Buying Your First Guitar

Acoustic or Electric Guitar?

Acoustic or Electric? Stratocaster, Telecaster, Les Paul, SG, or ??? Fender, Squier, Gibson, Epiphone, Dean, Ibanez, Yamaha or ??? And what budget – $100, $200, $500, $1000 or ???

How do you choose your first guitar??? Let’s get those answers, right now!

Yes, I know you can pickup an acoustic guitar for fifty bucks off Craigslist and you’re done. No amplifier needed. No cables. Nada.

DON’T DO IT BEFORE READING THIS!

Save your fifty bucks and get into stamp collecting, model airplanes, or crocheting, but not guitar!

My hat’s off to all those old timers who had little choice back when electric guitars cost a week’s wages, so they learned on finger-eating, often out of tune and never intonated, acoustic guitars. In fact, that’s how I learned back in the 70’s. I wouldn’t wish that on anybody!

Before I can break down the reasons why you don’t want to begin with an acoustic, I need to break down two basic types of acoustic –

Classical Guitar

Classical Guitar

A classical guitar will generally have two openings on either side of the headstock for the strings to meet the tuner key posts. The tuner keys will usually be vertically perpendicular to the headstock, whereas other acoustic styles will generally have the keys perpendicular in a horizontal manner.

Another, perhaps even alarming “feature” is that classical guitar strings are hand-tied to the bridge and tuner key posts in a very particular manner. This means that just the act of stringing a classical guitar requires as much time and effort as learning your first chord or two on any other guitar!

I’ve had customers drive from over an hour away, just to have me string their classical guitars!

OK, so it’s strung and ready to go, now what? No. It isn’t “ready to go”. You must properly stretch the strings or the guitar will go out of tune so fast that it won’t really even be playable.

“So what?”, you ask. Doesn’t every guitar need to have its strings stretched? Yes, but not like classical guitars. Classical guitars have nylon strings which really never seem to stop stretching.

But they stretch so much at first that – well, I strung up a classical guitar this morning. I’ve gone through the cycle of stretching each string many times. It is now after lunch and the strings – especially G through e, have gone so far flat that the guitar isn’t properly playable.

So, I’ve just spent another fifteen minutes stretching, retuning, stretching, retuning, rinse and repeat. I fully expect I’ll need to do it again in an hour.

On any steel-string guitar, six to ten rounds of stretching and we’re done. The guitar should stay in tune a day or so, and after a few days it should be “solid” for two or three hours of playing at a time.

You may well need to restretch strings on a classical guitar after each song – even weeks after having installed the nylon strings!

“But those nylon strings are so much easier on your fingers!” – True. But the average nut width on a classical is 52mm. The average nut width on an electric guitar is 42mm. That’s a ten milometer difference. And that difference matters!

Many chords that are easy for me to play on other guitars become difficult on a classical guitar. A G7, for instance, has one finger on the first string at the first fret and another on the sixth string at the third fret. Normally, not a problem, especially for my large hands.

But the extra width of the fretboard makes it much harder to properly fret that sixth string and make it ring clear. I can’t imagine how hard it must be for a smaller person, or a child.

And some chords require a span of four frets! I would have to consider “finger extensions”! 🙂

Add to all those troubles, the fact that acoustic strings – classical or otherwise, are set higher above the fretboard than electrics. This means your fingers have to move the strings further, which affects timing and accuracy in a negative way – especially for beginners.

Setting string height for comfortable playing is easy on electric guitars because they have saddles that can be adjusted via set screws. Classical & other Acoustic guitar saddles must be carefully filed or sanded down to the proper height. If you file a bit too far, you scrap that saddle and start over!

Most electric guitars have saddles that can be individually adjusted to get proper intonation for each string. Acoustic guitars do not have this feature.

I love classical guitars, but I wouldn’t want to be a beginner and have one for my first guitar. Buying a classical guitar for your child to learn on, should be legally classified as “child abuse”!

After you’ve learned to play on an electric guitar, there will still be hurdles to jump to be able to play a classical, but at least you’ve already mastered the actual “playing” part and only have to master the peculiarities of the classical.

So, to sum up Pros and Cons for Classical Guitar –

ProsCons
Easy on the fingertipsRequires stretching fingers beyond comfort due to wide fretboard
Cheap to buy ($50 – $100 used for cheap brands)Very difficult to install strings
Doesn’t stay in tune well and requires a ridiculous amount of string stretching
Higher string “action” is more difficult and less comfortable
Classical Guitar – Pros & Cons

Acoustic Guitar (non-Classical)

These come in several styles and sizes from dreadnoughts to parlor size and others, but they share the same basic characteristics and generally have metal strings.

Acoustic guitars have most of the same issues as classical guitars. Re-stringing the guitar is much more difficult than an electric, but also much easier than re-stringing a classical guitar.

Acoustic guitars have higher string action and higher string tension than electric guitars, which means you’re fingers aren’t likely to be able to stand the amount of practice time required. And playing with sore fingers is no fun.

Even without the pain, the higher string action makes it more difficult for beginners to properly finger chords due to the extra distance the strings must be moved when fretted.

Acoustic guitars are more difficult to setup for proper playing, than electrics. The money you save on the initial purchase could easily be outspent several times over when repairs and professional setup is taken into account.

Setting string height for comfortable playing is easy on electric guitars because they have saddles that can be adjusted via set screws. Classical & other Acoustic guitar saddles must be carefully filed or sanded down to the proper height. If you file a bit too far, you scrap that saddle and start over!

Most electric guitars have saddles that can be individually adjusted to get proper intonation for each string. Acoustic guitars do not have this feature.

The metal strings of non-classical acoustic guitars have more tension than nylon and they eventually tend to pull the bridge up and the top of the guitar body along with it. This is expensive to repair and many inexpensive guitars have less resistance to this problem than better guitars.

ProsCons
Cheap to buy ($50 – $100 used for cheap brands)Very hard on newbie fingertips!
Somewhat difficult to install strings
High string “action” and tension is more difficult to play and less comfortable
Rather fragile compared to solid-body electric guitars
Acoustic (Non-Classical) Guitar – Pros & Cons

Electric Guitars (solid body)

Electric Guitars come in many styles

Before getting into the various styles of electric guitars, let’s cover them generally and relative to acoustic guitars..

Solid body electric guitars are nearly indestructible – especially the Stratocaster and Telecaster styles. Gibson/Epiphone styles with swept-back headstocks are prone to breakage if the guitar is dropped.

Electric guitars have string heights that are considerably lower than acoustics, making them easier to play and easier to fret notes and chords clearly. They also have less string tension than acoustics and this makes it even easier for beginners.

But we have to keep in mind that all guitars can be “out of spec” – even brand-new ones hanging at your favorite guitar shop! Guitars need what is called a “setup”. This involves carefully adjusting several aspects of the guitar so that it plays comfortably and correctly. The most expensive guitar can play horribly if it is badly in need of a setup, and an inexpensive guitar can play quite nicely if it has the fundamentals and is properly and professionally setup.

So when I say “electric guitars have string heights that are lower..”, I am making the assumption that the guitar has been recently and properly, setup.

But even the most well-setup electric guitar will soon hurt a beginner’s fingertips. And even before that pain comes, the beginner will have difficulty fretting clear notes and chords. But with practice, the clarity comes quickly and the pain is replaced with callouses within a couple of weeks.

Yes, even an electric guitar is going to be difficult and hurt a bit. Now imagine making things even more difficult exponentially. That’s what happens when a beginner gets an acoustic guitar for his first guitar.

An acoustic may well be in your future, but you’ll get there much faster and more enjoyably if you start with a properly setup electric guitar.

ProsCons
Cheap to buy ($70 – $125 used for cheap brands)Requires an amplifier (from $30 used)
Easy on the fingers & quicker to learn onRequires an amp cord (from $10 new)
Easier to re-string and stays tunedLooks “Too cool!” 🙂
Can practice quietly unplugged or with headphonesEasily modded and upgraded, so you’re always spending money! 🙂
Nearly indestructible!
Variety of tones allow playing different styles
Can DIY some of the adjustments
Electric (Solid-Body) Guitar – Pros & Cons

Electric Guitar Style Choices

Headstocks

So what style of an electric guitar should you look for? Whichever style appeals to you and feels right – but 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.

Fender style at top, Gibson style at bottom

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.

Child size?

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 Telecaster25.5″
Full-Size Gibson or Epiphone Les Paul or SG24.75
Short-scale Fender or Squier Stratocaster or Telecaster24.0″
Mini (child-size) Fender or Squier Stratocaster or Telecaster22.75″
Difference in electric guitar sizes

Visit a shop where you or your child can try out different sizes and styles of guitars.

Choosing Your 1st Guitar: New or Used?

New Guitar Shopping

Buying your first guitar might start with a trip to the guitar store. Decent beginner guitars can be bought at stores like Sam Ash or Guitar Center for around $200 and up. The Fender Bullet currently sells for $179. New guitars can be purchased online directly from some manufacturers like Harley Benton, Glarry Music, 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.

But even new guitars are generally not setup with the right nut slot height, string height, proper neck relief and perfectly level frets and won’t play the right notes when fretted because they’re usually not intonated. And the budget models nearly always 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 should be 100%. (My setups include smoothing those fret ends, but most stores charge extra for things like that, nut slot filing, intonating, fret leveling, etc.)

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, 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. Out of all those guitars, guess how many were 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”. Mostly serious issues that would make the guitar not sound right and be uncomfortable to play for any length of time. 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 do end up with a used guitar from an individual, pay sixty 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. But many of these people are “guitar flippers” who may not be very knowledgeable and often don’t bother to setup or intonate the guitars before they sell them 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.

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 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.

I always have good used guitars and amplifiers priced so that everything can be bought for under $150 or up to a thousand dollars, and you’re free to take your time and try out different guitars and amplifiers. Buying your first guitar is serious 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 $150.

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.