Buying your first guitar, or your child’s first guitar, is a tricky process. You don’t want to spend a lot of money, and you have no idea what you’re looking for. But with guitars, you usually get what you pay for, and a cheap instrument can be a literal pain to play and sound awful. Those two things will take all the fun out of learning the guitar, and before long the instrument will end up in the attic. However, it is possible to find a good starter instrument without spending a lot of money, and there are things you can do to make it easier to play and have a better sound.
All of these tips rely on a guitar that’s in tune. At any guitar store, a salesperson should be able to help get you started with a few instruments and should tune them all before handing them over. But in the real world, you have to ask. Don’t be shy. Just because you’re not buying a $4,000 instrument today doesn’t mean you won’t someday.
If you’re unfamiliar with the different parts of the instrument, refer to the Wikipedia article on the guitar. Learn these basic parts: Headstock, neck, body, frets, fretboard/fingerboard, nut, bridge, and saddle.
Get a trusted brand. Yamaha, Epiphone, Fender, and a handful of others make good beginner guitars. Generally speaking, if you can find guitars with the same brand for $1000 or so, their inexpensive counterparts are usually made with very similar specs, just cheaper wood and labor.
Consider nylon strings. I put nylon strings on many of my beginner students’ guitars. They are easier on the fingers. Classical guitars will have nylon strings, but they also have a wider neck and flat fingerboard, which can be harder for little hands. Instead, when you find a guitar you like ask the salesperson if they can put a set of nylon strings on a guitar with steel strings. (The answer is “yes,” and if they ask why your answer is “because it’s for a beginner.”)
Don’t be too stingy. If you spend too little, which is $100-$300, the instrument is probably going to be a beast to play, which means you’ll either give up or outgrow it and need a better one sooner than later. If money is really an issue, decide on a couple guitars you like and then look for some used instruments. It’s always cheaper buying straight from a musician, just be sure to look over it closely for any damage such as warping.
Look for a straight neck. The neck has to be perfectly aligned if you want this thing to have a chance at playing well. When you hold the body of the guitar, point the headstock away from you and look down the edge of the neck. There should be a very, very slight concave curve. The frets should be level, and the strings should be parallel with the edges of the fretboard.
Check for buzzing. Play each fret on each string as well as each open string. If you’re a novice player, get somebody at the store to do it for you. If you hear buzzing, the neck needs adjustments to play properly. That could cost more money.
Check the intonation. This is hard to do if you’re not a guitar player, but here’s what I do before I even consider playing a guitar in a store. Once the instrument is in tune, play a harmonic on the 12th fret. Then push the string down on the 12th fret and play it again. The pitch should match exactly. On cheap guitars, they’ll never be exact, but it should be very close.
Does it resonate? Guitars produce a lot of overtones, which is an important characteristic of a well balanced instrument. Play the 9th fret on the G string, or 3rd string (third highest in pitch, which is the third closest to the floor if it’s on your lap properly). Let it ring for a couple seconds and then let up to deaden that string. You should still hear the note. These are overtones ringing on the bottom two and highest string. The stronger the overtones, the more resonant the guitar.
Tone wood. One last thing to consider is the type of wood used to build the guitar, especially on acoustic guitars. These are called tone woods, and there are a variety of options that have different affects on the treble, midrange, and bass response, as well as the resonance mentioned above (maple, for example, has the least resonance). I recommend not worrying too much about tone woods on your first guitar, as 90% of the guitars you’ll see have a spruce top and rosewood back and sides. That’s generally the most balanced combination for a great overall sound.
Solid top. If you’re willing to spend a little extra, buy an acoustic guitar with a solid top. The top is actually the front of the guitar, with the sound hole. Also called the sound board, this is where most of the tone is generated. A less expensive guitar has a two piece or laminate top. But a solid top produces a bigger, richer sound.
Trust your ears. At the end of the day, all that really matter is whether or not you like the sound. When I recently set out to buy a new acoustic guitar, I gave myself a budget of $2,500. I narrowed it to a few guitars with a wide price range and asked for some help from the staff (and even got a couple customers lended their ears). We took turns playing each guitar while the rest of us listened with our backs turned, so we wouldn’t know which guitar we were hearing. In a near unanimous decision, the favorite was the least expensive–a Taylor 210ce that goes for about $1,000. I record with this guitar a lot, and engineers are always impressed by the sound!
Take care of your new instrument. Once you get it home, be sure to treat it right. Wood instruments respond to temperature and humidity. Don’t expose it to any extremes for long periods. If your home dries out during the winter, keep it by a humidifier or use an instrument humidifier. Change the strings when they get dirty to keep a healthy amount of tension on the neck and just so it sounds better when you play it.
Inexpensive instruments don’t have to be pieces of junk. With a little knowledge, you can find a guitar that will promote good practice habits and get you on your way to making great music!