A Complete Guide To Purchasing Your First Guitar And Beyond

One of the most fun parts of learning guitar is buying your first guitar.  It sits in the corner of your bedroom all shiny and filled with potential.  It virtually stands alone as one of the only ways to purchase coolness.  Believe it or not though, this purchase can either launch you on your path to guitar greatness or derail you before you even play your first chord.  So what should you look for when purchasing your first guitar?  Here's a simple guide.

Acoustic or electric, that is the question.

Contrary to what most parents think, you shouldn’t necessarily start on an acoustic.  Sure it might build character and all that, but the simple fact of the matter is acoustic guitars are more difficult to play because you have to press harder on the strings.  While this might not seem like a big issue, it can be a deal breaker.  There is nothing more frustrating than stretching your fingers into position for five minutes only to realize your fingers aren’t strong enough to actually make sound.  Electric guitars are significantly easier to play and transitioning from electric to acoustic once you've gotten comfortable with the basics is a piece of cake.  Still, you should buy what most inspires you to practice.

How much should you spend?

There are two extreme schools of thought on this.  It seems students either buy the cheapest piece of wood with strings attached or they spend $3000 on a guitar that they only play twice.  I fall somewhere in the middle.  The kind of guitar you love is all about personal preference.  I have played $12,000 guitars that I don’t like as much as my Martin.  Still, there are only a few Martins that I have a strong affinity for.  If you are just starting guitar, you have no idea what your personal preference is so why would you spend a ton of money on an expensive Taylor?  It doesn’t make sense.  I waited 3 years before I purchased my first “nice” guitar and even then, after a few years I realized it still wasn’t the right guitar for me.  You're not looking for your soulmate, just an instrument you don't mind rooming with for awhile.

A Basic Package

If you want to keep it pretty cheap and just want something to practice on in your room, an online purchase makes sense.  That being said, don't buy one of those beginner all-in-one packages!!!  Music stores love to sell beginner guitar packages because they make better margins and allow them to move a lot of product at once.  Usually these packages include a cheap electric guitar, an amp that sounds like fingernails on a chalkboard, a tuner that hardly works and a guitar cable that starts shorting out the moment you plug it in.  If you want something basic, I have compiled my own suggested beginner guitar package that’s a little more expensive than a standard one but is a significant upgrade in terms of gear and sound quality.  If it’s too pricey, you could always just start with the guitar and add the other pieces as you need them.

Fender Bullet Stratocaster Guitar - Buy Now

Vox Mini 3 Practice Amp - Buy Now

Monster Cable - Buy Now

Korg Chromatic Tuner - Buy Now

Taking It Up A Notch.

If you are really commited to learning and you are going to be playing in a band with other people, you are going to want something with a little more flexibility.  This is going to require a trip to several music stores.  Make sure whatever instrument you try passes these 5 tests.

1.  It needs to feel good.  One of the most underrated attributes of a guitar is how it feels in your lap.  It should be comfortable to hold with strings and frets all within easy reach; not too big, not too small.  You need play a lot of guitars to know the difference.

2.  The action should be low.  This means that the strings sit very close to the neck and are easy to press down.  While this is something that can be adjusted with a professional setup, you don’t want to be able to fit your finger between the neck and the strings.

3.  The notes should resonate well.  Pluck a note and see how long it lasts then compare it to other guitars in the shop.

4.  Play each fret individually to make sure there are no dead notes or buzzes.  If you are unsure of your ability to do that, bring along a friend who has some playing experience.

5.  I probably shouldn't tell you this but it does matter how it looks.  Buying a beat up, hot pink electric guitar on Craigslist because it was $20 cheaper than that sweet red Fender is probably not worth the savings.  You want to be inspired by the instrument you own.  It has to call to you.  

Final Shopping Tips

1.  Play a lot of guitars before you fall in love with one.

2.  Play some really expensive guitars before you play the cheap ones.  When you know what’s possible, you can find a cheap guitar that plays above its price range.

3.  Just because it says “Gibson” doesn’t make it great.  Names only go so far.

4.  Don’t just take a salesman’s word for it.  Half the time they don’t know what they are talking about.  It’s sad but true.

5.  When you find a guitar you like, find out what it costs on sites like zzounds.com and use that price to negotiate a lower one at your store.  Whether they admit it or not, stores will usually bend when confronted with losing a sale to the internet.

I'd be happy to take any questions in the comments or offer thoughts on brands and models.  Fire away!

Jason Houtsma serves as Worship Pastor for Mosaic Church in Bellingham, WA, Husband to Alli, Father to Bjorn and Asher, and guitar instructor for WorshipArtistry.com

A Complete Guide To Purchasing Your First Guitar And Beyond

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My experience

While my first guitar followed none of this guide, I'm still happy with the way things ended up for me. Christmas of '09, my parents bought me my first guitar. They bought the ESP F-10 starter pack off of musiciansfriend.com (They paid about $200. The guitar itself still sells for about $190 off of the same site, so not really a bad deal.) It ended up working well for me though. It was enough to keep my interest, inexpensive so my parents didn't blow a lot of money if it didn't end up sticking, and ESP is a quality brand. I actually still use that guitar to this day. I installed a new bridge pickup in it (which was well worth the price), bought a better amp, and switched to using Monster cables. After all that, I haven't been able to justify spending $600 on a guitar that isn't phenomenally better than what I have right now.

That being said, this really is a great guide, and resembles my process when I bought my acoustic guitar (the first one I personally paid for). Everyone has to follow their own path to get there, but the ultimate goal is doing everything to the glory of God! =)

my guitar experiences

I started out with an old Harmony arch top with f holes from the mid 50's that looks to be a copy of a Gibson L7 - used to belong to my granddaddy. He gave it to me when I was 15. It's playing days have long since past, but it hangs on the wall in my music/baseball room of my house. Lots of sentimental value with this one. Since that time, I've bought some…traded up…saved up…spent more…bought some and sold some. At this point, my acoustics are far worth $$ wise than my electric. I will also add that I got married rather late in life (at 43) and did most of my guitar buying during my single days. My electric wasn't really that expensive (compared to my acoustics), but I just love the look, feel and overall mojo coming from that piece of wood. It's a Hanson Cigno with / bigsby http://www.hansonguitars.com/cigno.htm

Purchasing a new guitar

Thanks for this article. I've been playing seriously for 4 years now. I bought an Estaban guitar (head hung low in shame)off of the home shopping network a little over 5 years ago. Had a friend make some adjustments on it and it actually plays fairly nice. And I'm used to it. I've been a part of our praise team for 8 years vocally and I've started playing on a few Sundays with the worship team. I just started the journey to purchasing a higher end acoustic, probably around the $1700 range or so. I've played a few guitars so far and right now a Martin DCP4 is in the running. My hope is to have a decsion made by Labor Day. Thanks for this article and your dedication to helping all of us get better so we can skillfully worship. I appreciate your work.

Esteban!

My favorite part of that commercial is when he plugs the acoustic guitar into the electric amp, puts distortion on it and talks about how great the tone is. Have you checked out Larrivee guitars? What else have you checked out in that price range?

Larrivee

Larivee is on the list. I've played two Martins, one Taylor and one Gibson so far. I have friend that has a nice Takamine that he has had for years. That's on the "play list" as well.

Depending on how old

your friend's guitar might be one of the Martin knock-offs. Takamine was making guitars so close to Martins that Martin sent them a cease and desist. There was no lawsuit but Tak did change from that point. Happy hunting. I'd love to know what you actually get.

On the Hunt

I will let you know for sure.
Thanks Jason

Great Article

My first, and currently only, electric was/is a MIM Strat that I picked up along with a Marshall DFX50 amp - $500 for both. They are both serving me very well so far. Definitely plan to purchase an acoustic/electric at some point though, so thanks to everyone for the tips.

A bit (ok a lot) off topic. Jason, in the "tone tips" video, you say what pedalboard you use and that you wouldn't recommend it for a few reasons. With that said, which one do you recommend for a basic setup of say 6 pedals?

Thanks again for such a great site!

Sorry for the late reply.

I was out of town for my anniversary. I would look into something like the Pedal Train 2 SC. It's the right size and I love that you can run the cables inside the board so it looks really clean. It doesn't have a power conditioner so you'd probably also want to look into one of those. I've been really impressed with everything I've read about the Voodoo Lab Pedal Power 2 Plus because of it's versatility. You can check them out here:

Pedal Train 2 SC
http://www.zzounds.com/a--3177268/item--PEDPT2SC

Voodoo Lab Pedal Power 2 Plus
http://www.zzounds.com/a--3177268/item--VDLPP2

finding the right one

My first guitar was one that my wife bought me for christmas about 10 years ago. It was a great surprise and I tried so hard to learn how to play on my own. It was basically a wood box with strings attached as you described…it was difficult to play due to the poor build quality and my "newbie" status.

I had it worked on by the shop that I was taking lessons with and they made it playable. I learned so much once I wasn't fighting the instrument. I added a sound hole pick up and I jumped in with our new church's music team.

A few months ago, I finally had the money in my pocket to purchase a better acoustic. After test driving so many guitars, I kept going back to Walden guitars. I purchased a Natura G630CE. For the price, the style and the sound, I couldn't find anything I liked better for my price point. It has a beautiful wood finish and the assembly is top notch. The guitar also has on board electronics. I have very pleased with the guitar and I always look forward to the opportunities to play it.

I also purchased a couple years ago a Fender Starcaster for $75. I do no know much of anything about electric guitars nor the millions of accessories that can go along with it. Its a bit overwhelming to go to the music shop and see all the pedals, cables, amps and accessories for these things. I currently have tiny Marshal practice amp and a Digitech multi effects pedal. It's not much, but it's getting the job done at the moment.

Thanks...

...for the recommendation on the pedalboard. I'll definitely look into that. I've been using a Boss ME-25 for the last three years, and I've finally actually figured out how to use it. It's a great little unit, but it has a fairly steep learning curve. But I'm now looking into going with individual pedals, so thanks again.

Decent Prices for Starving Musicians

I've been away from the Green Room for awhile...but thought I'd throw my opinion in on this one...as a music director for a small congregation, trying to create a more musical experience, the gear we've had (or lacked) can sometimes be a hinderance. Personally, I have this little internal conflict and choose to spend my own money rather than dip into my music budget from the church, so it's been a trick trying to get decent sounding gear without going overboard. zzounds.com is a good place for that, with decent credit-lines.
As far as acoustics go, over the last 20 years I've had several...The two favorites have been my Martin 000-15 (small body, gorgeous tone, over $1k...sold to fund my trip home after leaving the service), and a Seagull Entourage. Note on the Seagulls; Don't let their relatively low price fool you. To me, they a have a sound similar to Taylor for 1/3 the price. They are all 100% North American wood so they smell fantastic, most are all handmade in Quebec (Canadian, hence the friendly, low price) and have excellent Godin electronics. Great for starving artists. (Guild and The Loar are two of my other favorites).
For my electric set-up I use a Fender Telecaster, semi-hollow, or, my newest addition, an Epiphone Tom Delonge 330. That one surprised me with its playability and gritty tone...I was originally looking for something I wouldn't mind breaking.
I use (almost exclusively) Orange amps...amazing Brit tone, and if you're on a budget they just started making solid-states again that still deliver a pretty decent "tube-like" tone, clean to dirty with quick "switch." When I'm playing the acoustic, I don't use a separate amp, preferring to go straight to the sound board, or I will use a Zoom A3 Acoustic Pre-Amp modeler.
It's easy to get lost in the mindset of gear and brand-name elitism though...don't think that because you're playing a Squier and not a Fender it won't have as good a sound...with decent strings and confidence even a knock-off acoustic from the pawn shop can work well...we aren't rock-stars looking for endorsements...

Inexpensive acoustic guitar find

I have played high end Taylors and Martins. Most are worth the cost. I own 2 Ovations, a 414ce Taylor and a Fender. The Taylor is my primary go-to player. But they all have their place.

A couple years ago I was in search of an inexpensive travel guitar. I found a $200 Mitchell that blew me away! I know, you don't believe me. Neither did others, until they heard it. It is a full dreadnought and man does it project. No, it doesn't have the jangly of my Taylor, but the low end is awesome. It is solid wood all the way around. It has such a warm and deep bass, I love it. Before I bought it, I played one that was "out of the box". It was terrible.

So, here's the bottom line: play a bunch of guitars. Once in a while, even with "no-name" brands you may find a diamond in the rough. I did. There are some very respectable guitars out there for just a few hundred dollars.

It is amazing what you can find

When I was in college, there was an Aria 2 dreadnaught at a local music store that sold for $400 and sounded unreal. Haven't heard one sound that good since!

dead on

I have played for 20 years, I read the article to better help me communicate with friends and students. I could not agree more with everything you said. While I have been "happy" with almost every guitar I have had over the years (prob about 20), it wasn't until 10 years ago that I started finding the ones that were "right" for me. Surprisingly they weren't the most expensive ones.
my main acoustic is a Taylor 310
my main electric is a gretsch electromatic
my backup electric is a G&L tribute

Out,
Rob

learning guitar

One day when I was on Youtube finding how to play GLORIOUS DAY and I fond Jason. In the video I really loved the way Jason play the song! I have tried to learn by myself alone, but I can't do it! I just want to praise God and play in my church! I live in Cambodia and my church is small, but I know I can make it better than now! So now I am in Bible school. I hope I can help my church by sharing the Gospel and music. I am praying!
I hope Worship Artistry can help me!
emm.... sorry my English is not good!

Bless you, friend!

I think we can definitely help you there. Go ahead and grab an account. Start with the 101 lessons and those will prepare you for the songs. I'm always available via email as well. Just use the contact form and select teaching help.

New Electric Suggestions??

Hey Jason,
I'm a worship leader with my local church and college ministry. I've led teams for a couple years now and was playing acoustic but am also playing more and more electric now. I have a pretty decent amp and pedalboard setup but I wanted to upgrade the electric guitar I've been using without breaking the bank.

I've been playing an Epiphone Wildkat, which gets the job done but I think there are a lot better guitars out there for the price range. The tuning stability is also not the greatest. I'd like to sell it (along with an old practice amp I have) to get an electric guitar in the $400 range that will outperform the Epiphone. It seems to me like this actually shouldn't be too hard to accomplish.

I've heard fantastic things about the Squier 50's Classic Vibes Telecasters and was wondering if you think that would be a good guitar to buy in the $400 range? It seems like it'd be pretty tough to beat the quality of the CV Tele given the reviews I've seen online but I was curious if you knew of any other guitars that were big surprises in terms of their quality for the price. I don't really care what it says on the headstock provided it looks plays well and sounds good.

Thanks so much!

I haven't ever played a CV Tele

but I know what you mean about the Epiphone. I've never personally played an Epiphone that held it's tuning well. I've always thought the Mexican Fenders were a good deal and felt you can get the most for the price out of those. Not sure how much they're going for now but they'd be worth a play. Gretch also makes some low end stuff I've heard is pretty good. Speaking of playing, as mentioned in the article I would highly recommend playing anything you were interested in before making a purchase. Quality can vary dramatically on lower end guitars.

The other thing you may want to think about is if you are wanting to upgrade, it may be worth saving your money for something more in the $800 price range. It's a pretty big jump in price but the quality jump is huge too. Just a thought.

Thanks for the help/advice!

I'll definitely be sure to play a bunch of guitars before make a purchase. It seems like usually I end up walking out with something different than I had expected, but I still like to have a good idea of what I want going in. I'm curious to know if you'd recommending my strategy of sorta knowing what I want going in or not.

Also, I'm actually kinda surprised to hear that the lower-end Gretsches are pretty good, I figured that since their high end stuff can get so expensive that they'd make sort of junky low-end guitars and sell them based off of name/good looks alone. I love the tone the Vertical Church Band and Elevation Worship guys get, so I'd totally be down to get a Gretsch if there's one that can compete with the CV Tele or a MIM Tele in the same price range. I just figured I'd have to pay way more for a Gretsch to get something of similar quality.

Any other recommendations of guitars that outperform their price? I'd like to have a few in mind so I have some sort of a place to start.

Thanks again!

I always

do internet research before going into the store...mainly to be sure the sales people are telling me the truth. Half the time I know way more than they do. I think I could be a great guitar sales person...

Guitar

Can anybody give me information on the Valencia guitars? Are they good for a worship set? Thanks!

What do

you think about the Ibanez PF5ECE? What are your thoughts on it?

Good Guitar?

Jason, do you know anything about the Ibanez JEMJR Steve Vai Signature JEM Series Electric Guitar White? I've read a ton of reviews and it seems to be a great guitar for the price!

For Beginners

After struggling through years of wanting to learn to play and not knowing quite how to get there, I would tell new players this. Definitely start on electric unless you just love the acoustic or really want to just play 5 chords and sing.

In my opinion a Telecaster is the worlds easiest guitar to play, it has less controls than the Strat, and no volume knobs to get in the way. The Made in Mexico versions can be had for around 400 used. Not saying you should buy it used but those guitars hold their value, so the used price is the price, even for a new one, so negotiate and look for deals or find a demo at the local shop.

A Gretsch has a huge advantage in that if you grab a hollow body model, it plays like an acoustic so you don't have to plug it in to practice. They are also beautiful guitars that will call out to you and you will never want to get rid of it.

As far as that first amp goes, I say forego the practice amp and spend a few more dollars to get a tube amp, I bought a real nice Fender Hot Rod deluxe for 450.00 a while back. The difference in sound is unbelievable. It's hard enough being a Noob without having substandard equipment. Don't worry about whether you're going to stick with it, if you have the passion to go out and spend your money on this stuff that's mainly what you need. The rest will come but you have to have a basic level of equipment to keep you motivated.

Now here is the secret I've learned as a more intermediate electric guitar player, and steady member of a worship team. A Gretsch Tennessee Rose can be had for about 1400.00 used and will play about the same as 3000 White Falcon. An American standard Tele for around 800.00 plays as good as any Tele. The best amp is no amp. I sold my Hot Rod and Bought a Fractal AX8, it is an all in one effects processor with every amp and effect you can imagine that will play directly through the Church's PA system. The sound guys will love you, and the other musicians will be in awe of your tone. These can be had for roughly 1100.00 right now, and it's a serious piece of equipment that could be used at a U-2 show and probably is. The learning curve is a bit steep, but if you like tech it's very doable and the unit comes with a lot presets ready to play right out of the box.

Lastly it's not related to equipment, but use the instructional videos on the internet at sites like this one and learn how to play songs you love. You can learn to play scales later, they are mostly good for increasing your speed and dexterity, but you will practice a lot more if you're having fun. And practicing and spending time with your equipment and making it your passion is the most important part of getting better.