Buying Your First Guitar: Types, Sizes, and Styles of Guitars

Guitar is one of the most popular instruments taken up by adults.

As with all instruments, there a steep learning curve at first, but it doesn’t take 10,000 hours to learn enough to accompany yourself on a basic three-chord song (and there are thousands of basic three-chord songs to pick from, from blues to folk to rock).  Plus, you can enjoy playing it both solo and with friends.

Once you’ve made the commitment to learn, you have to find an instrument. And in choosing which guitar to buy, things can get confusing: It turns out that a guitar is not just a guitar. Here’s a quick guide to deciding from among the classicals, steel strings, 12-strings, acoustics, resonators, hollow-bodieds, dreadnoughts, jumbos, and a few more types of guitars that may be new to you.

Choosing a Guitar: Electric Guitars versus Acoustic Guitars

Most people’s first guitar is some kind of acoustic guitar. Unless you are a heavy metal fan, or you plan to only play rock and roll leads, an acoustic is more versatile for a first guitar, because it can work with rock and roll, folk, and country. An acoustic doesn’t mean you’re stuck without amplification: Acoustics can come with electronics built in for amplification, or you can insert a pick-up into the sound hole, or you can play directly into a microphone. But acoustics also work without amplification, giving you greater flexibility.

Still, if you are determined to buy an electric, you’ll find many affordable choices. Indeed, some manufacturers make beginner’s packages complete with amplifiers and cables.

Classical Guitars Versus Steel Strings

Classical guitars have nylon strings and wider fret boards; they also have fewer frets (12) before the neck joins the body of the guitar. Steel string guitars have two more frets (so you can get those notes WAY up there) and they may even have cut-outs so you can reach even more notes. The basic steel string acoustic is the warhorse of guitars: Almost everyone who plays guitar has at least one.

Classical guitars do not come with built in amplification, and they aren’t widely used in anything but classical music or, sometimes, folk singing. However, for new players who feel that their fingers are clumsy, the wider fretboard can be easier to learn on. The nylon strings also make playing less painful for beginners, who don’t yet have calluses built up. Classical guitars are great choices for young children who are just starting out because of the nylon strings. Note: you can put nylon strings on an acoustic guitar; you can’t put steel strings on a classical guitar.

Standard Acoustic Guitar Versus Specialty Instruments

Unless you have a passion for a particular kind of music, you’ll probably want to start with an all-around one-size fits all acoustic. But those who are determined to play country blues or jazz might want to look beyond standard acoustic guitars. For example, the resonator guitar, or Dobro, is part metal, and has a garbage-can twang that sounds great for playing country blues. Hollow-bodied jazz guitars are amplified, but can be played acoustically. The thinner reverberating chamber means that the notes doesn’t sustain as much, which is important when playing dissonant jazz chords.

One specialty guitar beginners should stay away from is the 12-string. It’s not that the technique is so difficult; it’s more than you won’t develop all the elements of proper basic technique if you start on a 12-string. Let the “twelve” be your second guitar!

Guitar Sizes: Standard, Mini, Dreadnought, and Jumbo

Guitars comes in several sizes and shapes from the standard acoustic to smaller scale guitars, and larger models such as dreadnoughts (its the big one with a sort of pear shaped body and it can be hard to handle, especially for smaller women) and a jumbo (as the name implies, this is an oversized behemoth; however, because of its shape, it may be manageable by smaller women). The size of the guitar has an effect on its timbre and resonance; Dreadnoughts, for example, often seem to “boom” while three-quarter sized guitars may have a finer more subtle tone. But don’t just fall in love with the sound: Be sure the guitar feels comfortable in your hands.

According to guitarist and teacher David Hodge, author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Guitar, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Rock Guitar, and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Bass Guitar, the most important thing to consider in choosing your first guitar is how it feels. “You’re going to play it more if you love the sound,” he says. “And you are going to play it more if it feels comfortable.” He also recommends that you talk to music store personnel about quality and set-up (making the guitar ready to play by adjusting the action). David also recommends taking someone along to play the guitar for you so you can hear what it sounds like from the audience side of things: “Because the sound hole points away from the performer, the guitar can actually sound quite different from the playing and listening perspectives,” he says.

“There are many playable guitars available for less than $200 or $300,” David says. “And good guitars can also be found at garage sales or used, on consignment at music stores. A very cheap guitar can actually be painful to play, which means you won’t practice because it hurts too much. So bring a guitar playing friend to the store with you, or choose a store that has been referred to you by a teacher or guitarist friend. You don’t want to buy a guitar that is cheap, but turns out to be unplayable.”

Finally, remember that choosing your first guitar is not a decision that has to last a lifetime. Most guitarists end up owning several guitars for playing different kinds of music. If you fall in love with playing guitar, chances are you’ll find yourself in the music store again… and gain…. and again…. once more deciding which guitar to buy.

Oh, and pssst: You’ve have to learn to tune your guitar. That’s my next post….