At some point, every single child in the western word asks their parents for a guitar. Some of those children are immediately punished with a 10 year sentence in clarinet, but most of them, with little regard for the sacrifices their parents have made for them, kick and scream their way to the guitar shop to take their first steps towards world tours and multi-platinum releases. It’s our job as experienced musicians to steer them away from the dizzying heights of v-shaped electric guitars and towards the more sensible choices for aspiring rock stars. But make no mistake – this isn’t just for kids, beginner guitarists range from 8 to 80.
Acoustic or electric?
It’s very common for beginners to be recommended acoustic guitars to start with. There are a few reasons for this:
1. A good acoustic starter pack is cheaper than a good electric starter pack. This is generally due to the accessories you need to complete an electric guitar pack such as an amplifier, which can cost as much as the guitar itself. Also, since it is too early to know if this is going to be the start of a long relationship or just a fad, it’s a big risk to spend big bucks on a first guitar.
2. Due to the pickups, switches, knobs, bridge, sustain block, blah blah blah, an electric guitar is generally more expensive to produce than an acoustic. So, when you look at a $199 electric vs a $199 acoustic, the acoustic is invariably better in terms of build quality and materials than the electric, and since the sound of the instrument is going to be a big factor in the enjoyment of it, a beginner will respond much more positively to a nice sounding guitar to a crappy sounding guitar.
3. Electric guitars are more confusing to the beginner than acoustic guitars. An acoustic, strung up and in tune is good to go. An electric strung up and in tune still asks questions: Is the volume up? Is the amp switched on? Are you plugged into the right input? Are your tone controls set properly? Which pickups or blend of pickups do you want? Is the amp set up correctly? Weren’t you about to try and play something?
This is all worth considering, but the contrary opinion is that you should start as you mean to go on. If you want to grab your songbook and hammer out the chords without messing around, go get an acoustic guitar. If you dream of playing solos and learning to run before you can walk, get an electric. If however, you want to play classical masterpieces (possibly whilst wearing a knitted pullover), then get a nylon-strung classical guitar.
How much should I spend?
Well, isn’t that the million dollar question? For a younger person, spend enough to get a decent starter guitar. The worst thing you can do is cheap out and get a poor quality instrument – it won’t sound good, it won’t stay in tune, and it won’t be pleasurable to play. Basically, it will be so uninspiring an experience that you’ll be ensuring failure. So how much? $199 starting price. And, don’t buy your guitar from a food chain or department store, buy it from a music store. Music stores employ musicians (because they’re cheap and can be easily exploited) who know good instruments from bad instruments, and remember buying their first guitar many years ago. We all sympathise with you and want you to get the best start possible. We’re not in it to make huge commissions, we’re in it to see you come back again and again with the same passion for music we all have.
As an adult, you hopefully have a little more dedication and are a little more sure of your decisions. Therefore, the world is your oyster. There’s no reason why you can’t learn on a $10,000 Gibson, providing that you can tell the difference between this and a much cheaper guitar and you’re not just buying an expensive piece of furniture. Choose a guitar you enjoy playing rather than falling into the old trap of buying a cheap guitar because you’re a beginner and hating every note you pluck.
For the very young
For very young players (up to 10-11 years old), we always recommend nylon-strung guitars. These guitars come in 1/4, 1/2, 3/4, and 4/4 size and have nylon strings, which are much easier on soft young fingers than the plain steel strings you get on standard acoustic and electric guitars. The way we measure guitar size is to get the prospective guitarist to sit with the guitar, with their right hand over the soundhole and their left hand over the nut at the top of the guitar (near the headstock). If they’re not stretching or scrunched up, we’ve found the right sized guitar.
In closing, if you have a rock star on your hands, buy an electric. If you have an aspiring singer/songwriter, buy a nice acoustic. If you are currently wearing corduroy or would enjoy a siesta right about now, buy a classical.