What BEGINNNER GUITAR Should I Buy ? by Steve Zirkler February 2015 update
THE SHORT STORY
So many guitars to choose from, so where do you start ?
DECIDE YOUR BUDGET, then,
WITH PROFESSIONAL HELP
BUY THE BEST INSTRUMENT ,
SUITS YOU & THE TYPE OF MUSIC YOU LIKE.
THE LONG LONG STORY read on....
Who are you buying for ? If you are buying for a kid, you might justifiedly have reservations about the ability of your kid to
a. look after it properly and
b. use it enough.
In this case look for a good quality entry level product.
I'm careful with my stuff but it gets used and that means occasionally bumped, scratched and unfortunately dropped. When it's a $3,000 instrument that stuff is frustrating but an instrument is meant to be used. I started with a $25 instrument as a kid and it was in mint condition when I upgraded 6 months later. The next secondhand $40 guitar was in mint condition when I traded up a few years on. From that point it was my money I was spending and since I didn't have a lot of it, every purchase was considered carefully.
When I started making steady money teaching and playing, I had a $700 guitar while some of my students had $4000 instruments. As my guitar had to earn its keep, I didn't upgrade to flashier professional instruments until I proved to myself that they were in fact an investment and I was getting a fair return on that investment.
So perhaps you see what I'm getting at ? It's not just about learning guitar is it, it's about life skills. Through the process of research, evaluation, trading, bargaining & having to work for "things" I learnt more than being just a guitarist.
I've met plenty of people with expensive instruments that for their lack of skill don't sound any better than a basic instrument. Good instruments are important, but for most of us, work ethic is important and instilling these core values into our youngsters is essential to their long-term resilience & success. Perhaps you know yourself or your kid well enough to understand they take care of their things, maintain their things, store things safely & are very careful with who they share things. If this is you or your kid, spend a bit more from the beginning.
My friends have mint condition guitars they bought 30 years ago & they use them. Maybe I just hang out with careful people.
If you or your kid is careless, then you need to spend less & take time to train better habits.
WHERE TO BUY
Beginners need the help of salespeople. If you shop in a guitar shop, chances are good that you'll get a playable instrument regardless of the spend. That's because guitar shop people know about guitars and stock at least fair quality instruments or they soon go out of business. The real advantage of guitar shops is being able to touch, feel, play ,see & hear the item with professional help.
You don't buy your meat from the baker, so don't expect a piano shop has a good range & expertise with guitars.
People who work in guitar shops love guitars and that's an important distinction to make.
Pawn shops seem like bargain centres but think about it. Their profit is in high priced short term loans, not the music business. The quality of their product is extremely variable as is their expertise and judgement as to what is a fair instrument at a fair price.
Take an expert or experienced player with you if you shop there or stay away.
For secondhand shopping take your expert with you too. Guitar adjustment or repairs may cost more than a new product. Guitars get bumped & a few bum frets can ruin an instrument. The cost of replacements on a cheap instrument isn't justifiable. Electronics in instruments needs to be checked carefully. In my coastal-beach environment corrosion is a problem. Check every switch, knob, pick-up and connection point to be sure it works properly. Getting a guitar tech to fix or replace electronics is not unusual so beware when you shop secondhand.
A professional set up with maintenence can cost $100 easy. Replacing frets gets expensive.
Buying on the internet is similarly risky with a lot of unknown brands that may or may not be good. You might be lucky but you might get stuck. If you buy through the internet, do your homework, read reviews, buy a recommended brand of a specific model and note the return policy. As most manufacturers build to a range of price points "cheap to top shelf ", check those model numbers carefully. Whereas the brand can be a good guide, be aware that different models can have large variations in their quality.
Many "labels" are a marketing tool. Companies source their instruments from different factories & have their logo stamped on.
E.g. Indonesian, Chinese, Japanese, U.S. and Mexican factories all produce Fenders under licence with quality differences between same models. Yamaha do the same.
Wood is flexible so issues such as storage & moisture control can impact to make differences between even the same model of guitar.
Quality control is an issue as there is still a good deal of hand finishing of any guitar. There is a chance you get a Friday made guitar, rather than a Monday one and human error (or slackness) does happen. Very recently one of my students bought a guitar from a local Brisbane dealer. One year on and the bridge is lifting and the cable connection plug dropped out. For sure it's a Friday guitar. The dealer has seen this as a legitimate quality control problem and is replacing the product. You won't get this service buying 2nd hand and you will probably never find a similar service on an import web shop.
I play everything before I buy. My local shop had 2 identical model Fender electrics this week. I played both.
One is unacceptably buzzy, the other is fine.
As a beginner, you might not be in a position to judge so let the experts help you & accept that they need some payment for advice.
WHAT SHOULD A MUSIC SHOP DO FOR YOU ?
They should fit you out with an appropriate size instrument that meets your budget.
It should be tuned at the shop and played/demonstrated to ensure it works well.
If there are any tools (allan keys), instruction books, warranty papers, spares(strings), power chord & cable (for an amp), or equipment (whammy bar) they should be with the instrument. Ask about this and check the box before you leave the store.
If you buy it, have your teacher promptly check it to be sure it is playable quality. If there are serious issues with it, there is a better chance you can change it, have the shop adjust it or make a new deal with the shop. The shop won't want an issue with local teachers and they will generally accept responsibility that an instrument should be sold in its optimum playable condition.
In music shops you find there are many true professionals with attention to detail. You might however get the young learner salesperson who doesn't understand your needs and the need to be meticulous. Sometimes you get the cool charismatic who loves to play and show off but isn't really attentive to anything outside his own interests. Some shops are just staffed by slack people. If a shop looks messy, staff are inattentive, instruments not tuned and labels are missing you might think twice about dealing with these people.
Always doublecheck what you are getting. I always unpack & check everything before I leave a shop. Experience tells me if I don't, I have to go back & pick up something that should have been in the bag or box at the start.
I was disappointed recently to see a 7 year old turn up to my lesson with an adult sized guitar. The music shop should have firmly recommended the appropriate size. Having one he grows into in 3 years time isn't smart. It's a todder's chair at a big table.
He went back and got a kid sized one, it hadn't been tuned so he couldn't practice that week.
I want to support my local shop so it's unfortunate their employees are slack. I steer my students elsewhere.
Even if it's a busy day and close to closing time, the job must be done properly. If they don't understand the concept of "service" these businesses & jobs will disappear & on-line sales will be the only way.
Good service is the only option, especially in Australia where overheads are high.
Match the size to the player. You wouldn't buy a 3 year old kid size 14 shoes. It's just dumb.
Customers come in all shapes and sizes physically and budget wise so let's sort out who you are - Big person, medium or small. Hand size too is very important. The instrument should be comfortable and feel balanced. The fingers should fit on a string without stepping all over the neighbouring strings. A hand should be able to reach around the neck so the fingers can stretch to the lowest and highest strings.
The salesperson should put the guitar in the hands of the buyer to try for size. I've met several guys with really fat fingers who were sold a thin neck guitar when it is clear if the salepeople had looked closely at this person's build they would have recommended something with a slightly wider neck. When each of your fingers is thumb sized, the gaps between strings become more important.
Smaller build people will essentially be more comfortable with more compact guitars.
Yamaha make a baby sized guitar that is comparable to a ukulele. If you are looking for a portable travel instrument or you are small they are excellent. There are kid sized versions of most things.
Concerning short scale necks on guitars, to achieve concert pitch over this shorter distance means the strings will be sloppier. That can make this sort of instrument rattle and buzz as the strings slop around.
The intonation (ie the correctness of pitch as you play higher up the neck) may also not be as accurate. Better to save on size by having a smaller body as opposed to a shorter neck, or, only stick with top brands for this type of instrument.
Guitar Tone- Whatever the type of guitar, starting with a good tone is important. It's very hard to describe what makes a good tone. You'll just have to judge what you hear. Listening to the same tune played on different guitars would help make that decision more objective. Some factors aside from the build will influence the tone. Strings that are rusty will be dull. Different gauge (thickness) of strings also influences tone. Very thin strings though easy to play have little tone- glassy and colourless. Thicker strings though more difficult to play can produce more volume and the resonance from the guitar body will probably produce better tone.
If you buy an electric guitar, listen to it played without amplification first. If it sounds good unamplified, the guitar body is helping create good tone and there is a better chance it will sound good amplified.
Playability is another factor that supports tone. If the strings are too thick or too high, it's a struggle to play and tone will suffer.
Guitar Volume- Larger body acoustic guitars are often louder. For me it's good tone first. Loudness, though sometimes handy, runs second.
#1. If you are a quiet singer with a loud guitar the balance between the 2 won't work.
# 2. A loud singing busker with a loud guitar might be a good match.
#3. If you record both guitar and voice at the same time in the same room, a loud guitar will mix in with the voice and won't be flexible for making good recordings. In this day and age with amplifiers being quite cheap I don't worry about how much volume the instrument puts out. If you are case #2 and want to play completely acoustically, especially outdoors a bigger instrument works.
Weight affects the way you play and can be a nuisance. At first you might pick up a guitar and think this is solid. You might feel like it's durable, powerful or indestructible. Stop taking steroids. My first electric guitar was a vintage instrument constructed of very dense wood. After playing it with a guitar strap around my neck for more than 30 minutes, I would have a sore neck & fierce headache. I will never buy such a heavy item again.
Right or Left handed ? There are right and left handed guitars. I have taught several students who are lefties with right-handed guitars and they have become superior musicians. No problems & we use both hands in detailed ways so in the long run it can be fine, in fact an advantage. It's so difficult to buy a good left handed guitar because the market is small and unfortunately the majority of right handed players, salesmen and luthiers couldn't play one to test it properly. Lefties can't borrow anyone's instrument as it's bound to be right-handed. I'd encourage a beginner lefty to use a right handed guitar and bear in mind EVERYTHING is awkward for a beginner. Getting good is more about having a head that's unstoppable. Not everyone will agree with this view.
Major Succesful Lefties who play right-handed include:
Gary Moore (Thin Lizzy and later successful solo career)
Duane Allman (Allman Brothers Band), BB King, Paul Simon, Vinnie Moore (UFO), Steve Morse (Deep Purple 1994,Dixie Dregs 1973,Kansas 1985 - 1989 etc), Joe Pass ( not sure about him???-don't beieve everything on the internet), Bruce Cockburn (Canadian acoustic picker - sung Wondering Where The Lions Are), Billy Corgan ( Smashing Pumpkins), Elvis Costello, Johnny Winter (Texas Bluesman whose famous multi-instrumentalist brother Edgar's progressive rock band recorded quality cutting edge music for its time. Check out Frankenstein.), Mark Knopfler (Dire Straits), Michael Hedges (Played Harp Guitar amongst other guitar variants featuring tapping styles),Robert Fripp (King Crimson), Steve Cropper (Booker T. & the M.G.'s 1962,The Blues Brothers 1978 and of course played on Sittin On The Dock Of The Bay), Noel Gallagher (Oasis), Chris Rea (check out his album On The Beach - well known for his slide guitar tone and warm husky vocals), Chris Martin (Coldplay), David Bowie, David Byrne (Talking Heads). Impressive names right!
CHEAP to MID PRICED BUT GOOD is a great way to start for most people.
Make sure the instrument has good tone and playable action without buzzes across the neck. Get the salesperson, your teacher or an experienced player to demonstrate it. Play every note. Your ears will have to judge whether it has the potential to sound good. Get them to play every note slowly. If there are rattles (assuming the player to be good) then the string does not align well to the neck and scrubs out on the frets. Don't buy it. Assume anything you buy (especially that which is not set up well from the start) will only get worse as it is used.
Don't believe that guff about instruments getting better with age as most just get worn and broken.
Have you got better as you've got older or are you falling apart? Has your car got better with age? No.
Check the distance the strings are from the neck as this makes it harder or easier to play. ("Action" is what we call it.) A low action makes for less physical effort to pin the string down on the fretboard.
The best tools are helpful & the best tools often cost more. But a good instrument doesn't cost a lot these days thanks to China, experience in manufacture & a world where machines have taken a lot of guesswork & rough measurement away from the manufacturing processes. There are some brands that target these entry point markets such as Cort, Tanglewood, and Epiphone. There are also big name companies such as Suzuki and Yamaha that have continuously managed to put out quality instruments across all price points.
Ask your teacher to guide you as to what are the best buys in your local area.
QUALITY AND FRILLS COST MORE- DO YOU NEED IT?
I love beautiful, well crafted guitars. They don't come cheap. If the woods are solid (not laminates), rare and hard species like ebony, the hardware goldplated and inlays carved out and tastefully designed it costs more. Do you need this and can you afford this is a question you must answer yourself? I own many guitars which have such artistic integrity but they weren't my first.
These are not the sort of thing you'd put in the hands of an uneducated person such a a kid. Kids especially should learn to look after a cheap thing first before they are trusted with a high quality/cost item. They are often rough or a bit clumsy and dropping a $100 guitar is better than breaking a $3000 guitar. Most woods in guitars are softwoods which break easily. Expensive guitars are not necessarily more durable.
If money is no object buy the best. Big brand names like "Gibson, Martin,Fender, Yamaha, Ibanez, Gretsch, Guild, Rickenbacker, Taylor, Cole Clark, Maton and the like are often expensive. Especially so in Australia, a relatively small marketplace with high overheads, high taxes & taxes on taxes. We pay excise on imports and that excise is taxed via G.S.T. That helps a bit to keep our local manufacturers viable, notably Maton.
If you have no help and you have to make a decision based on a name, it's safe. It's also safe to say you may pay more than you need to. (Though I have Fender, Yamaha, Ibanez, Gretsch, and Maton guitars in my kit.)
You can spend less and get equal or better quality if you know something or someone to help you choose.
I believe many choose by brand as they are unable to discern the differences. Equivalent quality instruments without famous brand labels are available at lower prices. Professional level instruments will give better results. That's a fact but unnecessary for a first instrument.
The best is not always the most expensive. It can cost as much to make a poor instrument as a good one due to the variability of a piece of wood & the choices made by the luthier. The other factor is where it comes from as the cost structure and then taxes can inflate a price.
A friend recently bought a perfect Chinese replica of a famous American "National" model at $1,000, 25% of the original brand item price, but he knows what good is. He then turned around to buy the original name model. He is such a perfectionist but 3-4 times the cost for what will be an unnoticeable difference for his audience and a fraction of a percent improvement for him. It's OK he will have it for a lifetime.
There may be ethical choices to consider. Maton Australia use plantation timbers whereas many other (Chinese)manufacturers are ripping up rainforests in Madagascar to get rosewood & ebony for guitar necks. (sound of lemurs crying).
An expensive guitar never guarantees good playing.
I like a cool looking guitar but given the budget based choice between best sound and best look, I have to trust my ears. I understand that some musicians are more performers and the show-off elements are important. I'll put my faith in a nice shirt instead if I want to look good.
3 TYPES OF GUITARS
There are 3 basic choices from cheapest to most expensive. There is no right or wrong choice as to whether to buy a classical, steel string acoustic or an electric as your first instrument. Slightly different tools for different purposes but still all guitars.
1. Classical (acoustic) Guitars are nylon stringed. Traditionally wider neck and soft strings are ideally suited to finger style. Modern variations include cutaway body for easy access to higher frets, pick-ups and built-in tuner for use with amplifiers. Some have slimmed down necks which may make them less useful as finger style guitars so check the fit. Beginner models of reasonable quality from around $100 with a soft carry bag. Nice and soft on the fingers with half the tension of steel strings. "Flamenco" guitars are a sub-class, generally louder to get over all that stomp dancing and castanet sound. Acoustic guitars don't need amps. Take them anywhere. They're simple.
2. Steel Stringed Acoustic Guitars (folk guitars) These also often include the variations as noted above. Almost all acoustic instruments I own have a cutaway neck and pick-up & they certainly make the instruments very flexible.
Beginner models of reasonable quality from around $200 new with a soft carry bag. Under amplification through built-in pick-ups I favour steel strings. Pick-ups for steel strings are generally more refined than those used on nylon stringed guitars.
3. Electric Guitars come in many configurations but beginners are likely to find the most common form follows the design of a Fender Stratocaster which has 3 pick-ups, 5 way switching, a tremolo arm (whammy bar), tone and volume controls and 22 frets. It's a versatile design, suitable for most any type of music. Beginner models tend to come with inferior but functional tuning knobs (machineheads), and cheaper pick-ups than the real Fender items that were made famous by so many guitar heroes. When packaged with an amp and bag, the amp is of the most basic function. A better amp has at least 2 footswitchable channels (usually a clean sound & a dirty sound) with a set of controls (volume, treble, bass and overdrive) for each channel and reverb, a type of echo that will definitely help the quality of sound. Pay a few hundred more for a better amp. Electric guitars are easier to play & work well with amps. No screechy feedback.
Beginner packages of reasonable quality from around $350.
Other features in higher end models include more frets (24 is nice), locking machineheads (so strings don't slip out of tune), graphite nut (the strings slide through a slot and graphite is slippery so less friction helps strings remain in tune) and locking tremolo systems.(strings are locked down like piano strings & do stay in tune quite well)
Each guitar type have their strengths. There is an overlap in the skills required for each so learning about any of them isn't going to be wasted. Steel strings are harder work for beginners to use for fingerstyle. Classical guitars with soft strings usually have slightly wider necks which make your hand have to stretch further. Get something, lose something. Get it? Nylon guitar strings don't rust, but steel sounds brighter.
Electric guitars with thinner necks and lighter strings are the easiest to manage physically. They also have less (feedback) problems when used with amps as the solid body cuts out screaming noise issues.
Beginners playing through amps is something the rest of the household won't appreciate. At least get an amp with a headphone socket. As deafness is an increasing disease of the 21st century teach ear safety actively.
I personally love acoustic guitars with their greater dynamic range and that sound which I never seem to tire of. I also couldn't be bothered to plug in every time I want to play. The extra work using an accoustic strengthens my hands and fingers so transition to an electric is easy.
There is no one solution and no correct solution to finding which way to go from the 3 choices. No one tool does everything though I'm still looking. Innovative "modelling guitars" are able to play sampled sounds of classic, acoustic & electric models that are incredibly realistic as well as their own acoustic or electric tone but you need to be prepared to spend several thousand dollars there. Roland do their Guitar Synthesisers and Line 6 do the Variax Guitar. I love them (and have the versatile Roland) but nothing can replicate the delicate sound of a real fine acoustic instrument. Not yet anyway.
Godin from Canada make solid body instruments that attempt to be everything:-electric guitars which also have an acoustic pick-up and a built in synthesiser pick-up. It's a brilliant idea & a pretty good guitar but still not the same as the delicate sound of a dedicated fine full bodied acoustic.
Accept each guitar, whatever the cost, has a limit and buy one to start.
You will probably want to collect several of all 3 types over time !
A player who starts with a beginner instrument and works hard at it will likely need a better quality instrument after around a year.
I encourage my students to treat even a cheap instrument carefully and respectfully so it can be traded or sold when grading up and recover a good deal of its purchase price or it can be kept it as the lug around instrument for the beach or camp trip.
DECIDE YOUR BUDGET, then,
WITH PROFESSIONAL HELP
BUY THE BEST INSTRUMENT ,
SUITS YOU & THE TYPE OF MUSIC YOU LIKE.
The fact is the guitar can be a very inexpensive purchase.
The greatest expense is the months, probably years of professional lessons.