A Beginner’s Guide to Buying a Guitar
Buying a guitar can be an exciting experience, especially if it’s your first musical instrument. There’s a lot more to know about buying a guitar than what it looks like or whether or not you can afford it, which is why I always recommend taking a little bit of time to learn a few basics before you head to the music store. I decided to create this simple Buyer’s Guide for Guitars to help ensure that you purchase the right guitar for your needs.
BUYING A GUITAR BASED ON BODY TYPE
Acoustic guitars are better suited for beginners than electric guitars. They are less expensive and more portable. When shopping for your first guitar, its body type must be considered. The acoustic guitar is manufactured from several pieces pieced together and the types of wood used to create each piece produce different-sounding tones.
Many experts believe that the wood chosen for the top of the guitar is the most important factor in determining the quality of the instrument’s sound. Mahogany or maple is typically used to make up the back and sides of the guitar, but the top is normally a softer wood, such as spruce. It the top is laminate instead, it is comprised of layers of wood. Laminate guitar tops are more durable but some professional guitarists believe that laminate tops cause the sound to suffer. The guitar’s finish also contributes to its price and appearance. Lighter finishes usually dent and scratch easier, but they also tend to cost less than a heavier finish.
BUYING THE CORRECT SIZE GUITAR
Guitars come in different sizes (full size, ¾ size, ½ size, and ¼ size) and buying the right size guitar is important to all players. Selecting the right size guitar depends on your arm’s reach. You do not want to strain to reach the strings. Most adults and teens are comfortable with full size guitars, but a guitar that is too large will make it difficult for a child to make the proper reach with both hands. Trying to play a guitar that is too large for their body will be uncomfortable (if not painful) for a child. Likewise, a guitar that is too small can also cause problems.
As a rule of thumb, children up to six years old will probably use a 1/4 size guitar while seven to eight year olds will probably be able to play a 1/2 size guitar. A 3/4 size guitar may be best for nine to 10 year olds. Always test a guitar to ensure it is the right size for you (or your child) before making a purchase.
GUITAR BUYING ADVICE FOR BEGINNERS
- Low action. “Action” refers to how high the strings sit off of the fretboard. Most players prefer low action because it takes minimal effort to get a clean result with your fingering hand. A guitar’s action should be universal, which means that that the strings should be the same distance from the fretboard from the top of the neck to the bottom
- Light strings. Acoustic guitar strings are available in three gauges: medium, light and extra light. Light strings are fine for most people and they are easy to play. I like the D’addario Silk and Steel strings.
- A straight guitar neck. Make sure that the guitar neck is as straight as possible. Look down the neck of the guitar and eyeball its curve. If you’re not totally certain whether or not it’s straight, run a ruler along the length of the guitar, resting it on the frets. Do this on both sides and make sure the neck is not crooked.
- Not a toy. If you are purchasing a smaller size guitar for a child, make sure it is a not a toy. They may look legitimate at first glance, but toy guitars are just that-toys.
NEW VS. USED GUITARS
I typically encourage my students to purchase used guitars. You can often get a decent guitar for much less than retail price. In fact, in most cases you can spend just 50 to 60% of the new cost of the instrument.
There are several places where you can find used guitars. Many people advertise them for sale on Craigslist or in classified ads. Pawn shops and local music stores often have used guitars in stock, too. Your music teacher might even know of other students that have recently upgraded instruments and now have an older guitar for sale. Be sure to check for signs of water damage, abuse or other problems. If you’re unsure, bring your teacher or a more experienced guitarist with you while shopping.
If the thought of buying a used guitar still has you feeling slightly uneasy, think of it this way: instead of looking at it as saving money, look at it as getting a much better guitar that will help motivate you to continue to play for the same price as a lower quality new guitar. Most inexpensive student guitars are poor quality, often making painful to play. These guitars can easily make students feel as if they “just don’t have what it takes but in reality, it’s their instrument fighting against them.
Thanks to Stephen Cummings for the photo