Gear Suggestions for the Beginner Guitarist and Bassist

Last week I wrote about what a beginning guitarist or bassist should be looking to learn by describing a high level overview of my own experiences as a beginner and how I’ve taught the handful of students that I’ve had over the years.

The other question that I was often asked and that led to me taking on the mantle of teacher and mentor was in the selection of an instrument and amplifier (where the instrument was an electric guitar or bass). The selection available now of entry level gear is so very much richer than was available when I started on this journey 35 years ago. For what I paid for my first electric guitar and amplifier then, perhaps $225-$250, would buy a much better guitar and amplifier than the plywood special and atonal box of transistors that I purchased in what seems like another lifetime. Adjusted for inflation, what I paid then would actually get one into the lower end of medium range gear if purchased on sale.

Electric Guitar

As I’ve always been primarily an electric player, I’ll focus on this area. I will not totally neglect the acoustic realm, but my advice will be of a more general nature as I’m not as well versed on entry level acoustic guitars. The advantages of an electric over an acoustic are mostly a matter of personal preference in terms of playing, however it is hard to argue that, at the price points that I’m describing, the electric instrument will be easier for a beginner to manage. So what do I have in mind?

For around $200 or less, one can obtain a decent, entry level electric guitar or bass. Now there are several models to choose from in these lines that are based off the iconic instruments that Fender and Gibson first marketed well over a half century ago and still command the marketplace to this day. It is really a matter of personal preference, however I will make a few suggestions based on my personal experience, both as a once a beginner and with my observations as a beginner.

First off, I recommend a hardtail bridge. A tremolo, or more correctly, a vibrato bridge can present the beginner with additional headaches and can increase the difficulty of the learning curve when it comes to string changes and tuning issues. It’s not insurmountable as my plywood special was a Fender Stratocaster copy, and I use the term copy loosely in reference to my first guitar. I would also stick with a two pickup instrument as that allows the beginner to experiment with a variety of tones and allows for a better quality instrument as that third pickup isn’t free and some corners have to be cut elsewhere in order to maintain the price point.

I am partial to three brands in the entry level electric guitar instruments; these would be Fender’s Squier, Gibson’s Epiphone and although not really one brand, the $100 to $200 offerings from Rondo Music of New Hampshire (http://www.rondomusic.com). Now some folks have negative things to say about Rondo. I can say that over the last ten years or so that I’ve bought several instruments and bits of gear from them and have been pleased for what I got at the price paid and the excellent customer service received. All the instruments needed at the most was a decent set-up and at the best, they were playable and even in tune after going 3,000 miles across country including a pass through the Colorado Crusher. I think it’s a matter of perception and I can only surmise that the disgruntled Rondo customer had expectations that were perhaps unreasonable.

As to where to procure the other “Famous Brand” entry level instruments, one can find these at most any retail music instrument shop and on line through places like Sweetwater, Musician's Friend, Reverb, and Amazon.

Again, some of these are coming near cross country to where I live on the west coast and having purchased most of my current instruments on line, I can tell you that these companies know how to pack the gear to survive the trip in pristine condition. One caveat. Some places charge for shipping and others do not. Read carefully concerning the shipping costs.

Electric Bass Guitar

For an electric bass guitar I recommend the same as above, plus Ibanez. There are several of the basses that are offered that have less than the standard 34” scale. Scale is the distance from the nut at the top of the neck to the bridge saddles on the body. There is a longer reach between the frets on a longer scale instrument. The short scale basses are generally 30 “scale. This simply means that for a child who is still growing or a small-statured adult, the short scale might be an easier proposition to learn on. There are tonal differences between the scales and that’s all I’ll say about that for now.

I’ll also throw in here at this point that these companies offer “Beginner’s Packs” for both electric guitar and bass guitar that include a small amplifier, a strap, an instrument cable and sometimes a tuner and/or Instructional DVD. For the most part, the included extras in the pack raise the price to about $250. Again, the same U&C places offer the bass gear that I’ve mentioned for guitar.

Acoustic Guitar

For the acoustic player in-embryo, in general, the process tends to go a little higher and tends to range between $175 to $250, but take into account that no amplifier is required. One of the old-school maxims is to procure an acoustic that has at least a solid spruce top. At this price point, that’s a difficult trick to pull off, unless one is willing to purchase a used, in-good-condition instrument.

Still, the three models that I’ll recommend claim to have a spruce top. It’s a bit ambiguous if it is a solid spruce or a laminated (read ply wood) spruce top. I can say that I have played examples of all three models and they play and sound really nice out of the box, irrespective of the construction of the spruce top. For the asking price, they are stellar beginner’s instruments.

Amps

As to an amplifier, I can recommend most anything offered by Fender, Peavey and Vox as they all offer decent practice amps in the $60 to $125 range. They’re available at the same kinds of aforementioned places. The offerings at the top end even offer some built-in effects and modeling capabilities. Modeling is a relatively new tech that uses digital algorithms to emulate the tones of world famous benchmark amplifiers.

The amp is not nearly as important consideration as the instrument for the beginner. The playability and ability to produce a usable tone is paramount. The amplifier type and size will be more important later when the beginner is ready to upgrade to better gear as the interest is established and the skill level has markedly improved. For right now, all it has to do is offer some reasonably usable tones at bedroom practice volumes.

Also, if one is looking for genuine tube amps at this price point, perhaps shopping at Vinnie’s Outta the Trunk of his Car-Mart is going to be the only place to find anything serviceable for under $125. People who shop at Vinnie’s realize that he triggers allergic reactions in some of his customers…the kind of allergic reaction characterized by one breaking out in handcuffs. Stick with the entry level solid state amps for now.

Accessories

As I mentioned last week, be sure to budget in a tuner/metronome combination piece. I also recommend at least a basic gig bag or “ax sack”. If the lessons are occurring outside the home, and most likely they will, there will be a need for some rudimentary protection.

Some of the guitars will include a rudimentary means of carrying and protecting the instrument in the price. If push comes to shove, the box that the guitar shipped in can be used as a protective carrying “case” if there is nothing else. Don’t laugh. I had an Epiphone version of the Flying V and I couldn’t afford a case for the odd-shaped guitar for a while, so I just carted it around in the box.

Below are some photos and accompanying brand and model names. Having some idea what these look like along with the brand name and model moniker will make identification when shopping a bit easier. The reader should understand that most of these are offered in two to four colors, so if that is a consideration, there are choices.

I can confidently state that a black guitar is going to play just as well as a sunburst or a red one, or blue, or white one, etc. For the bases that are short scale, I’ll simply note such with the abbreviation “s.s.” for “short scale”. Prices vary depending on where ones buys, but they tend to fall into the price point that I established as reasonable in the beginning of this article.

There are less expensive instruments out there, but remember that one gets one what one pays for; I’m describing entry level instruments that are playable and not wall decorations or really expensive kindling for the fireplace.

Beginner Gear Suggestions









-Kirk Bolas - MU Columnist
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