Buying your first guitar

You’ve always had that burning desire to learn “Stairway to Heaven” or maybe you just want to be able to strum a Taylor Swift tune – what’s your first step? Unless you plan to win a Grammy for air guitar you’ll need an instrument. Read on. I’ve played for 40 years. I can help you save time and hundreds of dollars.

What kind of instrument?

If you’re most interested in rock, modern country, pop, electric blues or jazz you probably want an electric guitar. For other styles like acoustic blues, classic country, folk, roots rock, bluegrass and more, you’ll want an acoustic guitar. For classical or some folk, get a classical (nylon string) guitar. You can play any style on any guitar, really, but it’s best to start out with the kind of guitar that’s usually used for that genre.

Evaluating an instrument

Even a new instrument needs to be looked over well. Make sure it has no major cracks. (Minor scratches in the finish don’t matter as much and may get you a discount.) Look down the neck from the tail to the head (where the tuning keys are). Does the top of the guitar look pretty flat or are there more bumps than a back country road? Is the neck straight? It should have a slight slant but it shouldn’t look rounded. Do the tuning keys feel tight? Are there any rattles when you strum the strings?

Does the guitar fit?

If you’re buying for a child, a half or three quarter size guitar is best. Anyone over 11 or 12 should be able to play a full sized instrument although we come in all sizes so it’s best to hold it and see how it feels. For adults you probably don’t need a jumbo guitar and if you’re buying an electric, make sure you can hold it as they can be quite heavy.

Music stores

This is the best place to get your first instrument. Don’t worry about the brand. Go to a reputable brick and mortar music store. Tell the clerk you’re a beginner and what  style of music you like. Get one of their cheapest guitars. If you’re in the US or Canada you’ll probably spend between a hundred and two hundred. It may not be something Eric Clapton would play but why buy a Ferrari when a Ford will do? After you learn to play a few things, then you can buy the BMW.

Buying from a brick and mortar music store is good because if anything goes wrong with that guitar, you can take it back. Some stores have a technician who can adjust the neck and do minor repairs, sometimes for free if you bought the instrument there.

Buying on line can work too but it’s a hassle if you have to return it.

Most guitars will need a new set of strings and maybe a neck adjustment because they’ve been shipped a long way and had a lot of people handle them. A set of strings doesn’t cost much and it’s well worth the investment.  If you’re not sure how to change the strings, I like this how-to video:  A guitar tech or teacher can also help you.

Friends and family

Is there an instrument you can borrow? If they hand you the neck and the body separately then obviously, it’s not going to work. But if the cracks are smaller than the Grand Canyon and the strings seem to hold their pitch, it might be good for you. If it hasn’t been played in a long while you’ll want to take it to an instrument tech to get it adjusted. It shouldn’t  cost much.

eBay, Craig’s List, yard sales and the like

Unless you have an experienced player helping you, avoid these sites. If you do have help, make sure you can see the instrument in person before you give the seller any money. Have your helper play it.

I had a student once who bought a fetching pink guitar on eBay for $25. She lucked out. It was playable. But for many others, it’s like winning the lottery. You never know what you’re going to get.

Pawn Shop

Never ever ever ever buy a guitar from a pawn shop. They’re overpriced and usually lousy.

Discount stores like Walmart

Again, never buy one here. They don’t hold their tuning and often, they’re hard to play. For 30 or 40 dollars more you can buy an instrument at a music store.

Buying accessories

If you buy an electric, get an amp. Start small. There are some great practice amps that’ll work fine. You’ll also need an instrument cord. Buy the cheapest one they have.

Get a case. Gig bags (the ones made of soft material) are great because they’re light and have shoulder straps. Get one with a little padding inside. Hard shell cases will offer more protection. Sometimes a music store will give you a deal if you buy the guitar at the same time.

You’ll probably need some flat picks. Don’t worry about the size or make. Get a variety and figure out which ones you like later.

You’ll need a strap if you plan to stand when you play.

An extra set of strings is a good idea too. Make sure you get strings specifically for an electric or acoustic guitar. Brands don’t matter much, at least not for beginners.  A beginner should never buy heavy gauge strings. Light or medium light strings will probably work best. I’ll write more about accessories in later blogs.

Enjoy your new instrument and if want lessons, please contact me. I teach via Skype. If you live in Ottawa, you can come to my studio. If you live elsewhere, and want an in-town teacher, check out Finding a Guitar Teacher.


About jamiebobamie

Musician - teacher - writer - gets bored easily. I write an almost-weekly blog that includes true stories gathered from 20-plus years of touring, how-to articles for musicians and profiles of performers. Also, I love dark chocolate, I can play "Brown Eyed Girl" behind my head, and I twirl the baton badly.
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7 Responses to Buying your first guitar

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