So, you’ve finally done it. After consulting my guides on how to choose the guitar to perfectly suit your needs, you’ve headed off to the shops (or maybe clicked your way there) and have it sitting in your lap.
It’s exciting, isn’t it?
Getting a new instrument is an invigorating experience. All the possibilities, fun, and tunes you’re going to jam can make you dizzy with giddiness.
But wait… If you’ve read any of my previous articles, you probably know that I operate a bit like the fun police. I provide you with warnings, irritating disclaimers and annoying physics-based information that has nothing to with ROCK’N’ROLL.
Well, I’m back to tell you about the most unsexy part of buying your first guitar — accessories.
Why Do I Need Guitar Accessories?
While you technically don’t need anything other than the instrument to begin playing, you probably aren’t going to get too far alone. Especially with a new guitar, it might only take an hour or two of playing until it’s out of tune, or a few especially vigorous renditions of ‘Wonderwall‘ before a string snaps.
Which accessories are pivotal to your journey will depend on a few factors like:
- Whether you’ve purchased an electric, acoustic, or electric-acoustic guitar
- Your level of experience, both playing guitar and with other instruments/musical theory
- Whether you plan to gig, play in a band, or record
- Your budget
- The genre of music you’re mostly playing
For example, a country or Americana guitarist might find solace in a slide, whereas a metal fanatic might be sickened at the very prospect. A live Shoegaze act will probably have more pedals than they have socks, but a novice learning on an acoustic won’t even have one. It’s worth keeping in mind not everything on this list will be suited to your needs.
Remember not to get too caught up in purchasing little bits and pieces instead of just playing. While some are necessary, overdoing it can turn into a distraction, like with downloading weird VSTs onto your DAW rather than making music.
No number of accessories will ever be an adequate substitute for hard work, creativity and fun.
If you don’t own a guitar tuner, your experience as a beginner is going to be very, very painful. There’s nothing more frustrating than, when trying to learn a new chord shape, or breaking new ground with a song, for it still to sound terrible because you can’t quite get your instrument in tune.
While some of you geniuses may already be able to accomplish a perfect tune by ear (a skill that’s probably worth practicing as a budding guitarist), for the rest of us, a tuner is an essential tool to have in our bags.
For those that are a little more inexperienced, a tuner with a microphone may be the way to go.
These devices will record you playing a string and then tell you whether you need to tune it up or down to achieve the correct pitch. These can come in the form of standalone electronic screens, small rubber clips, or even phone applications, though the latter tend to be less accurate.
Musicians that are a little more confident with tuning a guitar can be a little more flexible with what they use as a tuner. A digital piano with speakers is often a good option, as you simply compare the guitar string to the perfect pitch of the piano.
You can even use a tuning fork by striking it against an object and comparing its vibrations to an open A note on your guitar. This is a bit of an obscure tuning method though, and probably looks cooler than it is functional. But you’re a guitarist. So obviously, looking cool is prioritized substantially higher than unnecessary concepts like logic and functionality!
If you plan to become a regular gigger, while a tuner of some sort will still be necessary, it is in your best interests to become proficient at tuning by ear. Tuning by ear basically means achieving as close to perfect pitch as possible on an instrument without using a tuner.
It can be difficult to remember the exact pitch of notes especially after you’ve been playing loud, eloquent songs for a while. Your mind will likely become a bit desensitized to the intricacies of tuning.
Luckily, all you need to do is get one string (the bottom E) in tune, either by using a tuner, another instrument, or from memory.
Each string on a guitar has a reference point to one another — in a standard tuning, it is typically the 5th fret. So basically, if you were to hold down the 5th fret on the bottom E string, the resultant note should be the same pitch as the string above it (the A string).
The exception is the G string, which has a reference note on the 4th fret.
The advantage of this method is, once you become more advanced, you will be able to hear when a string goes out of tune and quickly correct it by comparing it to the correct reference point.
Hopefully, you don’t feel too betrayed by my tangential discussion of guitar tuning which didn’t actually involve any guitar accessories. In my defense, I propose that the human ears are as powerful an accessory as any other you might buy. Anyway, let’s move on…
A pretty self-explanatory accessory, guitar straps are kind of like seatbelts for your guitar that allows you to play it standing up.
This technically isn’t necessary if you’re just going to be practicing on a desk chair, but is a worthwhile purchase regardless. You never know when you may need it — they’re not just for gigging.
For example, when tracking guitar for a record, many artists prefer to stand, both due to the way the sound reverberates (with an acoustic guitar) and to invigorate the performance.
Guitar straps come in all sorts of colors, shapes and sizes. They are often made out of leather, nylon or similar materials. The quality of this material will typically dictate the price, as they can range from being less than a McDonald’s Happy Meal to being more expensive than the entire menu.
You can even get custom-designed straps. If you feel inclined to get a picture of your face plastered across your body as you perform live, the possibility exists.
A pick, or plectrum, is a fairly small, flat piece of material that is used to generate sound from a stringed instrument, traditionally guitar. They often vary in shape, size and rigidity, which determines the eventual tone and playability of the pick. Most are made from plastic (celluloid or nylon usually).
Picks serve a number of purposes for guitarists — unlocking new styles of playing that can’t be achieved with just fingers (tremolo-picking).
Using a plectrum offers a more driven, aggressive sound than fingerpicking. Additionally, those with steel-stringed guitars (acoustic or electric) will find constant playing will wear down their fingernails and eventually become painful.
That said, guitar picks are probably the most obvious accessory available and are going to come in handy no matter what your musical intentions are going forward.
While plectrums are typically associated with ‘heavier’ styles of music like rock, metal and blues, it would be a short-sighted decision to go without one due to their versatility.
Sonic quality and playstyle aside, sometimes your strumming fingers will just get tired after a vigorous practice session. If you don’t own a pick, who then will come to your rescue?
Also, when you consider how cheap they are to purchase (especially in bulk), how easy they are to store (you can get quite elegant and décor-suited pick holders), there’s quite literally no reason to at least get a couple. And again, they’re super customizable, so feel free to place your meticulously-crafted Facebook profile picture onto scores upon scores of plectrums.
A guitar capo is a tool — generally made from plastic or metal and rubber — that attaches to the instrument’s fingerboard/neck to manipulate its tuning.
They kind of resemble a hand signal that someone is talking too much.
A capo is a vital member of your happy family of guitar accessories, even for beginners that aren’t composing their own tracks.
Why? Well, early in your career as a guitarist, it’s likely that barre chords will become your mortal enemy. You will think about them day and night. You’ll probably start dreaming about them. The pleasure you’d get from squeezing the life out of them…
Popular chord websites like Ultimate Guitar and chordify give users the option to transpose the chords of certain songs, which means moving the key up and down. You can then use the capo to reflect this shift and end up with a far easier song to play.
Additionally, capos allow guitarists to quickly move between keys which can breathe life into a composition. A fledgling songwriting process can be completely revitalized by a move in pitch, that still retains the original structure.
Guitarists that sing will often make the most use of capos depending on their comfortable vocal range. They can adjust the pitch and key of songs — even ones they haven’t written — to best suit their voice.
And finally, without a capo (on the 2nd fret), you can’t play your ever-so-popular-but-also-wildly-unpopular rendition of Wonderwall at parties to impress your friends. If I hadn’t already convinced you, that should do the trick.
Depending on the floor/wall space you have, you will probably need a storage solution for your instrument.
Though not as girthy as a piano, guitars have a habit of taking up a lot of space because they often find themselves strewn over beds, rugs and hastily stashed into corners without much thought.
It’s probably for the best you pick up something that will give you a consistent place to keep your guitar after use. Enter: the rack, or the hanger, or the stand.
There’s not really a whole lot to go into — which option you decide entirely depends on your living accessibilities and your guitaring ambitions. If you’re going to own a plethora of axes, each more grandiose than the last, you’re going to need a rack or a hanger.
If you have ample space on the floor but your walls are plastered with posters of ABBA (I shudder at the thought), you’re going to want a rack or stand.
Easy enough, right?
Guitar cases (or gig bags) are a useful weapon to have at your disposal. They essentially operate as a protective forcefield for your instrument, which is obviously of paramount importance for those that are gigging or frequently traveling to studios or jam sessions.
They make the transportation of your guitar(s) convenient. They will typically also come with a myriad of pockets and nooks where you can place your other accessories like plectrums, tuners and so on. Accessories within an accessory. It’s like accessory-ception!
Sorry. Moving on.
When purchasing a gig bag, your options are usually ‘hard‘ or ‘soft‘ cases. Soft cases are cheaper, easy to move and light, however aren’t made of tough fabric. Conversely, hard cases are near indestructible but bulky and harder to mobilize.
For example, I’ve never had to buy a guitar case, as my suite of guitars has never left my house. The poor guys are probably feeling claustrophobic at this point.
Hah! Bet you didn’t consider this!
Guitar lessons might just be THE most important guitar accessory you can lay your hands on. While it’s not necessarily a tangible artefact, it is a MUST to accompany a beginning guitarist. You aren’t going to look at an instrument a few times and suddenly know how to play it.
Some that are a little undisciplined or prefer structure may find they operate best with a physical teacher, or even doing lessons via remote video call. These professional teachers will often provide training schedules, practice assignments and follow a straightforward, linear module that stimulates growth as a guitarist.
Other methods include:
- Online guitar courses (e.g. Justin Guitar)
- Online video series (YouTube, etc.)
- Instructional videos for specific songs, tabs or chords
- Develop your own lesson plan using various online and print resources
- Buying a ‘guitar for beginners’ book
- Downloading/buying an application for your phone
- Researching basic theory (how to read tablature, chord fingerings, strumming patterns)
This is just the tip of the iceberg. As long as you find a method that allows you to stay committed, there’s no limits on how you can teach yourself (or get taught) guitar.
There is only one instance where you won’t need a set of spare strings at some point in your guitar lifespan — when you never actually play it. Otherwise?
You’re gonna need some extra strings.
Obviously, the type of strings you buy will be primarily determined by the type of guitar you have. It would be a pretty silly decision to buy a set of nylon strings for an Ibanez electric guitar.
Beyond this, there’s a few other factors that come into choosing a suitable set of guitar strings, and most of them come down to user preference. Some brands may be perfectly suited to certain guitarists, while others will hate the tone and feel of that very same brand, even though they play the same style of music.
Though discussed in previous articles, I’ll quickly recap some of the details to watchout for when purchasing spare sets of strings.
Guitar String Factors
Steel and nickel: Though it’s in the name — steel-stringed — most ‘steel’ guitar strings aren’t pure steel at all. Mostly used for electric guitars, these strings will often have a steel wire core, but are plated with nickel. That said, you can buy 100% steel or nickel strings, which will offer varying tonalities. Steel strings have more clarity and brightness, whereas nickel options are warmer and fuller-sounding.
Nylon: Suitable for classical or nylon-stringed guitars, nylon strings have a vastly different feel and sound to their metal counterparts.
They have a much softer and darker tone than steel-stringed variations, and as a result are quieter. In contrast, nylon strings are far less punishing on fingers which is very appealing for a beginner.
Brass and bronze: Brass and bronze-plated steel wire strings are your most common options for re-stringing a steel-string acoustic guitar. While their playability is markedly similar, brass and bronze present wholly separate tones. Brass-plated strings have a much crisper, brighter response relative to the dark and mellow tone of bronze-plated strings.
What Gauge You Use?
The other factor to consider when buying strings is the gauge. A string’s gauge can greatly alter the playability and tonal response of a guitar.
Thicker-gauged strings are quite rigid and much harder to play, which means they’re best reserved for guitarists whose fingers have become accustomed to being shredded.
That said, they are also much warmer and LOUDER than a low-gauge string, making them superior for live play and certain styles of music.
0.7-0.9 gauge are considered light
0.10-0.11 gauge are considered medium
0.12+ are considered heavy
There are a number of tools that can come in handy as a guitarist embarking on their journey to superstardom. Some of them are completely obsolete (but cool nonetheless), while others may prove vital depending on your goals. A brief list:
For those with weak fingers, a fear of snapping strings or wanting an easier way to restring guitars, peg/string winders provide a simple alternative for tuning and stringing guitars.
They take far less effort than a hand to reach a desired string tautness, and for someone that has to restring multiple guitars frequently (see: aggressive rock musicians) they can be a great time-saver.
Some of them are even motorized…
Look, you can probably just dash into your shed and grab some wire cutters/pliers that will do the job for you. But, if you are lacking such utensils in your toolbox, it’s time to head out and get some, as they are essential for changing guitar strings.
While intended for experienced guitarists only, an action gauge can still be useful to anyone. As discussed in previous articles, the action on your guitar (how high above the strings are above the fretboard) can completely revolutionize your playing experience.
Used mostly by those that set up their own guitars, an action gauge is a handy investment for those hunting 2nd hand guitars. Essentially a miniature ruler, it can assist novice guitarists in assessing the action of pre-owned instruments and how much work will be required to fix it.
General Cleaning Materials
Looking after your guitar can be a bit like looking after your car. You technically can not clean it, but it’s going to look a bit off-kilter and performance may be hindered.
There are various tools you can use to help get your guitar looking brand new. You can purchase conditioner for your fretboard, lubricant for your strings, polish for the guitar’s body, microfiber cloths to wipe off dust and marks and all sorts of other cleaning apparatus.
Other Bits and Pieces
With the main accessories covered (barring three glaring omissions…), I’ll briefly touch on a few other bits and pieces an upcoming guitarist might find useful.
Electric Guitar Accessories
By now, I’m sure you’ve noticed I haven’t made mention of the three relatively major accessories for most guitars. Though they aren’t applicable to completely acoustic instruments, guitarists that pick up an electric instrument — yes, that’s you electric-acoustic players — will also need to consider an amplifier, pedals and (I’m so sorry) cables.
Getting really deep into any of these topics now would be like writing an article about how ice cream is made and then spending most of it outlining every flavor found around the world.
That said, how about a brief definition to dip your toes into and get you excited for the full article?
Remember how, one sentence ago, I said ‘get you excited’ in regards to deep-diving into some cool guitar accessories?
Well, I didn’t mean it about cables.
Guitar cables are a necessary evil for any electric guitar player. They take up a lot of space, they’re a pain to unpack and put away, and they are an omnipresent tripping hazard. But without them, the ‘cool’ aspects of using electric instruments (ie. being loud) wouldn’t work, so I suppose we should share some level of gratitude towards cables.
There is an instance where cables do impact the sound you get out of your amp — prevalent when using a long cable (over 10-15ft). Such distance between instrument and input can cause a signal to become distorted, noisy or create an annoying humming that is detrimental to recording, gigging and practicing.
Some guitarists will need to pick up a direct injection (DI) box to remedy this (more about that here).
Whether you plan to play live gigs every night or just get some cool sounds that will vibrate the walls of your tiny room, a guitar amp is a must-have for anyone with an electric guitar.
At a very, very, VERY basic level, a guitar amp is an electronic speaker that is used to…amplify…the sound of the input (in this case a guitar). The enhanced volume is perfect for projecting sound to an audience or to just better hear your own playing.
Of course, this is the tip of the iceberg and — especially for guitarists — the real pleasure of using an amplifier is the tonal experimentation and creativity it can unlock. A finely tuned amp with precise settings can really lend an artist a specific sound that sets them apart.
Going hand-in-hand with amps, guitar pedals are the cherry on top of unique tonal manipulation. A pedal is an electronic device with a circuit that processes and alters a signal.
Pedals are probably less of a requirement than amps, especially for beginners, but they really are SO MUCH FUN. They come in all sorts of purposes, providing guitarists with a near inexhaustible supply of effects to accessorize (get it?) their tone.
Want to replicate Kevin Shield’s wall-of-sound fuzzy texture? Just grab a few distortion, delay and octaver pedals. Keen on some post-rock ambience? Reverse reverbs might be what you’re looking for. Just after some crisp overdrive for some bluesy riffing? You have hundreds of options to choose from.
Such freedom can obviously be our downfall, as one might end up spending too much time gleefully sorting through effects instead of actually improving at guitar. However, if you can exercise a basic level of self-restraint, pedals can be a ground-breaking addition to your bag of guitar goodies.
So, thus concludes my long-winded list of potential accessories for budding guitar players.
While your situation will ultimately determine which you decide to purchase, some of the discussed utensils are simply essential to learning and playing guitar.
The craziest thing is, in spite of the length of this article, we still haven’t covered every single guitar accessory out there. And who knows when the next life-changing accessory might get invented?
Keep your eye out, keep practicing and hopefully some of the items in this piece will help push you on your way to becoming a rock’n’roll star.