So, what kind of guitar do you buy when you first start out on what will hopefully be a lifelong love of guitar playing?
Well, I have seen so many students, colleagues, friends and family over the years attempt to learn the guitar with varying results and one of the most common reasons why someone will give up is because they feel like their hands just aren’t cut out to play the guitar.
Now on very rare occasions this is true but generally the person doesn’t realise that it is not them that is the problem – it is their instrument that is stopping them from becoming better. I have heard every excuse from ‘my hands just aren’t big enough’ (get a smaller guitar to learn on), to ‘my hands are too weak to hold down the strings’ (make sure the action is set properly) and the classic my fingers hurt when I play (try nylon strings if you have them. Or just harden up!).
The key to playing well is having control over your hands and more importantly over your fingers, and that control is easier to gain if you are playing a guitar that is the right size for you and if the strings are easy to fret. Once you have the correct technique and know how it feels when you are playing properly, then you can apply that to any guitar.
The students that learn the fastest and end up being the best players are the ones who do everything right from the start – and that includes buying the correct guitar to learn on.
If most of your practice time is spent twisting your hands and body trying to come to grips with playing your instrument or if you are worried about how sore your fingers are then not a lot of effort or concentration will be going into becoming a better guitarist!
So let’s take a look at some of the points you should consider when buying your first guitar.
First things first…
All of this information is written so you will be able to understand it whether you are right or left handed, so I will refer to your hands as the plucking hand (the one that strikes the strings) and the fretting hand (the one that holds the strings down).
Now, the first thing we need to consider is something that is usually overlooked when making this decision – what kind of guitar will help me to master the skills that are required to become a good (or maybe great) guitarist?
Now I know what most people are thinking – the first thing that popped into their heads was ‘what guitar looks good with my leather jacket?’ or ‘what guitar does my favourite guitarist play?’ but the most important thing a soon-to-be guitar owner needs to ask themselves is ‘will this guitar get me to the skill level I need to be at to achieve my goals?’
If the guitar you want does not get you there – and it doesn’t matter how great it looks – you should put it on lay-by and not buy it until you are at a high enough level to play it properly.
Now there are some people who have natural ability and talent. These people could learn and excel on almost anything but most people out there need to make the right choice when selecting their instrument. So let’s take a look at what factors should be considered…
Now, what guitar will help you get to the level you want to be at? Well there are a few things that your first guitar will need to be. The first thing is that it needs to be able to be played without discomfort. So it has to be the right size for you – not your 6’10” best friend and not the child-guitar-playing-genius you saw on Youtube.
When I say that the guitar has to be the right size for you, that means you need to be able to reach all areas of the guitar without having your arms bent at funny angles. If you’re in a comfortable position it will be a lot easier to learn the essential skills required to play.
If you have larger limbs or hands then a small guitar may be too cramped for you to fit all of your fingers on the fingerboard. There are a lot of different sizes of guitars available these days from a full-sized dreadnought acoustic steel string on the large side, to a half-sized nylon string classical guitar on the small side, so there really is a size for everyone. The only downside as far as the smaller guitars go is the sound quality (although there are some really good-sounding, albeit pricey, small guitars available nowadays) but if you are using a smaller guitar when you first start to play then, when you have developed your technique, you will be ready to apply that technique to a larger guitar.
Electric or acoustic?
Another thing that needs to be considered is whether you are going to play an acoustic or electric guitar. If you choose electric then you’ll most probably need a strap as the shape of most electrics makes it difficult to balance them on your legs. You will also need to make sure that the guitar isn’t so heavy that it puts pressure on your neck and shoulders. If so then it may not be the guitar for you.
Most steel string guitars (both electric and acoustic) have narrower necks as the strings are closer together. This can make it easier to play certain chords and perform more difficult stretches. However, this can be a negative for people who have really thick fingers or “dad hands”, as the fingers are so thick that they get in each others’ way on the fingerboard.
Electric guitars have thinner bodies (even more so than a nylon string acoustic) so this will make things easier for the right hand and you should be able to reach all the right parts easily. But the same problem exists if you fingerpick with thick fingers – your fingers will get in the way of each other on the plucking hand as well.
If you get an acoustic guitar, you will have to choose between steel and nylon strings. The downside for nylon strings is that the neck of the guitar tends to be wider, which can hinder your fretting hand when playing some chords. However, the thinner body will make it easier for your plucking hand to reach the strings comfortably.
The body of a full-size steel string guitar can be very large and sometimes it can be hard to use your plucking hand well on these guitars.
Nylon strings are easy on the fingers – this will allow your fingers to develop calluses without a lot of discomfort and this in turn will allow you to practise regularly. Because steel strings are more rigid they tend to be harder on the fingers, especially for beginners. I hear a lot of people get discouraged from buying a nylon string guitar, as once you are better many people will want to move on to playing a steel string guitar, but this is complete rubbish!
Yes, when you are used to certain guitar strings it will be a bit of a change but only a slight inconvenience – the biggest thing that you will have to face changing from nylon strings to steel will be how much smaller the neck of the guitar is and for most people this is a plus. Another thing to note is that most electric guitars have lighter gauge strings which means they are easier on the fingers than a steel string acoustic.
The action – this is the name for the distance between the strings and the fretboard – needs to be low, as this means the fingers will not have to press too hard. This also helps to keep the notes in tune. A low action also promotes a relaxed fretting hand which in turn will allow the fingers of your fretting hand to move faster.
Make sure all the frets sound well without buzzing on any string, as that is a sign of a poor set-up. If you are buying a guitar secondhand then you might have to get someone to set it up correctly and this can be expensive. If you are buying it new make sure that the store you are buying it from will set it up before you take it home.
So what guitar should I buy?
This all depends on what size you are, how long your limbs are, how big your hands are and what your pain threshold is.
People with large hands can handle the width of a nylon string guitar whereas people with shorter limbs are better off with an electric or half sized nylon string. People with a low pain threshold should use nylon strings and those who are not bothered by the pain should use steel strings.
Buying your first guitar can be tricky, so talk to someone who knows guitars and preferably has some teaching experience, as this will provide a different perspective on what is good to learn on.
There are so many choices of guitar in a lot of different price ranges so don’t worry, there will be a guitar that will help you achieve your goals at the right price. All you need to do is be honest about your size and shape and limb size. You will start off on the right foot and progress much faster because you have the perfect guitar for you.