Capos, Guitar Picks, and String, Oh My! The variety of guitars on the market is huge, but it pales in comparison to the plethora of accessories and guitar related equipment out there.
In the first part of this series I make recommendations on how to shop for a guitar as a gift. In this entry, I'll go over some of the more popular guitar-related accessories. If purchasing someone their first guitar, consider budgeting a little extra for a few accessories. Many accessories are not just for looks or fun, but make playing and learning to play easier, as well as help keep the instrument in good condition.
Cases and Bags
Any instrument worth buying is worth giving some amount of protection. Good guitars are sturdy in their construction, but delicate on the surface. Being made of wood, guitars will flex with changes in temperature and humidity, and a shiny finish may be easily scuffed or dented. A case is a must-have if you ever plan on taking your guitar outside of the home, such as to music lessons. Even if it never leaves the home, a bag or case is good to have if the guitar ever needs to go into storage, or to provide some extra protection from children or pets.
There are two types of guitar cases out there, Hard Cases and Soft Cases - also known as Gig Bags.
A Gig Bag is a guitar-shaped bag made for carrying a guitar. They come in a wide variety of quality, some flimsy with no padding, others rigid and stuffed with protective foam. Even the flimsiest bag will offer at least some protection from dings, scrapes, temperature fluctuations, and inclement weather. Some guitars come with a bag when purchased, but most do not. Look for something with a good fit, you may even be able to find a bag specifically made to fit your guitar. Many manufacturers make bags for specific guitars, particularly for specialty sizes or high-end instruments. While they don't offer as much protection as a hard case, gig bags are more portable and less expensive. Look for something with backpack style straps rather than just a handle, it will be much easier to carry. Pockets are also a nice feature, for holding accessories like cables, strings, and lesson books.
A Hard Case, or Hard Shell Case, is a sturdy case typically covered with tweed or vinyl outside. They may appear rectangular or guitar-shaped from the outside. A good case will have a soft inner lining and a molded interior for a snug fit. Many hard cases are designed for specific guitars or specific guitar shapes. A hard case offers the most protection, but are heavier and more expensive. If you have a high-end instrument, a hard case is definitely worth the investment, but a beginner with an entry-level guitar typically doesn't need to bother.
Beware of flimsy cases known as "chipboard" cases. They are lightweight and cheap cases with little-to-no padding made of little more than cardboard. While cheap and better than nothing, they offer almost no protection while still being inconvenient to carry around. They're best used for storage, if at all.
Another essential accessory for the modern guitar player is an electronic guitar tuner. A electronic tuner helps you find the appropriate pitch to tune each string, and are orders of magnitude easier to use than tuning by ear with an old-school tuning fork or pitch pipe. It's not the guitarists shouldn't learn to tune by ear, but it's a skill that takes time to develop, whereas one can lune to tune with an electronic tuner in just a few minutes and know everything is just right.
There are three types of tuners, microphone tuners, clip-on vibration tuners, and pedal tuners. Some tuners may even incorporate multiple methods. A microphone tuner listens to the string using a microphone and often has an input jack for plugging in an electric guitar. These have been around for a long time and still work fine, but are being overtaken in popularity by the newer clip-on vibration tuners. A microphone-based tuner has to hear the guitar, and can have trouble distinguishing the notes in a noisy environment, but clip-on tuners generally work by feeling the vibration. Clipped onto the headstock, they're also hands-free and can stay on the guitar while it's being played. The most popular brand is Snark, and while they have different models marketed towards instruments, in my experience they all work pretty much the same. For about $15 they are an absolute must add-on for a first time guitarist.
Pedal tuners used exclusively for tuning electric guitars. A pedal tuner is a a type of effect pedal, or "stomp box," something that is plugged in between the guitar and the amplifier that can be turned on and off with your foot. A pedal tuner is great for someone who actively plays an electric guitar, especially if they jam with others or perform. A pedal tuner uses the electronic signal from the guitar and can be used in the noisiest environments, and are often more accurate than clip-on or microphone tuners. Many pedal tuners also double as a mute button, which is handy for a performer.
One especially cool pedal tuner is the Polytune Line by TC Electronics, which makes clip-on and pedal tuners. These innovative tuners can check all the strings simultaneously, making it easy to see what strings may be out of tune. A great choice for the serious player.
Picks and Pick Holders
The vast majority of guitarists use a guitar pick when playing guitar, at least some of the time. At a glance they mostly all look the same. They're small, triangular, and usually made of some type of plastic. Like many other pieces of guitar equipment, picks have a lot of variety. The biggest variation between picks is thickness of the material. Many brands use different colors to represent different thicknesses. Some picks have beveled sides while others have flat sides. There are extra large picks the size of tortilla chips, and tiny picks the size of a fingernail. Picks come in different textures too, many are completely smooth, some have a chalky feel, some have bumps or even holes punched through the middle!
Most experienced players have developed a preference in the type of pick they use, but picks are a great gift for a beginner. Picks are small and easy to lose, so it's good to have a large supply. (I'm certain I've lost well over 1000 at this point.) Luckily, they're inexpensive. Consider getting a variety pack if you see one at your local shop, or ask the staff to help you pick out an assortment. Avoid niche picks like those that are especially large, tiny, or made of strange materials, and stick with something simple like the classic Fender Medium pick.
One fun niche pick for an intermediate player is a thumb pick, these picks strap onto the thumb and are commonly used in country and fingerstyle guitar, like the music of Chet Atkins.
One of the biggest troubles with picks is keeping track of them, which is why a pick holder can make a great gift! Some folks opt for the classic trick of tucking a pick between the strings, but a pick holder can hold multiple picks at the same time. The most common ones are spring loaded, like a pez dispenser, and attach to the guitar with double-sided tape and typically run between $2-$5. Another approach is a leather pick pouch on a ring, which can be handily attached to a key ring or the zipper on a gig bag.
A guitar strap can be as stylish as it is functional. While pretty much all straps function the same, the variety of styles is wide and varied. Straps are often made of nylon, cotton, or leather and come in just about any imaginable color and design. Other things to take into account are the length, and width of the strap. A "standard" guitar strap will work for just about everyone, but are often too long for children to use comfortably, even after being adjusted to their shortest length. If buying a strap for a child look for a shorter strap. Guitar straps also come in extra long, these are a good choice for tall people or those who want their guitar to hand really low.
The wider the strap, the more evenly it distributes the weight of the guitar. A standard strap is fine most of the time, but if the guitar is particularly heavy (Gibson Les Paul's are famously so) a wide strap can make holding it more comfortable.
Electric guitars will typically come standard with two strap buttons - pegs on which to attach a strap at either end of the body. Many acoustic guitars only come with one button on the bottom. The other end of the strap can be secured with a string running under the strings at the headstock in the classic "cowboy" style. Some straps marketed for acoustic guitars will come with a shoelace for this reason. Many people (myself included) find this arrangement awkward, however, and prefer to have a second button installed on the guitar to allow for the strap to attach like an electric guitar. It's a simple procedure involving a single screw that can be done at your local guitar shop in a few minutes. The Cowboy style attachment also makes removing the strap difficult, since it's generally tied on at the headstock. A good gift for someone with a strap this style is a quick-release strap system, which employs a clip to make taking the strap on and off easier.
There is always a slight danger that a guitar strap may fall off. Sometimes the strap buttons are too small, or the holes on the strap stretch and wear. A good safeguard against this are something called strap locks. Strap locks are metal mechanisms installed onto the strap and the strap button, making it so the strap can only be released by pulling on a certain knob (other styles have a button release). Strap locks are a good investment for any mid-range to expensive guitar. There are also strap "blocks," rubber stoppers that work in a similar way and are easier to install.
One of the most ubiquitous guitar accessories is a capo. A capo works by holding down all the strings of the guitar in a single fret, effectively re-tuning the guitar. A capo allows guitar players to change the key of a song without changing the shapes of the chords they play and makes it easier to play along with more songs. A capo is a really useful tool used by musicians of all skill levels and can open up the guitar to lots of new possibilities.
Capos come in several styles. The first is the quick change clamp-on style, dominated by the Kyser brand. These capos clamp down the strings with a spring loaded mechanism. These are the simplest to operate and the quickest to take on and off, and when not in use can be clamped onto the headstock.
Another popular style capo is the manual-adjust capo, or the "Shubb" style. Kyser style capos are spring loaded, and may apply too much pressure, making a guitar go slightly out of tune when the capo s on. Shubb style capos have a screw adjustment that allows you to fine-tune the amount of pressure needed on your guitar. They take a little more finesse to use, but can result in a better sound. A beginner or amateur player probably won't be able to hear the difference, though.
The most inexpensive capos consist of a metal bar pinned down or strapped down using a clamp. These work fine and are the cheapest option, but take the longest to take on and off the guitar. They can be a good choice for young students who may not have the grip strength to squeeze the spring on a kyser style capo.
For the adventurous player, there are niche toys like the Spider Capo, which can hold or leave open any combination of strings. While not commonly used, it might be a fun gift for a creative guitarist who dabbles in creating their own interesting instrumentals.
Stands and Hangers
Every guitarist should have a guitar stand. Too many guitars have been dinged, scratched, or even destroyed because they were sat on, tripped over, or fell because they were leaning against a wall instead of in a stable stand. Aside from the instrument's safety, a stand keeps a guitar accessible. I recommend all my students keep their guitar in a stand or hanger rather than in it's case, and most find that they play more often when the guitar is easy to grab when the mood strikes.
Floor stands are the most common guitar stands and come in many different designs. The classic style features tripod legs, supports the guitar from both the base and on the neck. These are the cheapest and most available. Other styles include A-frame stands which only support the guitar from the bottom and are more compact and while they might not look it, are just as safe as the classic tripod. For someone with multiple guitars, consider guitar floor rack, which typically come with slots for 3, 5, or 7 guitars.
A wall hanger is another functional as well as stylish option for storing guitars. A hanger not only keeps the guitar accessible, it keeps it safe from ground-dwelling troublemakers like toddlers and pets, and has the added benefit of serving as stylish decor. Wall hangers typically store the guitar facing outward and come in different sizes because guitar headstocks come in different widths, so make sure it will fit your guitar safety before installing! (Guitars like the Fender Telecaster have very narrow headstocks and may not fit in standard hangers.)
For those with a serious collection, guitars can be hung perpendicular to the wall like you might see in a guitar shop. There are racks with a preset number of hangers, as well as customizable pegboard and rail systems. I was able to install one myself at home with just a drill and a stud finder.
All the guitars and all the accessories in the world aren't of much use if someone doesn't know how to play the guitar! While there are many resources out there to help someone learn, there is no substitute for a professional guitar instructor. The sheer amount of information available online can be overwhelming and lead to frustration because it's hard to know what to to work on, or even if it's accurate. Whether lessons are taken in person or remotely, an instructor not only shows you how to play, but also watches you and gives feedback and customized guidance that you cannot get from a book or video.
Guitar lessons are the perfect companion gift for someone getting their first guitar, allowing them to start playing right away without struggling to understand what to do with their new instrument. It's very easy to develop bad habits when learning on your own, which can limit progress down the road. A teacher prevents all that, making sure that they get off on the right foot, even if they only take a few lessons.
Lessons can also make a great gift for the intermediate player. Many people reach a certain skill level and then get stuck, but a skilled instructor can expose them to new styles, techniques, and ideas they may never had considered before. Learning to play an instrument is an ongoing journey, nobody is ever really "done" because there is always another style, another song, another approach out there to be learned.
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In Part III of this blog series on holiday shopping, I'll go over the different types of Ukuleles!