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The Beginner's Guide to Gear



When you're first starting out as a guitarist, all you need is your instrument and a pick to learn notes, chords and a few simple, no-frills songs. And this will do you for a time—until that day when you get a hankering for something else. Something more. You want your sound to be comparable to that of the players who inspired you to take up the guitar in the first place. But how to take things to the next level? 

The answer is gear, a catchall phrase that refers to all things related to playing guitar. Things like amplifiers, picks, and pedals. You know, stuff. Gadgets that help you achieve the different textures and effects you hear in your favorite music. Wading into the waters of all the gear that is available to you can be somewhat intimating and confusing though. So where do you start when you decide to introduce gear to your playing? 

The following are 6 essential pieces of gear to help you as you set out to create your own sound. They are suggested with the beginner in mind. 

1. Picks. A pick might not be the most exciting gear out there (heck, you might not even consider them gear), but if you think a pick is a pick is a pick, think again. Picks provide a multitude of different tonal options and flavors. A simple change of plectrum can completely change your sound. 

Not only are picks available in different colors, they also come in various sizes, shapes and materials, like plastic, stone, wood and even tortoiseshell. In general, the harder and denser the material, the brighter, more crisp and cutting the resulting sound. The softer the material, the warmer and fuller the sound. 

Since picks are relatively inexpensive, try a good selection of them made from a variety of materials and in various thicknesses. And if you haven't attempted fingerpicking yet, play around with that too for yet another sound altogether. 

2. Amplifier. Buying an amplifier is one of the most important choices a guitarist will make. Why? Because a great sounding amp will make even a bad guitar sound decent, but a great guitar will sound terrible through a bad amp. So take your time to save up for a good one, and if you can't wait that long, buy a cheap secondhand amp to hold you over until you can. 

When shopping for an amp, consider your needs as a musician. If you're just going to be playing alone in your bedroom, your needs will be very different from a guitarist who plays club dates, or from the pro who works in studios or at large concert gigs. 

You may want to spring for an amp with built-in effects. These can be a lot of fun to play around with and will help to keep you interested and motivated. You can literally spend all day experimenting with delays, chorus, flangers, reverb, tremolo and other effects. A word of advice here: don't always play with effects because they can hide mistakes that can hinder your progress. Mix things up.

No matter what gizmos are available on an amplifier, though, the most important feature is that it has good tone, i.e. a clear high-end that's not too trebly, an adjustable midrange that you can tweak to your preference, and a really fat, big bottom end. 

And be sure to bring your guitar with you when shopping for an amp. There's no point in testing one out on a guitar that sounds nothing like yours. 

3. Electric tuner. Of course, it's essential that your instrument is in tune, otherwise you'll never achieve the sound you're after, not to mention the pain you will inflict on anyone within earshot. So buy a good guitar tuner. Not only will it help you tune up your own instrument, if you're in a band, it will ensure you are in tune with your bandmates. 

And no, it isn't cheating to use a tuner in lieu of your ear. Now, this doesn't mean you shouldn't learn how to tune a guitar by ear. You definitely should. Teaching yourself to tune by ear is a great way to develop an ear for pitch. But there are many situations when tuners are simply more practical, like when you're playing a small venue and you are forced to crack jokes and engage in awkward banter with the audience to help cover the sound of your plucking strings as you tune one string after another. Or when you're in a large, loud venue, especially when multiple instruments are tuning at the same time, and you can no longer trust your ear. A tuner will allow you to tune silently, accurately, and quickly without having to actually hear the notes yourself.

4. Capo. If you play guitar, you should own a capo, no matter what style of music you play. A capo is a small tool that clamps down on all the strings of your guitar at once, barring them in a particular fret, which enables you to raise the pitch of the instrument by creating a new nut. In essence, a capo is like a floating nut. 

Capos make it a breeze to transpose a song to a higher key on the spot while still playing basic chords in open positions. This comes in handy if you're singing or accompanying a vocalist who can't sing a song in the key it's written. Instead of having to relearn the chords of the song in another key, some of which might be tricky to play, you simply move the capo on the fretboard until you find a key that suits you. 

Capos come in several different types, such as strap-on, toggle and trigger-style. They're designed to barre strings evenly and securely without damaging the neck or finish of a guitar. Getting the right type of capo depends on the style of your guitar, the type of music played on it, and your particular technique. 

5. Slide. A slide is another piece of gear that will energize your playing and give your work a fresh tone. A slide is a hollow tube that is made from a variety of materials including bronze, brass, stainless steel, copper, aluminum, glass, porcelain and ceramic. With slide guitar you play the strings, not the frets, gliding up and down the fretboard without lifting off the strings, which creates continuous transitions in pitch. 

When selecting a slide, the general rule of thumb is that metal, especially those slides made from brass, are heavier and will give you a bold, bright, crisp sound with better sustain than glass and ceramic, which are lighter and produce smoother, warmer, mellower tones. A heavy slide will move along the strings with less resistance, although if too heavy it will require more than one finger and possibly be a chore to steady above the frets on your guitar. Conversely, thinner, lighter slides must be pushed down harder against the strings to get good sounds.

Which slide is right for you is largely a matter of individual taste and comfort. Experiment with a variety of slides in different weights, thicknesses and materials to find the one that's right for the sound you're after.

6. Effects pedals. Once you've developed your guitar skills, you may want to introduce a pedal or two. Effects pedals, sometimes called guitar pedals or stompboxes, are small electronic units that change your guitar's sound in a specific way. Pedals are used to produce special effects such as wah-wah, delay, tremolo, chorus, flanger, distortion, and fuzz. They can be as simple as one effect that adds layers to your sound, or as complex as a chain of pedals that are connected between the guitar and the amplifier, adjusting your sound in a variety of ways. 

There are dozens of pedals out there, like the wah-wah pedal . The wah, originally intended to sound like a muted trumpet, alters the tone of the signal to create a distinctive effect that mimics the human voice. 

A distortion pedal does just that—distorts the sound coming through the amp. It's a sound most commonly heard in heavy metal and harder rock, as it is typically a harsher effect.

A delay pedal creates an echo of the sound that's just been played. The effect that this pedal creates is reminiscent of yelling in a large, vacant space. The sound bounces repeatedly off the surfaces, becoming softer as it repeats. 

While the delay pedal provides a distinct echoing sound, the reverb pedal creates a fuller sound by allowing the notes to reverberate after they've been played. Reverb is one of the most fundamental effects for electric guitar, which is why it is already built into most amps. Reverb adds depth to your sound. 

Another pedal to try is the chorus pedal. Also known as a flanger pedal, the chorus effect that's created by the pedal works by repeating the guitar's input signal, making it sound as if many guitars are playing at once. A chorus pedal can approximate the sound of a 12-string guitar and add an otherworldly effect to your tone. 

Using pedals takes practice and experimentation so, as someone new to gear, you should play around with one effect at a time, learning each thoroughly, before moving on to more complex setups. 

And finally, it is important to remember that guitar gear in and of itself isn't going to make you a good player, but sounding good will make you want to play more, which will make you a better player. 

Happy gear hunting!

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