Guitar Buying Guide for the Beginning Guitarist

Before I jump in, I’d like to make a couple disclaimers. First, these are largely my opinions. However, they are based on real observations in my teaching studio, from my own experience as a guitar student, and from the experience of others in my immediate circle. I’ve also done some research to find out what other folks have to say on the subject, and I’m more or less in agreement with what’s out there on the inter-webs. Take these suggestions with a grain of salt, if you must, and realize that others will disagree with me, some vehemently (especially my claims about nylon vs. steel stringed instruments). Here is another take on this topic from the giant retailer Musician’s Friend if you want another, perhaps better vetted, opinion. Don’t hesitate to contact me at music@sparkstudios.com if you have any questions.

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0309GuitarWallIf you walk into a large music store, one of the first things you’ll see is a wall full of colorful electric guitars adorned with chrome and gold-plated hardware. While these instruments are visually appealing—and fun to play—they are not the best choice for learning guitar. The most significant reasons are that they require amplification (a can of worms in itself) and can be difficult to keep in tune. In addition to learning to play guitar, you also have to learn to deal with your gear, which isn’t necessarily the best use of your valuable lesson time. Plus, unless your instructor has an amp for you to use, you have to bring yours, which is an additional thing to carry. No, for a first instrument, you should walk past the electrics and look at an acoustic guitar. When you have some skill–and maybe some money saved up–revisit those electrics.

While it’s not as obvious, amazing variety exists in acoustic guitars as well. There are many different sizes, shapes, dimensions, and materials that define an acoustic guitar. It is easy to get overwhelmed. For a beginner, acoustic guitar choice comes down to size and style. A kid should have a kid-sized guitar, for example. A standard dreadnought will fit most adults, but smaller and larger guitars are made that can accommodate the variety of shapes and sizes of the human form, as well as a wide range of tones and styles. A more in-depth discussion about guitar body shapes can be found here.

Style-wise, acoustics can be loosely broken down into nylon stringed classical guitars (in the picture below, on the left) or a steel-stringed folk-style guitars (the instrument on the right in the picture below). The nylon stringed classical is designed with classical style playing in mind, but it can be adapted to a variety of genres. The steel stringed acoustic is also a versatile instrument. I usually recommend a steel-string acoustic because most people take guitar lessons to play rock, country, bluegrass, folk, or some variation of these styles. All popular styles make use of a pick (plectrum) at least part of the time, and the steel strings respond better to a pick than nylon. Also, the steel string guitar has a narrower neck allowing the player to form chords more easily. The nylon strings of a classical guitar are generally easier to press down, but the wider neck often hinders progress, especially with kids, and especially with forming chords.

classical vs dreadnought

With full-size steel-string guitars, the best value exists in guitars that cost around $500 new. Below that price point, you will either have a difficult time playing the instrument or you will have to put work into it. Above that, you can get better appointments–higher quality tuning knobs and machines are usually worth the investment–and possibly better tonewoods. Above $1000, the return on investment starts to diminish, and you will be buying a guitar you have to take really good care of (the solid back and sides sound better, but aren’t as durable as the plywood of less expensive models). There are many guitars in the $500 price range, but in my opinion one of the best values is Seagull guitars, specifically the S6 model. Other good values are the Martin DXMAE, Taylor 110, and Taylor Big Baby. Some Fender and Yamaha acoustics are also decent.

Most kids need smaller guitars than adults. Yamaha offers the best value 1/2 and 3/4 size guitars (~$150, the JR series), though the more expensive Taylor Baby and the Martin Little Martin (~$300) are arguably better built (they all sound about the same). It’s probably wise to buy the “value” Yamaha to start with and use the money saved to buy a decent bigger guitar later.

In addition to a guitar you will also need some accessories, including a case to keep it in (if the guitar doesn’t come with one), an electronic tuner to make sure your guitar sounds good, a spare set of strings in case you break one, and a strap to support the guitar as you play. Some retailers, like my local music shop (Candyman Strings & Things in Santa Fe, NM) will offer a discount if you buy everything up front.

If you want to buy a used acoustic guitar, which can get you a great deal, here are a few things to check.

  1. Look for cracks. Check the body of the guitar (the back of a guitar may crack due to dryness or abuse), where the body and the neck meet (the glue joint between the neck and body can separate), and the bridge (where the strings meet the top; this can crack where the strings go in due to overzealous insertion of the pins, as well as dryness).
  2. Sight down the neck and make sure it is straight. If it is not, the guitar will be difficult to play. Alignment is not as big an issue as it can be corrected.
  3. Check for sharp fret edges along the neck. These can cut your finger if they aren’t taken care of.
  4. Examine the top (the side with the hole) and make sure it is flat. An overly dry guitar may have a dip or depression near the soundhole.
  5. Play a few notes and check to see that the action isn’t too high (hard to play) or too low (buzzes in the lower registers/larger strings).
  6. Make sure the instrument you are looking at matches the description. This is often a bigger issue with electric guitars because electrics have many replaceable parts. Still, you want to get what you pay for, so check the label on the inside of the back of the guitar and make sure it matches the ad.

And that’s the basics of shopping for a guitar. I didn’t get into what I would consider choices of  genres or personality, but there are specific guitars made for different genres (like Martin HD-28 for bluegrass or a Taylor 514 for fingerstyle), or “signature” models designed with a celebrity in mind (like the Martin D-15 “Sugar Ray” model I played once, or the $9900 Martin 000-18 Eric Claption Signature model). My advice is keep it basic. A good starter guitar will let you explore a variety of styles, and if you take care of it you can resell it for nearly what you paid and invest that money into something else, if you want. I also recommend that you work with your local music shop; they can help you get the right size & style guitar, set you up with accessories, and help you if something breaks).

The guitar is a versatile instrument you can take nearly anywhere, and learning to play it is well worth your time. The most important thing–regardless of what guitar you eventually buy–is to play it!

Thanks for reading!

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