Get the Maximum Out of Your First Electric Guitar
If you’re an acoustic guitar player, going electric is a way to muscle up your game in a host of interesting ways. Plugging in opens up the sonic universe and grants a license to rock — and hard! If you’ve never played an electric guitar before, here are a few pointers to get you rolling down the “Highway To Hell” like a “Dazed and Confused” “Voodoo Child” in a “Purple Haze.” Translation: if you wanna rock like a monster and make an electric guitar stand up and howl like Larry Talbot on a full moon night, try this:
• Go first class: Buy the best guitar you can afford. Anything less and you’re cheating yourself out of the best playing experience possible. Better guitars have better pickups and other electronics, better tonal properties in their wood, more efficient neck construction and good action, so you can really place the strings at a height above the fretboard that’s right for you. We’d all like to own a ’59 Les Paul Standard, but for those of us with smaller wallets Gibson also has great, dependable and stage worthy guitars that can scream like banshees for well under a “G.” Check out the current online catalog. A couple I’d recommend are the Gibson SGJ, which I’ve loved playing on stage and lists for less than $500, and the Gibson Les Paul Melody Maker 2014, a classic-sounding tone machine.
• Get amped: The core of your tone is your guitar, but think of an amplifier as a good translator who is going to help you communicate in the language of rock (or jazz, blues or country). If you like it dirty, think about amps that have high gain profiles and low wattage speakers, for finely controlled distortion. If you wanna play clean, gain isn’t so important. In the classic rock era, dirty meant British and clean meant American. Today, with boutique and circuit emulating amps blurring all kinds of distinctions, it’s worth making a list of the qualities you want and talking to a more experienced player or music shop staffer who can offer guidance, trying out whatever options your requirements — including cost — lead you to, and making a choice from there. But do yourself a favor. Even if you’re not planning to play gigs, get a stage worthy amp. Keep your options open.
• Play power chords: On an acoustic guitar, power chords sound louder, tighter and more propulsive than open chords. But on electric guitar, they sound truly, well, powerful! There’s nothing fancy about power chords. You can play them with two fingers — one on the root note and one on the fifth. Use the palm of your picking hand to mute and you’re in business. The harder you hit and the firmer you mute, the better and more spanking electric power chords sound — especially dappled in distortion. Power chords are the essential foundation of rock ‘n’ roll. Nail ’em!
• Be messy: Acoustic guitars require precision to make notes speak. Not so the eclectic guitar. Often the more you bang on the strings without concern for precision, the cooler your plugged-in guitar sounds. Sloppy is good, and Keith Richards is living proof. Keep your wrist loose when you pick and strike chords, and always work from the wrist, not the elbow. If your chords aren’t perfect, sustain, tone and other factors specific to the electric guitar will keep you sounding like a god despite your less-than-best efforts.
• Smoke the pots: Here’s something else an acoustic guitar can’t do: radically change volume and tone by rolling the speed dials, a/k/a potentiometer or “pot” controls, up and down. With a distorted sound, roll the volume pots back toward the low numbers to clean up your tone. Roll towards 10 to get dirty and solo at a higher volume. For darker, deeper, fatter voices, roll the tone pots back. For bright tones, push the tone pots up. And with multiple pickups, the possibilities for blending are rich, impressive and, well, if not limitless, at least super cool!