Friday, February 06, 2009

A guitar for the rest of your life?

This message is mainly for guitar and bass players because most other instrumentalists already agree with what I am about to say. Once a violinist or a cellist reach a certain level of expertise, they purchase a quality instrument, usually expensive, that responds to their playing style and offers everything they are looking for in an instrument. Then they usually keep this instrument throughout their career and use it for all of their performances. But for some reason, most guitar and bass players seem to always be trying different instruments, never happy with what they have, always looking for something better or something different.

I am also speaking from experience – all the wrong kind of experience. I must have owned around 100 different guitars during my career as a musician. There were a few guitars among these that I never should have owned, and there were a few that I should have kept. It is a good experience to find a guitar that meets both your present and future needs, and then to continue playing the same instrument until it becomes a part of you, and extension of your musical whole being. I’m writing this hoping that you won’t have t go through all the “wrong turns” that I had to.

In the beginning, it is difficult to know exactly what you want, and you may have to experiment with a few guitars until you find one you like. This will be easier if you access your needs and decide if you are going to play guitar as a hobby or are you going to play professionally. If you are going to play as a hobby, when the hobby becomes serious, almost overwhelming, you are ready to choose a lifetime instrument. If you will be playing professionally, you need to find an instrument that will fill your needs on-stage.

When considering the purchase of a “keeper” guitar, give some consideration to the following questions:
1. What is it about this guitar that led you to consider purchasing it as an instrument you will desire to play for as long as possible? Think a lot before you answer and try to be specific about what exactly drew you to this instrument.
2. Is this guitar cosmetically appealing? Is it the color you wanted? If used, does it have any damage or blemishes that you would be concerned about?
3. Is this instrument suited to your playing style? Are there other guitarists that use this model of guitar to get good results playing the same type of music that you will?
4. Is this a versatile guitar? If your style changes, will this guitar be suitable for other styles of music? There are a few “classic” guitars on the market that seem to do well in all styles of electric guitar playing, such as the Fender Telecaster and Stratocaster and the Gibson Les Paul and ES-335.
5. Is the guitar you are considering just a passing fad, or something that will withstand the test of time. Is the guitar likely to appreciate in value or perhaps become collectable?
6. If this is not a “brand name” guitar, is there anything about the manufacturer that would eventually make you feel like you were playing an inferior instrument? There are some manufacturers such as Yamaha and Ibanez that were once unknowns, but have risen to the top because they have built a reputation for building instruments of superior quality.
7. How does guitar “feel” to you? If you can’t come up with an answer immediately, then this is probably not the right guitar for you. When you find the “right” guitar, it will immediately feel better than you could have ever imagined. It will be a feeling that you have never experienced in a guitar, a good feeling that you feel fortunate to have discovered.
8. What do other players have to say about the instrument you are considering? It is unlikely that you will ever hear any negative comments about a 1959 Gibson Les Paul, a 1953 Fender Telecaster, a 1960 Gibson ES-345, a Paul Reed Smith Custom 22 10 top, a Guild F-512 12-string or a pre-war Martin D-28. Is the guitar you are considering worthy of this sort of notoriety?
9. Is this a “quality” instrument?
10. One last, but important question – what other guitar would your “rather” have than this one? Think hard, there must be something you would rather have if only you had the opportunity. Maybe you can’t afford it. Maybe there are none available. Maybe someone else owns it and won’t part with it. If so, go back to step one, and let’s keep reconsidering until you find a guitar that will be the right one for you, a keeper, a guitar for life!
Once you find the right guitar for you, you will eventually wear it out. A good guitar repair shop can adjust the neck when it warps or bends, remove the buzzes that develop, level out your frets when they start to wear, replace your frets when they wear out, repair structural damage, and keep the electronics in good working order. Your guitar will probably develop a few nicks, scratches and dents. Maybe it will even wear out a spot or two through the finish down to the bare wood. A glossy finish could become “checked” or cracked from the effects of temperature and humidity. The edge binding might yellow or crack. You shouldn’t let any of this bother you. Gibson, Fender and a few other companies are now marketing guitars that are brand new but appear to be well used and worn. They call these “relics,” or “road worn.” Sometimes these guitars even cost more than a shiny brand new with no blemishes! There is pride in owning a guitar that shows that you have enjoyed playing this instrument over a long period of time. If it bothers you, you could always have the guitar refinished (but don’t do this to a collectable instrument as it is likely to decrease the value of the instrument).

I hope you find the guitar of your dreams. If an when you do, please post a comment – I’m anxious to hear about your good fortune!

Develop a relationship with your local music store

The college district I work for serves the city of San Diego, and has six Continuing Education campuses, each serving a different “neighborhood” in the city. During my beginning folk guitar class last Tuesday, we had a surprise visit from Mark, the owner of a local music store just a few blocks away from the campus. Mark brought some guitar picks for everyone as a “getting acquainted” gift, and talked about adjustments a repair shop can do to make your guitar easier to play.

This got me thinking about how important it is for music students to have a relationship with at least one music store in their area. As the owner of an automobile, you probably are very happy if you have found an auto repair shop that you trust to service your car. Why not have the same considerations for your instrument? If you are a beginning guitar player, for example, a guitar shop or music store can put on a new set of guitar strings for you when your old strings need replaced. A neck tension adjustment can lower the action on a hard-to-play guitar or eliminate annoying buzzes. Pickups on an electric guitar can be adjusted for best response. When it comes time to amplify your acoustic guitar, a good music store can install a pickup system in your instrument and recommend an amplifier to suit your needs. If you need a particular book or piece of music, the store can order it for you. Your music store can also take care of all your accessory needs such as picks, effect pedals, microphones and stands, cables, cases, straps and a whole lot more.

There are so many things a music store can do to make your playing more enjoyable. Find a store that treats you with respect, has a friendly staff, and has a reputation of serving professional musicians in the area. Get to know the owner and employees on a first name basis. I have one store that I deal with so much that they recognize my voice when I phone them. If you decide to get a better guitar, a second guitar or an amplifier or PA system, it would be wise to consider buying from the store that has been doing their best to meet your needs. If they have had the opportunity over time to get to know your playing needs, they would be better able to make recommendations. Also, since they know that they are the ones who will be servicing the instrument, they might be more likely to sell you something reliable that fits your needs exactly. They might even be willing to trade in your old instrument or help you sell it on consignment in their store.

A local music is also a good place to make connections. You can meet other people and start a band, get referrals for wedding and dance engagements, find out about local workshops, seminars, classes, concerts and other events, or get opinions about music equipment from other customers. Some stores have a bulletin board where you can post ads. Most stores also offer private music lessons.

I always tell my classes to make frequent visits to several music stores to see what new and used equipment is available. New things to make your playing more fun are constantly being developed, and you need to stay aware of what is available. It is difficult to walk into a music store and not find something you want to buy! As a guitarist, I have always delighted to see older “vintage” instruments hanging up on the wall. These fine old guitars are a part of music history. Even though I have been playing guitar for 45 years and teaching for 40 years, I don’t claim to always know about the “tools of the trade.” Playing an instrument is on one level, teaching is on another, and music merchandising is on a completely different level.

Another person to get to know well is your music teacher. Between the owners and employees of your favorite music store and your music teacher, you will always have a willing person to answer your questions and concerns and to make recommendations.

As always, I enjoy hearing your comments on my posts. It is reassuring for me to know that some people are actually reading these messages that I put a lot of work into creating! Enjoy!