I wrote this musical instrument buyers’ guide for The Daily Journal in Kankakee, Ill. It’s aimed at parents who are shopping for a first instrument for a child. A version of it ran in the newspaper (PDFs here and here) and on its website.
So your kid wants to be a rock star?
Here’s the good news: Musical instruments make for great Christmas gifts. Not only are they an opportunity to learn a rewarding art form, but they’re also a relatively inexpensive bridge to practical, real-world skills.
Playing music is good for our minds, too. Science tells us music learning creates an explosion of brain activity that improves our both problem-solving skills and memory. Consider it the mental equivalent to a full-body workout.
It’s also incredibly cool.
But here’s the problem: For non-musicians, buying an instrument is like walking around in the dark without a flashlight. And trying before you buy offers little insight. (Imagine test driving a car without knowing how to drive). So what do you do?
Your best bet is to find someone you trust, someone who plays the instrument you’re looking to buy. Advice from a musician is like a roadmap showing you what to look for and what to avoid.
If you don’t know a musician, visit a local music shop, like King Music in Bradley and Veronda’s Music in Kankakee. They’ll not only be able to point you in the right direction, but you can see firsthand what they have in stock. They can also help you determine which accessories are necessary, provide maintenance down the road and even connect you with instructors for lessons.
Finally, online retailers have a large selection of instruments and are happy to help you narrow down the number of options. They often have the best prices, and you won’t even have to leave the house. I’ve had the best luck with Sweetwater, which is headquartered in Fort Wayne, Ind., and offers great customer service.
To get you started, here are some guidelines that will get you asking the right questions and help make the next John, Paul, George or Ringo in your family very happy.
Like most instruments, there are acoustic guitar values at $100, at $1,000 and at all price points in between. The first step is to determine how much you’re willing to spend, then find the best instrument that fits in your budget.
There are two types of acoustic guitars: ones with steel strings and ones with nylon strings. Unless your child has classical guitar aspirations, go the steel-string route and try to find one with a solid top (meaning the front-facing part with the hole is made from a single piece of wood, usually cedar or spruce).
If your aspiring player is pre-junior high, think about getting a ¾-scale guitar, which is a better fit for smaller hands. For a first guitar, avoid acoustics with electronics: They’re generally more expensive, and it will take some time before your aspiring player will be ready to plug in and perform for a crowd.
If you go to a local shop like King or Veronda’s, ask to hold a couple guitars. Check the vertical space between the strings and the neck. The closer the strings are to the fretboard, the easier the guitar will be to play. In guitar parlance, this is called “action.” The height of the strings can be adjusted, but the lower the action, the better.
Also feel for sharp edges and excess glue around the metal frets, which can indicate sloppy construction.
Some recognized brands that offer entry-level acoustics with these features include Martin, Taylor, Ibanez, Takamine, Washburn, Yamaha and Fender.
Electric guitar (and amps)
Unlike acoustic guitars, electrics require an amplifier and a cable to connect the two. Several manufacturers offer starter packs, which include all three parts, plus additional accessories. The guitars in these packs are often the lowest quality, but if you’re not sure your child has the desire to stick with playing, a starter pack can be the best choice. Ones from Squier and Epiphone are among the most popular.
The best values come to those who are willing to dip their toes in the used market. Two fine places to look: Guitar Center, a national retailer, publishes its entire used inventory on its website; and the Facebook group “Gear Talk Classifieds” is free and open to anyone. It has 21,000+ members who list guitars for sale everyday.
(And you live close to a retailer like Sam Ash, check out their in-store used inventory, too. They offer decent value for trade-ins when it comes time to upgrade to a second-level guitar.)
What should you be looking for? Stratocaster- and Telecaster-style electrics, designs made popular by Fender, are the easiest to learn on. They’re relatively light and easy to hold. Squier, a division of Fender, owns a large part of this market and is an ideal place to start your search.
If you’re not buying a starter kit, you’ll need an amp, too. For bedroom practice, amps that are 5 watts are plenty loud, and some include a headphone jack for near-silent practice. A nice feature for keeping everyone in the family happy with a budding rock star.
There are two different types. Solid-state amps are more or less powered by a computer, and they’re fine for absolute beginners because they require zero maintenance and are often the cheapest option.
Tube amps, on the other hand, used old-school vacuum tubes, and they’re more expensive and require a bit of upkeep. Generally speaking, tube amps have a warmer, more pleasing tone — it’s the type the pros use — so if you have a guitar-player mentor in mind who can offer advice, or if your student is close to playing in public, tube amps can be the right choice.
In either case, look for a combo amp, one where the speaker and the controls (often called the “head”) are in the same unit. Brands like Fender, Peavey, Vox, Line 6 and Orange all offer fine entry-level models.
Because bass guitars are larger and heavier than their acoustic and electric cousins, finding a bass that’s easy to play is the highest priority. How can you do that?
While five- and six-string basses are popular among experienced players, stick to the four-string variety. Also, look for a short-scale version, which will be more comfortable to play for someone with smaller hands. Often you’ll find the words “short scale” in the description, and on the list of manufacturer’s specs, look for “scale length,” which will be 30 inches instead of the more standard 34.
Some basses come with active pickups, which require a battery. Choosing one with passive pickups will mean you have one less thing to worry about.
Like electric guitars, basses require an amplifier and a cable to connect the two. Also like with electric guitars, you’ll want to find an combo amp, one that includes both the speaker and the controls in the same unit. There are several well-known manufacturers than specialize in bass amps and offer entry-level models, including Ampeg, Hartke and Gallien-Krueger.
Finally, don’t be tempted to shop for a bass or other instruments at big-box retailers. Yes, they offer instruments that target beginning players, and their prices are often the cheapest, but the product is of the lowest quality and they offer no support system for a budding player.
Acoustic drum sets are complex instruments because of the sheer number of parts and variables. Buying one, however, doesn’t have to be too complicated.
Professional players piece together their sets from their favorite high-end components — drums, toms, cymbals, hardware, etc. — but for beginners, all-in-one sets are the way to go because they offer everything needed to get started in one package.
All-in-ones sets usually feature a four- or five-piece kit (snare and bass drums plus a floor tom and one or two mounted toms), plus all the necessary cymbals and hardware and sometimes even the seat (called a throne) and sticks.
One of the biggest differences in a poorly constructed kit and a solid entry-level one are the fittings and mounts, those places where all of the pieces of the kit are held together. It sounds simple, but the best way to avoid a poor kit is to stick with a brand known for making quality ones. PDP (a division on DW), ddrum and Mapex are a few of the brands that offer budget sets recommended by experienced drummers. These sets fall in the $300-400 range.
A few notes about guitar accessories:
- A soft case, sometimes called a gig bag, is a good idea if the guitar will be taken outside the home for lessons. They are often included in starter packs.
- One must-have accessory is a tuner. Battery-powered clip-on tuners are the easiest and can be purchased for $10-12.
- Picks are the little pieces of plastic held by the guitarist’s strumming hand. They come in different shapes and sizes, but to start, simply ask for a pack of medium gauge, standard shape picks. The sales associate will know what you’re talking about.
- An extra set of string is also a good idea. Don’t worry about the brand, or what material they’re coated with, or what time of technology was used to develop them. Just ask for a light gauge (which are easier to play for beginners) and make sure you’re buying acoustic strings for acoustic and electric strings for electric. Because there is a difference. A single pack shouldn’t cost more than $5.
Two microphones from Shure are the standard for both live performance and recording for not only their performance, but also their affordability.
For about $100 new, the Shure SM57 (primarily for instrument amplifiers) and SM58 (for vocals) will have the garage band using the same equipment as the pros, and they’ll last a lifetime. No other instrument or accessory is as accessible to the beginning or intermediate musician.