Choosing a Guitar

Kevin Ott
Acoustic guitars on a wall

If you want a satisfying musical journey as a guitarist, it's important you put careful thought into choosing a guitar without rushing the process. Consider the following factors.

Should I Play Acoustic or Electric Guitar?

Guitarists are divided on this issue because both guitar types have pros and cons.

Acoustic Pros and Cons

Acoustic guitars have a number of plusses and minuses worth considering.

  • Pro: Historically, acoustic guitars have been more affordable. As David Hodge, guitar expert and author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Playing Bass Guitar and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Guitar, notes: "The age-old advice is to learn on an acoustic guitar, but there's a reason for that...the cheapest electrics cost a lot more than someone starting out could afford." Although electric guitars have gone down considerably in price, it can still be more expensive because you must buy accessories like amplifier, footswitch, pedals, cables, and tools to do basic upkeep on the electric guitar.
  • Pro: You can play anywhere and at a quieter volume than electrics. Your family members, roommates, and neighbors will likely appreciate that feature.
  • Pro: Acoustic guitars build calluses on your fingers faster, and though acoustics are challenging to play because it's harder to press the strings down to the fretboard to get a clear note, they make the transition to electric guitar much easier.
  • Pro: In general, the acoustic guitar is like boot camp for your fingers and makes switching to electric guitar a breeze. Starting on the easier electric then switching to acoustic is more of a shock to the fingers.
  • Con: The hard strings of a steel-string acoustic can be painful for the first couple months. This might discourage some players too much and kill their motivation for playing. (Though this can be remedied by having them start on a classical nylon acoustic instead, which has softer strings than the steel acoustic.)
  • Con: The wider frets make bar chords challenging to play, and this means it takes longer to master chord shapes and songs on an acoustic that it would on an electric.
  • Con: Acoustic guitars, while beautiful sounding, aren't always as fun to play as an electric guitar with their various pedals, sound effects, tone knobs, and rocking distortion.
  • Con: If you are only interested in playing a genre that never uses acoustic guitars (such as thrash metal), there is little point in learning the acoustic except perhaps to build strength in your hands more rapidly in preparation for learning the intense electric guitar riffing of the metal genre.

Electric Pros and Cons

Electric guitars also have pluses and minuses.

  • Pro: It's easier to play. As Hodge notes, "Many techniques that beginners have trouble with, such as bar chords or bending strings, are usually more easily accomplished on an electric guitar than an acoustic guitar." Hodge also mentions the electric guitar is more forgiving. It's easier to get away with sloppiness in the beginning and still sound good, especially when a distortion pedal or the fuzz of an amplifier is covering up mistakes.
  • Pro: It can be more fun to play because you have all sorts of pedal options, tone knobs, effects, whammy bars, and other things to experiment with on the electric guitar.
  • Pro: It's more suitable for band-centric genres, such as rock, metal, country, or any setting where you're playing with a full band and need adequate volume.
  • Con: Hodge observes the following challenge about the electric: "The lighter strings are easy to push out of tune, and you have to work hard on an electric to develop a good sense of touch and finesse." Although the instrument is easier to learn, to play intermediate or advanced songs well on an electric requires careful precision and rigorous practice.
  • Con: You have to find a suitable practice space with enough room for the amp and all the gear and where the noise levels won't disturb others.

The following tips will support the approach of purchasing an acoustic guitar first, mainly because learning on an acoustic guitar is a better preparation for playing electric, and it tends to be more economical.

What Kind of Acoustic?

Acoustic guitars are commonly divided into two styles or types: steel-string acoustic or nylon-string classical. The following points will help you know which type might be best for you.

  • Classical nylon guitars have softer strings. If you want to ease into playing the guitar without torturing your fingers as intensely in the beginning, go with a classical.
  • Make sure your hands are an adequate size for a classical. "Classical guitars have wider necks," says David Hodge. "While some people will find that helpful, particularly those with big hands, others might initially find it more difficult to make clean sounding chords."
  • Steel-strings have a brighter, more percussive sound and tend to be louder and have more bite in public settings. This may be good or bad depending on your genre. Try out both nylon and steel-string and listen carefully to their tone differences before choosing.

Size

Choosing the right guitar is all about knowing what works for your body type. The goal is to have a guitar sit comfortably so there is no tension or strain in your hands and arms as you're playing. A relaxed player makes the best music.

  • Hodge makes an excellent point about size: "[Size and shape] can mean the difference between a beginner sticking with the guitar and someone who 'used to play.' You want a guitar to fit you. Many people assume that they can just sit down and play any guitar, but beginners have to take a lot of things into account. The first is comfort."
  • Hodge goes on to say that your strumming arm shouldn't have to reach very high or awkwardly over the guitar in a way that causes tension. Your left hand (or the hand that is pressing the strings on the fretboard) shouldn't have to reach so far that you're over-extending your wrist. This will reduce your strength to press the strings firmly. Also, if you have back or knee problems and you plan on standing and playing frequently, be wary of large or heavy guitars.

Hodge offers some helpful questions that you should ask as you're trying guitars:

  • Can you stand and sit comfortably while holding the instrument?
  • Can your fretting hand reach all the frets on all the strings without straining your arms?
  • Do you feel any rough edges of frets along the neck?

If the player in question is a child, the parent should seriously consider buying a three-quarter sized guitar. Such guitars are made for both acoustic and electric and make excellent starter models for children.

Shape

For similar reasons as the "size" points above, it's important to know what shapes are available, and how each shape will affect your comfort and your ability to reach the fretboard and pick the strings in a relaxed, limber way.

  • David Hodge
    David Hodge
    Hodge says this about body shapes: "There are probably more dreadnought-style guitars made than any other type of acoustic. Compared to the classical guitar shape, the dreadnought is boxier. Its body is also usually a bit deeper." For these reasons, a dreadnought shape may not be a good choice for people with shorter arms.
  • Dreadnought isn't the only option. Builders sometime make steel-string acoustics using smaller shapes similar to the classical guitar. These are better alternatives for players who have trouble with the dreadnought style, as Hodge mentions.

As noted by a guitar school, the different shapes of an acoustic which correspond to the size, can be categorized as follows:

  • Parlor: Smallest, most compact shape and size. (Not counting the three-quarter mini-guitars mentioned above for children.) Quieter and more treble, less bass.
  • Concert: Medium-small size, slightly deeper shape than Parlor, a more balanced mix of treble and bass. Louder than Parlor.
  • Grand Concert: Medium size and depth, stronger bass than concert, volume similar to a dreadnought but smaller with a shallower shape, which makes it easier to hold.
  • Orchestra Model: Medium-large size and depth, clear mix of bass/mid/treble frequencies, and a louder volume similar to the powerful dreadnought-type acoustic, but slightly smaller and less depth, which makes it easier to hold.
  • Dreadnought: The most common size and shape acoustic. It is large with deep shape that takes up a lot of space in your lap as you're holding it and can be a little more challenging for some people to reach around and play.
  • Jumbo (or sometimes even Super Jumbo): You may actually a big fat guitar. In that case, a Jumbo (or even Super Jumbo) is made with you in mind. Jumbo players prefer the sound and feel of a jumbo, or they have larger body types that need a bigger guitar to feel comfortable.

Skill Level

You might call this the nylon-to-steel-to-custom approach to guitar playing. Although this is just a suggestion and may not be best for everyone, this learning path envisions a lifestyle of acoustic guitar playing that begins with the nylon and ends with your very own custom acoustic.

  • Classical nylon acoustic guitar: This guitar is often a great choice for beginner guitarists for the reasons mentioned above in the pros and cons. Its soft strings help your fingers ease into playing chords and building calluses while its wider neck trains your fretting hand to stretch as far as possible. This stretching, like the stretching of an athlete before a big competition, trains your hands to better handle the steel-string acoustic and electric.
  • Non-custom steel-string acoustic guitar: As your fingers build strength, buying a steel-string acoustic will give you a louder, brighter option for practices or performances that captures the sparkling, percussive sound of the steel-string that has become famous in many genres. It will also toughen up your fingers and add even more grit to your hands. If you ever transition into electric, it will feel like a breeze in contrast to the wide-neck classical and the finger-punishing steel-string.
  • Custom acoustic guitar: Although not every musician will take this last step, one of the most fun experiences as a guitar player is having a custom guitar built by world-class luthiers just for you. Granted, custom acoustics can cost exorbitant amounts of money, but there is a widely varied cost range like any other industry. If you save up for it, you'd be surprised how within reach this option might be. This kind of guitar is better for advanced players who have been playing long enough to know exactly what kind of specifications they wish their dream guitar could have.

A Guitar That Makes You Want to Play

Every player needs a good reason to play. David Hodges sums it up well. "The bottom-line is that you want to have a guitar that makes you want to play and practice. Electric, acoustic and classical guitars all start out with the same basics, but they are ultimately all different to play." Pick one that motivates you, and then look forward to a long and fruitful journey of guitar playing.

Choosing a Guitar