Selecting

The first step any beginner guitarist must take is to purchase the best possible instrument that he or she can afford within reason. A more expensive guitar will generally sound, look, and feel better than an inexpensive guitar but beyond appearance the major concern for a beginner guitarist is playability. Good quality guitars generally have lower action and better tuning machines. The action is the distance between the fret board and the strings. A lower action makes it much easier to press the strings down on the frets when students play their guitar. Good gears inside the tuning machines make it easier for students to adjust the strings tension, and will hold the guitar in tune for longer periods of time which allows students to put the strings in proper tune with greater ease and consistency. Good tuning machines have screws that can be adjusted that tighten and loosen which enhance functionality. A guitars neck, even in the the most costly instruments will warp, twist or bow with age. Because of this quality guitars have an adjustable truss rod inside the neck that makes it possible to correct most neck problems that might develop. On a guitar without an adjustable neck these problems are almost impossible to fix. Guitars without truss rods become increasingly harder to play and keep in tune until eventually, they become unplayable and worthless.

Selecting A GuitarWith this said the beginner guitar must have a straight neck and the strings must sit low enough above the fretboard for easy playability without too much fret buzz when playing fretted notes or open strings.

I recommend that most beginner students learn on an acoustic guitar for for a variety of reasons.

The basic construction of an acoustic guitar needs less maintenance as compared to an electric guitar which is more delicate and can be more troublesome requiring greater skill to make it sound good and technical understanding to care for it properly. Electric guitars have knobs, switches and require an instrument cable and amplifier. Also the neck of an electric guitar is much smaller in width than most acoustic guitars and contrary to a popular misconception that it’s easier to play electric guitar in many ways it’s much harder. Yes it is a little easier to press down on the strings because the action is slightly lower but that’s the only very inconsequential benefit. Because acoustic guitars have wider bodies than electric guitars they rest much more easily on a students leg when sitting down and provides a good arm rest which allows the picking hand to learn proper picking technique with much greater support. Proper picking is better learned prior to playing an electric guitar because electric guitars are made to be played standing up. Due to the slim body of the electric guitar if a student is either sitting or standing a students their arm easily slips off the electric guitar because there is no where to rest it comfortably. It takes greater skill to play an electric guitar when a group of stings are close together in a chord without beginner guitarists muting or striking unwanted notes. The acoustic guitar teaches guitarists at all levels to have better control of how hard or soft the strings are plucked or strummed because it teaches greater dynamic control (how loud or soft notes are played) because of greater string tension. The acoustic guitar is better at strengthening a beginning player’s fingers hand and wrist because slightly more pressure must be applied when pressing down on a string when playing. Calluses form on the tips of a students finger much quicker on an acoustic guitar and the student is forced to acquire the correct hand and finger technique by utilizing proper leverage where as on the electric it can often be overlooked. If proper hand positioning (technique) is not acquired on, not far down the road students try to pick multiple strings or tackle songs that require moderate levels of guitar technique they may have to go back and relearn several fretting hand techniques that involve proper thumb placement and hand angle that create proper leverage. Only correct techniques will produce a pleasing sound and allow students to play accurately and fast. To relearn is often more difficult then to learn for the first time and can be very frustrating. So once again I recommend beginner guitar students learning on an acoustic guitar.

It’s really simple when you think about it, the acoustic guitar is unaffected by cables, amplifiers and external devices like effects (distortion etc. who’s aim is to discolor the true sound of a guitar). Because of this the acoustic guitar will train each students ears to hear the true unamplified sound of the guitar, which is guitar playing! This will give each student a solid foundation of how a guitar really sounds by being able to hear and understand the simple scientific principals of how the strings vibrate and move the air to create a sound without being affected by external devices. Students undoubtedly find it easier to understand study basic guitar techniques which can be quite challenging without the excess baggage of trying to comprehend more complex concepts and actuate difficult techniques that electric guitars inherently bring.

Many guitar salesman in retail music stores will tell beginner students and their parents that it doesn’t matter whether they purchase an acoustic or electric guitar because they want to make a sale. I will add that it is possible for a beginner guitarist to learn basic guitar technique on an electric guitar but experience has shown me that most all beginner guitar students find it much more difficult because it is and often get discouraged from the initial frustration. What they thought was cool turns out to be a drag…. Electric guitars have the same six strings and notes on the fretboard as on acoustic so if they are extremely patient, coordinated and committed to learn it than go for it… But don’t complain later on. In my experience if a student really wants to play guitar they will learn on an acoustic. Initially students really just want to get good enough for playing to be really fun. The fewer students that I have taught who started playing on an electric guitar, later decided to get an acoustic guitar because they either encountered too many difficulties regarding initial technique and maintenance or began to hear what a beautiful sound an acoustic guitar can produce and that it’s actually pretty cool all on it’s own.

Also it is always easier to find a quality beginner acoustic guitar for somewhere between $100 and $300.

Electric guitars of equal quality may cost a minimum of $250 to $500 because they have many more parts that can break or need adjustment and they are more time consuming and costly to produce.

There are two basic styles of acoustic guitar which provide options for all beginner guitar students:

  1. a steel stringed acoustic guitar (often called a folk or songwriting guitar).
  2. a nylon string acoustic guitar (often called a classical or flamenco guitar).

Both these nylon string and steel string guitars are produced in a variety of comparable sizes. Nylon string guitars size from 1/4 size to 1/2 size to 3/4 size (often called student size). the steel string acoustic have different names for the same basic sizes from triple O to double O and then a larger dreadnought sized guitar which is bigger than any nylon string guitars. The 1/4, 1/2 (OOO) and 3/4 (OO) size nylon and steel string acoustic guitars usually fit beginner students of small to medium build. A flat top steel stringed dreadnought size guitar is the full size of a steel string acoustic and is often referred to as a folk guitar because songwriters who sing folk music usually play them. Students with a medium build and above will fit into Dreadnought size steel stringed guitars just fine and the added bonus of purchasing a full sized steel string is that a student at any age or size will never out grow it and it has has a louder and fuller sound than nylon string acoustic guitars.

There are a few fundamental differences between nylon string classical student guitars and steel string guitars. The nylon string guitars are smaller and have less projection of volume due to their nylon strings which produce a smooth round tone which although beautiful has limited sonic possibilities and doesn’t sustain as long or as loud as steel strings do. Steel string guitars of a comparable size will always be louder and fuller sounding than nylon stringed guitars. The full size dreadnought steel stringed acoustic guitar has a smaller width neck than nylon string classical style guitars and slightly larger than an electric guitar. Because of a greater; body size, string size and string tension it is the loudest and richest sounding acoustic guitar available other than an oversized steel string acoustic which is a little larger. The steel string dreadnought acoustic guitar is the guitar a student would want to play while singing around a camp fire because it can be heard without an amplifier because the full bright sound of steel strings are able to clearly cut through the sound of many singing voices. The advantage of learning on a full sized steel string acoustic is that it’s loud, you wont have to up grade to a larger guitar ever, your hand, fingers and arm will grow a bit stronger quicker and because electric guitars have steel strings, when your ready for an electric it won’t be a surprise to your fingers.

Nylon stringed guitars have lighter string tension and are a little easier to press down on than steel strings. Nylon string classical guitar have a much wider neck than steel stringed acoustics which allows classical guitar players who don’t use a pick to perform acrobatic movements often with great speed using virtuostic note and chord fingerings without hitting inappropriate notes along the way.

A nylon string classical guitar is basically purchased for three reasons:

  1. If you are a beginner guitar player and you are of a small to medium build and like the feel of nylon strings better than steel, or the style a student wishes to learn is finger style classical guitar.
  2. You are a classical or flamenco style guitar player.
  3. You are a professional guitarist who uses the classical guitar for recording sessions and performances to achieve a desired sound.

A dreadnought size steel stringed acoustic guitar is more versatile than nylon string classical guitars.

More steel string acoustic guitars are used for songwriting instruments, popular music performance of multiple musical styles, playing outdoors unamplified, and being recorded in a music studios. This is not to say that nylon string guitars aren’t beautiful sounding instruments, which are also used in all the situations I just mentioned (they are!) but just allot less. Classical guitars generally do not provide as wide a range of sound possibilities, aren’t amplified as easily with positive results, don’t provide the guitarist with as many popular playing styles and guitar playing techniques as dreadnought size steel string acoustics do and the wide neck can sometimes make it difficult for a beginner guitarist to play chords.

Also at times beginner guitarists and their parents are discouraged by salesman in music stores from beginning to learn guitar on a full size steel string acoustic guitar because they want to sell the other student sized classical guitars and they don’t want the possibility of angry parents returning the guitar saying it was too big or it hurts his or her fingers so to play it safe the guitar salesman often sells a smaller nylon string guitars that the student will completely out grow in less than a year to cover themselves. I’m not saying a full size steel string acoustic is right fit for a small child with very little hand strength who can’t reach the tuners or see over the body of the guitar but I will say that a lot more beginner guitarists would benefit from learning on a dreadnought style steel stringed acoustic guitar. So if a student meets the size requirements and wants to make a go at it they should, and I firmly believe they will be happy they did!

When purchasing a beginner guitar hand size should be taken into consideration and the overall feel a student gets when they hold the guitar.

A basic rule would be that students with medium sized to large hands can do well on any medium to large sized guitar, steel or nylon stringed. Students with tiny hands and build should get a smaller guitar with a thinner width neck and probably a 1/4 to 1/2 size nylon stringed classical.

If the student can reach the last set of tuners for the fourth and third strings and get his or her picking hand hanging over the body and can reach the first string E with the pick a steel string dreadnought is the right size for any age student.

In summary the 3/4 size nylon or steel string acoustic (OO) or the dreadnought size steel string acoustic should fit almost all beginner guitar students.

Why does anyone play an electric guitar?

After basic guitar technique is achieved then a guitar student should get and electric guitar. Mainly because they need the volume to play in a band with a drummer and bass player. Most of the students I teach take their lesson on acoustic. If they are in a band they own an electric guitar. they can practice specific techniques because they are more advanced guitarists of an intermediate level of playing.

Yeah electric guitars are cool. But that has nothing to do with initially learning how to play the guitar, the techniques, skills, focus and discipline needed to sound good amplified or not. I see owning and using an electric guitar as a privilege or right that the student has graduated to by proving him or herself to be able to play at certain level and showing the commitment and need that will deem playing so loud that no one can escape his or her playing. I mean the only time anybody needs an electric guitar is if there going to perform on stage at a loud volume or record in a music studio to achieve a certain quality of sound. Other than that it’s all about being cool or looking cool. In see cool as being able to do something well not pretending you can because you look a certain way.

Don’t be fooled. Other than sharing the same six strings and notes with an acoustic guitar, to actually play an electric guitar with skill is in many ways is like learning how to play another instrument. To use an electric guitar for what is was made for, to play loud the player must have great technique in string muting and an overall control of their sound. To take advantage of the broad range of sonic possibilities (cool sounds) an electric guitar can provide is an incredible skill all it’s own. An electric guitarist must learn how to adjust; the pickup selector, both volume and tone controls on the guitar and the amplifier in conjunction with certain effects to produce a desired sound in many performing situations. To achieve the kind of sounds that are heard on records hours upon hours of understanding about musical recording equipment. Good guitarists learn how to record music and to play in sync with a wide variety of sound altering effects and to trigger the desired effect through stomp boxes or rack units at the appropriate moment during a performance or recording session. This is an impressive skill that takes many years to get good at. At times an accomplished electric guitarist can feel like they are sound engineers who paint abstract paintings on a song canvases. Sometimes they get to play some guitar when their not turning knobs and stomping on pedals, calculating delay times and controlling feedback.

One time during a break at performance, I asked a great guitarist and producer Jon Leventhal ( producer of Shawn Colvins’ “A Few Small Repairs album” ), “How did you get those three pedals to sound that way?!”, and he said, “It didn’t happen overnight.” I think that sums it up.

Don’t get me wrong I love playing my electric guitars loud and manipulating all my little funny toys (effects) to make cool whacked out sounds but I always go back to playing my acoustic guitars because they are what the guitar is and sounds like. I can’t hide behind my toys or loud volumes which can often cover up little mistakes. If I sound good on my acoustic guitar. I sound good, it’s that simple!

I hope this gives some insight into selecting a beginner guitar and each student enjoys whatever style of guitar they choose……