By Glen McCarthy
No two students are exactly the same. The same goes for guitars or the way a student learns. When starting out with a new student, it’s important to take a number of factors into consideration to get them started out on the right path.
1. Discuss the options: nylon vs. steel-string guitars.
No matter what, the best type of guitar for a beginner to use is a classic or nylon-stringed guitar. The strings are much easier on the fingers than a steel-stringed guitar. Note that three of the six nylon strings appear to be metal, but they have a nylon-filament core. All genres of music can be played on a classic guitar.
With steel-stringed guitars, your students’ fingers will quickly become sore and tired during their lessons and practice. The worst culprits are the high E and B strings that are a single strand of steel, contributing most to the “ouch” factor. There are ways to deal with this. “Extra-light gauge” steel strings or another type of string called “silk and steel” can be used. They aren’t as loud, but they are easier on the fingertips. Note—it is okay to put nylon strings on a steel-stringed guitar, but not vice versa. Some steel-string guitars may require a little filing of the nut to gain a good fit for nylon strings. Other adjustments may be beneficial, too. Never put steel strings on guitars made for nylon strings. The stress on the neck is too much for a guitar made for nylon strings.
Traditionally, steel-string guitars are played with a pick, where classic guitars are played with fingers. “Rules are made to be broken”. Willie Nelson uses a classic guitar and plays it using a pick. “Dust in the Wind,” a popular song by Kansas, is played on a steel-string guitar using fingerpicking. Your students will have to build up some callouses on those fingertips if they play a steel-string guitar.
2. Consider size and construction.
Manufacturers make guitars in a variety of sizes. They are ergonomically designed to be comfortable in the arms of students of all ages. Less expensive entry-level guitars of good quality are made with laminates that are able to tolerate temperature and humidity changes. Some have a shiny, lacquer finish; some have a dull, satin finish. Choose according to your taste and budget. The action (height of the strings over the fingerboard) should be consistent up and down the entire length. Are the metal frets comfortable with no sharp edges? Put your hand around the neck and move up and down to make sure. Do the tuners adjust easily? Tune the guitar and try some open chords. Does the instrument stay in tune? Play up and down the neck to make sure it plays in tune. Examine the interior to see seams and braces with no excess glue.
3. Recommend any necessary accessories.
A padded “gig” bag or “hard-shell” case is recommended. Other items to consider purchasing include a music stand, foot rest, or other type of guitar support—tuner, capo, metronome, and guitar stand. In the winter when it’s extremely cold/dry you should have a humidifier in your guitar or case.
4. Select a guitar method.
There are numerous methods available to not only help guide your students in playing the guitar, but also to help them learn the various parts of the instrument, and how to hold, tune, and care for it. Consider the style that the student is interested in, too. Books that have either audio or video examples and/or accompaniment tend to work very well. (Visit alfred.com/guitar to browse a wide variety of methods designed for beginners—in a range of styles!)
5. Connect them with a music store.
In addition to conducting online research, the next best option is for you to have your student visit their local music store to try out various types of guitars, accessories, and books in person. Using the suggestions above, preview different brands and styles of guitars, choosing what will best reflect their style and level of comfort. And most importantly, keep the process fun!
For over 20 years, Glen McCarthy has taught guitar pedagogy and class guitar required for all music education majors at George Mason University. He has been a guest clinician and adjudicator at numerous festivals, conferences and workshops both nationally and internationally. In 2014—from over 32,000 nominees—the GRAMMY® Foundation recognized Glen as one of the top ten music educators in the United States.