With the pin bridge mounted on the top of the guitar there is an amazing amount of stress placed on a guitar's top when it is tuned up. Think about it. You have six pieces of steel wire mounted on the top of the guitar without much to anchor anything. In order to keep the wooden top from collapsing or buckling under the strain a series of braces is mounted under the top of the guitar.
Most steel-string acoustic guitars also feature an arched fretboard. This is a big plus with any guitar because it puts the strings in a position that fits the angle of your fingers. Other designs you might want to at least be familiar with include classical, arch top, twelve-string and resophonic guitars.
Classical and/or Flamenco guitars are built for nylon or gut strings. They usually feature a wide fretboard and, because gut and nylon strings are under less tension than steel strings, a light internal bracing system.
The lighter bracing makes using steel strings on classical guitars inadvisable. If you string up a classical guitar with steel strings you can destroy the instrument.
Arch-top guitars have carved tops much like a violin. Most archtops feature what is often referred to as a trapeze tailpiece attached to the endpin. Archtop guitars also have a removable bridge.
Twelve-string guitars are pretty much the same as standard six-string guitars except that every string is doubled.
Resophonic guitars were developed as an attempt to amplify acoustic guitars before the advent of the electric guitar and magnetic pickups. These instruments feature either one or three aluminum cones suspended in the body of the guitar. The body of resophonic guitars can be made of metal or wood.
I'll admit that I am partial to resophonic guitars. I own two classic Dobro metal bodies and I love them both about as much as I love chunky peanut butter and B-grade horror movies.
They have the warmth of a flattop box and tons of volume when you hit them hard. The fact that they look cool is just icing on the cake.
There are pros and cons to any guitar type or design. Instrument builders have been searching for the perfect guitar template for a long time.
The flattop box design is the most commonly used, but there are an almost unbelievable number of variations on the basic design from massive jumbo guitars to small body parlor guitars.
There is no "best" design. You will have to try some guitars of different sizes to find an instrument that sounds good and feels good to play.
One thing you will have to expect when you are shopping for a guitar is that everybody you run into will offer advice you what you want to buy.
People will tell you that an archtop guitar is only for jazz or that a resophonic guitar is only for the blues. They'll say that you have to play a dreadnought guitar to play bluegrass or that you need a guitar made of a specific kind of wood. None of it is really true.
A guitar is only capable of doing whatever you tell it to. Standardized designs are nice in terms of fitting in but nothing is cast in stone. You have to choose your guitar and do whatever you feel is right with it.
When my dad took me to buy my first good guitar everybody in the shop was kind of horrified that I chose a metal body resophonic guitar. They even tried to talk me out of buying it. They didn't know why I was drawn to that Dobro 33-H and I had a hard time getting through to them that this wasn't just the guitar I wanted, this was the guitar I had to have. I finally shut everybody up by simply asking if they wanted to make a sale or not.
Those guys meant well, but they didn't know the whole story behind why I chose that guitar. It wasn't just the way it felt in my hands or it's great sound. There was something else drawing me that I couldn't put into words then or now . . . well, I'll admit there was that, "ooh . . .shiny" reaction that usually happens to guys when they are faced with chrome. But it wasn't just that. There was something about that guitar that just felt right. If I had taken the well-intentioned advice and passed on that resophonic guitar I'm not sure I would have gone on to really learn how to play. A lot of things happened to me simply because people didn't know what to make of a teenager wandering around Philadelphia with this honking big shiny guitar strapped to his back. It made people want to stop and chat or show me a lick.
You are going to have your own reasons for choosing the guitar you wind up playing and I'm not going to tell you that you are right or wrong. Just weigh your options and try to make rational decisions. Don't choose a guitar only because it has a blue finish or fancy fretboard inlays. Choose the instrument that sort of says "Hey baby, let's cruise" when you pick it up.
Guitars can be expensive. A new or vintage top of the line guitar can cost as much as a three bedroom house in Crisfield, but expensive isn't always the same as better.
A lot of new players don't realize that some of the best guitar music ever recorded was played on cheap guitars. The early blues players used instruments from Sears and other mail order catalogs. One of the most popular brands back then was the Stella line of guitars that you could buy in furniture stores.
In the long run a guitar is just a contraption made up of wood and wire. You make the music. A great musician will sound good on any instrument.
You can buy a basically playable guitar for as little as fifty to seventy-five bucks and you can pick up a really nice acoustic or resophonic guitar that will play like a dream for around three or four hundred dollars.
High-end instruments are nice, but you don't want to make the mistake of thinking that you have to be in an upscale tax bracket to play the guitar.
One kind of interesting factoid about high-end vintage guitars is that rich folks who never got around to learning how to play bought a lot of the really elaborate instruments made before the Second World War. A friend of mine likes to point out that professional folk musicians never really get around to making enough money to buy ultra-fancy instruments, and that the main reason a lot of those instruments survive today is that they were hardly ever played!
The really cool thing about buying a cheap guitar nowadays is that the market is flooded with instruments. Manufacturers are fighting tooth and nail to produce the best selling affordable guitar and the resulting marketing chaos is a great thing for guitar players because it has really driven the prices down on decent instruments.
The other thing to keep in mind is that guitar players tend to be kind of rough on instruments. The odds are pretty good that you are going to travel with your guitar and weird stuff can happen to instruments on the road. Heat, cold, rain, snow and tipsy old ladies trying to do the chicken dance are going to attack your instrument individually and in groups. Some of the really expensive new and vintage instruments can be kind of fragile so when you are shopping ask yourself if the guitar you are looking at can take the abuse or if it's so fancy that a scratch or a ding would drive you crazy.
So shop around and don't get too wrapped up with the packaging, hype or froufrou. Buy the best instrument you can afford and make the most of what you have.
With guitars in any price bracket there are some trouble spots to look for. Make sure the neck is straight. With some older guitars, and some of the really bad new ones, there is a chance that the neck has warped or twisted. In some cases this isn't too big of a repair job but you want to be aware of that added expense when you buy the instrument.
If it's at all possible try to pick up an instrument with a solid wood top. Plywood, or even some of the new high-tech composite materials are acceptable for the back and sides of an entry-level guitar, but when used for the top they can result in a fairly weak or mushy sound. You see, on a flattop guitar the vibration of the strings causes the top to vibrate. Plywood does not react to those vibrations the way solid wood can so the sound tends to get a little bit funky.
When you are looking at a guitar it's easy to see whether the top is made of plywood or solid wood. All you have to do is hold the instrument so that you can see the edge of the sound hole. If it looks like a sandwich it's plywood.
Give the guitar a little bit of a shake to see if any of the braces are loose. Some guitars have a battery- powered pickup installed so make sure it's not the battery that's rolling around.
Make sure that the fret wires are not pulling out from the fingerboard and that the ends of the wires do not stick out from the side of the neck to possibly catch your fingers. Look out for cracks in the neck or body. Also look at the top to make sure the pickguard isn't peeling up or that the bridge isn't buckling the top in some way. Take a look at the action, or how high the strings are from the fretboard of the guitar. You want the strings high enough so that they don't buzz on the frets, but you don't want them so high that the guitar is hard to play. Ask at the store or bring along a guitar-playing friend for support.
Be cautious about buying online. Sometimes you may find an instrument for a few dollars less than at your local music store, but you never really know what you are getting until it's been paid for and delivered.
Look at it this way. When you buy from your local shop you can always stop by later for some setup advice or repair work. It's also a good place to hang out, shop for the latest accessories and talk music.
Trust me, after you have been picking for a few years and the guitar you have been using every day gets sick or generally messed up there is nothing quite as reassuring as being able to take it to a shop where the folks not only know your instrument, but will treat you like family.
The last thing to keep in mind is what I call the "junk factor." Sometimes people make the mistake of thinking that just because a guitar is old it must be a great instrument. The thing you have to realize is that something that was junk sixty years ago is still junk today. It's just old junk.
When people refer to the strings of a guitar they are almost always numbered one through six with the sixth string being the heavy wound string on top, closest to your chin.
In standard steel string acoustic guitar design you will usually find a pin bridge holding the strings to the body of the guitar.
The pin bridge supports the saddle and the bridge pins. The saddle is the insert in the body of the bridge that raises the strings above the body of the guitar and the bridge pins are used to keep the strings attached to the guitar.
The diagram illustrates how bridge pins work. The ball end of the string is dropped into the hole. When the bridge pin is pushed down the string is locked into place.
Bridge pins can be pretty tight and hard to remove when you go to change the strings. I usually give them a gentle yank with a pair of pliers but you can pick up a pin-puller in any music store for a few bucks.
At the headstock the strings attach to the tuning pegs. The diagram shows you how the tuners are laid out on most guitars and the direction to wind them.
There are many techniques for securing the strings to the tuning pegs. I prefer to run the string from the bridge or tailpiece through the hole in the tuning peg and pull it tight. Then I hold the string at the first or second fret to keep it tight at the bridge or tailpiece while I loop the string back around to where I ran it through the peg. Run it through, pull it tight and then tune up. This method won't leave a lot of slack string around the tuning post and has worked well for the last twenty years or so on my guitar.
When you put on a new set of strings you are going to have some excess string hanging from the tuning pegs. You can clip it with a pair of wire cutters or you can run the excess string between your thumb and a nickel to give it a curl. It looks funky, but it works in a pinch.
Guitar strings come in a variety of styles and gauges. I use extra light gauge strings on my resophonic guitars but for a standard acoustic guitar you might need a slightly heavier gauge to make the top of the instrument respond and react to your playing. The thing to keep in mind is that you want to find the right balance between playability and volume. Heavier strings will add some volume to an acoustic guitar but they can also make the instrument harder to play.
There are a lot of options in terms of the kind of metal that strings are made of, not to mention coated strings that are supposed to resist corrosion. The pros and cons of that stuff is really a matter of opinion. Some players swear by phosphor bronze and others will tell you about the wonders of brass strings or strings that have been cryogenically frozen. What can I say? People like to talk.
Try a few different types, brands and gauges on your own and use what works best for you and your guitar. For fragile guitars or for people with fairly weak hands another cool option is to try silk and steel strings. These strings have silk strands in the core of the wound stings. This is done to make the string sound up to pitch at a lower tension. The sound isn't quite what you get with standard strings but they work great with some instruments and they can make the guitar easier to play.
You will need a strap for your guitar so that you can play standing up. A strap can also help you hang on to your guitar if you are playing sitting down but it is not a necessity.
One end of the strap attaches to the endpin and the other end . . . well, some guitars come with a strap button on or around the heel of the guitar. If your guitar doesn't have one you can get your local repair shop to install one for a few dollars. The other option is to tie the strap to your headstock. I'm not too fond of that method because it can hinder movement.
With any strap it's usually a good idea to use a straplock system. These little doodads slide over the endpin and the strap button after you have installed the strap to keep it from slipping off. I became a big believer in straplocks after my metal body resophonic guitar slipped off the strap and broke my foot!
A music stand is another great tool to have. It will be a lot easier to follow the exercises in this book or play a tune from a songbook if you use a music stand. You can pick one up in any music store for a few bucks.
Sooner or later you will also need a capo. A capo is a clamp that fits on the fingerboard to make it easier to play in different keys without having to change chord forms. You will probably want to check your tuning after you put on a capo. Most models have a habit of putting your guitar slightly out of tune.
There are many different types of capos on the market ranging from simple elastic band units that you can pick up for pocket change to ultra-fancy models costing several hundreds of dollars. The funny thing is that they all do pretty much the same job An instrument stand is a nice thing to have. While your guitar is a lot safer in its case I have found that an instrument that is always in a case doesn't get played as much as one kept within easy reach.
Another thing you need is a quiet place to practice with an armless straight-backed chair. As you get more proficient it won't matter what you sit on, how you sit or where you practice but in the very beginning you really want to have someplace to play without any distractions so you can concentrate.
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