Choosing 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 ???

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!

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.

But you have better options. A nice acoustic guitar might be in your future, but only after you’ve learned to play an electric guitar.

Acoustic guitars have higher string action and usually much higher string tension 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.

Acoustic guitars are much 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.

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.

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 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. Visit a shop where your child can try out both sizes.

New or Used?

New Guitar Shopping

Decent beginner guitars can be bought at stores like Sam Ash or Guitar Center for well under $200. The Fender Bullet currently sells for $149 or less.

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 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%.

To be sure that the guitar is properly intonated, download a free guitar tuning app to your smart phone. 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.

Used Guitar Shopping

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?

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.

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 fifty 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 even bother to 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.

SUMMARY

I recommend 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.

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 with $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.