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How to Choose a Beginner’s Guitar: Own or Rent; New or Used

Updated on December 9, 2013
Epiphone youth guitar
Epiphone youth guitar

There’s something about live music that recorded music just can’t match. And there are few musical instruments as versatile and mobile as guitar.

Being able to play guitar can liven up a party or small gathering of friends, enhance a group or club meeting, bring enjoyment to a gathering of Baby Boomers hearing the familiar songs of the ‘60s and ‘70s, or give personal enjoyment and fulfillment passing the time making music yourself.

But where do you start? You need a guitar to practice with. What do you look for in a beginner’s guitar? Do you have to commit a lot of money to an instrument that the guitar student may ultimately lose interest in mastering?

You should consider several factors in choosing a guitar to learn on. The first considerations are pretty basic: Buy or rent? New or used?

Own or Rent?

The first question to consider in picking a starter guitar is whether to rent it or buy it.

Renting an instrument allows you to see just how committed the student is to learning to play the guitar, before going all in. This can be a prudent option if the student is young.

After all, learning to play guitar requires hard work, dedication, and commitment. It takes memorization of chords and repetition of techniques. Until you’ve played enough to build up calluses on your fingertips, it’s painful to press strings hard enough to get a clear tone.

Things like the age of the student, whether music lessons are mandatory or not, and similar factors should be weighed. Renting hedges against loss of interest, while purchasing (either paid in full or in installments) can help ensure commitment (especially if a younger student helps pay for the instrument).

The first time I took up guitar, I was under 10 years old. I gave up after a couple of months. Fortunately for my parents, they’d gone the rental route. By the time I was 13, I was sufficiently dedicated and determined to learn to play guitar. Then, we bought a used guitar.

Guitar students who are a little older are more likely to stick with it through the first few months, when mastering the basics occurs. Some parents require their children to learn some musical instrument, but let each child decide whether it’s going to be guitar, flute, piano, violin, or something else. In cases where the student is more mature or is required to learn a musical instrument, buying it up front could make sense, with those monies going toward ownership.

Most music stores offer rental plans for decent learner guitars. Some make rent-to-own an option. And, of course, music stores are happy to sell you an instrument.

If the student is young, then new or used, requiring that he or she have “skin in the game” by putting up some or all of the money to buy the instrument makes for a natural lesson in the value of a dollar and the instrument, as well as increasing his or her commitment to following through to master playing it.

Sharing the payments may be more motivating to the student’s dedication when it’s the student’s desire to learn guitar, instead of music lessons being mandatory.

Fender Squier electric guitar for youth
Fender Squier electric guitar for youth

New or Used?

Another question to weigh is whether to get a new or used instrument. New guitars are exciting purchases, much like buying a brand-new car. There’s something special about being the original owner, selecting and owning a pristine instrument and being the one to break it in.

At the same time, plenty of used guitars in good condition are available. You can find a nice used guitar at guitar stores, at garage sales, advertised in the classifieds, and posted on bulletin boards like at local coffee shops. They’re available online, as well.

Going with a new guitar can spur a student’s commitment to learning to play this instrument. A lot depends on the personality and maturity of the student, as well as if taking up guitar is the student’s decision. If there’s honest dedication to conquer this challenge of learning to play the instrument, new might be the better option, especially for someone who tends to take good care of his or her belongings.

Used guitars can, but don’t necessarily, cost that much less than a new instrument. And depending on the specific type of guitar, buying used can sometimes get you more value for your purchase. An older guitar that’s been well cared for might be a better value to buy than a newer, mass-produced guitar.

A guitar’s market value depends on things like its make and model, when and where it was made, the types of wood and other materials used in it, the level of craftsmanship, and, for used instruments, how much wear and tear it’s endured.

It’s always a good idea to see a guitar in person. Pictures don’t give a full, accurate perspective on a given instrument. For instance, unless you look at the instrument yourself, you won’t likely see worn spots on the fingerboard. Photos wouldn’t tell you that a tuning key has worn out and won’t hold its string in tune.

It’s also worthwhile to have someone knowledgeable about guitars inspect a specific guitar before you lay down the money to buy it. That goes for new or used instruments, but even more so with a used guitar.

Reader's Poll

What's more important, deciding whether to rent or own a learner's guitar or deciding on a new versus used model?

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Whether you rent or buy a guitar or go with a new or used instrument, keep in mind you can upgrade later on if the student sticks with it and demonstrates commitment (and perhaps skill or talent). Job one is to find a serviceable model that suits your budget and is satisfactory for the student.

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