If you want to sound great on the guitar and make good progress, you need the right tools for the trade. Below are my recommendations for choosing the best gear and getting the right tones for your favorite styles of music.
Choosing a Guitar
To begin with, you need to get a guitar (duh). There are two main types of guitars; acoustic and electric. Which one you choose depends on the music you intend to play. If most of the music you intend to play features acoustic guitar, then get an acoustic guitar. If most of the music you intend to play features electric guitar, then get an electric guitar. If you’re like me and you’re interested in a variety of music, then get both. I suspect most of my readers fall into both camps, so my recommendation is to have an acoustic and electric guitar.
You might hear someone recommend that you start on an acoustic guitar and “graduate” to an electric guitar later after you develop fundamental skills. This is a popular idea; however, I disagree with it. Electric guitars are usually easier to play than acoustic guitars. Beginners have enough trouble as it is. Making the learning process more manageable by playing an electric guitar could mean the difference between someone giving up or sticking with it. Plus, a lot of beginners want to play electric guitar, and so they’re more motivated to practice when they have one in their hands. I like to let the student decide.
Choosing an Acoustic Guitar
The first thing you need to determine when choosing an acoustic guitar is your budget. Fortunately, you don’t need to spend a lot of money to get a quality instrument. Many of the less-expensive acoustic guitars manufactured in Asian countries are good.
Next, when it comes to an acoustic guitar’s specs, there is nothing specific you need to look for. You should choose a guitar that feels comfortable in your hands and sounds pleasant to your ears. Try different makes and models to see which one is the best fit. You want to find a guitar you enjoy playing, so you play a lot. You can also consider a guitar’s appearance. Looking good is important, too, and will increase your motivation to play.
Finally, if you intend to play in situations that require amplification, get an acoustic/electric guitar, which is an acoustic guitar fitted with electronics.
Choosing an Electric Guitar
Your budget is also the first place to start when selecting an electric guitar. Again, Asian-made instruments are affordable and good quality, so don’t think you need to spend a lot of money. The amount you spend on a guitar is less important than the time you put into practice. Choose a guitar that you’ll enjoy picking up often and playing a lot.
The main thing to take into consideration when choosing to buy an electric guitar is the pickups and the pickup configuration. There are two main categories of guitar pickups: single-coils and humbuckers. Fender Telecasters and Stratocasters usually come equipped with single-coil pickups. Gibson Les Paul’s come equipped with humbuckers, which are two coils joined together. The humbucker was first introduced as a noise-canceling alternative to the single-coil. But some players still preferred the tone of the single-coil, noise and all.
Generally speaking, humbuckers are higher output pickups that take distortion better, so they are better for hard rock and heavy metal music. If you like music by AC/DC, Guns N’ Roses, and Metallica, get a Gibson Les Paul-style guitar with two humbucking pickups. If you prefer the sound of Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and John Mayer, get a Fender Stratocaster-style guitar with three single-coil pickups. If you’re into country music or The Rolling Stones, get a Fender Telecaster-type guitar with two single-coil pickups.
I think it’s good to have at least one electric guitar with humbuckers and one electric guitar with single-coils. You’ll be able to cover a lot of ground this way. If you want the best of both worlds in one guitar, get an HSS Strat-type guitar. “HSS” stands for “Humbucker, Single-coil, Single-coil.” An HSS guitar has a humbucker pickup in the bridge position for Les Paul-like sounds, and single-coils in the middle and neck positions for Strat tones.
The most important thing to do when choosing an electric guitar is not to overthink it. Pick a guitar that feels good and inspires you, then focus all your attention on playing it. Your goal should be to get good at playing the guitar, not shopping for a guitar.
Setting Up Your Guitar
There are different adjustments you make to your guitar to set it up for optimal playing. This process is called a “setup.” Among other things, a setup involves making adjustments to the metal truss rod that runs along your guitar neck on the inside. The truss rod allows you to adjust the amount of bow in the neck. The amount of bow in your guitar neck determines the height of the strings off the fretboard. The string height is called the “action.” High action makes your guitar harder to play because you need to push down on the strings more to reach the fretboard. This extra pushing can cause your fretted notes to sound out of tune too. If the action is too low, the strings will buzz and rattle, and pitches won’t ring clearly.
It’s crucial to set up your guitar so you can fret notes by applying a minimal amount of pressure and reduce unwanted noise. Regardless of which type of guitar you choose, make sure it gets a proper setup. A proper setup can make a huge difference in how easily your guitar plays, especially while moving around the fretboard and fingering barre chords. Don’t expect a guitar to have a good setup out of the box. I recommend you take your guitar to an experienced guitar tech so you can know for sure that everything is adjusted correctly.
Choosing a Guitar Amp
The guitar amplifier you plug into plays an equal role to that of the guitar in producing a good sound. Moreover, the amp you choose will be the most significant factor in determining how much you play and how effective your practice time is.
You’ll be spending most of your time practicing at home, presumably. For this reason, you want a small, low-powered amp you can play at a comfortable bedroom level. Stay away from high-powered amps intended for use on a large stage. I also recommend you choose an amp that features a headphones output and an auxiliary audio input.
Using headphones with your guitar amp is a great way to practice silently, so you don’t disturb others. You can get in a lot of good nighttime practice this way. If you’re self-conscious about your playing, headphones provide you with privacy. Look into getting a high-quality pair of in-ear or over-the-ear headphones so your guitar and the music you play along with sounds high-quality.
Your guitar time should be spent playing along with music. For your practice time to be most effective, you need to be able to hear all the instrumentation you play along with clearly. This involves listening carefully to the drums and bass so you can focus on staying in time with the music and locking in with the groove. You also want to hear your guitar in the mix like you’re part of the band. For these reasons, you should connect your audio device to an aux input on your amp or play music through something else that has an adequate amount of volume and low end.
Choosing Guitar Effects
Amplifying your guitar is not enough. Most of the guitar sounds you hear in recorded music feature effects. The effects include overdrive, distortion, reverb, delay, chorus, and others. Adding effects is how you sculpt your tone and give your sound sustain, depth, and dimension. Never play with a dry signal. You will sound better when you dial in tones similar to the songs you play. You will have more fun when your playing is brought to life by the right combination of effects.
Many practice amps come with built-in effects, so you don’t need to connect any external effects pedals. If your amp doesn’t include any or enough effects, you can place pedals in your signal chain before your amp. Essential effects include distortion, overdrive, reverb, and delay. Make sure you have these effects built into your amp or plan on getting pedals to do the job.
When choosing pedals, I recommend you select ones that are inexpensive and have lots of good reviews. Stick with units that have simple control layouts. I would avoid multi-effects processors unless you want to spend a lot of time figuring out how to adjust effects parameters inside an interface.
Regarding the difference between overdrive and distortion, overdrive is what you need to sound like Tom Petty and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Distortion is what you need to sound like Metallica and Slash. You can think of overdrive as being a lighter and more natural type of distortion. Distortion is a heavier sound with more sizzle.
Guitar Gear Checklist
If you’re like most guitar players, you enjoy a variety of rock music, and you’d like to be equipped to reproduce the typical sounds you hear on rock radio stations. You also want to make the best of your practice time and take advantage of every opportunity you have to play at home. If this is the case, then I recommend getting the pieces of gear on the list below.
- Acoustic or Acoustic/electric guitar
- Electric guitar with single-coil pickups
- Electric guitar with humbucker pickups
- Guitar practice amplifier with a headphones output and an audio input
- Overdrive, distortion, reverb, and delay effects
- A good pair of headphones
- A capo and a variety of guitar picks
What to Do with Your Guitar Gear
Once you acquire the most useful pieces of guitar gear, what should you do with everything? Play music! What’s the best way to play music? Play songs! Playing songs is how you put all your gear to good use. Playing songs is also how you develop the skills needed to play with others and reach your playing goals. Don’t waste the money you spend on gear by noodling aimlessly. Get on a structured plan that emphasizes the playing of popular songs, so you can sound great, make good progress, and play with confidence.