I got a text from a parent earlier today. She was at a yard sale and came across an electric guitar for $20. Should she buy it? Great deal? Utter garbage? How can you know? Here's a few tips to help you on your used instrument purchasing journey. This article is mostly geared towards the well intentioned parent with little musical knowledge. 

       Before anything else factors in, you have to know who made the guitar. The brand and model of the guitar 
       makes more of a difference in the value than anything else. I can't run through every brand and model here,     

       but here are some basics. 

1. First Act
Though they also make high end guitars, almost every First Act that you'll see was bought at Wal-mart. 
2. Fender Starcaster
Though Fender is a great brand, the Starcaster is their bottom-level guitar often sold at CostCo and Target. 
3. Daisy Rock
You're paying for gimmick and aesthetics in these guitars that are marketed towards young girls. 
4. Silvertone
This is Walmart, Costco, Sams, and Target's current brand of choice. 

There are always flunks out there, but these are generally good, safe brands. Here are just a few of the good guys:
*Fender                            *Gibson
*Ibanez                             *PRS
*Taylor                              *Martin
*Seagull                            *Alvarez
*Epiphone                         *Takamine
*Gretsch                           *Jackson
*Peavey                            *Squier, by Fender
*Washburn                        *Yamaha

That says it all. Even without any musical knowledge you can tell if something looks cheaply made and of poor quality. If it looks like it would be at home in your kids playroom, walk away. 

Look for things on the guitar that may have problems but are easy fixes. This will help you knock the price of a guitar down and you can remedy most of these problems for a few bucks and a few minutes of work. 

1. Strings
If it's missing a string or the strings or rusty and old, use this to your advantage. It's an easy way to talk down the price and strings can cost as low as $4 for an entire new set. 

2. Input Jack
Look at the input jack. This is the part of the guitar where you plug in the guitar cable. On budget guitars this is normally the first thing to go. You can pick up a new jack for a couple of bucks and if you're handy with a soldering iron fix it within minutes. If not, you can get it repaired at a shop for about $5. If the jack feels loose, there's a good chance it has either already shorted out or will do so soon. 

3. Plug it in!
Plug in the guitar and see how everything sounds (more on this below). If there isn't an amp or a way to test it, be sure to drive the price down. Since you are buying it without knowing if the electronics work, you are taking a leap of faith and hoping that everything works out. Most problems are easy fixes, but the seller doesn't need to know that!

4. Electronics
If you have the opportunity to plug in the guitar and test it, do it! Even if you don't know anything about guitar, you can see if it makes noise. Turn the knobs all the way to ten to make sure each one works. Volume knobs control volume (obviously) and tone knobs control the frequency/tone of the guitar. As you turn a tone knob you should hear the guitar adding bass or treble (lower or higher) or getting fuller or thinner sounding as you play the strings. If you turn the knobs and hear crackling, this is a problem to bring up with the seller. 

Test the pickup selector. This is the switch that should have 3-5 positions on it. Each position should make the guitar sound a little different (much like the tone knob). Make sure there isn't any crackling or popping when switching through the pickup selector. You can replace all the electronics on a guitar for about $30. It will cost a bit more if you take it to a shop. 90% of a time if there's a problem with the electronics it's the input jack and this is the easiest and cheapest ($5) fix. If the guitar doesn't play or cuts in and out, this is a great way to drive down the price.

5. Fretboard
This is the part of the guitars where the fingers press down the strings. Look at the fret wires. These are the metal wires running vertically up and down the fretboard. Do they look rusted or grimy? Run your hand over the top and bottom of the neck. Do any of the frets stick out? Are there sharp edges? The frets should be smooth and easy on the hands. These are dealbreakers. Fixing rough frets is not a cheap, easy fix. If the neck has a rough feel or look to it, pass on the guitar. 

6. Playability
This is where it helps to play a little guitar or have someone with you that does. Get your student to teach you a few easy notes or take her along with you for the ride. The action of the guitar (how far the strings are from the fretboard) is what you are looking for. If the action is bad, it's normally a pretty easy fix in the right set of capable hands. Look for fret buzz on the early frets or anywhere up the guitar. Play each fret on each string and make sure there aren't any frets that make buzzing noises. Fret buzz can be indicative of many different problems. Some of them are quick. painless fixes others are expensive and time consuming.

7. Hardware
This is usually all of the metal pieces on an electric guitar and can include the nut and bridge (where the strings rest on either end) on an acoustic. First make sure there are no cracks in the nut or bridge (where the strings are held). Though this is a relatively cheap fix ($25) it will dramatically effect the playability of the guitar if not repaired. Even a small crack or scratch can turn into something major with all of the vibrations of the string over time. Check the tuners on the head of the guitar. Do they turn easily? Are they too loose? Use your best judgment here. Tuners should feel nice and smooth. 

Look for rust on any of the metal parts. This is an easy way to drive down the price and a toothbrush and a little elbow grease can fix the problem in a few minutes. Check out the strap buttons. This is where the strap is held onto the guitar. Make sure they are tight and don't feel loose. If your student plays with a strap the weight of your entire purchase is literally riding on these two small buttons. 

8. Overall Aesthetics
How does the guitar look? Are there any nicks or scratches on it? Is it not the right color for you? These are easy ways to drive down the price. If there is a very noticeable scratch or nick on the guitar, be sure that it won't affect playability or get worse. You can always sand down the guitar and repaint it, but most times you'll be stuck with whatever the paint looks like. Personally, I like a guitar with a little character to it. But when negotiating price, be sure to point out every flaw that you see in the guitar finish. If it's a green guitar and your son really wanted blue, mention that! With a motivated seller you can probably get it a little cheaper because it's the 'wrong color'. 

9. Accessories
What comes with it? Common accessories include a strap, picks, tuner, amp, guitar stand, guitar cable, etc. Most of the time these come in package deals and are of extremely poor quality, so make sure you see what these look like and don't simply rejoice because they're included. You may just be buying someone else's junk in a package deal. Also keep in mind that there are things that you may need if it's just a guitar: amp, strap, cable, etc. If it doesn't include these items, use this as a way to talk down the price. 

                           Closing Tips

1. Fender can be a tricky brand, because they license their name and sell a lot of guitars. They all basically look the same, but the build quality can be drastically different.  As a whole, I would stay away from Starcasters and Squier Bullets unless you get them for around $25. 
Here is a rough (certainly not all inclusive) guide from worst to best with an approximate price tag for a new instrument:

$80 - Fender Starcaster
$109 - Fender Squier Bullet
$179 - Fender Squier Affinity
$229 - Fender Squier Standard
$499 - Fender MIM: Made in Mexico (also referred to as the Standard Strat)
$729 - Fender Highway One
$1000 - Fender American

2. Most guitars can be decent guitars if the price is right and you understand what you're buying. If you pay $15 for a Fender Starcaster in pretty good shape then you've gotten a good deal! But, it's still not a great guitar. It is definitely playable and may be a good starter instrument for your student but you will be upgrading again in the future. I LOVE to buy cheap guitars, fix any small problems they have, give them a good setup and pair of strings, and put them back on the market. It's great to be able to repurpose something and make it useful. 

3. Google it! Most phones have internet on them these days. Use it! Look up the brand and model of the guitar and see how much it's worth new. This will give you a better idea of what you're up against. 

4. Ask around. Feel free to Contact Me (use the contact tab above) or current students can call/text me any time. Sometimes you have time to research and other times you have to make a decision on the spot. Current students can feel free to call/text me for advice. If you're not a current student, find someone reliable that you can trust to give you advice if you need it in a hurry. 

5. Plan to take it to a guitar shop for a basic setup. Most shops will charge about $25 and it is well worth the money. They will look it over and make it play, sound, and feel as great as it possibly can. This is also a great opportunity to throw on some new strings. Be sure to factor this into the cost of the guitar and maybe even use it to haggle. If the action or strings are bad, mention to the seller that you'll have to take it top a shop to get it setup and that costs money. 

So, there you go! Hopefully not as scary as you thought. I think that almost any guitar can be a good buy if the price is right. If you have any questions or thoughts or think I can add something else to the list leave a comment below!
In my last blog, I talked briefly about the importance of learning proper music fundamentals and addressed some of the problems with relying only on guitar tablature or youtube videos for guitar education. Now we talk about learning to read and understand standard notation and music theory. Why is it important? What practical use will it have for you as a guitarist?


Ok. I'll admit it. There is definitely a learning curve when starting to learn standard notation. It will take some practice and dedication, but everything good in life takes perseverance and hard work. That being said, it's not as bad as people make it out to be. I'm not going to teach you how to read standard notation here (that's for another day), but I will convince you of the greatness of it. 

If you've never seen Standard Notation or aren't sure what I'm talking about it looks like this (with guitar tab pictured below):
So, you're a tab reader and you see the above example. The bottom half looks easy. The top part looks crazy. Why would I want you to learn to read music when the bottom part is so much easier to understand? 

      1. Because it will potentially make you a great musician. 
               Only you can make you a great musician. But being able to read music will open many doors for you.
       2. Learning to read music lays the foundation for being able to understand music.       
              If you don't have a basic understanding of how music is written you won't be able to understand the more  
              advanced concepts that come later. Imagine if you had only learned how to read picture books as a child. 
              Without the ability to read words and phrases you are severely hindered in what you can accomplish when 
              you are on your own. Sure, you can have people read to you or show you what you are supposed to do  
              but even the most simple tasks (making sure you use the men's restroom instead of the women's    
              restroom, for example) can be frustratingly difficult because you never learned the language of the world 
              around you
       3. You will be able to communicate with other (read: non-guitarist) musicians.               
              Let me be very clear here. The times are few and far between (read: almost never) that you will be handed 
              tablature in a band or studio situation. If you're in a band or group setting and a new song comes up there 
              won't be tab available. If you're in a basic garage band, one of the other musicians may quickly teach you 
              your part by rote (monkey see-money do). But in most cases (or if you're the only guitarist) you'll be 
              handed a chord chart or lead sheet with basic chords and changes on it and be expected to play. 

              I can vividly remember one of my first gigs as a guitarist when I was a teenager. I had a cool lead part to 
              play, but the keyboardist also needed to play the part with me. I handed her my guitar tab and was ready 
              to go. Of course, she has no idea what tab is or how it corresponds to the keyboard. So, I took the time 
              to explain how tab works and then expected her to figure out what to do from there! After quite some time 
              we managed to use the relatively small amount of music theory that we shared to figure out what notes I 
              was actually playing so that she could play it on the keys. Had I known then what I know now, the whole 
              problem could have been averted or solved within minutes. 

        4. Learning to move notes to other locations on the guitar.               
             Quick Quiz: Play your first string (E string) open. Name at least four other places on the guitar where you 
              could play the exact same note *answer below*. Sure, if you have a good ear you could sound out the 
              note on different strings and find it that way. But if you don't know what note you're playing, it's really hard 
              to locate that note efficiently on another string and location on the fretboard. I cannot tell you the number 

              of times that I've pulled up a guitar tab for a student online and found that a few of the notes (if not the 
              whole riff) was in a really awkward playing position. With a little knowledge of music theory, I was quickly 
              able to locate 2-3 other places to play the riff and found one that was much easier for my student to play.
              Without this knowledge you are simply stuck at the whim of whatever tab you currently possess. What if 
              you needed to play the above music example at a different location on the fretboard? Could you do it?

        5. Instant Gratification. 
              Here is what it really comes down to. If you want to play the above example and you only read tab, then it 
              may in fact be easier to simply read the tab. But what happens when we get to more complex pieces of 
              music? What happens when you need to transpose it to a different key? What if you need to explain the 
              part to a keyboardist so that he can play the part with you? If you simply want to learn whatever song is in 
              front of you, tab may be an easier solution. But, if you want to understand what you are playing and pick 
              up songs/riffs quicker in the future it is beneficial to understand reading music and music theory. 

So, there you go. That's my take on why you should be learning to read music and music theory. Feel free to leave a comment or question. Stay tuned for part three: Can't I learn music theory without learning to read music?

***Answer to Quick Quiz: B string 5th fret, G string 9th fret, D string 14th fret, A string 19th fret, E string 24th fret***
We are in a new day and age when it comes to music education. With the advent of tablature and youtube, music education is changing rapidly (especially guitar and drum education). I have always believed strongly in the value or learning the fundamentals of music and how to read standard notation and all of my students begin there. More on that later. 

When I first started teaching guitar almost 10 years ago my intermediate lessons focussed on one thing: learning songs. Normally the focus was on whatever song the particular student wanted to learn. I worked my way through everything from Garth Brooks to Green Day and everything in between. Today, there is a growing resource of online music education. Anyone can access almost any song from anywhere. It's staggering to think that I used to have to learn songs the old fashioned way: listen to the song over and over until I figured out what the guy was playing!

This blog will be part of a series. I am very passionate about the art of music education and I think if I drop all of my thoughts on the subject now it may be a bit overwhelming. This series will focus mainly on guitar education, but many of the same principles apply to other instruments. So, I shall break this series into a few parts. Part One is titled Guitar Tablature Vs. Standard Notation OR What kind of musician will you be?

Guitar tablature is a simplified way to write out music for guitarists. If you've never seen guitar tab before here is an example of Crazy Train written out as guitar tab. It is amazingly beneficial for complicated lead parts, scale patterns, and riffs. Standard notation refers to the treble clef staff that is common to musicians of all instrumentation. Here is an example of Crazy Train written in standard notation. These are often presented as though they are in opposition to each other. As though, as a guitarist, you must choose one or the other. Each side looks down on the other side. I'm not here for sides. I want to look at the benefits and faults of each system, in a concise manner. 

Guitar tablature is great if you are familiar with a song. If you have never heard the song before, guitar tablature is utterly worthless. This was common during my first few years of teaching (before youtube on the iPhone!). A student would bring in guitar tab for a song I had never heard and want me to teach him how to play it. Impossible. Guitar tab is simply a series of notes with no rhythm attached. Which leads me to the first of two main problems with guitar tablature: There is no rhythm given to the note. In standard notation every note tells you two things: the pitch of the note (E, G, F#, High or Low, etc) and the duration of the note (long note, short note, quarter note, dotted eighth note, etc). 

The other fault with guitar tablature as a system of learning is that the fundamentals of music are never taught or addressed. If you never learn the notes on the guitar (my assumption if you focus solely on tablature and disregard standard notation and music theory) then you won't know how to move guitar riffs or chords to different locations on the guitar or understand what you are playing outside of what you have been spoonfed through tab or youtube. Since it seems like most guitar tabs online are tabbed by 17 year old kids (another huge fault with guitar tab: no standards for publication online), I often find mistakes. Technically the notes will often be correct, but there are usually much easier ways to play particularly passages in a song. Without some basic knowledge of music theory (or a decent teacher) you are simply stuck with whatever tab you have in front of you and have to assume that this is the only way to play the song.  Knowing what notes you are playing and where to find other similar notes on the guitar is a huge benefit for guitarists. More on this later. 

I'll close with this thought. Ultimately it comes down to what type of musician you want to be. If you are content to sit in your bedroom and just want to play a few of your favorite songs then guitar tablature and youtube are an invaluable resource to you! I don't want to make light of the previous statement. Not everyone desires to be a great guitarist and many are happy to simply pick up the guitar every now and then and play a few familiar tunes. This is great! But, most guitarists want more. You have rock star dreams. If you want to be able to play with other musicians, and understand what and why you play what you play then you need to learn the fundamentals of music theory and standard notation. The fundamentals of music theory can be learned in an afternoon and built upon with a small amount of dedication. You simply have to be realistic with your goals (what kind of musician are you?) and make sure that your learning style matches it. 

Part 2 will focus on the benefits that come with reading standard notation and understanding the basic fundamentals of music. 
I've had a couple of friends talk to me recently about starting a teaching studio from the ground up. I had the opportunity to do this a few years ago at the first church I served at and have taught at many  different types of arts academies and studios, from private studios to music stores to churches. Below is a starter guide for anyone thinking about starting an arts academy in their church. Though it is targeted at the church, most of the ideas (if not all of them) would also work if someone is thinking about opening up a private studio or teaching out of a music store. I hope to build this into a useable resource for those interested. Please feel free to add questions or comments at the end of the blog. 

This is a long one, so I thought I would offer it as a scrollable document below. You can also download it from the link below. 
File Size: 38 kb
File Type: doc
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