Buying Your First Guitar: What to Expect
Want to start learning guitar but not sure where to start? Finding a great teacher or local music school in your area is the perfect way to begin your musical journey, but before you start lessons, you’ll need an instrument!
No matter your location, you have a variety of options available in terms of finding an instrument that suits your needs. Here are some things to consider when purchasing your first guitar.
- Buying Your First Guitar: What to Expect
- Body Style & Size of the Guitar
- Where to Buy:
Things to Consider
- Consult your teacher
- Rental vs. purchase
- Acoustic vs. electric
- Price range
- Body style & size of the guitar
- Physical limitations: hand size, finger strength & dexterity
- Where to buy: local shops, chain stores, online retailers
Consult Your Teacher
If you are working with a teacher, it is a great idea to start by asking their opinion on what instrument will work best for you or your child. If you are unsure of what to look for in an instrument, they will be able to help guide you through the process.
This is particularly important if the student is a young child, since getting the right style and size of instrument is so important. Different teachers may have different opinions, so it’s always a good idea to ask first.
Many teachers also focus on specific styles of playing, so it’s good to check with them to make sure they can accommodate your interests and goals before signing up.
If you are taking lessons through a music school, your school may also have instruments available to rent or purchase. This is worth checking as it gives you the opportunity to look at instruments with your instructor present.
Renting vs Ownership
After consulting your teacher, the next thing to consider is whether to rent or buy. Because guitars are relatively inexpensive starter instruments compared to most wind, brass, or bowed strings, even beginners will often purchase an instrument.
However, there are good reasons to rent a guitar, too! It all depends on your situation.
You might consider renting an instrument if:
- You’re not sure what type of guitar will work best for you
- You’re not sure what styles of music you want to play
- You can’t afford to invest ~$200-300 in a guitar right now, but want to give it a try
- You want to try multiple instruments before deciding which one to pursue
Not sure where to look? Give your local music shop a call to see if they offer rental instruments!
Some general music shops like Rick’s Music World, in Raynham, MA, offer instrument rental options including guitars, amps, and other essentials.
Not all stores with rental instrument programs will include guitars in those programs, so it’s a good idea to check first.
Acoustic vs. Electric Guitars
Do you have a passion for bluegrass picking? Think you could be the next Jimi Hendrix? Does jazz bring you joy?
While there are a number of things to think about when choosing between electric and acoustic instruments, one of the biggest considerations is the style(s) of music you are most interested in playing.
If you want to play folk, bluegrass, or country, a steel-string acoustic guitar would be a great choice. However, if you are primarily interested in rock or metal, an electric guitar will be your best bet.
That said, as long as you have a decent starter instrument, you can always begin your guitar journey with an acoustic and switch to an electric guitar later (or vice versa). The main exception to the rule is classical and flamenco guitar. If you plan to pursue these styles of playing, you will need a specific type of guitar to make it work: a classical (nylon string) guitar.
Even if you’re not sure yet what direction you plan to go, a good starter guitar will hold its value and can often be used as a trade-in for a better quality, or different style of instrument in the future. As you become more serious about playing, you will learn more about what you really want out of your guitar.
How much are you willing to spend on your first guitar? Starter acoustic instruments typically cost between $100 and $500.
Even in the $100-300 range, you can expect to see guitars featuring quality construction and solid woods like spruce or rosewood. Guitars in this price range will usually be strictly acoustic (no electronics), but should be well-built and feel comfortable to play.
If you are looking for something one step up, for example, a guitar with onboard electronics, finer woods, and higher quality hardware (i.e. tuning mechanisms), expect to pay between $300 and $500.
Beginner electric guitars run in approximately the same price range, between $100 and $400 on average.
However, if you plan to go the electric route, you’ll also need some additional gear to start playing, including an amplifier and a ¼ inch instrument cable. A basic amplifier will cost anywhere between $20 and $200.
Whether you choose to go with an electric or an acoustic guitar, you should also include the following accessories in your budget:
- Gig bag or hard case for your instrument
- Gig bags are less expensive than hard cases, but still provide some protection for your instrument. Find a cheaper one for $15-$90; nicer bags can go up to $300
- Hard cases cost $50-$100 for a less expensive model and $100-$300 for a nicer one
- Metronome (or practice app!)
- Picks, Capo, Strap, Extra Strings
- Guitar Humidifier (if using an acoustic guitar)
- You can find basic versions of all of these accessories for less than $20 each, either online or at your local guitar shop
Want to Save?
Consider buying used accessories!
If you are looking to save money, a great way to do so is by looking for a used case, strap, capo, etc. at your local used music shop.
Many of these shops will also have pre-owned instruments and amplifiers available for sale. They may not have everything, but it’s worth looking to find a great deal! If you can find a store in your area that specializes in used music gear, this can be a great place to find deals on used cases, amps, and accessories as well.
Tuners, picks, and strings will need to be purchased new.
Body Style & Size of the Guitar
So, you’ve decided whether you want an acoustic, electric, or classical guitar, and have determined your budget. What’s next?
The size, shape, and body style of the instrument are also important factors when choosing your first guitar.
When choosing an acoustic guitar body style, your main concerns will be sound quality, volume, playability, and portability. Typically, larger-bodied guitars will have a bigger sound with louder bass notes. Smaller-bodied guitars are more portable, and typically easier to play for folks who may have a hard time getting their arm around a larger model.
While classical guitars are more standardized in terms of shape, they do come in different sizes, including ½ and ¾ sized instruments. These are great for kids!
Since the neck of a classical guitar is much wider than that of a steel-string acoustic or electric guitar, a smaller size is needed to accommodate small hands. Classical guitars also feature nylon strings, which can be easier for new students to press down, however, the wider neck can still make them a challenge for some.
For steel-string acoustics, one of the most popular body styles is the Dreadnought. It was created by C.F. Martin in 1916, and named after the battleship HMS Dreadnought due to its large size and big sound.
While Dreadnoughts are known for their versatility and great sound, they can often be more challenging to play than smaller-bodied guitars, especially for children or smaller adult players.
Another body style with similar benefits/challenges is the Jumbo, which is even bigger and has a deeper body than the Dreadnought. The Gibson J-200 is a classic example of the Jumbo shape. A Jumbo is great if you need a very loud acoustic guitar that can really project.
If you are looking for something smaller or more portable, a Parlor guitar can be a great option. Pioneered by C.F. Martin in the 19th century, some of the earliest steel-string acoustic guitars in the United States were made in the Parlor style.
Parlor guitars are typically a little smaller and shorter than a classical guitar and have a much narrower neck. This can be very helpful for children and people with smaller hands.
They differ from classical guitars in that they feature steel strings and are popular in folk, acoustic blues, and bluegrass. The addition of steel strings allows the guitar to project more than similarly sized classical guitars.
Mid-sized steel-string acoustic guitars include a number of popular body styles such as the Auditorium (variations include the O, OO, or OOO), the Grand Auditorium, and the Concert (a slightly larger version of the Parlor). All of these incorporate elements of both the Parlor and the Dreadnought or Jumbo in different proportions.
One classic example of a mid-sized steel string acoustic is the Grand Auditorium; a popular body style pioneered by Taylor.
While different makers may have a variety of names for their instrument body shapes, you’ll find guitars similar to these from almost every brand. You may also notice the option for a “cutaway” on some body styles (see Taylor above).
This is an adaptation that makes it easier to play higher up on the fretboard (i.e. for lead playing). It won’t make a big difference to most beginner guitarists, but if your goals include learning to solo, then it might be worth considering.
For electric guitars, body shape is much less of an issue for sound quality, but it does still impact playability. While each maker has their own particular style, typical wood choices and tonal characteristics, the main categories for electric guitar body styles are solid-body and hollow-body.
Most popular electric guitars are solid-body instruments, meaning they are made from a solid piece of wood with no resonating chamber inside the guitar. The Fender Stratocaster is a famous example of a solid-body guitar.
Many makers of solid-body electric guitars also offer entry level brands or models, such as the Squier, made by Fender. These can be a great place to start for beginners wanting to go electric.
Hollow-bodied electric instruments have a small resonating chamber inside the instrument. These tend to be used primarily in Jazz as well as some rock styles. Because construction is more complex for these guitars, they are typically reserved for advanced players and those wanting to spend more money.
While there are many varieties of electric guitars, this article from Sweetwater Sound does a good job detailing the main differences between them.
Physical Limitations – Hand Size, Finger Strength and Dexterity
The final important factor to consider when choosing your first guitar is physical limitation.
While the guitar is a great first instrument, it requires quite a bit of finger strength and dexterity. These attributes will develop with time, but choosing the right guitar is key to setting yourself up for success. If your guitar is too big, too hard to play, or not correctly adjusted, it will create unnecessary frustration and discourage you from learning.
Trying a guitar out in person is the best way to make sure it’s right for you. However, here are some basic tips:
- Children or players with smaller than average hands will benefit from a guitar with a narrower neck
- e.g. electric guitars, smaller scale guitars, ½ or ¾ size guitars, etc.
- Steel-string acoustic guitars will require the most hand strength to play, and your fingers will be sore until you develop calluses
- If you love how these guitars sound, though, it’s worth it!
- Try lighter-gauge strings or coated strings to make things easier while you learn, and consider getting the guitar set-up by a luthier if it has not been adjusted recently
- Classical guitars feature nylon strings, which are easier to press down, however the wider neck can be a challenge for some players
- Electric guitars also require less pressure to play, which can make them easier for some players, but you will still need to develop calluses before playing becomes comfortable
All things considered, it is important to balance playability with a sound you love. If your guitar is easy to play, but you don’t like how it sounds, you probably won’t play it very much.
Where to Buy:
Now that you have a better sense of what kind of starter guitar is right for you, where can you get one? There are three main options when buying a guitar, each with advantages and disadvantages:
- Local Guitar or Music Shop
- Chain Store
- Online Retailer
Buying from a smaller local shop has advantages including better service, greater attention to detail, and service from a trained luthier if your instrument needs repair or adjustment in the future (periodic adjustments to any instrument are typical).
While prices might be a little higher on some new products than what you’d find at a chain retailer, local guitar and instrument stores like Middle C Music in Washington, DC offer a personalized level of service that big stores can’t match.
Some retailers, including The Music Room in Palatine, IL, may also offer lessons on site. This provides the added benefit of having your teacher there in person to help you choose an instrument.
Some local shops are more focused on specialty or professional quality guitars, and may not be right for your first guitar. It’s always a good idea to call before you visit to learn more about their selection, price range, and available instruments.
Chain stores do have some advantages. Namely, their instruments are often cheaper and include optional insurance plans covering damage to the instrument. This is definitely something to consider if you have younger kids or tend to be rough on your belongings.
If you really need a deal on a starter guitar and are set on a specific brand or model, bigger stores can be a good option as it is easy to tell what brands or models will be available. These stores usually have an extensive selection of starter models.
Unfortunately, many larger stores have far worse quality control than a smaller local shop would provide. There is no guarantee that your guitar will be properly set-up when you pick it off the shelf at a big box store.
While some instruments are fine, if you get one that isn’t up to par, you may have to pay extra to have it adjusted elsewhere by a luthier.
While online retailers provide convenient shipping and a virtually limitless selection of instruments, there are many downsides to purchasing an instrument without having a chance to play it first.
It may be cheaper and easier to order a guitar via Amazon, but the quality of what you get there can vary greatly depending on the retailer who ships it. Oftentimes instruments arrive in poor condition or need additional setup by a luthier if they are even playable at all.
If you live in an area without access to good local shops or are unable to go to a store in person, music-specific online retailers such as Sweetwater, Johnson String Instrument, or Music & Arts can offer some good options. Buying directly from a music-specific retailer is best if you plan to buy an instrument online, because they typically have better quality control and will be better able to assist you in choosing an instrument that is right for you.
No matter where you go, however, the main downside to buying a guitar online is that you can’t play it before purchasing. This makes it much harder to tell what you’re actually getting, and whether you’ll like it when it arrives at your doorstep.
If you choose to go this route, check to see that the store you choose has a return policy that will give you some flexibility if the instrument isn’t what you expected.
There are many factors that come into play when choosing your first guitar, but don’t let that stop you from getting started!
First, you should determine how serious you are about learning to play the guitar, and whether renting or purchasing an instrument is right for you. A good teacher can help advise you and answer questions about which guitars might be a good fit based on your needs and interests.
Before you decide to purchase an electric guitar, acoustic guitar, or classical guitar, you should consider what style(s) of music you are most interested in playing.
Thinking about any physical limitations you may have (e.g. hand size, finger strength, arm length, etc.) is also an important step to making sure you get a guitar that will work well for you.
Once you have determined what type of guitar you are most interested in, your next step is to decide how much you are willing to spend, and where to look for your new instrument!
Whether you choose to go with a local shop or a larger chain, one of the most important things is to make sure that you can try out your guitar in person before buying it. If possible, try out several instruments in your price range and compare them. Local shops often provide better customer service, while larger retailers may offer convenient insurance plans to protect your instrument. The best choice for you will likely depend on your priorities, lifestyle, and available stores in your area.
Author: ELLEN RICE
Ellen has been working with Ensemble Schools since November 2019, first as a school administrator, and currently as staff writer, content creator, and cello instructor at Dana V Music in Louisville, CO.
Ellen earned their M.M. in Ethnomusicology from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (2019), and BA in Music from American University (2013).
Also active as a performer and singer-songwriter, Ellen contributes vocals, cello, guitar, and original songs to multiple performance projects including singer-songwriter duo Cordlé & Rice, as well as Denver-based alternative folk band Fables of the Fall.