Cheap Instruments, killing talent everywhere. Advice from a non parent?

Lately it seems, more than before I’ve been asked my opinion on musical instruments for friends kids. Maybe it’s this never ending winter I dunno…
Winter never ends in Hudson it seems

Parents will send me a message with something like…”hey, my son is interested in guitar, any recommendations?”

Which leads me to this post, in where I feel the need to express my opinion on cheap starter equipment.

To give you a background, I’m a guitar player, always have been and always will be. I cherish this instrument. I consider myself a good guitar player and feel confident enough in my talent and experience to offer this as solid advice. While I do play other instruments and even though this generally applies to all of them, I will use guitar as the lead example.

I started playing as soon as I was old enough to hold a guitar steady on my lap. I’ve played virtually every style of guitar available… solid body, hollow, electric…acoustic…3/4 size, all of em and through different value sets. Ranging from a 10 dollar beat up used cheapy to a $10k+ Les Paul.

My guitar of choice is a 1995 American Standard Fender Stratocaster. Her name is Jessica and I love her..

There literally is an option available for every talent range, and every budget range.

My ’95 Strat and Mustang IV amp

I was very lucky when I started playing seriously. My father, a guitar player himself has a beautiful 1964 Burns, a jazz guitar that sounds like heaven. I played on that for awhile and at the same time my neighbor had lent me an early 60’s Guild Starfire. That big ol’ hollowbody was magic…but large for my size.

Serious business happenin’ here

My father’s ’64 Burns Splitsound after I refurbished it in 2016

Jammin’in’Jammies

The first guitar I purchased was a Vantage electric guitar in which I later traded for…God knows what.

90’s something Vantage

Then came my lucky day. For my 18th birthday my parents got me my Jessica. Oh the sweet sound of an American Standard Strat. The envy and dreams of guitar players everywhere. The single coil cream of the crop. Bursting onto the scene in 1954 it has been produced every year with virtually no change. Options like neck shapes and pickup variations are available but the general aspects have been the same for 65+ years.

Being the choice of greats like Hendrix, Clapton, Holly (The 1st Strat hero) …Stevie Ray Vaughan and his brother Jimmy, U2’s Edge, Raitt, Cray, Johnson, Gilmour…..man the list goes on and on and you would have a hard time finding an avid guitar player that doesn’t have at least one variant of a Strat in their collection.

They are pricey though, and of course high end guitars and instruments are not the point to this post…cheap ones are…so let’s get on with it shall we?

Now, this part coming, can be a little …let’s say controversial. Well, it has been in the past anyhow. The reason being is here I am about to give you parents some parenting advice while here I am as…not a parent.

Erin and I don’t have kids and although some will say this disqualifies me from offering this advice, I don’t believe so and hey…it’s my blog and I’ll say what I want 😜.

Every kid…every single child has a talent. Some can sing, some can draw, some can skate, some can run and hey, some can do it all. But what they don’t have, is a label on them when they’re born saying “Hey Mom! I’m the next Aretha Franklin!”

I feel it’s up to us, the adults, to discover which talent is going to shine through. Doesn’t matter if you’re the parent, coach, Aunt, Grandpa, teacher, counselor or whatever role you play in their life, it is our duty to help evolve and shape that child into what they will become. We have to give them the support and tools to do it and we owe it to ourselves to pass along the knowledge that was taught to us.

Which brings me to my part in this. Although I don’t have direct parenting experience, I have equipment experience. And a lot of it.

This is where my gripe with cheap instruments comes into play.

The market these days, it will produce anything, as long as it sells. And the cheaper the cost, the better the bottom line for the company.

I understand this, but it has created a wall that divides the child between themselves and the artistic values that are trying to break through. Quality is the trade off for mass production.

I’m not going to call out these companies by name but you could guess that these “instruments” are readily available at Walmart and stores of the like.

Let’s take a girl of 5…6….7 years old who has expressed interest in drawing or painting. The next logical thing would be to supply her with coloured pencils, a drawing book…or an easel and paint etc…perhaps later some art classes.

Let’s take a boy, same age who has expressed an interest in soccer, well call up them Timbits and let’s cheer of em on from the sidelines of the local soccer field right?

We have to, we have to let children explore.

What we won’t do though is give that little guy a soccer ball made of lead to kick around in the backyard, or give that girl paints that run and brushes that leave strands all over the canvas. That won’t help much. All that will do is turn them off, ignoring their instincts and shielding natural talent.

This is how I feel about these cheap branded instruments. If your son has pictures of guitar legends on his wall and spends his time listening to them you may end up thinking about Christmas and having one wrapped up under the tree.

But if it plays like a dumptruck, if it won’t stay in tune, if the cheap strings cause bleeding, if it’s uncomfortable to hold…if it’s just plain ugly… I bet it won’t be very long before it’s collecting dust and you end up putting it up on Varagesale for 10 bucks and the future Jimmy Page is possibly gone forever.

(This is what do with 10 dollar varagesale guitars, I screw em to my fence as decoration)

Now, I understand that this sounds awfully pretentious of me, and I’m fully aware that I was lucky enough to grow up on quality instruments but fear not! I’m going to offer some great alternatives!

I’m not just gonna leave it like this saying HEY BE A RESPONSIBLE PARENT AND DON’T BUY CRAP GEAR… not at all.

We all got budgets, and coupled with that is exploration. What do you do when you’re not 100% sure your little one will actually like it and stick with it? What if they are expressing interest in multiple things? For some, it isn’t possible to buy hockey gear, a guitar, a microphone, a sailboat a +++ whatever they are showing (or what the school fad is that week). So we have a bit of an issue, but here I’ll address the musical side of those.

Here are some options if you’re either unsure or need to be budget savvy. That being said, I’m also saying that if you are able to afford it, you don’t need to go out and get em a $3000 Gibson either.

Acoustic Vs. Electric

I myself would recommend acoustic. Reason being is not only do you not have to buy an amp, and a cord etc, they make playing chords sound a tad smoother helping with confidence. Through and amp, an electric guitar can shine a spotlight on every imperfection while practicing, while in reality, flubbing a particular note in a chord is ok, and will naturally be corrected with practice and guidance. This could be a testy discussion with a kid who just listened to some rock God shred on an Ibanez but generally I think that kids who get guitars will be thankful with whatever they get.

Size: Full or 3/4

You can see sorta on this chart the difference between a full size and 3/4. To put plainly, take a guitar and as if you threw it in the dryer for awhile. It’s a shrunken down version of the real thing. It can make starting out a ton easier with a child who has smaller hands than us adults. Lil easier to play the notes, chords…etc. The transition to full size will be a breeze.

When I started, I was a lil dude, looking back I would have loved to have a smaller version. The Burns and Guild that I mentioned earlier are actually quite large guitars compared to others and I do feel it hindered me. I to this day have a few 3/4 guitars that I still play daily.(see video below) Plus they’re easy to learn on and easier to lug around town.

Entry level: New

In some big box stores, there are kits. They have say a guitar, pick, case…a book or DVD perhaps and that’s all fine and dandy but the quality just isn’t there. They are difficult to tune and difficult to play. For not a lot more, you can get a better brand that will be easier to play. There are plenty of lessons on YouTube and it’s enough to get going.

Avoid the big box stores and find your local guitar shop. They have quality instruments in every budget. Of course, it won’t be as cheap as that $79 kit from Costco, but I’ve purchased guitars for about 100 bucks that I still play today. They’ll probably throw in a decent gig bag and some picks for 20 bucks as well.

Entry Level: Used

Probably my highest recommendation.

There are a ton of instruments out there on sites like kijiji and varagesale (not for 10 bucks) that are good quality…just used. And there is nothing wrong with buying a used guitar. Garage sales are also a good spot. And hey, even just putting the word out to your friends on Facebook could yield you a little gem.

My go to acoustic is my Fender CD140SCE. They sold for 5-600 bucks and I got this full mahogany version used in great condition for 200 bucks.

My go to Acoustic Fender CD140SCE

Lately I’ve seen some really nice Yamaha’s, Epiphones and Jay Turser’s all for decent used prices that will impress and help shape your child’s talent.

If you buy a decent instrument and your child doesn’t end up sticking with it for any reason, you will be able to recoup most of your money by selling it. The cheap ones will be a straight out loss.

I bought my youngest Niece a used guitar. Actually, I bought 2 but really liked one so I kept it and found her another one. (see quick vid below)

It’s decent quality and she still plays it today. She carries it around with her lil gig bag an has a ball with it…and that’s the point. Keep it fun.

Trading

It may surprise you to find out that there is quite a community out there that is willing to trade stuff. Take a look through your garage or basement… got something decent that you don’t use? Try trading it for an instrument. I once got a nice JJ45 for some duplicate tools I had.

If you are say a “varagesaler” put a lil note at the bottom of your ad saying you are willing to trade. You’d be surprised.

Slide sounds better on a boat

Borrrow

It is totally possible. If you aren’t quite sure about your child’s interest, put the word out. I’ve lent out guitars before for this reason, I get it. Many school programs have this available as well. Check it out maybe you’ll get lucky.

There are many avenues to get your kid going. Hiring a local teacher is great. They can give you personalized advice for your starter.

Your local music shop will also help guide you in the right direction and will have instant options available.

Perhaps your greatest resource could be your friends. You know a guitar player, I guarantee it. Ask them, anyone who is a fan of music, will be more than happy to share their knowledge. Music is an art and as a musician, I love helping. I also have a big group of musician friends and I would bet 10 to 1 that anyone of em would be willing to help in some faction.

Oh and hey, if you are just starting out, just because your child is left handed, doesn’t mean they will play guitar left handed. I’ve seen this multiple times. Imagine trying to learn something off handed, it’ll turn you off pretty quick, especially a young one.

True story, absolutely that I was lucky growing up. I came from a highly supportive family of musicians and my folks have always been behind me 100%. That being said, I’ve seen kids who I know had talent straight out give up because of their piece.

Learning something new can be difficult, it can be trying, it can be frustrating at times, but it has to be fun over all. There has to be a reward. Kids move so fast from one interest to another, especially if something has no value at the end. Imagine playing pool with a rope, tennis with a badminton racket or bowling with a hockey puck. You can practice all you want, but you will never get the result.

Kids amaze me. Their brains just soak up anything we throw at them. When I’ve myself seen failure, more often than not it’s the piece and not the person who was the problem.

Hope you enjoyed my 2nd post of my site, feel free to share and give me any feedback. Cheers all…let’s do it for the kids.