Purchasing a guitar is exciting, but can be confusing and even intimidating. The following information should help you make educated choices whether the instrument is for yourself or a gift for another.
To learn about any of the topics below, simply click on it and you will be taken to a page with further details.
- Types of Guitars (Acoustic vs. Electric vs. Classical)
- Where to Buy (Store vs. Catalogs)
- How Much Should I Pay? (In Dollars and Sense)
- Why Does the Price Vary so Much? (They all look alike!)
- Needed Accessories (What, I gotta buy more?)
Types of Guitars
A quick note: First and foremost, you want a guitar with six strings, not one with four. A guitar with four (or even five) strings is a bass guitar. They look quite similar, but are very different. A bass is MUCH lower in sound, and is played with very different techniques.
There are three basic types of guitars:
- Electric Guitar: Electric guitars rely on electronic amplification to be heard. Electric guitars are relatively quite when not amplified (they wouldn’t even be able to hear them clearly over average street noise.) They are smaller, lighter, and easier on the player’s fingers than other types of guitars. However, you’ll always need your amp around to play (unless you want to practice very quietly!) Electric guitars make their appearance in most forms of music, but are basically required for playing rock, blues, and contemporary country music.
If you are purchasing an electric guitar, be sure to check out the buying a practice amp section below.
(Western) Acoustic Guitar: These guitars produce their sound naturally (i.e. they do not need to be “plugged in” as an electric guitar does. You can identify the acoustic guitar since 99% of them have a large hole in or near the middle of the body of the guitar. Some guitars have one or two “f” shaped holes, but those are not acoustic. These “f” hole guitars are actually a style of electric guitar known as a “hollow body”, so don’t be fooled. Acoustic guitars can be played anywhere, are less expensive than electrics, but are harder on the player’s fingers. Acoustics are used sparingly in most forms of music, but are extremely popular in folk, traditional, and country music.
- Classical: This form of guitar is a bit more rare than the other two types, but is still popular enough to mention here. A Classical guitar is much like a “Western” Acoustic guitar, but have several key differences. The strings on the guitar are spaced further apart, are generally made of a nylon material which is easier on the fingers to play than a western acoustic, and produces a softer and mellower tone. Classical guitars are used primarily by classical and some Jazz players.
Where to Buy
If you don’t want to purchase your first guitar online, you could do it at a local music store or even a second hand store or pawnshop. Don’t get me wrong, purchasing from an online store or catalog is great, once you are more familiar with the instruments. I think that using those vendors is great for your second instrument. A local store will allow you to hear the instrument demonstrated, allow you to play it a bit (if you’re up to it), and have a place to go to ask questions. Further, a local store will ensure the instrument is in tune when you leave which will avoid a big hurdle for many newbies.
How Much Should I Pay?
I can tell you from experience that a majority of people who purchase a guitar give it up within the first month or two. Therefore, you might be better off buying a cheaper guitar to learn on. Once you know you’re going to stick with it, and have a little more experience with the makeup of the instrument, THEN buy one a little more along the lines of what you want.
That being said, you can find “beatter-uppers” acoustics and classicals starting at about $50. For an electric, you’re going to pay a bit more. You’re more likely to pay between $150-$200 by the time you buy the guitar and a practice amp.
Why Does the Price Vary so Much?
It’s AMAZING! You can walk into a store or look at a catalog and see a bunch of guitars that look very much the same. However, one piece is $140 and the next one is priced at $2,240! Wha?!? Why is that?
There are several elements that cause similar looking guitars to vary in price so much:
Neck Type: It’s hard to tell unless you look closely. Some guitars are made from one piece of wood. In other words, the neck and the body of the guitar came from the same tree. This is known as a Set Neck. Set Neck guitars tend to stay in tune better and are simply more rare. This drives the cost up. The other type of Neck is known as a Bolt On Neck. The neck and the body are two different pieces that are bolted together. Don’t be scared of a bolt on neck. The majority of guitars out there are bolt on. They’ll always hold tune well enough for us newbies.
Meterials (Wood): Different guitars are made of different types of wood. For example, some are Maple, some Rosewood, etc. The various types of wood affect the sound of the guitar in subtle ways. Of course some types of wood are more rare, and thus drive up the cost of “premium” guitars. Again, for a Newbie, the type of wood doesn’t matter very much.
There are other materials on the guitar that affect the price (the nut, bridge, etc) that I’m not going to go into detail on because (do you see a trend here) it doesn’t make a big difference for those starting out.
Pick-Ups: All Electric Guitars and some acoustic guitars have “Pick-Ups” which are basically tiny microphones that listen for the vibration of the strings and send it to an amplifier. In keeping with our running theme here, they basically don’t matter much to a beginner. The only real difference that may affect a newbie is on the electric. There are two major types of pickups; Single Coil and Double Coil (a.k.a. Humbucker)
- Single-Coil: Has one “row” of little round circles per set of pickups. This is the original style of pickup that has been used since the electric guitar started, but are still very prominent today. It’s generally a brighter and punchier sound than the Double-Coil.
- Double-Coil or Humbucker: Has two “rows” of little round circles per set of pickups. Also, this may appear as a little flat plate rather than the two rows of little round circles. The double-coil has a deeper and more rounded sound. It also has a longer sustain (the sound rings out longer.) This type of pickup is what made the “Les Paul” type of guitar famous in the 60’s. Be prepared, however, to pay more for this style of pickup.
Signature Series: Simply put, if someone famous has endorsed a guitar, you’re going to pay more.
Other Items: The above takes care of the majority of the price differences. However, the type of materials frets are made of (and their size), number of frets on the neck (yes, this varies believe it or not), type of bridge, nut, and tuning keys can all make a difference. The Color of the guitar usually does not affect the price, although some of the finer types of finishing may have a minor affect.
NEWBIE SUMMARY: In general, don’t worry too much about the materials, pickups, or other things. It was explained here mostly to satisfy curiosity. As someone new to the guitar, basically decide if you want an acoustic, electric, or classical guitar, and then purchase one of the least expensive models you can find. Later, once you have stuck with it and discovered the musician buried within you, you can pick up something “better”.
OK, so you’re at the store, and you have a guitar in your hand. Now you’re looking at the racks near the register that have TONS of interesting looking gadgets that you can buy along with the guitar. You say to yourself “I’m shelling out for this… I might as well get some of those, too…”.
Well, let’s look at what you need and don’t need to get started.
You will need:
- Picks: (If you’re going to use a pick.) These are usually about $0.25, so pick up one or two dollars worth in varying styles and thick nesses to get an idea of what you’d like.
- Tuner: As a newbie, I’d strongly recommend an electronic tuner. These units will help you set each string of your guitar to the correct pitch, making it sound better. It’s very frustrating to do this without a tuner at first, so the investment is well worth it. Pick up a cheap unit. The generally start from about $15.00.
- Practice Amp (If you’re buying an Electric Guitar): You won’t hear a whole lot from an electric without an Amp. Practice amps are relatively inexpensive, usually between $35 and $55. Most have headphone jacks so you don’t have to worry about blasting out the neighbors. Also, these days most come with some simple “gain” effects to put some distortion into your guitar to sound a bit more electrified.
You may want (these are reasonable to pickup with your first guitar):
- Gig Bag: You might want some sort of case. Your best bet is a “Gig Bag” which is simply a large guitar shaped bag. This is sufficient for keeping the dust off the thing, holding a few supplies (picks, books, etc) and most come with straps for easy carrying. Hard shell guitar cases are rather pricey, so don’t sweat a hard shell until your second guitar. You can usually pick up a gig bag for $10-$20.
- Strap: Plan on playing standing up? You certainly don’t need to, but if you want to stand while playing, pick up a guitar strap. An inexpensive nylon strap will only run you $5-$15.
- Extra Strings: You may want to pick up one extra set of strings in case one of your breaks (Yeah, it happens, no it usually doesn’t hurt.) However, as a newbie it may be easier to just to to the store if your string(s) break and have them replace it for you.
Don’t let them talk you into:
- Extended Warranties: If you bought a cheap guitar as I’ve advised, then you won’t need this. If it breaks, you can buy another one.
- Hard Shell Case: You just bought a $65 guitar, why buy a $45 case?!? Get a “Gig Bag” (see above) if you need something to hold the guitar.
- Lubricant: Aerosol cans to “slicken” up your strings.
- Slides: Metal or glass tubs that you can run up and down the strings to make the cry while you play.
- Effect Pedals: Electronics that change the sound of your guitar. Get these after you’ve learned a few songs.
O.K. So now, hopefully, you are armed with enough info to make a good decision when buying that thang! Remember to enjoy the process and try not to be too anxious.