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!