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Dec 25

We receive many questions from potential customers about whether the guitar will ‘stay in tune’, and sometime we get complaints from customers that the guitar ‘does not stay in tune’. So here is my attempt to explain this issue. When it comes to guitar tuning the first question is – can you get it to play in tune in the first place. This is mainly a questions about whether the guitar is well intonated and whether you really know how to tune a guitar well. Small guitars with shorter scales present their own special problems with tuning and intonation that I explored in a previous blog post. Here I will assume that you know how to and can get the guitar to play in tune for a while, but that it just won’t stay in tune the next time you pick it up or even after playing for a little while. In more than 95% of the cases the reason for this is one: failure to ‘stretch’ the strings of the new guitar during the initial tuning process.

Let me say it simply: there is no such thing as a guitar that does not stay in tune. And the common assumption that the cause of the guitar not staying in tune must be a problem with the tuning heads (also called, tuners or tuning machines) is false. Tuners cannot ‘slip’ as a result of the strings pressure. In general a guitar, unlike say a piano,  is not an instruments that is expected to stay in tune over time. Rather, like violins and other string instruments, it needs to practically be tuned almost every time you pick it up to play. For that reason it is very important for a child to learn how to tune a guitar often and properly. However tuning a newly received guitar, or the first time after changing to new strings, has to be done in a special way. Guitars are usually shipped with strings strung loose in order to protect them from damage during shipment. Tuning it for the first time requires repeated ‘stretching’ in order to enable the strings to ‘settle’ so that they will not get out of tune as a result of slippage. The same is true whenever you put new strings on the guitar, which in the case of steel string guitars should be done quite often . (How often depends on your fingers, the way you play, the strings, the environment, and how picky you are about comfort and sound quality. Many artists who perform daily will replace their steel strings every day. For children who play daily I would say change the strings at least every month or two. To check the state of your strings hold one of the thiner strings (the ones with the higher pitch) between your thumb and index fingers and ‘slip’ with your fingers over te length of the string, especially over the beginning 6 to 8 frets where they are fretted most. If they feel rough and rusty it is time to change them. If you don’t want to spend $20 or more every time they need to be changed it is a good idea to learn how to change them yourself.)

So how do you ‘stretch’ the strings when tuning for the first time or after changing the strings? I recommend using a digital tuner during this process. (I also recommend using a tuner for tuning a short scale guitar whenever you can each time you tune your guitar, but it is especially important during this ‘initial’ tuning of your guitar). The way you do it is this: tune the string to the desired pitch using your tuner. Then grab the string around the middle and pull about 2-3 inches away from the guitar, thus giving it a good stretch. You will find that the pitch of the string went down maybe a step or two. Tune it again to the desired pitch and stretch it again in the same way. This time you may find that its pitch dropped again, but not as much as before. Repeat this process 5-6 times. You should fine that each time the drop in the pitch of the string is less then before. Eventually the stretch is not going to cause any drop to that string’s pitch. At this point the string has ‘settled’ and should play and stay in tune. Do this for all 6 strings. Then tune again without stretching. The next 2-3 time you pick up the guitar you may need to do this again, perhaps to a lesser degree. But if you go through this process as I described, as long as the strings where wounded rightly on the tuning pegs, and as long as you could get it to play in tune in the first place, it will stay in tune. I promise.

Mar 10

What makes a beginner child guitar comfortable?

The main three things that makes a guitar comfortable and easy to play are its dimensions, its ‘action’ and its weight.

As for dimensions you obviously want a guitar that will not feel too big for the child. There are three main dimension that will effect that.

First is the size of the body. You want the strumming of picking hand of the child to be able to reach comfortably around the guitar body and reach the strings comfortably. The problem here is mainly with acoustic guitar, which can have big bodies for louder sound. You should be looking at both the width and the depth of the body.

Second there is the length of the neck and and the scale length of the guitar,  which is the distance from the nut to the bridge of the guitar that represents the full vibrating part of the strings. The longer that neck is the more difficult it would be for the fretting hand to reach the first few frets positions; and the longer the scale the more distant the frets are going to be from each other making it harder to reach fretting position. Additionally, the longer the scale the more tension there will be in the strings, making it a little harder for young and soft finger tips. A standard full size guitar will range in scale from 24” to 25.5”.

Finally there is the nut width, which is the width of the fingerboard in the zero or open position. Here again, the larger it is the more difficult it would be for small hands to reach some fretting positions. Classical guitars tend to have larger nut width, from 1 3/4” sometimes all the way to 2 1/4”. Full size electric guitars are usually 1 11/16”. When it comes to nut width every 1/16”, though it may look not that significant, makes quite a noticeable difference when playing.

The ‘Action’ of a guitar refers to the distance of the strings from the fretboard – that is, how high the strings are. Low action is recommended for beginner because it makes fretting much easier. More experienced players sometimes prefer higher action because this enables them to use thicker strings and get cleaner sound. Most guitars come these days out of the box with action that is somewhere in the middle. Some beginner guitars come with action that is really too high for a beginner. The thing to know is that the action on any guitar can be adjusted to what ever height you want. With many electric guitars there are a lot of adjustments to the action that could be dome quite easily with a screwdriver or an allen. Acoustic guitars may need a little more expertise. If your child is going to play seriously it is very recommended to take your new guitar to a professional guitar technician to adjust the action of the guitar as low as possible without buzzing. The cost of adjusting the action could range from $30 – $60, but will make playing the guitar that much more easy and enjoyable for the child.

Finally, weight. here the problem is mainly with electric guitars which are heavier due to their solid wood body construction. A standard full size guitar can weigh anywhere between 7 lbs to 9 lbs, – much to heavy for young shoulders. For children I would recommend a guitar that is not heavier than 6 lbs. What makes a guitar lighter is the size of the body and the kind of wood it is made of. Some woods are just lighter than others.

Sep 10

when choosing a first guitar for your child the first thing you would need to decide is if you want an acoustic or an electric guitar, and if an acoustic guitar whether a steel or nylon strings acoustic guitar. Steel strings and nylon strings acoustic guitar are built somewhat differently and you will not be able to use nylon strings on a steel strings guitar and vice versa. Nylon string guitar are also called classical or traditional guitars. They are the more traditional kind, have a softer and warmer sound,  and are used mainly for classical or Spanish music. Steel strings have a sharper, more metallic sound and are used more in contemporary music such as rock, country and folk music. I will discuss the question of which is better for a child later on.

So lets first discuss the question of whether acoustic or electric guitar is the best first guitar for a child?  This may comes as a surprise to many but electric guitars are in fact much easier to play than acoustic guitars. This is due to their relatively narrow nut width (basically the width of the fretboard at the nut at the far edge of the fretboard), and the fact that they use lighter gauge strings.

So if what your child really wants is an electric guitar you should strongly consider getting him one even as a first guitar. One reason for that is the one mentioned above that electric guitar is actually easier to play for the beginner than acoustic guitar. Another reason is that the sound of, the technique, and the kind of music that is played on an electric guitar is going to be somewhat different from the sound of, the technique and the kind of music that is played on an acoustic guitar. Acoustic guitar is best used for melodic chord strumming and finger picking. Electric guitars are better for more rhythmical strumming, guitar riffs, and guitar solos, especially those that involve techniques like bending and tremolo (vibrato). The difference between electric and acoustic guitars could be compared to the difference between en electric piano and an acoustic piano. They are similar, but different, and each is better for a different kind of sound and music.

The main drawback of having an electric guitar as a first guitar is that it needs to be hooked to an amplifier, which makes it a little more cumbersome. The way electric guitars are designed they are not meant to be heard without amplification. The strings of an electric guitar create a magnetic field that is picked up by the guitar’s pickups and are sent through the cable to the amplifier, which translate the signal into an audible sound. So the electric sound you hear is really created by the amplifier. You can play an electric guitar without an amplifier and hear what you play, but the unamplified sound you hear is going to be much more quiet and will not have the same tonal quality as the sound that will come out of an amplifier, because what you will be hearing is the acoustic sound waves created by the guitar rather than the amplified magnetic signal. An acoustic guitar, on the other hand, is very accessible, you just pick it up and play.

Another drawback of electric guitar relative to acoustic guitars is that they are heavier since thy are built with solid wood body in contrast to the hollow body of acoustic guitars. So when you are looking for an electric guitar guitar for a small child you should pay careful attention to its weight. A standard full size electric guitar would weigh anywhere between 7 to 9 lbs – too heavy for a kid’s shoulders. You should be looking for a guitar that is not heavier than 6 lbs. This may sound as a small difference but it is quite noticeable when you put the guitar on your shoulder in the standing position.

In the end, if your child is serious about guitar playing you would probably need both an acoustic and an electric guitar. So the bottom line is, if what your child specifically wants is an electric guitar, you should get him or her one, even as the first only guitar. If they are indifferent than probably acoustic will make the best first guitar. If your child is into metal, blues, rock, guitar solos, etc. than what he or she needs is definitely an electric guitar. If what they are into is singing along with the guitar, country, folk, etc. than acoustic would be the way to go.

Aug 24

When choosing a first guitar for a kid, the three most important things to think about in my mind are: intonation, comfort, and look.  Lets talk first about intonation.

When it comes to sound, the most important thing when you learn how to play is not necessarily the quality of the sound, but its accuracy. When a child learns to play, he or she trains not only their motor skills, but most importantly also their hearing skills. For this it is important to have a guitar that has decent intonation – namely a guitar that produces the right pitch across the neck. This way the child’s ears will hear the right tones and will develop a proper intuitive musical understanding of the relationship between the different sounds – an extremely important aspect of learning to play any music. Unlike pianos, guitars need to be tuned constantly, and require at least some minor adjustments almost every time they are being picked up to play. It is very advisable to have some kind of tuning aid device that the child knows how to use. The simplest one is a tuning pipe that can produce the six distinct open position string notes of a standard guitar tuning. You tune the guitar by comparing the sound of the pipe to the sound of each guitar string. However to do this you will need to be able to compare pitch by hearing. You could also use a keyboard for this purpose. An easier option is a digital guitar tuner – a device that shows you with a visual dial the proper pitch for each string.  Any of these methods will work, as long as you make sure the child knows how to do it and always plays a properly tuned guitar. Like I said, a guitar’s tuning needs to be adjusted practically every time it is picked up to practice. You cannot afford to postpone this until you have a lesson with the teacher and let your teacher do it for you.

A good guitar should have at least decent intonation, that is, it should not have to much deviation from the right pitch across the neck.  The quickest way to check the intonation of a guitar is, after tuning it, comparing the harmonica on the 12th fret to the fretted sound on the same 12th fret. YOu get the harmonica y touching the string lightly just on top of the 12th fret, picking the string and releasing your touch immediately after picking the string (it takes some practice). The resulting sound should be a light ‘airy’ resonant sound. Compare this to the sound when the 12th fret is actually fretted. If they sound reasonably similar in pitch that means that the intonation is at least reasonable. Do this for all 6 strings. Another place where you can quickly check the intonation of the guitar is, after tuning the guitar with a tuner,  by fretting the 5th position and comparing it with the open position of the next string and seeing if the pitch sounds reasonably similar. When you use this method do not fret too hard. Doing so would shift your pitch higher, and more so with a short scale guitar. On general you should bear in mind that guitar, similarly to piano, is essentially a compromise instrument in terms of intonation. That is, it could never be tuned to mathematical accuracy. All we are looking for is a reasonable enough compromise that will sound decent enough.