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Gear Buying Advice

There are some things that you need to have in order to start playing, and there are some things that are nice to have but can wait until you're sure that you're going to stick with it.

 

Need To Have

Your own guitar or bass - You need your own instrument (rather than a borrowed one just for lessons) so that you can practice throughout the week.  Lessons are important, but the real process of becoming a better player happens at home when you practice every day.

Acoustic Guitars

Decent quality beginner acoustic guitars start around $100-125, and good intermediate level acoustic guitars (with solid wood tops = sound better) start around $175-200.  I would go for a steel string guitar rather than a nylon string (classical) guitar because its sound is much more versatile (most of the time when you hear an acoustic guitar, it's a steel string guitar).  For younger players with smaller hands, there are 1/2 size and 3/4 size guitars available, and they're usually less expensive. 

 

Beginner and intermediate level brands to look for include Oscar Schmidt, Washburn, Yamaha, Fender, Ibanez, Art & Lutherie, and Epiphone. 

 

Pro level brands to look for include Gibson, Martin, Taylor, Larrivee, Lowden, and Lakewood (among many others).

 

Electric Guitars

Decent quality beginner electric guitars start around $100-120, and better ones start around $200.  The main difference between electric guitars, other than aesthetics and feel, is the kind of pickups they have (pickups are what convert the strings' vibrations into an electric signal).  Single coil pickups are skinny (like on a Fender Stratocaster or Telecaster) and tend to have a well-rounded, glassy, or bright sound that works for almost every style of music (except for metal because of their lower output).  Humbucker pickups are thicker because they're actually made up of two single coil pickups right next to each other which are wired in series (like on a Gibson Les Paul or SG) and have a higher output with less noise (hence the name).  They are also pretty well-rounded, but they really excel with rock and metal.  Humbuckers tend to have a more pronounced midrange growl and are less "pretty" than single coil pickups.  Darker, lower-output humbuckers are standard for jazz players. 

 

Beginner & intermediate electric guitar brands to look for include Squier (Fender's starter brand), Epiphone (Gibson's starter brand), Ibanez, and Washburn.

 

Pro level brands include Gibson, Fender, G&L, Epiphone Select, Rickenbacker, Gretsch, PRS, ESP, and Schecter.

Bass Guitars

Decent beginner level bass guitars start around $150 and intermediate bass guitars start around $200.  Just like with electric guitars, electric bass guitars come in all shapes and sizes, but their pickups have the most effect on their sound.  A "p-bass" pickup (like on a Fender Precision bass, aka "P-Bass") is a solid all-around pickup that provides a classic fat bass sound.  A "jazz" pickup (like on a Fender Jazz bass) has a brighter sound than a p-bass pickup, and usually basses with jazz pickups have a pair of them that are wired so that you can use either pickup individually, or both together which offers a unique, "tweener" sound.  Some basses have one p-bass and one jazz pickup.  The third style of pickup is a humbucker pickup (like on a Ernie Ball / Music Man Stingray) that has a higher output.  Each of these pickups can be either passive or active (active pickups use an internal pickup powered by a battery to boost output, increase tonal range, and decrease noise). 

 

Beginner and intermediate level brands to look for include Squier (fender's starter brand), Ibanez, Epiphone, Laguna, and Epiphone (Gibson's starter brand). 

 

Pro level brands include Fender, Gibson, Music Man, Hofner, G&L, Rickenbacker, Yamaha, Warwick, Modulus, and Spector.

 

Gig bag or hard case - This will keep your instrument dry, keep it safer from bumps and nicks (hard cases are the best protection), and provide a place to carry your music and accessories.

 

Extra set of strings - Always have at least one backup for every string, if not two.  Experiment with different brands and gauges of strings until you find what you like the best.  It's a relatively cheap way to change the feel and sound of your guitar.  Bass players can get away with just one set of backup strings because they almost never break (knock on wood).

 

Folder for your music - If you keep your music organized, you'll be able to quickly find the stuff you're currently working on, as well as older material when we need to review it.

 

Electric tuner or some other tuning reference (tuner app, piano, etc.) - You can play every note of a song correctly, but if your strings aren't in tune, it's going to sound horrible!  Good tuners are so cheap these days (about $10-20), there's no reason not to get one.  I recommend getting a "chromatic" tuner rather than a "guitar and bass" tuner because a chromatic tuner allows you to tune a string to any of the 12 notes (more flexible for alternate tunings), whereas a guitar and bass tuner is really best for tuning to standard tuning only.  Granted, most guitar and bass tuners can be configured to tune to alternate tunings, but it's much more awkward than using a chromatic tuner.

 

Guitar picks - Most people end up using medium picks (about .73mm).  Thin picks are good for strumming, but aren't as good for projecting single notes.  Thick picks are good for bass players and lead guitarists who want a quick string response and loud projection.  Everyone has their own favorite, so experiment with different brands, shapes, and thicknesses until you find what you like.  This is also a cheap way to change the sound and feel of your guitar.  Some bass players never play with a pick, but it's definitely a good skill to have.

 

Nice To Have, But You Can Wait

Guitar or bass amp and a good instrument cable - I put this in the "nice to have" category because you don't necessarily need an amp right away, even if your only guitar is an electric.  You might choose to buy the best electric guitar or bass you can and then save up for the best amp you can get.  Or you might opt to get a "pretty good" one of both and upgrade them both later.  Which amp you choose and how you set the controls has a huge effect on your sound.  Whereas the sound of an acoustic instrument is a self-contained system (meaning all the tone can be traced back to the quality of the guitar itself), the sound of an electric guitar or bass is heavily dependent on the type and quality of amp and effects you're plugged into.  I would even argue that your amp and effects have much more effect on your tone quality than your guitar or bass.

There are a lot of good amps out there, and unless you're going to be performing with it, it won't need to be very big or loud in order to sound good and inspire you to play more.  Most of the small ones have headphone outputs for quiet practicing (a nice feature for parents), and some also have a 1/8" Phone/CD/MP3 Player input for practicing along with a song. 

 

When it comes to instrument cables, you generally get what you pay for (up to a point).  If you buy a cheap one, you'll be buying a lot of them because they'll fail on you often.  If you buy a good one and take care of it, it can last 20+ years and a lot of the nicer ones have unlimited lifetime warranties. obviously, you don't need a cable for an acoustic guitar unless you have a pickup and plan to play it through an amp designed for acoustic instruments.

Electric guitar amps

Guitar amps range from $60-$6000 and come in all shapes, sizes, and characters.  Some amps are great for specific genres, and some try to do it all (with varying levels of success).  Arguably the best amps are tube amps, meaning that they run on vacuum tubes or "valves" rather than transistors (like "solid state" amps).  The tradeoff, as always, is price because good tube amps start around $250 and go way up from there.  However, when you're first starting out, you don't need a professional-level amp, and you also don't need to spend a lot to get access to a wide variety of guitar tones.  There are a lot of affordable digital-modelling amps out there (pioneered by the brand Line 6) that emulate the sounds of classic guitar amps and effects.

I usually don't narrow my brand recommendations down to just one brand or amp, but if you're looking for the best value for your first guitar amp, look at Line 6's Spider Classic 15 amp first.  It's only $119 and it gives you 4 different amp sounds (clean, crunch, metal, and insane), 3-band eq, onboard effects like reverb, delay, tremolo, phaser, and flange, a Phone/CD/MP3 player input, and a headphone output for silent practicing.  Although it's only 15 watts, it's loud enough for most practice situations, but they also have bigger ones with more amp models and effects if you need one.  I own 3 of these amps, and they're what you'll play though during lessons - obviously I'm a fan!  It may not sound as good as a vintage Marshall stack or Fender Deluxe Reverb cranked up to full volume, but it's also about 1/20th the price of those amps.  And with all of its features, you'll have a bunch of "good" sounds to play around with, not just one "amazing" one. 

 

In addition to Line 6, other guitar amp brands to look for include Fender, Vox, Epiphone, Ibanez, Marshall, Gibson, Gretsch, Peavey, Roland, and Crate.

Electric bass amps

Bass amps tend to have higher wattage than guitar amps, as well as beefed-up speakers that are better equipped to reproduce lower frequencies.  Because of this, they're usually a little more expensive.  They also tend to have less "bells and whistles" on them than guitar amps (although Line 6's "Lowdown" series of amps have a few more effects built in).  So the main things to look for are EQ control, speaker size, and wattage (higher being better usually).

 

Beginner brands to look for include Line 6, Acoustic, Fender, and Peavey.  Pro level brands include Ampeg, Gallien-kruger, Fender, SWR, Mark Bass, Marshall, and Eden.

 

Music stand - With a good music stand, you'll have better body mechanics while you play because you can sit properly in a chair with good posture.  Without one, you usually end up craning your neck to read your music on a tabletop, a bed, or a couch.

 

Guitar stand - These are good for keeping your guitar accessible.  You'll find that if your guitar is in a stand, you'll reach for it more often, which is a good thing.  But beware of using a stand around young kids and big pets.  If you're in doubt, your case is the safest place for your instrument.

 

Metronome (or metronome app) - Metronomes provide you with a constant tempo to practice along with by clicking or beeping at a user-definable number of beats per minute (BPM).  You can either get an actual metronome (same size as a tuner), a combination tuner/metronome, a metronome app for your phone, or download a software metronome for your computer (there are lots of freeware ones out there).

 

String winder (peg winder) & wire cutters - These are tools that make changing strings easier.  String winders are nice because they let you wind much more quickly and with less strain on your wrist.  They also have a handy little bridge pin puller for acoustic guitars.  Wire cutters are for trimming off the ends of the string once you've installed it.  Pick one up for a couple of bucks at pretty much any store and just leave it in your case with your strings.

 

Capo - A capo clamps down across one fret and holds down all the strings in order to change the key of a song.  They're mainly used for acoustic guitar, but occasionally you'll see them used on electrics.  This is something you can wait to get until we work on a song that needs one.  Songs like "Here Comes The Sun" and "Free Falling" both use capos.

 

Amazing Slow Downer (Mac/PC/iOS) software - I really can't say enough about this software.  I've been using it since before I started teaching, and it does what it says it does incredibly well, and a whole lot more.  It allows you to slow music down without changing the pitch, and it allows you to set "loop points" to repeat a section of a song endlessly while you transcribe it or practice it.  It can also transpose a song up or down by 12 half-steps, or in finer increments (just one cent at a time = 1/100 of a half-step).  That is helpful for songs in very low tunings, for transcribing bass tracks, or for turning any vocalist into the chipmunks (always fun).  Basically, the Amazing Slow Downer is a microscope for zooming into songs so that you can figure out what they're playing, and also the ultimate practicing tool for gradually increasing the tempo until you can play it at full tempo.  You can download it directly from Roni Music for only $50.  They have a free demo version available so you can try before you buy.  I should also mention that they don't charge for updates - I haven't since 2002!

 

Guitar strap with strap locks - You only really need this if you're going to stand up while you play.  The rest of the time, a strap gets in the way.  If you have a nice guitar or bass and you use a strap with it, I would also highly recommend some "strap locks" which prevent the strap from coming undone and the guitar from crashing to the ground (I've seen it happen many times!).  This $15 accessory can save you a lot of money!  Jim dunlop makes a good set that i use on all of my electric guitars, but they're available from other manufacturers too.

 

Songbooks from your favorite artists - If you absolutely love an artist, buy (or check out from the library) the music for one or all of their albums.  I have the complete scores for all The Beatles' songs and I use it all the time.  Beware of the "made easy" kind of songbooks because they can often be extremely inaccurate or lacking in detail.  I would shoot for one that also includes tablature unless you're proficient at reading standard music notation.

 

Effects pedals - There are tons and tons of effect pedals that can be used to change the sound of your electric guitar or bass.  Each year there are more overdrive, distortion, delay, phaser, flanger, wah wah, tremelo, EQ, compression, whammy, vocoder, and looper effects to choose from.  There are multi-effect boxes that try to do a lot of things well for less cheaper (with mixed results), and dedicated, single-effect boxes that just do one or two things well.

 

If you're thinking long term, I would recommend going the single-effect pedal route because then you can pick the best pedal in each category.  For example, I like RMC wah wahs, Ibanez overdrive pedals, and Boss and Electro-Harmonix delays.  With a multi-effect pedal, you're stuck with one company's version of overdrive, delay, chorus (etc.) and they may not be good at every type of effect.  Most pros have big pedal boards that have several different pedals all daisy-chained together to give them lots of options for different tones.  When you're buying pedals, keep in mind that for each pedal you add, you'll also need to add one instrument cable to your setup, and another power adapter.  Try to keep your cable lengths short and only add the effects you need because the more you add, the more your tone will suffer (signal strength will decrease, some frequencies will be attenuated, and each effect adds a little noise).  Consider springing for "true-bypass" effects that do not adversely affect your tone when they are switched off.

 

Computer recording setup - If you've progressed to the point where you're writing songs and want a way to record them complete with guitar, vocals, drum tracks, keyboard parts (etc.), investing some money into a home studio setup could be a great next step.  You'll need a computer audio interface which is what you'll plug your guitar, bass, or microphone into (usually connects to your computer via usb or firewire connection), a mic, mic cable, mic stand, good pair of headphones, and some recording software (usually included for free with the audio interface). If you have a mac, you might already have a program called Garage Band which is more than enough to get started.  Most recording programs come with the ability to record audio, virtual instruments that you can control via midi keyboard, and tons of free effects like reverbs, compressors, delays, etc.  Lots of them also have built-in amp-modelling software that will let you record your guitar or bass through an endless variety of amp models and effects.  Brand recommendations for recording gear are difficult since technology is always changing so quickly, so contact me if you want some advice.  There are also stand-alone recorders available with a lot of the same features in case your computer isn't up to the challenge.