What Makes a Great Guitar Player Great?

We’re going to take a little break today from the equipment reviews and learning lessons to analyze a question that often gets asked of us here at Guitar Talk.  What makes a great guitar player great?  Every budding young guitarist out there wants to achieve this magical term “greatness.”  What does that mean?  When will you know you are great?  What goes into the soup of guitar playing that will eventually lead you to achieving this dream?  The bad news is there isn’t a concrete answer to this question.  The good news is that the reason there isn’t a concrete answer is because it’s different for each and every single one of us.

Fundamentals

Gotta start somewhere, right? Grab yourself a classic Mel Bay book if you are unsure where to begin.

Like a professional athlete, it doesn’t matter what level musician you are.  Maybe you are still in the bedroom kicking it around with a practice amp and making your parents angry.  Maybe you have a band and you are doing the bar scene in your hometown.  Or perhaps you are playing sold-out arenas on a massive world tour with a group that is selling millions of records.  All of these scenarios have one thing in common:  without the fundamentals, they could not exist.

Before you learn the flashy, fun things, you have to learn the basics.  We’re talking scale runs, arpeggios, and of course, chords.  We’re talking good posture and building some endurance in those fingers and arms.  Everyone wants to graduate to the soaring solo, but always look to the fundamentals for a place to start.  Remember, no matter how great a guitarist is, they started in the same place doing the same thing you are doing right now.  That’s a pretty powerful message if you think about it.

Transcending Basic Metrics

Do you know how to finger tap?  You do?  Good, now you’re a great guitar player.  Do you know how to use a whammy bar?  Deep dives?  Great.  Now, you’re a great guitar player.  Wait.  You say you know all the chords in all the positions?  Wow.  That’s really something.

Basic metrics are okay.  Don’t get us wrong.  You need some guidelines to compare your playing to that of others to know how you are making progress.  This section is about how non-musicians perceive guitarists.  Use that as an inspiration.

See, when people that don’t know anything about guitar playing see musicians doing things, they don’t measure things that way.  They don’t understand technical prowess on the instrument the way someone with some experience may.  We all know examples of ordinary folks thinking a lead part is amazing when every guitarist worth his salt knows it’s not even really that hard.  We also all know stories of those same ordinary folks going to grab a beer or to the restroom at a concert while a guitarist embarks on a solo that those that know what’s up realize is one for the ages.

This may seem disappointing at first glance, but it is a great way for you to understand how this really works.  See, this intangible “greatness” we are seeking here transcends metrics.  Great guitar players connect with everyone, regardless of whether they understand how proficient they really are with their instrument.  It’s about a connection that goes beyond the technical aspects of guitar playing, and if you name any “great” guitar player, I promise you that they have this attribute.

What makes a great guitar player great?  More than anything, it’s getting his or her point across through the music.  It’s touching another person and making their spine tingle.  That’s true greatness, and that’s what you should be shooting for.

Creativity Vs. Repetition

Sometimes it depends on your viewpoint on things.  What do you put more emphasis on when you are determining whether a guitar player is truly great?  That they know lots of songs and parts and deliver them flawlessly night after night?  Or because they are constantly trailblazing and creating new songs and parts that will change the game?  There’s no right or wrong answer.

We usually know greatness when we see it, even if we don’t know that much about the subject matter.

Many bands appreciate a good, solid guitar player that nails his parts without fail.  That is the basis of a tight band, after all.  Now, don’t misinterpret what we are saying here, because everyone knows that Jimi Hendrix is a great guitarist.  However, he never played any of his parts the same way twice.  Yes, he would hit the major riffs, but he let his guitar playing breathe, and everyone that ever got to see him live was witnessing his boundless creativity on display from the opening note to the encore.  That’s some true greatness right there.

Great guitar players are solid.  They can deliver over and over again.  They also want to push the envelope and get out of their comfort zone sometimes, even if it is a creative risk.  That’s the price of greatness.  There’s a risk and reward for every choice you make, and this is no different.

Transcending the Rig

We’re all about the gear here at Guitar Talk.  No question.  We can spend hours talking about the latest, greatest effects units or guitar amplifiers.  So, we’re not trying to say that a player’s tone doesn’t weigh into this equation.  It most certainly does.  However, we think that if you want to talk seriously great guitar playing, we think the ability to move beyond the rig is a factor.

Cut the cord.

You probably know the type.  He or she turns the distortion or delay up to a massive level and they sound amazing.  They can do all the runs, all those soaring string bends, and they know how to wield it so they look cool doing it.  Then, you see them doodling around on an acoustic and you realize that those effects make that player.  Without all their fancy equipment, they just can’t deliver on that next level.

The truly great players will blow your mind, because they can deliver just the same with an acoustic around the campfire that they can with a huge stack of amplifiers and effects loops.  No one’s suggesting getting rid of those wonderful sounds that effects can bring, but if you want to to talk greatness, great guitar players can deliver the old-fashioned way as well, and we believe this is worth including in the equation if you really want to have a discussion of what make a great guitar player great.  Broaden your horizons.  Tie one hand behind your back (figuratively, not literally) and try to bring the magic without all the tech gizzmos.  It’s a challenge that can help take your playing to the next level.

The Verdict — Greatness is Hard to Define

Greatness is hard to define, but the beauty of it is that almost everyone recognizes it when they see it.  That kind of says it all, doesn’t it?  Don’t spend so much time worrying about whether you are reaching that level or whether you ever will.  It’s a lot more important to give whatever you are working on at the moment your all, because without that level of dedication, you can be assured that great guitar playing will never come.

How to Keep a Band Together

Every successful band at any level in the game fights the nemesis.  Bands don’t last forever.  People don’t stay together.  Egos flex and tempers flare.  Forming a band is hard enough, but keeping a charismatic group together usually proves even more difficult.  We here at Just Guitar Talk are going to take a moment to look at how to keep a band together if you are fortunate enough to have found a group that has what it takes to succeed.

Be Inclusive

Whether you are a major recording band that puts out albums and world tours or a primo cover band in your own neck of the woods, being inclusive is a huge part of keeping a band together.  What exactly does that mean?  Easy.  A band is a group of people with different skills sets and tastes that are working toward a common goal.  Don’t let any one member of the band fully dictate everything.  Yes, there is going to be a leader.  That is not unhealthy at all.  We need leaders.  However, we want a leader that is including the views of everyone in the group and not just being a dictator.

That doesn’t mean that just because one member of the band likes reggae, for an example, that you have to turn into the next incarnation of Bob Marley.  It means that maybe you can throw that member of the band a bone and play a tune that is in his or her wheelhouse once in a while.  If your lead singer can’t pull it off, maybe you let someone else take the helm for a song or two, or better yet, go for a soulful instrumental.  Don’t let anyone get bored with the material and keep it fresh.

Understand Obligations

If you’re not a full-on professional band, everyone in the group probably has day jobs.  This is pretty normal.  Be understanding that people have jobs and families, and not everyone is going to have the same schedule of availability.  Now when we say that you need to be understanding, we mean it to a point.  If someone is clearly not available enough to fulfill their duties, then it may be time to think about a change.  Generally speaking though, members should understand each other’s obligations and pledge to work around it, especially for rehearsal.

A lot of bands have to spend a lot of time in very close proximity to each other, so getting along can be difficult.

While the focus of this article is keeping a good band together, we can’t stress enough the importance of having backups from time to time.  It’s very healthy for everyone to have some alternate players that can step in when there is an emergency or when someone just needs a good break.  Having some play in the schedule can be a big factor in whether band members stay or go.  Having backups also is a great strategy because it means when someone does bail out, the replacement is a very natural foregone conclusion.  Like a sports team, the second string moves up and gets the start.

Keep Your Finances and Equipment In Order

Many a band has broken up over money or equipment.  If you are pooling band revenue together for things, make sure it makes sense for everyone.  No one wants to pool their money into the band fund so the guitar player can get his dream axe.  That’s not a community investment.  That’s a personal one.  Understand what the community funds are for and stick to the plan.

For example, things relating to the show would be community fund situations.  Think speakers, subs, monitors, cables, and PA-related items.  These are the kinds of things that the pooled money can go for, and more importantly, there needs to be an understanding from all members that community items belong to the band and if someone up and leaves, they forfeit that item, or their stake in it.  Some bands deal with this by buying out a departed member.  Whatever the deal is, you need to stick to it and make sure that there are no exceptions.  Keep the money on the up and up and your band will always be happier.

Take a Deep Breath Sometimes

Everything always looks great on stage, but it’s off the stage where relationships suffer.

Tempers are going to flare, both on stage and behind the scenes.  If you are really angry, take a deep breath.  Remember these are your friends and co-workers at the same time.  Think about what you say before you say it.  Is it really worth it?  Is everyone just a little short because everyone worked long days at their normal job and then showed up for a three-hour rehearsal on top of it.  Sometimes a little restraint can really save the day.  Let it breathe, and don’t take every little thing that gets said to heart.  Remember how fun it is when your band is in the pocket.  Is whatever you are angry about right now worth ruining that potentially for good?  Usually it’s not.  Take a breath.  Go out for some fresh air.  Call it a night.  Do whatever you got to do, but watch out before you say something you’ll regret in the morning and in ten years.

Split the Work Like You Split the Money

It’s typical for some members of a successful band to know exactly what chunk of the take they are supposed to have in their hands when they leave, but don’t think they have any other duty to the band experience but to pick up their own guitar or amp and make for the exit.  Someone has to load all the stuff up, and some members are going to have more of their own stuff than others.

If you are a guitarist, bassist, or lead singer, realize that the drummer has a heavy load.  Don’t put your mic up and then act like you don’t see him back there.  Offer to help.  Don’t let anyone in the band become the roadie by accident.  Everyone should be jumping in and helping load the heavy equipment.  Do your backs a favor too and put it on rollers.  Don’t wear out anyone carrying heavy loads all the time.  Those kinds of things to make it easier can come out of the community fund.

The Verdict — Be Nice

At its heart, it’s not really that profound of advice we are giving here.  Be nice to your bandmates.  Be helpful.  Include everyone and listen to everyone’s ideas and opinions.  Don’t let anyone feel like they are being taken advantage of.  Keep business business and personal personal.

Actually, most of the tips here will go pretty far in helping you in general life as well, so please take it to heart.  Thanks for reading.

What Is A Good Guitar For Beginners?

So, you’re thinking about taking the plunge and starting to learn the fine art of playing guitar.  Or maybe you have a kid that is interested and you don’t know a whole lot about it.  There are so many choices out there, and you don’t really know what you are looking at.  On top of that, maybe you are concerned that yourself or your child won’t really stick with this, so you don’t want to drop a whole lot of cash on something that may end up in a closet somewhere.  These questions and more are why we are here with our latest article to help you figure out just what is a good guitar for beginners.

Electric or Acoustic?

While there are many types of guitars out there, taking a broad look, there is two definitive categories.  Electric guitars and acoustic guitars.  Now, we know there is such a thing as an electric-acoustic, but that is for a pretty special demographic.  As the title suggests, we are talking about first-time just-starting-out potential guitarists here, so let’s keep it simple, shall we?

Most people probably know the major differences here.  An acoustic guitar is made to resonate and be played without any need for amplification.  They are bigger than electric guitars because of the way the body is designed to get that sound.  You might be surprised that bigger does not necessarily equal heavier though.  Most acoustics are mostly hollow in that big part, so they generally are lighter than their electric guitar counterparts.

Electric guitars are made to be plugged into an amplifier which takes the signal from the guitar and then outputs it through the speaker.  While electric guitars do make audible sounds, they are very quiet.  You would not want an electric guitar if you were not going to have an amplifier of some kind.

Starter kits come with everything you need to begin. This can be a great gift to cover all the bases, and they aren’t really that expensive.

Those were the major differences that most people could tell you even if they have never picked up either one.  There’s more to it than that, however.  Think about portability.  An acoustic is great because you can just throw it in a guitar case and go.  No cables or amplifiers or a need for power plugs or batteries.  Electrics require all of those things if you are going to play for real, so that is something to consider.  Having said that, an acoustic can only get so quiet by its very nature.  Electric guitar amps usually feature headphones, and you can keep them pretty quiet if you need to.  So, if you are buying for your kid and don’t want to hear G chords being banged badly a million times, the electric might be the better option.

Like most things, it depends on exactly what your goals are.  It’s also important to realize that nothing is in stone.  Guitars hold their value very well, so if you decided later you wanted to trade in for one or the other, you could certainly do that.  Also, most guitarists that are serious are going to end up wanting both of these at some point, so don’t sweat the decision too much.

One last thing to consider is ease of play.  Electric guitar strings are easier to push down and hold down on the fret board.  While you can certainly bend strings on an acoustic as well, electric guitar is usually associated with string bending and lead guitar for this reason.  Acoustic guitars are going to hurt your fingers, and they may even bleed until calluses form.  The positive of this is that once you conquer that part of playing acoustic, you are good and won’t have to worry about it even if you change to electric.  If you learn on electric, you may be surprised how much harder it is when you switch to acoustic.

So, What Now?

You’ve got in mind which major direction you want to go in.  So, where do we go from here?  Well, there are plenty of great acoustic guitar brands out there.  The best way to pick out something is to go to a music store that has a good selection and give them a whirl.  Let us warn you up front.  Whether you are shopping for yourself or your child, let it be known that the more expensive guitars are going to sound better and feel like they were made just for you to go in your hands.  This is part of the game.  Now, if you are willing to drop the cash, then go for the $1500 Takamine right out of the gate.  No shame.  If you’re pretty normal, though, you probably want to limit your options for a beginner guitar to the under $500 crowd.  You can always trade up or buy something better later.  Remember, this is to get your feet wet.

Before you pull the trigger on your favorite, consider other options.  Guitars hold value well, so you will find them for sale all over your town or the Internet.  You may be able to save considerable money by finding someone out there that needs to offload one of these bad.  Every musician has that story about picking up a $1000 guitar for $250 because someone was desperate to pay the rent.  Keep your eyes open for a good deal.  Check your local newspaper, pawn shops, and even eBay.  There’s nothing wrong with secondhand, especially when it comes to music instruments.

If you are looking to go the electric guitar route, you will have the extra challenge of shopping amps and accessories.  We recommend that you get one of the cool starter packs that come with everything you need for the budding young guitarist.  These starter packs usually include a practice amp, the guitar itself, a case to put it in perhaps, and the cables you need to make it all work.  Every major brand is going to have their own take on this.  It’s hard to go wrong with big names like Fender.  Squier guitars are a lot cheaper than their Fender counterparts, but they are absolutely fine for learning too.

We are at a good point for consumers with this technology.  Really, there are not really any guitars that are just out and out bad.  Sure, the higher prices are going to bring more quality and durability.  That is to be expected, but the bottom line is that the lowest Fender on the totem pole is still a fine musical instrument.

Accessories

No matter which way you go, you are going to need a few more things to get started than just the guitar itself.  Cases are not always included in the deal.  A lot of guitars will give you a soft case with the guitar, but if you are planning on doing a lot of carrying it around, you may want to pony up for a hard case.  These are definitely expensive, but compared to finding your neck broken in two, they aren’t really that bad.  Also, a tuner and some picks is a no brainer if you are looking for some extra stocking stuffers to go with the guitar.

Learning means breaking strings. Throw in an extra pack for a stocking stuffer.

If you’re going electric, throw in some extra strings for sure.  Acoustic strings can break too, but anyone learning on electric is going to bust a string trying to bend notes pretty soon.  The sky is the limit when you are talking electric guitar accessories.  There are effects pedals galore to pick from that can influence your sound, but that is probably not something to get to involved with at the beginner level.  A lot of amps these days have built-in effects anyway if you just wanted to give it a whirl.

The Verdict — You Can’t Lose

Cheap guitars or expensive guitars?  Electric or acoustic?  The bottom line is you are making a great purchase.  There really are not that many terrible guitars out there.  The best bet is to pick something middle tier, see if you are going to stay committed, and then trade up or buy what you really want on down the road.  It’s a great hobby, and this is the entrance to that hobby, but don’t think that you have to drop thousands just to see if you like it.  Try different varieties and see what you have.  If you live in a rural area, plan that road trip.  It will be worth it to give your potential instrument a good test drive.  Guitars are not the kind of thing you want to buy sight unseen unless you are completely sure of what you are after.  Remember, this is the first step toward finding the sound that works for you, so take your time and make a good decision that you won’t regret later.