So, you decided to play guitar and you need help choosing your first guitar. There are many factors that go into selecting your first instrument and there are some important considerations that you should take into account before making your choice. For example:
- The style of music that interests you.
- You may be a parent looking for a guitar for your child.
- Female players may want to take some special considerations as well.
Let’s consider these points one at a time.
Style of Music
One of the first sparks of interest comes from a song, musical group, or a guitarist (be it a friend or classmate, or a famous music star). The inspiration started somewhere and made you want to begin your musical quest.
How do you see yourself? Maybe you fancy yourself a singer/songwriter in the style of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, or Ed Sheeran. Then, an acoustic guitar may be more to your liking.
Or, maybe you have a favorite rock, blues, or jazz guitarist such as Jimmy Page, John Mayer, B.B. King, or George Benson. Then an electric guitar is in your very near future.
Whatever the case, when it comes to choosing your first guitar your first decision should be either:
- Acoustic: These come in two basic types (steel string and nylon string).
- Electric: These come in every shape, color, and configuration imaginable.
Let’s take a closer look at the similarities and differences between acoustics and electrics.
Steel-string acoustics are great for strumming chords and singing songs. There are many versions of steel-string acoustics available that are beyond the scope of this article. So, to keep things simple, follow the tips below. You’ll quickly become an expert as your playing progresses.
One of the drawbacks to the steel-string acoustic is that it is hard on your fingers. As a beginner, developing callouses is the rite of passage that all guitarists grow through. The steel-string acoustic can make the callous-development period more of a challenge than the other choices (nylon-string or electric guitars). Keep this in mind when choosing your first guitar.
Nylon-string acoustics are sometimes referred to as classical or folk guitars. These are a good choice for beginning players for the following two reasons:
- The strings are plastic and easier on your fingers as you develop callouses.
- The neck is a little wider making the chord-learning process a little easier.
The popularity of the electric guitar is evident by the amount of choices available. An entire article or series of articles can be dedicated to the variety of electric guitars and their options. However, for choosing your first electric guitar, you only need to focus on a couple of things.
- Electric guitars are easier on the fingers than the steel-string acoustic.
- You will need a few accessories: guitar strap, cable, and amplifier for starters.
- Many companies offer beginner packs that include the items in No. 2.
Electric guitars need to be plugged into an amplifier in order to produce sound. Although practicing without an amplifier is possible (and done quite often), it is not advisable at the early stages because you can develop some bad habits.
Whatever decision you make when choosing your first guitar, here are a few pointers that will make your playing more fun. First of all, your instrument should have a straight neck, easy action, and tone controls that provide you with the sound you want. Let’s take a closer look at these:
A straight neck: This is vital to the usability of the guitar. A slight bend is common but a curved neck can cause many problems. For a beginner, this could be very discouraging with notes sounding funny, unwanted noises, and, in worse cases, could affect the ability for the guitar to play in tune.
Easy action: Action is the distance between the strings and the fretboard (or top part of the neck). This distance should be far enough for the strings to vibrate freely but close enough to make playing (in guitar speak: fretting) notes not too strenuous.
Tone controls: The knobs on the guitar need to function properly. Sometimes there is unwanted noise because the knobs are dirty or worn out. With new guitars this is rarely a problem, but you should plug in the guitar and check the controls (just to be on the safe side).
This section is directed specifically at parents and female players. In the past, many aspiring guitarists had to wait till they were physically big enough to handle a guitar. Or, if they have small hands, as in the case of preteens and some female players, playing the instrument can offer added challenges.
The advent of technology has made it possible for 3/4- and 1/2-sized instruments that play well and stay in tune. These instruments have been available in the past but had many flaws. Nowadays, there are companies that dedicate themselves to the manufacturing of quality student-sized instruments.
These smaller instruments offer the opportunity for younger students of the guitar to start earlier and can be found secondhand as students outgrow these instruments.
How Much to Spend
When it comes to choosing your first guitar, it’s a good rule of thumb to buy the best guitar you can afford. Generally, guitars hold their resale value and some even grow in value over the years. On the other hand, very cheap instruments can be hard to play as they are poorly made and, subsequently, discouraging to the beginner.
New vs. Used
A good used guitar can be an excellent value. Many people buy guitars and either become too busy or simply lose interest. You can find some real bargains by searching want-ads and websites. On the downside, most private transactions will not offer a return policy or warranty so there a few things you should look for when considering a used instrument.
Evaluating a Used Guitar
- Check that the tuning machines all work and turn easily.
- Inspect the body for cracks. Any crack is a bad sign but not a deal breaker.
- Press the string down at each end of the fingerboard—it should touch all of the frets. This is one way to check for a straight neck.
- Play a few notes and chords to see how the guitar feels and responds.
- Ask the owner if the guitar has ever been repaired.
Questions to Ask a Dealer
- Will they play and demonstrate different brands and styles of instruments for you?
- Will they tune and adjust the guitar to your liking?
- Do they offer repair services or additional warranties?
- What is their return/refund policy?
- Do they provide any freebies—a carrying case, strings, picks, etc.—with your purchase? Most retailers should offer you something.
- Will they accept the instrument in trade if you decide to “upgrade” to something better?
You are now armed with enough information to make an educated choice when choosing your first guitar. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Many guitar teachers offer suggestions or have a trusted dealer or merchant that they can direct you to.
Whether you’re selecting an instrument for yourself or your child, as I tell my students who are starting out during their first lesson, “Get ready, your life is about to change!” Enjoy the moment and good luck.