Beginner Blog #2: Buying Your First Guitar

Posted by Bryan Peterson on

So you’ve decided you are going to start playing guitar. That’s awesome. You recognize the role music plays in your life, and you want to take a next step of actually playing or writing your own. There are any things I can say about long journeys starting with a single step, and how the difference between a master and a beginner is a master has made more mistakes. But really, it starts with a choice. Which guitar?

You may look through a web site or go to a store and get overwhelmed, there are soooo many options and you likely know very little. The option paralysis has you, and you turn back, and vow to come back another time.

It’s really best to go to an actual music store to buy your first guitar. They may not have as much as the big on-line retailer, but the experience of talking to a salesperson you can return to for advice, for maintenance, for your basics of a career in playing guitar, is irreplaceable. You can’t ask a web site why the action is so high, or how to fix that broken string. I’ll always double check any guitar going out to make sure it’s right going out the door. I even check the ones that come in with the new player who bought from Amazon, because I want that player to have as little obstacles to their playing. That brand new player (or often, their parents) don’t have any idea that the action itself is high or the guitar is buzzing, much less why, so I always give a little help on the house. You can’t get that from a web site or a big box retailer.

I’m going to give you the best advice I can on this, from twenty years of selling to all skill levels and also seeing people go from beginner to signed artist. Yes, it does happen.

First, arm yourself with some basic knowledge to help ease that part of your worry.

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 to play.

Parts of a guitar

 

 

 

Now, you may go to a guitar playing buddy to give you advice. I find that often that advice is not the best, and represents a very narrow experience of them beginning, and not based in the experience of 20 years of selling to beginners like I have. So let’s round up s ac ouple pieces of bad advice first.

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 steel 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 to facilitate fingerpicking.

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. You 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. You’ll have the right guitar after the break-in period, instead of something that will never play like you want it to.

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 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. Get the guitar that suits what you expect to be playing

So what do you want to get?

Get a guitar that will suit what you want to do. If you’re a country fan or a folkie, an acoustic is probably right up your alley, but if you want to metal, it’s not going to cut it for you.

There are some big differences here that are worth noting beyond this, though. Acoustic guitars come with heavier strings, and they fell big even to me, and I’m over 6 feet tall. There are some smaller body sizes, but on a sheer physical comfort scale, they’ll never be close to an electric in comfort.

And if you are 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. 

Electric guitars are more specialized, just like 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 mention, 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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