What to Expect When Beginning Lessons on Different Instruments – Focus on Stringed Instruments – Part A

As stated in the first post in this series of three, starting lessons on different instruments will present a vastly different first lesson experience which will be very instrument specific. This is part of a series of posts dealing with the subject of what to expect when beginning lessons on each instrument. Today I will talk about what to expect when beginning lessons on fretted stringed instruments. The previous post discussed piano and drums. One of the first things to be mentioned is that there is less instant gratification when beginning lessons on the stringed instruments than there is on piano and drums. However, that should not be a deterrent.  Instrument choice is best made not by ease of learning but by love of the instrument you are drawn to. Like anything else that requires effort, the progress made will ultimately be very satisfying.

There are two subcategories of stringed instruments, fretted and non fretted. Non fretted instruments such as violin, viola, cello and double bass will be discussed in Part B, which will be posted very soon. Guitar and bass guitar are fretted stringed instruments.  A fret is a raised element on the neck of a stringed instrument. When a string is depressed, it strikes the fret, which results in a change of pitch. Guitars usually have six strings, tuned as E, A, D, G, B, E. Bass guitars usually have four strings tuned as E, A, D, G.

An acoustic guitar produces sound by transmitting the vibration of the strings through the sound board (top of the instrument). The sound board in turn vibrates the air within the instrument which resonates and amplifies the sound. Electric instruments are equipped with pickups (magnets) and metal strings made of magnetic materials. Using electromagnetism, the pickup senses vibration from the string, converts the vibration into an electrical current, which runs through the instrument cable and into the amplifier. The amplifier then reverses the process, producing sound from the speaker. Though the sound is produced differently there is no difference in the way the two kinds of guitar are learned.

As you probably know guitar is played by either picking or strumming the string(s). It is relatively easy to strum open strings or pick single notes on a guitar. Unlike the piano, stringed instruments require manual tuning each time they are played. Pitch is determined by the gauge of the string and by tension. Tightening the string will raise the pitch and loosening the tension will lower the pitch.  Instrument tuners and phone apps help to simplify the tuning process by identifying the correct pitch.  Once the strings are tuned, pitch is changed by the player’s finger placement on the neck of the instrument. Each string will produce it’s lowest pitch when strummed in an open position (without any fingers on the neck). Shortening the string by placing the fingers of your left hand on the guitar neck, between the frets, will produce a higher pitch or note. Though there are frets to help guide the left hand in finding the correct notes it takes practice to learn the coordination necessary and how much pressure to exert with the left hand while controlling precise and rhythmic strumming of chords (two or more notes sounded simultaneously) and melodies with your right hand. The guitar neck is long, there are many frets and many different combinations of notes to be played. It takes a great deal of practice to master the art of playing the guitar to it’s fullest potential; left hand moving up and down the neck and right hand isolating and strumming, fast notes, slower notes, loud and softer, etc. However, students can realize steady progress in a relatively short period of time and ultimately find a satisfying level of accomplishment with dedicated practice.

Guitar music is written on the treble clef and in standard musical notation or in a format called tablature or chord diagram, a method unique to the guitar and other fretted stringed instruments. Like piano, it is possible for the guitarist to play both melody and harmony on the guitar simultaneously. Students begin by learning the names of the strings, tuning basics, simple note reading skills and proper playing position at the first lesson. They will generally go home reading notes or tablature and picking single strings to produce simple melodies and rhythms. Depressing the strings with the left hand can be just the slightest bit uncomfortable before calluses form. Children younger than six or seven sometimes perceive the sensation as pain and may be put off from continuing their lessons. It is important for parents to have this information so that they can make a realistic assessment of when their child is really ready to begin lessons. Then helping the student develop consistent practice habits and offering a little extra encouragement will get them through this early stage relatively quickly.  Fractional sized instruments are available for  young students.

The electric bass guitar also has a fretted fingerboard, usually with four strings, instead of six. Bass is generally played one note at at time either with a pick or by plucking the strings with your fingers. Bass is considered a rhythm instrument so in a band the bassists will usually not be playing the melody (familiar part of the song). Bass guitar is larger than the guitar. The gauge of the strings are thicker producing a lower pitch than the strings of the guitar. It is usually best to begin bass at around age nine or when the child is big enough to handle the instrument. Bass music is written in bass clef with standard musical notation or in tablature. Though bass is available as an acoustic instrument most students begin with an electric instrument. Mechanically, sound is produced and the instrument is played in the same manner as guitar and first lessons will proceed in a similar fashion as well.

As you can see there are many similarities between the guitar and the bass. They each require some practice and dedication to reach an enjoyable level of proficiency. It has become popular to attempt to learn to play guitar and bass either without any guidance or using youtube tutorial videos. Many times this can lead to a great deal of frustration and then defeat due to the fact that it takes personal one to one attention to learn two essential elements of playing any instrument; proper position and technique. Once students achieve an intermediate level of accomplishment they can enjoy strumming and picking along to their favorite songs. Guitar and bass are often found in rock, blues and jazz settings.

Coming soon, What to Expect When Beginning Lesson on Different Instruments – Focus on Stringed Instruments – Part B. This article will focus on violin, viola and cello, the non fretted stringed instrument.



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