The Little Things

Gibson Robot Guitar

(NOTE: To get the full effect of this introduction, you need to imagine that you’re hearing one of those larger-than-life voices. It can be laden with effects, like those voice-overs for commercials for monster truck rallies (or Guitar Center or Sam Ash, for that matter), or it can be a booming yet natural voice which seems to have borrowed from God, much like an old-fashioned evangelist or a carnival barker. And we will not be spending our time today discussing whether all these voices are essentially the same character…)

Friends of Guitarists! Families of Guitarists! Don’t you hate the holiday seasons? You want to buy your loved one something special that he or she will appreciate but you’re afraid of buying the “wrong” thing. So, come Christmas morning, your beloved Guitar Player unwraps the present only to find, yet again, that he or she will indeed having plenty of socks to keep his or her feet warm this winter!!

That’s enough silliness, I think. With all due apologies to R.L. Burnside, it can really get bad, you know.

Last year I wrote a piece for the holidays entitled, On Gifts and Giving, in which I tried to explain a bit about how I felt about music being a gift that should be continually given. At the time, it led to a lot of interesting (and occasionally lengthy) conversations among some of my friends who don’t play any instrument. And I was actually quite surprised at the unexpected direction those conversions took.

You should know something: most of my friends and I share a fundamental belief when it comes to giving someone a gift, whether it be for the holidays, one’s birthday or simply “just because.” A gift should convey several messages – that you care about a person, that you want to share in that person’s life and interests and also that you want that person to share in yours as well. A gift, ideally, tells not only a story of the receiver, but of the giver as well.

But many of my non-musician friends, I found, were very uncomfortable giving someone a gift of music (other than a CD, but sometimes even then) to someone. The main reason for this was the fear of buying “the wrong thing,” something the other person would not want. I’ve talked with other people about this as well and discovered that this fear is more common than I would ever have realized.

So, as a bit of a “public service,” if you will, I’d like to offer some shopping guidelines for musicians and non-musicians alike. Just in time for the holidays, too. You’d think that I might have planned it this way on purpose or something…

First off, let me ease your mind a bit – I will not tell you to buy someone a guitar! You should never do this unless you’re getting someone his or her first guitar (and only knowing full well that this gift will undoubtedly be replaced or, better yet, passed on somewhere down the road).

Also, I will tell you that if your intended recipient is someone of a, oh, how to put it politely? “singular” mindset – you know, only listens to one type of music, has to have everything just so (whether music or life), is leery of changes in his or her life – then don’t even bother. Nothing will please this sort of person and it has absolutely nothing to do with you or your gift, regardless of how he or she may make you feel about it. This is strictly a personality thing; you could give this person a million dollar guitar and he will fixate on the fact that it doesn’t come with the strings he “always” uses.

Fortunately for you, the majority of true musicians have a wonderful sense of curiosity and the need to experiment. This is why you should never really worry about getting the “wrong” thing. There are no wrong things!

But you do have to know something about the guitarist you are buying for. Does he or she own more than one guitar? Acoustic? Electric? Classical? More than one of a couple of kinds? Does he or she perform a lot or is your guitarist more likely to be found at home writing and recording music? If you’ve got a performer, you must have seen a show or two. Does he or she stand or sit while playing? What styles of music do they play, aspire to play? What music does your friend listen to on his/her own time?

You may not know this, but there are a lot of things that guitarists always need, but rarely purchase, usually because they are obsessing over their next “big” buy. Guitar players go through stuff that needs to be replaced fairly often.

Strings and picks come immediately to mind. Anyone who doesn’t need strings never plays. And unless your guitarist is a classical player or one of the “fingers only” school of style (or one of my friends who still has the same picks he bought twenty years ago!), he or she will always need picks.

“But there are so many different kinds of strings and picks,” you might say. “Which one do I choose?”

Well, not to give away any big secrets or anything, but unless you’re buying for one of those aforementioned personality types, anything will do. On my last birthday, a friend of mine got me a brand of guitar strings I’d never even seen before. They turned out to be the best I’d played in a long time. I was truly amazed.

And even if it’s not “the brand I always use,” hey, a person is always breaking string and you can never have enough spares in any gauge. The same goes for picks. Personally, I’m always trying out new types simply for the joy of a new sound.

If you’ve got a regular performer on your hands, a “pick holder,” which is a device that allows you to have an array of picks at your disposal (no pun intended) right there on the mike stand is always a nice idea. And it is much classier looking than two-sided tape.

Speaking of stands, a guitarist can never have too many of those, either. Guitar stands, I’m talking of here. Or music stands, for that matter. On the day I finally have more guitar stands than guitars, then I will be able to offer stands to my guests who have not brought (or do not have) one of their own.

Same goes for guitar straps. You wouldn’t think that these would wear out as quickly as they do sometimes. And this is an item that is easily “personalized.” Think of it in the same terms as buying a tie. It can make a great statement.

Other “little things” that guitarists often need include guitar polish and cloths (usually sold in kits but available separately), power cords (connect the guitar to the amp or whatever) (and nowadays people have so many effects that they can’t have enough cords, either) and capos. Yes, capos do wear out. Most people never give this a second thought, but it is good to replace them, especially if you use them a lot, every few years. You should definitely know what type of guitar your friend plays if you intend to purchase one. The easiest way is to simply ask – “Hey, what’s that thing do?” and listen (again) to the explanation while making mental notes about the capo’s size and style.

If your guitarist is either just starting out, or simply doesn’t have one, I would recommend getting him or her a tuner. Or a metronome (especially a metronome). Or both (someone must make one that does both, surely?). There are all sorts and you don’t have to spend a fortune on these items. A pitch pipe will not only work as well as an $80.00 tuner, it has no battery to replace!

If you live with an electric guitarist, then a nice gift for both of you would be a “headphone amp.” This does exactly what you think it does – instead of plugging into an amp, the guitarist plugs the headphones into the guitar and voila, a personal amplifier. No longer will you have to ask him or her to “turn it down” while you’re on the phone! I will warn you that this can lead to all sorts of other problems but again, that’s more to do with the guitarist than the gift itself!

Conversely, if you know an acoustic guitarist who plays with a lot of other guitarists, then a nice pick-up is another thoughtful and relatively inexpensive gift.

If you want to get something to help stimulate an interest in a different direction, a slide is a great choice.

As you might imagine, my two favorite gifts are books and “toys.” By “toys,” I mean an instrument that I might not ever get for myself but is nonetheless a lot of fun to play. And I really shouldn’t call them “toys” because this is not to say that I don’t take them seriously. Au contraire! It can be something as simple as a little percussion piece. A coworker gave me an “egg” for our Christmas grab bag last year. It’s a piece of wood that is, big surprise, shaped like an egg. It’s been hollowed out and filled with something so that you can shake it like a maracas. For me it’s great because it’s small enough to palm when I play so I can go from guitar to percussion-back up and back to guitar in an instant. Harmonicas, kazoos, little drums or tambourines, there is no end to the things you can find. In fact, my friends and I have this unspoken pact that we tend to pick up interesting percussion items on any of our travels.

And books are always great. If you shop around at any guitar store you are bound to see something that your guitarist can benefit from, whether it is an all-purpose “owner’s manual type thing (American Guitars: An Illustrated History by Tom Wheeler and The Guitar Handbook by Ralph Denyer being two good examples) or one of the many that exemplifies a particular style or examines an artist or album. And it doesn’t have to be an album or an artist that your guitar player likes, it could easily be one that you like. After all, he or she should be happy to play something especially for you.