Buying a guitar can be a daunting task for anybody, but especially so for beginners. If you arm yourself with some basic knowledge, bring along your common sense, and have reasonable expectations you’ll find a guitar that is right for you.
Guitars come in many varieties. From acoustic to electric, 12 string guitars to dobros, and the list goes on. Since the objective of this article is to educate the first time guitar buyer, I will limit the choices to nylon and steel string acoustics and electric guitars. I believe acoustic guitars are best to start on, but for those who really want an electric guitar you can make some good choices as well.
The top three strings are made of nylon, the bottom three are wound steel strings. The strings have very little tension and are easy on the finger tips for beginners. The nylon stringed guitar is light which makes it great to haul around wherever you go.
First time guitar buyers usually start with a solid body electric guitar. There are more external factors that affect the sound of the electric guitar, so start with an instrument that feels good to you. If you really like the “feel” of the electric later on you can always modify the pickups, buy foot pedals, and purchase a good amplifier which is essential to your sound.
I believe the playability or feel of the instrument should be the most important factor when buying your first guitar. This can mean many things but more specifically the size and shape of the guitar and how it fits with your body. For most players the “feel” comes from how the neck of the instrument feels in the hand. The width and thickness of the neck, type of wood, and the string gauge (thickness of strings) all contribute to the feel of the neck. Nylon stringed guitars have larger necks with more space between the strings. This makes it easier for the player to articulate individual strings. The neck of the steel stringed guitars are more like electric guitars which are thinner and not very wide. A thinner neck makes it easier to pull off techniques like vibrato, bends, hammer on/off, etc.
The action of a guitar is the distance between the strings and the neck or fretboard. When the action is “high” it means the strings are high off of the fretboard. Guitars with high action can be harder to play because it takes more pressure to sound the notes. If the action is “low” the strings are close to the neck and makes the guitar easier to play. The downside is you may have uncontrollable string buzz, whichis undersireable. When the action of the guitar is set up correctly it will sound good with no string buzz and be easy to play.
On many occasions I have been astonished at the price differences of guitars. Some lesser quality instruments are priced higher than superior instruments, while instruments of the same quality are pricedhundreds of dollars apart. The prices are usually determined by where the instrument was constructed, the materials used, and the cost of labor.
Everybody wants the best deal on a great instrument. When buying your first guitar you probably shouldn’t spend an exorbitant sum of money. On the other hand, if you buy a cheap guitar the instrument usually has high action which makes it unhealthy to play for long periods of time. A beginner doesn’t need a more challenging instrument to play as they struggle to develop their technique.
Nowadays (2017) you can find a new decent student guitar for about $250, not including the case. You can buy a soft or a hard case to transport the guitar, my suggestion is the soft. The soft case is feathery-light and provides ample protection if you are careful. Remember that if you are getting an electric guitar you’ll need an amp and a cable to get the most out of the instrument. You can play an electric without an amp, at least for yourself, but that quiet sound isn’t going to satisfy your desire for getting an electric guitar in the first place.
Each guitar design produces a different sounding instrument. The nylon string guitar has a warm dark sound. Steel stringed guitars have a brighter tone and tend to project more sound. Electric guitars vary from solid bodies to semi-hollow and hollow bodies. Each of these guitars have a different character, and when you consider the affect that strings, amp, effects have, you realize there are a lots of sonic possibilities.
Ideally the guitar should have a balanced sound. In other words the high treble strings should make as much sound as the low bass strings. This is not normally the case on Inexpensive nylon stringed guitars which tend to be bass heavy. Each note on the guitar should sound clearly, balanced, and without any buzzes. If certain notes are buzzing the string is vibrating on a fret. In this case the frets may be too high or the action of the strings may be too low. Play each note on each string to find where the string buzzes. It is best to buy an instrument that has no string buzz.
If you go the route of an electric guitar there are more pieces to the puzzle of a good sound. Electric guitars have pickups that are like little microphones picking up the sounds of the strings. The guitar will have a pickup selector and tone controls to alter the sound. The amplifier is the other major factor in the electric guitar sound. You can also purchase effect boxes and rack mounted devices to further enhance the sound. As you can see there are many layers to the sound of an electric guitar, which is why I place most of my decision on the “feel” of the instrument. Everything else can be changed after that.
For some beginners this is an important consideration, and for others it’s not. Acoustic guitars have a fairly standard look to them, although today there are more red and blue guitars popping up. Rock guitarists look great on stage wailing on a guitar with wild shapes and vibrant colors. You may not look so cool with your neon purple with orange flamed guitar playing songs for your grandma and her friends. Follow your own instincts, but mine say it may be best to wait till you’re in a rock band before you get that crazy looking guitar.
Buying a used instrument is a viable way to buy a nice guitar. You don’t have to spend a lot of money to get going. Maybe a friend or family member has a neglected guitar lying around their house. Sometimes good instruments change hands at garage sales or flea markets. Make sure the guitar has all six strings and look at the condition of the body and neck for any imperfections. Check that all six tuning pegs work and turn relatively easy. There is nothing worse than a beginner playing a guitar that is hard to tune! If you have a guitar playing friend perhaps they could join you on your search. When you play the guitar you aren’t getting a complete aural picture of what the instrument sounds like. For this reason listen to someone else play the guitar from a distance since this is how an audience will hear you. If you are shopping for children be aware that smaller guitars are available, ask to see their selection of 3/4 sized guitars.
A word about music stores and sales people. Most are musicians themselves and can give you advice as you’re looking. Some will be more helpful, some less. Treat them well and you’ll usually be treated well in return. It’s to your advantage to have good relations with stores and their employees because you’ll be buying strings, music, amps, cables, etc. from the same people. If you can get to several stores and play many guitars. Don’t be afraid to play or listen to guitars that are out of your price range. This is how you can hear and feel what a fine instrument is like. So go out with open ears, an open mind, have some fun on your search. Who knows, this could be the first of many guitar purchases, Good luck in your playing!