MICHAEL MURRAYGuitar Teacher and Performer
How to Decide What Type of Guitar to Buy
This short questionnaire will aid you in deciding what type of guitar to buy.
Do I want an electric or acoustic guitar?
This decision should be based on the type of music you want to play, whether you want to be dependent on an amplifier and the extra cost of an amplifier. An acoustic guitar is self-contained in that no additional equipment is required to play it. With an electric guitar you will need to use an amplifier to play at an audible volume which means an extra expense in buying the amp and also having to bring the amp with you wherever you play. If the majority of music you want to play is electric guitar music and you are fine with the expense and hassle of an amplifier, then by all means buy an electric. If you prefer the acoustic sound and/or don’t want the expense and hassle of an amplifier then buy an acoustic guitar, either a nylon string classical guitar or a steel string guitar. There is no truth to the rumour that it is better to learn on an acoustic than an electric, all three types of guitar are fine for learning the basics of playing.
Is the cost a major factor for you?
Decent electric guitars for beginners are more expensive than acoustics. While there are electric guitars available at very cheap prices, cheap electrics are often of very poor quality and worse than cheap acoustics. In particular, they tend to go out of tune frequently which can be very frustrating when you are learning. Even if you are playing correctly it will not sound good if the guitar is out of tune. For this reason I usually recommend spending a minimum of $300 to get a new acoustic guitar but a minimum of $400 to get a new electric guitar. If you buy an electric you will also need a small practice amp which will cost you roughly $150. Thus, if you want to buy a decent electric guitar/amp that will last you for several years and not frustrate or hinder your learning the instrument you will need to pay almost double the amount needed for a similar level acoustic guitar. If you are really short of money and want to buy an instrument below the $300 new range, I would recommend a classical guitar. Cheap steel string acoustics tend to be hard to play because steel strings on a poorly made neck are hard to press down. While no guitar at this price level will be very good, the cheap classical guitars at least tend to be more playable than cheap steel strings while not constantly going out of tune like a cheap electric guitar.
I have big or puffy fingers.
This is an often overlooked aspect of selecting a guitar. People who have large fingers or fingers that have puffy pads on the finger tip often have a hard time playing on guitars with narrow necks. That is because when they press one string down, the pad of their fingertip touches the string next to it and stops it from ringing which is bad if you want both strings to sound. Most steel string acoustics have narrow necks so I often encounter students, usually large men, who have difficulty playing them because their fingers are too large. I recommend that people with large fingers learn to play on a classical guitar because it has a much wider neck meaning that there is more room between the strings. Electric guitars are also usually fine for such people because even though they have narrow necks, the strings on an electric are much lower than on a steel string so the string is lower than the finger pad. There are some steel strings with wider than usual necks but they are not that common so you might have to search a bit more to find one if that is what you want. Even if you have not yet learned to play it is easy to test whether a particular guitar’s neck is too narrow for you. Place one of your fingers on its tip on a string that has a string above and below it. If the strings above and below the one you are holding have some clearance and are not touching your finger then the neck is fine for you. If one or both of these strings is touching the back or pad of your finger then you should try a guitar with a wider neck.
I have small hands.
Small hands for adults is less of a problem than large hands in that even an adult with small hands is usually able to play any of the three types of guitars. That being said, classical guitars do have larger necks than steel string or electric guitars so someone with small hands may want to try out all three guitars first and see how their hands feel on the neck of each type. Children have much smaller hands than adults so depending on their age and size it may be better for them to play on smaller sized guitars such as half , 3/4 or 7/8 size.
I am a tall or short person
Tall people don’t usually have much problem with the size of a guitar as long as the neck is not too narrow for their fingers. Short and even medium sized people sometimes do have problems sitting comfortably with steel string guitars. Many though not all steel string guitar types have very large bodies that are mostly designed to be played standing up even though most people sit down with them all or some of the time. Often new students come to me with a guitar that is too big for them to sit comfortably with. In particular, the dreadnought and jumbo style of steel string guitar have large bodies and should be avoided if someone is smaller and is planning to play sitting down. Classical and electric guitars have smaller bodies and their size seems to fit well to both small and large people standing or sitting. Even though the large dreadnought style of guitar is the most common type of steel string there are steel string guitars with smaller bodies. Someone who is a small person should either buy one of these smaller bodied steel strings, a classical or an electric guitar. Parents should also pay particular attention to the size of guitar they are buying their children and consider 1/2, 3/4 or 7/8 size guitars depending on the size of their child. Sometimes children come for their first lesson with a dreadnought guitar that is almost as big as they are and which will certainly be difficult for them to play properly.
I want to finger-pick.
If your goal is to play finger-style, I would recommend buying a classical guitar. It is possible to finger-pick on any guitar but classical guitars are specifically designed for finger-picking while steel strings and electrics are designed more for using a pick. There are steel string finger-pickers but many professional steel string finger-pickers use a steel string guitar whose design is a hybrid between a classical and steel string guitar. However, these hybrid steel strings designed for finger-picking are not that common in student priced guitars.
Should the style of music I want to play influence the type of guitar I buy?
It is possible to learn basic guitar properly on any of the three main styles of guitar. Thus, if the particular style of music you want to learn uses one sort of guitar there is no reason not to buy that type of guitar (other than the extra expense in the case of an electric). Certain styles of music will sound good on all types of guitars while others are more particular to one type. For example, classical music will sound better on a classical guitar than an electric while likewise heavy metal will sound better on an electric than on a classical. Don’t let the name classical guitar scare you from buying a classical if you are not interested in playing classical music. It is possible to play many styles of music on a classical guitar and there are many nylon string players who do not play classical music. There is a bigger difference in sound between an electric and acoustic guitar than between the two types of acoustic guitars. If you prefer an acoustic guitar the first consideration should be which guitar fits your fingers and body better and the second consideration should be whether you prefer the sound of nylon or steel strings. If your preferred style or sound changes later on it is always possible to buy a different type of guitar later.
Should I buy an electric guitar with a whammy bar?
Electric guitars with whammy bars (the device on the bridge that can be pulled or pressed to change the pitch of the strings) are fun and cool. However, cheap whammy bars tend to make a guitar go out of tune constantly. Thus, unless you are willing to purchase a guitar in the mid-price range ($500-$1000) with a decent quality whammy bar you should avoid buying an electric guitar with a whammy bar. The fun of the whammy bar will not be worth the frustration of the guitar going out of tune constantly. A fixed bridge will always be more stable than a whammy so if your style of music does not use one then do not buy a guitar with it. However, the good quality whammys are designed to stop the guitar from going out of tune and are quite stable so if you want one just make sure you pay enough money to get a good quality one.
I Have a Guitar Already, Do I Need To Buy A Different Type of Guitar?
Countless students show up at their first lesson asking, “I have a (insert one of the three guitar types) guitar but someone told me it was better to learn on a (insert one of the remaining two guitar types). Do I need to buy a different guitar?” The answer in most cases is no! If you already have one of these types of guitar it is usually not necessary to buy another type even if what you have is not ideal for the style of music you want to play. The basic technique required to play all three guitars is the same even though each has a particular style of music for which it is better suited. Obviously at some point you will have to buy another guitar if you have an electric guitar and want to play classical or alternatively have a classical guitar and want to play heavy metal. However, you can learn the basics on any of the three guitars and see how you like playing the instrument before spending money on a new guitar.
The one exception to this is if the guitar you have is difficult to play either because it is a poor instrument or it is a good instrument that does not fit your body. Learning on an instrument that is difficult to play creates an unnecessary obstacle on your journey towards becoming a good musician. Many people have stopped playing the guitar thinking they were inadequate or untalented when in actual fact the problem was a poor or wrong sized instrument not their ability. When you are learning to play the guitar, having a guitar that is of decent quality and easy to play is far more important than the type of guitar it is.