Thoughts regarding guitars for beginners.
Are you considering giving your child a guitar? Or perhaps you want to learn the guitar yourself. Here’s some things to think about when choosing a guitar for someone who is just learning the instrument.
The first choice you have to make is whether the guitar will be a steel string acoustic guitar, a nylon string classical guitar or an electric guitar. The person who will be getting the guitar may have a strong preference for or against one guitar type. But it’s worth considering the virtues and problems of each.
Nylon String Guitars
The best choice for many beginners will be a nylon string guitar – a classical guitar.
- Nylon strings have lower tension than steel strings. This make them easier to press and hold down when fretting. One of the things which discourages many beginners from continuing on guitar after starting is that their fingers hurt from holding down the strings. Guitarists develop calluses on their finger tips which makes playing without pain easier. But you have to stick with the guitar long enough to get to that point.
- Relatively inexpensive classical guitars are available in a range of sizes suited for young children through adults. You can find steel string and electric guitars in a few sizes scaled for smaller or younger people – but the choices there are limited.
The next best choice of a guitar for a beginner is a solid body, bold-on neck electric guitar. There are some disadvantages of this style guitar. If you don’t want to invest money on a first guitar you will still need a way to amplify the sound. Amplifiers add to the price. Solid body electric guitars are also going to weigh more than acoustic guitars. Here are some of the advantages:
- You can put very light gauge strings on an electric guitar and adjust the action so it is very low. This can make the effort to press and hold down notes on the fretboard almost as easy as on a nylon string guitar.
- It is easier and less expensive to manufacture a bolt on neck electric guitar such that everything works properly than it is to build a good acoustic guitar. It is also easier to adjust this type of guitar after the purchase should it need it. If you know nothing about guitars, then purchasing a solid electric has the best chance of ending up with a decently playable guitar.
- For many children of all ages (I’m talking about you adult rockers) an electric guitar is going to come closest to fulfilling your fantasy of playing like one your rock god idols.
Steel String Acoustic Guitars
The choice with the most potential problems both in terms of choosing a decent guitar and regarding the ease of learning the guitar is a steel string, flattop acoustic guitar. That said, I learned to play guitar on a flattop, steel string acoustic guitar and wouldn’t have had it any other way. But I also endured learning to play on a guitar where the strings were too high and had too much tension. I would have learned more and faster on a better guitar.
You can find very good steel string guitars for reasonable prices. The problem isn’t that good acoustic guitars aren’t available, but that if you know nothing about guitars it is too easy to buy something that isn’t so good. You have to know what to look for to get an acoustic with low action, no buzzing and that sounds good.
The action of a steel string guitar – how high the strings are above the frets – is the least friendly to beginner fingers. The strings are not as low to the frets as on an electric guitar and do not have as low tension as on a nylon string guitar.
Scale lengths: The scale length is a measurement of the distance between the nut and the bridge – in other words it is the length of string that vibrates when you play it. Classical guitars for children often express the sizes in terms such as 1/2, 3/4 and so on. But those are arbitrary and don’t really relate to the scale length.
Scale lengths are important because it determines how close together each fret is. The more tightly spaced the frets are, the easier it is for the fingers to stretch between notes. Even adults may find learning and playing some passages easier with a smaller scale length where it is easier for the fingers to span four or five frets.
The standard guitar scale lengths are 650 mm for a classical guitar (about 25.6 inches) and between 24.75 and 25.5 inches for other guitars. Electric and steel string guitars can sometimes be found with scale lengths as small as 23 inches. Only classical guitars can readily be found in a wider range of smaller sizes.
So should you buy your child a shorter scaled guitar? If the age of your child is in double digits, especially if the child is or will soon be a teen, you might want to consider a full scale guitar. Children grow rapidly and allowing your child to grow into the guitar makes sense if a growth spurt is expected in the near future. You need to weigh this against whether you expect your child to small statured.
If you are buying the guitar for yourself you know your size. Choose the size that fits you best.
Top woods (nylon or steel string acoustic guitars):
You can skip this section if you’re buying an electric guitar. But if you want to purchase an acoustic guitar you need to be aware of guitar construction practices and the effects on tone and cost. Inexpensive guitars often used laminated wood for some or all of the body. Laminated is similar to plywood. Multiple layers of wood are glued together.
Laminated wood costs less than solid wood and is more rugged (stronger) compared to the same thickness of solid wood. Buying an acoustic guitar (nylon or steel strings) with laminated back and sides is a good compromise. But it is a bad choice for the top wood because a laminated top will not vibrate as easily as a solid top. The guitar will not be as loud and the tone not as pleasant.
If you are attempting to instill a love for music into your child, then please get a solid top acoustic. It is difficult to love the music you are playing if the tone is dead. Unfortunately, smaller sized guitars are difficult to find with solid tops. In that case, as soon as your child fits a full scale guitar, get a solid top.
Related Articles you may want to consult before buying a guitar for a beginner.
How to Buy an Acoustic Guitar for a Beginner
How to buy an Electric Guitar for a Beginner
Beginner Guitar and Amp Recommendations
For even more posts like this one, see the series: How to buy a guitar
I would always ask a beginner to learn with an acoustic guitar. They gain a lot that way. It’s the same thing that happens when you learn how to drive with a manual gear transmission. It makes your switch to the automatic gear smooth.
I personally agree with you, though I am biased because I learned on an acoustic guitar. I’ve read comments from professional educators who believe low action with light gauge strings on an inexpensive electric is either best or as good as an acoustic. Overall, I’d say an easy to play guitar regardless of type is the most important thing. My only guitar for years was a Gibson with terrible action. I would be a very different type of guitar player if I had learned on an electric with low action – and I don’t regret those early acoustic years. But I wonder if I would also be a better player had I had a better guitar back then. The good news is there are so many more decent guitars to choose from than there were in 1962.
Thanks for you comment.