I want to learn to play guitar. Should I get an acoustic or electric guitar?
To some extent it depends on what style of music you are interested in. If you want to play heavy metal and learn to shred, you’ll need an electric – if you want to sing James Taylor songs and play Kumbaya around the campfire, an acoustic guitar will suit you much better. Remember that an electric guitar will require an amp, which can add to the expense involved and also annoy your neighbors/parents/spouse (although sometimes that’s half the fun, isn’t it?)
Acoustic guitars also have the advantages of giving you greater strength and flexibility in your fingers and a better sense of the natural tones a guitar makes.
Which guitar should I buy?
First of all, buy the best instrument you can afford. This may sound like a bad idea, especially for a beginner, but the fact is that good guitars sound better and play more easily than cheap ones. If you think your guitar is fun to play and sounds great whenever you pluck it, you are more likely to keep making music than if you have one that sounds bad no matter what you do with it and is difficult to play. For acoustic guitars, look for one with a solid, rather than laminated, top. Play as many different instruments as you can get your hands on, and chose the one that you don’t want to put down. While appearance is a factor, don’t pick a guitar because it looks cool or has a nice pattern to the wood – in inexpensive guitars, that beautiful wood grain is often just a picture! If you are considering an electric guitar, the first decision is whether you want a solid body guitar, like a Fender Strat or Gibson Les Paul, or a hollow body guitar like a Gibson or Guild. If you are playing loud, solid body guitars will give you a lot more volume and less feedback. Most rock and blues players use solid body instruments. If you are playing at lower volumes and want more delicacy and depth of tone, then a hollow or semi-hollow body will be better. Again, play as many instruments as you can. Even two guitars that came off the assembly line in sequence can sound and feel very different. Look for the instrument that gives you the tone you want and fits comfortably in your hands and against your body. Don't forget to audition the instrument in the same way you will use it – if you play standing up, don’t judge the comfort of the guitar sitting on a stool in the guitar store!
Am I too young/old to start learning guitar?
Playing guitar is kind of complicated. The youngest students I teach are probably 8 or 9 years old. I find students younger than that often don’t have the necessary attention span and practice discipline. If you have a young child who wants to play, I would suggest feeding their musical interest by starting them on another instrument, maybe a recorder or a dulcimer, and then starting them on guitar when they have developed the attention needed. Of course, every kid is different so these are guidelines, not rules; there are some seven-year-olds that can concentrate, and some ten-year-olds that can’t. Personally, I think it is better to wait a little while after a child expresses an interest in the guitar to make sure the interest lasts and to avoid starting them off on something they can't achieve initial success at.
On the other end of the spectrum, you are never too old to learn. Unless you have some physical disability, like arthritis, you can always pick up a guitar and learn some new tricks. Many studies have shown that learning an instrument and playing music are effective ways to keep the brain healthy and functioning at its peak, no matter what age you are when you start.
I’m left handed. Do I get a lefty guitar or just learn to play conventionally?
This is a tough one to answer. As a lefty, you are ahead of most of us in that you have more dexterity in your left hand, which is called upon to do most of the more intricate work on a guitar. If you learn to play conventionally you will have an easier time “reading” other players’ hand positions, as well as tablature. You will also have a wider selection of instruments and they will be cheaper than a comparable left-handed guitar. On the other hand, you may never quite get comfortable playing conventionally. It may always feel a little backwards to you. You need to try it out and then make your own decision on this one.
Do I need to learn to read music to play guitar?
Not really. Lots of people play guitar without reading a note. It kind of depends on what you want to get out of it. Music is a language. You can speak English and carry on an intelligent conversation without being able to read or write. But you will be cutting yourself off from a large body of knowledge and only be able to communicate with people to whom you can speak directly. We would not be able to have a conversation about that magazine article I read, and you would not be able to write me a letter telling me your thoughts or feelings.
If you want to strum a few chords for fun, you certainly don’t need to read music. If you want to understand how music works, how sounds are organized to give them meaning, if you want to be able to understand the ideas of other musicians and communicate your own ideas effectively, then you really should learn to read, write, and speak music. By the way, it’s really not that hard.