Sunday, April 4, 2010

How To Buy The Best First Guitar for a Beginner

I get a lot of inquiries on lessons for beginners, both adults and children, and a good half of those beginners don't have a guitar yet and need advice on how to get one. Here are some things to consider, along with my recommendations.

1. What Style Do You Want To Learn?
Some people will tell you to the best way to start learning is with an acoustic guitar. That's not horrible advice, after all, I started on acoustic myself, and make a good portion of my living playing and teaching it. But if you're dead set on learning to play heavy metal, punk, or very aggressive or electric music in general, you might consider going electric right off the bat.

The pros of buying an electric guitar setup as a beginner are:
  • Electrics are easier to play than acoustics due to lighter, thinner strings and smaller bodies.
  • Electric guitars are more versatile than acoustics as well- you can easily play acoustic-style rhythm guitar part on an electric, but it's hard, if not impossible, to play many electric style leads on acoustic.
The cons of going electric out of the chute are:
  • Higher Cost (of course). You absolutely must buy an amp if you are going to buy an electric guitar. While you can still quietly hear an electric when it's not plugged in, you run the risk of picking up very bad habits by practicing without an amp. You can usually buy a decent adult size entry level acoustic guitar for $150-200, kid size guitars are generally cheaper (more on that later). An electric setup will cost at least $50 more, probably more like $200-$300 for a decent electric guitar and amp. Yes, you can find cheaper instruments and amps, but the price ranges I mentioned above will usually buy good quality instruments that can last a lifetime- I still have the first guitar I ever bought!
  • Less Portability- It's nice to have everything contained in one case like you can with an acoustic guitar. No lugging amps around, looking for outlets, etc. like you need to with an electric guitar.

2. What Size Guitar To Buy?

If you're an adult or teen, chances are a full size acoustic or electric guitar will be fine BUT- there are a few considerations before you buy a guitar.
  • Electric- Generally speaking, most kids and adults, male and female, can use a full size electric. I've had kids as young as 9 play them fine. You may want to look for a short scale electric if you or your kid can't reach the furthest frets easily.
  • Acoustic- This is tougher to fit properly. Generally, Nylon String Classical guitars have small bodies and nylon strings which are comfortable for younger or smaller people, but the necks can be quite wide and difficult for people with small hands, so be sure to try a couple different models. Nylon String guitars are intended for classical music (played with the fingers without a pick) but can be used for any style for a beginner. HOWEVER, using a pick on nylon strings will shred the strings fairly quickly, so for adult and teen beginners, I recommend going with a Steel String acoustic guitar.  They are tougher on the fingers but more useful for rock, pop, country, and most popular modern music styles. Steel String acoustic guitars generally have smaller necks which are easier to grip, and can be found in several body sizes. There are also thinline acoustic guitars by several makers with shallow bodies that a few of my women students have found to be more comfortable than traditional acoustic guitars.
  • Small Children- look for a 1/2 size or 3/4 size classical guitar- nylon strings are easier on little fingers, and classical guitars have nylon strings.  Even if the little one wants to use a pick, they won't shred the strings as fast as an adult would. There are also small steel string guitars out there, if you find one that your kid can fret easily, go for it. I have seen passable 1/2 and 3/4 sized guitars for $50-$100.

Nick's Bottom Line Recommendation: If you like many styles of music, go with an acoustic to start with- it's cheaper and easier to move around, giving you more places to practice easily. If you really only want to learn metal, punk, etc., and are willing to pay the price, go electric. And as far as guitars go, the old saying holds true- you get what you pay for. If you go bottom dollar bargain hunting, be prepared to get a guitar that isn't going to last a long time, and may need more professional adjustments than the guitar originally cost to make it easily playable. 

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