One of the most common questions I get when someone is starting up with guitar lessons is, “What kind of guitar should I get?”
Let’s get right to it. Fortunately, some options can be eliminated right away. A 12-string guitar should be avoided when beginning with lessons. As great as they sound, they are very difficult to play as your finger needs to apply enough pressure to get two strings to ring out rather than one. Just getting one string to ring out cleanly is a hard enough task when you’re just starting out.
Also, a seven-string guitar should not be considered in 99.9% of cases. The exception would be if the student is very interested in the hard rock, heavy metal, or some sort of neo-classical experimental style that might utilize that extra low seventh string. Otherwise, this extra string will just serve as an unnecessary complication.
Here are the five important questions you need to ask yourself when choosing a guitar:
1) What size guitar do I actually need?
2) Do I prefer acoustic guitar over electric?
3) Do I want a steel stringed guitar or classical guitar?
4) Cutaway or no cutaway?
5) Do I rent or buy?
What size guitar do I actually need?
You’re likely not going to have to think too hard on this one. The guitars you want to consider are available in half-size, three-quarter size, and full size (or concert size) models. If the student has reached the age of nine years old or so, and has a typical body size, just go with a full-size guitar, whether it be acoustic or electric.
As for younger students, a chart that I generally agree with to guide you on this decision is here.
Just a couple disagreements with this chart: Don’t consider a 1/4 size guitar. 1/2 size guitars are small enough for the average-sized 5 year-old. There’s no need to buy a 1/4 size guitar, only having to buy a 1/2 guitar a year later. Also, I have found that most kids around the ages of 9-12 do perfectly well with a full “concert size” acoustic guitar. It’s good to get them acquainted and used to the full guitar size as soon as it becomes comfortable for them to do so.
Do I prefer acoustic guitar over electric?
The word “prefer” is the primary determining factor. Do you like artists like Avett Brothers, The Eagles, James Taylor, Jack Johnson, Fleetwood Mac? Are your favorite songs “Blackbird”, “Wild Horses”, “Dust In The Wind” and “Landslide”? If so, go with the acoustic.
Or do you prefer artists like AC/DC, The White Stripes, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Guns N’Roses, ZZtop, Jimi Hendrix? Songs like “Layla”, “Purple Haze”, “Enter Sandman”, “Sweet Child O Mine”, or “Revolution”? Is it a top priority to learn how to play rock, blues or heavy metal solos? If this sounds like you, choose the electric.
And of course there are plenty of artists who have a mixture of acoustic and electric songs on their resume, such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and The Who.
What I recommend to those on the fence is to choose the acoustic steel-string guitar. Though a little bit trickier to play, it will strengthen your hand and fingers faster than the other guitar choices, assuming the action (distance between the fretboard and strings) is set low enough where it doesn’t become so hard to play whereas it becomes discouraging. If/when you switch to electric, your hands will be more than ready to take on this easier to play guitar. Conversely, people who learn guitar on electric often find it frustration when they switch over to acoustic, which usually takes a little bit more hand and finger strength to play cleanly.
Also consider in this decision the additional equipment needed for an electric guitar – an amplifier and cable. With an acoustic guitar, it’s portability is an advantage as you simply put it into your case or gig-bag and you’re ready to go and don’t need to rely on an amp or an electrical outlet to be heard (although now there are a variety of small battery powered amps available).
Looking at the electric guitar, it’s big advantage besides it’s slightly easier playability, is it’s versatility of sounds. From the heaviest of distortion to the cleanest of tones, any sound can be dialed up with a good amp, and even furthermore with a good add-on effects such as stomp-boxes and effects processors.
One final great choice is an acoustic/electric guitar. These guitar’s have a “cutaway” that makes it easier to play the higher notes up on the fretboard just like an electric guitar has. But don’t expect to get a great electric guitar sound, nor have it play anything like an electric guitar. Think of it as just an acoustic sound that you can amplify with no frills, that happens to have a cutaway.
Do I Want A Steel-String or Classical guitar?
A steel string acoustic guitar is what you’re hearing on 99% of popular songs that have an acoustic guitar playing. Some exceptions are songs like “Tears In Heaven” and “Classical Gas” which employ the sound of a classical guitar.
As you might guess, classical guitars are used in classical music – a guitar style that requires a lot of practice and dedication as note reading is essential. The strings are made primarily of plastic and nylon instead of steel, and are a bit easier to finger and get notes to ring out. Picks are generally not used, and these guitars have slightly wider necks which allow a little more space between strings so fingers can play the strings more easily without strings that are very close to each other.
With that being said, you can definitely use a a pick on a classical guitar and play any music written for a steel-string. It will just have that warmer sound classical guitars are known for. It is a good choice for one who likes the acoustic guitar, but who have been frustrated trying to get notes and chords to ring out cleanly on the steel-string acoustic despite playing guitar for a while.
But because the vast majority of the popular acoustic music is played on an steel-string, it is the guitar I usually recommend if the student does not have a preference.
Cutaway or No Cutaway?
A cutaway is simply an open space in the design of the guitar right below the very high frets that allows your fretting hand to easily access these frets. Virtually every electric guitar has a cutaway because so much electric guitar music is played higher up on the fretboard. Acoustic guitar music, not so much. But acoustic/electric guitars almost always include cutaways. I am a fan of them as they allow easy access to those higher frets that are frequently used in electric guitar songs and allow more range for soloing. A great option if you’re choosing acoustic, although not necessary.
Do I rent or buy?
Renting a guitar generally costs around $25 a month for an acoustic guitar, and $35 for an electric with an amp and cable. If there is any degree of skepticism with the student (or parent of the student) as to how much they will enjoy guitar, definitely go the way of the rental. Music stores will almost always give you a guitar that is good for a beginner and very playable, as they don’t want renters to be frustrated with the guitar’s setup. If you’re pretty sure of your level of dedication and want to buy, I’d recommend spending at least $150 on an acoustic or $200 on an electric/amp combo. Spending $50 or $75 on a guitar will often yield a guitar that is hard to play, sounds terrible, or will fall apart fast.
* Proudly providing in-home lessons to Lake Bluff, Lake Forest, Libertyville, Vernon Hills, Lincolnshire, Highland Park, Deerfield, Wilmette, Winnetka, Glencoe, Glenview, Northfield, Skokie and Evanston areas.