What's the best guitar for a beginner?

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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! Check out the FAQ at the bottom of the page too!

The Big Beginners Debate

The basic types are

  • Electric (including hollow bodied or 'semi-acoustics')
  • Acoustic (steel strings - including those with electrics fitted, so-called 'electro-acoustics')
  • 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 with the advantage that they're a little louder when not plugged in.

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 can be, but 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 an electric guitar without an 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 (these days there are some awesome software products and even smart phone apps that sound great!).

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

Action

The biggest determining factor on how easy a guitar is to play is the 'action' - distance from the strings to the neck. When it is very low it is easy to press the strings down to touch the fret; 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 the most important thing is that you enjoy playing and don't find it difficult or painful.

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

We'll be covering how to adjust your own action in a future Guitar Maintainence lesson, but I'd recommend that you get it done professionally if you can afford it.

Overall Playability

Electric guitars are generally the easiest to play: the strings are usually thinner, the ‘action' is lower and therefore the strings are easier to press down. The necks are generally narrower too which can help in the early stages.

Budget acoustics usually have a very high action (which may be possible for a good luthier to fix!), barre chords on acoustic guitar can be demanding and require good finger strength on a well set up guitar, on a budget thing with a high action it will be next to impossible! Cheaper acoustic guitars can be very hard to play higher up the fretboard because the strings are too far from the fretboard - if you find this, the truss rod (a thing inside the neck that controls how 'level' the neck is) can be adjusted by someone who knows what they're doing! If you can stretch to a mid-priced acoustic you should be able to get something suitable for a beginner.

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.

Sound and style

Deciding which type of 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. Much Brazillian music uses nylon string guitar too, in case you're a lover of Bossa Nova!

What guitar you get will heavily depend 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! But maybe you want to make a statement and be the guy playing a pointy metal guitar at a jazz jam? The guitar should reflect your personality to some degree at least!

If you want to play all styles, then electric might be the way to go and get an acoustic later. Just 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 money 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 practice anyway.

After some internet searches, I've found some acoustic packs (with a strap and picks) for less than £100/$150, 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 for practice without being plugged in at all.

Technology has come a long way since I started and I've tried some apps on my iPhone which are really amazing and cost hardly anything. I'll get around to reviewing a bunch of them at some point!

I use a thing kind of digital amp cloner called the Kemper Profiler for lessons and sessions, and there are a few quite incredible products that do amp emulation including Fractal's Axe-fx, Line 6's Helix but the high quality stuff comes with a matching price tag and would be overkill for most beginners.

Small 3/4 Guitars

I often hear from people wondering if they should buy a 3/4 size guitar because their hands are small. The 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.

All over the internet people say that acoustic is better to start off on because you can play them 'out of the box' without 'worrying about cables', but is running a cable from a guitar to an amp (or computer) really so difficult? And when the playability is so much easier on electric (and therefore fun and easier to make progress on) ...

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 to 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 pre-loved! I very rarely buy new instruments.

One Thing To Avoid On Electric Guitars

DON'T BUY AN ELECTRIC WITH A "FLOATING TREMOLO" 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!

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 pretty much only top-end gear and don't know the latest on all the new budget guitars, but on the community 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 (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) sufferers :)

The Electric Guitar Board

The Acoustic Guitar Board

More Information

Following this lesson are more about what and how to choose - skip them if you have your guitar already and come back to them before you buy your next one!

Summary of pro's and con's

Electric

  1. ↑ I recommend electric to start off because it
    • is easier to play (strings closer to the fingerboard and easy to set up for playability)
    • has a thinner neck
    • can be played at night without upsetting neighbours
    • is easy to record with 
  2. ↑ There are MANY types and styles of electric guitar.
  3. ↑ No real need for an amp at this stage, they’re loud enough to get going with your practice  - use apps, computer software etc.
  4. You DON’T want a floyd rose or ‘floating tremolo’
  5. ↑ You can find one you like the style of (of your favouriote player uses!)
  6. Semi-acoustic is a big body electric which are better for jazz styles and generally not as robust!
  7. Simple is good to start off with

Steel String Acoustics

  1. ↑ Good for BBQ or playing at parties etc
  2. Often harder to play than electric (higher 'action')
  3. They have a ‘sound’ that you might really like
  4. Get the store to put thin strings on it for you to help with playability
  5. A set up will make a lot of difference!
  6. No need for an electro-acoustic as a beginner! Electrics in an acoustic are just so you can plug in and amplify for concerts!
  7. Thin body acoustics are not really a winner in my opinion, generally jhust don't sound very good!

Classical

  1. ↑ Nylon strings are softer on the fingers
  2. Wider neck can be harder for small hands, easier for fat fingers!
  3. ↑ Amp certainly not needed
  4. Cheap guitar often have a high action (strings further from the fretboard which makes them hard to play)!
  5. ↑ Maybe good for children because of the softer strings
  6. Very different sound, better suited to classical or Latin guitar styles, not great for strumming!
     

Can I put steel strings on my classical guitar?
Absolutely not. You're very likely to ruin the guitar and maybe hurt yourself when the neck breaks off! they're a completely different tension on the neck.

How much does hot and cold affect the guitar? and do I need a humidifier?
So unless you live somewhere where it gets REALLY hot or REALLY cold, then you're probably ok if you use your head. Leaving an acoustic guitar in the hot sun for a whole day will probably ruin it, leaving it out in the snow might not be too good either!

If it gets very cold and you use central heating, the humidity can drop and you might like to look into a Dampit or similar for acoustic instruments.

I've never had any problems with hot, cold or humidity and never used a humidifier, but if in doubt, try and get some advice from your local store who should be able to advise you.

Can I use a plectrum on my classical guitar?
You sure can! That's how I learned. They're not really designed for that but nothing should get damaged and it's fine for learning. If it's an expensive instrument you might look into getting a Flamenco Guard to stop the pick damaging the wood, but I think war wounds can make a guitar look cool and so I never used anything like that!

I bought an electric and an amp, what should the settings be?
Turn all the knobs on the guitar all the way up, and adjust your sound on the amp. Get a sound you like. If you want to experiment a bit, try changing some of the guitar controls and see what happens, you shouldn't damage anything! The all up on the guitar and adjusting the amp is the kind of default settings for most players!

 

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