“Get a second hand guitar, chances are you’ll go far” – Taking Care of Business, Randy Bachman, Bachman Turner Overdrive
Many beginning guitarists write in to ask “What guitar should I buy – acoustic or electric?” There is an endless debate about which kind of guitar is best to learn to play on. For those of you who want to cut to the chase, you can predict my answer; buy both! You never have too many guitars. Or you can read Ryan Spencer’s What Kind of Guitar Should I Buy? But for those who want to debate the finer points of guitar type, read on!
I must confess that my first guitar was acoustic. I’d heard that it is harder to learn to play a steel stringed acoustic than an electric, because it takes more finger strength to hold down the strings to form chords. So I figured that if I could master (ha!) the acoustic first, the electric would be easier. Plus there was the advantage of not having to buy an amplifier and a cord. The guitar was infinitely portable on its own and did not require any power source other than my arm muscles.
I find that I love the vibration that you feel when you strum an acoustic. You can feel it all the way up your arm and through the body of the guitar to your body. This is the resonance an acoustic makes. You’ll notice that it is different for different guitars. Naturally, my dreadnaught sized, beloved red Guild has amazing resonance (you’ve heard me wax eloquent about that guitar in other articles). Every time I pick it up, the instrument sings to me with its own voice, clear and distinct from other guitars. With an acoustic, you can hear rich sounds and harmonies from plucking a single string. As a beginner, that was quite encouraging. Without knowing how to play a single chord, I was able to elicit a gorgeous sound from the guitar. Finding the right acoustic for you is important. It should be comfortable to play, and when played, should sound good to you. I find the choice of a guitar to be quite personal. Different people are drawn to different sounds. If you sing, and you find the right guitar, the tones and harmonies of that guitar can complement your voice.
Well, after playing the acoustic for a while, and loving it, I was given an electric guitar for my birthday – a cherry red Fender Strat, gorgeous looking thing. I eagerly anticipated sounding like a wailing lead guitar player (pick one) just by looking at it. It’s like a red race car. Just looking at it makes you contemplate breaking the speed limit. After pulling the Strat out of its case, and holding it in my hands and strumming a few notes, I had a realization. The electric is useless without an amplifier. There is no noise unless it is plugged in. I did have an amplifier, purchased a while ago in order to have my acoustic heard over the brass and electric players in my house. So I pulled out the cord, plugged it in and started to play. My Strat had much easier action, and hence was kinder on my calluses, than the Guild. But the more I played it the more I realized I didn’t have any resonance from my guitar. Electric aficionados will tell you that you can get the resonance, or vibration, from your amplifier, but that means turning up your amp. That may or may not be popular with your neighbors. I missed the vibration from playing the Guild. I found that I took out the acoustic more often when playing by myself, or when I played just to accompany my singing. Of course, if you play with others, in a casual situation or in a band that you’re part of, you will quickly realize that drummers, saxophones, and other electric guitars can be loud. Amplifying your acoustic guitar is a good way to ensure that your guitar’s voice will be heard. It is also a great way to really hear what exactly you are playing, and by listening, you can improve the quality of your playing.
As I mentioned, when playing the electric, I really missed the feeling of resonance, so the Strat ended up left in the case more than it was out. Then I was asked to play a few gigs with our kids for school. I was sensitized to the fact that my Guild could be knocked over by a careless middle schooler (or adult rushing around the stage). My guitar teacher had his Guild knocked over, with a resulting crack in the body. He sent it back for repair, but he sadly claimed that it has never sounded the same since. I was horrified, as I was quite enamored of my Guild’s mellow sound, and sensitive to its higher cost. So in order to protect it, I only played it at home and took the Strat any time I played elsewhere. Since I was playing the electric more, I learned to appreciate the different tones that you could achieve, with the three pickups on my Strat. My family had thoughtfully provided me with an effects pedal, so then I discovered the delicious dirty sound you could achieve with just the push of your foot. I also found that beautiful silky riffs are so much easier to achieve on an electric. Well, you still have to practice, practice, practice those riffs. After all the work I put in practicing, I realized that the electric is built to make those transitions and riffs easier to play than on the acoustic.
The electric guitar is a voice unto itself, in a distinctly different way than the acoustic. While it might not have the resonance, and does require a power source, an electric has its own seductive siren call. It has many voices, courtesy of electronics. With a MIDI adapter, it can sound like a piano, a saxophone, a different kind of electric guitar, or just about anything you want, if you have the electronics for it.
There are also ‘hybrid’ guitars, like the Ovation, which are not made entirely of wood , but are of a composite material. They do need amplification to sound their best, but are adequate for practicing alone or for bringing to the beach. I think their sound is closer to an acoustic amplified, but you can modify their voice with electronics. Of course, there are many acoustic-electrics, which are basically acoustic guitars with inset electronics that allow you to amplify their sound. They are, at heart, acoustic guitars. You can get resonance playing these hybrid acoustic- electrics, and you have amplification as well.
My flip advice in the first paragraph was to ignore the whole debate of acoustic vs. electric and exhort every guitar player to get both. Of course, most of us can’t afford to do that when we are starting out, but I think most of us that stick with playing guitar do end up with more than one guitar, acoustic or electric. Hence, the initial quote from Randy Bachman. Remember that you don’t have to buy a new guitar to play. A used one can be less expensive and meet your needs. In addition, when making your initial choice, consider how you wish to play guitar. If you sing, you may opt for an acoustic that complements your voice. Consider the acoustic-electrics, which give you the option of amplifying your sound. This is great if you think you may perform or play with others in a casual jam, or in a performance/gig situation. If your vocal cords protest at the thought of singing, you should consider buying an electric to be the voice which can sing for you.
Whatever you decide on, playing your instrument as often as possible will let you become familiar with all of the wonderful sounds it is capable of producing. Playing any guitar is an endlessly challenging, occasionally frustrating, often soothing and always satisfying experience. Pick one up, acoustic or electric and partake in the magic of music!
n.b. This column continues in a series dedicated to the female musician. Of course, male musicians are welcome to read and comment on the topics discussed as well, as many have (thank you!). We have our own forum in the forum section. As always, I would love suggestions on topics you would like to see covered. Please email me and tell me your story. I enjoy hearing each and every one.