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Turning Guitar Playing into a Side Hustle | Part I

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INTRODUCTION

I’ve been playing guitar since 2008, and am a second-generation musician. Music has been one of my great artistic outlets and I’ve played in quite a few small-time music acts. Whilst not necessarily paying all the bills (almost all musicians have day jobs), being hired to play gigs alongside a band or musical artist has been a great way to put my name out there, meet people, and make a little pocket change while I’ve been at it. Let me tell you what I know, and I hope what you learn will inspire you, too. 

Being a guitar player myself and the guitar being a wildly popular and very common instrument today, I’ll start you off with that instrument, dear reader.

CHOICES, CHOICES, CHOICES

Many people often ask, should I get an acoustic or electric guitar? My response to this question has always been the same: what do you want to play, and how do you want to sound? Someone who enjoys the sound of classical guitar will probably be more inclined to the sound of an classical or flamenco-style acoustic, and someone who enjoys a harder rock’n’roll sound will most certainly opt for an electric guitar and amplifier. For those who truly have ascended in their level of musical artistry and who have fallen in love with the guitar as an instrument, the answer is both. 

The basic techniques of playing the guitar are common to both acoustic and electric guitars. When you’re first starting out, go to a music store and ask to try out several guitars. See what feels comfortable for you both sitting down and even standing up. There are many models of guitars to choose from, especially from Epiphone/ Gibson and Squire/Fender. Ibanez, ESP/LTD, Washburn, Jackson, and other guitar companies make guitars of all sizes, shapes, models, and makes. 

To get an idea of the many choices out there avaliable to both amateur and pro, I’ll include my own personal electric setup: I utilize a BC Rich Ironbird with a single EMG-81 pickup and Floyd Rose 2 tremolo system, a Nuix 2.4G wireless guitar system, and a Randall RG150 amplifier with linked channel switch board. I also have D’Addrio lock-in guitar straps, DR 10-gauge strings, and Dunlop Jazz 2 picks. To the newcomer, this already sounds expensive (and it is, believe me!), but to the pro, it’s a very simple yet effective setup for a great sound. Since one guitar doesn’t fit all sizes and give the same sound, I have a collection of almost 10 other guitars (most of them from the amazing company BC Rich) to get the exact sound I want with the wild shapes that made BC Rich famous. 

The variety of choices can be mind-blowing, but a beginner player won’t go wrong with a basic starter pack from one of the big companies, which typically includes a guitar, strings, guitar picks, a tuner/tuning device, electric cables, and a small practice amplifier. Some packs can also include a few skill books or two to help a beginner get started. Most of these can be found for less than 200 dollars. Shop around and see what fits your budget and what appeals to you. As always, do consider purchasing a used guitar to keep costs down.

NECKING AROUND

Let’s take a look at the neck of your guitar, sometimes called the fingerboard. Your strings sit above it, and you have small metal rails called frets going up and down the neck. Many guitars have dots, diamonds, squares, or other designs on the oddly-numbered frets until the 11th and 13th fret (there is usually double the design or a different one for the 12th fret, which is where the octave for the open note is located). You can also find small dots on the side of the neck on many guitars, which are there to help you find what frets are which when viewing the neck from the side facing you. Many guitars go up to either 21 or 24 frets. I’m a fan of 24 frets myself, and many who like playing fiery guitar solos are, too. If that’s not your thing, 21 frets will likely suit you just fine.

PICKING ON THE PICK

A pick (or plectrum) is another crucial part of the guitar experience, unless you’re a fingerpicker, which the name implies you’ll be using your fingers instead. Picks can be made out of plastic, nylon, bone, metal, etc and come in many shapes and sizes, such as small teardrops or large triangles. A good bunch of them have special or textured grips to help keep them in place. They usually come in thin, medium, or hard categories, often on one side of the pick. Although there are again many choices in picks, I personally would advise against using thin picks (which don’t have the same effect on the string as Mediums or Hards) and I would certainy avoid using metal or metallic picks, as these can quickly wear down your strings (metal-on-metal contact) and cause inconvenient premature breaking of strings. If you can, visit a music store and buy a variety of picks. They’re cheap and several never go for more than a few dollars. A pick variety pack is best. Once you find what you like, go back to the store and stock up on your preferred pick. 

Hold your pick between your thumb and pointer finger. When you go to pick or strum a note or chord, use your wrist to strum, not your forearm. You’ll learn to pick faster, more accurately, and you won’t grow tired quickly. 

AMPLIFY YOUR SOUND

An acoustic guitar has a sound hole that makes the instrument resonate louder naturally, but what about an electric? Enter the amplifier.

Connected by guitar cables or wireless systems, the electric guitar amplifier can give you a nice 60s clean sound or can give you the fire-breathing onslaught of heavy metal and everything in between. There are numerous companies producing popular amplifiers, to include Marshall, MESA Engineering, Randall, Peavey, Fender, and many more. 

Most amplifiers come connected with a series of knobs and switches. Often, you will find knobs that read TREBLE, MIDDLE, and BASS. You will usually also often find PRESCENCE, GAIN, VOLUME, and occasionally REVERB knobs. Some amps also come equipped with preset knobs modeled after certain guitar sounds, but these very widely and are often self-explanatory, so I’ll stick with the knobs I mentioned.

TREBLE can be thought of as the high frequencies of the electric guitar. Turning this knob all the way up adds more high frequencies to your sound. 

MIDDLE (also called Midrange or Mids) is essentially the middle range of frequencies between high and low. The placement of the midrange of the guitar (or lack thereof) strongly affects the voice of the amplified guitar, so turn this knob wisely. 

BASS you may have surmised is the lower-end frequencies of the guitar. Turn it up to add more low frequencies to your sound.

GAIN is the best friend of the rock and metal player and often is used to distort the guitar sound, giving the player the famous rock and metal sound associated with the electric guitar. While metal players will almost certainly always turn the gain as high as possible, more rock-oriented players may turn the gain only slightly lower than a metal player, while blues-oriented or country players may not use nearly as much gain for their music. Experiment with this knob and find out how much gain works for the music you want to play. 

REVERB is a special knob sometimes found on amplifiers, and basically adds in the sound of an echo to your playing. Whatever you play gets echoed. How much and how heavy the effect is depends on the amplifier.

VOLUME is just same as on your TV: turn it up, and the amplifier gets loud. Turn the volume down, and it gets quieter. Many players of the rock and metal varities often turn their volume knobs up to extremely loud levels. This not only allows the audience to hear and enjoy the loud music, but the amplified and loudened sound can give off frequencies and sounds not found at lower levels, creating a fuller and bigger sound. It’s also very useful for trolling your neighbors.

A WORD ON PEDALS FOR ELECTRIC PLAYERS

Guitar pedals come in many shapes, sizes, and colors, giving off just as many different features and sounds through an amplifier. There are chorus pedals that can thicken a guitar sound, flangers to alter a pitch, harmonizers to sound like a second version of you (the player), distortion/overdrive/fuzz (to give that famous rock and metal sound), delay (to repeat what you played a certain time interval later), reverb (too add in an echo) and much, much more. If you are interested in pedals, listen to them online, then visit your local music store and see what they have in stock. The employees will almost always allow you to try them out for a test drive in the store if there’s a chance you will buy.

TIME FOR A TUNE-UP

This section will assume you’ve found a guitar you liked, purchased, and brought home. Congratulations! First, let’s get your new guitar tuned. From the highest (thinnest string) to the lowest (thickest), the standard tuning for a guitar is E (thinnest string ), B (the one right above it), G, D A, and then back to E (thickest string), or EBGDAE for short. 

Your strings will be attached to tuning devices on the head of your guitar. Turn the knobs for the respective strings until you have the open note you need. 

For the newbies, I recommend getting a tuner if you haven’t already, and using it to tune your instrument. Try to memorize the sound of every note. Not only will it help you with your tuning, later on it will help you find notes on the guitar neck.

For more engaged players who have memorized their notes already and desire a more silky smooth sound, here’s a few neat tuning tricks: tune your sixth string to the desired note. Then put your finger on the sixth string, 5th fret (or 7th if you’re drop tuning, returning to the 5th for all other strings.) and then hit both the 6th and 5th strings at the same time. If your strings are detuned, you’ll hear a detuned sound (oscillating frequency). Tune the 5th string until there’s no clash at all between the 5th and 6th strings. Repeat this for every string. Your chords will sound perfect. Also slightly bend and tug on the strings after tuning them, then re-tune. Your strings will be set in place and much more likely to go out of tune. 

CHORD SHAPES

There are three chord shapes you need to know for most popular music. They are the barre chord, the power chord, and the open chord. A barre chord is very easy to make and found in many types of music. Simply hold down all the strings with one finger and strum. Change it up a bit by playing this chord shape with different fingers. You may even construct a riff or two using just barre chords and different fingers. 

The next is an open chord. It’s similar to a barre chord, but different. For an example using an Open E chord place your pointer finger on the 5th string, 2nd fret. Strum both the 5th and 6th string. The 6th string will be open, but the 5th will not be so. You can do this with an open A or open D as well. This shape is often famously used by rock and metal bands for its dark and heavy sound. You can easily find it on Metallica’s “For Whom The Bell Tolls“. 

The last shape you’ll certainly need is the power chord. This one is also used in much of popular music, and again very prevalent in rock, punk, and metal. It consists of a shape using two or even three of your fingers, but you can master it with a little bit of practice. Since C is often cited as a beginner’s key and easy to play in, I’ll give you a C power chord. Put your pointer finger on the 5th string, 3rd fret. Then put your ring finger on the 4th string, 5th fret. Strum these two strings. If the rock song “Holy Diver” by Ronnie James Dio came to mind, you’re right on target: move this same shape up to the 5th and 6th frets, then down to the 1st fret, all on the 5th string. Practice with the timing of your picking, and you’ll be playing the riff in little time Congrats, you just played the main riff to Holy Diver!

STEPPING UP, STEPPING DOWN

The frets and therefore the notes on the guitar always go a half step up from each other. The basic notes for music are A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. To go a full step up would mean to go two half-steps to the next note up (for example, C to D, or F to G, or G to A), with the exceptions of B and E (more on that later). The observant have likely noted that there’s only 7 notes I’ve named so far. So what are the other 5 notes to make the 12 notes on the neck? Enter in the sharps and flats.

STAYING SHARP, EVEN IF YOU’RE FLAT

It’s true there’s 7 notes, and it’s also true that the guitar has a 12-tone row that starts at the open string and ends/restarts at the 12th fret. Since the frets allow us to go up half steps at a time, we get notes in between the notes already mentioned. When going up and higher in pitch, these notes are called sharps, often symbolized with a # symbol (like C# for C Sharp). When going down and lower in pitch, these notes are called flats, and symbolized with a b symbol (such as Db). As you noted, C is located at the 5th string, 3rd fret. If you go up one fret, you will have gone from C a half-step up to C#. If you go up from C#(to the 5th string, 5th fret), you will find yourself now on D. Go up another half-step, (to the 5th string, 6th fret) and you’ll now be at D#. Do it again and you’ll end up at E (5th string, 7th fret). Let’s say you decide to go back down a half-step from E. You may recognize this as D#. You won’t be wrong. E Flat and D# in this case are the same note. All regular notes have flats. However, B and E do not have sharps. Instead, when going up, B goes into C and E goes into F. The reason for this is that the piano is the basis of most Western music, and the black keys were the sharps/flats, while the white keys the major notes. The idea of B# and E# remained enharmonic and homophonic (sounding the same) with C and F, so these two theoretical notes were dropped, having the convenient effect of noting the octave much easier. 

MAP IT OUT

Get a piece of paper and a pen or pencil. Write the word Open on the left side of the paper, then draw a long vertical line to the right of the word. Underneath the word Open, write the letter E. Underneath E, write the letter B. Under B, write D, then A, then E. You’ve probably noticed this is the tuning of your guitar, and you’re right. Now for the horizontal. Next to the word Open, write the number 1. Make a vertical line to the right of 1. Now write 2, and make another vertical line. Repeat all the way to the number 12. These numbers represent the frets on your guitar. Since you now know the notes for music and their sharps and flats, let’s map out the notes on your guitar. Remember, there are no B Sharps, or E Sharps, so E turns into F on the 1st fret, F# on the 2nd Fret, G on the 3rd, G# on the 4th, and A on the 5th. Do this completely for every string all the way up to the 12 fret. If you’ve done this correctly, the notes on your 12th fret will match your tuning on the open strings. Congratulations! You’ve mapped the 12 tone row for your guitar and can use this as a map and surefire way to hunt any note on your guitar. If you have a 24-fret guitar, you can repeat this exact thing starting on the 12th fret instead of the open string. The result will be the same, but you’ll have an easier time finding the notes higher up the neck. I have purposefully not included a diagram in this tutorial because drawing this map is an essential part of the learning process.

LEARNING TO READ

By and far the most popular way to transpose guitar parts in songs is by tablature. I’ll give the basic here, then discuss techniques further down that you will see mentioned in tablature. 

Tablature often consists of 6 lines (to represent the strings) and numbers on those lines (to indicate frets). Often the lines will have notes corresponding to the tuning of the instrument. Make sure your tuning matches these notes or you will not find the right note. Find the line, find the fret, and hit the note you find. It should be the same as the note in the song you desire. Often notes stacked on top of each other indicate chords, while individual notes tend to be seperated.

Whilst it is a great idea to learn sheet music for professional settings, you will do fine learning tablature for most songs.

Continues next week.

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