Strum Lord: How To Buy Your First Guitar

When it comes to learning an instrument, the guitar is king. Relatively new when compared to music and musical instruments as a whole, the last hundred years have solidified the guitar as the most popular around the world. As such, it’s a hobby that people of all ages want to pick up. But it’s also a risky venture, as guitars (and the surrounding gear) can be a bit of a money pit if you don’t know for what you’re looking.

While learning an instrument and selecting the right gear is a very personal experience, there are a few general truths that can make your search and experience a lot more beneficial and fruitful — whether it be selecting the right type of guitar or making sure you’ve got all the gear you need to get to shredding. To make that process as painless and simple as possible, we put together the following guide that will teach you everything you need to know about buying your first guitar.

Set A Budget

Pay To Play

If you’ve never purchased a guitar before, you can think of the process a lot like buying a car: it’s a vast market that can be very difficult to navigate, but you can do yourself a huge favor by setting a budget before you ever pick up an instrument. There are a few reasons this is a good idea. For starters, guitars (and the gear associated with them) have an incredibly wide price range. That’s great in that it means even those on a tight budget can usually still pick up the hobby, but it also means you could make a massive dent in your bank account before you can say, “Play ‘Free Bird!'” If you only have $100 to spend, great — stick to that number (yes, there are playable guitars for under $100). Guitars (and the gear associated with them) have an incredibly wide price range.Even if you have a huge amount of spending cash, we’d still recommend staying below the $1,000 mark, as there are plenty of excellent quality guitars that fall within that range.

There is also another, secondary reason to set your budget long before you buy: salespeople. Like those who deal in motor vehicles, salespeople can be one of the best resources to a new player, so long as you realize that a part of their job is to sell you as much as possible. If you have a solid budget, you’ll be at significantly lower risk of being gouged, oversold, or otherwise taken advantage of. And you should absolutely tell any salesperson helping you what that budget is, as it will help set their expectations and allow them to steer you in the right direction. Of course, you can (mostly) avoid this conundrum by buying online, but then you miss out on the ability to try out the guitar for yourself before you spend any money on it.

Electric Or Acoustic?

Pick A Side

Probably the most important and defining decision you will make when choosing your first guitar is selecting between acoustic and electric instruments. For some folks, this decision was made long before even considering to pick up the hobby, while it’s a lot more complicated for others. Here, we’ll try to weigh the benefits and drawbacks of each to make your choice a little bit easier.

The first thing to consider is the type of music you hope to play. Of course, that can be a very expansive thing to consider, but thinking about your favorite bands and musicians is a pretty good starting point. If you’re into heavy metal, punk, or other forms of hard rock, you’ll likely want to opt for an electric guitar to mimic those styles. Similarly, if the artists you listen to include folks like Bob Dylan, Bon Iver, Simon & Garfunkel or your musical styles of choice range in the softer, more classical, then an acoustic might be your best bet.The first thing to consider is the type of music you hope to play. Obviously, tastes can be wide-ranging and this consideration might not narrow it down much, but it’s a good place to start.

Next, you should consider your practice space. If you have an isolated garage and you want to rock out with some stadium anthems, then an electric guitar is almost definitely going to be at the top of your list. However, if you live somewhere with limited space for additional gear and accessories or you need to stay on the quieter end of the spectrum, an acoustic might be better — as they are more self-contained and still sound good when played at quieter volumes. Of course, some electric guitar amps also come with the option for plugging in headphones, if you sit somewhere in-between the two.

Finally, portability is worth at least a thought. Acoustic guitars are relatively self-contained, which might seem like the best option for a person on the go — but they can also be bulky and difficult to move (especially if your travels includes flying, as they are also quite delicate). Of course, electric guitars themselves are easier to transport from place to place, but they require additional gear to actually play — like an amp, cables, etc. If you want to go from coffee shop to coffee shop, an acoustic might be better. But if you’re flying from city to city, a small electric setup could do you better. Still, while worth thinking about, this is definitely the least defining of the considerations.

Settling On A Style

Stick With The Classics

Once you’ve decided on whether to buy an acoustic or an electric, there’s still an ocean of different styles therein. For instance, an electric guitar can be a solid body (meaning the body of the guitar is composed of a solid material, most often wood), semi-hollow, hollow, etc. That goes for shapes, too — though that range is significantly more difficult to describe, as guitar shapes are limited exclusively by the creativity of the people building them. Then, of course, there are different pickup styles and configurations, which change the shape of the sounds the guitar can make —Stick with something on the more traditional end of the spectrum for your first stringed instrument. but that’s even more of a challenge to explain to a new player and is best served through trying them out for yourself as your skills as a player progress.

Our suggestion, both for simplicity’s sake and the fact that they are clearly tried-and-true, is that you stick with something on the more traditional end of the spectrum for your first stringed instrument. The following are some of the most common and popular electric and acoustic guitar shapes/styles. Remember, playing guitar is a very personal art that, at the end of the day, is defined by you, the player. So, while we can make these suggestions to ease the process, the end choice is entirely up to you.

Stratocaster

Probably the most widely recognizable guitar style of all time, the Stratocaster was created way back in 1954 by Leo Fender — the founder of Fender Guitars — and a group of his contemporaries. It also happens to be one of the all-time most versatile guitars, as well, having been used for music styles including rock, country, reggae, punk, ska, metal, pop, folk, soul, gospel — the list goes on and on. While you can get this guitar style with any number of pickup layouts, the most popular is a setup of three single coils that allow for an incredibly wide range of tones. Truly, you can’t go wrong with a Strat.

Purchase: $600

Telecaster

One of just two guitars to rival the Stratocaster — both from a popularity and recognizability standpoint — the Telecaster is one of, if not the oldest surviving solid body electric guitar style. Originally called the Broadcaster and introduced in 1950 (also the work of Leo Fender), this type of guitar with a standard pickup layout is notably different from the Stratocaster in that it tends to sound a bit more twangy — making it a fitting instrument for southern-inspired rock — though it is plenty versatile enough to fit into just about any other genre, as well.

Purchase: $600

Les Paul

Played by the likes of Jimmy Page, Slash, Peter Frampton, and a seemingly unending list of others, the Les Paul (named after its creator) is inarguably one of the most classic guitar styles of all time. And, even better, it’s a superb starter guitar for fans of just about any style of music — seriously, any. One of the most versatile instruments ever to have been conceived, the Les Paul is legendary and can be found on just about any stage or in any studio around the world.

Purchase: $600

SG

For fans of heavy metal and hard rock, look no further than the SG. Originally introduced in 1961 by Gibson as the Les Paul SG, this guitar has taken on a life all its own — spearheaded by none other than Angus Young of AC/DC. If you want to learn how to shred with the best of them, this solid body guitar is absolutely an excellent starting point. And its aggressive styling meshes perfectly with even the heaviest of distortion and fuzz. Whether you want to get started playing arena rock or dive into thrash metal, this is definitely a top-contender for a starter guitar.

Purchase: $199

Semi-Hollow

An excellent midpoint between solid body guitars and full-sized hollowbody instruments is the semi-hollow. These guitars are very popular amongst musicians that play classic rock, jazz, blues, and even some heavier styles of rock (Dave Grohl has been known to play a Gibson 335) and punk or ska. This style of guitar benefits from acoustic-style body chambers that help to open up their tone a bit and make it warmer, but they are also completely electric instruments that can be played even through a fully-equipped effects board (though you might find that fuzz pedals cause a bit of a problem with feedback).

Purchase: $499

Hollowbody

If you’re a fan of musical styles like jazz, big band, rockabilly, or swing, look no further than a full-sized hollowbody guitar. These are fully electric guitars, though they have a wide, hollow, chambered body that somewhat mimics those of acoustics. The reason for this structure is that it lends tonal qualities found in acoustics without solely relying on the body chamber to produce sound. Notable musicians who rely on this style of guitar are Brian Setzer, Chet Atkins, Duane Eddy, and Eddie Cochran.

Purchase: $800+

Acoustic Dreadnought

Inarguably the most recognizable and popular body shape in the acoustic guitar category, the dreadnought is actually named after a type of battleship (which is a very cool, if meaningless fact). What’s notable about this guitar shape as opposed to other acoustics is its ubiquitousness. Nearly all manufacturers have a guitar in a shape comparable to this one, as it has been proven time and time again to produce ear-pleasing sound that’s crisp and clear while still having a depth of tone. As far as acoustics go, you can’t go wrong with a dreadnought.

Purchase: $599

Acoustic-Electric Cutaway Dreadnought

Not every acoustic player is going to be content with simply strumming a guitar in the comfort of their own home or having to struggle with positioning a microphone in front of the sound hole whenever they want to play live. For those folks, plenty of manufacturers build hybrid acoustic-electric guitars. These instruments give you all of the benefits of a standard acoustic, but they also offer the option of plugging into an amplifier for an extra boost to their sound. Typically, these instruments also feature a cutaway beneath the higher frets of the neck for playing lead — a feature not often found in solely acoustic guitars.

Purchase: $300

Parlor Guitar

If you like the idea of getting your hands on an acoustic guitar, but you’re worried about how much space they take up, portability, and even how loud they are, then a parlor guitar is a pretty excellent option to consider. Especially when built by a trustworthy manufacturer, these guitars can sound amazing, despite the fact that they are a fraction of the size of a standard acoustic guitar. You won’t get the depth of tone you might out of their bigger counterparts, but that’s the tradeoff for having something much smaller and more portable.

Purchase: $649

Gear Up

Necessary Accessories

Whether you choose an acoustic or an electric guitar, there are still some other accessories you’ll need to get started. Some of these you can do without at first, but almost all of them will be a necessity within the first few weeks of playing — so long as you’re taking the hobby seriously. As is the case with picking the guitar itself, your preferences may evolve with time; we just want to help get you started with some worthwhile considerations out of the gate.

Picks

Though not technically a necessity for playing guitar, most players find that using a pick makes strumming and soloing a good deal easier, along with making the notes you play sound crisp and clear. Like the guitars themselves, picks come in a number of different styles, materials, and thicknesses — which can make your variety of choice tough to pare down out of the gate. Luckily, this Dunlop offering is a variety pack that covers a number of different types so you can figure out what you like best.

Purchase: $3

Strings

Most guitars will come with a new set of strings, but — as any long-time musician can tell you — changing them out regularly is a necessity in order to keep your instrument sounding good. Plus, there’s always a chance that you’ll break a string during practicing or performing. Strings, like picks, come in a variety of different styles, materials, and thicknesses (thicker strings make for a more robust sound, whereas thinner ones are more crisp and clean). It will take some trial and error to find exactly what you like, but you can’t go wrong with these Ernie Ball Super Slinky strings as a starter pack.

Purchase: $15

Strap

Unless you plan to solely play sitting down, you’ll need a strap to suspend your guitar from your shoulders while you play. These come in a number of different styles — some of which include extra features like a pick holder or fancy materials like high-grain leather — but that’s secondary to its greater purpose. At the end of the day, a strap holds your guitar and keeps it from crashing to the ground, so you should definitely get one straight away.

Purchase: $7

Cables

Absolutely vital to all electric guitars, a 1/4″ input cable is what transfers the notes you play on your instrument to your guitar amp, effects pedals, etc. Without a cable (or a wireless transmitter), the guitar will sound like a quiet tinny toy rather than the shredding machine it was built to be. As is the case with all guitar gear, you’ll find cables you like through trial and error, user reviews, and peer suggestions. They come in a variety of lengths, technologies, input jack styles, and more.

Purchase: $15

Tuner

There is a small sect of the population that has something called “perfect pitch,” meaning they can discern the notes of a musical scale exactly. This also gives these folks the ability to tune an instrument without mechanical or technological assistance. The rest of us, however, need a tuner to make sure that our guitar stays … tuned. There are a lot of great options out there — some that are better for electric guitars and others perfect for acoustics — but we like this one as a starter, as it works for both.

Purchase: $14

Case/Gig Bag

If you ever plan to put your guitar away or travel with it anywhere, you’re going to need a case or a gig bag. Hardshell cases are more protective, whereas gig bags are the speedier, lighter, and easier-to-store option. It is our opinion that a hardshell case is the better of the two options, generally speaking, but we also understand why people might opt for a soft gig bag. Whatever the case, we suggest getting one to keep your guitar safer and more transportable than it would be otherwise. It’s also worth noting that different guitar shapes also require different sized cases — so make sure you match your guitar to its carrier before buying.

Purchase: $100+

Guitar Stand

The least necessary of all these pieces of gear, a guitar stand will give you a place to put your instrument when you are not using it — either for display purposes or as a quicker alternative to stashing it in a case or gig bag. Most of these devices are straightforward and easy to use, often offered with a folding construction to make storing them when not in use simpler. You might also want to look into guitar wall hangers, if you are limited in floor space — though there is the minor risk of your guitar falling to the ground if you don’t mount and/or anchor it properly.

Purchase: $12

Best Guitar Amps For Beginners

An absolute necessity if you decide to buy an electric guitar, amplifiers are the piece of hardware that translates the notes you play to projected sound. There is an innumerable variety of amps out there, but the best ones, if you are just starting out, can be found on our list of the best guitar amps for beginners.

Get It Set Up

Tuned & Ready

Guitars are not fixed, rigid things. They’re made up of many parts and sometimes those parts change position or shape and can negatively impact the sound of the instrument. Luckily, there are trained professionals who can fix those unwanted changes or even alter the setup of the guitar to suit your playing style. Now, most guitars come from the factory set up by the manufacturer’s in-house staff.To make sure your guitar is in proper working order, we suggest having it set up immediately upon purchase. But, there’s no telling what might happen in transit from the factory to the store or how long a guitar you’re considering buying has been sitting in the showroom being picked up by dozens or hundreds of passers-by.

To make sure your guitar is in proper working order, we suggest having it set up immediately upon purchase. You can usually have this done in the instrument shop for an inconsequential fee. However, if you’re concerned with the qualifications of the person working on your instrument, a cursory Google search will usually result in finding a better-equipped shop or craftsman who can take care of it for you. As a final step in acquiring your first guitar, we cannot stress what a difference a simple setup can make. It can, in extreme cases, turn an incredibly difficult-to-play guitar into one with a buttery-smooth action — which can, in turn, make your experience as a learner all the better and more productive.

12 Best Guitar Brands In The World

Now that you know what you’re looking for, it’s time to start perusing instruments. And you can’t go wrong with the offings from one of the best guitar brands in the world.

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