Woah! Hold up there Jimi.
You thought you could just waltz into the world of guitars, pick up a 20k axe and start shredding like you’re the King of Rock?
Not on my watch. By now, if you’ve been following my articles, you know that such dreams and fun are not allowed — at least, not before a big lecture and an accompanying dose of theory. I know, I know, you’ll behave yourself, do all the proper research and spend your money responsibly.
I want to believe you, but too often do I see unaccomplished guitar players full of inspiration give up after a couple of weeks, their guitars left to idly rot in the corner alongside some spiderwebs and a home gym.
It is absolutely vital to have a good grip on the basics of guitar theory before you make the leap.
While online resources (such as this one!) are a good start, many are geared towards those who have an intimate knowledge of guitars and divulge information that is as useful to a beginner as a baby learning about the intricacies of Ancient Western philosophy.
There are a multitude of factors that must be considered when purchasing your first guitar — think maintenance, different components, different string gauges and different playstyles.
Okay then. Where do we start?
Different Types of Guitars
For the intents of this article, I’m only going to go into the two main variations, but the reality is the list extends far beyond that. There’s hybrid guitars, archtop guitars, resonators, twelve-string guitars and… uh… keytars (though I think these are technically synths).
As you move forward with your expertise these differing instruments may become important to grapple, but for a complete beginner they’re unlikely to be your first-choice purchase.
An acoustic guitar is a stringed instrument that generates audio from the strings vibrating over a resonant hollow chamber, allowing for a relatively loud sound without amplification.
The strings are typically played with the fingertips or with a plectrum (guitar pick) and the different lengths/tensions of the strings determine the resultant audio pitch. This is why pressing your finger up and down a fretboard changes the harmonic value, as the string’s tension and eventual sound is altered.
The body of an acoustic guitar is generally comprised of wood, often spruce or cedar.
The different wood used for the body impacts the timbre of the sound — denser woods (spruce) produce a brighter tone, whereas lighter woods are usually darker (cedar). Other common woods include:
- Maple — doesn’t impact the color of the guitar’s tone very much
- Rosewood — a loud, reverberant wood that accentuates low and top-end tonality
- Mahogany — another strong, dense wood that often results in more mid-range than other body makes
Types of Acoustic Guitars
Aside from electric-acoustic guitars (those that can utilize amplification — more on that in my next article!) there are two main styles: classical and steel-string.
I will briefly run-through a list of their fundamental differences and then expand on their potential optimal uses.
- Wide fretboard
- Smaller body that makes it harder access to higher frets (typically the first 12 frets are available)
- Nylon strings
- Frequent tuning as nylon strings are more susceptible to changes in environment
- Mellow, less clear sound
- Far more popular in contemporary music
- Bright tone
- Large and heavy
- Steel strings
- Thinner, easier to access fretboard (typically the first 14 frets are available)
Pretty much every song involving an acoustic guitar you’ve heard will have utilized a steel-string. This is simply due to their tone and brighter sonic quality — they cut through heavier mixes well and are well-suited to being accompanying, rhythm recordings.
Think of tracks like Wondwerall (Oasis), Needle in the Hay (Elliott Smith), Time of Your Life (Green Day), Here Comes the Sun (The Beatles) etc. All of these songs were recorded with a steel-string.
Given the pedigree of some of those artists, you might be wondering: what’s the point of me buying a classical guitar? The answer seems simple!
Classical/nylon-string guitars have their place in the musical sphere, or else why would they be manufactured?
For starters, the mellow tone of classical guitars is perfectly suited to a number of specific musical styles, such as flamenco and traditional folk. Some artists even ultimately prefer the mellow, less-harsh tone of a nylon guitar and continue to use it outside of typical genre conventions.
In fact, they actually make for better beginner’s guitars for a couple of reasons.
They are lighter and thus easier to lug around from practice or to put in your house if you’re limited on space. They are typically cheaper, which is often an important qualifying factor in a first guitar purchase.
Nylon strings require less pressure on the fingertips to resonate, meaning that an untrained guitarist will not be in as much pain when first starting out while getting used to playing.
In short — classical guitars are easier to play when you first start out. Classical guitar songs are often more steeped in musical theory and feature a wide variety of unique playstyles (fingerpicking etc.), so many guitar teachers like to start there to build up a base for their student before moving on to learning the ‘cooler’ songs.
Really though, I dare you to listen to some classic Spanish guitar on a nylon and tell me that it isn’t the height of cool.
Other Acoustic Guitar Components
Acoustic guitars share a lot of similar components to that of their electrical counterparts, but there are unique differences in certain elements. A diagram provides a good understanding, but I will briefly run-through some of the more important parts.
Headstock — the head of the guitar that is home to the capstans (what you wind the strings around) and tuning pegs (the winders). Unlike an electric guitar, the tuning pegs on an acoustic guitar are typically found on either side of the headstock.
The type of material, shape and angling of the headstock will vary from model to model.
Fretboard — where the magic happens — this board, separated by frets (the lines you see in the diagram) determines the eventual pitch of the note you are playing.
Each fret is usually indicative of one semitone up or down. Acoustic fretboards are often wider and thicker than that of electric guitars’, with position markings on the 5th, 7th and 12th fret common (though this depends on the brand of your guitar).
Bridge — the bridge is where the strings meet their maker (or, more accurately, where they end). Bridges on acoustic guitars are made of, no surprises, wood, whereas electric guitars are usually a form of metal (often brass). Acoustic guitars have ‘bridge pins’ which keep the strings in place and taut — without them there would be no tension and you might as well be playing music with a limp fishing rod.
Unless you’ve been living it up with the penguins in the Antarctic for the past 70 years, you know what an electric guitar is. Just as prominent in contemporary styles as they are with the heavy metal giants of 60s-80s, electric guitars are probably the most popular instrument in the world.
The best way to describe this instrument is with one word: cool.
Much can be lost on their versatility though. While associated with heavy distortion, squealing solos and face-melting aggressive riffs, electric guitars can be equipped for all sorts of uses and genres.
For example, post-rock band Godspeed You! Black Emperor created daunting ambient soundscapes by scraping the strings of an electric guitar with a screwdriver.
As a beginner, I’m not suggesting you rummage through your toolbox for any and all obscure apparatus you may have, but the opportunities with such an instrument extend far beyond incessantly playing Smoke on the Water with a cheesy grin on your face.
Choosing your first electric guitar can be extremely stressful — not least because they are probably the instrument where the aesthetic and feel are just as, if not more important than features, sound and functionality.
Guitar players become irrationally attached to the shapes, sizes and color scheme of their models. Picking one over the other can sometimes be a bit like choosing which of your children is your favorite.
So, how do we start?
By going over tedious theory, of course!
How Do They Work?
We know that acoustic guitars create sound acoustically (I know, crazy right?), however electric guitars are solid and have no sound-hole, so the way they manufacture pitch is entirely different, even though the fundamental elements (strings, frets etc.) are the same.
Sound with an electric guitar can be created without amplification (unplugged), but the result is rather puny. This is one of the first things everyone must consider when buying an electric guitar — you aren’t just committing to one instrument, but an amplifier too.
This is all well and good, but how does the sound we hear from the amplifier actually get to that point in the first place?
The answer is… MAGNETS.
The way it operates is actually kind of similar to microphones, which we discussed in this article. An electric guitar’s pickup (positioned above the bridge) is the secret to its sound.
The pickup contains a magnet which is wrapped by a coil. When the vibrations of any given string reverberate through the magnet, this creates an electrical current which can be transmitted through the guitar’s circuit and sent via an instrument cable to an amplifier.
And there we have it. Sound.
The actual physics of pickups goes far deeper than the brief description above, and pickups come in many different styles (single bar magnets, 6 adjustable polepieces with magnets attached) that ultimately alter the signal sent through the electric guitar’s circuits.
Similarly, each guitar will have a unique circuit board that affects the tone, filters and amplitude of the audio signal. Some guitars are equipped with multiple pickups that the player can flick between, each creating a vastly different style.
There are three main types of electric guitar pickups:
- Single coil — only uses one magnet and is suited to far less distortion and gain than other pickup styles. This means they are utilised for bright and clean musical genres.
- P90 pickups — more suited to gain and distortion than single coils, P90 pickups are a good choice for hybrid musicians looking to dabble in multiple playstyles. P90 pickups have a single coil, but are configured differently allowing for a louder tone. These pickups are well known for being used in genres like punk, emo and hardcore.
- Humbuckers — a darker tone than the other two pickups, Humbuckers are dual-coil and perfect for handling high levels of gain and distortion. Humbuckers are frequently used in hard rock and metal, but also other genres like jazz due to their warm tone.
Styles of Electric Guitars
I’m not going to delve into all the types of guitars, as this is probably unnecessary and would just serve to confuse a newcomer. Instruments like the Epiphone Casino (archtop hollow-body) or a 12-string Schecter are cool but unlikely to be your first purchase.
I’ve harped on quite a bit about the importance of feel when it comes to guitars, and due to this I will expand on the four key body shapes that electric guitars tend to take on.
While there is theoretically an infinite number of different styles, most are based on the ‘omnipresent four’.
Guitar makers can alter the positioning of the bridge by 1mm, make the body 2mm wider or the fretboard slightly lower while essentially using an existing design (like a Stratocaster) and being able to claim it was their own exclusive design.
Things like headstocks and branding, however, remain owned by the respective companies (Gibson and Fender).
Confusing? Keep on reading to understand this further.
The Jimi Hendrix special — the Strat is probably the most popular guitar among beginners. Chances are when you picture an electric guitar in your head, this is the style you think of.
Housing three interchangeable single-coil pickups, the Strat is a very versatile instrument that is typically comfortable to hold and easy to play.
Featuring a ‘whammy bar’ (allowing the guitarist to use pitch bend like a vibrato), the Strat is a brightly-toned instrument that can seamlessly move between genres like rock, metal, funk and pretty much anything else you can think of.
Employing a multi-humbucker pickup, a large, thick body, the Les Paul (originally designed by Gibson) is an iconic body shape. Typically styled with mahogany, the Les Paul has a larger, warmer sound relative to single-coiled guitars like the Stratocaster.
In terms of feel, the Les Paul is heavier and has a wider neck, which may suit the needs of certain guitarists just as much as its darker tone might.
If you know AC/DC, you know an SG. Tonally, the SG is actually extremely similar to the Les Paul (which makes sense, seeing as they were both Gibson patents) as they both use mahogany wood for the bodies and humbucker pickups. The fundamental differences lie in the feel and aesthetic of the guitar.
The SG is synonymous with heavy metal and hard rock, being a much lighter and thinner alternative to the Les Paul with improved access to the lower frets — important for those dizzying solos.
The less-popular of the single pickup options, the Telecaster was created with the country music of the 50s in mind.
Intended to have a thin, twangy tone, the telecaster has evolved into an all-round behemoth that is commonly used on a number of genres, particularly indie and rock (Jeff Buckley, Radiohead, The Clash).
The neck is thin and light, making it a good choice for those who prefer this style of guitar.
Other well-known guitar solid-body shapes include: Flying V, Jazzmaster and the insane EDS doubleneck guitars.
Acoustic vs Electric guitars
Apart from the fact that one is electric and one is not? I think that is rather obviously the fundamental difference between the two. The sound of an acoustic and an electric guitar is entirely different and to try describe the variation would be unnecessary.
As we’ve discovered above, the method of signal manipulation varies — electric guitars use magnets, coils and circuitries, while acoustic guitars use, uh, holes.
Acoustic guitars are typically associated with softer styles of music like ballads, traditional, folk and classical, while electric guitars are known for being mainstays of rock, metal, blues and punk.
While these stereotypes exist for a good reason, there exists ample room for crossover if you’re creative enough.
While they may just seem like lengthy pieces of fishing wire, the quality and type of guitar strings that you purchase can make a substantial difference to the tone and playability of your instrument.
Not only do different materials affect the guitar’s timbre, they impact how easily they bend, how well they maintain tune and how they feel on your fingers. Acoustic guitar strings are usually higher-gauge, heavier, and produce a warmer sound than their electric counterparts.
Obviously nylon-string guitars are made from nylon, and steel-string acoustics utilize resonant metals like bronze and brass. Conversely, electric guitars make use of lighter gauges and compounds that are more reactive to magnets, like nickel, steel and chromium.
String gauges measure the thickness of any given string by every 1/1000th of an inch (e.g. A 20-gauge string would be 0.02 inches thick). Every set of strings you buy will have a different gauge listed and this is a significant factor in the overall playability and tone of your instrument.
Higher-gauge strings are harder — at times painful — to play for beginners but pay off with a larger, warmer and louder tone.
What Is Better For a Beginner?
There is an odd stigma among the general public that acoustic guitars are the way to go for beginners and honestly, I have no idea why. Both are six-string guitars tuned to EADGBE.
While there are different playstyles that can be attributed to either guitar, chords, scales and finger-strength (all staples for beginners) are transferrable skills.
My guess is that acoustic guitars are less loud (unless using headphones), so parents/partners/housemates are inclined to recommend the instrument that won’t ring out throughout the house while the beginner is slowly practicing scales.
But the reality is, electric guitars are actually probably easier to play for a beginner. The strings are almost always lighter which will put less pressure on developing quick finger callouses to get over the pain of starting out (and trust me, there will be pain).
It’s easier to get a large, louder sound with an electric guitar (via an amp) meaning that you don’t need to exert as much muscle energy to achieve a satisfying sound level.
Electric guitars are typically thinner and less bulky making them easier to get used to. Fretboards on an acoustic guitar are wider and less reactive to being pressed down, which is another advantage for a novice choosing an electric guitar.
Okay, so now that I’ve disproven that outdated theory — why would anyone then choose an acoustic guitar?
Acoustic guitars, particularly classical, can easily be found for under $100 with minimal searching.
Even a beginner’s electric guitar is probably going to set you back at least $100 and that’s without factoring in the amplifier.
Always remember — when buying an electric guitar, you’re not just buying the guitar but an amp too. This is another thing you have to research, pay for and become accustomed to.
Even if you don’t buy an amp and plan on using virtual amp sims, you will still need a cable, an audio interface, a VST and DAW software which can be just as expensive and difficult to learn as an amp plus pedals.
While you’re first learning an instrument, you know how horrible it can sound. Spending ten minutes completing a one-octave scale, not being able to tune strings by ear, and barre chords leading to a horrible buzz and feedback.
Acoustic guitars are easier for everyone around the house.
That said, with an electric guitar you can always buy a set of studio headphones to plug into your amp to save your household from the perils of a beginner guitarist.
Acoustic guitars are immediate. This may not seem like a big deal, but it can be the difference between practicing every day and once a week.
You have to set up an electric guitar — the cables and amp take up space that you may not have, whereas with an acoustic you can just pick it up and jam away.
Electric guitars are heavier than acoustics and require more bits and pieces to be transferred from point A to point B (amp and cables, not to mention pedals as you progress further).
An acoustic guitar is just an acoustic guitar. While you can adorn yourself with capos, sliders and the like, electric guitars are overwhelmed with peripherals that significantly impact the tone you play with.
Pedals and amps are a topic of their own and are just as important (if not more) to the resultant sound of an electric guitar.
Pedals can entirely manipulate the sonic tonality of a guitar, whether they add reverb, delay, distortion or all sorts of whacky effects that can be turned on and off with your foot (hence why they’re called pedals).
Okay, So Now What?
The information I provided is kind of useless, isn’t it? I make an argument for electric guitars being better and then quickly counter-argue the benefits of an acoustic for a beginner. I can see how that might be confusing, but within this contradiction lies the answer.
THERE IS NO BETTER GUITAR FOR A BEGINNER.
It will always come down to the guitar player and their purposes. Is your playstyle defined by Metallica and Black Sabbath? Get an electric! Is portability and space an issue for you? Grab an acoustic.
Prioritize the elements that you, the budding instrumentalist, deem most important to your success as a musician and adjust accordingly.
There’s no reason somewhere down the line you can’t just get both — most guitar enthusiasts have 5+ instruments at their disposal. An expensive hobby, yes, but a fulfilling one nonetheless.
What Is a Typical Price Range?
Just like any other instrument, or really, product on the market, the price range really does depend on what you want and what you’re willing to spend.
As I mentioned previously, electric guitars are typically more expensive than acoustics due to the other bits and pieces you need to purchase to accompany it.
Big-name electric guitars are usually in the thousands of dollars — think Fender Stratocasters and Gibson Les Pauls, but brands will often put out cheaper lines of products that imitate their ‘big brothers’.
Such guitars can be found for a few hundred dollars or even cheaper second-hand.
Beginner guitars quite frequently come in ‘packs’ that will include items like a small amplifier and cables (for electric guitars) and occasionally capos and plectrums. These can be found relatively cheaply (think under 500) from most music stores and are a good choice for novices due to their convenience.
Acoustic guitars operate on a similar scale of pricing to their electrical cousins. Certain vintage models will set you back tens of thousands of dollars, or you might score a cheap 40-dollar nylon-string from a charity shop that is the perfect fit for you.
What Should I Look For In a Beginner Guitar?
Perhaps more than any other musical hardware — you must try a guitar before you buy. The feel, your own appreciation of the tone and playstyle of a guitar is what makes one uniquely yours.
Spending 10k on an axe that is so heavy on your fingers that it feels like a cheese grater is going to end up being a complete waste of money.
You can research various guitar bodies till you contract carpal tunnel syndrome, fall in love with one, go to your local guitar shop and realize that it feels awful in your hands. Above ALL else — play any and all guitars you plan on purchasing.
I touched on it in the last section, but it’s important to consider what else you will need when buying a guitar and whether it comes in a package.
Amplifiers, picks, digital tuners, capos, an extra set of strings and a case are all things that will come in handy — if you can nab them all in one purchase, all the better.
How easy a guitar is to play does come down to a few factors — string gauge, fretboard width/length, body shape/weight (which we’ve discussed) and another aspect called action.
Action is essentially the height the strings are from the base of the fretboard, measured from the 12th fret of the guitar. While the action that best suits your playing style will vary, for beginners you won’t want the action to be too low or too high.
When the guitar action is too low, the guitar sound will be susceptible to an extremely annoying buzz sound whenever you play. Trust me — when I say extremely, I mean it. However, if the action is too high? The frets will require extra pressure on them to make the intended sound, which results in an uncomfortable playing experience.
As a novice, knowing how to adjust the action and what feels ‘good’ as a player are alien concepts, so it’s important to ensure your salesperson optimizes the action if you’re buying first or second-hand from a music retailer.
If you do buy second-hand, you can always take your guitar to an engineer who will correct it for you.
Popular Guitar Brands
In today’s market there exists an un-listable number of potential brands to buy your guitar from. Ranging from classics to solid knock-off brands budding guitarists are spoiled for choice. Most guitar manufacturers meddle in making acoustic and electric guitars but are more well-known for one or the other.
Popular Electric Guitar Manufacturers
Fender are THE electric guitar manufacturer. Their line of signature guitars — Stratocaster and Telecaster — have permeated the industry since their inception 70 years ago. Fender guitars are some of the most copy-catted models and are produced by a huge number of other guitar makers.
Fender also have their ‘Squire’ range, which are cheaper alternatives to their classic guitars that are powerful instruments in their own right.
Gibson are probably the second-most renowned guitar manufacturer, known for their SG, Les Paul and ES series. Operating on a similar timeline to Fender, Gibson have been their main competitor, with many prominent guitarists owning multiple instruments from both brands. If you buy a Gibson guitar — you’re getting a quality product.
Like Fender, Gibson also have a subsidiary line that offers cheaper versions of their more expensive instruments, known as Epiphone.
n.b. it’s worth noting that most guitarists use different brands and guitars all throughout their careers — but all of these artists/musicians have used these respective brands at some point in their time as professionals
— Dexter Holland (Offspring), Herman Li (Dragonforce), Daron Malakian (System of a Down), Omar Rodriguez-Lopez (The Mars Volta), Mick Thomson (Slipknot)
Gretsch — Bono (U2), Eddie Cochran, Bo Diddley, ZZ Top, Alex Trimble (Two Door Cinema Club)
Schecter — Mark Knopfler (Dire Straits), Pete Townshend (The Who), Synyster Gates (Avenged Sevenfold), Ritchie Blackmore (Deep Purple)
Rickenbacker — George Harrison, Jeff Buckley, Peter Banks (Yes)
ESP — Frank Bello (Anthrax), James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett (Metallica)
Paul Reed Smith — Zach Myers (The Fairwell, Shinedown), John Mayer, David Grissom (John Mellencamp)
Popular Acoustic Guitar Manufacturers
Martin are one of the longest guitar-making businesses to ever exist, having been founded in N.Y.C in 1833. When you manage to stick around as a company for that long you must be doing something right.
Their high-quality guitars come with a high price-tag (typically over 1,000) but you pay for what you get.
For a more affordable option, Yamaha are well-known for producing a line aimed at beginners and students. Their range includes both classical and steel-stringed instruments and they provide a number of options dependant on your budget.
While they are renowned for their novice offerings, such guitars are a solid quality in their own right and present a gateway to some of the higher-tier Yamaha guitars. Elliott Smith (one of the greatest acoustic guitarists of all-time) used a cheap Yamaha FG80 for many of his recordings and live performances.
Important Terms, Tips and Tricks for Getting Started
Hopefully you are now well-equipped with knowledge which will take you a long way when thinking about purchasing your first guitar. I know this has been a lengthy, information-dense article — but such is the nuance of the guitar world that it ought to be expected.
Being able to play guitar is such a sexy prospect. They are prevalent in all walks of life, all types of music from 2020 popular to the classics. No matter what, if you can play guitar you will find somewhere to fit in musically, whether as a songwriter, session musician or just for some fun on the side.
Like with any instrument, it’s important not to get frustrated when you start learning as it can be a tiring and thankless process. Eventually, so long as you put in the hard yards and practice smartly, you will find yourself reaping the rewards.
If you can find and afford a good guitar teacher, this is obviously the easiest way to fast-track your progress. However, it is not entirely necessary — numerous online resources (such as courses on YouTube or blogs) and articles will help get you started.
Most teachers and courses will start off by teaching hand positioning, chords, fingering exercises and scales — adding in some basic song-work to keep you motivated and interested. If you are planning to go it alone, this is a solid routine to anchor yourself with in the first few months. Specific exercises, chords and easy-to-learn songs will be easily accessible via a basic Google search.
To finish it off, here is quick summary of terms I may have mentioned or you may come across through your journey. Remember, no matter how frustrating or difficult it gets to HAVE FUN.
Capo — a device that is placed on the fretboard (neck) of the guitar to alter the tuning. It essentially transposes the key of the guitar up. This is a pivotal utensil as many songs aren’t written in standard tuning and certain keys are better suited to vocalist’s comfortable range.
Fingerpicking — a playstyle of guitar that involves plucking the strings with your fingertips instead of a pick.
Slide — a utensil that is used in certain styles of music (country, folk, blues and bluegrass) that creates vibrato and ascending/descending sound effects
Harmonics — created by pressing very lightly on the guitar strings at specific points (1/2 the string’s length, ¼ the string’s length etc.) which creates a high-pitched note
Strumming — performed with a pick or with the fingers, this is typically the rhythmic playing of chords in a fashion (be it up-down, up-up etc.)
Tablature — a specific type of sheet music for guitarists, where the six strings are represented by lines with a number on each line demonstrating the fret that must be pressed down on the respective strings
Barre chord — a transferrable hand positioning that plays a chord, with a finger held down across all six strings
Bending — moving a pressed-down string while playing it left to right which results in alteration in pitch, much like a pitch bend on a keyboard