gig bag included
  • Life-time warranty

Here’s one reason why I like it;

Wechter Pathmaker 3000 Series wins Guitar Player Editors’ Pick Award

“Offering outstanding playability and super-flexible electronics, the Wechter Pathmaker is a smart choice for hardworking pickers and songsmiths who need an all-in-one writing, recording, and gigging tool. It sounds particularly wicked plugged in, and it’s currently the only acoustic-electric in its price range with three points of amplification. Innovative and affordable, the Pathmaker nabs an Editors’ Pick Award.”

September 22, 2003 – Guitar Player magazine honored Wechter Pathmaker™ 3000

Series with its distinguished Editors’ Pick Award in the November 2003 issue. These awards recognize those products that the Guitar Player editors deem “innovative, technologically advanced, and exquisitely rendered.”

In order to qualify for this prestigious award, a product must be evaluated in a Guitar Player Bench Test and receive at least one top score in the review’s overall rating categories. Once the product qualifies, Guitar Player editors meet to discuss its merits and vote on whether it gets an award. Approval must be unanimous. The Wechter Pathmaker™ has met all of Guitar Player’s strict standards and earned top honors from the magazine’s editorial board.

Excerpts from the review

Guitar Player Senior Editor Andy Ellis writes: “Most budget acoustics are knockoffs of instruments pioneered decades ago by Martin and Gibson. It’s cheaper to emulate than innovate, which explains why the world is long on wannabe D-28s and J-45s, and short on low-priced original designs. It’s this reality that makes the Wechter Pathmaker ($399 street, deluxe gig bag included [right-handed]) such a standout. Created by noted luthier Abe Wechter, built in China to his specifications, and set up in his Michigan workshop, the acoustic-electric Pathmaker combines decent materials and construction with radical engineering, cool electronics, and remarkable playability.

The result is a bold, versatile 6-string that performs far above its price class.”

Construction Details

“The Pathmaker’s most innovative feature is its patented neck joint, a clever design that yields two huge dividends—unimpeded access to the 19th fret, and an uncommonly stable union between the neck and body. At the heart of this junction is a curved, wooden block. Nearly 3/4″ thick and laminated for strength, this crosspiece runs from the tip of one cutaway to the other, defining the cutaway contours and 81/2″ span, and establishing the body’s 4″ upper-bout depth. The neck is fitted and glued to the center of this block using three wooden dowels.

Together, the neck and block form an inverted T—a rigid frame that prevents lateral neck twisting, and allows the instrument to be lightly braced. In terms of fretboard access, the Pathmaker lies somewhere between a Gibson Barney Kessel archtop and an SG—unreal for a flat-top.”

Wechter has taken two steps to maximize the Pathmaker’s resonance. First, using violinmaker’s planes, workers scallop the braces to let the top and back vibrate   more freely. Second, the finish is applied sparingly—just enough to seal the wood, but not imprison it. On our test Pathmaker, the wood grain showed through the high-gloss finish, the way it does on many boutique flat-tops. These two procedures are worth the effort.”

“Sporting sealed, diecast tuners, the curvy headstock lets the strings fan out gently after they cross the bone nut. Coupled with a moderate downward headstock angle, this spread keeps the strings firmly in their slots without causing undue binding.

The tuners turn smoothly, and the nut slots are carefully cut so the open-string height tracks the fretboard radius—a detail often overlooked on mass-produced instruments.”

“The neck has a moderate, rounded profile that stays at a uniform depth until you reach the 14th fret, where the heel begins its downward journey. Boasting a generous 251/2″ scale length, a gentle 12″ radius, and well-crowned medium fretwire, the rosewood fretboard offers an inviting playing surface. Some fret ends are awkwardly cut, but they’ve all been filed smooth, and there are no sharp edges.”

Totally Wired

The Pathmaker’s sexiest feature is its electronic package, which comprises a preamp/mixer, a condenser mini-mic on a flexible stem, a single-coil magnetic soundhole pickup with adjustable polepieces, and an undersaddle piezo transducer.

The sidemount preamp allows you to manipulate the level and tone of all three signal sources using a minimum number of controls.”

The Pathmaker has two outputs—a low-impedance XLR jack and a high-impedance 1/4″ jack—mounted on a plate near the endpin. These jacks carry identical mono signals, so you can’t split the pickup and mic outputs. But what you can do is feed your sound simultaneously to a P.A. and stage amp, and then wrangle the results independently. In the studio, the dual outs suggest creative options like recording a clean signal from the XLR jack, while connecting the 1/4″ jack to an effects unit and then bussing the processed tones to a second track. If you gig a lot, you’ll really appreciate how the system runs happily on 48-volt phantom power supplied from a mixer via the XLR cable—slick! A dedicated LED indicates when the phantom juice is flowing.”

“Plugged in, the Pathmaker has a huge repertoire of blended mic and pickup sounds. Whether you’re after crunchy chord riffs or warm lead lines, you’re bound to find what you need—plus variations thereof. The guitar’s mag and saddle pickups sound clean and robust, but it’s the hot mic that provides the magic. Some claim that a mic placed inside an acoustic picks up more sonic garbage than useful timbres. However, I found that by pulling the capsule out of the soundhole—so it hovers between the soundboard and the bass strings, angled toward the treble strings—the Pathmaker delivered a very credible miked tone. This proved especially useful in a studio setting, where I’d often let the mic do most of the work. Onstage,  the mic is forced to play a more subservient role to avoid feedback. Fortunately, it doesn’t take much mic signal to animate the direct pickup tones.”

But don’t just take MY word for it… Here’s what other people said about it:

Overall     quality: 9
Experience w/product     I own it
Features     Features: 10
Reviewer’s Background     Professional Musician
Quality     quality: 9
Reviewer’s Play Style     Worship, Folk, Rock, Britpop
Value     quality: 9

I purchased this guitar two years ago for live playing. The smaller body, flexible electronics were big plusses. Now, two years in, here is what you need to know. – This guitar is made to be played live, plugged in. I play different guitars jamming or on the couch. – The action came set up lower/better than any other acoustic I have ever played, including pro setups. I’ve never made an adjustment. It comes with D’Addario lights, which work better than others I have tried. – The look of the double cutaway will grow on you, and a custom pickguard from terrapin really put behind me any concerns about looks. – The sound is more than anything balanced. Not lots of character… pleasingly balanced, lending itself to amplification. – This will blow your mind. I recently upgraded the magnetic pickup to a L.R.Baggs M1 passive. As easy as unplugging an 1/8″ jack and plugging the next in to the onboard Artec preamp. Seriously 3 minutes. It is ASTOUNDING in combination with the mic and the piezo, through a L.R.Baggs Para DI. Think Taylor expression system good.

I love this guitar.

Posted by wechtermongoose from Tucson, AZ on Jul 8, 2008

Overall     quality: 10
Experience w/product     I own it
Features     Features: 10
Reviewer’s Background     Active Musician
Quality     quality: 10
Reviewer’s Play Style     Blues, Rock
Value     quality: 10

I just got thing guitar today and i am very happy with it. The natural wood finish is beautiful, along with the accent around the edges just adds to the beauty. After tuning it up, it played great straight out of the box and i haven’t put it down since. The acoustic sound alone is very good, but the three pickup system is amazing. It gives you a huge variety of sounds through the amp. This is a great quality acoustic-electric guitar for a decent price. Buy this guitar!

Posted by Frosty_Legacy from Virginia on Feb 2, 2008

Overall     quality: 10
Experience w/product     I own it
Features     Features: 10
Reviewer’s Background     Active Musician
Quality     quality: 10
Reviewer’s Play Style     Solo Acoustic
Value     quality: 10

I’ve had my Pathmaker for a year & a half, & I have to say I couldn’t be happier with it. It sounds great, plays great, & looks great. I perform a solo acoustic act & get nothing but compliments on every front. You can spend more money on other guitars, but you won’t find many that sound better. If you buy it, you’ll find that you spent your money well.

Posted by J.P.H. from Winchester, VA on Dec 9, 2007

Overall     quality: 10
Experience w/product     I own it
Features     Features: 10
Reviewer’s Background     Professional
Quality     quality: 10
Reviewer’s Play Style     Jazz
Value     quality: 10

Three pickup system! Bridge,Mic,pickup. Plugged in this guitar sings, sustains very well. Good for Andy Mckee, Tommy Emmanuel type stuff! The neck is much like an Ibanez electric, this is not a your every day “kills my hands” acoustic. I got it, didnt have to touch a thing, tuned it and was ready to go. The double cutaway allows access to all the frets up the neck. Tone,intonation right on target. Frets are smooth as glass, flat neck,no sharp edges (PLECKED!). Has a 1/4 inch and XLR jack. Beautifull guitar to look at, shell binding with abalone inlays. Fret markers are cool too…just enough to be unique. Headstock shape sets off the axe. This thing plays like a professionally setup electic guitar. My hands are averaged size and I can fly. Great for DI also.

Posted by I’ve been Plecked by Wechter from Illinois on Oct 11, 2007

Overall     quality: 10
Experience w/product     I own it
Features     Features: 10
Reviewer’s Background     Active Musician
Quality     quality: 10
Reviewer’s Play Style     Contemporary Christian
Value     quality: 10

This is a wonderful guitar. The $$’s, the quality, the value, the feature’s are all great. But the best thing about this guitar is the backup from the company. After a couple of years I needed an adjustment. Communicating with the company, Abe Wechter himself, and the people that backup this instrument was simple. This is a great instrument with some great people behind it.

Posted by dgstjohn from Greenwood, MS on Jan 23, 2007

As you can see, I’m not the only one who loves it.

Note: I don’t work for Wechter, nor am I endorsing their guitar for a consideration, fee, or even product. I’m passing this on, because they are available, and they’re great guitars. Of course, if they have a spare “lefty” laying around collecting dust that they want to send my way, I’ll make sure it gets played! 😉

Next time, we’ll talk about what makes a great Electric Guitar!

See ya!

100lft_guitar_ava1Sorry about the out-link to the MP3 file. I’ve yet to figure out how to embed music into the blog, without having to move mountains! Bear with me while I discover how to treat your ears, while I teach your fingers! 😉

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One response

26 02 2009
Ashish

W00t! Now that is what I needed.

Buy your guitar from somebody that you trust, that knows guitars. Your guitar should be inspected and adjusted, not infected and neglected. A cheap guitar in a pawn shop is usually trouble unless you know what you’re looking at!
I’ll take your advice. I was looking for one on the net for there aren’t any here for miles but almost everyone tells me thats a bad idea. Similarly they tell me to start with an acoustic.

I’m waiting for your next posts! This is some good stuff right here and the hits tell no lie! 🙂

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