Many guitars will soon be purchased with those $1400 stimulus checks. Quite a few will be first time guitar buyers and they’ll spend hours pouring over guitar ads trying to decide what makes a good “beginner guitar”.
If you visit guitar stores and try out guitars there and/or at people’s homes through Craigslist, Marketplace ads, etc., you’ll likely be hearing the guitars played in small rooms and played by people who already know how to play guitar.
And you know what? They’re all going to sound pretty darn good! And you’ll likely become more confused than ever – “Just how the heck am I supposed to decide which guitar to buy???”.
Let me help you with that decision. I’m going to start right off by trying to steer you towards an electric guitar. Not an acoustic guitar. Not a classical guitar. An electric guitar with a bolt-on neck. Why?
Why a beginner should buy an electric guitar –
- Lighter string tension means less sore fingers and easier chording and faster early progress
- Electric guitars generally have lower string height due to their being easier to adjust (just need an Allen wrench)
- The sound of an electric guitar isn’t really affected by anything other than the pickups, strings and the amplifier, so you don’t have to worry about the type of wood; type of construction; and condition of body and its framework, etc.
- Acoustic guitars tend to have issues with bridges and tops pulling up, necessitating very expensive repairs. These conditions can be difficult for a novice to spot.
- A bolt-on neck can easily be shimmed if it needs adjusting beyond the truss rod, which itself is adjusted with a simple Allen wrench.
- String heights (saddle heights) of electric guitars are easily adjusted via Allen wrench (usually 1/16″ wrench).
- String changes are much simpler on electric guitars and can be a bit tricky – especially for novices – on acoustic guitars.
- You can practice on an electric guitar without disturbing others, either with headphones or merely unplugging your amplifier.
- Electric guitars are much sturdier than acoustics and can take a beating and can stand hot or cold, humid or dry weather better than acoustics.
- Electric guitars are more popular than acoustics and therefore easier to buy and sell.
What is the difference between a “Beginner Guitar” and any other guitar?
There is no hard, definite definition of a beginner guitar – but I’m going to define one right now.
Difference #1 – Sound Quality
First, let me tell you a secret that you’ll learn on your own if you go to guitar shops and try a range of guitars from cheap to expensive. Assuming each guitar is properly setup (this is a BIG assumption since most guitar stores do not automatically setup new or used guitars before selling!), all the guitars are going to sound pretty darn good and most will feel pretty good also.
But if you were to take one of those cheap guitars and play it in a large auditorium that was created for great sound, would there be more of a difference? Yes! But neither you nor the audience is likely to notice much, if any difference.
So who would notice? And how can they sell expensive guitars if there isn’t a difference you can hear?
There are features other than sound – like fit and finish, beauty, balance, feel and playability. There’s the pride of ownership of a beautiful guitar and sometimes the pride in having a particular logo on a headstock.
But there is also a difference in the sound. A HUGE difference to some. A slight difference to others. it depends on how well your ears are developed, which probably depends on how long you’ve been playing guitar.
There is also an emotional bond between a player and his guitar that can go a long way toward bringing out the best in the player and his music.
Difference #2 – Price
A beginner should pay a price that seems low, relative to their budget for several reasons. First – most beginning guitar players give up. Yup. They don’t stick with it. Playing guitar sounds cool and all, but when they realize it means many hours each week of boring practice, sore fingers and complaints from others nearby – the TV, a good book, hanging out with friends or even a nap – all seem like better things to do ‘now’ and “I’ll practice guitar later.” “Manana”.
And if you do stick with it, six months or a year down the road you’re going to have a better idea of what kind of guitar you want and you may want to sell or trade your first one and get another.
So why spend a lot of money for something you’ll probably want to resell later?
Another reason to buy an inexpensive guitar (whatever that means to your budget) – whether you buy new or used, you’re going to need to have that guitar professionally setup. If you skip this step, it’ll likely be like trying to learn how to drive a car with steering that pulls to one side and brakes that pull to the other.
And here’s another secret for you – a more expensive guitar isn’t going to be easier to play or make you sound any better than an entry-level Squier, Ibanez, Yamaha, etc.
I would consider guitars under $300 as beginner guitars. Although many small, lesser-known brands build fine guitars, without knowledge of the brands, I’d suggest sticking to the better-known brand names such as –
- Fender (Squier)
- Gibson (Epiphone)
- Indio (Monoprice)
A caveat – stay away from Floyd Rose and other floating bridges. Most Squiers, Ibanez Gio, etc. have bridges with tremolos but most come decked from the factory – leave them that way until you’re more experienced and remove the tremolo arm and put it somewhere you’ll forget about it for at least half a year!
Definition of “decked bridge”: a tremolo system such as most Strat-style guitars have, can be “floated”. That means the rear of the bridge can be lifted almost an eighth inch or so off the body surface, being balanced between the pull of the tremolo springs working against the pull of the guitar strings. “Decked” is where you’ve increased the tremolo spring tension so that the rear of the bridge sits flat against the body top.
Floated bridges and tremolo usage bring a host of issues that a beginner just isn’t prepared to tackle, so your first guitar should have a standard (not Floyd) tremolo that is decked; remove the tremolo arm and put it away for at least six months while you earn the “chops” to play with it later. Or buy a guitar without a tremolo system such as a Telecaster, LP or SG style or hardtailed Stratocaster.
How Much Should a Beginner Guitar cost?
At this time, Affinity series Squiers (by Fender) are $239 new and generally run between $100 and $150 used. Their Bullet series guitars are usually about fifty or sixty dollars cheaper. Beginner model Epiphone and Ibanez Gio guitars run $150 to $200 or so.
Monoprice’s Indio brand guitars can be found online from $99 to $150 and the ones I’ve setup belong in the category of their pricier competitors Squier, Gio and Epiphone.
Glarry guitars (GlarryMusic.com) are made a bit more cheaply, but are beautiful guitars and certainly worthy of consideration after being properly setup. Their prices for brand-new guitars currently run from a good bit less than $100 upward to about $150.
Don’t forget to budget for an amplifier. “Practice amps” from 10 watts to 20 watts can be found used from an average of $30 to $99. Glarry sells new amps from the thirty dollar range. The thing is, a guitar amplifier has more to do with your sound than your guitar does. So, a better amplifier will definitely sound better. But a cheap amp will certainly do for your beginning practice stage of the first three to six months, and resale value will likely be sixty to seventy percent of the new price.
You’ll also need a cord ($10 – $25) to connect your guitar to your amplifier, a strap ($5 – $25) and some picks ($5). Monoprice and Glarry usually include those items and a gig bag. Glarry’s gig bags are thin “dust-cover” bags while Indio gig bags are pretty nice, padded bags with sturdy zippers.
Every guitar I sell – new or used – is thoroughly checked out, professionally setup and guaranteed. Since the cost of a setup is already included in my prices, you might want to check out my current guitar inventory. I also ship guitars anywhere in the continental U.S.
Where Should You Buy Your First (Beginner) Guitar?
Buying a Used Guitar
Guitar newbies and even many long-time players, don’t have a clue what to look for and there are many things to look for! If you’re not at least somewhat experienced with guitar tech, you wouldn’t believe all the hidden dangers lurking in many used guitars. People often don’t realize how easy it is to buy a used guitar that not only won’t play right but isn’t even worth fixing. In fact, buying bad guitars is one of the main reasons people give up guitar, but usually they don’t realize it’s the guitar’s fault so they blame themselves.
I’m a professional guitar tech. Like you, when I shop on Craigslist, Marketplace, etc., I try to buy guitars in good condition and with proper setups, etc. Guess what percentage of used guitars I get that I can just clean up and turn around and resell???
Answer: ZERO %
I average two to four hours working on each guitar before I consider it worthy of selling to one of my customers. I really feel bad for newbies who buy these “garage sale guitars” and try to learn to play guitar on them!
If you buy a used guitar – and there are many great deals out there – either bring an experienced person with you or buy from a dealer. That “dealer” can be someone buying, repairing and reselling from home, like myself, a small, mom & pop guitar shop or a big corporate store like Sam Ash or Guitar Center.
Those people are likely to know whether a guitar is ok or not and not likely to sell a truly bad guitar. But the big stores don’t generally setup used guitars before selling and many of the smaller shops (like mine) do. A setup is SUPER IMPORTANT. So try to buy from a small shop that has setup the guitar and will stand behind it.
Buying used guitars from individuals is a crap shoot best left to dealers. Often the seller doesn’t even realize that his guitar has fatal flaws. Sometimes they do know but they don’t have to worry about word-of-mouth or future guitar sales so they’ll just push a junk guitar onto a poor unsuspecting buyer.
Let me repeat – the percent of used guitars on the market that need work before they’ll play properly is close to 100% !
Buying a New Guitar
If buying from a guitar store, be sure and negotiate a proper setup into your buying price. The percent of brand-new beginner guitars that do not need a setup is very, very close to zero!
If buying online, don’t bother asking for a setup. People’s definition of “guitar setup” can vary from merely adjusting the truss rod and saddles, to including nut slot heights, leveling high frets, filing sharp fret ends, stretching the new strings, tuning and intonation, checking all fittings, etc. The cost of guitar shipping would prevent you from returning it for a better setup.
So, if buying online, just budget the cost of a good setup at your local guitar shop. Be sure to unpack and inspect the guitar immediately. I often don’t open the boxes for weeks after receiving and by that time, if i find a bad nick or scrape in the body, etc. – it’s too late to have anything done about it.
Buying a new guitar online from a reputable dealer such as the ones I recommend below, is usually easy, safe and satisfying.
- Musician’s Friend
- Guitar Center
- Sam Ash
These are listed in no particular order and I’m sure I’m leaving out someone, but I’m still on my 1st coffee!
How to Inspect a Used Guitar and Buy Safely
Sorry, but that’s a teaser headline! I’m already at 1400 words and it’s evening time – time to play some music, me on guitar and Jean on bass. But I promise this will be the topic of my next article and I’ll shoot for this weekend – about the time your $1400 check should arrive! So stay tuned!