Choosing a First Guitar

After choosing to play guitar, the next decision is which guitar to purchase. Every music store is stocked with a selection of guitars of different styles and sizes. Every new guitar will look attractive. The salesperson will be able to make every one of them sound wonderful. Guitar salespeople tend to know their stock. They can guide the purchaser to an appropriate choice. The difficulty arises when the shopper does not know anything about guitars, and their choice will affect their enjoyment and ability to learn and play.

There are a few major styles of guitar. Steel string acoustic (non-electric) guitars are the most common. Guitarists usually refer to nylon string acoustic guitars as classical guitars. Electric guitars are a popular choice for the first guitar. A common method of choosing a style of guitar is to see what favorite artists play; that will determine the sound the new player will try to achieve. Examine photos or album covers of guitarists. Magazines like Acoustic Guitar ( Guitar Player (, and Classical Guitar Magazine ( are excellent resources.

Acoustic guitars come in a wide range of styles and sizes. Some small guitars look as if they are designed for children. The label may call a small guitar parlor, 00, 0M, or small jumbo. Closer examination reveals that these guitars have full size or even wider necks than some larger guitars. Parlor guitars are for playing in small rooms or with amplification for a large audience. Fingerstyle guitarists, who play by plucking individual strings with bare fingers, prize parlor guitars with wide, short necks (12 frets to the body verses 14 on larger guitars) for their playability. Children and players with small hands may not be able to play this style of guitar as well.

There are half, Ã?¾ and even 7/8 guitars for smaller guitarists. These guitars have the same shape as the large “dreadnought” size guitar, but are smaller. The neck size is smaller in the same ratio as the body. A Ã?¾ guitar is a good choice for a child or a small stature adult who is learning guitar for the first time.

Larger acoustic guitars, jumbo, dreadnought, 000, 0000, and similar are the choice of average size adults and teenagers. The larger guitars boast a fuller sound and higher volume. The neck of a full size guitar tends to be thinner than a classical or parlor guitar.

When choosing a steel string guitar, it is important to base the choice on the style of play, the sound the guitarist wants, and the size of the guitarist. A guitarist with large fingers may find an advantage in a wide neck, parlor guitar, while the song leader of a church, synagogue or camp may require the volume of a jumbo or dreadnought. Many acoustic guitars have electronics that allow the guitar to connect to an amplifier. These guitars will not sound like electric guitars. Ideally, they will sound like an acoustic guitar played into a microphone.

Classical guitars have softer, nylon strings. The softer strings are much easier to hold down to make different notes. This characteristic makes classical guitars a very good choice for young players. Some young guitar students feel that the classical guitar will not provide the kind of sound that popular guitarists achieve. They wish to emulate the lead guitarists of current popular bands. In fact, many of those lead guitarists began their studies on a classical guitar.

Steel string guitars have a brighter sound that attracts many younger listeners. Unfortunately, the pain of pressing down steel strings discourages many new guitarists before they develop the strength and calluses of players with more experience.

Classic guitars are the size of a parlor guitar with a wide neck. Some have very wide necks. Ask the salesperson to demonstrate chords for the person who intends to play the guitar. Be sure that their fingers will reach comfortably.

Today, many new guitar students choose an inexpensive, solid body electric guitar for their first lessons. There are advantages for young players. The electric guitar has a small thin body and neck, which makes the guitar easier for a small player to wrap their arms around. The required amplification allows the new player to be a little sloppy with their fingering and still produce a reasonable sound. There is the understandable joy of being able to produce a sound loud enough to annoy the adults who may be in the next room, the next apartment, or the next house.

Guitars may be made of a variety of materials. Traditionally, guitars are made of solid wood held together with animal hide glue. The ingredients of animal hide glue are similar to that of gelatin. Guitars of hide glue and wood construction are sensitive to heat and dryness. A guitar that remains in a car on a hot summer day may fall apart in a short time. Dry air such as that of a winter home in New England, may cause large flat pieces of wood to warp and crack.

Modern materials include plywood, high-pressure laminate (HPL, like Formica), and plastics. Most inexpensive guitars are built out of plywood. Plywood is less likely to warp or crack than solid wood. However, plywood does not resonate like solid wood. Most plywood guitars will not sound as full as most solid wood guitars.

Plastics are commonly used in musical instruments. Plastics are more stable than wood. Some manufacturers use plastics to advantage in mid-price and moderately expensive guitars. Many guitars are a combination of new and traditional materials. The C. F. Martin Guitar Company builds an inexpensive line of guitars with an HPL back and sides and a solid spruce wood top; the X1 series is a tough guitar with a good sound.

The Ovation Guitar Company builds acoustic and classical guitars with a spruce top and a rounded back made of ABS plastic the same material that plastic canoes, trash cans, and some car parts are made of. Ovation guitars are known for round tones and booming sound.

Danelectro makes a cool looking line of electric guitars with bodies and necks made of plastic. They have a unique sound. Some people prefer them over similarly priced wooden electric guitars.

Many computer literate people buy guitars on the Internet. Ebay lists hundreds of guitars of all types for sale. Only the experienced should purchase a guitar on-line. Those who know guitars well are able to find very good deals this way. Inexperienced guitarists must handle guitars to find the right one.

Local stores that specialize in guitars are the best place to shop and buy. The owner may have extensive experience helping new guitarists find their first instrument. Two well-known shops are the Music Emporium of Lexington, Ma ( and Gryphon Stringed Instruments of Paolo Alto, Ca ( Guitarists around the country know of these shops for their selection and their knowledgeable staff.

Some chain stores carry a wide selection and have staff that understand their product. The Guitar Center ( has locations in 38 states, and Daddy’s Junky Music ( has stores thoughout New York and New England. Expect a wide selection of new and used instruments. The Guitar Center will meet prices advertised on the internet for identical merchandise.

Used guitars are always a good choice. There will be fewer models to choose from, but guitars can last for decades with proper care. Used guitars will be much less expensive than new. Check the soundboard, the front of the guitar for bowing. The front of the guitar should be flat. Check the neck for twisting. If the neck is bowed a little, that may be all right. Steel string acoustic and electric guitar necks must be bowed very slightly. The store may have a luthier, a guitar repairperson, who can check the guitar and estimate any necessary repairs. Do not buy a guitar that needs a repair.

Base the final decision on comfort, sound, cost and appearance. Buy the guitar that is on display. Two guitars of the same model may sound different. The strings on the guitar will be old. Ask the sales person to include new strings in the purchase price.

Leave the newly purchased guitar and strings with the store’s luthier for a “set up” and string change. “Set up” is the term for adjusting the guitar for its best playability. A guitar that is set up correctly is much easier to play. For example, when the strings are set close to the fret board, the player does not press as hard to create a particular note. That will decrease pain and fatigue.

The set up can change depending on the strings. The luthier will adjust parts of the guitar called the nut, the truss rod and the saddle to set the strings at just the right height over the fret board. Then, the luthier may “dress” the frets by filing them where strings still buzz against them. A full explanation of the “set up” is available on

Take the new guitar home in a protective case. Buy extra strings, an electric tuner, a few picks (if that is the target playing style), and a string winder (to make string changes easier). At home, do not keep the guitar in its case. Bring home a guitar stand or wall hanger. When the guitar is on display, the new guitarist is much more likely to pick it up to play it. Additionally, the guitar will be an attractive ornament in any room.

Finally, the most important factor in the sound of any guitar is the guitarist. Many believe that the sound of a guitar improves with age. That may be so, but it is just as true that the player improves with time and practice.

Dr. David Leader is a guitarist with over 30 year’s experience. He teaches music in the religious school of Temple Tifereth Israel of Malden, Ma, and provides a music enrichment program on dental health and nutrition for schools and libraries.

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