Choosing Your 1st Guitar: New or Used?
New Guitar Shopping
Regardless of whether you intend to buy new or used, buying your first guitar might start with a trip to the guitar store even if they only sell new guitars because you can get a look at various styles of guitars and even try some out, to get a better feel for what you want.
Decent beginner guitars can be bought at stores like Sam Ash or Guitar Center for around $200 and up. The Squier Bullet currently sells in that range and the Affinitys are just a bit higher.
New guitars can be purchased from online stores like Sweetwater.com and MusiansFriend.com and directly from some manufacturers like Harley Benton, Glarry Music, Monoprice Indio, SX Guitar, etc. But it’s generally best to buy a guitar that you can hold in your own hands and get the feel of the guitar – especially if this is your first guitar.
Even new guitars are not usually setup with the right nut slot height, string height, proper neck relief, and perfectly level frets and won’t quite play the right notes when fretted because they’re not intonated. And the budget models often have sharp fret ends which are not friendly to your hands.
If you can get the store to agree to do a professional setup addressing the above issues and to intonate the guitar properly, it may well be worth putting up with sharp fret ends to be able to have confidence that everything else should be 100%. (My setups include smoothing those fret ends, but most stores charge extra for things like that and nut slot filing, intonating, fret leveling, etc.)
Never pay an online shop extra money for a guitar setup. You’ll want your guitar setup locally to prevent changes during shipping and so you can have adjustments made if there were mistakes or if your personal style requires them.
To be sure that your first guitar will be properly intonated, download a free guitar tuning app to your smart phone and tune the guitar. Then fret either the 1st or 6th string at the 3rd fret and pluck the string. Your tuning app should show a ‘G’ note and be within 5 marks (5 cents) or less of perfect. At the 12th fret, it should be within 5 cents of ‘E’. Then test the remaining strings for their respective notes.
If the store didn’t bother to intonate the guitar, they probably didn’t bother to set it up either, since intonation should be part of a setup of a brand-new guitar.
Used Guitar Shopping
Craigslist, Marketplace, OfferUp, etc. can be interesting if scary places to shop for your first guitar. Here’s a fact – I’ve bought nearly 500 used guitars in the past two years or so. I try to buy decent guitars like everyone else. But out of all those guitars, guess how many were truly fit for playing as-purchased?
One. A gent that had always played Gibsons, wanted to try a Fender, so he bought a new G & L Strat and had the store do a professional setup before he picked it up. After one week, he decided, “Nope. I’m strictly a Gibson Guy.” and he sold the guitar to me. Normally, a big-box store setup isn’t good enough for me, but this one was fine.
Every other guitar had “issues”. Many had serious issues that would make the guitar not sound right or have dead strings or buzzing orbe uncomfortable to play for any length of time. Actually, most had more than one “issue”. You can read about these in my blog, “Craigslist Guitars” which gives a case-by-case description of a few guitars chosen at random.
If you are going to buy a used guitar from an individual, pay fifty to seventy bucks or so to have it professionally setup, new strings installed, tuned and intonated.
There are people like me who buy, repair and sell used guitars. While many of these “guitar flippers” check out guitars pretty well and even do setups, new stirngs, etc. – many more may not be very knowledgeable and may unwittingly sell bad guitars to unsuspecting customers.
Ask for a written guarantee that they will stand behind the guitar and test it for proper intonation before buying. I offer a one year warranty on all electrical components and free adjustments for thirty days.
Acoustic or Electric Guitar?
This is your first guitar buying decision. The romantic allure of acoustic guitar is strong. And you don’t have to have an amplifier. So what’s the downside?
You know your fingers are going to get sore at first, right? And you know this will severely limit the amount of time you can practice. Practice is everything if you want to learn to play guitar.
Yes, electric guitars will hurt your fingers too, but there’s a huge difference. Even with “light” strings (#12), an acoustic guitar will have a total of roughly 165 pounds of tension on those strings, compared to an electric guitar with light strings (#9) having about half that amount of total string tension.
Wait! But that’s not all! (as they say on late-night tv). Electric guitar strings generally sit much closer to the fretboard than acoustics. This means your fingers don’t have to press the strings down as far, so that’s even less tension on your tender finger tips!
I’m not a great player, but I’ve been playing for years and I have thick callouses on my left hand finger tips. Sometimes, when I want to strum guitar out on our lanai in the evening (sorry neighbors!), I’ll be too lazy to haul an amp out with me. (That was before I bought a Blackstar “Super-Fly” portable amp – but that’s another article!)
So I’m good for maybe ten to fifteen minutes. And then my finger tips start hurting! And playing lead seems a bit harder due to the slight difference in string height.
Could I get used to an acoustic guitar? Sure. But it would be much, much harder for a beginner and learning guitar is already hard enough.
And then there’s the small item of installing strings. Every three to six months or so, you’ll want to change your strings. This is an easier process on electric guitar than acoustic. Many beginners have a tough time getting the strings to stay in place at the bridge pins.
If you have a classical guitar, the difficulty in restringing becomes exponentially more difficult.
But wait! There’s more!
(Sorry, I couldn’t resist)
Last night, my wife and I watched “Back to the Future” on Netflix. (Alright, so I’m a few years behind on my movies), and I was able to practice a new riff without bothering her, because we’re both half-deaf! No wait – just kidding!
I was able to practice without bothering her because I didn’t plug the guitar into an amp. You couldn’t hear the quiet tones coming from the unplugged electric guitar over the movie’s soundtrack.
Think about a fourteen year old wanting to practice in their bedroom. Sure, they can annoy the hell outta the neighbors when mom and dad aren’t home, but they can continue practicing in the evening just by unplugging.
And they’ll be able to do all that practicing early on because their fingers won’t be all sore and bloody!
I could go on, but let me just do a short list –
- Electrics are sturdier and less likely to be damaged
- Electric guitars are easier to DIY setup and maintain
- Electric guitars are much easier on your fingertips
- Let you practice nearly silently
- Last longer with less care (Acoustics need proper humidity)
- Take less room to store
- More versatile (Try playing rock on an acoustic!)
What Style of Guitar?
Ok, so our first guitar will be an electric guitar. But what style? Stratocaster, Telecaster, Les Paul, SG, Semi-Hollow or ???
Well, Strats are the most comfortable, LP’s are heaviest. Semi-hollow’s are a bit prone to feedback if you’re playing loud and too close to the amp. But none of that matters much. You need motivation to learn guitar. The color and style of the guitar is what will supply much of that motivation.
In other words, you want a guitar that “turns you on”! You can learn to play on any style of guitar, but it needs to be a style you really love.
Take the headstock style into account if there is the slightest question about possible rough use or abuse like if the guitar is for a child or someone who’ll be travelling.
The Gibson/Epiphone style of bent back headstock can easily break if stressed or if the guitar falls off a guitar stand, etc. Once broken, a budget-priced guitar is probably not worth repair.
If a Fender-style headstock with its straight design, suffers the same abuse, chances are it won’t even go out of tune!
I would take this into account if buying for a child, teen or if you will be traveling with your guitar.
Fender Squire and Ibanez make “mini” versions of some models that are child-size. These guitars require strings that are a bit heavier in order to give the proper tension, but are perfect for children whose hands may be too small for full size guitars or for someone travelling who may not have much storage room.
But there’s another option – short-scale guitars. Here’s a chart showing the size difference in scale-length. Scale length is the length of string suspended between the nut and the saddle.
|Full-Size Fender or Squier Stratocaster or Telecaster||25.5″|
|Full-Size Gibson or Epiphone Les Paul or SG||24.75|
|Short-scale Fender or Squier Stratocaster or Telecaster||24.0″|
|Mini (child-size) Fender or Squier Stratocaster or Telecaster||22.75″|
Visit a shop where you or your child can try out different sizes and styles of guitars.
What Brand of Guitar?
Now that you’ve chosen a style, should you narrow your choices down by brand?
Alvarez, Brownsville, Carvin, Dean, Epiphone, Fender, Gibson, Hohner, Ibanez, Jackson, Kramer, Luna, Michael Kelly, National, Oscar Schmidt, Peavey, Quest, Rickenbacker, Schecter, Jay Turser (OK, I cheat a little!), Vantage, Washburn, Yamaha – which brand is best?
There is no best. You can buy an excellent guitar in nearly any brand. Brand shouldn’t be much of a factor..except –
Some brands use fairly standardized parts. So if you need to upgrade or replace a part in the future, you’re covered if you have a Fender or Gibson or one of their sub-brands. (More on sub-brands in a moment).
To only a slightly less degree, the next-tier brands like Ibanez, Peavey, Jackson and Yamaha aren’t usually much trouble to find parts for either.
Pickups, bridges and nuts are fairly swappable among brands, but you do have to pay attention to sizes of nuts, saddles, bridges, etc. Finding a replacement pickguard for a Brownville or even an older, short-run Gibson model can be next to impossible.
At this stage in your first guitar buying pricess, the most important issue to look for is..
How to checkout a used guitar before buying
A used guitar is like a used car. Not all 2018 Honda Accords are the same. Not all are worth the same. Condition is EVERYTHING! But how do you check the condition of a used guitar?
Clean and shiny is not good enough. New strings are nice, but they mean nothing.
Learn how to check out a used guitar in my “How to Buy A Used Guitar” article where I discuss not just ensuring you’re getting a good guitar, but how to get a good price too!
BUYING YOUR 1ST GUITAR: SUMMARY
I recommend for your first guitar, that you either buy a new guitar with a setup or a used one from a small-time guitar dealer, even one who works from home like me, who also offers repairs and setups. I also recommend that your initial expense for guitar, amplifier, cord, strap, case, stand, etc. not exceed $350 or so – depending on what is comfortable for your budget.
The reason for that is you can get a perfectly fine guitar system for that amount or less and you won’t really know just what you want until you’ve been playing awhile, so why spend more than you need to?
I always have good used guitars and amplifiers priced so that everything can be bought for under $200 or over a thousand dollars, and you’re free to take your time and try out different guitars and amplifiers. Buying your first guitar is serious (but fun!) business and you should take your time and choose wisely.
Sure, you might rather have a more expensive Fender Mexican Telecaster or Strat and if that’s “small change” to your budget – fine, go ahead. But if your budget is a bit strained, please understand that you can do perfectly fine by starting out under $200.
Your $99 guitar could be played professionally on stage and nobody in the audience is likely to know you’re playing a budget guitar!
Once you’ve been playing for several months, you’ll have a much better idea of what kind of guitar you want, and then it might be justified to spend a bit more. But you should be able to get most or even all of your money back for your first guitar, by selling on Craigslist, etc.
One last tip – it’s generally not a good idea to buy a guitar as a gift for someone else unless you bring them along to be sure they like the guitar and that the neck feels right to them, etc.
Checkout the Used Guitars I currently offer. Shipping is available.