Buying Your First Guitar
Buying your first guitar is super fun but can be a bit confusing with all the different types of guitars on the market. Here are some great tips for buying your first guitar. The first thing people think about is whether to buy an electric or acoustic guitar. I’ll show you the pros and cons of both. In my humble opinion, when you are just starting out, I recommend an acoustic guitar. While playing an electric or nylon-string guitar is easier, eventually any serious rock or country guitarist comes back to playing an acoustic steel-string. The reason is they sound really awesome and are a necessity if you want to play popular music. Acoustic guitars are also great for writing songs. If it sounds good on an acoustic, it will definitely sound good on your electric.
Buying Your First Guitar – Acoustic Guitars
Pros and Cons
- Pro – Great for folk, country, and rock guitar – Steel-string acoustic guitars just sound great. That’s one reason they are used in popular music. Not only that, if you want to play for friends around a campfire, at church, or just accompany your own voice, but they are also the standard. They are also awesome for writing music.
- Pro – Less gear to get you started. When you start with an acoustic or nylon guitar, you don’t need to worry about buying an amplifier and chord in order to hear the guitar.
- Pro – Portability. Since you don’t need a lot of other gear, you can take an acoustic guitar anywhere and play anything, anytime. You also won’t annoy other people with your loud music.
- Pro – A great way to learn – When you learn to play on an acoustic, moving to an electric or nylon guitar is really easy in comparison. If you start with an electric, you will quickly realize how hard it is to move to an acoustic because it is harder to press down on the strings.
- Con – It hurts to play more compared to electric or nylon guitars – While this is true, once you are able to play acoustic, you can switch to any instrument with ease.
Acoustic or Nylon, what is the difference?
Acoustic guitars have steel strings, this creates a more treble like tone. The steel strings are wound to soften the tone. Steel-string acoustic guitars are used in country, rock, and folk styles. Nylon guitars are easier to play because nylon strings hurt the fingers less. These are typically played in classical guitar but many folk players also use them. Nylon string guitars give a warm relaxed tone.
Buying Your First Guitar – Electric Guitars
Pros And Cons
- Pro – Want to play the same as my guitar hero. Your motivation might be to play like your favorite rock star. In this case, you may want to start with an electric.
- Pro – I don’t want that mellow crap. You hate acoustic guitars and just want to rock out. That’s fine. Have fun with it.
- Pro – Looks really cool. Electric guitars do look really cool. But don’t ever choose a guitar just because it looks cool. There are many other things to consider.
- Con – Needs additional equipment. An electric needs to be plugged in to be heard properly. You couldn’t take this camping with you and expect to be heard without an amp. Note, there are battery powered amps out there, but most have mediocre sound quality.
Buying Your First Guitar – What Guitar Body Style Is Right
You may find a few other varieties of these styles when buying your first guitar, but these are your main considerations.
- Parlor – These are the smallest sized guitars you can get. Often set up for students who are younger or players who want a smaller size. They have a bright tone where the low bass tones are not as pronounced. If you are buying your first guitar for a student, then you might consider these.
- Concert – Are slightly larger than parlor guitars are the concert guitars. Both work great for fingerpicking and have a brighter tone with less emphasis on the lows.
- Auditorium – The auditorium has a great balance between highs and lows with good volume and projection. These are also great for fingerstyle playing and are often used by solo singer/songwriters for performance.
- Dreadnaught – One of the more popular styles of a body for guitar. These achieve a great balance of highs and lows and are versatile in the style of music they are used for. Many of us started our guitar journey with a dreadnaught.
- Jumbo or Super Jumbo – These guitars are great in getting out the volume. Their jumbo-sized bodies were designed for volume and they produce a big bold sound. Be aware that the body size may be harder for smaller people to play.
- Classical – these are usually smaller than the steel-stringed guitars mentioned above but have a warm inviting tone and since they use nylon strings, it can be easier to play than their steel string counterparts. Be careful though, even though the steel strings are easier, many of these styles of the guitar have very wide necks which can make things more difficult for smaller hands.
- Travel Guitars – In recent years, travel-sized guitars have been popularized by Taylor Guitar and Martin Guitar companies. These are smaller guitars that fit more easily in compartments when traveling, hence the name. If you are looking at buying your first guitar and are a smaller stature, these are a great option and have great tone and playability. I have one of these on my list of guitars to get.
- Solid Body – Solid body guitars are very popular for rock and country guitar playing.
- Fender Stratocaster’s – Popularized by Fender Guitar Company, Strats have a distinctive style that has been copied over and over again. They have a great variety of sounds that you can incorporate and are fun to play.
- Fender Telecaster – Another great guitar by Fender. This style is used a lot in country music.
- Gibson Les Paul – Popularized by heavy metal and hard rock bands, Les Pauls are another versatile guitar that can really get a raunchy sound.
- Gibson SG – Another great raunchy sounding guitar that has been played by greats such as Jimmy Page. This guitar has a double cutaway design that is great for playing higher notes on the fretboard.
- Gibson Flying V – I’m not a big fan of this style but some people love them.
- Gibson Explorer – This model looks like a lightning bolt. The SG, Flying V and Explorer all make playing high notes more accessible and easier.
- Hollow Body – Or Archtop Guitars
- A very resonant instrument with a top that is arched and setup for playing amplified.
- Simi Hallow Body
- These are popularized by Gibsons ES Series guitars and Rickenbacker. These guitars have a tone block that runs down the center of the guitar that helps to reduce feedback, while still retaining a deep tone. These instruments are often used in jazz style guitar but you can find them in rock and country as well.
- Others – There are lots of other variants of these main styles out there. Play them all and decide for yourself what you like, what feels the best and what gives you the sound you are looking for.
Active vs Passive
- Active Guitar Pickups – Active guitar pickups also use copper wire coils but they use fewer coils than passive. Instead, these use a preamp to boost the signal which is usually powered by a 9-volt battery.
- Passive Guitar Pickups – Passive guitar pickups use simple transducers, built by wrapping many coils of copper wire around a magnet. The location of the magnet in proximity to the strings causes the strings to magnetize. So when the strings move, they disturb the magnetic field and cause an electrical current to pass through the copper wire. A lot of popular brands use this type of pickup.
Benefits And Drawbacks
- Passive guitar pickups tend to transmit more hum and interference. Also, since the pickups and strings are magnetized, it can cause the strings to bend enough to cause intonation issues. Passive pickups can also cause a lot more feedback. Passive pickups tend to have a higher dynamic range than active so they are praised for this. They also enhance lower frequencies and have a warmer tone.
- Active pickups are less susceptible to background noise. They are sometimes described as tonally “cold” meaning the tone dynamics are much lower than that of passive. However, these are sought after for their ability to articulate lines for shred or jazz guitar.
More About Pickups
- Single Coil Guitar Pickups – Single-coil pickups are just that. A single coiled pickup controlled by electromagnetic copper wiring. Passive pickups tend to be single or double coiled pickups. These produce
- Humbucker Guitar Pickups – Humbuckers were created by combining two single-coil into one pickup and wiring them so that their magnetic poles oriented in opposite directions. This canceled or “bucked” the electric hum. Hence the name humbucker.
- Why choose single coil-over double coiled guitar pickups? Because single coils tend to be brighter and crisper with more not definition between strings. Humbuckers are usually darker, heavier, and louder.
Other Guitar Gear You Should Get
When you are buying your first guitar and are setting up your budget, you will also want to consider this list of items to get with your guitar. If nothing else, get yourself a case, a tuner, a strap, and some picks. Also, consider a metronome at the very minimum.
- Amps – I won’t go into all the types of amps out there, this is another big purchase you should research. I’ll have more on this subject soon, but for now. Do your research and choose one that suits your needs. If you are just going to be practicing at home, you do not need a huge Marshall stack.
- Cables – If you plan to plugin your guitar, get yourself a high-quality cable to plug into.
- Straps – Straps are great for when you want to be standing or performing but they are also great for practicing. I always put on my strap even when I am sitting. It is just more comfortable and you can move around better once you get playing without having the guitar slide around on your lap.
- Strap Locks – I just started using these on my newest guitar and I love them. I have had straps just fall off because they were not on well enough or the strap became too loose around the pegs. These make it easy to remove the strap and put it on any other guitar with the same type of strap locks.
- Music Stands – Using a music stand will help you ergonomically. Sitting in a chair and using a music stand to practice is the way to go.
- Stands or Wall Hangers – A lot of manufacturers recommend storing your guitar in the case. This is a good idea and I do it with my Taylor guitar. It’s never out unless I’m playing it. However, having a guitar on a stand makes it easier to just grab it for a quick practice when you have time. If you get into the guitar, you will likely own more than one. Keep one easily accessible to pluck around on for fun or for a quick practice when time permits.
- Capos – Capos change the pitch of the chords you play and can help you transpose songs into keys that match your voice. This is a must for acoustic players and many electric players also use them.
- Cases – There are several different types of cases on the market. More expensive guitars often include a hardshell case. These cases are the best and protecting your guitar for scratches, nicks, climate, or anything that might happen to it. There are also gig bags. These range from gig bags that have a hard casing to cheaper nylon bags that offer some protection but are not the safest option. Also available are cardboard type cases. These are less common these days but they work. Buy the best you can afford to protect your baby. My Taylor sits in a hardshell case, while my $200 Ibanez bass uses a gig bag and stays on the stand so I can pick it up and practice bass more often.
- Picks – Most acoustic and electric players use a pick. They also may use their fingers from time to time, but you will use a pick a lot so buy several. There are tons to choose from so find what you like. I’m partial to a medium Fender or Dunlap pick. I’ll use a heavy pick from time to time but I dislike thin picks. These are things I’ve learned from using a variety of picks and at about .12 cents a pick, you can afford to try out more than one.
- Tuners – You will want a good electronic tuner. Not to say that you shouldn’t learn other ways of tuning your guitar, but electronic tuners are fast, accurate, and easy. If you are not in tune, your guitar playing experience is going to suck.
- Strings – If you play a lot, learn to change your own strings. It is not difficult and will save you from having to take it to a store to change them. Also, having extra strings is great for those occasions when you might break one.
- Metronome or drum machine – You need to learn to keep time and a metronome or drum machine will help you do this. There are a ton of apps out there that will do this for a small price or even free. This is not optional, get one and use it when you practice.
- Effects Pedals – If you amplify your music you will probably be looking at effects pedals at some point. There are tons on the market and I could do a whole post just about guitar pedals.
How to Evaluate A Guitar
- Play Some Guitars And See What You Like – Bring a friend who plays to help you determine the sound quality and playability. The first thing you should consider is the tone of the guitar. Does it sound good? If it looks pretty but sounds like crap, put it back and move on. You will enjoy playing much more with a guitar that has a good tone.
- Price – While you don’t want to go expensive, don’t go too cheap either. Don’t order your guitar from Walmart because it is cheap and comes with a bunch of starter stuff. On the other hand, don’t spend a grand on your first guitar. A good starter guitar with a decent tone will run you around $150 to $200. You can also consider going used but evaluate the guitar thoroughly. I’ve been screwed buying a guitar on e-bay that had some serious issues because the previous owner had “customized” the bridge.
- Quality – You get what you pay for. If you go super cheap you will get super cheap and you will probably end up discouraged by the tone and quality of the guitar. This is why I recommend spending a little bit more and getting something you really like. And never buy a guitar because it is pretty. If it sounds great and is pretty, that’s a bonus. I would rather play an ugly guitar that sounds great than a pretty guitar that sounds like shit.
- Playability or Action – How is the action on the guitar? Is it easy to play? This is where it might be good to bring a friend with you who can play who can help you with these things. Also, most store employees can play too, but since they are trying to sell you a guitar, you might find more reliability from a friend.
- Intonation – The most important thing to consider is how does it sound? Again, this is where an experienced guitar player can help you evaluate the sound. They can play it, you can hear how it sounds.
- Size – How does it feel? How does the size feel? Small-scale vs large-scale. Do your fingers fit in the frets? Some people recommend full-sized guitars no matter what. They believe that you will adjust your playing to suit the guitar. While this is true, there may be reasons for considering a 3/4 sized guitar, especially for smaller children.
- Frets and Fretboard – Check the frets, fretboard, and body for flaws. The frets should be smooth, the fretboard should not have nicks or other flaws and the fretboard should be a size that fits your hand.
- Seems and Joints – Are the seems and joints snug and put together well? Are there scratches?
- Straight Lines – Look down the length of the neck, is it straight?
- Does It Hold A Tune – Does it hold the note when it is tuned? Do the tuners slip when you are trying to tune?
- Consider The Pickups – Plug it into the same type of amp you plan to use. If you plan to buy both at the same time, make this a consideration. What type of amp do you want, need? Are the pickups working and do the switches work? How is the tone when plugged in? Does it plugin from the side of the guitar or the top. This may change which chord you choose. Do you want or need a tremolo?
- Buy the best you can afford, you will enjoy it more.
- Buy the guitar not the brand.
- Don’t buy it just because it’s pretty.
Resources – Where to buy?
It is important to shop around and find what you like. This means getting into music stores and playing different models. However, once you find what you like, you might find a good deal online. These are some resources you might consider online.
- Amazon.com – Amazon is a great place to go to see reviews on guitars you are evaluating. You might even find a better price here than some other places.
- GuitarCenter – A wide selection to choose from so check them out when evaluating guitars. The bad thing is that its a big chain and you get treated like its a big chain. I would buy elsewhere
- Harley Benton by Thomann – This is a German company that make high quality very affordable guitars. They also sell some bigger name brand gear like Gibson and Fender. With this you will pay for shipping but what you save on buying the guitar more than makes up for that. Check out the Harley Benton brand.
- Reverb – More good online deals on both new and used equiptment.
- Local – Of course, check out your local music store. If nothing else, buying local is a good thing.
- Consider Used – Be careful with used. You can find great used gear but be sure to look at it first. I once bought a guitar off eBay, it was a vintage guitar, but someone had “altered” (a more polite way of saying, effed up) the bridge on it.
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