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Why learning the guitar is like cycling and the importance of changing your strings

When you take up a new sport it can be hard going. This could be due to you using muscles you haven’t used much previously, not being fit enough, persisting when, as a beginner, you’re not that great or a combination of many things. Another potential contributor to the initial aches and pains is using budget or low-end equipment.

Take cycling, for example, you want to start cycling so you go to a shop that sells bikes. You see two in the shop, one has an aluminium frame, a single gear, has cantilever brakes and costs £300. The other bike has a carbon fibre frame, twenty-seven gears, disc brakes and costs £3000. One could argue that the £3000 bike would be easier to ride, faster and all in all superior to the first.

The question is, as a beginner, which bike do you choose? If money wasn’t an issue, most, I’m sure, would choose the more expensive one and I would agree with them. The problem is that, for many of us, I included, money is an issue, so we may have to compromise and occasionally go with the budget option. After all, the budget bike will do the trick and most importantly you will be able to ride a bike.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I am in complete support of budget equipment. My point is that, whether it be a budget issue or perhaps you want to try something new, like cycling, but you’re not sure that you will keep it up, it would be sensible to buy the cheaper bike. Regardless of what bike you buy, however, the important thing is that it is set-up correctly and safe to use.

Now to put it back into a context I understand (sorry cyclists). The points I’ve mentioned can be said for starting the guitar. You’re using muscles you may not have used very often, you’re pressing and sliding the tips of your fingers across thin metal strings more than, I assume, you’ve ever done before, it’s rare that someone picks up the guitar for the first time and is great, and most new players will buy or be bought a budget or low-end guitar.

The difference lies in that last point. When you purchase a bike, a professional will typically check the bike as part of a mandatory process put in place by the shop. When it comes to guitars the same stringent policies are not in place. This is probably because you are less likely to fall off a poorly set-up guitar into traffic. Getting your guitar set-up properly so it is nice to play, however, is almost as important.

Again, I am not putting a downer on budget or low-end guitars. In fact, some cheaper guitars I’ve played have been excellent and some of the best guitarist I’ve met use these guitars when gigging. Mostly because they would rather dent those guitars rather than their Gibson or PRS at home, but the point stands, that these budget instruments can sound great and be lovely to play.

My first guitar, for example, was a Fender Squire in sunburst orange. It was given to me as a Christmas present and I was extremely lucky that my first guitar was so good. At the time, however, I thought that because it was a “low-end” guitar that it probably wasn’t that great. When enough time had passed I went to the London guitar show and bought an Epiphone SG in cherry red which was a stunning looking guitar.

When I got my SG, I automatically assumed that it would be better than my Squire because it costs more money, but I was wrong. I found it very difficult to play and thought it didn’t sound particularly good. My squire was also not without its faults, its tremolo system wasn’t very effective, and the intonation probably wasn’t spot on, but it didn’t buzz on any fret and it didn’t hurt to play before calluses started appearing on my fingers. My SG, however, had a very high action, thicker gauge strings (which at the time I must have assumed you couldn’t change), I thought the strings were very close together and it had a buzz on bottom e on the eighth fret.

The sad thing was that this wasn’t a bad guitar, it just wasn’t set up very well and I thought, at the time, that a guitar couldn’t be changed to sound and feel different from the way it leaves the factory. I’ve written this article in the hope that perhaps someone who has the same issue will learn that this is certainly not the case.

All electric guitars have these components in common, a bridge, a truss rod and strings. There are many different styles that vary in quality and sometimes in the way they operate but all electric guitars have them. There are other components that electric guitars have in common, but I have highlighted these three because they are all either adjustable or changeable with relative ease.

I’m not going to go into a lot of detail on how these components work because if you follow my advice you don’t necessarily have to (especially at the beginning of your guitar career) but here is a quick summary of what adjusting these components can result in. The guitar being easier and smoother to play because the strings don’t hurt your fingers as much and they are at a nice height above the fretboard and the strings feel slick, there is no buzzing when you play any note on the guitar and playing notes together sounds nice and in tune. This is the result of having the components I mentioned adjusted or changed appropriately.

Now, something like string height, or action, is a personal preference and there is no right answer. The same goes for string thickness or gauge, thinner strings are typically easier to play but thicker strings can give you a fuller or different sound or tone. In general, however, if you’re starting the guitar my advice to you would be to make everything as easy as possible because the quicker you learn the more fun you’ll have.

As I mentioned, all components used to make an electric guitar vary in quality and there are obviously some guitars which are technically better than others, just like with bikes. The important thing to remember is that most guitars can play and sound good, but this is relative. For example, if you compared two guitars, one costs £150 and the other costs £5000. Now let’s say that both guitars were set up by the same guitar tech and both have had, the intonation, neck relief, pick-up heights checked and adjusted, a new set of strings of the same brand and gauge put on, and the electronics checked.

If you played one after the other, you may observe that, between them, there is a difference in playability and sound. This is obviously subjective, and you may prefer the sound or perhaps the feel of one neck over the other, but by and large, people would conclude that the nicest guitar would be the more expensive one.

Now let’s say that the cheaper guitar was set up by the guitar tech and the other had not been touched. Furthermore, the other guitar has been on display for quite some time, often the strings have been slack and haven’t been changed in a long time. In this scenario, almost every guitarist would agree that cheaper guitar sounded and played better. My point here is that setting up a guitar correctly doesn’t make every guitar sound or feel the same, but a good guitar tech will get any guitar to feel and sound as good as it can.

The reason I haven’t gone into detail on how the components work is, my advice would be for anyone looking to buy a guitar and is not familiar with setting up guitars themselves, should purchase their guitars from a shop which has good guitar techs who will set up the guitar for you based on your preference, once you’ve decided which one you would like. Take, Andertons in Guildford, for example. I haven’t purchased a guitar from them myself, but I have heard great things about their guitar techs and how they ensure that all guitars that leave their shop are as good as that guitar can play and sound.

This article is in no way discouraging people from buying used guitars or guitars from shops which don’t provide a set-up service. In this scenario my advice would be to take your guitar to a service centre or a person who repairs guitars, these people are often called luthiers. If you only take one thing away from this article It should be, it is always a good idea to make friends with a good luthier.

Why is this important? I think this is important, particularly for people who have just started playing, because I’ve seen so many people, of all ages, start playing the guitar and give up within a few months because they find they can’t make a nice sound and in some cases, the guitar hurts to play.

When I started playing, I took group lessons at school, these lasted 30 minutes and often there were three or more students crammed into a single practice room. We started learning the basics starting with chords, the teacher would show us the shape and then play the chord. I would repeat the chord back and it didn’t sound right at all and no matter how much a practised I didn’t get better. This was a key driver in me focusing on playing lead guitar and solos because notes played individually, like in a solo, sounded good and notes played together, like in a chord, sounded rubbish.

Years later I learnt that I wasn’t playing the chords incorrectly, it was because the intonation on my guitar was wrong. This meant that my guitar could be in perfect tune but when you play a note by pressing your finger on a string, that note is out of tune. I know it sounds cliché, but in this case, a workman can blame their tools.

In conclusion, my advice would be to always get a new guitar set-up and continue to have it serviced regularly (about once a year) by a professional. This will ensure that the guitar will always be nice to play and sound good which will, I hope, encourage you to play more. Regular servicing can also stop permanent issues from happening like the neck from warping, which can happen when the neck relief has not been correct for quite some time.

I would encourage new players to learn how to change the strings on their guitar because you don’t want to have to go to a luthier every time you need new strings and changing strings properly is fairly easy to learn. Please note, however, that changing strings incorrectly can lead to them snapping or being chronically out of tune, so I would suggest either asking someone to show you or looking on YouTube. After a while of use, strings get dirty and start sounding a bit dull and don’t feel very nice under your fingers. How often you should change the strings is a tough thing to estimate because it depends on how often you play. Good practice though is to look at changing your strings every month to three months as a maximum, to wash your hands before you play and wipe down the guitar after every use.

I hope you found this article interesting and perhaps were able to take something away. What you’ll find is that these points are the same for many things associated with instruments, except for amplifiers, I’m afraid that, at least in my experience, a bad amplifier will always sound like a bad amplifier, but more on that later.

Thanks for reading
Piers