Choosing a guitar is an arduous process for established guitarist and even more so for beginners who are tasked with picking a single instrument among thousands upon thousands of options. It can undoubtedly be a discouraging experience that can delay the start of a fulfilling and gratifying journey.
There are, however, a number of factors to keep in mind that can ease things along and help you make an informed decision. Choosing the right guitar is important, but enjoying the search for it is equally crucial. Being motivated is important and you don’t want to be defeated before even reaching the first hurdle. With that in mind, our guide will help you equip yourself with the tools required to find that elusive first guitar.
Budget is always a consideration when starting out, particularly if you are young and don’t necessarily have a stockpile of disposable income. Our guide pays heed to this throughout and we’ve selected models that offer the best quality available at the reasonable prices. Do keep in mind that price is often the best indicator of quality and the guitars we have chosen are by no stretch of the imagination the best out there. Instead, they are ideal tools to act as a stepping stones to a better instrument further along the line as you improve and solidify your passion for the guitar.
What Exactly is a Guitar?
A good way to begin is to get a brief overview of the guitar’s history. Though its origins are a contentious issue with many varying opinions and arguments, it is generally agreed that the basic concept of the guitar dates back to the early times of prehistoric homo sapiens. The idea behind the instrument was to draw strings over an open chamber made of hollowed out wood to create an audible sound.
Many researchers suggest that bows generally used for hunting wild animals were re-purposed for musical ends and this may have spurred on the creation of the first guitar-like instruments. Natural products such as animal entrails were used as strings and bodies were made out of cut-down wood shaped thanks to primitive tools.
Though by no means the first attempt by humans to create sound purposefully, it represents a logical progression onward from using the human voice, stones and rocks, and then stretched animal hide as rudimentary percussive instruments.
As the centuries progressed and music as a theorized subject solidified itself within numerous cultures, this concept was refined into much more complex devices capable of varied types of sounds and tones. Advancements in the development of tools, a better understanding of physics and the characteristics of natural resources like wood also played their part in precipitating this.
Of note are the Greek kithara, the Medieval lute and Moorish Oud, which, though visually different in form, were effectively based on the functional properties of the same basic idea. Though too numerous to list here, there are many other historical forms of guitar-like instruments inherent to many cultures across the globe.
Time moved on and sometime in the last 200 years, most likely the results of work by Spanish luthiers, the shape and sound of the modern guitar was introduced. From there, matters accelerated considerably with a better understanding of the properties of wood as a vehicle for carrying the vibrations of sound, culminating in the advent of electricity and the development of the pickup and electric guitar.
Today, the guitar is ubiquitous with modern music and is imprinted as a reference in our collective cultural landscape. The shape, sound and reputation are well known and extremely recognizable. The guitar is now among the most played instruments across the world and more people than ever are eager to learn its secrets and learn how to play.
A basic definition of the guitar is a chordophone instrument that compounds the natural sound of six-vibrating strings made of metal or nylon by way of a wooden body and neck. Thanks to frets divided into semitones, the player is able to press down on the strings along the neck, then initiate movement with the other hand near the base of the instrument to obtain a specific pitch. Combined pitches create musical phrases, patterns and chords.
Defined in layman terms the guitar is the archetypal rock instrument synonymous with thunderous solos and crunchy riffs. Iconic bands such as The Beatles, Iron Maiden and Jimi Hendrix come to mind. It is now found in most type of music ranging from jazz all the way to more modern genres such as math-rock. It has attained the status of a pop-cultural phenomenon recognizable regardless of country and cultural heritage.
As such, the guitar carries a certain clout and cool factor that make it appealing to many novices intent on delving into the world of music making. It the stuff of dreams for many who yearn for the chance to play at stadium venues in front of adoring fans, and wowing them with their emotionally charged compositions.
Generally associated with melody, the guitar is tasked with creating memorable musical passages that define songs. Techniques vary from playing with fingers by picking, tapping or strumming to using a plectrum, or pick, as a point of contact with the strings. Much is said about the high skill ceiling of playing the guitar and with this comes an association with the virtuoso skills of the most proficient players out there.
The guitar is also seen as a great introductory instrument given the relative ease of learning a few chords and playing along to your favourite songs. Many use it as a gateway to other, more complex instruments and benefit from the instant gratification that learning the guitar produces.
It is also a very communal instrument that favours interaction and social communion. We are all aware of the cliched image of playing guitar around a campfire or the allure of a street busker armed with a guitar plying his craft among the hustle of a bustling shopping street.
A more technical definition defines the guitar as instrument composed on three main parts; the body, neck and headstock. Put together they make up the guitar. Attached to these are various components. Of note are the pickups, bridge, machine heads, control and volume knobs.
An electric guitar uses pickups to create its sound. There are generally at least two pickups on a guitar though some have three. These are mounted on the lower half of the body onto the wood of the body itself. Position and type determine what type of tone the guitar will produce. Pickups are linked to control knobs that allow the volume and tone to be shaped. Generally, each pickup will have a volume knob with one overall tone knob, meaning you can merge the sound of the two pickups to your taste.
Tuners are located on the headstock and are used to adjust the tension of the strings to a particular pitch allowing the guitar to stay in tune. Machine heads are manipulated by a series of pegs, one for each string.
The nut is a small horizontal bar slotted just below the headstock that guides the strings over the fretboard down to the bridge. Often made of synthetic bone or real bone in more expensive models.
The mechanism that locks the strings on the lower half of the body. They come in different types with some feeding the strings through the guitar before having them sit on saddles on the body itself, while others feed the strings through holes on the bridge itself then onto the saddles.
Frets and Fretboard
The strings are held between the bridge and the machine heads. This area between the body and headstock is called the fretboard. Putting fingers on different frets, or metal ridges, create different notes and are crucial to playing the guitar.
Types of Guitars
There are a number of types of guitars that exist, each designed to create a specific quality of sound. They often differ in size and build, though they respect the general, accepted shape of the guitar. The three primary types are acoustic, electric and bass. Within these categories, there are subdivisions which differ in terms of the function of the guitar. They are built for particular uses.
What type of guitar you choose is up to you and there is no dominant or more viable choice. If you’ve been spurred on to learn guitar by your favourite band or musician opt for whatever instrument they are playing. Luckily, many of the skills used on the acoustic or electric are transferable to the other so you won’t be wasting your time learning one at cost to the other.
An acoustic is non electric version of the guitar that is played without amplification and produces a natural, rounded sound that is popular among folk, country and singer-songwriter artists. In other words, it doesn’t need to be plugged in to be played. It usually has six strings and is made of various tonewoods.
The main body is hollow, this is called a sound box. When the strings are played, their sound reverberates within this wooden chamber and accentuates the vibrations transmitted through the bridge. Acoustic are equipped with steel or nylon strings.
Acoustic comes in different shapes and size, though the general trend is to respect classic designs such as the Dreadnaught, originally crafted by the C.F. Martin guitar building company, and adopted by many others due to its popularity, or the Grand Concert body shape, which favours an intricate finger picking technique. The variation in size generally correlate with sound volume. Follow the rule that the larger the guitar, the louder it will be. Parents who are wary of overhearing the tortured travails of a novice player may want to choose a smaller model.
Acoustics are recommended for beginners due to their accessibility in terms of volume and the low cost threshold due to not needing an amplifier to use it. They are also available in child-friendly sizes with shorter necks and bodies to accommodate smaller hand sizes.
It is even possible to get electro-acoustic guitars which are acoustics equipped with pickups. The idea is to raise the volume of acoustic whilst conserving the characteristics of its tone. These are a sort of compromise between electric and acoustic though they won’t cut it for someone who has their heart set on an electric guitar, because an electro-acoustic is unable to replicate its sound.
The electric guitar, as the name suggests, uses an electrical signal to amplify the sound rather than the natural sound created by a sound box as with the acoustic guitar. It uses pickups, or magnetized coils, to record the fluctuation of the strings and convert it into an electrical signal. That signal is then sent to an amplifier that raises the volume to an audible level before forwarding it to a speaker. The electric is the instrument of choice for many rock styles as well as jazz and reggae for example. Electrics are equipped with steel strings.
Electric guitars appeared mid twentieth-century courtesy of manufacturers such as Fender and Gibson. Today, they are an innumerable amount of variations in terms of the build, style and design.
The bass guitar is very similar to a traditional guitar, except that it focuses its sonic output on lower frequency notes. The bass is usually equipped with four steel strings, though five, six and even twelve string basses are available, which are thicker than their guitar counterpart and tuned to a much lower pitch. The neck on a bass is longer to allow for the lower notes.
The bass is often seen as the glue that melds the rhythm to the melodic sections within a band setting. It is ubiquitous with most styles of music and is viewed as a vital component of any song or composition to stress root notes and chords.
Basses are available in acoustic and electric variations, each with their own purpose within different genres of music. The electric bass was created as an amplified version of the double bass to counter volume issues due to louder bands and the rising popularity of larger venues. The acoustic bass is a more compact and portable version of the double bass inspired by the acoustic guitar.
Signs of Quality
If we discount price as a measure of quality when scrutinizing beginner guitars, it can be difficult to know what to look for. There are, however, a number of indicators that when coupled together point towards a viable option. These are as follows.
Action / Intonation
Action is in layman’s terms the space between the strings and the fretboard. This is important because this area is one of two points of contact between the player and the guitar. Action is particularly relevant to beginners who have not yet developed the finger muscles necessary to competently put pressure on a specific part of the fretboard to ring out notes.
The smaller the gap, the less pressure required, which reduces fatigue and encourages longer playing sessions, and the more a budding player plays, the quicker they improve. We recommend that you look for an instrument with well-adjusted action and stay clear of models where the gap feels excessively large.
Intonation is defined as a guitar’s capacity to ring out a note in tune regardless of where it is played on the fretboard. Notes recur at regular intervals at different pitches when using playing strings and fret positions. It is important that they create the same note, albeit in different octaves.
Intonation is dictated by a combination of the shape of the neck, which must be ever so slightly concave or bent, and the position of the strings on the bridge. The bridge is a hardware component fixed to the lower half of the body through which the strings are held in place to guarantee limited movement and thus tuning fidelity.
The quality of the intonation is simple to ascertain. Simply play a note near the top of the neck, then at the bottom, if they sound the same, then the intonation is good. Using a tuner is recommended as it allows you to determine the precise accuracy of a note without succumbing to human-error. Running the guitar through an amplifier also helps to better hear the dissonance between notes.
Many beginner models, notably below the $200.00 price range are poorly built and won’t stand the bangs and bumps of general use, invariably falling apart due to a poor craftsmanship. That being said, certain models above this price point are solidly built and can last a long time. This is the type of guitar you are looking for.
A simple way to assess the standard of a guitar’s build is to pick it up and hold it in your hands. A good build feels robust and trustworthy, while a cheaply made dud just feels feeble and vulnerable. Customer reviews are also a way of determining how long a guitar will last. Disgruntled customer are quick to voice their discontent and this can be used as an overall measure of how well a guitar is made.
Even standard entry-level components will do their job as long as they are well put together so pay attention to build when choosing a guitar. A guitar that feels solid is also far more likely to be played than a wreck of an instrument, encouraging repeat play and mastery of the guitar.
Look, Feel and Sound
A lot can be said for the way a certain guitar resonates for a specific person in terms of the look and feel. A guitar that you are proud to own and that appeals to you aesthetically is far more likely to be played rather than confined to its case under your bed.
Part of this is how the guitar feels in your hands. If it fits comfortably and simply feels good to handle, then you are on to a winner. This sense of ‘feel’ is extremely subjective and the same guitar won’t necessarily evoke the same sense of ownership from one person to the next. Rely on your instincts and gut.
The same applies for sound. Opt for a guitar that sounds good to you. There is nothing worse that learning to play a guitar that sounds awful to your ears. Don’t worry about finding the perfect tone because this process is a long journey that requires a few years of playing before you can pinpoint what it is exactly you want. Don’t sweat it, if it sounds nice to you, then that is a great sign.
In terms of look, of course you want to opt for an instrument that corresponds with your tastes. There is nothing worse than buying a guitar that makes you cringe whenever you lay your eyes on it.
Within the context of price and the measures of quality above, let the look and feel be the final adjudicator in selecting the best guitar for you. If you have narrowed it down to two or three guitars, then we recommend going for the one that looks, sounds, and feels best to you.
If you are buying the guitar as a gift, make sure to involve the recipient in the buying process to avoid buying them a guitar that doesn’t appeal to them. A trip to the local music shop is always a good idea and can be a great source of motivation for a novice, particularly after talking to a seasoned salesperson and witnessing the array of instruments available.
Otherwise, do some research and understand what bands they are in to and buy accordingly. Just make sure you don’t buy an obnoxiously shaped electric guitar designed for glamour rock for someone who enjoys the soft, mellow sounds of folk music.
Tonewood is a type of wood that is prized for its reverberation qualities and is the wood of choice for guitar builders. There is a whole science behind how the vibration of the strings stimulates the wood to create the sound waves that are then transformed to sound. It is also something of a contentious subject because of varying opinions on the impact of wood in the overall tone of a guitar.
The choice of tonewoods incorporated into beginner model guitars is limited due to the need to limit manufacturing costs. As such, it is extremely rare to find exotic variants or woods that veer away from more common types like alder, maple and rosewood.
As long as a guitar doesn’t use composite woods or plastics, you cannot really go wrong in the beginner price range. It is, therefore, best not to dwell too much on the tonewood and concentrate on the factors listed above.
Best Beginner Electric Guitar
At just shy of $200.00, we have settled on the Squier Affinity Stratocaster HSS. The manufacturer Squier benefits from being owned by and is a subsidiary of Fender, meaning they have a license to build guitars that follow the same design and concept as far more expensive models. They get around this by using standard components and lower priced tonewoods. Squier also has a tendency to periodically update their models to fix niggling issues and provide cost-effective improvements. Don’t let this put you off as the Strat HSS is a steal for the price.
The HSS has an alder body, maple neck and rosewood fretboard. Overall, these three tone woods compliment the guitar especially when seen in conjunction with the quality of the build. It is a robust and trustworthy instrument.
The pickups offer a rather unusual combination of one humbucker and two classic Stratocaster single coils. These are connected to two tone knobs, one per pickup type and an overall volume control knob, overseen by a five toggle pickup selector so you can get any combination of the pickups you may need. Mixed with these are standard machine heads and a tremolo bridge.
This combination oozes versatility and the sound reflects this. The guitar performs particularly well when driven and the humbucker really kicks into its own, delivering an overall meaty tone. Clean, the guitar is fairly well-rounded.
What we liked about this model was the classic stratocaster feel, but with a twist via the addition of the humbucker. The well-built feel and options available round it off and make it a great beginner’s guitar. It comes in a nice selection of colours, including an unmissable race green model for those wanting a flashy look.
In the price margin above, we fell in love with the Fender Modern Player Telecaster for many reasons. Fender is one of the most famous guitar manufacturers in the world, and with good reason. Their attention to detail and constant innovation of classic models that work superbly are the main reasons why they are so well respected. Having a real Fender as a first guitar use to be a luxury that few could afford. Now, with the Modern Player this has become a distinct possibility at a reasonable price.
The Modern Player sports an alder body, maple neck and fretboard. A pretty standard and proven mix for Fender. The three pickup configuration includes a bridge humbucker, a Stratocaster-inspired single coil in the middle section and a Telecaster-like single coil up near the neck. This is a pretty rare mix of pickups and one that is designed to offer options through an array of different obtainable tones. The controls are equally odd with an overall volume knob, a tone knob, a five-way selector and an uncommon humbucker mini-toggle for off the cuff tone changes.
The bridge is a kind of shortened standard Telecaster bridge that resembles something you would normally find on a Stratocaster, in part to allow space for the humbucker pickup. The machine heads are standard high quality Fender issue so solid as a rock and reliable.
When it comes to the sound of the Modern Player, the availability of options is where it flourishes. With the humbucker fired up, this Telecaster has a gnarly, almost aggressive tone, uncommon for its type. Turn off the humbucker and you revert back to a classic Telecaster tone that chimes with its angular clarity. Between these two extremes you can shape the sound to your needs.
In essence, Fender has created a Telecaster that ventures proudly out of its comfort zone with great results, yet has retained the elements that make it one of the most prized guitars available.
A further option, at a slightly lower price for those who aren’t taken with the Fender shape or sound is the Epiphone Les Paul Standard. As with Squier, Epiphone is a subsidiary of Gibson and they benefit from all that comes with this association including the right to build replica inspired models. This particular model is inspired by the Gibson Les Paul.
What we have here is a mahogany body with a maple top, both ideal for sustain. The neck is maple and the fretboard is rosewood. An interesting mix for the price and playing the guitar confirms the choice of wood was a good one. Pickup wise, we have two Alnico humbuckers, signature Les Paul material, hooked up to a tone and volume knob for each pickup for a total of four controls.
Components are similar to those found on the Gibson version with a sturdy Tune-o-matic bridge. This bridge is known for its capacity to transfer sound to the body and this is indeed the case here given that the Les Paul’s output is truly loud. The machine heads are standard issue and do the job well.
Other than the sound being loud, it is also well defined regardless of whether you are pushing it or playing twinkly melodies. It has a vintage tinge like its Gibson namesake and a balanced tone with emphasis on all the frequencies for a well-rounded overall sound.
This Les Paul looks good and provides a surprisingly comfortable experience when picked up. The shape is a standard of the guitar world and if it appeals to you, this is definitely the best starter guitar in that category.
We also have to give a shout out to the Yamaha Pacifica Series PAC112V. It is as viable as the three guitars above, but offers a different style of guitar. Another style option if you are that way inclined. It is very affordable and will provide hours of dedicated fun for any beginner. The PAC112V looks great as well.
Best Beginner Acoustic Guitar
Among beginner acoustic guitars, the Yamaha FG830 really rose above the rest for us. Yamaha is over one hundred years old and not only is it well regarded for producing a variety of instruments, it is specifically famous for the quality of its acoustic guitars. These tend to favour newer players in terms of feel and price. The dreadnought shaped FG830 follows the rich tradition of the FG line of acoustics.
Made with a sikta spruce top with back and sides made of rosewood, a rather pricey looking choice of tonewoods, a nato neck and rosewood fretboard for good measure. Where the FG830 stands out is when looking at the meticulous attention to detail employed when constructing the actual guitar, more specifically the unique scalloped bracing technology used. Bracing is essentially the pattern into which the wood is arranged under the top of the body. Here, Yamaha have favoured sustain, projection and depth of tone, and it really shows when strumming the guitar.
The FG830 doesn’t sound like it should for the price paid. It sounds better with a rich tone that is precise or complex where it needs to be. The overtones produced are stunning for the price and the dreadnought body creates a surprisingly balanced volume, contrary to expectations.
Overall, this is an ideal beginner’s guitar that should set you up for years of use and enjoyment.
We will also mention the Yamaha F325. For those with a very small budget that cannot be stretched, stick with Yamaha and get the F325. It does sound as much as it costs, so not great, but it is solid and does the job, but don’t expect miracles from this guitar. It will, however, be playable, sound decent and work as a stepping stone to something more expensive.
Best Beginner Bass Guitar
The best beginner bass guitar is undoubtedly the Ibanez SR370. Made by Japan’s Ibanez manufacturer, who are famous for entry-level instruments of quality, the SR370 is an all round beast for the price.
The body shaped in the famous SR form is made of maple. The neck is a carefully built collection of five sections made of maple and rosewood. To round it off, rosewood is used for the fretboard. The Accu-Cast bridge is beyond solid and the machine heads are standard Ibanez so trustworthy.
The pickups are where the SR370 shows its true colours. Two CAP EXF-N2 active humbuckers sit beautifully on the body, offering huge tone that is not only moldable to most styles of music, but is incredibly versatile in terms of the volume it can output, courtesy of the active pickups (a feature that incorporates a battery powered inbuilt preamp found on some basses).
The SR370 sounds pretty near to perfect for how much it costs. It is controlled and subtle, covering all frequencies in a well-rounded, but characterful manner. You can just as easily get rumbling low end tones, to snappy, almost percussive highs with ease. It is an all round adaptable instrument that will last you for years to come. Plus, it feels great to hold and will have you playing bass as often as you can.
Though we would personally have to go with the SR370, we understand if you are looking for something a little more classic. In that case, we recommend the Squier Vintage Modified Jaguar Special. It matches the design and concept of a much more expensive Fender Precision bass and does so with convincing results.
An agathis body, maple neck and rosewood fretboard make up the backbone of this bass, coupled with a single coil and a P/J split-coil pickup for added ambivalence in tone shaping. The bridge and machine heads are standard issue Fender/Squier so reliable. The length of the neck is also smaller than most basses at 30 inches, ideal for children or those will smaller hands, but also perfectly fine for others.
The Jaguar’s sound has clarity and drive for an overall decent tone. The pickup configuration also caters for many sonic adjustments to reach an array of different tones. Overall, a great option if you are into the Fender bass look and want something similar.
As a final note, we always recommend a good setup when it comes to any new guitar. This will iron out any issues that might have crept up during transit or the manufacturing process. The intonation is sometimes ever so slightly out of place and a music shop can easily rectify this and adjust anything else that might have gone awry.
If you’ve bought it directly from a shop, then rest assured the setup will have been done prior to displaying the guitar if the retailer is worthy of their name. This includes sorting out the intonation, lowering the action if required and tightening any loose components. They will also add newer, better strings if required and also a coat of polish if the guitar needs it.
They can also help you get any accessories you might need such as picks, tuners, lesson books, gig bags and cleaning products. If you’ve bought the guitar there, they will often throw in a couple of these items for free as well.