Endless Options: First Guitar Edition

Taking the Mystery Out of Choosing Your Inaugural Ax

So you’ve decided to play guitar, huh?

Congratulations! Learning to play guitar is a great way to spend time connecting with yourself and others through music. Now comes that age-old question that every budding guitarist has to confront:

What guitar do I buy?

This is a great question, and as a first-time buyer, it’s a question that you might think you have no point of reference for which to base your decision. The experienced player has preferences and, well, experience to guide them. You probably have one factor in mind — price.

Fear not, up-and-comer. Let’s arm you with a little knowledge to make this process simple, painless, and fun!


What kind of guitar do you need?

There are two basic types of guitar: electric and acoustic, and there are subclasses of guitars in both of those realms but let’s try and keep it simple. How do you see yourself playing guitar? Are you at the beach or on a porch or around a camp fire? Are you in a church or on a stage in a club or maybe just in your home? What style of music do you want to play? If you could learn any song or let’s say 3 or 5 songs, what would they be? Who is your favorite recording artist?

As you answer these questions the smoke will clear to help you make this choice. If you see yourself at the beach, on the porch, around the campfire then the acoustic guitar is probably the direction you are headed. You probably hear yourself playing soft rock, country, blues, gospel, bluegrass or some other genre that would feature an acoustic guitar.

If  your top three bands or artists are AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, and Guns N Roses, then you probably are desiring to play electric guitar either at home or on a stage somewhere. Take time to think about the guitar tones you like, the players that make those tones, and what they are using to get those tones. Jimmy Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn certainly played acoustic guitar, but that is not what they are known for. The good news is you don’t have to research what guitars those players used. The EM guitar department staff already know and if you give them the name, they will guide you.

Acoustic Player Considerations

So let’s say you have decided to learn acoustic guitar. There are two basic types of acoustic guitar, steel string and nylon string. Very few people play nylon string acoustic guitar. The genres for nylon string guitars would largely be acoustic jazz, flamenco, and classical. Country, rock, folk, bluegrass, praise and worship and other genres are going to use steel string acoustic guitars. There are several choices in acoustic guitars as they come in a wide variety of body shapes and sizes, colors, and other factors that experienced players can used to make an informed purchase. So how do you get that same data to make an informed purchase? Read on but also come into the store so you can put guitars in in your hands and on your lap to feel the differences.

In my experience, comfort is key for any player but especially for a new player. You are now going to hold this large, wooden, square-edged box next to your body for lessons and practice sessions.

Get a guitar that fits!

Did you ever try to learn to ride a bike that was meant for someone bigger or smaller than you? That presents a challenges beyond balance; it’s just not comfortable and does not instill confidence. You want the same attitude in choosing a guitar; get one that fits.

When most people see an acoustic guitar in their head, they see a body style called a dreadnaught. This is one of the largest guitars made and for most people is a very poor choice to learn on. Does this mean it is impossible to learn on a dreadnaught? No, but you are not giving yourself the best chance of success. We often see this in hand-me-down guitars where a child is given a guitar that belonged to an adult relative. When a guitar department associate at the store fits you for a guitar, they are looking at where your elbow is in relation to your shoulder for maximum comfort and easy reach. Consider a smaller body guitar that might have a name like orchestra, folk, mini, baby, O, OO, or parlor. Don’t get hung up on the names. Just trust that these guys will probably prove more comfortable than the dread(ed?) body.

Three other factors to consider in comfort in the guitar choice is where the neck joins the body, scale length, and string gauge. Most guitars are labeled ’14 fret’ models, meaning the neck meets the body of the guitar at the 14th fret. Some guitars are ’12 fret’ models meaning, as you would expect, the neck meets the body of the guitar at the 12th fret. The comfort component of this difference is that the headstock and entire neck of a 12-fret guitar is closer to your torso than a 14-fret guitar, so it’s naturally more comfortable. That does not mean that 14-fret guitars are uncomfortable. Again, most guitars are 14-fret, but if you have an option to try a 12-fret guitar, give it a go and see how different it feels. An added benefit of a 12-fret guitar is that the bridge (where the strings go into the body of the guitar) is moved slightly further back on the face of the guitar to adjust for the neck coming closer to the body. This orientation can improve the sound of the guitar by making the tone broader and louder. This is helpful for a new player because often newer players are softer players.

A typical scale length for an acoustic guitar is 25.5 inches. When scale lengths are shorter and the same gauge string set is used, the strings are under less tension, meaning they are easier to press down which most new players appreciate. Thinner gauged strings are also easier to press down and we can help you with string selection too if you feel the set on your guitar is too heavy or hard to press down. Some beginning players opt to have a set of easier to play strings to start out. Understand that there are some compromises when taking that route; the strings might buzz a little easier and the guitar will not be as loud or tonally dynamic. That’s why more seasoned players usually opt for thicker strings on their guitars.

The final factors we can discuss are tone woods, guitar construction, and appointments or looks. Most new players have not yet really developed an ear to appreciate the differences in tone woods, so depending on the budget this might not be important to you. If you are spending more and see this guitar as not a first guitar but the guitar, then I would suggest you let one our EM guitarists play a few models for you so you can hear the tonal differences as they explain them.

Acoustic guitar construction is certainly an element of budget. Guitars are made from wood and the choice for body construction is either laminated/layered wood or solid wood. In general, an all layered or laminate guitar is the least expensive, and conversely, an all solid wood guitar is the most expensive. The body of a guitar has three general components: top, back, and sides. Many guitars feature layered or laminate backs and sides but have solid tops. This is important because the top of the guitar is the most dynamic moving piece of wood on the guitar. A solid top is more dynamic, louder and will improve in its tonal character over its lifetime as it is played more. Any guitar that has solid wood does require a bit more care in that if exposed to extreme dry or wet conditions, the wood can become damaged. Layered or laminate guitars are a bit more resilient but they are not impervious to ultra dry or wet conditions either.

Guitars also have varying degrees of appointments, or ‘bling’. Some might prefer something understated, while others might like something a bit more showy as in decorative inlays, laser etching, exotic woods, or different colors. If you like the look of it, then you’ll probably want to play it more often and the only way to learn and get better is to play it!

Electric Player Considerations

Returning to our previous discussion of identifying a band or player that inspires you or that you enjoy will go a long way in helping the guitar staff guide you to the guitar that will meet the sonic ideas you have in your head. You might mention a player like Eric Clapton an iconic player for sure, but Eric Clapton had distinct sections of his career with very different guitars. The Clapton of Cream is quite different than the Clapton of ‘Lay Down Sally’. The guitar staff will help you hone down the tones you seem to like and guide you to the right choice. In general terms electric guitars fall into a few categories depending on the electronics and body shape.

The earliest electric guitars used pickups, the device that electronically captures the strings vibrations, consisting of a single magnetic coil, known commonly as single coil pickups. As popular music grew louder and the tones became more overdriven and distorted in rock music, a side effect of the single coil pickup was noise identified as a 60-cycle hum. When a second pickup coil was wound in the opposite direction of the first coil and the two coils were used together, this eliminated the hum, and thus the dual coil humbucker pickup was born. These two styles of pickups sound very different and find their way into all genres of music for the most part, but certainly notable players are typically known for using one or the other for their signature tone. Jimmy Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn are noted single coil players, while Slash and B.B. King are all about the humbuckers. Many models of humbucker guitars have a switch that can shut off one coil and give you a guitar that can produce both single coil and humbucker tones.

Electric guitar bodies are typically shaped in terms of upper fret access with either a single cutaway or a double cutaway. This does not alter the tone but does affect how the instrument is played beyond a certain point of the neck. This is often a playing preference and even a visual preference. Furthermore, most electric guitars are solid body, although there are some electrics that are semi-hollow and full-hollow body. Your guitar department associate can help explain the differences in tone and playability when you visit the store. Most first time players opt for a solid body guitar as their first guitar. As with acoustic guitars, scale length and string gauge can vary on electric guitars. The rules are the same here as well with a shorter guitar and lighter gauge strings being easier to play but potentially being more prone to fret buzz.

A first time player selecting an amplifier has much to choose from and the good news is technology is offering more and more for seemingly the same or less money than decades ago. The typical starter amp used to have a button for overdrive or distortion and maybe reverb (if you were so lucky), in addition to some tone control. Now most of these amps come with several voices or channels and many effects including reverbs, delays, and modulations. Furthermore, many of these amps are designed to interface with your computer for recording and further editing options. The staff in the guitar department can help you with this choice too.

Whether you decide to play acoustic or electric guitar, there are some other items and accessories you will want to purchase including: a digital tuner, a gig bag or case to transport the guitar, a stand or wall hanger to keep it handy when at home, and a music stand to hold your sheets and books used in lessons for your home practice. It’s also a good idea to have an extra set of strings and a few extra picks. Bonus items to consider: a strap, a metronome or time keeping device, guitar care kit, and a capo. With an electric guitar you will also need a cable and an amplifier.

Now that you have just enough information to be dangerous, come down and see us at the store. We’ll get you set up with the perfect rig to meet your needs as a budding guitarist. Rock on, friends!

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