“I got my first real six-string. Bought it at the five and dime. Played it ’til my fingers bled. Was the summer of ’69.” – Bryan Adams
Whether you’re thinking about hunkering down and buying your first guitar or looking to upgrade from the $199 Strat pack that your grandma gave you for Christmas to a bonafide AXE, let’s talk about some of the things you should be considering when making this exciting — and potentially nerve-wracking — decision!
Should I Get an Acoustic or Electric?
Historically, most players begin on an acoustic and move on to the electric a bit later. There are several reasons why:
- Decent acoustics tend to run cheaper than decent electrics.
- An electric guitar means spending more on amplification.
- Acoustic guitars work best with most styles of play; electric guitars tend to favor certain playing styles based on the guitar’s design.
That said, there’s no right answer to this question because you should buy the guitar you want to play!
Learning on an acoustic, however, tends to strengthen your playing muscles and give you a more solid foundation to build on in the long run. Acoustic guitars require greater finger pressure to reach the fretboard, so it’s sort of like learning to drive a manual-shift car, then moving to an automatic.
The most important question, though, is what kind of music do you want to play? If you don’t know yet, great! Try everything! But if you’ve already started your journey toward one or a few specific genres, this makes a big difference.
If you’re primarily interested in playing folk, country, or popular songs, an acoustic guitar with steel-wound strings is probably the right choice. If you’re learning classical or Spanish guitar, you’ll need a nylon-stringed guitar.
If you’re interested in rock, metal, jazz or punk, you’ll want to consider buying an electric. Just remember that an electric guitar will also require an amp and instrument cable(s). And if you’re considering purchasing an electric guitar, there are a ton of variations in wood type, body style, and amplification pickups that can inform your decision.
Learn up on all of these aspects of the electric guitar in ten minutes with our Fundamentals of Guitar Anatomy article series!
How Much Should I Spend on My First Guitar?
A good ballpark cost for a decent, beginner guitar is anywhere between $200 and $800. Depending on your means, your previous experience, and your commitment to learning, this is different for every individual.
To be perfectly honest, anything less than that is going to fall apart before you’ve gotten it home from the shop. Be wary of “deals” on guitars coming from Southeast Asia. If you find a deal online that’s too good to be true, it most certainly is.
I’m a firm believer in having the right tool for the job and will never try to sell somebody on a cheap instrument. If you’re serious about the guitar, you need to have serious equipment to learn on.
That said, “serious” doesn’t necessarily mean “lavishly expensive.” Tons of companies offer affordable guitars that are perfectly playable and some of them are even quite unique!
Where Should I Shop?
Once you’ve considered which type of guitar you wish to purchase, and budgeted appropriately, you’ll need to decide where to shop for your guitar.
Right off the bat, I would discourage purchasing anything online. I’ve bought used guitars online, and even though I’ve been playing for years and know what to look for, I’ve still been screwed.
I suggest finding a local dealer or visiting a big box store such as Guitar Center or Sam Ash and finding a sales associate who will help guide you through the process.
At the very least, if you’re going to buy from a Craigslist seller, or at a pawn shop, or garage sale, make sure you spend some time with the instrument and check it through and through before laying money down.
Play as many guitars as you can, and make sure you ask plenty of questions to protect your investment! There’s nothing like standing beneath the wall of guitars and having your breath taken away, imagining yourself onstage with a Les Paul ‘burst slung low over your shoulder and the crowd roaring.
This is such a crucial part of the experience when buying your first instrument, and I would hate for any young players to miss out!
What Should I Buy?
There aren’t necessarily specific models more suited to beginners than others. You’ve probably heard of brands like Gibson and Fender, and recognize their flagship products.
Subsidiaries such as Epiphone, Squier, LTD, and PRS SE offer cheaper, well-constructed, alternatives to some of the instruments produced by their parent companies that allow you to own the guitar of your dreams, without dropping several thousand dollars on a real Gibson or ESP.
In fact, guitarists like Noel Gallagher (Oasis), Ezra Koenig (Vampire Weekend), Gary Clark Jr., and even U2’s The Edge have all fallen in love with the sound of Epiphone guitars, in particular, often preferring them to Epi’s parent company Gibson, despite the guitars being much cheaper.
I would recommend shopping based on two factors: the aesthetic and the playability. Nobody wants to lug around and practice on a guitar that looks and feels crappy. Having something that you take pride in owning is important, and will encourage you to learn and practice more.
In addition to the way the guitar looks, you’ll need a guitar that’s comfortable and suits you well. If you have tiny hands, buy something with a smaller scale. If you’re thin, you won’t want to buy a heavy guitar that feels like a bowling ball when you wear it standing up.
Take your time sitting with each instrument. Find something that really speaks to you. If it isn’t happening, try somewhere else, or come back another day. Don’t rush. When you find it, you’ll know.
Don’t I Need an Amp?
Not necessarily! There are myriad smartphone apps such as AndRig and AmpliTube on the market right now that will allow you to connect your electric guitar to your iPhone or Android using a simple converter and instrument cable. This way, you can practice anywhere and anytime using headphones!
It’s not only smartphones and iPads with some amp-simulator plugins and some savvy DAW editing. You can easily record electric guitars “direct in” with no amplification. Read our guide to all the ways you can record guitars directly into your computer.
I’ve Got My Guitar. Now What?
Congratulations, you’ve purchased your first guitar! (Cue confetti and balloons.) Now, you’re going to want to have it set up by a professional.
A setup is like an oil change for your guitar. The luthier (fancy word for a guitar builder/mechanic) will adjust the plane of the neck, balance the intonation, and adjust the action, or string height, to help maintain the integrity of your instrument and get you shredding and strumming in no time!