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I Got A Guitar For Christmas ... Now What Do I Do?

By Chris Cooper

Christmas is one of those times where there’s a surge of buying in the instrument market, and much of that buying involves some lucky kid (or adult) getting their first guitar. So what I’d like to do here is provide some insight into getting the most out of that initial phase of playing and learning, list what extras you really may need, and give a little insight as to what elements make up a “good” guitar.


Having wandered down the stairs on Christmas day and noticed the shiny six-stringed object twinkling beneath the lights, there most likely was an overwhelming temptation to make like Hendrix and rock out with aplomb right from the start. However, after a few minutes of trying to play for the first time the realization that it’s not as easy as it looks on MTV becomes all too clear. This is where patience and perseverance come in.

Though I don’t believe that guitar playing is rocket science, there is a fair amount of physical learning involved, and while there’s a plethora of fine instructional books on the market, being able to see exactly how something is done is of utmost importance to the beginner. If regular one-on-one instruction isn’t an option, investigate getting some kind of book/DVD combo. And did I mention the whole “patience” thing?

Hopefully your musical gift included a few accessories, like a quality electronic tuner, a strap and a case of some kind. A guitar stand helps as well, for those times when you just want to set the instrument down and go make a sandwich, without having to pack the whole thing up or lean it precariously against the wall.

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Once you get the hang of using the tuner, use it every single time you pick the guitar up to play. You want to get accustomed to what a perfectly tuned instrument sounds like, which will play a role in developing your ear. A handful of guitar picks is a good idea, too. Try the thin ones, the mediums and the heavy ones, each for a few days. After a while you’ll find that you’re leaning towards one particular style, and that may be the kind you wind up using for years to come.

If you got an amp with your guitar, take the time to learn what all the knobs do. “Gain” is often the amount of distortion, and “Volume” controls the overall loudness. Some amps have one global tone control, while others have individual controls for bass, middle and treble, akin to a stereo.

Check out the range of each control (be careful with the volume) and do yourself a favor and get a nice guitar cord, not the flimsy little piece of wire some guitars come with. Few things are more frustrating than dealing with a cable that has a short somewhere in it, forcing you to stand on one leg while leaning to left with your tongue sticking out just to gain a few minutes of sound.

The guitar market has changed significantly over the years, and one of those changes is reflected in the availability of much higher quality instruments than ever before in the $500 and below price range. Just a decade ago, you were looking at America, Japan and Mexico as the “big three” countries in guitar production, with Korea sliding in there at a close fourth. As the years have passed, Korea has taken its place as a major producer of quality affordable instruments.

There are too many brand names for me to effectively list here, but the point is that where people at one time may have turned up their noses to “off-shore” produced guitars, those same guitars have since become some of the most popular brands. China has come into the market more recently, along with Indonesia, and in my opinion the quality control of these guitars can be more hit or miss than those of Korean origin.

To a degree, a first time buyer has to trust that the salesperson or private seller they’re dealing with isn’t going to lead them astray — but that’s not always the case. The bigger “box” stores are primarily based on high pressure commissioned sales, which often translates more into moving “product” than helping the customer.

Then again, there’s the creepy little pawnshop where the owner won’t let you play the guitars and everything smells like cigarettes and mildew.

So aim for somewhere in the middle, and go on the “vibe” of the store and staff to determine your comfort in buying from them, because you’ll probably do more business with them over the years. And while the instrument should be in perfect playing condition when you take it home, you should also be able to have it adjusted to your personal playing style as needed.

But most of all, playing music is a wonderful, inspiring thing. And there are few moments in life as cool as getting your first guitar, playing your first gig and realizing that you actually sound pretty good, which can be a relative thing, but you know what I mean. Have fun, pick and/or grin and here’s hoping you had a happy holiday season.

(Amongst other things, Chris Cooper is a guitar teacher at In Your Ear music store in Sylva. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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