How to Buy a Great Beginner Guitar

Focus on the Most Important Qualities of a Guitar

Focusing on the most important things when buying a guitar can be the difference between getting on you'll play for years versus getting one that will collect dust.
Focusing on the most important things when buying a guitar can be the difference between getting on you'll play for years versus getting one that will collect dust.

What to Look For in a First Guitar

When you go to buy a beginner guitar, you will want to look for one that plays well, sounds great, looks nice, and fits your price range. You must prioritize what you in your beginner guitar of these four criteria. You can have any of these you want, but you may not get all of them. Depending on your budget, you should be able to get at least two.

Playability should be the single most important factor for a great beginner guitar, because if a person is never able to play then actually learning to play won't happen. In other words, if the guitar is too difficult to play, then you will have an expensive 3 foot long decoration. I suggest you look for playability with your beginner guitar, then sound, then price, then looks. Here's a priority list, but you should decide for yourself.

  1. Plays well (action is low, no fret buzz, straight neck, good intonation)
  2. Sounds good (Balanced low, mids, and high range, tone you are looking for)
  3. Price (Great craftsmanship, durability, high quality materials for the price)
  4. Looks (Color you want, elegant inlays, etc.)

Listen to Other Guitar Players' Opinions

Buyer Beware

Buying your beginner guitar can be overwhelming, just trying to figure out where to start. If you have never bought a guitar before, it can be a challenge to discern between all the options. Getting a good deal on your first guitar can almost feel as good as playing a great guitar, ...almost. But getting a really bad deal can feel about as bad as having to play a terrible guitar.

Keep in mind that some people make a living selling guitars, so realize that not everyone selling a guitar is your buddy. As Steve Martin said while working a carnival stand in The Jerk, "Oh so it's a profit thing... ...That takes the pressure off." And you don't want to be perceived as ignorant as Navin Johnson from the movie. Use the following tips when you set out to buy your first guitar.

Guitar Buying Resources

There are many professions that utilize an information gap for profit. For example, a lawyer knows more than you do and charges you money to help you with specialized law issues. We can't all be experts about everything or even about buying every kind of guitar. This hub will give you the information to level the playing field. Kind of like on "Who Wants to be a Millionaire," you will have a few lifelines to keep you in the game and avoid a bad decision.

You Can:

  1. Phone a Friend
  2. Poll the Audience (Online Customer Reviews)
  3. Ask the Expert

Calling a friend who plays guitar could be the wisest thing you can do to choose a great guitar.
Calling a friend who plays guitar could be the wisest thing you can do to choose a great guitar.

Phone a Friend about the Guitar

This guitar buying lifeline is especially smart if you know nothing about guitars. The guitar selling predators would love you to make a rash decision when purchasing your new guitar. By calling your friend you allow yourself a little more time to think, get a second opinion, and allow the seller to realize that they won't be able to pull wool over your eyes.

Who do you call? Call anyone you trust who plays guitar, and prioritize by how many guitars the person owns. Why not call the person who has been playing guitar the longest? Well, remember, we're buying a guitar, not playing it. And we're assuming you can't distinguish how well your friends play no matter how long they have played. The guy in the video to the right is a great example. He gives ridiculous information. "It sounds really good through any amp." I seriously doubt that. I had an amp that would make any guitar sound bad. This is an example of what a guitar salesperson might try on you at the store.

The person who has owned most guitars is more likely to have guitar buying experience, know quality across types of guitars (acoustic, electric, acoustic electric, six string twelve string) and know general price by brand and model name. The more guitars they have the better they will know about getting a good deal. By the way, I have 8 now, and I should probably get rid of a few, but I'm a little sentimental.

Once you have selected your "friend," ask him or her good questions. First decide what kind of music you are interested in playing. This will help them in explaining what kind of guitar you may be looking for. Give them a rough estimate of what you are willing to pay. This will allow your experienced friend to lead you in the right direction. For example, if you said early John Mayer, you would want an acoustic guitar, but if you said recent John Mayer, you would likely want a Fender Stratocastor electric guitar. Within the Strat "style" you have numerous options. Much depends on budget and personal preference.

Read Reviews and Ratings of Guitar Buyers

Poll the audience is just a click away. You're already online. Check out music stores such as musiciansfriend.com and musiciansbuy.com if you have a guitar in mind. Read the reviews and check the ratings of the guitar you have in mind. You will be alerted of any common problems of certain models and will have a good idea of the quality of what you are interested in. You are actually polling the buyer, so it's like having a bunch of friends who bought the guitar already. Sometimes when I read reviews I wonder if someone has been paid to write it, or it just seems fake. Read a few, including the best and worst review.

I don't suggest this as the starting point, because first you need to figure out what "sound" you are wanting. Then you can narrow down the little things like manufacturer, body style, and color. Don't ever buy a guitar based on looks alone. Everything else should fit you first, then choose from the colors you have available.

Ask the Guitar Expert

Ask the expert is going to be your last lifeline. When buying a guitar, you want an expert to be with you while buying. Take your expert to the guitar store with you and offer to buy them lunch. It will probably worth the investment. There are things that an experienced player will notice that you may not know to look for when buying.

  • Strings. While playing guitars you may notice sound differences, but you may not know what is making the difference. Sometimes it is just newer, older, heavier, or lighter strings making the different sound. Your expert can tell you if the strings are "dead." Most guitars over $200 come with good strings from the manufacturer, but if you are buying a used guitar, it may have cheap, or old dead strings.
  • Set-up. The guitar's set up is a major issue for novices. A novice may not know that guitars can be adjusted to play and sound better. Guess which ones get the best set-up from the factory. You guessed it, the most expensive guitars. The $200 guitar will likely not be set up as well as the $2,000 guitar. Your expert will help you distinguish these issues. This is knowledge that translates into money. I bought a used guitar that needed a simple truss rod adjustment, which I did, for $400 that normally sells for $1,700. Simple issues such as string or fret buzz or high action can be simple fixes.
  • Check the Mileage. Especially if you are buying a used guitar from Craigslist or any other comparable venue, take your expert to inspect the guitar. This is like having your mechanic check out a used car before buying. If you are buying on E-bay you should e-mail the link and have your expert check out the pictures/description as well as price. An expert will be able to tell you what kind of fret wear your guitar has already. If the frets are worn, it can be a costly repair to get the frets polished or even refretted.
  • Check for Damage. Checking for damage can be difficult and a little tricky. Your expert will be more likely to realize if something is missing or broken. Look for cracks and warping especially on acoustic guitars. If a guitar is left in a hot car it will warp. And in the dry climates a guitar can crack. Your expert will likely be able to tell damage or wear that is not normal. Keep in mind that some guitars, some rather expensive, are made to look worn. They will sport rusty hardware, worn paint, belt buckle rash, and fingerboard wear, much like an expensive pair of faded and frayed fashion jeans. Your expert can tell you if the guitar is in good playing condition period. For example, an old looking new guitar would still have excellent life on the frets with minimal wear.
  • Find that sound you are looking for. Another reason you want to ask the expert, is that you probably have an idea of what sound you want, but you don't know how to get it. I bought a perfectly good electric guitar, but didn't realize just how important a good amp is. You can't expect to get any great electric to sound good through a tiny solid state amp without any effects. I later found out what kind of amp I really needed, but unfortunately it was too late. I had gotten rid of the guitar.


Find the Lowest Price

Once you have done your homework, and you know what kind of guitar you want, it's time to find the best price. Luckily you have many options with their own set of advantages and disadvantages.

  1. First you should do a simple price compare online to see what most music store sites are selling your guitar for. Use the links to the right and simply type in the model.
  2. Next check out other options.
  • EBay: The advantage here is that you will probably find a lower price than at the music store, but you don't get to actually see and hold the instrument. Dealing with an eBay seller can be a little scary, but it seems that most people aren't there to trick you or steal your money.
  • Craigslist and Traders: One advantage is no sales tax. This is better than eBay in that you can search locally and deal with local sellers. You could actually hold the guitar in your hands and take your expert with you. Also you can try to bargain the price down a bit if you are assertive enough. The drawbacks are you don't have any real accountability if you later find out there is something wrong with the guitar, and you are limited to what people are selling locally. This means that you may not be able to be as selective as if you are buying from an online store or eBay.
  • Online Stores: As mentioned earlier, online stores are great for reviews and availability of items. Another advantage is the possibility of not paying sales tax (at least right now) depending on what state you live in. The major drawback is not being able to play the guitar you will get. I bought one that ended up needing some major adjustments strait from the box.
  • Buying from a Music Retail Store. Stores like Sam Ash and Guitar Center are going to have some of the lowest prices and highest availability. I especially like buying used guitars from the retail stores because I can actually play what I am buying before I buy it, and the stores generally screen the junk guitars. This means that you will probably get something that is in decent shape, even if you know nothing about guitars. I have had to wait on the police hold (something like 2 weeks) before I could actually buy it. i was however able to put it on layaway until the hold was up. Buying used guitars from a store is ideal in many ways. You have a store to deal with if something goes wrong, you get what you see, and you usually pay 30-40% less.

Now you have to weigh the risks you are willing to take with however much you might be able to save. Remember to use your lifelines in the process, and you will buy a guitar like an expert. Then you will feel like a millionaire. Good luck!

You can see my suggestions for the best beginner acoustic guitars and the best beginner electric guitars that cost under $300.  Then you might also want some guitar accessories to go with your guitar.  Some of these guitar player gift ideas come from tricks I've learned over the years.

More by this Author


Comments 19 comments

whcobb profile image

whcobb 6 years ago from Fort Campbell, KY

Good hub. I am looking at buying my 2nd guitar and I think I am going with the Guild GAD-40 Acoustic. Thanks for the hub.


Blake Flannery profile image

Blake Flannery 6 years ago from United States Author

whcobb

It looks like the GAD-40 is high quality. I hope you enjoy it.


whcobb profile image

whcobb 6 years ago from Fort Campbell, KY

It's gotten decent reviews... I've heard a lot of good things about Guilds... I was torn between Martin and Guild but didn't want to spend too much money while at the same time, I wanted some quality... I was able to get this one with 2 sets of strings for just over $700 from Musician's Friend... I can't wait to play it.


Blake Flannery profile image

Blake Flannery 6 years ago from United States Author

Martins can be great quality, but I like to think that at least a percentage of the money goes to the name. Martins can be hit and miss on tone. I always like the Eric Clapton acoustic though. For your budget I think you probably made the right decision.


whcobb profile image

whcobb 6 years ago from Fort Campbell, KY

That's what I was told... I played 3 different types of Alvarez guitars and just didn't like the feel or the sound of the guitar. I was told that Martins are good for bluegrass and country style music and it would have good bass and a bit of a "twang" to it. I played a Taylor 110 and it was okay but it was too "tenorish" and "trebly" to me. I was told to go for a Guild which is when I started researching them. With it being my 2nd guitar, I didn't want to spend too much money but I wanted a completely wooden instrument and am able to get it with this one (Spruce/Mahagony throughout). I have had fun learning to play on a cheap Ibanez here in Iraq but I wanted some bit of a quality instrument for my playing in the States, so, when I found this one for $699 and it came with extra strings and a hard shell case, I couldn't pass it up. The person who has been teaching me the guitar told me to get the GAD-50 but I didn't really see much difference in the 2 and I liked the color offered in the 40.

I wouldn't mind getting a Clapton but I'm not willing to put over 3 grand into a guitar right now... Just not ready to commit that much to it.


Blake Flannery profile image

Blake Flannery 6 years ago from United States Author

whcobb,

That's great that you found something that fits you. That's the main thing, especially if you are planning on keeping it the rest of your life. The Ibanez may be better suited for the climate changes you may have experienced in Iraq, laminate tops are usually better as "travel or campfire guitars" than solid tops. Thanks for serving our country, and keep playing.


whcobb profile image

whcobb 6 years ago from Fort Campbell, KY

Yeah... I had read about the durability of the laminate and was really thinking about a couple of the Martins that had laminate. I was skeptical of the quality as many folks say the laminate guitars by Martin are made in Mexico and elsewhere but a luthier that I talked to said they wouldn't touch a guitar made outside of the USA because of the quality, so, I decided not to go with laminate. I will say this about the all laminate Ibanez, it does stay in tune really well and holds up well in this environment. It's also very hard to put a ding in it. This things has gotten banged around so much, I'm surprised it's not completely broken, and, it actually has a decent sound for a sub-$200 guitar.

Anyway, thanks for the chat. I really look forward to hearing more of your guitar knowledge as I intend on learning as much as I can and keep playing for a long time to come.

Thanks for the support!


Blake Flannery profile image

Blake Flannery 6 years ago from United States Author

Laminate is generally not as good sounding as a solid top because the solid top allows for more natural wood vibrations. This isn't the only important aspect of buying an acoustic guitar, it might be the most important though. It took a while for me to develop an ear for acoustic tone. I still don't know that I am the best. What I would do is take your laminate guitar to the store and A/B it to compare it with any you want to buy. You may be used to that sound so compare several. One will probably stand out then. The longer I played the more I started listening for balance. I want fairly equalized tone. Of course string age and humidity can change tone a little, so I look for those things when buying. I like guitars with plenty of bass and treble because those are the sounds the cheaper guitars usually lack. Plus when my strings get a little older, then the guitar still sounds good. I know there is personal preference at play.


Jasper Santoyo 6 years ago

This is a good article. Yup! You’re right. If you had no idea how to choose a guitar, ask somebody who knows about the guitar because this might lead you to a big mistake, and you ending up with a guitar whose price is high with a crappy sound. Sometimes, in my opinion, price doesn't say it's quality or even most the time it really doesn't say that this is the right one for you. It might just lead to other mistakes. That’s why most people must read about stuffs first before anything else or ask somebody out there who is willing to lend you a hand to make the right choice.


Blake Flannery profile image

Blake Flannery 6 years ago from United States Author

Thanks for backing me up Jasper.


guitarguru profile image

guitarguru 6 years ago from Vancouver

Definitely if you're a beginner, don't try to set up the truss rod yourself :-)


pork22 profile image

pork22 6 years ago

I like your article. I want to learn guitar. My friend told me to buy an acoustic guitar, but I am not sure because I tried and it was really big and hard to hold. But then I tried an electric guitar and it fit better. Which is better for a beginner?


Blake Flannery profile image

Blake Flannery 6 years ago from United States Author

Pork22,

You can start with either. Anyone who tells you differently, either doesn't know what they are talking about or is lying.

There are differences in playability, sound, and cost, so it depends on what you want. If you like the acoustic sound go for an acoustic. If you like the electric sound, get an electric. Make sure you get yourself a decent amp too. Good luck.


pork22 profile image

pork22 6 years ago

I like singer/songwriter folk but also hard rock like Pat Benatar and Lita Ford. An amp sounds expensive and might annoy the neighbors so maybe I should stick with an acoustic. Thanks.


supercibor profile image

supercibor 5 years ago from Dominican Republic

This is really a great guide that is of great value for beginners and experts.

Great hub.


guitarcasesonline profile image

guitarcasesonline 5 years ago

Great hub. Our opinions may differ, but you made your recommendations well.

I think that a classical guitar is ideal for beginners for two reasons: it is easier on the fingers of new guitar players, and you can learn about expression on it in a way that you can't with steel-string acoustics.

I agree with your stratocaster choice for electric guitars, but the Telecaster one I sort of question. I think a Telecaster is better for a more experienced player who knows what sort of sound they want, because the Telecaster has a definitely particular sound and feel to it that not everyone will want. It is not as versatile as a Strat.


Blake Flannery profile image

Blake Flannery 5 years ago from United States Author

Every guitar has a particular sound and feel that not everyone will want. There is no perfect sound and feel, so that makes a telecaster a valid option for a beginner. The reason I chose to display the Classic Vibe strats and tele's is because I think they are really high quality for a beginner, as opposed to buying some other knock off brand.

When you're a beginner, you don't realize all the things that go into your sound. Where you pluck on the strings, whether you use a pick, what amp you use, what settings you use on that amp, volume and tone knob settings, etc. It takes expert knowledge to get the tone you want, so I don't expect a lot from a beginner, but I do want them to have a decent instrument when they start to be able to appreciate it.


MaestroECMcCloud profile image

MaestroECMcCloud 4 years ago from Lexington, South Carolina

Very informative article. For the complete beginner though, knowing how to gauge the action of a guitar is going to be a totally foreign concept. I would suggest, if possible, taking a more experienced player with them to guide them. I ended up with some guitars that had pretty atrocious action due to not having followed this advice myself. Beginners also probably wouldn't know about things like evenness of tone and things of that nature. An experienced player would likely know what to look for along these lines.


Blake Flannery profile image

Blake Flannery 4 years ago from United States Author

You're right about novices not knowing about set up. Another strategy is to get a guitar with the plan of paying someone to set up the guitar really well. That can cost from $30 to 100.00 or more, but it could be well worth the money.

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