Learning and loving to play guitar is a lot like other hobbies. Once you get the basics figured out, you find that there are a number of other accessories that are either necessary or are just plain fun to add to the mix. Don’t worry about your new guitar hobby costing you more and more money because the majority of these guitar accessories are not going to set you back more than $30 and many cost less than $10.
Basic Guitar Accessories
The purpose of this article is to share with you some details about what guitar accessories do, which features are more or less important and why they add value to your guitar set-up.
Guitar Accessories – Picks
I suppose that technically guitar picks are not absolutely necessary because some players use only their fingers to pluck or strum the strings. But because even most finger-style players use a pick every now and then, I’ll consider them to be an essential guitar accessory.
Guitar picks, or plectrums as they’re formally named, come in different sizes, shapes, materials, thicknesses and colors. A reasonably well-trained ear can detect slight changes in the tone of a guitar based on which type of pick is being used. But I wouldn’t lose any sleep over worrying about how much your pick is influencing your sound. That’s because the vast majority of modern guitar players use picks of reasonably similar designs.
Long gone are the days of using genuine tortoise shell for picks. And for the past 60 years or so, various types of plastics have dominated pick designs. An interesting exception to this rule is the case of virtuoso guitarist Brian May of Queen. He famously uses British sixpence coins as his picks because he feels that plastic versions are too flexible.
Today’s pick designs do have some variation in their shape. But generally these shape differences have more to do with comfort and aesthetics than they do any resounding sonic effect. The one shape factor that does have some effect on the tone of a guitar is the very tip of the pick that comes into contact with the strings. Picks with a sharp, pointy tip will produce a brighter, more focused sound. Picks that have a more rounded tip produce a softer and more mellow tone.
The last guitar pick design characteristic that has some functional difference on your playing is the thickness of the pick. For a given material, such as celluloid or nylon, thinner picks are naturally more flexible and thicker picks are more rigid. Is one better than the other? Not really. It depends on your personal preference and playing style. Most experienced guitar players will recommend using thinner, more flexible picks if your playing style involves a lot of rhythmic strumming and thicker, more rigid picks if you prefer playing lead lines that involve playing individual strings one at a time.
Different manufacturers use different means of defining the thickness of their picks. Some use simple words like ‘Light’, ‘Medium’ or ‘Heavy’. Others state the numerical thickness in either inches or millimeters. The table below describes the ranges of pick thicknesses available.
|Approximate Pick Thickness|
|Extra Light/Thin||< 0.017||< 0.44|
|Light/Thin||0.018 - 0.027||0.45 - 0.69|
|Medium||0.028 - 0.033||0.70 - 0.84|
|Heavy/Thick||0.034 - 0.059||0.85 - 1.49|
|Extra Heavy/Thick||> 0.060||> 1.50|
Learn.Love.Guitar. Recommendation: Start with a medium-gauge pick in a “standard” shape. And don’t forget that there’s nothing wrong choosing a pick based on its color, logo or imprinted design. Remember, this whole guitar thing is supposed to be fun, so start out with whatever you like and learn as you go! Check out my top recommended guitar picks.
Guitar Accessories – Strings
Given all of the attention paid to guitars, and their wonderful diversity in shapes, materials, finishes, construction methods and costs, none of them would matter much if it weren’t for the humble guitar strings. They exist to bring guitars to life and joy to those who play them.
When Bon Jovi sings, “I walk these streets, a loaded six-string on my back”, of course he is referring to his guitar. And for the purpose of this article, I’m going to focus on regular steel-stringed acoustic and electric guitars. That’s because the overwhelming majority of them come with six strings. Electric basses come in both four and five string versions, but that’s a whole other story.
Guitar strings are numbered one through six, with the 1st string being the thinnest and positioned closest to the ground when the guitar is oriented in a playing position. In consecutive order, the string numbers increase by one and the diameter of each string gets thicker until you get to the thickest 6th string, which is closest to the ceiling.
While guitarists do refer to strings by their number, they also have an assigned letter name based on the note that rings out when the string is played in open position. Standard guitar tuning dictates that the strings are tuned, from the 6th string to the 1st string, to the notes E, A, D, G, B and E, respectively. A common pneumonic for memorizing these note names is to remember the phrase, “Eddie Ate Dynamite; Good Bye Eddie”.
Any guitar you purchase is going to be furnished with a new set of guitar strings. But it’s really important to know that they don’t last forever. Over the course of weeks or maybe months, guitar strings will deteriorate in their color, finish and most importantly, their tone. What causes guitar strings to wear out? A combination of environmental and physical factors that include humidity, oil, sweat and any other dirt or grime that is on your fingers. Some of these factors you can try to control, such as washing your hands before playing, but if you play enough you’re going to eventually see a noticeable difference in their performance.
And what are you supposed to do when that happens? Easy, just change them out for new ones! If this sounds complicated or frightening, don’t fret (guitar pun!) because once you get the hang of it, you’ll be done in 15-20 minutes and back to getting your groove on. Check out my article on how to change guitar strings for some simple directions.
Most guitarists love having lots of choices when it comes to crafting their sound, and strings offer yet another way to be selective and creative. While all replacement guitar strings are sold in packs of six, with each string of a different diameter, they vary in the range of diameters as well as the materials and coatings used. Let’s quickly take these variables one at a time.
As I explained in my article on Important First Steps, strings for acoustic guitars are generally thicker and therefore more taught compared to the thinner and more wobbly strings of electric guitars. And even within a type of guitar, there are different ranges of string sizes available. Let me show you a table to summarize the different sizes and then I’ll explain what impacts diameter has on your playing and your sound. All values listed below are string diameters measured in inches.
|Acoustic Guitar String Number|
|Electric Guitar String Number|
|Extra Super Light||.008||.010||.015||.021||.030||.038|
There are no hard rules on which size is best, but there are some general guidelines that are worth considering before making a decision. And remember that if the strings you choose are comfortable to play, and they give you the sound you’re looking for, then you’ve made the right choice. And even if you choose “incorrectly”, it’s no big deal because a pack of strings only costs around $5.
One quick note about how guitarists refer to sets of guitar strings of different thicknesses. Rather than use the terms “light” or “medium”, which may vary slightly between different string manufacturers, most players simply call out the value of the thinnest 1st string. So if your buddy says to you, “Hey man, I just put 10’s on my Strat and they totally rock”, you’ll know exactly what he’s talking about.
The following info-graphic is intended to summarize the different points along the thickness spectrum and the pros and cons of each.
Even in the world of professional guitarists, there are no standards or one “best size”. For example, Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top plays 8’s and Stevie Ray Vaughan was known to use extra-heavy 13’s! Both of these guitar legends create incredible music despite their large differences in string size selection.
The last variable I’ll include in this article about guitar strings is materials. Like everything else in the guitar world, there are plenty to choose from. The basics, listed in descending order of popularity, are these:
Acoustic Guitar Strings
- Phosphor Bronze – Typically 92% Copper and 8% Zinc. These strings offer a rich, warm tone.
- 80/20 Bronze – As the name suggests, 80% Copper and 20% Zinc. These strings offer a brighter, more brilliant tone.
Electric Guitar Strings
- Nickel-Plated Steel – Known for being bright and with strong output. Some say that nickel-plated strings make a guitar sound really alive when they’re new, but as the plating wears, the brightness can fade somewhat.
- Pure Nickel – These strings have a smooth, warm tone, with reasonable output. Because they’re pure nickel, they generally have greater tonal consistency throughout their life.
Learn.Love.Guitar. Recommendation: Most new acoustic guitars are sold with light gauge 12’s and most electric guitars are sold with super-light 9’s. When you’re ready to change your strings, I’d recommend that you stick with the same size that came with your guitar. This will prevent any unwanted warping of the neck that would require a guitar tech to adjust for. Regarding materials, because strings are so cheap, go ahead and experiment and let your ears decide for you. Check out my top recommended guitar strings.
Guitar Accessories – Instrument Cables
There are only a couple of key things you need to know about instrument cables, and they have to do with a cables length and connector type.
Cable Length – You want to keep the cables as short as practical to prevent any signal loss over long cable runs. So that means if you’re just playing in your bedroom, basement or garage, cables of no more than 10 or 12 feet long should be used. A super long 50 foot cable will only diminish your sound and cause to you worry about tripping and keeping it tidy. Plus, the shorter the cable, the less they cost.
When it comes to connecting your pedals together, short patch cables as shown in the above-right picture, are really useful and they are usually only 6” or 12” in length.
Connector Type – Every instrument cable is fitted with a standard ¼” connector at each end. They are available in straight/straight (above-left picture), angled/angled (above-right picture) or straight/angled which means one of each. The choice is yours and really just depends on your preference and sometimes the configuration of your guitar, pedals or amp inputs jacks.
Yes, there are a few other instrument cable features that separate everyday cables that are of sufficient quality for most beginner and even gigging guitarists from super high-end cables that are only good enough for true professionals or audiophiles. A couple examples include the extent to which the signal is shielded/braided within the cable to prevent interference and the materials used on the connectors themselves (up to 24k gold contacts). Of course, these nice-to-have features usually result in significant price increases.
Learn.Love.Guitar. Recommendation: It’s pretty hard to screw up on selecting an instrument cable for your guitar. Just stay away from the bins in the front of the guitar store that are selling for like $5. I’ve learned the lesson “you get what you pay for” myself on this one. And don’t feel that you have to go overboard and get a premium cable. You’d be better off spending that extra money on a better guitar, better amp or an extra pedal. Check out my top recommended guitar cables.
Guitar Accessories – Tuners
You will quickly learn to detect when one or more of your strings has fallen out of tune because your chords or your lead licks just won’t sound right. And when that happens, you will have to tune your guitar. This is really no big deal, and in fact, when most guitarists pick up their instrument to play, the first thing they do is check the tuning.
There are several ways to keep your guitar in tune, and all of them are easy and straightforward. If you own an electric-acoustic guitar, it probably is already outfitted with an onboard tuner, which is super-handy and doesn’t require any extra device. For all other types of guitars, the following methods all work very well:
If you’ve read my article on guitar effects pedals, you already know that a popular and highly effective way to tune your electric guitar is with a stomp-box style pedal that you plug directly into using an instrument cable. This method will result in the most accurate tuning but will cost you somewhere between $70 and $100 for the pedal plus the extra cable you’ll need. Virtually all gigging and professional guitarists use pedal tuners because of their accuracy and because they allow you to tune your guitar in silence. If you’re in a noisy room, or you don’t want to annoy your bandmates, a pedal tuner is a great choice.
These popular, easy-to-use and relatively inexpensive devices allow you to tune any acoustic or electric guitar on-the-go and a decent quality version will only set you back around $20 or so. They operate by clipping onto the headstock of your guitar and they sense the vibrations in the instrument as you play a string. Just store a clip-on tuner in your gig bag and you’ll never need to be out of tune again.
Mobile Device App Tuners
Finally, something in the world of guitar gear is free! That’s right, one of the wonders of modern digital technology is that anyone with a mobile phone or tablet can have their choice from dozens and dozens of apps that do a surprisingly good job of tuning any type of guitar.
Learn.Love.Guitar. Recommendation: If you’re going to be tuning your guitar in a noisy room, then I’d advise against relying solely on an app that is using its microphone to detect your sounds. For everyday uses, the clip-on tuners work great and are easily taken with you on the road. For those who want the best, or don’t want to have to tune their guitars out loud, then you can’t beat a pedal tuner for silent and accurate tunings. Check out my top recommended guitar tuners.
Guitar Accessories – Capos
A guitar capo is a mechanical device that clamps down on all strings at a particular fret. The clamping force is normally achieved via a spring in the device, but they can also result from elastic materials like rubber bands or even threaded fasteners like nuts and bolts.
Why would a guitarist want to do this? The primary reason is that is allows a guitar to be easily played in different key without altering the fingering to play a song. Remember that when a guitar is set-up with standard tuning, the open strings play the notes E, A, D, G, B and E. If you place a capo on the neck/fretboard of your guitar, it’s the equivalent of moving the nut or shortening the strings, however you want to think about it. So if a capo is placed at the first fret, then the “open” strings will play F, A#, D#, G#, C and F.
Once again, you might be asking, so why would I want to do that? Let’s say you know how to play a song in normal open position without a capo. And then your friend wants to make a duet by adding her vocals to your guitar playing. If her normal singing voice is a higher key than the one you’re using to play the song on the guitar, you’re not going to sound very good together. By simply applying a capo at the right fret position, you can play the song in the same key as the vocalist. The only difference is that your fretting hand is now shifted up the neck of the guitar. Trust me, it works like magic!
You will also find that many of the songs you choose to learn will tell you where to place a capo to sound just like the recording. A good example is the song “Here Comes the Sun” by The Beatles. This classic tune is played with a capo way up at the 7th fret. The song sounds completely different if the capo is not used.
Learn.Love.Guitar. Recommendation: A capo is certainly not a required accessory to be able to learn and love to play the guitar. However, if you find a particular song that you really want to play and it suggests using a capo, then go for it. Most quality capos can be found online or in your local guitar shop for under $20. Check out my top recommended guitar capos.
Check out my article on recommended guitar accessories to learn which items have my stamp of approval.