MICHAEL MURRAYGuitar Teacher and Performer
The following recommendations concern lower and mid-priced guitars that would be suitable for beginners not expensive guitars for more advanced players. As there are numerous models that are continually changing I will mention recommended brands not models except in cases in which the models are well established and not likely to change. All prices are approximate in Canadian dollars. I am not affiliated in any way with any of the companies listed.
It is not necessary to spend a lot of money on a guitar that your child will outgrow. The most important thing is to buy a guitar that is the right size for them and easy to play.
The Guitalele is a small 1/4 sized guitar. It is similar in size to a ukulele but has 6 strings as opposed to the 4 strings of a ukulele and is tuned the same as a guitar but at a higher pitch similar to a regular guitar with a capo at the 5th fret. The higher pitch is not a problem because when a child is old enough to switch to a regular guitar they can play it exactly the same way, the pitch will be lower but they can use the exact same fingerings they learned on the guitalele. The guitalele is the same as a requinto guitar, the small guitar used in Spanish and Latin American music with the new name being devised to market it better in English speaking countries where this size of guitar was not used traditionally. This guitar is very small so it is well suited to very young children, older children should learn on a bigger guitar that suits their size.
Yamaha offers a Guitalele in the $150 range while Kala has some better quality Guitaleles in the $300 price range.
Small Sized Guitars
While the Guitalele/Requito guitar is sometimes played by adults due to the higher pitch being useful in some guitar ensembles, the smaller sized guitars are at regular pitch and are usually only designed for children. For this reason most of them are in the lower price range. The sizes available are 1/2, 3/4 and 7/8.
Beaver Creek, Ortega, Ibanez and Yamaha all have smaller sized guitars for children in both nylon and steel-string versions. All three companies produce 1/2 and 3/4 size guitars while Yamaha also has a 7/8 size guitar. Fender produces 3/4 size guitars in both nylon and steel-string versions. Cordoba has the largest range of small sized guitars although they only produce nylon string guitars and not steel-string guitars. They have a 1/4 sized guitar that unlike the guitalele is designed to be played at regular guitar pitch plus 1/2, 3/4 and 7/8th models.
There are also smaller sized electric guitars. Like many lower priced electric guitars, these often have problems staying in tune. However, many children do see playing an electric guitar as cool and this can be a motivating factor in getting them to practice. As electric guitars have thinner and smaller bodies than acoustic guitars there are fewer smaller models to choose from since many children can play a full sized electric guitar even if a full sized acoustic guitar would be too big for them. There are some 1/2 sized electrics for very small children but these tend to be cheaper guitars made by no name brands. Fender and Ibanez make 3/4 sized electric guitars.
Parlor guitars are guitars that have smaller bodies but full sized or slightly shorter necks. These guitars are based on the style of guitar made in the late 19th century when guitars were smaller and often played in small concerts or gatherings in parlors, the name for the room in 19th century houses that would be equivalent to the living room today. These guitars often have a beautiful and intimate sound but went out of fashion as bigger and louder guitars were developed. They have recently had a resurgence in popularity. Many musicians enjoy the intimate sound they produce and with the technology of amplification of acoustic guitars improving their lower volume is less of a disadvantage. Their small size makes them ideal for children and small sized adults as well as making them ideal for people who travel and don’t want to have to carry a large guitar. Indeed the small size of the guitar was the reason that Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield brought one to play on the International Space Station.
Parlor guitars can be ideal for children who are not big enough to hold a full sized guitar but are big enough to play on a full or close to full scale neck. However, they are mainly intended for adults which means they are available in all price ranges and quality levels including very expensive professional models. It can also make sense to spend more money on a parlor guitar than a smaller sized children’s guitar since it is designed to be played by adults not merely as a guitar to be played by children until they are big enough to get a bigger guitar.
There is a wide range of steel string parlor guitars in all price ranges. Beaver Creek, Fender, Ibanez, Gretsch, Dean and all produce steel-string parlor guitars in the budget price range. Fender, Gretsch, Art and Lutherie, Yamaha and Takamine make steel-string parlor guitars in the middle price range. There is less selction for nylon string parlor guitars but Beaver Creek produces a budget level nylon string parlor guitar and Godin’s Motif is a mid-range priced nylon string parlor guitar.
Beaver Creek, Ortega, Cordoba, Washburn and Yamaha all make guitars in the lower price range of $150 to $300. While guitars in this price range are not high level instruments, I am pleasantly surprised by how much they have improved in recent years. These brands all make cheaper guitars that are playable and will not hinder beginner students in learning the instrument although once they get better they will need to upgrade their instrument.
While Beaver Creek focuses on budget guitars the other four companies also produce guitars in both the mid and upper price range. Yamaha has the most variety with guitars at every price point and usually a choice between spruce or cedar tops in many of their models.
Previously I recommended the LaPatrie line of guitars made by Godin for beginning students. This brand name has been discontinued but the model names (Etude, Concert, Presentation and Collection in order of cost/quality) have been retained and are now produced under the Godin brand. They have also upgraded the quality of wood used in the guitars and all models now have solid wood sides and backs while under the LaPatrie brand they all had solid tops but only the highest model, the Collection, had solid sides and back. While it is good that the quality of the guitars has improved, the increase in price due to the better quality wood has also put them out of the price range of many beginning guitarists.
Steel String Guitars
Unless you are tall or plan to play standing up most of the time, I recommend smaller steel-string guitar body styles such as Folk or OM (Orchestra Model) over the larger Dreadnought and Jumbo styles. I have had many students who have had difficulty playing guitars that are too large for their body and even those who have not had difficulty often tell me they wish they had bought a smaller sized guitar. The smaller body guitars also tend to have a more beautiful, refined sound but are not as loud as the larger ones. If you do prefer the volume and sound of the louder Dreadnought or Jumbo guitars then make sure you can sit comfortably with such a guitar if you plan to play sitting down sometimes.
There are even more brands and models of steel-guitars to choose from than classical guitars. Beaver Creek, Epiphone (Gibson brand), Fender, Ibanez, Takamine, Washburn and Yamaha all have guitars in the budget price range. In the mid-price range they are joined by Gretsch, Martin, Ovation, Taylor and Godin (Godin has guitars under its own name plus 4 steel-string guitar brands: Art and Lutherie, Simon and Patrick, Norman and Seagull all with some differences in style of construction.)
The greatest amount of competition is in the electric guitar market with the number of brands and models of guitars too numerous to list. A major problem with budget level electric guitars is tuning. While cheap classical and acoustic guitars do not usually go out of tune many cheap electric guitars constantly go out of tune. This is very frustrating and I recommend paying a bit more (roughly $400 and up) for a beginning electric guitar than for an acoustic for this reason. I also recommend staying away from guitars with a whammy bar until at least the $500 range and even then do some research and look at reviews to see if the whammy system of a guitar is good. Whammy bars are notorious for putting guitars out of tune. There are good whammy bar/locking nut systems that can keep the guitar in tune but they are not found on budget guitars.
Epiphone (Gibson brand), Gretsch, Ibanez, Jackson, Squier (Fender brand), Yamaha and Washburn all make budget level electric guitars but I would recommend getting their mid-priced guitars. Godin and PRS electric guitars start at the upper end of the mid-priced range. Epiphone is the budget guitar brand of Gibson guitars even though originally it was the main competitor of Gibson before being bought by them in the 1950s. Initially it remained a high quality brand under Gibson but it was turned into a budget brand in the 1980’s. That is why some of the older Epiphone’s are considered great guitars but newer ones are budget models. Their quality does improve with the price though and they extend into the upper mid-level price range. While they are not at the same level of quality as the higher priced guitars made under the Gibson label, the Epiphone versions of guitars like the Les Paul or SG can give you a similar sound to their more expensive Gibson counterparts. Fender has three lines of guitars, the budget to mid-range Squier brand, the Mexican made mid-priced guitars and the more expensive American made Fenders.
People who travel a lot especially by plane might consider getting a travel guitar. For some getting a smaller sized guitar such as a parlor guitar might be good enough but even these are often too big to be allowed to take on a plane as carry on luggage. Travel guitars usually have some disadvantages compared to regular guitars and will be more expensive than a normal guitar of similar quality so I would not recommend them as your first or main guitar unless you are someone that is travelling frequently.
Traveller Guitar makes a variety of small guitars that have very small bodies. The neck of these guitars is shorter than a regular guitar as the headstock is eliminated by putting the tuning pegs in the body of the guitar. They have classical, steel-string and electric guitar models. All of their guitars are technically electric guitars in that they all need amplification to produce a volume loud enough to be heard easily. They can also be played through headphones. However, the necks of the classical and steel-string guitar models are more similar to the necks of those types of guitars than electric guitar necks so that it feels like you are playing on a classical or steel-string guitar. The guitars have a removable support to make the guitar bigger and more comfortable to play when seated. These guitars are priced in the $400 to $500 range. These are pretty interesting little guitars though I do find the lack of a body and lightness of the guitar make them unstable (the neck moves while you play it) which makes it hard to play very difficult music on them.
Yamaha has the SLG200 which has both a nylon and steel-string model. It has a frame that is detachable that resembles the size and shape of a regular guitar more than the support of the Traveller Guitar, thus it is a bit more comfortable to hold while seated. The neck does have a headstock so this guitar is a bit longer and also a bit bigger than the Traveller Guitar. Like the Traveller Guitar it is an electric guitar and requires amplification. The electronics are superior to the Traveller Guitar because it is also in a higher price range of $900.
For those wanting to have a travel guitar that is still an actual acoustic guitar, I would recommend the Journey line of guitars which are available in both nylon and steel-string models. This is a full parlor sized acoustic guitar with a neck that can be detached from the body. When the neck is detached the guitar can be packed into a backpack included with the guitar that is overhead luggage size. When the guitar is unpacked and the neck is attached it becomes a full sized parlor guitar that sounds good and is enjoyable to play. Their guitars start in the $800 price range.
There are a number of good, small and cheap practice amps on the market today. While one can not expect the same quality of sound as a larger more expensive amplifier, many of today’s practice amps sound surprisingly good. Most include several types of built in effects (digital processing that alters the sound of the guitar) and some are also modelling amps. Modelling amps are amps that use digital processing to imitate the amp sound of various other amplifier models. When this is done well it means you can produce a great variety of sounds on one amp.
The Roland Cube series of amplifiers are a good budget level line of practice amps that are modelling amps as well as featuring a number of other sound effects. This line also includes one very small portable amp, the Micro Cube, that can run on either batteries or a regular outlet. It has the same quality of sound as the other Roland Cube series amps but sacrifices some volume for the ability to be run using batteries. If the capability to run on batteries is useful for you then buy the Micro Cube, if not buy one of the other amps in this line. Vox also produces a fine line of modelling amps such as the VT20X. The Vox line is very competitive with the Roland so try them together to decide which you prefer.
Other manufactures eschew producing modelling amps and concentrate more on just producing one particular type of sound well. Most of these non-modelling amps will still have some effects. The Marshall MG series is an example of this type of amp and is available in various wattages (the higher the wattage the louder and more expensive the amp) and with various effects. While not a tube amp like the more expensive amps made by Marshall it has a technology to try and reproduce the tube amp sound that made Marshall amps famous. Peavey also has a series of smaller transistor amps that try to imitate the sound of tube amps called the TransTube series with models such as the Backstage, Rage and Bandit.
The question is should you choose a modelling amp or a non-modelling amp? I think a valid argument can be made that the non-modelling amps like the Marshall and Peavey amps do produce one sound a bit better than the modelling amps that produce many sounds good but not one sound great. On the other hand even though it is impressive how good these lower priced amps sound, there is a limit to the quality of sound you will get with amps at this price range. My personal recommendation at this price range would be to go with a modelling amp because they produce a lot of sounds quite well and you can have a lot of fun with different sounds and effect. I would wait until you have the money to buy a more powerful and expensive amp to find one that produces the sound you want at a very high quality. Also by this time you will have a better idea of the sound you like. However, I also do not want to discourage people from trying the non-modelling amps I recommend (as well as trying those I have not recommended, there are a lot of brands so there are both some good and poor amps/guitars that I have not mentioned). Some people have a particular sound they like and if a non-modelling amp produces that sound better than a modelling one do not be afraid to choose it over a modelling amp.