Before you buy your first guitar...

Tips for Guitar Beginners, Ergonomics.

A lengthy but hopefully worthwhile read.

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On this page you can read about points to consider if you are thinking about acquiring your first guitar or a  guitar for your child to learn on. The type of guitar is important. There are also comments relating to the important issue of Handedness, which should be thought about before acquiring an instrument. Don't worry if you already have a guitar, any type of guitar could be used initially...

However, some instruments are more ERGONOMIC than others and this can have a huge effect on the student's progress. The ergonomic factor is often overlooked by those buying their first instrument who may instead be attracted to the guitar that most catches their eye.

Read more - continued...


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Anyway, about guitars... (This is a BIG read, maybe have a large coffee ready)...

 For a number of reasons including playability, posture, and techniques (finger-style and/or plectrum), I normally advise students who do not already have a guitar to please CONSIDER learning on a CLASSIC or SPANISH GUITAR strung with normal tension NYLON STRINGS. You can use most types of plectrum (I would avoid using metal picks on nylon strings) as well as play finger-style. This means they are versatile and can be used for different External link opens in new tab or windowstyles.

Entry level CLASSICAL GUITARS are relatively inexpensive (new or second-hand) and are usually playable, at least for the purpose of learning on. They come in a variety of sizes and have flat wide fingerboards. They are ergonomic for cradling (standard classical posture) using a footrest or cushion etc. Normal tension nylon strings are generally easier to press down as they have a fairly soft feel. The treble strings are of plain nylon and the bass strings have a core made of filaments of nylon which are covered with a wire winding. The only slight drawback is that nylon strings stretch when new and take time to settle in, this requires patience and a lot of tuning. Think of it as good ear training! As mentioned above, nylon strings can be played finger-style or with a nylon plectrum. Entry level classical guitars are available for a very small outlay, say from as little as £60 to £70, and even less for a second-hand instrument. However, professional level instruments could cost a four figure sum. Patient research may be needed!


Look for a guitar with a fingerboard that accommodates the size of your (or your child's) fingers. You know what it's like if you put on gloves that are the wrong size, well it's the same with a guitar - it needs to fit your hands. The strings should be of a decent action (height of strings from the fingerboard). If the action is too low then the notes may buzz, too high makes it awkward to press down the notes. In general, the lower the action, the higher the tension of the strings used should be, and vice versa. That is, for high action use low or normal tension strings, for low action use hard or extra hard tension strings (preferable).

It is usually possible to adjust the action by shaping a new (bone) saddle and/or nut - or to reverse for left-handed use - if you know what you're doing!


The selection of a particular type of guitar is also important if you would like to keep open the option of taking external guitar qualifications at a later stage. This is because some external examining bodies (colleges) have strict criteria regarding the type of guitar that may be used in practical music exams. For example, it may be stipulated that for a finger-style exam the Classical guitar must have the body joining the neck at fret XII (perhaps without a cutaway), and must be strung in nylon.


You could also use a classical guitar in some plectrum exams (but not vice versa). However, some (external) college exams are geared more for electric guitars fitted with light gauge strings because the ('Rock') pieces may employ string-bending or effects requiring the use of a vibrato arm (whammy bar), and often involve very high register notes requiring a cutaway. It is best to check a particular college's current criteria, they are subject to revisions.


Be aware that some people refer to a Classical Guitar as an 'Acoustic Guitar'. Whilst the Classical Guitar does have acoustic properties (as opposed to a solid-bodied electric), it is NOT an 'Acoustic Guitar' per se. This term is more correctly used when applied to hollow-bodied guitars which have a truss rod in the neck and which are designed to be fitted with bronze or steel strings e.g. a 'Dreadnought' or 'Jumbo' etc. Acoustic guitars have a different construction to 'Classical' guitars and the body and fingerboard dimensions are usually also very different. Hence, 'acoustic' and classical guitars have a different feel and a different sound, they require different techniques, and have major differences in the scope of repertoire which can be played upon them.

It's sometimes possible to put nylon strings on an acoustic guitar (depending on fingerboard width, nylon strings have thicker treble strings), however, you should NEVER put steel or bronze strings on a classical guitar because classical guitars  are simply not designed to take the strain. This could result in damage to the bridge, the body, and the neck.


I am sure your local music shop would be happy to show you examples of both 'Classical' and 'Acoustic' guitars so that you can appreciate the differences.


Take your time - shop around.


Remember - Always ask permission before trying out a guitar in a shop.


Food for thought...


Even the best guitar in the world is unable to play by itself, and so regardless of the type or quality of the instrument you decide to acquire, the student will need to be prepared to PRACTICE. Learning an instrument requires motivation, dedication, tenacity, and patience. Performing on an instrument involves physical, cognitive, and emotional input. Muscles, brain, and 'heart' need to work together for the result to be music.

Practice pays off when you enjoy the results of being to play. Guitar work = fun!

Those who are aware of the nature/nurture debate may also consider that certain people may have more of an innate musical ability than others; it is an interesting debate and one which I will avoid. I will simply say that we all need to learn and practice in order to be the best that we can be, whatever our innate abilities may be.

Guitars (like people) are of many shapes, sizes, and characteristics.


A guitar suitable for one person may not be suitable for another (are you strongly left-handed?).


HANDEDNESS: Right-handed, Left-handed or Mixed-handed?


The guitar is commonly played Right-handed, that is, the strings are stopped (pressed down) with the left hand and picked with the right hand fingers and thumb (or plectrum).


Many makes and models of guitars are available in a 'mirror image' left-handed design. However, I would urge those who are generally classed as left-handed to take their time in choosing a suitable guitar, and to experiment with right-handed as well as left-handed instruments.

If my memory serves me well, approximately 10% of the population are left-handed for reasons as yet unknown. However, only a small proportion of those left-handers would be classed as the mirror-image of right-handers i.e. consistently left-handed. Over the years I have observed many left-handed students and my observations lead me to believe that those who are strongly or consistently left-handed may benefit from using a left-handed guitar.

On the other hand, the majority of left-handed people have a varying degree of mixed-handedness, some left-handed people are only left-handed for certain tasks and may actually be disadvantaged by using a left-handed guitar!


External link opens in new tab or windowClick here for more on Handedness

Some acoustic guitars are designed for loudness and may be BULKY and difficult to hold or play.


If a guitar has an unusual body shape, ask yourself if it is designed like this for an ergonomic purpose to make it easier to use and reduce discomfort or whether the design is just to draw your attention?


Some guitars have very narrow fingerboards or a high action (the height of the strings from the fingerboard) - this might make the instrument more difficult for some beginners to play.


Some poorly constructed 'guitars' would be more appropriately classed as toys and are not really suitable because of their lack of playability (they simply won't do what they are supposed to do). Some guitars can even have notes completely missing due to frets being the wrong height! So, remember to play every note (APOYANDO) when you check out an instrument before you buy. 


Some acoustic guitars are supplied with heavy gauge bronze or steel strings, which may be useful to achieve a particular sound quality but can be really very hard work or even impossible for some beginners.


Some electric guitars are fitted with very light gauge strings and/or internal springs for a vibrato arm (whammy bar). These are good for string bending and special effects. However, they can sometimes drift out of tune easily (particularly if the vibrato arm is over-used and thus changing the tension on the springs and the strings). This might be alright if you are experienced and can tune as you play but might be a bit of a drawback if you are a novice.


When learning, allow the tension on the strings and springs to settle and maybe avoid the whammy bar until you are proficient at tuning up quickly. This will help the guitar stay in tune.


Some electric guitar shapes are reasonably ergonomic when using a foot-rest, however, you will find much discussion on the topic of foot-rests as to whether they are ergonomic or not.


You should feel comfortable when playing, good posture on any instrument is very important. Avoid back pain, don't hunch over the guitar, aim for a 40/45 degree neck angle, don't practice too long either, 20 or 30 minutes at one sitting is ample to start with!


Remember to follow safety advice with all electrical products, especially if they are to be used by children (who should be supervised).


Some guitars may not tune properly due to faulty intonation; they might sound in tune at one area of the fingerboard but be out of tune in another area. A single string can actually be out of tune with itself! Unfortunately, a novice would likely be unaware of this sort of problem at the time of purchase. A beginner might assume it is their fault the guitar doesn't sound in tune after following a tuning procedure when sometimes the problem lies with the instrument (or strings). Students are taught a simple method to check the intonation. It is possible to adjust the intonation on guitars that have movable saddles on the bridge assembly. Also possible to adjust on fixed saddles with a needle file, knowledge required!


Every guitar is different, even guitars of the same make and model can feel or sound different because they are organic. If you are a novice thinking of buying a guitar try several before you decide on the one you like best - because of its sound, playability, and comfort (don't go by looks alone). Perhaps you may have friends who might be willing to let you try their guitars. Even if you cannot play properly, you could still press the string(s) down to get the basic feel of it and to see if you can make some notes.


Take care not to wear anything that could scratch the guitar (jacket buttons, zip-fasteners, badges, bangles, etc).


There is really no short-cut to experience in being able to make judgements about guitars; if possible get an experienced player to help you choose an instrument and to play ALL the notes on each of the strings to make sure that every note feels right and sounds good.


There is much that can be learned about things to check for in a guitar once you have acquired some knowledge. The points mentioned above are really for complete novices to give them something to think about and hopefully inspire them to do further research on the topic of guitar ergonomics.


It is better to consider the playability of different guitars before you buy rather than spend money now on an instrument only to find out later that it's not suitable for your present needs. 


Good luck in your quest for a user-friendly instrument (please consider a classical Guitar :)


Dr Mann is happy to offer advice to his students regarding suitable instruments.

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