Almost every professional guitar instructor will recommend a student begin learning how to play guitar on the acoustic guitar rather than the electric. I am one of these. In many respects, it’s just easier to learn on the acoustic. It’s less expensive and there are fewer technical requirements from your hands. Once a student displays a level of commitment and interest, then they may receive the blessing to make the move to the electric guitar.
On the surface, one may think that the electric guitar would be easier since the strings are lighter and easier to fret. However, this tends to actually make things a bit more difficult. There is also more to maintain on the electric guitar; there are more components and points of failure due there being electronics and a different type of bridge set up. Then there’s the amplifier that’s needed and all the accessories that come with that. Don’t even get me started with whammy bars and effects pedals.
So with all of that in mind, there are several tips that I like to give my students when making the transition from the acoustic to the electric guitar.
1. Learn To Play In Tune
“Thank you, Mr. Obvious. I’ll keep that in mind. How much do I owe you for today’s lesson, Fountain of All Knowledge?”. Yes, this an obvious point, but this is the first place I see failure when making the transition to electric guitar, and it happens with almost everyone I teach.
As an intermediate guitar student who has been playing acoustic guitar for a couple of years, one begins to take for granted how easy it is to play an acoustic guitar in tune. Providing your guitar is not a cheapo from Wal-Mart and it has been properly set up by a qualified luthier, an acoustic guitar doesn’t require much from the fingers of the player other than the strength to fret the notes.
The strings of an acoustic are thicker than the standard electric and tend to be more taught. An electric has strings that are of a softer material and lighter gauge. Now that the hands of the player are in great shape from learning on the acoustic, it’s very easy for the player to squeeze too hard or relax the arm too much and end up pulling the strings out of tune as he or she plays. With lighter strings and lower action (string height), this is very easy to do and can be a difficult hurdle to get over at first.
Start by being aware of this from the very first chord you play on the electric guitar: You will probably sound sharp. It takes discipline to fret the notes in such a way that you strike a balance between fretting too hard and fretting hard enough for the notes to ring out crystal clear. The hands will require additional training that was not necessary on the acoustic guitar.
2. Keep Your Calluses Built-Up
With lighter strings, a student may find that the calluses that they have worked so hard for will start to erode. This is normal – the strings are lighter, so there’s no need for so much armor. This is false.
One of the important roles calluses play is in note clarity. This will help you with tip number one of playing in tune, but it will also maintain a clear note and the all-too-important sustain, which is the ability for the note to ring out for an extended period of time.
Calluses will also be a huge boon to various techniques including bends, legato, and trills, along with the techniques that carry over from acoustic such as hammer-ons, pull-offs, and slides.
Some practical ways to keep your calluses in shape include increased practice time, moving from the default .009 gauge (extra light) strings to .010 (regular light), and continuing to regularly play acoustic.
3. Start Clean
The temptation for many is to jump right to effects pedals, processors, modeling amps, etc., etc. Resist the urge, at least at first. Making sure you sound good clean will ensure you sound good while under the influence of various effects. Heavy distortion can hide imperfections and a student will end up making mistakes that go unnoticed, and therefore uncorrected.
A little overdrive won’t hurt, but saturated distortion and delay effects will be too much for your newbie ears to process and weed out wrong notes or subpar techniques. Start slow and build your effects repertoire very gradually so you can focus on what matters most which is playing in tune and hitting the right notes.
4. Create An Exercise Regiment
No, no, don’t run away just yet. Stay with me here. Think about why you wanted to learn how to play electric guitar in the first place. I don’t know what your goals are, but I know that for me, I wanted to learn how to play like Stevie Ray Vaughn and Joe Satriani. I wanted to be able to do Jimi Hendrix trills and Les Paul legato lines. I wanted to work a whammy bar like Steve Vai and do pinched harmonics like Zakk Wylde.
The electric guitar has certain technical demands that require a lot from your brain and your fingers. You can only achieve the kinds of goals listed above by getting in shape. Everyone knows that you only get in better shape by exercising and continuing to push yourself.
Find or create your own exercises in order to learn these basic techniques:
- Bends (start with whole-step bends)
5. Approach The Whammy Bar With Caution
This doesn’t apply to all electric guitars, but most students who transition to electric guitar from acoustic end up with a Stratocaster-style guitar with a “tremolo” bridge, or (God help you) a floating bridge. If your electric guitar has a fixed bridge like the acoustic guitar does, then feel free to skip to number six.
An electric guitar that has a tremolo system has a bridge that is designed to move in order to create a vibrato effect with the strings by gently (or sometimes not-so-gently) moving the whammy bar up and down. Technically, this is not a “tremolo” effect, but the name tremolo is what is often used. I usually refrain from calling it a tremolo but will sometimes do so in order to get a point across.
Anyhow, the point is that with a moveable bridge comes the danger of resting your hand on the bridge (usually when palm-muting) and pulling the strings sharp. You must be careful not to put too much weight on the bridge. Also, overuse of the whammy bar could result in the guitar being knocked out of tune, or even causing damage to the guitar itself.
Don’t start doing unspeakable things to your whammy bar like Jimi Hendrix without first learning how to use it subtly and tastefully. Then, by all means, feel free to beat the snot of it once you know what you’re doing.
6. Try Using A Heavier Pick
Playing with pick gauge is something I try to teach early to my acoustic students, but many do not prepare for this in advance of moving to electric. The average player who has started on acoustic uses a thin to medium gauge pick to make for a better strumming experience. Depending on your electric goals, this may not be the most effective pick size.
If your electric guitar influences include Angus Young, Kirk Hammet, Billy Gibbons, and the like, you may find the same pick you used on the acoustic to be a bit too flimsy to not only play the riffs physically but also to get the sound you may be after.
Pick material matters as well. I found this out the hard way. My favorite picks early on were Jim Dunlop Gel picks. I liked the sound they produced on the strings and I like the way they felt in my hand. However, I had just learned a new technique called pick tapping which involved tapping the edge of the pick on a fret with hummingbird speed. I was also getting into sweep picking and tremolo picking. Long story short, my picks were literally melting and dripping what looked like candle wax on my guitar. I even burned my leg once during practice! I switched to Tortex picks and haven’t looked back.
7. Invest In A Good Amp
A cheap, poorly performing amp can make a $2,000 PRS sound terrible.
In my experience, it’s much better to get a decent guitar and a great amp than to get a cheap amp and an expensive guitar. Sure, an amazing guitar and a cheaper amp can end up being a winning combination, but the amp matters so much.
If you can at all help it, a tube amp is the way to go if you are in this game for the long haul. The power generated by those little glass tubes will give you punch and clarity that you will not get from a used Line 6 Spider II, much less the 5-watt paperweight that comes in those beginner kits.
Do your own research and have a local, non-chain music store associate give you some pointers. You can get a great amp from Craigslist or a pawnshop as well. A great amp is vitally important for the development of your tone and for your morale. Do yourself a favor – read up and save up. Spend a few hundred or so on a used Mesa Boogie combo way before dropping $1k+ on a top-shelf guitar.
Below, Luke talks about how to transition including his experiences doing so as a developing beginner .
Bonus Tip: A Little Goes A Long Way
This intentionally broad tip is probably the most important piece of advice I can give to a student. As a seasoned professional, I know when to exaggerate greatly with my playing and when to keep it tight. You have to learn that a little goes a long way.
A little vibrato goes a long way. Keeping a note stagnant may have its place, but just a touch of vibrato can give a note new life. Too much can make it sound out of tune. Be careful.
A little distortion goes a long way. This is especially important when playing live. The rule I heard from pros when I first got to the stage was to adjust my distortion to the level that I preferred when playing at home, then cut it in half!
Avoid exaggerated tonal adjustments such as turning the bass up too much on the amp or cutting out the mid-range. Many beginners that are metal fans make this mistake because they are adjusting their amp to sound like what they are hearing from a polished recording, not accounting for the fact there are multiple guitar tracks and a bass that blends in. Try Googling “isolated guitar tracks” for songs you really like and go by that.
What about if you are a new student and you are already learning on the electric guitar? Should you sell it or shelf it and switch to acoustic guitar? You don’t have to do that. If you can, I highly recommend getting a budget acoustic, but there’s no need to drop the electric if it’s something you have already started and it’s something you really want to do. Just keep these tips in mind and you will be fine. Remember that you are ultimately in this to have fun and enjoy making music, not to appease an instructor. Just keep rockin’!