Guitars And Amps For Beginners

Introduction / Brief History

Very brief – search for “guitar history” on the net if you’re interested – and have enough time.

Vihuela

Vihuela

The thing Nero played when burning down the city of Rome was called “cithara“, the ancient greeks called it “kithara”. So we could imagine the roots of the word “guitar” (italian: chitarra, french = guitarre, german = Gitarre, spanish = guitarra), but the roots of the instrument itself are wide spread. There are many discussions about the role of the asian and arabic invasions to europe and the resulting mixture of guitar-like intruments.

We start with the 15th century in Spain, where an instrument called “vihuela” was played. It had already the look of a guitar, but only four or – later – five double strings made of gut (nylon still wasn’t invented then). Increasing the size, using six single strings and some modifications of the body led around 1800 to the instrument we called guitar. The tuning was identical to the standard tuning nowadays. Antonio de Torres Jurado, a Spanish guitar manufacturer, developed the guitar to the size and look we know today. Many manufactures where spread all over Europe, but the center still was Spain.

Around 1830 the German Christian Frederick Martin emigrated to New York and started the production of guitars. Moving to Nazareth, Pennsylvania (USA), he was one of the first who build guitars with steel strings instead of the gut strings used in Europe. Orville Gibson originally build mandolins, but started to make guitars as well (1894, Kalamazoo/Michigan, USA), which where a great success and caused Martin to develop new models, called “Dreadnought” (a British warship from the first World War) , due to it’s size and sound. This was around 1929. Two years later the first electric guitar with a pickup was build – a Rickenbacher lapsteel called “Frying Pan”. 1936 Gibson put a pickup into a hollowbody archtop guitar – the ES 150 was born. ES means electro-spanish, and with Charlie Christian the guitar became more an more a solo instrument. Two years later Bluesman Robert Johnson recorded his first record with an acoustic guitar.

A little later Lester Lester William Polfuss, a popular jazz guitar player better known as Les Paul, build the “Log”, a simple but heavy solid-body electric guitar at the Epiphone Guitar Company – on Sundays. He cut an Epiphone f-hole acoustic into two pieces and inserted a block of solid maple wood where he mounted a Gibson neck and two single-coil (!) pickups. 1951 Gibson introduced the first prototype of the “Gold Top”, the guitar which later was called Gibson Les Paul, until 1957 still with single-coil pickups. During that time he also developed a technique called “overdubbing” for making records – 1954 he already constructed an eight-track(!) tape recorder for Ampex, which was a breakthrough in recording technology.

But Paul wasn’t alone. 1948 Leo Fender introduced the Fender Broadcaster, which later was renamed to Telecaster. At the time Gibson released the Les Paul he introduced the first solid body electric bass – the “Fender Precision” bass. Two years later, 1954, the Stratocaster, “the best instrument in the world, once and for all” in Leo’s own words, was introduced.

Both the Les Paul (“Paula”) and the Fender Stratocaster (“Strat”) are still the most popular electric guitars in the world.

Acoustic Guitars

Nylon string guitars


There are two main types of nylon string guitars, the well known classical guitar and the flamenco guitar. You might not see it at first sight, but they are different due to the different kind of music. A flamenco guitar is a guitar plus a percussion instrument. It’s light, has a fast attack and a low action. A classical guitar offers more different tones and more sustain. Nevertheless, both are not born to play the Blues, so we’ll skip them.

Steel String Acoustic Guitars

Talking about this kind of guitars is talking about Martin guitars – see history. The most common form, the Dreadnaught, has a large body, to fill the needs for playing in a loud band. The Martin D28 (D from Dreadnaught) is still available – since 1931! There are many differences to the classical guitar – the narrower fretboard, the steel strings, the pick guard, the tuning pegs. But the body is also more stable – never put steel strings on a classical or flamenco guitar!

Most acoustic guitars are flat-top guitars, developed from the classical guitar. The other method to build a guitar was derived from violin and cello building, the guitars are called arch-top guitars. The body of an arch-top guitar is made from solid pieces of wood, shaped and often with so-called f-holes, the first guitar with these holes was the Gibson L-5. These guitars are often used in Jazz music. While Martin was best known for flat-tops, Gibson was the No. 1 for arch-tops.

All Martin guitars have a somewhat cryptic code, consisting of two parts. The first one describes the size while the second one described the style. A Martin D-28 is simply a Dreadnaught size guitar in the “28” style (rosewood back and sides, spruce top). There is also for example an OOO-28 (auditorium size, “28” style) or an D-45 among many other combinations.

Completely different in construction and sound, but often used for Blues guitar are resonator guitars or resophonic guitars. They have a metallic, loud sound due to a metallic cone build into the guitar. This works like a mechanical amplifier, the vibration of the strings is carried over to the cone by the bridge, the resonance is causing the high volume. Resonator guitars where developed around 1920 by the Dopera Brothers. The “National Guitar Company” and the “Dobro Company” produced two different kinds of resonator guitars: while the original “National” has an all-metal body and cone, the “Dobro” has a traditional wood body with a metal bowl-shaped resonator. The picture on the right shows a typical Dobro.

Electric Guitars

singlecoil pickup

Singlecoil pickup

Electric guitars can be divided into two classes – in two ways. The first one is to decide between solid-body and hollow-body guitars, the second one is to decide between those with single-coil pickups and those with humbuckers. While the difference between solid- and hollow-body guitars is easy to understand, we need to know a bit more about the electric parts of a guitar to understand the different pickups.

The principle of a pickup is pure physics, called electro-magnetic induction (the same principle as a generator, or inverse to an electric motor). You need a magnet (permanent type) and a copper wire (other metals work also). The wire is coiled around the magnet several times. As long as nothing happens, we get a stable electro-magnetic field around the pickup. A vibrating steel string is disturbing this field and generates an alternate current. The frequency of this current is identical to the frequency of the string (see basics). If you pick the A string for example, the current of the pickup has a frequency of 110 Hz (not 440 Hz as in some guitar books). The voltage of this current is very low – you can’t feel it, but if you have a voltage meter, you’ll measure up to 200 mV, depending on the pickup type, volume settings etc. You can also plug the guitar output directly into the line-in of your computer, the signal is high enough. Guitar pickups have six magnets with the wire coiled around all magnets together. So the current contains several different frequencies overlayed, analogue to the acoustic sound of the strings. These currents are directed into an amplifier (“amp”) which amplifies the signal and passes it to the speaker membrane, where we finally get the sound of our guitar.

There are two main types of pickup. The single-coil pickup is – as the name says – a single coil wrapped around the magnets. Most Fender guitars use this type, it is responsible for the typical “Fender” sound: clear, crispy, biting. But it has a big drawback: it is very sensitive to electro-magnetic fields. A television, a radio, any electric device including amps generates a noise because of the coil. To compensate this “hum”, the Gibson engineer Seth Lover created the humbucker. Two coils are wired together in series, but out-of-phase and the magnetic polarities are opposite, so they will eliminate unwanted noise but duplicate the signal from the strings – as long as they are wired correctly, otherwise they sound weak. I replaced the neck pickup of my strat with a humbucker in single-coil size which gives a fatter sound, but it’s a different sound than a Les Paul.

Quentin Jacquemart wrote an interesting article about Brian May’s (Queen) way of wiring pickups. Read it! (pdf document). Recommended Link on Pickups: Seymour Duncan – look at the FAQ!

  • Single-coil (Fender Strat/Tele…): clear, sharp, crispy, twangy etc., sensitive to electric fields
  • Humbucker (Gibson Les Paul/SG/ES335…): fat, powerful, no humming, less heights

Keeping this in mind, I’ll talk about the most popular guitars – Fender Telecaster and Stratocaster as well as Gibson Les Paul and the ES-335. All of them have been played by EC. This does not mean other guitars are bad, but these are the originals.

The Fender Telecaster


The Telecaster (the “plank”) was introduced in 1951 as the successor of Leo Fender’s first mass produced guitar, the Broadcaster (designed in the late 40’s), which was the first solidbody guitar with a bolt-on neck. Because of copyright problems with Gretsch (a drum set was also called Broadkaster) they had to change the name. Since television was the new medium and absolutely in those days, they called it Telecaster. For a few month they simply left out the name on the headstock, these rare guitars are called Nocaster. Precursor of the Broadcaster was a single pickup (with cavities routed for two pickups!) and later also double pickup guitar called Esquire introduced in 1950, which is also referred as the pre-Telecaster, but only a few of them where sold.
After 50 years the Tele it is still in production, with only minor changes. The original Telecaster is a solidbody guitar with two single-coil pickups, maple neck, ash body, brass bridge saddles, and a black pick guard. The bridge pickup bridge is a bit angled to emphasize the bass frequencies of the lower strings. Volume and tone controls are for both pickups. The original price was around 170 US$.
The Telecaster was a great success among Blues, Country and Rock’n Roll artists while many jazz players didn’t like the sharp tone. Some of them replaced the bridge pickup by a humbucker in order to get a warmer tone.

The Fender Stratocaster


Reacting to the great success of the Telecaster, Gibson released the Les Paul in 1952. So Leo Fender constructed the Stratocaster in 1953, this guitar was his masterpiece and is still the embodiment of what we call an electric guitar. What made this guitar so great? It had three single-coil pickups, a pickup switch (originally with three, later five positions to choose between the pickups), two tone and one volume controls, and a vibrato bar. So it had everything, could produce many different sounds and was a very handy, tough and well-shaped (today we call it ergonomic) guitar. Up to now there where only minor changes in shape, if you see a picture from a 1954 strat it looks like the one in your guitar shop. There are many different types of Strats out there, with different necks (V-shaped, U-shaped), different pickups (for example the “Lace Sensor” pickups to get rid of the hum without loosing the crispy Strat sound) and other modifications, but the tone is still typical. There are many “Signature” Strats you can buy, including an EC model, the first Signature model introduced 1988. EC asked Fender for a guitar with a V-shape neck like his Martin and some other details, so the EC Signature was born with active Lace Sensor pickups and a blocked vibrato system. Many other Signature models followed. After all, no other guitar is more popular and copied as much as the Strat. Players like Jimi Hendrix or Stevie Ray Vaughn are associated with it, es well as – EC!.

The Gibson Les Paul


The Gibson Les Paul is the other solid-body guitar released in the 50’s and still being produced. It was originally equipped with single-coil pickups, but 1957 there where replaced by the first humbuckers. The substantial changed sound was the base for it’s big success. The Les Paul is a very heavy guitar with very much sustain and produces a really fat tone, loved by jazz musicians as well as Blues and many heavy metals players. But during the 50’s there was not much interest for that sound, the crispy single-coil sound from the Fender guitar was popular. Then came the 60’s and Eric Clapton, as well as Michael Bloomfield. They run Paula’s through big Marshall stacks and played Blues and Bluesrock, loud and dirty, crying, full volume. This was a revolution in popular music, so other artists began to discover the Les Paul again. Up to now the Gibson Les Paul is one of the most popular guitars around, in many different music styles.

The Gibson ES-335


The ES-335 (ES stands for electro-spanish) was released 1958 (for only $267.50!) and is a semi hollow-body guitar, with a block of solid wood in the middle of a hollow arch top body. This piece of wood blocked the feedback that most hollow-body guitar suffer from. The ES-335 has a very unique sound, warm and mellow, together with humbuckers great for playing deep Blues as well as Rock’n Roll. Artists like Chuck Berry, Larry Carlton (“Mr. 335”), EC and B.B. King with his Lucille made it popular. There are many clones out there, good and bad. A good alternative is the ES-335 sister from Epiphone, the Sheraton (released 1959), John Lee Hooker played it.

Strings


We’re talking about steel strings only, because nylon strings are not well suited for Blues guitar. There are two main types of strings, with and without windings. Strings without windings are called plain strings and are almost identical for acoustic and electric guitars. Plain strings are used for higher notes, so the B and high E-strings always use plain strings, most electric guitars also use a plain G-string. Deeper notes have a lower frequency, so the strings must have a higher weight (pure physics). This is achieved by wrapping another wire around the core steel string rather than just using a higher diameter, because otherwise the tension of the string will get too high. Sitars only use plain strings. The problem is that the windings collect debris, so the lifetime is limited. Wound strings can be divided into what material is used (stainless steel, nickel, bronze, phosphor bronze and many more) and how the strings are wound (round, flat, ground-wound). Each type has a specific sound, but don’t expect too much difference in tone. The wound strings are different for electric (silver looking metals like steel or nickel) and acoustic guitars (gold looking metals like bronze or brass), because the pickups of the electric guitar need an magnetically responsive material.

Try out different types and brands on your guitar, there’s no rule I can tell you. As for the diameter, there are common sets of strings with compatible sizes, most players use the diameter of the smallest string to describe them, for example 0,10″ (“regular” or extra light) for a very common set of strings from 0,10 to 0,50″. Beginners should use smaller diameters (super slinky or ultra light, 0,08 to 0,038″), because they are easier to bend. Stevie Ray Vaughn could bend 0,13″ strings without problems. Again, no general rule can be given, it depends on what your fingers can bend. The bigger the string the louder it is – again pure physics. Change the strings when they are “dead” (they’ve lost their elasticity and picked up dirt), no need to change every gig. Fingerstyle players play longer with a set of strings! You can also try to boil the strings in water for 15 minutes and let them dry, this removes the dirt from the windings.

You can change the string by yourself, this is no big job. Just remove the old ones (loosen up before and remember their course) and put on the new ones. The neck can be without strings for a while, so you can also polish the frets carefully and clean the fretboard. New strings should be stretched a little so the tuning is more stable. A string-winder is a very useful tool if you have to change often.

Amplifiers, pedals and effects


There are two main types of amplifiers for electric guitars – those with transistors (solid state) and those with tubes (valves). Some manufacturers offer also hybrid amps containing both. Most Blues players use tube amps, because they give the typical Blues sound – warm, fat, with a big dynamic range from whispering to crying, adding more harmonic content to the signal received. Transistor amps sound more synthetic, but don’t need a warm-up time and are cheaper and harder (if ever) to burn. But once again, for blues we use tube amps.

Most amps, even the cheap ones, have tone controls (treble, middle, bass or just one tone knob). They are easy to understand and you can directly check out how they can change the sound. Distortion and overdrive effects are more difficult. When the electric guitar was born, some players tried to play as loud as possible, even with smaller amps. So they discovered that the sound of a valve amps changes when “overdriving” the amp. The sound is not only louder but also gets distorted due to various effects from overloading the tube and speaker, it “breaks up”. Feedback is in general a major problem with electric guitars. Never leave your guitar near your amp with the pickup volume turned up! Either shut down the amp or close the volume knob, otherwise the feedback can destroy the amp – and your ears. No joke this time.

The problem is if you want to get the distorted tube amp sound you have to play loud. During the recording of the BEANO album EC wanted to play that way so the sound technician had some major problems. To get distortion for home use something new had to be invented. So a second amp called pre-amp was build into the amplifier. With the first amp raised up to get the distortion the second amp can be set to a lower volume. This is combined using a master volume control. The sound is a bit different (some say worse), but it’s better for your ears.

Typical Blues amps are from Marshall (i.e. 1962 “Bluesbreaker” Combo and other combo’s) or Fender (Fender Deluxe Reverb, Fender Tweed Twin, 1965 Reissue Twin Reverb, Bassman, or a bit cheaper the Blues Junior) – see the links on the left.

Pedals? What pedals? Effects?


Pedals are small devices with an input and an output and are controled with your feet, because the hands are too busy while playing. They do some effects – from simple volume control over signal boost to things like wah wah, compression, overdrive, delay, reverb and many more. Most effects are not used for Blues music, and I’m not an expert on this, so please use a search engine to find other pages on the net – there are plenty! Marshall offers a nice Bluesbreaker boost pedal, there’s also a pedal called “Crossroads” to emulate different EC styles.

What equipment should I buy? How do I check it?

Again there’s no general rule, it depends on your personal taste, your fingers and most important the thickness of your wallet. If you want to get an acoustic guitar, you need someone who can play guitar so you can listen in front of it. Try out all settings, pickups, tones and volumes. Don’t enter a guitar shop when there are “Don’t touch!” – labels on the guitars. Good shops have a separate room with some amps to check it all out. Look at all parts, the finish, the head, the neck and the frets and play, play, play. Don’t use a guitar shop for a guitar duel. Don’t listen to others while testing, and don’t care if your playing is not for show off. Play loud to hear the pickups or the sustain. You need time, don’t hurry. Use the net, newsgroups forums etc. for prices and information about the different models. Don’t buy a guitar without playing it before, and do this with your favorite amp. If you don’t have a good local guitar shop, you can buy online. Be sure that you can return the item and get your money back if your not satisfied with it.

What do I really need?

Acoustic guitar:

  • guitar
  • strings
  • optional: strap, pick, gig bag, pickup or microphone, amplifier

Electric guitar:

  • guitar
  • strings
  • amplifier
  • cable (don’t forget! When I got my first electric at Christmas, I didn’t got a cable…)
  • optional: strap, pick, gig bag, pedals, effects, computer

$$

Case one: money is not a problem

This is obviously the best condition. You can get a Gibson Les Paul, an SG and an ES-335 as well as a Fender Strat and Tele. You can buy the best fitting Martin, a Dobro and a National. Plus the nicest Fender Twin amps and Marshall stacks…

Case two: money is limited, but I want it all

Most originals have more or less good copies for a lower price, some of them are made by the same company using lower hardware, but these are like pickups upgradable. Fender offers Japanese/Korean/Mexican/Othercountries-guitars (Squier-series) for less than the half price of the American original, and they are usually quite good. Same does the Gibson daughter Epiphone. An Epiphone “The DOT” may not sound as good as a Gibson ES-335, but it comes close. Martin doesn’t offer cheap ones, but there are many good copies from other companies around (i.e. Takamine, Seagull, Yamaha, even Fender). So you can get three different guitars for the price of one, but they are not as good as the original. Same with amps – there are some nice transistor amps emulating a tube amp, if the sound is OK for you, try them out. Take a look at the Fender Blues Junior, a good cheap tube amp.

Case three: money is limited, but I want good stuff

See case one – but choose only one…

Case four: I’m a beginner, what should I buy?

EC: “I don’t think there’s any easy way in, to be honest. If it’s a question of finance, the problem is if you buy something cheap, it will actually inhibit your progress, because a cheap guitar is going to be harder to play than an expensive guitar. It’s probably best to go in at the deep end and buy something really good like a Fender or a Martin. In their catalogs there are lower-priced models, but they will still have the quality of workmanship, so you can make leaps and bounds in the earliest part of your trying. I think it’s important to buy good quality merchandise because it will enhance the playing and sound better.”

Link: The Guitar Dater Project may help you to identify your axe!