So you’ve decided to become a guitarist, that’s amazing! You can already picture the road to fame ahead of you. No matter how you get there, your journey starts by choosing your first guitar to buy.
You probably browsed through a couple of websites or went to the music store and felt overwhelmed by all the available options. So what should your first guitar have and what should you avoid? Fear not, here is your practical guide for helping you choose your first musical instrument.
The fundamental step to becoming a great guitarist is to buy your first guitar. Choose your first guitar for its aesthetic and how it feels because it will keep you motivated. Conventional wisdom suggests to start with classical or acoustic guitars because they are easier to play. Today however many people prefer to immediately start with an electric guitar or bass. In any case, your first guitar should be sturdy and versatile: it will take much abuse and it has to support you as you progress through your learning.
1. Who is the first guitar for?
If this first guitar is for someone else, learn as much as possible about that person’s taste and preferences beforehand. If it’s not going to be a surprise present, you might even want to ask them directly what their preferences are.
In fact, you might consider buying a different type of guitar depending on the musical genres that they like the most. The age of the person for whom the guitar is might also be a factor, as the younger is the player, the smaller the guitar gets. Also consider that other physical traits of the soon-to-be guitarist: electric guitars, for instance, are usually not symmetric, thus left-handed persons need guitars that are suitable to them.
2. Choosing the guitar type
There are 4 different types of guitars: classical, acoustic, electric, and bass. So which one to choose?
By conventional wisdom, it’s best to start with a classical or acoustic guitar. Nowadays the perception has changed and there is plenty of tuition material to get started with and schools offering lessons for any kind of guitar. Therefore it is strongly advisable to pick the type of guitar that is most suitable for the genre that interests you the most.
If you are still not sure which kind of guitar is right for you, we present below the main features of the 4 principal guitar types to help you decide.
The classical guitar is the variant that schools were traditionally teaching. The classical and the acoustic guitars are very similar: they both host a sounding box in their body, but the classical has a chunkier neck. Chunky necks require the player to further stretch their fingers. As such, a novice player might find the acoustic guitar easier to play.
Young children might find that the neck of an acoustic guitar is still too thick. We recommended that they try playing the ukulele instead that is more suitable for their small hands.
There’s an amazing list of the 10 best beginner acoustic guitars over at Guitar Junky.
Classical guitars also have nylon strings. Technically, the top 3 are nylon, while the bottom 3 are thin metal coils winding around a silk core. Acoustic guitars instead have metal strings which require more tension and make the guitar a little louder. Prospective players sometimes prefer classical guitars because the less tensioned nylon strings are easier on their fingers. Classical guitars are of course more suited for the classical repertoire or Latin-style folk. The acoustic guitars are instead the best for strumming chords, blues or folk fingerpicking.
Amplified guitars don’t have a sounding box but pick-ups. They convert the vibration of the strings in signals that require an external amplifier to make any sound. These guitars are a little less practical to carry but also offer many more options for sound customisation.
Bass guitars have much longer necks and only the 4 bottom strings of a guitar, tuned to an octave below. Basses require more stretch but they usually play only one note at a time rather than chords. Both kinds of guitar have well-tensioned metal strings that are less gentle on the fingers. The bass is the less common choice, but both are a great choice if you are into rock music.
3. Settle on the shape and style
When buying your first guitar, you will want a versatile instrument that can play a range of different music types and that has sufficient quality to support your progress in the first few stages of learning. At this stage, you should be less concerned with how it sounds than how it looks, as you ultimately want to choose a guitar to keep you hooked to your new hobby as much as possible.
Look at the guitars of the artists that you love for inspiration, and go wild browsing online for inexpensive instruments. Any website will do to get an idea of the available models and prices, even Amazon!
Once you have found the perfect colour and style, consider the following aspects as well. Classical and acoustic guitars have less stylistic variations, but their materials and size have a huge impact on sound quality. The top and the bodies usually consist of solid or laminated wood. Plywood is indeed durable and cheap, but also quite stiff. Unfortunately it doesn’t produce a tone nearly as round as solid wood does. As a rule of thumb, the more solid the wood used, the better the guitar sounds and the more expensive the guitar.
These guitars also come in several body sizes, with or without cutaways. Bigger bodies, such as in the dreadnought style acoustics, have a richer sound but are also more cumbersome. Parlour style guitars are thinner and quieter, but better suited for seated practice.
Generally speaking, the sound of any electric guitar depends on the amplifier and the other electrical components. There are plenty of different configurations, so the best way to choose a guitar is to get somebody playing them to hear the differences. Also consider that there are smaller-scale electric guitars for children with shorter necks and fretboards that are ¾ the size of a standard guitar.
4. Establish your budget
If you have followed our guide, you should know by now what kind of music you will play, and how your first guitar should look like. Now decide your budget, stick to it and find the best guitar that matches all of the entries in your wishlist.
Paying a little extra for a feature that you really fancy may be tempting, but you should try to resist it because you might find out later that that frilly model is not the right instrument for you or its style bored you. For now, the important thing is that the guitar plays well and that it does not curb your learning.
Try to avoid the most basic instruments, but also do not spend anything beyond $400/£300 for a beginner guitar. There are plenty of options in this price range, so start off cheap and gradually increase the price of your instruments as your progress and dedication grow.
As you get better at playing guitar, you’ll start to get an idea of which guitar styles you prefer to play, and therefore which type of guitar is best for that style. Your ‘ear’ will also improve over time, allowing you to start to hear the differences between guitars and so choose the one that’s best for you.
5. Try before you buy
At this stage, you should have narrowed down your search to a handful of guitars. You should now go to your local music shop and ask the staff to help you out.
See which guitars still appeal you in the flesh. Sit down with everyone in your list, hold onto the neck, and see if it feels natural. Ask the clerk of the music store to tune them for you and play some notes. Find out if they sound well, especially if you are going to choose a cheaper guitar. If you don’t yet know how to play, they’ll be happy to play some songs for you. Ask for their recommendation.
In the end, make sure that your first guitar is comfortable to play and stays in tune properly.
6. Pimp your playing
After you have set your mind on a guitar model to buy, consider buying a starter pack as well.
Picks are typical accessories for classical or acoustic guitars. Standard starter packs usually include extra strings. Those are needed to replace those that wear out or break over time. Starter packs for electric guitars and bass usually include an amplifier, cables and a strap to play standing. They often include strings and picks, and you might want to buy them separately if they don’t. Sometimes these packs also include cleaning fluid to take care of the neck’s components.
Other basic accessories that you might find interesting when learning to play are the metronome and tuner. Guitar Scout, your own personal online guitar assistant, provides you a metronome and tuner while you search for songs to play online. After you have consolidated your basic skills, you might try to use a slide and capo on your guitar. Once you know how to play, learn how to sing and play guitar at the same time and how to play guitar in front of others to become a rockstar!
Choosing your first guitar? solved!
Choosing your first guitar does not have to be too much of a minefield. At this early stage, the main thing to consider is the size of the guitar and what style of music you wish to play. With that in mind, choosing a style you like will help keep you motivated while you learn. Make sure to visit your local guitar shop so you can try out the guitar and get all of the accessories you need to become a guitar playing god.