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An Instrumental Setup for Success

I don’t remember his name, but I’ll never forget how hard it was for one of my early students to get his fingers down on the guitar strings. Part of the problem was his age and music ability. He had small hands and thin fingers, and was clearly taking lessons mainly because his mom wanted him to. Even if the guitar was his idea in the first place, I didn’t get the sense that he ran off the bus, chucked his Batman backpack on the floor, and rushed over to his acoustic guitar to play the open D chord we’d been working on lesson after lesson. But another part of the problem — one that would make the first two impossible to solve — was that the guitar he was playing had nosebleed high action.

the worst guitar

This was in the late 1980s, before good bang-for-the-buck Asian-made guitars filled the beginner guitar market with affordable and playable instruments. This poor kid was saddled with a plywood box that was almost impossible to get in tune, beyond impossible to keep in tune, and had strings high enough to be used as a crossbow.

But it was a rental from the music school. Surely, we could find another instrument for the kid. I, being the naïve player-turned-teacher, told his mom that the guitar was making it harder for her son to learn and suggested that she try to trade it for something easier to play.

After they left, I learned a lesson of my own. “They don’t know anything about the guitar,” the school’s owner said to me. “They’ll play whatever you tell them to play.” In other words, Don’t tell them the guitar is a piece of [expletive], just try to keep the kid coming in. Which I did, right until the holiday recital. I can still see him giving maximum effort. He played the chords I gave him well enough that I actually felt emotional.

He’d be around 40 today, and I like to imagine that he’s one of those guys with a vice-like handshake that helps him come off as the alpha in all his business transactions. But he’s not trying to intimidate anyone. His hands are unnaturally strong and assured because of the effort he put in all those years ago, trying earnestly to play an open C on the worst guitar ever made.

the instrument

Fast forward to today. As I mentioned earlier, student guitars are way better than they were back then. The school I teach at now has a much more enlightened view and doesn’t try to push its own instruments on the students. One of my younger kids just got his first electric guitar from an outside dealer for $30, and it’s functional! Functional, yes, but still not as good as it could be. It was clear that the guitar — which has the advantage of adjustable string saddles — hadn’t been set up by the seller. Considering that a decent setup costs three times more than they paid for the guitar, that’s understandable. The action on the guitar was low enough for the student’s level and way better than his acoustic guitar (which wasn’t too bad either).

Still, I decided to take a little time out of each lesson to adjust the bridge, only a string or two at a time because I didn’t want to waste his whole lesson. Partly, it’s because this particular student has trouble sitting still, so each time I do a little more of the set-up, he gets a break. But mostly, it’s because I think learning an instrument also involves learning about the instrument. When I took violin and viola lessons, my teachers never even showed me how to change a string.

I might have stayed with those instruments into high school if I’d understood them better. So by showing him the intonation adjustment, I’m also teaching a little bit about the physics of the guitar. Explaining the intonation is also a way to show that “right” note isn’t just about where you put your finger. The string has to be in tune, and you have to learn how to tell when it’s not.

the lesson

Okay, I know that my student isn’t going to be able to tell if the low E string is a few cents flat at the 12th fret. He may never get to the point where he’s even playing above the fifth. But by making his guitar easier to play and play in tune, he’ll get more from his effort. And that’s a lesson that goes beyond music.






Emile Menasché Emile Menasché is a composer, guitarist, writer, and dispenser of dog treats.

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