Ten things you need to play guitar

One time, I got stuck in a doctor’s office with a paucity of reading materials while I endured the inevitable wait to be seen. So I picked up a bridal magazine. Beggars can’t be choosy, haha.

The well-worn magazine was as thick as a catalog. Upon scanning this beast, I realized that everything was about The Dress. It was endless advertisements for dresses, then articles about dresses, then more articles on what goes well with dresses.

Considering all the other topics a potential bride should care about — like marrying the right person — I found this emphasis on only one aspect of marriage to be a little questionable at best and quite distracting at worst. There is much more to getting married than choosing the right dress, obviously.

The reason I bring this up is because, since I started learning to play guitar a few years ago, I look at a lot of guitar magazines. If someone who knew nothing about guitars picked up a guitar magazine, they would think it’s all about The Guitar.

Just like in bridal magazines with The Dress, in guitar magazines it’s pages and pages (though not nearly as many as bridal magazines) of ads for guitars, then articles about guitars, and then articles and ads of what goes well with guitars.

It’s like, if you see a picture of Lindsay Buckingham holding a certain guitar, they want you to think if you buy it you’ll sound like him on one of his many Fleetwood Mac hits. Trust me, it doesn't work that way.

I can’t speak for what brides need besides The Dress, but, after playing guitar now for several years, I can speak for what anyone interested in playing guitar really needs in order to do well on this most versatile and fun instrument.

If you’re retired like me and have a little extra time on your hands, here are 10 things you need to get in order to start playing guitar (wish I’d had this list when I started):

—1. A guitar.

You can get a decent acoustic guitar for around $200. Go to a music store, try out a bunch, and get the one that feels good in your hands. We’re all different sizes and shapes, so take time to find one that fits you.

Sit on a stool or a chair with no arms, thighs parallel to the ground, and put the guitar on your lap. Throw your arm over it and hug it to your chest. It should just feel right.

If it doesn’t, try another one. If you’d like to try an electric guitar, go ahead, but realize then you also need an amplifier and cable. My advice for a beginner would be to start with a simple acoustic guitar, just because you don’t have to worry about electronics when you’re first starting.

Also, even new guitars can benefit from a “setup.” This usually involves lighter strings and some critical adjustments that can make even a low price point guitar sound and, more importantly, feel like a much more expensive one;

— 2. A tuner.

I can show you in two minutes how to tune a guitar to itself, but at some point you’re going to be playing with others, so you need to learn how to properly tune a guitar. You can get a clip-on guitar tuner for $15, or you can use an app on your phone.

No matter how you do it, learning to tune your guitar is essential. Guitars are made of wood, which expands and contracts depending on humidity, so tuning correctly and frequently is a fact of life if you want to play guitar;

— 3. A strap.

Sit with your guitar on a chair with no arms or a stool, thighs parallel to the floor. Once you are comfortable, attach a strap to your guitar, such that when you stand up, the guitar is in the exact same position on your body as when you are sitting down. Doing this will make the transition from playing while sitting to playing while standing much, much easier.

Newer guitar straps have a self-locking feature. If your strap doesn’t, spend a couple of bucks on some strap locks. Having a guitar fall out of your hands while playing is never fun;

— 4. A music stand.

What do these five famous musicians have in common: Eric Clapton, The Beatles, Taylor Swift, Elvis Presley, and Jimmy Page? Despite being master song writers, none of them — not one — knows how to read or write music. They have someone else transcribe it for them.

Don’t be like them. I mean it. If you know the first seven letters of the alphabet and you can count to four, you can learn to read and write music. So get a good music stand and use it when you practice from books, sheet music, or “guitar tab.” You will never regret learning even just the basics of reading and writing music;

— 5. A metronome.

Music is all about rhythm. Without rhythm, there is no music. A metronome lets you develop your sense of rhythm such that you can play with others and keep “the beat.”

Say you’re working on a new chord change or a new piece of music. You set the metronome to something slow, like 40 BPM (Beats Per Minute). The metronome will then emit a beep 40 times per minute, and you can then count and play one-two-three or one-two-three-four or whatever the music calls for.

Once you get that, increase the BPM little by little until you can play it at the speed it calls for or that you want. If you talk to any real musician, they will tell you that using a metronome consistently is key to learning to keep to the beat and play with others. You can find them for around 20 bucks or as an app on your phone;

— 6. A lesson book.

Yes you can bounce around YouTube and find everyone and their sister giving guitar lessons, but a good beginning guitar lesson book is something you can really use well to get better and better at playing guitar.

I’d recommend a group lesson first, like those offered in adult continuing-education courses, and then a good book to work with as you keep practicing. In fact, if you take private lessons, the teacher will often recommend a good book to work with.

Here’s a tip: Whatever book you get, take it to an office-supply store and spend a few bucks to have a spiral binding put in. This will allow the book to lie flat on your music stand, which is a huge help;

— 7. A guitar case.

Sooner or later, you’re going to want to take your guitar on the road. Don’t even think about just throwing it in the back seat or the trunk. Get a good case so it’s protected when you travel.

They come in all price ranges and materials. Shop around and get a good one. Your guitar will thank you very much;

— 8. A guitar stand.

Get a guitar stand to keep your guitar safely stored while not in use. Put it in a place in your house where you’ll see it every day. The more you see it, the more likely you are to pick it up and start practicing or playing.

Big tip: Try to touch the guitar for at least five minutes every day. You will not believe how much consistency helps with learning to play;

— 9. Fingernail maintenance.

If you want to play guitar, accept the fact that you now have fingernail maintenance to worry about. The fingernails on your fretting hand need to be kept short. This allows you to use just the tips of your fingers to fret the notes, which is key to getting a clean, buzz-free sound.

On your picking hand, you want to grow out your nails so you can use them to pick the strings. “Fingerpicking” an acoustic guitar is one of the great joys in life. The price for that joy is near constant fingernail trimming, filing, and cleaning. Artists do have to suffer for their art, haha; and

— 10. Picks.

A pick, or plectrum, is a little piece of plastic shaped like a slice of pie that you use to pick the strings. They come in all kinds of materials and various thicknesses. How can a beginner possibly choose the right one? Get an assortment, they don’t cost much, and find one that is not too soft, not too hard, and feels good to you.

Fun fact: The great Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top uses a good old American quarter to play his many hits. Just find a pick that works for you.

These 10 things are what you need if you want to learn to play the guitar. There is of course one more thing you need — lots of practice — and we’ll talk about that some other time.

If you are interested in learning to play guitar, consider the Guilderland Guitar Group. We meet on the first Wednesday of the month at the Guilderland Public Library in one of the community rooms. There is a lot of competition for these rooms, so the time unfortunately can vary, but we try for 7 p.m. most months. All are welcome, it’s a lot of fun, so stop by, and get your groove on.