When playing out in public, this question isn’t all that uncommon. Here are a few things to keep in mind when looking for an inexpensive starter guitar. (This article assumes you have little to no knowledge of guitars.)
Why do you want to play guitar?
Before you can decide on a budget or, really, anything about what guitar you want to get, decide why you want to play guitar. Do you want to have fun with music? Do you want to look cool with a guitar in your hands? Is beautiful music trying to force its way out of you, like toothpaste? The reason doesn’t matter, just know what it is.
But remember that learning to play isn’t the easiest thing, and you’ll have to stick with it for a time. And that time before it starts to become fun is when it’s easiest to quit. So get something good, something easy to play.
Electric or Acoustic?
You’ve likely heard this before: I suggest you start with an acoustic guitar. What you don’t hear is why. If it’s been your dream to shred away on a Strat, keep the following in mind:
You need calluses. Badly. When you play chords, you press on the strings with your left hand. That means you’ll be pressing your delicate fingertips against steel. Acoustic guitars use heavier strings, and are harder to play, so telling beginners to get an acoustic may seem like bad advice.
But you’ll build calluses fast on an acoustic. On an electric, it’ll be a slow and gradual process. And it’s far easier to go from heavy strings to lighter strings than the other way around.
But there’s more than just getting the raw-and-bleeding phase over and done with quickly. When you need to motivate yourself to practice, you need to remove all barriers. To play an electric, you need to plug in the guitar to the amp, turn on the amp, fiddle with the settings, and so on. Don’t even get me started on effects and processing. By contrast, you pick up an acoustic and start playing it. Maybe you tune it up, maybe not. That’s it.
Nylon-string guitars–sometimes called classical guitars–are easiest on your fingers, and beginners sometimes learn on them. It’s not a bad idea to rent one of these and learn the basics on one. Just be aware that these guitars are built for Spanish, classical, and Flamenco-style music, and if that’s not what you want to learn how to play, you may feel limited on a nylon-string ax.
There are many music stores that rent guitars. Make sure you get the kind of guitar that makes sense, and be aware of the differences between classical and folk (steel-string) guitars.
Renting lets you can try before buying, and the best way to understand what you’re looking for in a guitar is to play one for a while. Even better, play more than one for a while. If you’re trying to learn guitar on a whim, renting makes sense.
You can spend about $300 and get a new, inexpensive steel-string guitar. Most stores have models along these lines for new guitarists, sometimes kits with a strap, picks, spare strings, and so on. Stick with a brand like Yamaha, Fender, Martin, and so on. (If you haven’t heard of the maker, stay away. The unknowns can make excellent instruments, but a good guitar now, in the store’s acoustically perfect, humidified “acoustic” room, may not be so wonderful a year or three down the line, playing in your living room or in a coffeehouse.)
Check out the full-size “baby Taylor”, or maybe a low-end Yamaha or an Ovation copy. Not the best, but they’ll stay in tune and they won’t break after a week of playing.
A guitar is essentially a tension machine. The strings are kept at tension by the body. Left to themselves, such a machine will tear itself apart over the years, especially if it’s cheaply made. These guitars will last five years until you start to get problems. Cheap guitars also don’t stay in tune quite as well. But they can be fine to learn on, just don’t get one that’s so cheap and terrible-sounding that you dread practicing.
General advice for any guitar
Always check that a guitar’s neck is straight. You do this by “sighting” down the neck.
Neck Width: Necks are pretty much a standard width. (With a few exceptions, like Gibson. Classical guitars have very wide necks, folk guitars less so, and electrics usually have the narrowest.) If you have trouble getting your hand around a neck, look for something with a skinnier neck. If your arms are short, go for a guitar that has a slimmer soundbox.
Also keep in mind that tuning machines can be replaced later if they suck, but some guitars are so terribly made that they simply will not stay in tune, no matter how much you upgrade them. Spending a little more early on will save you grief later.
Pluck a few strings. If it sounds tinny, move along. If it makes a buzzing noise, that’s no good either. Put the guitar back on the wall and move along to the next. If you get a nice, clean, deep tone, then keep playing.
The better guitar you have, the easier it will be for you to learn and the more likely you’ll stick with it. “Better” doesn’t necessarily translate into “more expensive”, not for a $300 guitar, not for a $3000 guitar.
The best and only way to tell if a guitar is good is by playing it. Bring along a friend who plays if necessary, but it’s all down to you.
This article was originally posted as part of my old blog, on 18 July 2005.
Neil Fein is a freelance editor who specializes in novels. If you’ve written a manuscript or are getting close to finishing, you can get in touch with him here, and even ask for a free sample edit. He’s also the guitarist in the band Baroque & Hungry, he rides his bicycle as much as he can, and he paints when the mood strikes him.