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musical instruments

Buying Guides - Musical Instruments

About Guitars

The majority of guitars have six strings. However, 12-string guitars are also popular and have a nice full sound, which make them ideal for strumming chords. (Think of the 60's group The Byrds; their songs, like "Mr. Tambourine Man", had a distinctive 12-string acoustic guitar sound.) Recently, Ibanez pioneered a seven-string electric guitar, which is gaining ground and is used by bands like Korn and Limp Bizkit.

Cousins to the guitar include bass, ukulele, mandolin, banjo and dulcimer. All of these instruments have strings that you pick or strum similar to a guitar. Basses typically have four or five strings, although some have more. Ukuleles have only four strings. Mandolins are beautiful sounding instruments with eight strings (arranged in four pairs). Banjos have either four or five strings. Dulcimers have four strings and are often used in Celtic songs.

Types of Guitars

Electric guitars

Electric guitars all have one thing in common: they need an amplifier in order to work. So, if you're thinking of purchasing an electric guitar, you'll need to buy at least a guitar, an amplifier and a guitar cable (to connect the guitar to the amp). You'll also probably want a guitar strap so that you can stand up and play. You may also want a few picks, a guitar case and an electronic tuner.

All electric guitars have pick-ups, which are the guitar's microphones. There are two types of pick-ups: single coil pick-ups and double coil or humbucking pick-ups. Single coil pickups produce a cleaner sound than humbucking pickups.

In general, electric guitars are easier to play than acoustic guitars. They have lighter gauge strings and the strings are positioned closer to the neck of the guitar, which makes pressing down on the strings easier.

Acoustic guitars

Acoustic guitars all have one common feature: they have a sound hole that produces sound naturally when the strings are struck. This means that an amplifier is not necessary in order to play an acoustic guitar. All you really need to get going with an acoustic guitar is the guitar and maybe a book or an instructor. Picks, a strap, an electronic tuner, and a case are all optional but usually desirable.

The top of any acoustic guitar is made out of wood. Spruce and cedar are common. The back, neck, and sides of an acoustic guitar are usually made of a harder wood such as mahogany or maple.

There are two kinds of acoustic guitars: steel string guitars and classical guitars. Steel string guitars are the most popular. As the name states, they have steel strings. They also have narrower necks, which is an advantage if your hands are small. By contrast classical guitars have nylon strings (which are easier on the fingers) and wider necks. Steel string guitars are usually played using a pick, whereas classical guitars are usually played using finger-style techniques. Classical guitars are primarily used for playing classical, Spanish and flamenco music.

Other types of guitars

There are also acoustic/electric guitars. Acoustic/electric guitars are really acoustic guitars with special pick-ups that allow them to be amplified. An amplifier is strictly optional though, since you can play them just like a regular acoustic guitar. Most acoustic guitar performers use acoustic/electric guitars so that they can project the sound through an amplifier or PA system to their audience. Many acoustic/electric guitars have a cut-away feature on their body. The cut-away feature makes it easier to play notes on the higher frets of the guitar (usually above the 12th fret).

Starting Kids on Guitar

Many classical guitars (as well as steel string) come in 3/4 and 1/2 sizes. A smaller size classical guitar is excellent for getting children started. A 1/2-size guitar is typically appropriate for seven to 10-year-olds. A 3/4-size guitar is typically appropriate for 10 to 13-year olds. Usually, 13 or 14-year-olds are ready for a full size guitar.

Guitar Action

Action refers to how easy it is to play or press down the strings on a guitar. Low action means that the strings are close to the neck and easy to play. High action means that the strings are high off the neck and more difficult to play. In general, guitar players prefer low action on a guitar for obvious reasons. The only advantage of higher action is that it may produce a richer sound.

About Keyboards

Electronic keyboards are one of the most popular musical instruments today. This is no surprise, given that keyboards are designed to fit the needs of both the average player and the serious musician. The low cost of modern digital electronics and the relatively high numbers of keyboards produced means that home keyboards today, tend to offer very good value for money and often include features that would previously only have been found on expensive professional keyboards.

Consider These Important Keyboard Features...

Instrument sounds or "voices"
Thanks to advances in sampling, chip technology and the availability of cheaper computer memory, modern electronic keyboards can offer a wide range of ultra-realistic sounds, also known as voices. As well as common instrument sounds (such as piano and organ), a keyboard can also offer drum and percussion sounds and even effect sounds such as applause, breaking waves and so on. The number of instrument voices available and their quality is important to consider.

Polyphony

Denotes how many notes a keyboard can play at once. Given that we have only 10 fingers, anything over 16 notes may seem like overkill. But, in fact, you can never have enough polyphony.

Touch response keys

Keyboards with touch-sensitive keys (or touch response) allow the instrument to respond to how hard you strike the keys. The harder the key is hit, the louder and brighter the sound. If you plan on taking lessons and are committed to playing long-term, this is an important feature to look for when purchasing a keyboard.

Speakers

The quality of the built-in amplifier and speakers is critical. Great sounds are wasted when played through bad speakers. A few simple rules apply when comparing this aspect of keyboards. Firstly, two or three separate speakers per side are usually better than one. Having one speaker to handle the bass end and another to handle high frequencies generally works better than having just one per side, as speakers always work best when designed for a particular frequency range.

Effects

On-board digital sound processing allows you to produce conventional reverb and echo effects, as well as room simulations such as that of a grand cathedral, hall or stadium. More advanced effects sections might include a huge range of treatments from guitar distortion and flanging, for even more accurate recreation of your favourite sounds.

Accompaniment styles

Almost all electronic keyboards have some form of automatic accompaniment system, providing a personal backing band when you play. This could just be drums and percussion or something as complex as a complete ensemble with bass, drums, guitar, strings and brass. The accompaniment can repeat the same few bars over and over or change from section to section of a song. The keyboard can usually be split so that part of the keyboard plays the melody and the other part controls the harmony or the other instruments being played. You should be able to choose a style for the backing and switch between the different sections of a song as you play (such as the introduction, middle portions or ending).

Sequencer

A sequencer is onboard software that allows you to store in memory what was played. Many electronic keyboards feature a sequencer that will let you create and play back complete performances. With some sequencers, you can even correct mistakes, experiment with different sounds or just jam along with yourself. A standard file format called General MIDI allows songs to be read by any keyboard that supports it.

Getting connected

Although an electronic keyboard is designed to be a complete music system on its own, there are times you may want to connect it to other equipment. To play the sounds of other keyboards remotely, you need a MIDI connection. MIDI is a universal digital interface supported by almost all of today's keyboards. It allows you to augment the sounds of your keyboard with those of other keyboards or tone modules. MIDI even allows some non-keyboard instruments to be used as controllers, in order to play the sounds of your electronic keyboard using a MIDI saxophone, guitar or violin.

Some keyboard owners also use sequencing software on their computers. A computer-based MIDI sequencer provides more composing and arranging possibilities than a keyboard by itself. You can transfer songs to the PC, where editing may be easier. It is also possible to download songs and styles from the Internet, giving you almost instant access to countless tracks. A PC equipped with a MIDI interface or similar connection is required.

Some Handy Terms For Electronic Keyboards

Accompaniment

A rhythmic musical style which includes bass, drums and chords, and is often controlled by the left-hand side of the keyboard.

Chord memory

A function that will remember chords played with the left hand. The memory can then play the music back while the player concentrates on the right-hand melody

Dual voice

The ability to layer two sounds to create a richer texture.

General MIDI (GM)

An industry-wide standard that, in theory, allows a MIDI song file to sound almost identical no matter which General MIDI sound module is used to play it.

MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface)

A universal interface that allows keyboards, computers and a wide range of musical equipment to communicate.

Music minus one

Refers to built-in songs on home keyboards, where the melody line can be switched on or off.

One-touch setting

A function that instantly sets up voices, volumes, tempo and other parameters on a keyboard to suit a particular style.

Pianist styles

A group of accompaniments played on the left of the keyboard that plays piano only, without drums, bass guitar etc. Ideal for Jazz and Ballad styles.

Registration memory

A memory built into the keyboard which stores a general 'set-up', including tempo, voice selections, rhythm styles and so on, and which is recalled at the touch of a button.

Reverb

An effect that simulates the acoustics of a hall or room.

Sampling

The process of making digital recordings of real instrument sounds, which are stored in RAM or ROM memory in a keyboard, synthesizer, tone module or digital piano.

Sequencer

Software that stores note information (note lengths, velocity, etc.), which can then be played back in musical form.

Stereo

Refers to use of multiple speakers, which give a richer, wider spread than just a single speaker.

Voice

A single sound on the keyboard, digital piano, sampler, synthesizer or tone module.

 

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