I talked about this a little in a previous post. I mentioned that I had a suspicion the size of my acoustic guitar was possibly an unnecessary handicap to give myself while riding the learning curve. I said I was going to research the subject a bit. That research including seeing what left handed models were available in a smaller body size, and I decided to look for acoustic-electric models because I knew that the bodies tended to be slimmer, and because I felt that an acoustic-electric was something I didn’t have so I could rationalize/justify buying one even though I really can’t play yet.
Wouldn’t you know it, when I was browsing with no intention of buying anything right away, I fell in love.
Now, I’m not stupid in guitar-love. When I saw that magical creature that seemed to be calling my name, I read reviews. I checked it out on youtube (when I should have been sleeping). Neither of these things effectively toned down the intensity of my crush.
I had officially fallen hopelessly in puppy love with the Fender Hellcat.
Now, it’s not an expensive guitar, but it is still a price tag that hurts on my income. All price tags hurt on my income, if I’m being honest. Still, I found one lightly used, with the hard case included, for cheaper than you can buy just the guitar. And, this time of year is the perfect time to buy, because it’s the time of year when my utility bills are the lowest. They’ll kick up again in July/August, but May/June I’m not using a heck of a lot of gas or electric compared the rest of the year, and I have no summer birthdays to worry about, no holidays. So, in spite of the fact I shouldn’t buy anything, if I’m going to go a little over budget, this actually is the best time of year to do it in.
Am I rationalizing? Yes. But, that doesn’t make the above considerations any less true.
I’ve talked in previous posts about my guitar situation. I did not make smart choices. I made choices based on what I could afford. I knew in the case of the electric, that didn’t work out for me. The castlerock (knock off strat) weighs nearly 10 lbs. I can’t work with it very long before my shoulder can’t bear the burden. That wouldn’t be a problem for someone else, but it is a problem for me. To practice as long as I want/need to practice I can’t bear the weight of a 9+ lb guitar. Because of the weight issue, I’ve been working exclusively with my Rogue acoustic, and progress has been slow. Really slow. And, painful. It’s the pain that eventually made me start to really analyze the finite details, and led me to the realization that this guitar was probably too big for me to learn on effectively.
I’m going to backtrack a minute here, in case anyone is only just coming into my guitar adventures with this post. I’m 5’4 with a small frame size. My hands are not small, precisely – I’m broad across the palm, but with tiny wrists and slender fingers that are average to short in length (not sure if I have short fingers or not, so I figure they must be about average for a woman. I never thought about it until I started learning guitar. They’re definitely not long, in any case.) So, there are plenty of people out there that are smaller than I am. I’m not technically petite, but I’m also not technically average. I exist in the gray area between. I’ve never felt like I needed a smaller scale guitar. Sure, I have some trouble making the 4 fret stretch, but I’m a beginner, and that’s normal. That’s not the guitar’s fault. But, I have felt like I would have an easier time on a guitar with a smaller body.
Here’s a breakdown of what’s going on in my practices with the Rogue Dreadnought:
- Since I’m a beginner, I need to keep checking my fretting hand and my strumming hand. This means I have to slouch over the guitar to see these two things. I think of it as doing an imitation of a human blanket. I end up nearly resting my chin on the body so I can see what I’m doing. In fact, there have been a few times I have actually rested my chin on the body (I felt like a hobbit in those moments.).
- Collapsing myself around the body of the guitar like this puts the shoulder of my strumming hand at an angle greater than 90 degrees, which, over time, causes tension across the back of my shoulders and neck.
- The lifted strumming shoulder creates a dropped shoulder on the fretting arm. At first that seems almost beneficial, because your fretting arm is pretty much completely free, but it’s actually pretty horrible, because it encourages bad habits – like coming at the fretboard with my wrist bent in upon itself (hand to wrist angle shaped like an L). On the short term, that’s not going to cause damage, but if it becomes a habit, it can absolutely cause injury. I’m learning, and in learning, trying to develop only good habits. I’m certainly not trying to learn any habits that might cause lasting damage. It also seems to mean that I have a really, REALLY hard time making the 4 fret span with my fingers due to the angle at which my forearm approaches the neck. (I didn’t initially realize these two things were related.)
Now, I’m not saying this guitar is too big for me to play at all. I don’t think any guitar is strictly “too big to play”. I want that to be clear. I’m sure those of you who play could easily see that a proper sitting posture will fix all of these shoulder, neck, and fretting problems. BUT…then I can’t see the strings. You can play a stringed instrument blind. I very seldom look at my ukulele when I’m working with chords I’ve memorized, but I need to be able to comfortably look at my hands as needed while working with the guitar, and the size of it versus the size of me make that impossible without seriously compromising technique.
And that, I am arguing, is when you can legitimately blame your equipment for (a percentage of) your crappy playing and a general lack of progress. When your instrument to body type ratio is off, that instrument then encourages bad habits. I’ve heard similiar things to the opposite degree with ukulele – some people just can not comfortably play a soprano. The frets are tiny. If you have large hands, it’s not impossible, but it can get rough. I don’t have that problem. My soprano uke and I get on great. My dreadnought and I, though, we have a hard time working together.
So, what differences have I noticed while working with the Hellcat(which is a concert-sized guitar)? I’ve had it a week or so now, but these are all things I noticed within the first 30 minutes of picking it up:
- The thinner, smaller body is much more comfortable to hold, so I can now sit in a relaxed position. Now, I can check the strings by leaning over about 30% of the lean required with the dreadnought, which means a much more natural posture for the bulk of practice, and a significantly less impaired posture even when I am leaning over.
- I can form power chords with my index and ring finger. This was completely impossible with the dreadnought, even though the scale seems to be about the same. The Hellcat does have a slimmer neck, which absolutely is part of the difference, but I struggle with this on the electric guitar as well (though, I am physically capable of it, with enough concentration), which makes me think that the majority of the problem is likely caused by tension that originates in the upper back and shoulders, which is caused by making adjustments out of proper posture to compensate for what I’m going to call “fit problems” with the other two guitars. On the Rogue, I had to form power chords with my pinky instead of ring finger, and even that was a stretch I was only barely able to make. Now I can form power chords the more traditional way – it’s a bit of a stretch, and I’m still clumsy at it, but it’s physically possible. I still can’t do it on Dreadnought; I tried. And, this is in spite of the fact the scale and action on both guitars is roughly the same.
- Which, I think makes it clear that on the Hellcat I am physically able to make the 4 fret span with my fingers. It was actually so much easier(easier, not easy), that I checked to see if the frets were smaller, but eyeballing them side by side they look about the same size. On the dreadnought I could only do this on the high strings, it was impossible on the lower notes, and it was never comfortable no matter where I was trying to do it. I won’t pretend it’s a comfortable stretch now, but it’s significantly less uncomfortable. My wrist never feels excessively strained. What’s funny about that is from the beginning I’ve been telling myself ‘I’m just not flexible enough yet’ and ‘it’s because I’m a beginner’, but the moment I switched to a different guitar, the difference was night and day.
- The C Chord is no longer the stuff dislocated fingers are made of. I always felt a bit like my ring finger had to pull almost out of the socket to make the stretch, but on the Hellcat, this is actually a relatively easy chord to form.
Let’s take a look at the two of these guitars next to one another for comparison:
I do stand by my earlier assertion that the Rogue Dreadnought is probably the best left handed guitar you are going to find new for under $100. The spruce top produces a really nice tone, the action is low (though because of this, extra-light strings can get buzzy. Anything in the light to medium range works nicely, though.). It’s a really nice beginner instrument (it is for sale, but only for local pickup. I can’t be bothered with shipping guitars). But, the best guitar for the price and the best guitar for the person are two very different things. You hear pros talk about this with disdain a lot, the “best guitar for the money”, like they just haaattte hearing that phrase so much, but I think there’s also a degree to which that’s offensive. Of course, as a beginner, as a person living on whatever your income happens to be, you’re always going to be looking at the best guitar “for the money”. You’re always going to have a number in your head of what you can comfortably spend. So even if you might want that gorgeous, astronomically priced guitar that will be just right for you, if it’s miles out of your price bracket, you’re not going to buy it. So we’re always looking at what’s best for the money we are willing and able to spend. And, that number IS going to be lower for someone buying their first guitar. When I bought the Rogue, I knew that $100 was the absolute most I could possibly spend. I knew that wasn’t going to get me a guitar that would blow my mind. It did, however, get me a very nice piece of equipment “for the money”. It just didn’t get me the best piece of equipment for MY money, because it happens the body size is just too hard for me to learn on. And that’s what I think people who sell guitars often fail to explain properly. It comes off as trying to ‘make a sale’. So, for my fellow beginners: it’s not BS, not entirely. It’s more like when someone says the same thing all the time, they kind of get sick of hearing their own voice. I imagine this is why guitar retailers, especially those at small, independent shops, sometimes come off as a bit snooty. They’re tired of saying it. They’ve said it so much, to so many people, that they think they’ve explained things to you that they maybe haven’t, because they say it so much they just THOUGHT they said it.
And, if you’re a lefty like me, you can’t just walk into any shop and have a bunch of stuff to pick up and get a feel for, so you have to make some research-heavy educated guesses and cross your fingers. So, when a guitar retailer gets exasperated with you when you say “the best guitar for the money”, they’re exasperated because there is not one universal answer that works for everyone. The best student level acoustic guitar for the money is the Rogue Dreadnought if you’re on a budget. For someone’s money. Not for mine, because it’s just not a guitar that’s well suited to my build, and if you are a smaller person, or maybe if you just have smaller hands, or if you’re a larger person, or have larger hands, these are things that become relevant to what the best guitar is for your money, not the money.
Realistically, by the time I have reached a level where I can play the Rogue comfortably, I will most likely have more particular preferences or needs out of a dreadnought, so I’ve decided I really don’t need to hang onto it, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think it’s a really nice option for someone looking for something solid to learn on. I know I’m repeating myself a lot in this post, but I think it’s really important to make the point clear. It’s not that the rogue dreadnought is hard for me to play because it’s not a good guitar for a beginner. It’s that it’s hard for me to play because it’s a dreadnought. A $100 dreadnought would be hard for me to play at this stage. A $1000 dreadnought would be equally as hard for me to play.
The two guitars sound very different, between the size difference and the wood difference. The Rouge feels peppier, like the happy-go-lucky college kid of guitars. The Hellcat seems to have an overall moodier tone, but that could just as easily be string related. I know Hellcats generally come with the stock D’Addario extra-lights (which I’ve established I’m not a huge fan of. Don’t hate ‘em, just don’t particularly care for them), but given this was purchased used, I really have no idea what it’s strung with. Definitely extra-lights, so while I’m not rushing to pull them off right away, I probably won’t wait too long. We’ll see. The guitar is not made for heavy gauge strings but I think some medium-lights might potentially suit it very well.
In any case, they are, sonically, very, very different. It’s the difference between Jack Johnson and the Cure-sound wise, they’re both good, but pretty much exist on different musical planets. It took me a few days to get accustomed to the sound of the hellcat, but now that I have, I really like it. And my lesson time has been going much better because of it.
Does that mean I’m suddenly an amazing guitar player? No, of course it doesn’t. My chords are still muddy. I still fret and strum too hard, and am trying to find the right balance. I still make as much noise as music. But, I am now doing those things without my spine tangled into knots from trying to work around a body that is too large for me, and that’s a difference that is worth every penny. It’s the first time that I didn’t feel like my arm was going to fall off before the Yousician lesson was over.
I still need to replace my electric guitar to make the most out of my Rocksmith time (though I can play rocksmith with the acoustic electric and it seems to work just fine. I just expect it’s going to sound really odd to play the heavier stuff without an actual electric guitar), but this is a very solid step in the right direction, and one that gives me something to think about when purchasing future guitars: Don’t buy the best guitar for the money, buy the best guitar for YOUR money. That might mean saving a little longer, or putting down a prettier penny all around, and it’s equally possible that that $80 guitar is just right for you, but either way, a beginner should absolutely be thinking about guitar shape as being relevant to what to buy, because you don’t want to fall into the trap of buying what looks cool, if that cool thing is going to impede your ability to learn.
Until Next Time, lesson learned. Maybe now that I have a comfortable guitar, I can stop rubbing my wrists and start to crawl.