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How to Choose a Beginner’s Guitar: Size and Style

Updated on December 9, 2013
A beginner guitar with thin neck and small body.
A beginner guitar with thin neck and small body.

Choosing the size and shape of a beginner’s guitar depends heavily on the individual who will play it. The key criterion is it has to fit the student comfortably.

Another factor to think about is how the guitar will eventually be used: practicing technique, personal enjoyment, possibly small or informal sessions and performances.

Of course, a beginner has one immediate need. That’s to acquire basic guitar-playing skills. Very soon, the instrument will need to provide personal enjoyment, as well. Bottom line, you need a guitar that’s suitable for you to learn how to play it.

Guitar Size and Style

Acoustic guitars generally come in a number of smaller, concert-sized or youth-sized body styles, a larger style known as dreadnought, and a still larger type known as jumbo. Guitars also come in travel designs.

The larger the guitar body, the louder the sound it produces. Dreadnought and jumbo styles make rich harmonies of sound. Concert, youth, and travel styles yield less volume, though the tone of a concert instrument is generally quite good.

While concert guitars typically make up for size with quality materials and craftsmanship, the tone coming from youth models is not quite as full or warm. The tradeoff comes from their being scaled to fit younger bodies — smaller hands, shorter arms, etc. — and matching budgets.

Travel guitars are designed to produce much lower volume and much thinner tone. These instruments have small bodies similar to a ukelele, but with a full-length guitar neck (the neck meeting the body at the 14th fret). Their virtue is they don’t take up much room on a trip.

Semihollow-body electric with larger body design and double cutaway where the neck meets the body.
Semihollow-body electric with larger body design and double cutaway where the neck meets the body.

Finding the Right Fit

To find the right size and style guitar, the student should hold a lot of models for comparison. Sitting with the guitar on your leg gives the best feel for the instrument and its suitability for you. How comfortable it is to rest the guitar on your leg while placing your arms and hands in playing position will indicate how good a fit a particular model is.

While seated, place the indented part of the lower side of the guitar’s body on your knee or thigh. Notice how easy it is to reach comfortably over the thickness and breadth of the guitar body.

The design of acoustic guitars makes it easy to play while seated, though you can also play standing by attaching a guitar strap. Electric guitars vary by design (which varies widely), but usually anticipate being played by someone standing and using a guitar strap.

You want to make sure your left arm (for right-handed players) allows your fingers to perch on the fretboard at the farthest frets (the small metal strips dividing the neck into 12, 14, or more sections along the fingerboard), just below where the head (the part with the tuning keys) joins the neck (the nooked bridge where the strings begin going down the neck to the body is called the nut). You need to have enough bend in your left elbow to place your thumb on the back of the neck at the first couple of frets and your fingertips on strings on those frets.

Your right arm should hang comfortably over the top of the body of the instrument so that your hand can strum or fingers can pick the strings over the soundhole without your impeding the strings’ vibration. Thus, your hand should be at the soundhole and pick guard (the flat part attached to the body just outside the soundhole) while your right elbow clears the bridge (the raised part below the soundhole where the ends of the strings are attached).

Another thing to notice is the action of the strings. That is, examine and feel the height of the strings off the frets up and down the entire length of the neck.

If the action is too close to the neck, the strings will “buzz” when you play them. That means the strings aren’t suspended high enough above the fretboard. It’s easier to press down low strings, but it can be nearly impossible to produce clear tones without the buzzing sound if the action is too low.

If the action is too high (which tends to occur at the frets closer to the body), it’s harder to hold down the strings there. Thus, when you’re trying to play chords, it takes a lot more effort (and may well be painful) to sound a clean, clear chord or note. High action might signal that the neck is warped.

For electric guitars, the action tends to be lower. But their necks may be longer or the body designed with a cutaway (an indentation in the guitar body, just below the neck, where the neck meets the guitar body) or double cutaway.

Guitar body styling and neck length affect the angle at which the guitar hangs by a strap or sits upon your knee. Be sure the overall feel for holding the instrument for actual play, including how your hands and arms fit the size and shape of the guitar, works for you.

Also, take note of the thickness of the neck. A thin neck with narrower fingerboard width will be more comfortable and easier for players with smaller hands and shorter fingers.

For someone with larger hands and thicker fingers, a wider, thicker neck will likely suit better. There should be enough distance between strings to press down each individual string with a fingertip without causing the strings on either side to be muted.

That is, only strings your fingers are supposed to press down on the fingerboard should be held down and produce a clear tone, while open strings should ring unaffected.

When it comes down to choosing a beginner’s guitar, it really depends on the specific instrument and the individual player. Guitars come in a wide array of sizes, shapes, styles, even colors. They vary by materials and string type.

Considering how a particular guitar fits your own body, arms, hands, and fingers is a personal choice. But comparing a number of different kinds of guitars will help ensure that you pick the most suitable instrument for you. The aspects to consider outlined here will give you practical criteria to apply in instrument selection.

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