Guitar For Dummies
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Beyond choosing the principal actors in your setup — guitar, amp, effects, and cases — you still have to decide on a whole cast of supporting characters. These are the little things that, while inexpensive and easily acquired, are vital to keep your main gear happy and healthy.

Guitar strings

You always need to keep extra strings on hand for the simple reason that if you break one, you need to replace it immediately. To do so requires that you carry at least an extra full set because any one of your six strings could break. Unlike car tires, where one spare fits all, guitars use six individually gauged strings. Fortunately, string sets are cheap — about $7 if you buy them in single sets and cheaper still if you buy them in boxes of 12 sets. Or you can buy single strings for about $1.50 apiece.

The higher, thinner strings tend to break more easily than do the lower, thicker ones, so try to carry three spares each of the high E, B, and G strings.

In a pinch, you can substitute the higher adjacent string (a B string for a G, for example), but doing so will cause your playing to sound and feel strange, and the string will be more difficult to tune. So make sure to replace the emergency substitute with the proper string at the very next opportunity (during the drum solo, perhaps).

Guitar picks

In your musical career, you're sure to lose, break, toss to adoring fans as souvenirs, and otherwise part company with hundreds of picks, so don't get attached (in a sentimental sense) to them. Treat them as the inexpensive, expendable commodity they are. Stock up by the gross with your favorite color and gauge (thickness) and always carry spares in your wallet, the car, the flaps of your penny loafers and any other, er, convenient place. After you get used to a certain gauge, shape, and make of pick, you don't change around much, even going from electric to acoustic or vice versa.

Cables for your guitar

A cable, also known as a cord (and not to be confused with a chord), is what transports your electronic signal from your guitar to the amp or from your guitar to a pedal. Cables also connect pedals together, if you have more than one. The more pedals you have, the more cables you need to connect everything together. Cables don't have any controls and require no setup — just plug them in and you're done. The only time you have to pay attention to them is when they go bad.

A crackling cable is no fun for either you or your audience. That nasty sound means that the connections inside have become loose or are corroded. It happens to everyone eventually. Keep extra cables on hand of both the long variety (for connecting your guitar to an effect or an amp) and the short (for pedal-to-pedal connections).

Electronic tuners

Although you can tune a guitar to itself, keeping the guitar up to concert pitch — the absolute tuning reference of A-440 — is best, especially if you plan to play with other instruments. A guitar is also structurally and acoustically happiest at that tuning. The best way to keep your guitar at this tuning is to secure a battery-powered electronic tuner and keep it in your guitar case. Electronic tuners can be a plug-in type, which looks like an effects pedal (except that its controls govern tuning parameters rather than tonal ones), or a clip-on variety (sometimes called a headstock tuner), which grips the upper part of the headstock, through a spring-loaded clamp.


Straps come in all kinds of styles and materials, from nylon to woven fabric to leather. The first rule in choosing a strap is that you get the most comfortable one that you can afford. Wearing a guitar on your shoulder for long periods of time can cause discomfort, and the better the strap is, the more it protects your muscles against strain and fatigue.

Appearance is a close second to comfort as a factor in deciding what strap to buy. You must like the look of your strap, because its function isn't just utilitarian but aesthetic as well. Because it drapes over your shoulder, a strap functions almost like an article of clothing. So try to match the look of your strap to your own look as well as to the look of your guitar.

You can get custom-made straps with your initials embroidered in them, if that's your thing (a must-have if you plan on being a country music matinee idol). Or you can get them in all sorts of motifs, from Southwest patterns to lighting bolts and pentagrams. But if you're looking at strictly the price, a simple, no-frills nylon strap costs as little as $5 and holds your guitar as securely as a $200 one with your name embossed in leather.

For extra insurance, purchase strap locks, which secure your strap ends to the guitar by using a two-piece locking mechanism, kind of like what you find on earrings (the pierced kind).

If you own more than one guitar, you're best off with a strap for each type of guitar, electric and acoustic. That way, you don't need to keep adjusting it as you switch from electric to acoustic and back again.


A capo (pronounced kay-po) is a spring-loaded, adjustable-tension (or elastic) clamp that wraps around the neck of a guitar and covers all the strings, forcing them all down to the fretboard at a given fret. This device effectively raises the pitch of all the strings by a given number of frets (or half steps). In some cases, you may want to tune your guitar with the capo on, but most of the time, you tune up without it and then place it on the desired fret. Capos enable you to transpose the music you play on your guitar to another key, while you still play the chord fingerings in the original key. The figure shows a few different capo types you can find at most music stores.

Capos raise the pitch of the open strings. [Credit: Photograph courtesy of Cherry Lane Music]
Credit: Photograph courtesy of Cherry Lane Music
Capos raise the pitch of the open strings.

Capos cost between $5 and $25, with the elastic-band type being the cheapest. The higher-priced clamp and screw-on types are more popular with serious capo users because you can put them on with one hand, and these types of capos generally hold the strings down better than the elastic kinds do. The screw-on type, such as the one made by Shubb, is a particular favorite because you can vary the size and tension of the capo's grip, which enables you to customize the capo size for different parts of the neck. (The lower frets of the neck, toward the headstock, require a smaller capo opening than do the higher frets.)

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book authors:

Mark Phillips is a former director of music at Cherry Lane Music, where he edited or arranged the songbooks of such artists as John Denver, Van Halen, Guns N??? Roses, and Metallica.

Jon Chappell is a multistyle guitarist, arranger, and former editor-in-chief of Guitar magazine.

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