While it’s good to read on-line reviews of different models, testing the guitar first hand is still the best way to buy. If you don’t play yet, take a trusted friend who does with you because the sales guy at the store is liable to say anything.
To start, you want a guitar that (1) is easy to play and (2) sounds good. There are different styles of guitar. Basically there are:
Classical: Nylon String, Acoustic, slotted head,
wide string spacing, flat fretboard (no radius)
- Cordoba C5 for $299
Acoustic: Modern Steel String
- Yamaha FG730S for $299
Electric: Solid, Hollow, or Semi-Hollow Body, Steel String
easier access to higher frets because of the cutout
- ESP LTD EC-256 for $399
- Ibanez AS73 for $399
- G & L Tribute for $450
The cheapest guitars are not worth bringing home. They have cheap hardware, warped necks with no adjustment rod, strings that are high off the fingerboard making them hard to press, and are made out of plywood, which usually sounds like plastic – just horrible.
In the next level up, you usually get
- some decent chrome sealed tuners,
- a truss rod,
- and if electric, an adjustable bridge.
I always recommend starting with an electric guitar, unless you know that you want to play a nylon string classical or flamenco guitar, because the strings on electric guitars are easier to press. Electric guitars use thinner strings than Acoustic guitars, which makes it easier on your fingers, which is particularly important when you’re starting out so you don’t give up before you fall in love with playing. Once you’ve built up your calluses and finger strength, if you want an Acoustic guitar, you’ll be in better position to play and select one to your liking.
There are two schools of thought on buying cheap guitars.
- You’ll never get any money out of a guitar that’s too cheap.
- You may take a loss on a more expensive one anyway.
I really don’t think there is such a thing as a good “beginner” guitar, because you’re really only a beginner for a very short time, and a guitar that’s not up to intermediate level will just be too hard to play and will make you quit prematurely. So, please read this whole page before you buy your first guitar.
At any rate, I wouldn’t want to start with the $3,000 guitar because,
- It certainly won’t be your last guitar
- You’ll want to make your mistakes and put the wear and tear on a less expensive one
- The expensive one doesn’t play itself any better than a moderately priced one.
In 2015, it’s hard to find a decent guitar for under $300. Above that, there is a lot to choose from. There are a lot of great guitars available for under about $500 or $600 and you could go your whole career without ever spending more than $1,100 or $1,200 on a single guitar. Musicians often gig with “player” guitars in this range because stage mishaps do happen and it’s easier to handle if you don’t have too much in it.
You’ll also want a protective case. Not all cases are protective or even well built, so read some reviews and inspect in person before you buy. Avoid unpadded bags or hard cases made out of cardboard.
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No matter what style you get, buy a new set of ultra light strings right away. That’s .010 or .011 for Acoustic and .008 or .009 for Electric. You can put electric strings on a steel string acoustic, but not on a nylon string classical guitar because the string tension of steel strings is too high for the construction of a nylon string classical. Those numbers refer to the gauge of the thinest string. The rest of the strings in the set will be correspondingly lighter or heavier, so we often just use the short hand of referring to a set by the gauge of it’s first or lightest string.
If the store doesn’t install them for you, don’t worry, we’ll show you how before you start playing.
Your Second Guitar
Hopefully you already have a decent guitar, but if you’ve outgrown a loaner that got you through the beginning phase, now that you know how to play a few notes and strum a few chords, you’re in a much better position to choose a guitar for yourself. It’s still good to take a friend who plays along for a second opinion. Early on, your ear hasn’t developed enough to notice many important differences, and here again is where your friend that plays can help.
If you haven’t outgrown your first guitar, then it’s safe to put this off a little longer while you build some more skill and will be in an even better position to select your own guitar.
All of the information above still applies. It’s still early in your career and you really don’t have to make a change yet.
Of course by now, you probably know if you want a Classical, Acoustic or Electric guitar. I still recommend Electric for intermediate because bar chords are not easily fretted on Acoustics, let alone Classical guitars, and they are a huge piece of your guitar training.
If you’re still using .008s, you can now graduate to 009s. I learned to play on .008s and use to break a lot of strings. Once I moved to .009s they didn’t break anymore.
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Adding to your Stable
You don’t need a new guitar to start your journey through the Advanced phase of your career, although you may get the itch at some point to upgrade your main axe, or add another style to your stable. While modeling amps have somewhat mitigated the need to get one guitar for each style of music, getting a new guitar is fun and can reinvigorate your playing.
Now that you can really play, and can probably do a basic setup on your guitar, you should finally be in good shape to pick out a guitar by yourself. Although it’s always more fun with a friend. It’s a very personal choice, and you don’t find the guitar so much as the guitar finds you.
Here’s your basic checklist:
- Look for cosmetic problems
- Play it and see how it plays and how it sounds. Does it speak to you?
- Look for structural problems (holes, cracks, de-lamination, separating seams, reattached head or replaced neck, bowed soundboard around bridge, cracks around the neck-body joint, I’ve seen it all)
- Sight down the neck from both ends and look for strange bows or twists
- Look for excessive fret wear that may need attention
- Check the reviews to see what the secondary market might think
I wouldn’t obsess over the EQ of the guitar, since your strumming, picking and electronics can have much more effect over EQ than a subtly in tone wood, however, no electronics will add clarity from a muddy tone. So while tone quality is vitally important, EQ usually just isn’t. Try playing closer to the neck or bridge on the different guitars. See what you can coax out of it by adjusting your picking angle and technique.
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As an advanced player, your fingers will stand up to just about any strings that you want to use, and with mature finger independence you likely have a much lighter grip than when you started. Lots of advanced electric guitar players still play on .009s for easy bending, although a lot of new electric guitars come from the factory with .010s. New Acoustic guitars are often strung with .012s or .013s. Check with the manufacturer before putting .013s on an Acoustic, because many of them have inadequate bracing on the soundboard for the extra tension of heavier strings.
The heavier the string, the more volume and more mellow the sound. Jazz players often use .013s on their electrics. Make sure the nut accommodates the string width if you’re going heaver than what came from the factory.
You may need to tweak the truss rod and bridge height a little as well. Do not get those two adjustments confused.
- The truss rod is only used to affect the straightness of the neck.
- The action (height of the strings above the fretboard) is completely controlled by bridge height or in drastic situations by a neck reseating.
- See our Guitar Setup page for more details.
- You may need to double check the nut height as well, but it’s rare that it would require a change.
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