If only you could shop for a guitar the same way you shop for groceries. You could just walk around, look at the prices, take a look (or a sniff), and quickly discover which product will meet your needs.
Hate to break it to you, but shopping for guitars isn’t that easy.
That doesn’t stop others from shopping like that for guitars, though. That’s why we’re here. When you’re looking for your first guitar, you’ve got to do it the right way. Follow our guide, and your guitar-buying process will be smooth sailing.
Acoustic or Electric Guitar
The first choice you’ve got to make is to pursue acoustic or electric guitar. There are pros and cons to learning either as your first guitar, so you’ll have to decide for yourself. But here are our personal thoughts:
Choose whatever you’ll stick with.
If you really only want to play lead guitar riffs from your favorite songs, just skip the acoustic guitar and go straight for the electric. And if you only want to play songs with acoustic, there’s no shame in sticking with acoustic. If you know that you have no interest in learning one type of guitar over the other, there’s no need to put your time and money into something that might lead you to give up guitar altogether.
Acoustic can be more beginner-friendly.
If you’re interested in learning guitar as an overall instrument, we do recommend starting with an acoustic guitar. It is what most players start with, but there are plenty of other reasons to pick up an acoustic. While electric guitars are physically easier to play, acoustics are more immediately playable. Learning chords and basic strumming patterns can help you work up to finger picking, resulting in really getting an overall feel for the instrument.
Electric can get expensive.
The great thing about electric guitars is that their sound is so distinctive, and to the untrained ear, if you can play a song or two, you’ll always sound impressive. The downside is that the classic electric guitar sound can also be expensive. You’ll need an amp and cables at the bare minimum, not to mention all the other accessories you’ll likely need further down the road. If you’re sure you’re in for the electric long-haul, go for it. But if you’re just exploring the guitar as an instrument, we recommend going acoustic.
Classical vs Acoustic Guitar
If you’ve decided on an acoustic guitar, you’ll need to make another defining choice: classical or modern acoustic guitar.
Classical guitars typically have a wider neck and smaller body. They also use nylon strings that make for a certain play style and sound. Acoustic guitars typically use steel strings and come in a variety of shapes and sizes. In general, modern acoustics will be better for those trying to play more recent songs, while classical is a better fit for those trying to perform Spanish or, well, classical songs. That being said, many beginners find that the nylon strings of the classical guitar are easier on their fingers.
We recommend that you choose a guitar that will have more longevity. Are you planning on playing more classical music? Go for a classical. Are you wanting to strum out your favorite songs from 1970 or later? Go for the modern acoustic.
How much should I spend on my first acoustic guitar?
The best rule of thumb when budgeting for your first acoustic is putting your money where your mouth is. In other words, if you’re serious about learning guitar, be willing to make it an investment.
In general, if you’re looking to get a guitar that will last you a while, don’t plan to spend any less than $100, and that’s a bare minimum. For those really serious about playing guitar, your best bet is finding a guitar $300 and up. Unlike so many other products, what guitars cost really does say something about its quality and value.
That being said, you shouldn’t buy a beginner guitar for more than around $700 maximum. If you try guitar and decide to stick with it, you can always come back and buy the shiny, fancy models, but when you do, you’ll have a better idea of what you’re actually looking for in a guitar.
What size guitar should I get?
Some people really have strong opinions on this, but overall, let’s make this clear: You can play any guitar as long as you can reach the neck and the strings. However, fit is key here. If you’re young and still growing, you may want to buy a guitar that is slightly smaller than the standard so that you can feel comfortable while playing.
The idea of “growing into” a guitar is partially a myth. Even as an adult, you can play guitars that are made for younger players. The best advice for younger players is to pick whatever feels right.
However, for adults, there are some more options and choices. You can get a guitar that’s designated as a “mini,” ½, or ¾ size if you’re looking for a small guitar. These guitars are often easier for people with a smaller physique to handle. However, acoustics also come in “standard” sizes, which can vary dramatically based on the body type. For more info on size and body type, keep reading our body type section down below.
Here’s an important note about a question we get a lot: Many people are often concerned about finding the right guitar for “small hands,” but we’d like to point out that there are very few people who can’t play even the largest of acoustic guitars because their hands are too small. Rather, the issue is usually that you need to build up strength in your forearms and find your own playstyle, both of which come down to practice.
What acoustic guitar accessories do I need?
Like almost any type of instrument, you’ll need a few extras to get started. But instead of a piano bench or reed, you’ll need to look into the following two accessories minimum to make sure you’re ready to play the day you get your guitar.
A tuner is exactly what it sounds like… it helps you tune your guitar. There are alternative tunings of guitars, but the standard tuning is EADGBe. For pros, tuning by ear is no problem. But for beginners, we absolutely recommend getting a tuner.
There are lots of free tuners available as phone apps, but again, these can only be so accurate. If you’re really looking for an accurate tuning, finding an electric tuner is your best bet. You can find electric tuners that clip on to your guitar or stand on their own. The display and capabilities of tuners will vary from product to product, so it’s best to spend some time in-store letting the experts recommend a tuner for you.
Most guitars will come with some type of guitar case, but it might not be the right type of case for you. If you’re just starting out with not much travel wear on your acoustic, you’ll likely be okay with a soft gigbag. Many of these also come with some pockets so you can keep other accessories with you.
However, if you’re anticipating travelling frequently with your guitar, or you bought a more expensive guitar and want to make sure it’s protected, a hardshell case will be better suited for your needs.
There are a lot of different cases on the spectrum from soft to hard, but you ultimately need to make sure that your guitar will fit well in whichever case you decide on.
Best Guitar Brands for Beginners
Virtually every major guitar brand has models of acoustic guitars made specifically for beginners. We’ll leave some of our bestsellers here, but be aware that there are lots of options for brands out there if none of these have what you’re looking for.
Although Taylor is a newer guitar manufacturer, they have taken the acoustic world by storm. Widely used in centers of worship, they are popular amongst most acoustic players. Their guitars' sounds tend to be sweet and open. Taylor has quite a few beginner-level models, but also accommodates more experienced players with unique (and more expensive) models. The most famous of the beginner models is the small Baby Taylor, which is what we recommend for most younger beginners that walk into our store.
Gibson is one of the major names in the guitar world that you’ve probably heard of, even if you’ve never even touched a guitar. These guitars are high-quality, and their prices reflect that. Gibson is a name that many people know and trust, but as beginners aren’t their focus, they're not the best place to start for first-timers. That being said, there are a few guitars from this brand in the upper price range for a beginner guitar ($500-$700). So if you’re dead-set on the classic Gibson brand, it’s not completely out of the question.
If you know anything about acoustic guitars, you probably know about C.F. Martin. The brand has been around 1833, so they've really refined their guitar-making process, making sure that each and every guitar they make is among the best money can buy… and for a lot of the models they make, you’ll need to have quite a bit of money. However, Martin does have a few models in the beginner range that are more affordable. So, if you’re looking for a quality guitar guaranteed, Martin is always a safe choice.
Yamaha is well-known in the music world for making just about anything, which is why they also have a really great range of beginner-level acoustic guitars. The quality you’ll be getting here is great when you consider how much they cost. If you’re looking for a guitar that will help you out in your first steps of learning without breaking the bank, you’ll find what you’re looking for in a Yamaha.
For beginner guitarists, this is a staple brand. With fewer options in the high-end range, they spend most of their efforts on designing quality beginner-level acoustic guitars. They are perhaps better well-known for their electric guitars, so if you’re looking to start with a brand and grow with it, especially into electric guitars, Ibanez can accommodate you.
Guitar Terms to Know
If you’re going to a guitar retailer that knows what they’re talking about, they’re likely to use a few terms that you don’t know. While it’s certainly not required to learn these things to go in, it might help you narrow down your choices and lead you to the right decision.
Action is the distance between the strings and the fretboard (or the front of the guitar’s neck). Essentially, it can make guitar much harder for beginners if the action is “high,” meaning far away from the fretboard. For your first guitar, you’ll want to find a low-action guitar. For later guitar purchases, this won’t matter so much as you build up muscle, but for your first guitar, you’ll want it to be as easy to play as possible.
Nylon vs Steel Strings
This is pretty simple. If you’re looking to play classical guitar, you’ll want to find a guitar with nylon strings. And if you’re looking to play acoustic, look for steel strings.
Steel strings can hurt a beginner’s fingers more until they form calluses, but the sound they produce is generally what is heard from most pop songs that feature acoustic guitars. Classical guitars are for more classical or Spanish-sounding songs, though nylon is easier on the fingers.
As you shop, be aware that not all guitars will be clearly labeled as “classical” or “modern acoustic,” so you’ll need to be on the lookout for strings that are metal or nylon (usually white).
Fret buzz is when the strings of a guitar hit the fretboard as they vibrate. This contact produces an unpleasant “buzzing” sound that can interfere with the sound of your playing. Often, fret buzz is just the indication of strings needing to be adjusted or some other minor change. Ask the store employee helping you to correct the fret buzz if you hear any on a first strum. However, if the noise continues after the adjustment, it could mean something is wrong with the guitar, or it could indicate low-quality instrument design. In either of those cases, you may want to consider moving on to a higher-quality model.
The longer you study guitars, the more you’ll realize that acoustics really do come in a million different varieties. However, there are some basics that you might want to know going in.
Acoustic Guitar Shapes
There are many different guitar shapes, but we’ll just cover the ones you’ll probably run into most.
The dreadnought body style is the most popular body style, but many beginners find it too large to play comfortably. It’s deep and wide, which makes for an equally hearty sound. If you’re looking for that type of sound and presence, try one out, but be wary of the size.
A grand concert is the smallest of the standard-size acoustic guitars. It’s extremely similar to the size, shape, and depth of classical guitars, which makes it quieter and better for finger picking.
Auditorium or orchestra shape is a true medium-sized guitar. It’s got the classic hourglass shape that many people associate with acoustic guitars, and the sound is a nice tenor that also works well for finger picking.
Other sizes, like the grand concert, grand auditorium, and jumbo are more straightforward once you know the basics of these three body shapes.
Acoustic Guitar Wood
Wood isn’t something a beginner should stress over, but it is something to consider, as it will continue to define your guitar as you move forward. The word “acoustic” literally refers to the ability of a certain object to resonate sound. Everything affects acoustics, because there are many things in between the noise of the guitar and the hearer’s ears. One of those things is the wood the guitar is made of.
Guitar woods also give a different look to the guitar (unless it’s painted), so you’ll want to be aware of this if you’re attentive to cosmetics.
While acoustics are made out of a plethora of different woods, you can expect to get certain sounds from certain woods most of the time.
If you’re looking for a light and bright sound, look for a guitar with a top made out of spruce or cedar. Many beginner guitars are made out of these woods. However, if you’re wanting a deeper, richer sound, look for a guitar top that has mahogany or a guitar that has sides of maple. For the fretboard wood, most of our friends at Bailey Brothers prefer a rosewood neck for its comfort and durability, but many beginner guitars come with an ebony neck, which is very smooth and easy to play on.
Now that you’ve made it through our crash course, you’re ready to start your own journey in guitar, which starts with getting out there and finding your first acoustic. You can shop online, but we generally recommend coming to the store in-person so you can really test out your options. No matter what, on your whole guitar journey, just remember one thing: Do what feels right for you.