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BC-102 • What guitar should you buy?

The Justinguitar.com Beginner's Course

In this lesson I give you a run down of the different types and what I think you should be looking for as a beginner, and explain the options and reasoning to you. Like with everything else on the course, I want you to understand why, not just follow things blindly!

One of the most frequently asked questions from beginner players is whether to choose electric or acoustic. The advice here is my view. Others may disagree, and they are welcome to their opinion; mine is subject to change without notice!

Watch The Video Lesson

The Big Beginners Debate

The basic types are

i) Electric (including hollow bodied or semi-acoustics)
ii) Acoustic (steel strings - including those with electrics fitted, so called electro acoustics)
iii) Classical (nylon strings).

Note that ‘semi-acoustics' are not really acoustic, they are electric guitars with a semi-hollow body, and so are sometimes confusingly referred to as semi-acoustics. However, they play like electrics.

Also note that electro-acoustics are not electric guitars. They are acoustic instruments with electronics fitted so that they can be amplified, but you would not normally need to plug them in to get a good sound out of them.

Many people think that electric guitars are going to be loud when they are plugged in... well, they do have a volume control, so you can control the volume. Also, be aware that you do not have to plug them in! I do probably half of my practice on electric guitar without any amp at all. It's good to get the notes ringing out loud and clear without an amp, so as a beginner you might want to put all your money into getting a cool guitar and leave getting an amp until later.

So lets look at the pros and cons of each type of guitar and the factors to consider when choosing between them.

Playability
Electric guitars are generally the easiest to play: the strings are thinner, the ‘action' is low (see below) and therefore they are easier to press down. Barre chords on acoustic guitar can be very demanding and require a lot of finger strength. Cheaper acoustic guitars can be very hard to play higher up the fretboard. Classical guitars have nylon strings, which are softer than steel strings, and easier to press down. However, the neck is much wider on a classical guitar, which can be a struggle for beginners. The action is likely to be higher, as well. In general, they are softer-toned and don't project as well as a steel string acoustic, which makes for quieter practising, which could be a consideration.

Action
The distance from the strings to the neck is called the action. When it is very low it is easy to press the strings down; when it is too low the strings will buzz when you play. If a guitar's action is too high it will be very hard to play, and for a beginner this can be pretty disheartening.

I recommend that you get a guitar with a low action so that it can be played easily. The small tonal benefits of having a higher action can be dealt with in a few years when it becomes important. At the start what is important is enjoying playing!

Getting your guitar action set up by a good luthier can make a huge difference to your guitar's playability (you'll usually find someone at your local store). I have a number of private students that found an AMAZING difference when they had set their guitar up correctly, and of course I get all mine done too. If you are struggling to play barre chords on an acoustic guitar, then a too-high action could certainly be a part of the problem.

Sound and style
Deciding which instrument to start with can be pretty simple if you think in terms of style!

• If you want to play rock, get an electric.

• If you want to play folk or fingerstyle, a steel string acoustic is the best choice.

• If you want to play classical then you need a nylon string classical guitar.

It all depends on what style you want to play. If you like death metal you probably don't want to buy a pink Telecaster... think about what you like and what you are going to play!

If you want to play all styles, then electric might be the way to go and get an acoustic later. My opinion!

Budget Acoustics Usually Suck
Very cheap acoustics are usually not such a great idea. Often their sound quality is poor and they are hard to play. I often see students selling them after a six-month struggle (if they managed to stick with it that long!). So if your budget is very tight, I would not get an acoustic. You may think you save a little because you don't need to buy an amplifier as well, but as I said before you don't have to use an amplifier to practise anyway.

After some internet searches I've found some acoustic packs (with a strap and picks) for less than £100/$175, and you can be pretty sure that these are not going to play well. People just can't make guitars that are easy to play at that price. If that is really your budget, then please spend it on a decent electric (and leave the amp for now).

Do I Really Need An Amplifier?
Electric guitars need an amplifier to be heard above a singing voice, although they make enough sound just for practice instrumentally. There are also a number of units (like the Line 6 Pod and similar) that can be plugged into your stereo, but this isn't much use if you want to play in a band. I did the majority of my practice on an electric guitar without an amplifier, and I think this helps you work on your tone, because you have to draw the volume out of the instrument.

Having a good amp can help you sound like your favorite players, which is cool, but not so important when you are just starting out.

OK, So Which Amplifier?
If you do want an amplifier, there is a vast array of models available with all kinds of fancy stuff built in effects, digital modelling, even backing tracks! It really depends on your budget. It's very likely that a new amplifier will be your first major purchase if you stick with it (they make a bigger difference to your sound than the guitar does, believe it or not!) so my advice is to start small and simple, learn a bit, see where it is taking you and you will have a better idea of what to spend your hard-earned cash on. There's more about amps in lesson BC-103.

Small Guitars
I often hear from people wondering if they should buy a 3/4 size guitar because their hands are small. Answer is simple. No.

3/4 guitars are fine for children under the age of 11, or as travel guitars, but if you want to learn properly, then buy a full size guitar at the start. I started on a full size classical guitar right back when I was knee high to a grasshopper; initially it's hard, but your fingers adapt fast enough and you will soon develop flexibility and dexterity. For children under 11, a 3/4 guitar is an option, but even then I still feel that full-size is better. Check out all the amazing 6 year-old kids playing amazing stuff on the internet, 9 times out of 10 they are playing full-size instruments.

The verdict on type of guitar:

I think for the general beginner an electric guitar is probably the best instrument, mainly because they are a little easier to play and so you will see results faster, which will inspire you to play more.

Here is my way of thinking about it:

• If you want to play rock: buy an electric. 
• If you want to play classical: buy a nylon string classical guitar. 
• If you want to play folk: buy a steel string acoustic. 
• However, if you only have a very small budget, don't buy an acoustic. 
• If you are not really sure, get an electric. 
• Avoid a 3/4-size guitar unless it's for very young children.

My "general" recommendation when people ask is get a medium priced electric guitar..

£200/$350 should see you through for a basic electric guitar, a few picks, a strap, a cheap tuner and a cable - if you shop around - and don't be afraid to go second hand! I very rarely buy new instruments.

So which one than?

This is really just about personal choice. Everyone likes different guitars, but here are some of my thoughts on certain brands...

Maton Acoustic

Fender Acoustic

Steel String Acoustic

All my acoustics are made by an Australian company called Maton, and I think they are absolutely wonderful! They do a good range of guitars aiming from mid-price to high-end guitars, but they don't really do any starter priced guitars. If you have the budget for one (they start at around £600/$1000), they are awesome and will last you a long time! 

I really don't think you should spend less than about £250 ($400) because you will end up with something hard to play, and you probably won't enjoy playing! At the cheaper end, both Yamaha and Fender make very good budget acoustic guitars. Lately I have played a lot of cheap Yamahas that were good; they are mass-produced, but mass-produced well. 

Avoid the thin acoustics that look like electrics. They usually don't sound good either acoustically or plugged in. This includes Fender's ‘Telecoustic' (I otherwise recommend Fender). I'm not really a big fan of any guitars made of anything other than wood either—none of that carbon stuff—just keep it simple.

Don't forget to check the action. If it's too high you will really struggle when it comes to barre chords and power chords later on. Make sure you have a play of it and make sure it feels comfortable for you.

At the higher end I rate Maton, Martin, Taylor and Guild, but once you are spending a couple of thousand, you should know what you want and what you need. Old guitars often sound great and have more character, which is something I don't really understand. Something must happen to the wood as the instrument gets older, as it seems that generally, old guitars sound best.

Yamaha Pacifica
Epiphone SG

Electric

My favourite adage applies: buy cheap, buy twice. I rate the Yamaha Pacifica guitars (which start around £200/$350). They have a thin neck (which is good for rock) and consistently excellent build quality. I don't think there is much of a question about the quality of these guitars and most of the other teachers I respect recommend them as well. There are many cheaper guitars out there but for the few pounds you will save you are much better off going for a Pacifica in my humble opinion. I never owned one myself (and I don't have any kind of deal going with them at all), but have played many that students bought in over the years, which is why I recommend them to you!

Other good electric starters are the Epiphone SG;

I have also been hearing very good things about the Vintage brand of guitars. I have played a few that belonged to students and they do seem good value.

Also, there are some cheaper Ibanez guitars that sound great. Fender Squires are not bad either, though I've seen some badly set up ones with really cheap fittings, so be careful. Buying a proper USA-built Fender Stratocaster will always be awesome though if you have the budget!

 

 

DON'T BUY AN ELECTRIC WITH A FLOATING TREMELO WHEN YOU START OUT.

If you are a beginner then you probably don't know what a ‘floating tremolo' is. Have a look at Floyd Rose, who made the first models. If you are looking at a guitar that has little tuners on the bridge, then it's probably a floating tremolo. For a beginner they are a total pain in the butt. They are very hard to tune and a real pain to change strings. The cheaper ones go out of tune a lot too. If you know why you want one, then fine, but locking tremolos on budget instruments are usually rubbish, so stay clear of those for now!

Yamaha Acoustic

Classical

I think the Yamaha brand are excellent, and that what I started on! There are many others of course but Yamaha consistently deliver a top notch product at a budget price.

If you are loaded, then just go any try one of the many beautiful handmade guitars available. I personally would like an old Ramirez guitar, but they cost as much as nice cars... maybe one day!

 

I've got GAS...
I swear if we all spent as much time practising as we do deciding which guitar to buy there would be a lot more great guitar players in the world. Seriously, dudes and dudettes, when you are starting out, just get yourself a guitar that plays well. If you dig playing guitar and play for a few years you are almost certainly going to want another guitar, even if your first guitar was awesome. It's called G.A.S. (Guitar Acquisition Syndrome) and it's a very painful condition for the wallet... I've been suffering for many years so now I'm just used to it!

Buying guitars is fun, and searching for the right one is fun too, but make sure you are actually doing enough practice as well, so you can enjoy your new toy when you get it!

 

Use The Forum
On the forum there are thousands of people at all stages of playing that can offer advice on new beginner guitars. I have to admit that I play only top-end gear and don't know the latest on all the new budget guitars, but on the forum there are people learning that can all give you advice based on personal experience, and there's no substitute for that!

There are even boards now for each specific instrument, so it's easy to get the advice you need. They are not solely aimed at beginners, but there is lots of advice from experienced players and I'm sure you'll get plenty of advice here from other GAS sufferers :)

The Electric Guitar Board

The Acoustic Guitar Board

More Information

PLEASE NOTE - I do not know what guitar you should buy, so please don't email me to ask. All I can offer is the advice above, but you might like to check out my recommended products for beginners too!

There is some more info on specific guitars I recommend at RE-020 • Recommended Products For Beginners and more info on the next page in the course too!

 

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