Buying your first guitar

Should I start with a cheap guitar?

This is a very common question asked by my students. This is important: don’t work up from the bottom to something you should have started with! Your first guitar is very important for a few reasons:

- Low-end guitars have issues that can hold your playing back. You might even find it too hard to play, and quit. These issues include tuning problems, string action (height of the strings above the fretboard), as well as size issues. Many students have shown up with guitars too small for their size.

A disclosure for the parents:

Buy the guitar for the music style they would like to play. Once when I worked in a music store, there was a mom and kid looking to buy their first guitar. The mom explained that little Billy will play “Classical Gas” and Beatles tunes because they were “better than the new music”. She asked for a nylon string guitar, saying her neighbor has been playing for 30+ years and said classical is the best starter for a child. “Ok…” I looked at little Billy and noticed the child was about 14 and wearing a Nirvana concert shirt. “The best starter guitar is the one that the student wants to play”, I mentioned. I asked the kid, “What music do you listen to?” “Nirvana”… I could have guessed. I mentioned to the mom that a classical has a wider neck (harder for a beginner’s hand), soft strings (they don’t give beginners enough finger strength and callus build-up), and said her son won’t play it because it’s not the style of music he listens to….

She bought the classical anyway. FYI, when your kid won’t play it and you return to the sales guy to admit he was right and exchange for an electric guitar, the sales guy won’t have any hard feelings – because he just wanted your kid to play!

Back to what you should look for…

Let’s start with an acoustic guitar:

The best guitar is one you want to play and sounds the best. Well, that was easy wasn’t it? OK, but really, things to look for:

1. I recommend at least a solid-top steel-string. That means the top of the guitar is a solid section of wood, not a laminate like a countertop pressboard or IKEA shelves. The more solid the wood, the higher the price. However, a solid-top is the best place to start if you’re on a budget and want to get the most for your money.

2. Some ask, “Should I get an acoustic with a pickup and cut-away?” It depends on your budget.  A $450 guitar with a cutaway and pickup actually is a $300 guitar with bonus features. You can always add a pickup so you can plug it into a soundsystem or amp later.

Have a look at these. They’re made in Canada and reasonably priced.*

*I am not endorsed… at least not yet: Have a look at the Simon and Patrick, Seagull, Norman, and Art & Luthrie. Most of my students end up with the Seagull S6 Original model.


Buying an electric guitar:

Some of the same things apply. Don’t start with the low-end Costco guitar. Just because Fender put their name on it doesn’t mean it’s a quality guitar. Wood quality is not so much of an issue in a good electric, but hardware and electronics are. That being said, my old guitar teacher, Glen Morris, played a plywood electric guitar and sounded great – but he was playing through a vintage 1965 Fender-deluxe-reverb point-to-point-hand-built tube amp. So the guitar is only half the big picture. As a general principle, spend at least 85% of your budget on the guitar and the rest on a small practice amp. That way you have a good guitar that will last you, and an amp you can always keep in your bedroom when your big amp is at your rehearsal space eventually.


New or used?

I hear a lot of people say, “I don’t want to spend a lot of money in case I can’t play, so it’s best to start with used”. I’m all for getting a pre-owned guitar; why buy new when a secondhand will do? However, when buying a used entry-level guitar you could be buying someone else’s problems. Most beginner guitar players that quit and sell their instruments usually don’t take good care, and most end up in the basement/closet with no love. Regular maintenance is important just like for a car or bicycle; check-ups and adjustments help it to play better. You’d be surprised at how many of my students I send to the guitar doctor after their first lesson to get their guitar adjusted, and when they come back they actually play better! I use the analogy, would you try to learn how to ice-skate with dull skates?

I generally suggest buying new. You get a full warranty and if you have any problems you can take it back for advice. Always ask the salesperson to get the guitar set up before you take it. You might have to leave it or bring it back at a later date, but get it done!

As you get a better understanding of guitars, you might then look at getting a used one.

Here is a list of stores in Vancouver where you can find a great starter guitar.




Posted on by gtr in Tips and Advice

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