Buying Your First Guitar - A Beginner's Guide
So you’re thinking of buying your first guitar? It’s one of the best decisions you’ll ever make – but there’s a lot to think about – and the world of guitars can seem a daunting place when you’re not sure what you’re looking for.
Maybe you’ve been thinking about making your foray into the world of guitars for a long time, but even if you’ve never stepped foot in a music shop before, you can follow my beginner’s guide to buying your first guitar so you can be informed and confident when it comes to parting with your money.
What kind of guitar should I buy?
It seems pretty obvious, but this is probably the first thing you should think about when buying your first guitar. Essentially, it comes down to two choices: acoustic or electric. So ask yourself, what kind of guitar music do I want to play? Who are the guitarists that I aspire to be like? For many people, this is the reason they start learning guitar in the first place – they see a certain musician doing their thing and suddenly, the spark is ignited – you want to play just like them!
For example, if you dream of strumming away to the likes of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell or Neil Young, acoustic is probably the way for you.
But if you see yourself nailing solos and cranking your amp up to 10 like Nirvana, Weezer or The Rolling Stones, an electric is what you’re looking for.
Don’t be put off by people who say that you should learn acoustic first before progressing to the electric – you should learn and play the music that you love. Especially at this early stage of learning guitar, what’s the point if you don’t enjoy it? It’s only going to put you off.
Other than the style of music you want to play, let’s go through the pros and cons of each style of guitar so you can make an informed decision as a beginner guitarist. Bear in mind that there are also two types of acoustic guitar to consider at this stage: classical (often nylon stringed) and dreadnought/steel string. I’ll highlight the differences in the table below.
|+ Perfect for folk, country and pop styles (steel string/dreadnought)|
+ More suited to finger-picking playing styles
+ Nylon strings on a classical guitar are generally more forgiving on the fingers
|– Some body shapes can be large and cumbersome|
– Thicker steel strings on acoustic guitars can be harder on the fingers
|+ Perfect for rock, pop and indie styles|
+ Allows for a wider range of sounds to explore
+ You can play louder!
+ Playing unplugged is quieter compared to an acoustic, so good for late night practice
|– Tend to be much heavier due to solid bodies and electronics|
– Also requires the purchase of an amplifier
– Steel strings can be hard on younger fingers
Action is the technical term for the distance between the strings and the fretboard and this can have a huge effect on the playability of a guitar. As a beginner, your fingertips won’t get used to fretting the strings for quite a while until they become slightly harder and callused. Don’t worry – this isn’t a bad thing – it will make your playing easier and your fingers won’t get so sore. However, a high action can make fretting the strings very difficult for beginners, as it requires more force, thus resulting in sore fingers. Conversely, an action that is too low might be easier to fret, but can result in tonal problems such as fret buzz which will make your guitar sound awful!
This is something that can be adjusted on most modern guitars with the help of an expert, but the best thing to do is try a few out for yourself in a shop. Even if you don’t know how to play any chords yet, you can still get a feel for a guitar by fretting a single note. Is it hard to push down on the string? If so, try something with a lower action.
It might seem a little technical right now, but it’s definitely worth considering – an action at the wrong height can cause a lot of problems and be hugely frustrating when you’re trying to get a clean sound out of your guitar.
Are looks everything?
In a nutshell, absolutely not! Sure, you want to have an instrument that looks great – that way you’re more likely to pick it up and practise – don’t get me wrong, it’s definitely important, but it won’t make you a better player.
What will make you a better player is if you have a guitar that you feel comfortable with. As I mentioned before, it’s best to try out a few before purchasing; sit down with it, hold it, play a few notes or chords, if you can. Does it feel cumbersome? Heavy? Cheap? Just right? Even for expert guitarists, I wouldn’t recommend buying an instrument online that you haven’t tried out – you can read as much as you like about it, but it’s practically shopping blind – or deaf for that matter…
There’s a lot more choice in terms of looks when it comes to electric guitars: colours, shapes and finishes are wide ranging, even at lower price points. Don’t be put off by thinking that certain shapes or brands are for certain styles of music either; you’ll still be able to play the same stuff! For example, my first electric guitar was a £160 Ibanez (a brand typically favoured by metal and shred guitarists), and although I wasn’t ever interested in these genres, it felt right when I played it – it was comfortable and easy to learn on.
Remember, much like the wands in Harry Potter, the guitar chooses the player.
Does size matter?
Again, it’s really about being comfortable and feeling like you can easily move around the fretboard with your left hand, and reach around the body easily to pluck the strings . A practical way to know if the size of a guitar is right for you is to sit with the instrument on your right thigh. You should be able to comfortably reach your left arm over the end of the headstock (the top of the guitar where the strings finish) without having to stretch.
Another thing to consider when purchasing an acoustic guitar is the size of the soundbox – the round, curved part of the guitar that produces the sound. Some acoustics are known as ‘jumbo’ for their particularly large soundbox. These guitars are renowned for their ‘bigger’ sound, but with that comes a large instrument which many may find too clunky as a beginner. We’d advise sticking to a regular shaped acoustic (often called ‘dreadnought’) at first to get you off the ground before you go venturing into the vast world of tone and sound.
However, if you have smaller hands or chunkier fingers, it could be a good idea to look at a ¾ size classical guitar. The body will be much more manageable, the neck slightly shorter and the strings spaced further apart.
Possibly the most important factor for most first time guitar buyers is the price. You’ve got to the point where you want to give learning guitar a proper go, but you might find it isn’t for you – we certainly hope that it is – but you don’t want to be forking out a ton of money on something you might not be 100% sure of yet. You just need something comfortable and affordable that you can learn on, which isn’t going to break the bank.
Of course, musical instruments are expensive – they’re often hand-crafted and use a lot of skilled processes and materials to produce – but this doesn’t mean you can’t get a quality guitar at a lower price point. The reason some guitars can be insanely expensive is down to things such as the type of wood, where it has been built and even who built it, but you needn’t worry about these things as a first time buyer.
On the whole, you can certainly find a perfectly playable, decent quality instrument for between £100-£200/$130-$260. Do bear in mind that if you’re going down the electric route, you’ll need to factor the cost of an amplifier into your budget too. You can pick up a basic practice amp for less than £100/$130, but investing a little more will offer you a better sound and sometimes a few effects to play with.
We’ve compiled a few basic beginner options that you might want to consider, at a beginner-friendly price point too! But remember, it’s always best to buy a guitar in person so why not find your local music shop and see what they have to offer?
Squier SA-105CE Electro-Acoustic Cutaway Guitar (link)
Squier is the little brother of the widely known Fender brand, offering similar models at a much more appealing price. Nonetheless, the quality is perfectly admissible for any aspiring beginner guitarist and this model even offers a cutaway for reaching higher notes and the potential to plug into an acoustic amp if you wanted to boost your sound.
A great all-around option for building finger-picking and strumming skills from a highly reputable manufacturer. With a quality build, this is a steal for the price point.
Epiphone PRO-1 Classic ¾ Size Nylon String Guitar (link)
A perfect starting point for folk lovers or those with smaller hands. Lighter gauge strings and a specially formed neck make this guitar much easier to play for beginner hands looking to build strength and solidify the basics.
Squier Bullet Mustang (link)
This new range of electrics from Squier offers a lot of quality for the price and the components used. The Mustang has always been a super-cool shape, favoured by a lot of indie guitarists, and the compact 24” scale makes this a great option for small hands and fingers. There’s a simple 3-way pick-up selector too, so nothing too overwhelming or complicated for first-timers.
Epiphone Les Paul Express (link)
The Les Paul shape is synonymous with electric guitar culture so this is a top choice for a classic rock look and sound. Again, this is a slightly scaled down size, so great for smaller players or for travelling too. Even Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong played a Les Paul Junior, so don’t let the smaller size put you off if it feels comfortable for you.
East Coast GJ20 (link)
They may be a lesser known name in guitars, but East Coast make a wide range of affordable guitars including this great-looking GJ20, modelled on a classic Gibson ES shape. However, this is a semi-hollow body (as indicated by the cutout f-shapes in the body) which offers a rich, warm sound for rhythm and strumming and if you’re going to save up for an amp later, this could be a good shout as it will naturally resonate more sound than normal solid-body electric guitars.
Hopefully, you now feel more equipped with the knowledge of what to look out for when purchasing your first guitar. If in doubt, ask a store assistant in your local music shop to help you pick the best guitar for you and your price point.
Guitar for Busy Beginners
If you’re reading this and thinking, ‘where do I go next once I’ve bought my first guitar?’ – Look no further. My Guitar for Busy Beginners course is aimed at people exactly like you. We start with the very basics and work our way through the anatomy of the guitar, how to achieve a clean sound, chords and strumming, all the way up to playing your first song.
Using a combination of videos, diagrams and downloadable PDFs, the course is entirely online, so you can learn at your own pace, whenever is convenient for you. You’ll be able to track your progress and re-visit any lessons you want to go over again, plus, I’m always at hand if you have any questions.
You can check it out here and even get the first two modules of the course free: