Buying a guitar for beginners can be tricky, as there are lots of things that you should take into consideration. However, if you take the time to learn a bit about what the guitar world has to offer, you can narrow down your options considerably. Whether buying a guitar for yourself or someone else, it’s good to have a clear idea about what sort of guitar you will be getting. As such, in this guide, we’ll focus on everything you need to know before starting your guitar-buying journey.
Who is the Guitar For?
When buying a guitar, this is one of the very first things to consider. Why? Because what you prefer may be very different from what the guitar’s recipient does, depending on their personal style and taste in music. When you’re buying for someone else (especially if it’s a surprise), make sure to poke around and ask the critical questions:
- What type of guitar should it be (electric, acoustic, bass)?
- What size should the guitar be (most people are OK with standard-sized guitars, but perhaps you are buying one for a child or a person with very small/big hands)?
- What is my budget?
These are only a few basic questions to get you started, though If you want to get the best possible instrument for yourself or a loved one, read our guitar buying guide below.
Choosing the Right Guitar: Electric vs. Acoustic vs. Bass
Whether you’re buying a guitar for yourself or somebody else, one of the essential questions to answer is which type of guitar you should get. Acoustic and electric guitars don’t just look different – they play very differently, too. Then there are bass guitars, which are a whole different beast.
“What guitar should I buy?” — a legitimate question, even if you are not a beginner. Different guitar types have different sounds, playability, and even roles in music. Deciding on which type you should get can narrow your choices considerably, but if you are buying a guitar as a present, you may not know what your intended recipient prefers.
Without a doubt, these are the most popular stringed instruments in the music industry (which was worth around $21.5 billion in 2019). On their own, these guitars don’t produce that much sound. However, when played through an amplifier, the magnetic pickups on the body will help the instrument create a wide variety of sounds. If you want to be a lead guitar player in a band, an electric might be the best first guitar to get. These guitar models are the most prevalent instruments in blues, jazz, country, rock, metal, pop, and many other styles of music.
Buying an electric has a couple of advantages:
- It’s easier to play than an acoustic as it has a “softer feel” on the fretboard.
- They come in normal- and short-scale versions, making buying a guitar for a child a breeze.
- Electric guitars are versatile instruments with the capability of producing a variety of tones.
- By using an amplifier and effects, you can get even more tone variations out of your instrument.
- Electric guitars come in different shapes and sizes, with many tonal combos due to the numerous types of magnets available.
On the other hand, there are a couple of disadvantages you should know about when buying an electric guitar.
- Most electric guitars sound very subdued without an amp.
- When assessing what to know before buying a guitar, you should know that electric models need an amplifier and a cable to create the intended sound. Getting an amp is just the start, though, and most music genres will require you to further branch out by getting various distortion, wah-wah, and other pedals.
These guitars are great options if you’re looking for a nice, naturally warm sound without the need for electric amplification. While not as popular in rock or metal, they still have their place in many popular music genres, especially pop and country.
You might have read a guitar buying guide or two telling you that electric guitars are easier for beginners. This can be true, especially if you opt for an electric vs. a western-style acoustic guitar with metal strings. On the flipside, mastering traditional guitar (especially a “western”) will make playing all other types easier, and you’ll be amazed at how easy it is to hold “barre” chords on an electric once you’ve mastered an acoustic guitar.
Even then, acoustics have their advantages:
- They don’t need an amp to make a beautiful (and loud) sound.
- These types of guitars can still be amplified if need be, and some models come with pre-installed pickups.
- They make for a great first guitar, and mastering an acoustic will make playing electric guitar easier.
- Acoustics are cheaper – unless you are buying a vintage “Martin” or some other super-expensive guitar, you’ll be able to save a lot of money by not having to purchase any amps or pedals.
Also, there are some disadvantages when it comes to acoustics.
- Your range of sounds and tones is more limited.
- While definitely louder than electric guitars without an amplifier, the sound is still likely to get drowned out in a band unless you use some amplification.
- When buying a guitar for a beginner, you should know that acoustics tend to have thicker strings, making them tougher to play for someone just starting out.
- Short-scale models for children are often worse than their electric counterparts.
To get the “best of both worlds,” you can always get an acoustic-electric (or electro-acoustic) guitar. These instruments are ideal if you’re looking for acoustic instruments that will still make a big sound through amplification. The sound is still that of an acoustic, but these guitars can be amplified like electrics, thanks to the built-in microphones/pickups.
Choosing a guitar like this will also give you additional tonal options, as most electro-acoustics have onboard equalizers. The drawback is that they can be on the expensive side, and unless you buy a high-end one, the sound quality without an amp won’t match that of the quality acoustic models.
The source of countless musician-jokes, the bass guitar is often an overlooked instrument that’s essential in almost all modern music. Bass guitars cover everything from jazz to metal, and even science backs up their pivotal role in perceiving music.
We’ve discussed what to look for in a guitar. However, we didn’t touch on the differences between an electric guitar and a bass guitar. First off, you also have electric and acoustic basses (plus the traditional, bulky upright bass. Compared to an electric guitar, the average bass will be a slightly larger instrument with only four strings tuned a whole octave lower.
There are also five-string basses, which frequently have an even lower string (a low B to the standard E-A-D-G tuning). Also common these days are six-string basses, which will usually feature a high C string following the G.
Instead of detailing what to look for when buying a guitar of this type, we will focus on the role of the instrument instead. For most beginner musicians, the bass is just a simple, easy-to-learn background instrument; in reality, the bass is the backbone of the band, the glue that holds together the rhythm and the melody. The bass doesn’t only supply the groove on which the other instruments build melodies (a task it shares with the drums); it can also be a crucial element in thickening the overall sound in heavier music or even a soloing instrument in styles like jazz.
Are there bass guitar brands to avoid? Our advice here is simple – stay away from the really cheap stuff, and don’t splurge on a $2k bass for a beginner. Going too cheap might mean bad build or sound quality, and going too expensive (like a boutique bass) is likely unnecessary, especially if you or the person you are buying the bass for are new to the instrument. True, resale value is something you should consider, but as a beginner, chances are, you probably don’t need a bass that’s worth more than a decent car.
What to Look for When Buying a Guitar for Beginners
When buying a guitar, you should know that manufacturers often try to save on the costs by putting minimal labor/effort into the final setup, even if the parts and the assembly up to that point are top-notch. Fine-tuning these elements can have a significant impact on the overall sound and playability, but the cost of getting an expert to set everything up properly means that only very high-end models get this sort of treatment from the manufacturers themselves.
As such, be aware that you’ll likely have to do this part yourself when buying a guitar online. This is why we recommend going to a brick-and-mortar store, where a professional may just be on hand to help set your guitar up properly. If not, here are some things to look for if you can try out the guitar before buying it:
Does the guitar stay in tune?
Make sure to go shopping with an experienced musician friend who can help you test out the instruments. Ask them to play a few chords and check how easily the guitar tunes and stays in tune.
How straight is the neck?
Whether you’re after a bass, an electric, or an acoustic guitar, checking the neck is essential when shopping for a guitar. A good instrument should have a straight neck without any curves and/or bends.
Necks with bows and back bows can make the instrument more difficult to play (especially for beginners), so make sure that you have a professional with you who knows how to spot a problem. Fortunately, you can make minor corrections easily if there are no major problems, and severely bent guitar necks should be easy to spot.
When asking yourself what to check when buying a guitar, the distance between the strings and the fretboard is another important aspect to consider. Also referred to as string height and action, this is something that can be adjusted easily by professionals. However, if you see that the strings are really far from the neck (to the point that causes a noticeable neck curve), chances are, you should pass this guitar up.
Navigating around the fretboard
Even as a beginner, you shouldn’t have any problem accessing the entire fretboard on a solidly built guitar. A guitar purchase for beginners and pros alike should start with running your fingers along each side of the neck to check for poorly sanded fret edges.
If the frets aren’t level with the wood, it doesn’t mean that the instrument is useless, but it does tell you about the overall quality of the craftsmanship, so it’s a good indicator to give the guitar a pass.
Checking the electronics
Whether you’re buying your first electric guitar or the one-hundredth one, you should always plug it into an amp and check if all switches, knobs, and pickups are working. If you can hear crackling sounds, chances are, the internal electronics may be a bit dirty.
These are all fixable problems but not something you necessarily have to or want to deal with when buying your first guitar. On the other hand, if you’re handy with guitar electronics, you can fix this yourself or ask a guitar player friend to fix it down the road if everything else is on-point. This may be the case when buying a second-hand guitar, especially one that seems like a bargain).
Setting a Budget
Apart from the things to know before buying a guitar we’ve listed above, you should also consider determining the amount of money you will want to spend.
As in the case with the best surfboards and most other products, it’s OK to pay a little extra for a specific brand or particular model that you really want. However, most experts recommend staying in the $300-$500 range to get solid beginner/intermediate features that are great for learning, live gigging, and even eventual studio work down the line.
Once you get the hang of the instrument and develop your likes and dislikes for certain features, you can consider more expensive instruments, too. That being said, when buying a guitar, some musicians might recommend buying something more expensive right off the bat. In their eyes, if you’re serious about learning to play the guitar, buying a professional instrument is a worthwhile investment. Also, if you happen to lose interest in becoming a musician, selling a professional instrument for a good price will be a lot easier than doing so with a budget guitar.
Whichever route you take, just make sure not to blow all your savings on a guitar, especially if you’re getting an electric model, which will also need an amp, a cable, and some pedals.
Old vs. New
An essential part of every serious guitar buying guide is the topic of whether you should buy a new guitar from a store or a used piece of gear from a private seller. When you’re a beginner, both routes make sense, so let’s go over the main differences:
You should buy a new guitar if:
- You want an “ax” with zero wear and tear: This one’s pretty obvious.
- You’re okay with the price: You can pick up a mint-condition used guitar at a better price than the new model selling in the shops. If you’re OK with buying a guitar for a bit more, then, by all means, go ahead!
- Don’t want to deal with potential problems in the future: New gear is less susceptible to having underlying problems. Even if you end up with a faulty guitar, chances are, it will be under warranty.
- You don’t know what you’re buying: If you’re inexperienced and don’t really know what to look for, getting a new guitar is a better option than a used one. Shops offer fair prices, warranties and will be less likely to rip you off.
You should buy a used guitar If:
- You’ve done your research: You know what to look for when buying a guitar, you’ve researched the brands, done your homework, looked into the prices, types, playability, and even know about the limitations of a particular instrument (like weight balance, for example).
- You know the true value of the guitar: Truth be told, you can sometimes come across pretty sweet deals for professional instruments on the used market. If you know what you’re looking at and end up choosing a guitar from your local ads, you can strike a pretty awesome deal. Just be aware that you can also get ripped off, and some sellers may attempt to hide the guitar’s flaws.
- You want to save a few bucks: As said before, the used market can be a great place for finding a killer deal. In general, used guitars will be cheaper than new ones. There is one caveat, though: vintage models of expensive and sought-after instruments only go up in price as they age, so while you’ll be getting a phenomenal guitar, don’t expect it to be cheap.
- You know the ins and outs of guitar maintenance: Those who have seasoned musicians around the house can get a used model and still have the best first guitar experience possible, even if the instrument needs a little setting up. If you already have a guitar player at home or in the neighborhood, chances are, you can learn a few tricks and tips on maintenance and setting the instrument up properly.
Online vs. Traditional Stores
Whether you’re buying ski boots, a guitar, or browsing the best watches for men, this is another question that you have to answer yourself. Both options have their pros and cons, so let’s break them down.
Buying a guitar online
Pros: You’ll know that the instrument hasn’t been touched or played. You also have a much more comprehensive selection to compare different prices, styles, shapes, and even sizes.
Cons: You won’t be able to test how the guitar plays and feels unless you go to a store first and try an actual guitar of the same type/brand.
Typically, buying online is an excellent option if you know how much you want to spend and exactly what you want to buy. It’s also a great option when purchasing from a reputable brand/online store that offers good customer support, a fair return policy, and a warranty.
Buying a guitar from a traditional store
Pros: Shopping for a guitar in a store enables you to get help from staff members and test out every single aspect of the guitar before you make a decision. You can even ask a more seasoned player to come along with you to check out the materials, electronics, playability, etc. You’ll get a much better feel for the instrument + a chance to get professional help with setting the guitar for perfect playability.
Cons: Buying your first electric guitar from a shop means that you’ll typically have fewer models available to choose from. Depending on what sort of shop you go to, you may also find that a bunch of people have already played the guitar. Some shops offer dedicated models you can test, while others allow everyone to try out any guitar in the shop, meaning your model may have already been played many times).
As you can see, buying your first guitar can be a stressful experience, especially if you don’t really know what to look for. Buying a guitar for beginners should be a fun first step on the journey of musicianship, though, and not something to get fussed about. As such, make sure to do your research, read and compare reviews, look at different brands, sellers, etc. Never be shy to ask a more experienced musician for advice, and if you find a great deal for a high-quality instrument, don’t be afraid to go a bit over your budget. Just remember not to spend your life savings on a guitar!