So you, or your child, have made the decision to start taking guitar lessons…Whats next? You might think that buying a student guitar is as simple as walking into your local music store and picking out your favorite color. Unfortunately, it isn’t always that easy. Once you arrive at the music store, you will realize that your choices can be downright overwhelming. Fear not, with the below tips and information, you will be walking out of that music store with a guitar just perfect for your musical debut. (Please note that this is written for a beginning guitar student, so I am simplifying and leaving out some details that just aren’t necessary at this point. I would also like to note that this article does not discuss bass guitar, as that is considered to be a different instrument.)
The first thing you should understand is that there are several styles of guitar that you can choose from. Which one is right for you? Well that depends primarily on which style of music you would like to play. The First thing that you will need to decide is if you are going to play finger-style guitar or pick-style guitar. Finger-style is when you sound the notes by picking the string with your fingers, while in pick-style guitar the notes are sounded by picking with a plastic guitar pick or plectrum.
Generally, finger-style guitar can be used for classical, flamenco, or folk music. Pick-style will be mostly be used in Pop, Rock, Jazz, Blues etc. There are many exceptions to this, but for a beginning guitarist, this will give you a starting point. Choose the picking style that most closely fits with the styles of music that you are most interested in. Ultimately, you can learn both on most guitars, but it is best to match your guitar to your preferred style to begin with.
There are two types of guitar that are strictly associated with finger-style guitar; Classical and Flamenco. They have nylon strings and the strings are spaced farther apart to allow your fingers to fit between them when picking. Both are acoustic guitars and look almost identical. To keep it simple, unless you are planning on exclusively being a flamenco guitarist, get the classical guitar.
You will find that many teachers advocate for starting all beginning guitar students on the classical guitar. The reason being, most of those teachers are classical guitarists themselves. While I personally love classical guitar (it was my focus in college, and my prefered style), I don’t necessarily agree with that strategy. To be sure, there are many advantages to starting as a classical guitarist, but unless you actually want to be a classical guitarist I don’t recommend that path. I am more in favor of studying a style and playing a guitar that is most enjoyable for you. As I’m sure you will agree, a student’s chances of success are much higher when they are doing something they enjoy.
Now let’s take a look at your options for pick-style guitar. Most often when people think about acoustic or electric guitars they are thinking about pick-style. The two most common options would be a steel-string acoustic guitar or a solid-body electric guitar.
Your first option is the steel-string acoustic guitar. This is the guitar that a singer/songwriters might use when performing solo, or the guitar that someone would play around a campfire. They sound great and if your plan is to play all acoustic music, then this is the guitar for you. However, you should also be aware that steel-string acoustic guitars have heavier gauge (thicker) strings and often a larger body which can make them difficult to play, particularly for younger students (and sometimes adults!).
Steel-String Acoustic Guitar
I have had many parents and potential students mention to me that they were told “everyone should start on an acoustic guitar”, and in fact that is what I was told (many, many years ago), and the very reason why my first guitar was a steel-string acoustic. It has even been said that starting with steel strings will ‘toughen you up’ and ‘build finger strength’. Please ignore anyone that tells you that. It is terrible advice. I have seen too many students frustrated to the point of quitting because they couldn’t push the strings down and their fingers hurt. You should not actually “play it till your fingers bleed”, I’ve seen me do it and I don’t recommend it.
Another (potentially controversial) point that I am going to make is that steel-string acoustic guitars are not as versatile as electric guitars. Often, both electric and acoustic are used for the same styles of music, and you can play an “acoustic song” just fine on an electric. Also, there are some songs and techniques that are difficult to play on a steel-string but are easily produced on an electric. I think by now you are starting to see where my preference lies for beginning students:
Solid-Body Electric Guitar
The electric guitar! Most often, this would be my recommendation for a beginning student. Why? The majority of students these days are looking to play pop or rock music, and the electric guitar is perfect for those styles. The only styles that won’t really work on an electric would be classical and flamenco, as we discussed earlier in this post. In addition, an electric guitar is much easier to hold and takes less strength to push down the strings which will make for greater success. These points are especially important if you are a parent looking to buy a guitar for your child. If their lessons are fun and not painful, then they will experience early success! It is going to be hard enough to get your child to practice, don’t make it more difficult, or painful than it needs to be.
I should note that when I say electric guitar, I am referring to a solid-body electric guitar, not an arch-top or acoustic/electric guitar. Both the arch-top guitar and acoustic electric are going to be closer to playing on a steel-string acoustic and, for reasons explained above, I don’t recommend them for beginning guitar students.
Now that you know what type of guitar is right for you, you will need to choose one in the correct size. As you may, or may not know, guitars can come in many different sizes. In an effort to keep things simple, I will only cover the two that you should be looking at as a beginner. Basically you can boil it down to full size and 3/4 size or “mini”. Classical guitars and electric guitars will come in one of those two sizes. With steel-string acoustic guitars you could get into more variations, but if you do choose to go that route, you can ask to hold a couple and see which feels best. If you are an adult student you should be fine with a full sized guitar, but younger students will need to choose more carefully. (This is one of the reasons I offer a free trial lesson to all potential students. I want to make sure that the student has the correct size guitar). If you are the parent of a young child, here is what you should be looking for*:
- That their left hand can comfortably reach the 1st fret.
- That their left elbow is not fully extended when playing the first fret.
- The right forearm should be able to rest on the face of the guitar while the hand rests on the strings.
- The right shoulder should not be raised.
- The top of the guitar body should sit about chest high.
* This assumes that the guitarist is sitting in the classical position as pictured.
If a full-size guitar doesn’t fit those requirements you should try the 3/4 size (mini) guitar. In a perfect world your child will fit into one or the other, however they might be in-between. If they are only slightly out of a full-size guitar’s reach I would recommend buying the full-size. Kids grow quickly and it doesn’t make sense to buy a guitar that they will grow out of in a year. Another benefit to choosing a solid-body electric guitar is that they are thinner and easier to hold, meaning that a student can fit into a full-size model sooner than they would with an acoustic.
Quality and Cost
While it’s not always true, often price can help you determine quality. Even if you are buying a used instrument you can easily look up and compare new prices for the same model to help you make a decision. Fortunately, you do not need to spend a lot of money on a starter guitar. New guitars can be found for under $200, and used ones can sometimes be found for under $100. Generally speaking, spending more money will get you a better quality guitar.
I wouldn’t recommend spending more than $400 for a new student unless you are certain that you will be sticking with the guitar long-term. This is especially true for young students. As much as I would like to say that guitar lessons are for everyone, not all students are going to take to the instrument.
If you have the option, take a trial lesson before you buy an instrument. At my studio, in Clifton Park, NY, I always offer a free trial to any potential guitar student. One of the benefits of a trial lesson is that I can size up the student and help them make the best choice based on their goals. If a trial lesson isn’t an option available to you, you should at least now be armed with enough information to make a good decision.
A Few Notes:
- Stay away from cheap “toy” guitars found at box stores. I have seen some of them start falling apart after a few months.
- Don’t be afraid to look at used instruments, but try to find someone that knows guitars to test any that you are considering.
- If you decide to purchase an electric guitar, you will also have to buy an amplifier and guitar cable. You can find decent practice amplifiers for well under $100.
About the Author:
Bill Hall has been teaching music lessons in Clifton Park, NY since 2000. In college he studied Music Performance and Music Business with a focus on the Classical Guitar. If you live in or around Clifton Park, you can find more information about Music Lessons here.
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