“‘Don’t you worry there, my honey/ We might not have any money, but we’ve got our love to pay the bills.’”
The Ingrid Michaelson song “You and I” purred from my lips, aimed at my man Pat, as he sat amid a mountain of bills.
“Let’s get rich and buy our parents homes in the South of France,” answered our daughter, singing the chorus of the song, as she watched her six-year-old brother struggle to strum out the chords on a full-size guitar laying flat in his lap.
“You might be our only hope, kid,” I added, winking at the little man.
“Then we better get him a proper-sized instrument,” replied Pat.
“For really young children, age two to three, I recommend a ukulele,” said William Wilson, classical guitarist, author, and creator of Encinitas-based website guitargames.net. “Makala ukuleles are fairly cheap but good [starting at $35 on Amazon]. The size is just right for little kids, because even the quarter-size guitars are too big at that age. For four- to five-year-olds, I recommend a quarter-size guitar. I like the ‘quarter -size plus’ or a half-size for age six to nine. Then, after nine, usually a three-quarter-size is best, depending on the child’s size. I would wait on purchasing a full-size guitar until the student is fully grown. I tend to err on the side of too small rather than too big because if a guitar is too big it usually causes the player to use poor technique.”
When should you start with lessons?
“I think five is a good age,” Wilson answered. “I’ve taught as young as three, but by five, the hand-eye coordination is developed to the point where learning is quicker and more enjoyable.”
“Nylon strings will be more of a classical-guitar sound; the steel sound will be brighter,” offered Alex Toledo, salesman at Music Power in Clairemont (877-687-4276; musicpower.com). “If the child likes the sound of a steel string, and if it digs in the fingers too much, there are strings called Silk n’ Steel strings — they feel like nylon strings, but they sound like a steel string. They’re half steel, half nylon.”
Toledo warned against buying the cheapest acoustic guitar you can find. “That may not be the best choice because the action [the distance between the string and the fret board] could be messed up. The higher the action, the harder it is to play; the lower the action, the easier it is to play.” Plus, “the guitar doesn’t last as long, it sounds like crap, and you don’t really want to get another guitar after that....
“Sunlite is a decent brand for kids [around $75],” he added. “They’re inexpensive, and they can take a beating — because kids like to beat up guitars.”
“You want to make sure you are not buying a ‘musical-instrument-shaped’ item,” laughed Rick Williams, manager of Mark’s Guitar Exchange in the Midway District (619-221-9011). “You can get stuff that looks like a musical instrument…I’ve seen people spend $70 for a thing which is just a bunch of wood glued together to look like a guitar. The main thing we look for is that the action is not too high. It’s twice as hard to play the thing if you are pressing more than a 16th or an 8th of inch down to the neck.”
Williams also recommended Sunlite, which he said costs around $70 for a half-size, about $10 more for a three-quarter, $100 for a full size. With regard to guitar size, he recommended bringing the child into the store. “The child should be able to reach to the end of the guitar. But a lot depends on the person. It’s kind of like picking a pick. There are a thousand different guitar picks, and every guitar player has a different opinion on what’s the perfect pick. When you can see that the child is having a hard time fitting their fingers in the frets, then it’s time for a bigger guitar.”
When it comes to strings, “steel string is much brighter,” he explained. “The nylon-string sound is softer. It lends itself more to jazz songs, Spanish flamenco. It’s easier on the fingertips, especially when people are starting up and their fingertips are tender. You hear the steel strings with all the folk, the rock, the Unplugged MTV stuff.”