How to choose your first guitar

So you're interested in taking up the guitar: that's great! However, you've probably been browsing the vast array of different instruments out there and you're a little overwealmed by all the options. What we want to do here is try to make things a little easier and guide you towards a first instrument that will give you the best possible chance of making progress in your new hobby.

 

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What type of guitar is best to learn on?

The first question is there are a few different overall types of guitar - electric, acoustic, classical and bass being the four main ones - and you're going to need to pick one to start with. So which is best to start on?

For very young children, the question really comes down to whether they can cope with metal strings, which can be tricky for a youngster as metal strings are a very thin, hard material and they are under more tension so they can be painful on small fingers. Up to the the age of 8 or 9, we recommend a classical style guitar with nylon strings (technically the top three are nylon and the bottom three are thin coils of metal wound around a silk core). They're relatively easy to hold and press the strings down on and there are a lot of small sized ones out there designed for children to learn on. For under 6s we recommend the ukulele: the chord shapes are similar but they're physically much smaller and there are only four strings to contend with. 

For many years conventional wisdom was to learn on an acoustic first, or a classical if you were learning at school. However perceptions have changed on this over the last 20 years and we strongly recommend going for whatever the type of guitar that most interests the prospective player. Viewed objectively, there are pros and cons to any of the different types of guitar and we're not convinced there's any benefit to starting with one type over the other, but what we do believe is that the guitar that gives you the best chance of success is the one you most want to pick up and play. At risk of sounding like Jack Black in School of Rock, if your heart is set on playing Smoke On The Water, there's no need to spend six months sitting down with a classical guitar and a book of scales - just jump straight in with the riff! There is lots of tuition material to get you started whatever guitar and genre you are interested in, and it's common nowadays for schools to offer lessons for electric and acoustic guitar as well as classical. So, the choice of guitar comes down to the genre you're most interested in.

Classical guitar was traditionally the guitar variant taught in schools, although that has changed a lot over the last couple of decades. Classicals have less string tension which makes them a little easier on the hands, although they also have rather chunky necks, so for a beginner what you gain in soft strings you lose in finger stretches. Go for a classical guitar if the beginner is taking classical lessons or wants to play classical repertoire or Latin style folk.

Acoustic guitars are similar to classicals in appearance but have metal strings and are more heavily constructed to cope with the extra string tension. Acoustics are the best choice for strumming chords, blues and folk fingerpicking, and as a tool for songwriting. They're also great in that you can pick them up and play without plugging in and they're easy to carry round with you for the same reason.

Electric guitars and basses are a little more complicated in that they really need to be plugged into an amplification, which makes up a big part of the sound, so there's a little more kit involved and you're tied to using that equipment when you want to practice. That said, for many playing a loud electric guitar is the raisin d'etre for many guitarists. If you want to play rock guitar then electric is the way to go.

Bass guitars are lower in pitch that standard electric guitars, most commonly having the same notes as the lower four strings of a guitar but sounding an octave below. They have much longer necks than standard electrics, so the stretches are bigger but to begin with you're typically only playing single notes. If you have a broad ambition to learn guitar then the bass is a less obvious choice, but it's an interesting instrument if you have a specific fondness for it on recordings.

 

Ok, I know what type of guitar they want. But there are so many models and so many price points! 

This is true, but the good news if you're buying for a beginner is that choosing a first instrument need not be too much of a minefield. You essentially want an instrument that is not specialised (ie can play a range of different types of music) and is of sufficient quality not to impede their progress in the first stages of learning. 

There are so many reasons an expensive guitar should sound better than a cheap one it really deserves a topic of its own. For now though, the most important part is that the guitar plays well and isn't going to impede the progress of a beginner. 

As it's a first instrument, it's understandable that most people don't want to spend a fortune and nor should you have to. That said, when you pick up a guitar for the first time you're trying to toughen up your fingertips and train your hand to do unfamiliar things and it doesn't help if the instrument is creating problems that make it harder than it need be. We make a point of avoiding the most basic instruments - although we could sell a lot of them - because we want you to have an instrument that is going to be pleasurable to learn on and give the beginner the best chance possible. It really is very important that the guitar you buy is comfortable to play and stays in tune properly. If you're buying a cheap guitar, get the salesman to tune it up and give you a few chords on it, and ask him or her how it feels to play. You can even use the magic phrase 'has it been set up?' - we'll tell you what that means in a minute!

If looking at acoustic and classical guitars, a subject that will come up is whether the top of the guitar is made from solid wood or is laminated. This has a big effect on the sound as plywood, although durable and cheap, is very stiff and does not produce a very good tone. Guitars with a top made from solid wood will generally sound much better than a guitar of similar build quality with a plywood top. Guitars with the top, back and sides made from solid wood will typically sound better again but the price will be considerably higher and it's a subtler difference than with the top alone so it's most common for cheaper instruments to go with the solid top and laminated back and sides. 

With electric guitars the sound quality is effected by the electrical components and of course the amp that it is plugged into. There are a lot of different configurations of electrics within an electric guitar so the best way to choose one is to get someone to play them so you can hear the differences. 

 

What is a guitar set up and why does everybody on the internet think I need to get one?

In this case, the internet has a point! A set up is the process of making sure the guitar plays as well as it possibly can, and involves adjusting a number of parts to make the guitar play and sound as best it can. It can apply to any guitar whatever the price point Even if a guitar was properly adjusted when it was built, most guitars in the UK have endured a long sea journey and a stay in a warehouse before they arrive at a shop, so readjusting them is important before the guitar is sold and not all retailers do this. 

Essentially the set up comprises setting the curvature of the neck of the guitar (most guitars have a very slight bow in the neck: too much bow and the guitar will be hard to play, too little and the guitar will have a tendency to buzz when fretting notes on the first few frets), setting the bridge height and the height of the nut slots, and setting the intonation which effects whether the high notes on the guitar are in tune with the open strings. All of these things effect how easy the guitar is to play so they're really important to get right if the guitar is to be suitable for a beginner.

 

So what guitar do you recommend?

For classical guitar, we recommend the Admira Alba, which retails at £99 with a bag, for absolute beginners. These are Chinese made guitars but made to the high standard of the company's Spanish instruments and they have a relatively strong, sweet sound. More importantly the playability and tuning stability are excellent which gives the beginner a huge advantage over the many slightly cheaper instruments that are commonly sold online. If you wanted something with a better sound we recommend Strunal, a Czech company who make a beautiful entry level classical with a solid Cedar top and laminated Oak back and sides for £199. The solid top helps a lot in terms of sound quality and they look lovely as well.

For steel string acoustics, our favourites are the Crafter range of guitars which start at £189 and have solid tops. These are made in Korea by a very experienced company whose quality control is great and they play and sound remarkably well, holding their own against substantially more expensive instruments. The slightly smaller T/CD is the most popular model and they also do a traditional large body model called the D/SP, and a significantly smaller model called the Lite Cast that is ideal for smaller hands (adult or junior - one of our instrument dept staff has bought one of these and she's in her 30s!). On a tighter budget we do a range of Aria guitars that are made entirely from laminated materials but that are still comfortable guitars to play. Again the biggest selling one is the slightly smaller AF20, with a larger AD18 also available and a 3/4 size for youngsters which will suit 8-10 year olds.

For electrics the easiest way to approach it is to buy a ready made pack that includes everything needed to get started. Fender, one of the best known manufacturers, make just such a pack that includes a Squier branded version of their best selling Stratocaster, a small  amp and all the additional bits and pieces. It's a well made guitar and the amp is perfectly reasonable for a beginner. If the guitar is for a young player they also offer a 3/4 size version of the same guitar aimed at 8-10 year olds - it doesn't come in a pack but we can put the elements of the pack together for you.

 

Buying a guitar is that simple then?

It pretty much is, yes. There is obviously a huge range of instruments out there but much of that comes further down the line - for now you're trying to give someone a good start and to that ends it's not too difficult to pick something that will do the job admirably. So good luck!