Beginner Blog #1: Buying a first guitar as a gift

Posted by Bryan Peterson on

We're at the time of year where a lot of parents who know nothing about guitars are asked to buy guitars for Christmas. No doubt this causes a lot of worry and stress about getting the right thing. 

You don't have to worry. In the music industry, and probably other specialized hobbyist type industries we understand this, anticipate, and train for how to answer questions and make these kinds of customers feel more welcome. So if you're reading this, and you're in this situation, relax. No need to worry. We have you covered. 

But since you're reading this, you're probably doing the research you need before heading to the store, and that's great. I'm going to tell you everything you need to know.

We'll start with some basics of how the industry works. 

First of all, it is important that you go early. Don't put it off. The longer you put it off, the more the stores are selling out of the gear you specifically want to purchase. 

Second, go to a music store. By and large, they're small independent businesses, and could use the support. In exchange for your patronage, you'll get expert advice from someone who actually plays, sells to everyone from rock stars on down, who cares about people playing music, and who can help support you after the sale. This is far more important than for most other gifts, which I'll get to in a little bit.  

Third, listen to what that salesperson has to say. Really, we're not trying to pull a con job on, you, we aren't trying to milk the sale for all it's worth. We make money by having you come back, and if you feel ripped off, you won't be coming back.

There is technical knowledge of instruments and equipment that is very significant to the player that the salesperson understands, and is difficult to convey, but critical to the player, and the salesperson is in a position to try to convey that without getting too technical. Believe me, we're all pretty technical, and can go into far too much detail for most people (though occasionally I get an engineer parent and then we can properly geek out). 

Mostly what we try to do is get you the best instrument for what your gift recipient might want to play. 

What we will do is try to overcome some objections that are common for budget conscious parents for the good of the gift recipient. We'll always try to get within budget. 

You'll probably want to go with some basic knowledge to make you feel better. Let's talk about the parts of a guitar real quick. All guitars will have a number of features in common. The body is the big part of the guitar, where you strum. The neck comes out of that, which has the headstock at the end, which is where the strings get tuned. Along the neck are metal bars, which the strings are held against to change pitch and actually play the guitar. At the body end of the strings is the bridge, and at the neck end is the nut. An acoustic body is hollow and will have a soundhole. An electric likely has a solid body and pickups, which transform string vibration into electrical signal), and controls set into it. One other fundamental word to understand is "action." Action is the height of the string above the fretboard. Lower is generally easier. 

Now, you'll want to think of your gift recipient. Are they a little rocker? Or do they like more acoustic based songs? This will largely determine the kind of guitar you get. 

One of the most common question we're asked is what kind of guitar to get? You'll get all sorts of often bad advice from relatives who mean well about this. I'm going to go over some common pieces of bad advice before we go over the right things. 

Bad advice number one: "Get a classical, the strings are easier." First of all classical guitars are acoustic and have nylon strings, but to say the strings are easier is wrong. First, when you look at a tension chart, they will have an equivalent tension to lighter metal strings. On top of this, classical guitars are designed in a very traditional fashion and for a specific technique, which is very much not a modern rock style technique. the neck is wider and the action of the string is higher. 

The reason people say to get a nylon string guitar is because your hand will have a bit of an adjustment period in getting used to playing. You don't use your hand in any ordinary tasks like you play a guitar, and you have to adjust to it. The player will also have to develop calluses of some sort which takes time and until the player is accustomed to both of these, their hand will hurt a bit. The Nylon strings may be easier in this period, which only lasts a few weeks, but the nylon string guitar will make all future playing from that point more difficult. As a better solution to this problem, get the right acoustic or electric guitar, and have the shop put lighter strings on it. It's a much better solution. 

Bad advice number two: "Just get an acoustic until you know they'll stick with it." This bridges into a larger issue in the discussion, but the basic thought is really simple. You're buying a gift for a specific person with a specific set of interests. Imagine wanting to be a heavy metal rock star, and and talking to all of your friends, you're dreaming of the black guitar and the amp you can crank to 11, and then you get a folky acoustic guitar. It's not just disappointing, it shows you really didn't think much of the person's dreams, interests or really who they are. 

I say this all the time in the store. Guitars are like tools. We can have the greatest screwdriver in the world, but if I need to pound in a nail, it's not going to help me. 

We all have worries about our kids not sticking with something, but I have to respond, as a parent and somebody with extreme budget shortfalls in life, it's part of a kid's role to try things to discover skills, and it's part of a parent's role to accept this and facilitate it. I've spent plenty on passing interests, and I'm honestly excited to see one thing pass and another come into focus. It means one more experience, more growth, and more exploration for my child. 

When you get into this habit of fearing every passing fad in your child's list of interests, you become the person who walks in asking if there's a $50 guitar. I'm sorry, I know such things exist, but there's a reason they aren't in stores. They are made so poorly it's a good guarantee you'll kill your kid's dream by buying it. We don't want a bicycle that pushes against you on every push of your legs, you'd never want to ride your bike, but that's just what a bad, cheap instrument can do. They're the interest discourager. And that's why you come to a music shop. We pick the products that are good enough for us and our community based on our experience. 

So look, get an instrument that is good enough to encourage your kid in the interest. When my parents bought my first instrument 30 years ago, I'm sure they were terrified, and didn't realize it would provide me a career as a music store owner and recording artist in a band with a multi-platinum selling Grammy nominated musician. 

So the debate still loom between acoustic and electric. One thing I can say is that acoustics are big and use heavier strings. The most common size, the dreadnought, feels large on me and I'm over six feet tall. If you're going to go with an acoustic, there is a size called Concert, or 000, that is much more comfortable (though still teenage to adult sized generally). And if you're locked in on an acoustic, my experience is that getting one with the electric pickup is almost never a great idea. It will just go unused. When we talk about acoustic guitars, there's a big upgrade between a $200 acoustic and a $300 acoustic in it's fit and finish. But you get a $300 acoustic with the built in pickup, you're getting a $200 guitar with a gadget you'll never use. Always pick the better guitar. You can add a pickup later. 

But if your gift recipient is looking to play rock, electric guitars are only slightly more expensive as a package, really, and have lighter strings, lower actions, and physically more comfortable bodies. This is what I'd mostly recommend for starting off for just about anyone, in fact. 

There are about two and a half size categories for electric guitars, full size, where the bridge to nut scale measurement is 24-3/4 inches, to 25-1/2 inches, and junior, where the scale length is 22-3/4 inches. this seemingly small difference in pretty big in the guitar world. The junior scale instruments are generally cheaply made, and have some tuning and intonation issues that are inherent with such a short scale of instrument, but they're adequate for kids that are anywhere from 6 to 10 years old, give or take. Below the age of 6, we generally suggest a ukulele, above 10 with a growth spurt imminent, we'll suggest a full scale instrument. 

Now, I did say that there are two and a half sizes. Fender guitars in particular puts out the Mustang sized guitars (which include the Cyclone, Duo sonic and other names), which are intermediate at 24 inch scale. It's considered full sized, and were always intended as student models (though Kurt Cobain and a number of others have played them), and they seem to be the perfect size for the middle-school and up player. There are a few grades of these, going into higher end American made instruments for players who are more experienced or if budget allows (the steps up in quality are absolutely worth it). 

One other thing that I'll say is that guitars are specialized, as is our listening taste. One guitar will be better for a style than another. But the key word is better. There is nothing that stops you from playing metal on a guitar that is most famous for being played by blues players. and you can substitute any genre into that sentence. Your recipient is likely going to get exposed, and therefore interested in a lot of other styles and artists through friends and exploration, and sometimes just boredom. Wanting the play guitar is already reaching out for more experience. 

So listen to the salesperson and seek something that is flexible for all genres. It's only at the second or third guitar upgrade that we start focusing in on specifications like the shape of the neck or what have you. If the player has a wide musical range, they probably have one that is most prominent. Given the choice, get the guitar that leans a little more in that direction than away from it. 

And one very important thing to say, there are some guitars that have what is called a "floating tremolo system," with the Floyd Rose Tremolo being a popular brand of this bridge system (not the brand of guitar, just part of it). These are very difficult to work with as a beginner, and designed for more advanced techniques anyway, so I'd avoid them on a first guitar. 

And then you'll have to consider the kit of accessories with the guitar. Basics are picks, a bag or case, a stand, a cable, and extra strings. Always get an extra set. They do break, and will break on the first strum Christmas morning when all stores are closed. Happens every time. 

If you get an acoustic guitar, the salesperson may recommend a humidifier. This is absolutely critical to the long term playability of the guitar, and not something to be suspicious of. They're generally below $20, and will require a bag or case along with them. Essentially, the wood of a guitar top will dry slowly over the next twenty or so years, and without proper humidity maintenance, will crack and warp. People who don't believe us will have their guitar in for an expensive and time consuming repair right off the bat. 

And the reason that you buy from a music store is you get to come back in and talk to the experts, have them teach you proper maintenance and string changing, and recommend the next piece of gear for you. Whenever we sell a first guitar in particular, or even when someone brings in their new guitar bought elsewhere, this shop does a free checkup and setup to make sure the instrument plays great. We want everyone to start off with the best playing instrument they can.  

I hope you now have a better feeling about making a purchase for the holidays or a gift now. If you have any questions, you can send us a line on our contact page. 


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