Updated: Dec 8, 2021
5 things to know before you shop
Are you ready to purchase your first guitar for yourself or your child, but have no idea what to look for? There are literally thousands of options to choose from, so narrowing things down can help. If you’re just starting to learn how to play, you will want to find an instrument that physically fits you (size), is affordable (price, brand), is functional (intonation, action) and enjoyable to play (your preferred style and tone).
And, you will eventually want some basic accessories to go along with your new guitar (case, picks, replacement strings, music stand, strap, foot stool, cleaner, capo, humidifier).
Guitars come in a variety of sizes and shapes. There are a variety of terms used to describe the different sizes. Here are some common size descriptions for acoustic guitars (varying widely between manufacturers):
Dreadnought/Full-Size: around 38” long
Other commonly used ‘guitar size’ descriptions are:
In general, the younger the student is, the smaller the guitar needed.
If the instrument is too large for the student, it may be frustrating to play and difficult to learn with.
Here are some basic guidelines for matching ‘guitar size’ with a child’s age:
1/4 size (or ukulele): age 5 to 6 years old
1/2 size: age 6 to 7
3/4 size: age 7 to 10 years old
Full size: age 10 and up
Most first-time guitar buyers are hesitant to spend a lot of money on their first instrument. What if you end up not wanting to continue after awhile? What if you quickly outgrow the size of your instrument? What if you have a limited budget? These are valid reasons to not want to invest too much money in your ‘starter’ guitar.
However, its important to be aware of the differences between entry-level ‘toy’ type guitars (usually costing less than $120 new) and quality entry-level guitars (usually cost between $125-$500 new). Non-toy guitar manufacturers address concerns that guitar players tend to care about (e.g. quality, durability, intonation, action, tone).
Entry-level guitars typically use laminate (pressed plywood) versus solid wood which is one reason there can be a large price difference between entry level guitars and professional-grade guitars. Professional-grade guitars are constructed out of carefully sourced cuts of wood that maximize resonance, tone quality and appearance. They are custom crafted by luthiers and typically cost over $1,000.00.
To avoid purchasing a ‘toy guitar’ or one that is difficult to play or listen to, we recommend buying from a local retailer that specializes in musical instruments (as apposed to WalMart, Target, Macy’s, Best Buy, Costco, etc.) so that you can benefit from a staff’s expertise and hands-on demonstration. Since you may not know how to play the guitar yet, don’t be afraid to ask the music store personnel to play some of their recommended guitars for you so you can listen to the differences between the guitars they are selling.
While we’re not endorsing any particular brand or retailer, we have found brands like Yamaha (nylon string), Cordoba, Fender, Epiphone, Ibanez, Alvarez, Seagull and Guild to offer high quality and good value.
If you want keep your cost extra low while still being quality conscious, consider buying a used guitar. You can usually get more for your dollar if you know what things to look for. Some music retailers sell used guitars. Ask them if you don’t see any.
Another place to find used guitars is on Facebook Marketplace or even Craigslist. Don’t be afraid to ask the seller about flexibility on pricing if you see some nicks or scratches, etc.
Questions to ask yourself (and the music store staff):
Nylon strings are easy on the fingers while steel strings will your fingertips when fretting until calluses form. For this reason, nylon-string (classical style) guitars are a great choice for a beginning guitar student.
Sound-wise, nylon string guitars have a warm, mellow sound and wider neck while steel strings have a brighter, louder sound. Both types of strings eventually grow dull sounding over time so replacement strings will be eventually be needed. Replacing nylon strings require learning how to tie a knot at the bridge. But, nylon strings tend not to lose their tone as quickly as steel strings so they may not need to be changed as often.
Keep in mind that there is a huge variety of brands and types of strings to choose from.
Things to learn about are string gauges (e.g. extra light, light, medium), string materials (steel, nickel, brass, bronze versus nylon), string coatings (e.g. Elixir) and string windings (flat wound, round wound, half wound).
b. Will this guitar make my fingers hurt when I press the strings down onto the fretboard?
In other words, is the action too high?
Just learning how to achieve a clear sound when pressing down on the string can be a little challenging at first. If your guitar's string height is set too high (due to the action not being set up properly or a warped neck), it can be extra frustrating and painful to play for even an experienced player.
c. Will this guitar be in-tune when played on every fret (Is it properly intonated)?
If not, your instrument will likely sound out-of-tune when playing along with other musicians. Some intonation (and action) issues can be resolved by making adjustments to the truss rod (not all beginner guitars have these) and or the bridge height. Personally, I wouldn’t take a guitar home from the store if it doesn’t already play in tune on every fret.
d. How can you test the intonation yourself?
Download a chromatic guitar tuner app onto your smart phone. Tune all six of the open guitar strings (E, A, D, G, B, E) and then play the 12th fret of each string (one octave higher). If the octave higher fretted notes are sharp or flat, there is likely an intonation issue that needs to be addressed.
Check the tuning of other frets too, as sometimes intonation problems only happen on certain frets.
e. Is there a buzzing sound on any of the frets (Is the action too low)?
It’s possible to raise the string height on a guitar, but to do so requires extra time and money. Because there are so many guitars on the market to choose from, you may want to pass on the buzzing-string instrument so that you can start playing right away.
f. Are the string tuning keys easy to rotate (not too tight and not too loose)?
If you’re purchasing a used guitar, be sure to test the tuning keys (tuner machine heads) to see if they are rusted out, difficult to move, or too loose from neglect or poor craftsmanship. Guitar tuner keys can be replaced and upgraded. But, that may not be worth the effort unless you’re getting a real deal on the guitar.
5. Enjoyable to Play
In a 2018 research study conducted by Fender entitled “Illuminating the State of Today’s Guitar Players,” 42 percent of respondents viewed their guitar as "part of their identity.” With that in mind, you or your child will probably have some strong preferences regarding the color, shape, size, sound and overall appearance of the guitar.
For example, many new students are attracted to the brighter sound and body style of the steel string guitar or maybe even an electric guitar. However, after a few weeks of practice, they may realize that purchasing a soft stringed (nylon-string) guitar could have made their learning process more enjoyable.
Regarding guitar shape, you’ll probably notice that some guitars have a cutaway body shape. This makes it easier to reach the very high frets (and notes) on the guitar fret board. If you’re interested in learning to play high-note guitar solos or just like the appearance, this feature may be important to you.
If you’re interested in plugging your guitar into an amplifier, sound system, effects pedal or recording device, you’ll want to check out guitars with a built-in pickup pre-installed. Active versus passive pickups for acoustic guitars require a 9-volt battery. There are even hybrid guitars that combine electric and acoustic guitar pickups within one guitar.
My main point is that learning to make music should be fun! Having an instrument that you feel good about (emotionally/physically/functionally) should play a role in your decision-making process. If you are motivated to learn and practice regularly because you love the way their instrument looks, sounds and feels, that’s a really good thing. Finding ongoing inspiration to practice regularly with the guidance of an instructor is the key to musical growth.
Have fun exploring the world of guitars. Enjoy the journey!