Ask just about any guitarist about their first guitar, and they’ll most likely tell you it’s a miracle that they didn’t give up.
Just about every American child at some point wanted to play guitar (or drums). And parents have obliged their children with the mindset of not spending too much money on a guitar, because if it was anything like cub scouts, karate, girl scouts, softball…their child’s initial interest may wane once they learn they are not going to start at the top (and practicing is involved).
Luckily with the guitar, it is relatively easy to learn a few chords and a couple of strumming patterns in the style of many recognizable songs.
Unfortunately, many of those inexpensive beginner guitars don’t sound good. And, perhaps even worse, they are not easy to play. But, the good news is manufacturing techniques such as CNC machinery and a greater understanding of guitar construction has permeated the lower-end of the cost spectrum, so now just might be the golden era for beginning guitarist.
The Epiphone Les Paul ’56 Goldtop is a good example of modern manufacturing turning out high-quality instruments.
The trick (or at least one of them) to keeping a child’s interest high in learning the instrument is finding the right guitar for them, what their goals are, and what kind of music they want to play. Giving a kid a nylon-string classical style instrument when they want to play heavy metal is the equivalent of the cold shower to quell desire.
Many children’s, including this author’s, desire to play comes from some degree of idol worship. For me, this was Neil Young, and hollowbody Gretsch guitars are still my favorite – but I digress…
The point is a guitar similar in style and design to the one their hero plays is a good starting point in determining which guitar is right for them…within reason.
A radically designed guitar (something like a Gibson Flying V) or one with extreme graphics (such as a rebel flag or a skull and crossbones) may elicited the desired response when the wrapping comes off the gift (cooooooool!), the instruments visual appeal may limit the visual versatility needed as the student matures and their musical interests starts boarding out: the guitar actually shaped like a battle axe definitely won’t look right in either the middle school jazz band or the church youth music group.
The basic styles of guitars come in three flavors:
Classical guitars, often called Nylon String Guitars for reasons so obvious I won’t insult anybody by going into it here, are THE WRONG CHOICE. That is, unless your child has extreme interest in classical guitar music (like Segovia or the Romeros) or maybe Willie Nelson. Do not be swayed by the fact that this style of guitar’s nylon strings will be easier on little fingers than the steel strings of Acoustic and Electric guitars. (And, yes, a Classical guitar is an Acoustic guitar, but the terminology is used to define the string material.)
The neck on a Classical guitar is typically wider, making the lower notes harder to clearly fret (which is to say, ring true without chocking off notes in the higher register that are being played), even though the body size (for an acoustic) is smaller.
But, most importantly, this style of guitar does not have the sound of contemporary music.
This is the modern incarnation of the traditional guitar. It is strung with steel strings (or which four are wrapped with bronze) and typically has a 14-fret neck, though there are 12-fret models. These are the guitars of Dave Matthews and Bob Dylan (pre-electric Dylan, anyway).
Seagull S6 acoustic is an exceptional value with a solid cedar top since its introduction, however some guitarists were put off by the guitar’s neck width at the nut. Seagull addressed this issue by release a narrower neck version, the Seagull S6 Original Slim.
For a good long time, the most popular body size of this style of guitar has been the huge “Dreadnaught” body, but now smaller bodies have come into vague. The Dreadnaught was designed for volume and projection, but now with modern amplification for acoustic guitar volume is no longer paramount.
That being said, guitar design has significantly advanced and more volume is being drawn forth from smaller bodied instruments.
It is now easier to find a comfortable body size for the player in all grades of instruments.
Serious professional instruments are made from solid woods, so they are pricey. Obviously, by substituting cheaper laminates the cost of the instrument becomes more affordable. And, by making an all laminate instrument, the cheapest instrument can be made.
Unfortunately, laminates do not vibrate the same way solid wood does, and acoustic guitars are all about vibration. Many people believe that the sound of the guitar is the vibrating strings, but in fact the sound of the guitar is actually mostly the vibration of the top (or face) of the guitar (and the body is the projector, and the soundhole is somewhat like a bass port).
Since the top of the guitar is the main component for tone and volume, and solid woods vibrate more freely, some of the better student and semi-pro acoustics feature solid wood tops – even though the rest of the body may be made of laminates.
This is not to say that a laminate guitar cannot sound good, however, when looking at instruments and wanting to obtain a higher quality instrument a solid top is a good place to start.
The neck width of most of these guitars will be narrower than a classical guitar, but it can very from instrument to instrument.
Electronics are cheap…or, at least, can be. Some professional grade electronics can be hundreds of dollars…but merely having built-in electronics does not make the instrument professional-grade (nor mean the guitar will sound good plugged in). But, it is fun to play plugged in (and adding effects like reverb), and may keep the magic of making music/learning music alive longer. A guitar without electronics can have them added later.
If you purchase a guitar with electronics, you will need something to plug the guitar into…an amplifier. This might make a good, “if you keep practicing” motivator.
12-string guitars are more of a novelty or what I call special effects instruments. If you’re looking for a first guitar, steer clear of these. Just trying to get one in tune might make the beginner give up the guitar for good.
Electric guitars come in three varieties: solid body, hollow body and semi-hollow body (which is also sometimes called a semi-solid body).
Squire is Fender Guitars student line. Most models are based off of original Fender designs,
such as this Squire Telecaster Custom.
A solid body is usually just that, a solid chunk of wood shape to a guitar silhouette with a neck and electronics added. Because the electric guitar does not need to vibrate the way an acoustic guitar does, and because electronic are cheap (or can be), solid body electric guitars can be very inexpensive. But, it doesn’t mean that the quality of the build doesn’t carry any weight. These are favored by rock guitarists and lead country players
A hollow body is constructed more along the lines of an acoustic guitar (usually with a pair of f holes replacing the single round sound hole) with the electronics visibly added to it. This design is favored by jazz players and some rockabilly cats.
A semi-hollow looks like a typical hollow body, but it has a secret: it is not hollow. There are hollow chambers on either side of the body, but inside down the center (from the neck joint to the endpin) runs a solid block of wood (hence, semi-solid body). These share characteristics of both solid body guitars and hollow body guitar: warm tones with some bite and feed back rejection capabilities. Rock, progressive jazz players, and rockabilly players may play this style of guitar.
Since the hollow body and the semi-hollow have elements of acoustic design and construction, they typically can be more expensive than solidbody electrics. However, since they are generally made to be played amplified they can be prone to feed back, the howling sound of the body’s vibrating being set into motion by the sound of its own amplification, and the loop effect thereof.
To help combat the feedback, electric hollow body guitars are typically made of laminated wood. The center block in a semi-hollow guitar is an effort to further arrest the vibrations that cause feedback.
Some very traditional jazz players prefer an all solid wood hollow body, but these as usually so expensive that it is not even a consideration. In short, laminates in hollow bodies or semi-hollow bodies are not a deal breaker.
If you don’t know anything about guitars, it may be best to take a guitar playing friend along with you when you’re shopping. A savvy one is best because…because…well, frankly, because salesmen are salesmen, and they may want to “upsell” you. And even if you set your foot down on a specific guitar, they are going to want to sell you all the other stuff you need. Is that other stuff the good stuff?
Because, more likely than not: if you’re reading this you’re already researching. You’ve most likely educated yourself on what you can get in your price range: but did you research electronic tuners and guitar cables and amps and straps and strings. Let your savvy friend field that stuff. If the guitar is a birthday, Christmas, graduation or other event gift, perhaps this other accessory stuff can be suggestions to other friends and family so they can participate in this incredible gift you’re pin heading (a much bigger gift than just the guitar itself!)
If you’re choosing to buy online it is easier to quell the pressure to buy all the necessities, but you also don’t get to inspect and test drive the guitar either.
Therefore buying for a reputable dealer with a liberal return policy might be the wisest choice. It may also be wise to deal with the online dealer that personally inspects and set up each instrument they ship. Chances are if you’re budget conscience, your new instrument purchase will have origins in China, Korea or Indonesia.
While modern construction techniques and craftsmanship may be up to par (or maybe not, as the old adage “you get what you pay for” still rings true), the instrument is still one of the hundred or so kicked out of the factory that day and was packed into a cardboard box and spent the next three months waiting to be shipped and being shipped (literally, over the seas) before landing at the distribution center near you.
Taylor Guitars’ GS Mini has a smaller body size that children and smaller adults may find more comforatable, however the guitar has become largely popular with players of all sizes. The pictured model has a solid mahogany top in place of the more common spruce or cedar options.
Any set up that happen before it was shipped is likely to be ineffective after the changes of temperature, humidity and the environment in general.
Local music stores have been very aware of the internet effect and they are looking to secure their piece of the retail pie, and are usually willing to match the price (or come close) to the online retailer. Don’t under-value their customer service…and don’t expect them to service online purchases as they do those actually purchased from their store. If you’re a guitar novice and you have no guitar playing friends to assist you in this endeavor, let these fine folks earn your business.
– Jake Kelly