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Written by Paul D. Race for , , and

Acoustic Guitar Buyers's Guide, from Riverboat Music(tm)

Guitar was invented in Europe and North Africa, but it is certainly at the heart of most American musical styles. I've played since the eary 1960s, and have tried nearly every kind of guitar and style of music. That said, the main focus of this page will be acoustic guitars that are suitable for folk and acoustic-based music.

Though this is in our "buyers' guide" section, we are mostly concerned about you getting the best instrument for your purposes at the best price. For that reason, we recommend that you shop used before you lay out a fortune and realize you bought the wrong instrument anyway. When you are shopping used, you should follow up reading this article by reading the following articles:

Buying your first guitar is like choosing a college major while you're still a sophomore in high school - it's very posible that your interests will change. If you stick with the guitar and really learn it, you may decide later that you need a totally different instrument than the one you started with. The good news is that you can learn on ANY guitar that is at least nominally playable and holds some kind of tune. But if you want to give yourself the "best shot" at achieving your present goals (at least), you'll probably want to know what kinds of guitars are best for which kinds of music.

What kind of music do you want to play? I'll be honest, I prefer a steel-stringed "flat-top" acoustic for a lot of different kinds of music, and especially for leading ensembles and playing "out" in noisy places. But some guitars are just plain better for certain kinds of music than others. Let's take a look at the benefits of various kinds of guitar, especially as instruments to start on. (I confess that I like almost all kinds of guitars, so I've put in more detail than you really need.)

Classical Guitar

Two centuries ago, most guitars were designed around the "classical" model (also called "Spanish," from its purported origin). This typically included a small- to medium-sized body by today's standards, relatively deep "waistline" indentations, cedar top, strings that were made with "catgut" (really processed sheep intestine), and a relatively wide fingerboard. Today most classical guitars use nylon for the high strings and fine wire around some core for the low strings. However the overall shape and the width of the fingerboard stay pretty close to the legacy instruments.

Washburn C40 Cadiz Classical Guitar Natural Satin 886830040238Good nylon strings give a rich, mellow, and not very loud sound, unless you have a very expensive guitar. The strings are designed to be fingerpicked or strummed with the back of the nails, Flamenco-style. If you pick them with a flatpick, the guitar will sound like the background track to a spaghetti western. If you strum them with a pick, you'll wear the strings out very soon. And if you have bad strumming technique, your flatpick could carve a hole through the relatively soft face of the guitar in about twenty minutes.

Fender CDN90 Classical Guitar Natural 889406690004That "face" (on better-made classical guitars) is usually cedar, a wood that is too soft to be used on a steel-stringed guitar, but which amplifies the sound of nylon strings better than most other woods. Cheaper classicals often use plywood tops with a cedar veneer so that they look authentic. Some still have a decent sound, but really bottom-line classicals often have the resonance of, say, a brick.

Classical Guitar as a Starter Guitar

Pros:

  • You can learn basic chord positions, get used to changing chords, and get used to barre chords before you build up the kind of callouses and left hand strength that you need to play steel-stringed guitars.
  • If you have a good teacher, you will be introduced to fingerpicking techniques that will carry over to steel-stringed guitars, and which help you to understand musical textures and techniques that most flat-pickers never learn.
  • If you hang on to your classical after you convert to a steel-stringed guitar, you will have access to tonalities and textures that are only available on classical guitars.

Cons:

  • A classical guitar's neck and fretboard is wider than any other kind of guitar, so you will have to relearn your left hand position somewhat when you shift over. (Note: A few classical guitar manufacturers are now making "Crossover Classicals," which are built like their ordinary classicals, but have narrower fingerboards, so steel-string players can adjust more easily.)
  • Friends who borrow your guitar are more likely to beat it to death (or at least break strings) than if you had a cheap steel-stringed guitar.
  • You will need a steel-stringed guitar eventually to learn the flatpicking styles that are used in most kinds of folk, bluegrass, pop, acoustic rock, and alternative music.
  • Your friends will think you own a sissy guitar, until you learn to play "Classical Gas" and blow them away.

Click to see our Classical Guitar Buyer's Guide.A final note about learning with nylon strings: If the only reason you're considering nylon strings is that they're easier to start with, consider starting with a "parlor guitar" strung with nylon strings, then put steel strings on it when you're ready for a louder, more contemporary sound. Or get a used 3/4 size cheapy and string it with nylon strings to learn on, so you're only out $50 or so when you start. Then when you get a bigger guitar, you can put steel strings on the little one, too, and leave it in the back seat to take to the beach. The main disadvantage of this approach (other than losing the "cool factor") is that your guitar will not be very loud, so you won't have the instant gratification of filling the room (even your bedroom) with sound. On the other hand, you can practice in the "wee hours" without disturbing anyone.

To learn more about the features and options you can choose on Classical guitars, click the little banner to the right.

Parlor Guitar

The good thing about a guitar was that you could take it anywhere, and it cost a lot less than a piano. So it's no surprise that the classical model that came from Spain was eventually adapted to suit the "popular" music of North America, whether it was written down or not. Cedar faces were replaced with stronger woods, gut strings were (often) replaced with wire, the "waist" became a little less pronounced, and the area surrounding the bridge became larger to provide a bigger sound. Because top bracing took a while to adjust to steel strings, many guitars of the late 1800s and early 1900s added a separate "tailpiece" that you attached the strings to. The strings would cross the bridge like a violin's strings, but they were no longer attached to it. This adjustment kept the tension of metal strings from ripping the bridge off the face of the guitar. Later "flattop" guitars would incorporate better bracing. By 1960 flattop guitars with tailpieces were becoming rare, except among specialty guitars or very cheap lines. Today you still may see desirable collector's guitars with tailpieces, but most current parlor guitars have followed the lead of the dreadnoughts and gone back to bridge-mounted strings.

Aria AP-STD Parlor Acoustic Guitar Natural 886830045035There were many experiments, of course. Longer bodies, shallower bodies, deeper bodies, more strings, drone strings, and so on. But by 1900, if you went to the store looking for a "guitar," chances are you'd come back with something like what we call a "parlor guitar" today. The name "parlor" actually emerged after bigger types were invented, because it's loud enough for the living room, but generally not loud enough (unamplified) for even small concert venues.

Like a classical, you can get very nice parlor guitars today, or very cheap ones. If you come across a better quality parlor for a reasonable price, don't turn your nose up at it. Today, with better amplification, some artists prefer parlor guitars for their relatively focused tone.

It is possible to put nylon strings on a parlor guitar when you're starting out, if you want. Either way, if the student is big enough to hold a parlor guitar, it's almost always a better choice than a 3/4-sized instrument.

This is NOT a starter guitar, but will give you a good idea of what a parlor guitar looked like a century ago: Seagull Entourage Grand Parlor Acoustic-Electric Parlor Guitar RusticParlor Guitar as a Starter Guitar

Pros:

  • Easier for smaller students to hold than dreadnought or jumbo guitars.
  • With steel strings, you can learn both fingerpicking and the kinds of flatpicking styles that are used in folk, pop, rock, alternative, and bluegrass.
  • Takes up less space than a dreadnought or jumbo.
  • If it is a nice instrument, the student can keep it indefinitely, even if a bigger guitar comes along eventually. After all it has a unique sound, and is handier to "drag around" than a dreadnought.

Cons:

  • Given the same quality, a parlor guitar is not as loud as the more common dreadnought size.
  • In some circles, a parlor guitar generally doesn't generally have Click to go to the Parlor Guitar Buyers' Guidethe "cool" appeal as a dreadnought, so if peer pressure is an issue. . . .

Something to think about

The more I look at the options available, the more I think that parlor guitars are the best "starter guitars" for students old enough to physically handle them. They can grow with the guitar without technically outgrowing it. And guitars that are meant to be "parlor guitars" and not just "starter guitars" are more likely to be built for the long haul.

To learn more about the features and options you can choose on dreadnought guitars, click the little banner to the right.

Dreadnought and Jumbo Guitars

As guitar continued to become more important to American homes and popular music, demand for louder guitars led to continued experimentation. Two of the "bigger is better" approaches caught on:

  • This 1940s-era Gibson Jumbo prefigures some of the Gibson Jumbo models still made today.Jumbo guitars, favored by Gibson, kept the same basic shape as what we now call parlor guitars, but they made the body wider and longer. The resulting sound was louder, but also a little deeper. For folks who want a big sound, they are still a popular alternative to the more popular dreadnought body style. However very few "student model" jumbos have been made in the last fifty years, so you're not as likely to start on a jumbo as you are on a classical, parlor, or dreadnought.
  • The Martin D18 is the best-known Dreadnought guitar.Dreadnought guitars, essentially pioneered by Martin, made the "waist" less prominent and lengthened the part of the body where the bridge attaches. Dreadnoughts are easier for some people to handle than jumbos, and - to some ears, at least - have a more balanced sound. Even Gibson eventually adopted the dreadnought shape for lines like the J45 and J50.

We have a separate buyer's guide page for parlor guitars in the works, so check back.

Dreadnought Guitar as a Starter Guitar

Pros:

  • "Cool factor" - Since the dreadnought became the "standard" for full-sized acoustic guitars, cheap dreadnoughts have become widely available as starter guitars. Most of them look about the same, so only the other guitar players in the room know whether you're holding a $100 guitar or a $1000 guitar.
  • With steel strings, you can learn both fingerpicking and the kinds of flatpicking styles that are used in folk, pop, rock, alternative, and bluegrass.
  • Volume - Any dreadnought will be louder than a similarly-built parlor or 3/4 guitar, meaning that if you start playing at parties or in acoustic groups, your guitar will do a better job of holding its own. A well-made dreadnought with a solid Sitka spruce top can be very loud.
  • "Interchangeable" - If you are used to playing a dreadnought, you can usually transition to any other dreadnought with very little problem. Also, other guitar players who borrow your guitar at parties or whatever will have no trouble playing it. As an added benefit, if your friend's strums bring the flatpick in contact with guitar's face (why this happens, I'll never understand), the traditional "pick guard" will take most of the impact.

Cons:

  • Dreadnoughts may be too big for young or small students to handle easily.
  • You have to start on steel strings - no one makes nylon strings that really work right on a dreadnought's long scale length, even if you were willing to endure the "sissy" comments from your friends. This means that you have to build up callouses and learn to make chord changes at the same time. Determined students have no trouble with this, but for many wannabees who just got a guitar because they wanted to look cool, the combination is insurmountable, especially if the guitar is not "set up right."
  • Relatively narrow neck - if you have really fat fingers, you might want to look at classical or other guitar styles.
  • Relatively bulky - takes up more trunk space or dorm room space than a parlor or classical guitar

Click to go to the Dreadnought Buyers' GuideHere's an irony: when I was starting out on guitar back in the early 1960s, most guitar players I emulated or knew were playing what we would now call parlor or jumbo guitars. The first time I saw a dreadnought guitar, it looked peculiar to me. Dreadnoughts were early hits among Country and Western pickers, though, and for several years, catalogues advertised them as "Western-style" guitars. Due to its playability and big, but bright sound the dreadnought is the most popular "fullsized" guitar shape today. To kids starting out today, I imagine that parlor and jumbo guitars look peculiar.

To learn more about the features and options you can choose on dreadnought guitars, click the little banner to the right.

3/4 or "Starter Guitars"

A century ago, itty bitty guitars were made small for convenience, not for price - they were purchased by people who traveled a lot or had limited space, but they were often just as well made as the bigger instruments. But as the guitar became more and more popular, especially in the mid-20th century, kids started getting lessons earlier, and manufacturers started marketing "1/2-sized" and "3/4-sized" "starter guitars" to their parents. Never mind that they had necks like baseball bats, tone like a brick, and action like a cheeze slicer.

The common reasoning among parents was, "He's always starting things and not following through. Let's get him a cheapo guitar, and if he doesn't stick with it, we're not out very much money." So the kid gets a "guitar" that looks cheap, is barely playable by any standard, and can't possibly produce a decent sound; and the kids gives it up after six weeks. "See," says the parent, "I knew he wouldn't stick with it. Good thing we didn't put any more money into the thing."

Manufacturers have fed this industry of "throwaway" guitars for over sixty years. In fact my first guitar was one - a 3/4-sized Kay that my cousin got with Green Stamp books that she gave me in frustration. And no surprise - the action really was like a cheese slicer. I couldn't afford a real guitar, so I took off the nut and bridge and filed them down to get the strings into the same time zone as the frets. I also sanded and stained the face and back. (The guitar came spray-painted black with a fake pick guard painted on). After I painstakingly hand-painted a fake "binding" on the face, it was "de-uglified" to the point that I wasn't embarrassed to take it out in public - after all it wasn't that much smaller than the parlor guitars that most folks had in the early-to-mid sixties. I owned it for about six years, until my sister gave me a Mexican-built 12-string, and I traded the Kay away for a Harmony bass that was even uglier (I know that's hard to believe.) And the funny thing is, the Kay really did sound better by the time I passed it on. Even cheapo guitars can age, although they seldom age as well as expensive guitars.

This brings me to a second point about "starter guitars." I'm a sucker for anything that could be made playable. When I was in college, I "set up" and rebuilt any number of guitars for friends that had got stuck with some cheapie and couldn't afford to replace it. Gone are the days when I have time to put twenty hours into salvaging a $50 guitar. But the point is, many $50 guitars CAN be made playable if you have a relation who will take it on as a labor of love. Many can't, so let Uncle Felix take a look at it before you take the plunge. Take a look at the CreekDontRise.com article on evaluating used guitars for more information.

About "3/4" Nomenclature - During my research, I discovered that a lot of folks who grew up with dreadnoughts imagine that a "3/4" guitar should be 3/4 the size of a dreadnought. So they order a "3/4" guitar for their eleven-year old and the kid freaks because he feels like it's a "baby guitar." (By the way, I like "baby guitars" if they play in tune.) Though there really is no standard for what constitutes a "3/4" or "1/2" guitar, you should know that those categories were invented when what we now call "parlor guitars" were the norm, and most parlor guitars still had short (12-fret) necks by dreadnought standards. So, a so-called "3/4" guitar will automatically have a shorter neck (and "scale length") than the average classical or traditional parlor guitar, and a noticeably smaller body. This makes the whole thing much smaller than a dreadnought. No, it's not false advertising. Plus kids really are growing up faster and getting bigger. When I was eleven, my sister's full-sized archtop was quite a handful, but many kids today are approaching their full height by that age. The old rule of automatically ordering a "3/4" guitar for any kid under 12 no longer applies. And frankly, by the time most kids are ready to start guitar, they've already outgrown the so-called 1/2-size guitars. (The vast majority of those are unplayable toys, anyway.)

3/4 or "Starter" Guitar as a Starter Guitar

Pros:

  • "3/4-sized" guitars may actually be needed if the student is small - as long as a real guitar player looks at it sometime to make certain it's playable and tweak it if it's not. They also take up very little room in the kid's room.
  • If the starter guitar is playable, and you upgrade later, you can always keep it to take to the beach, or give it to your little brother when he decides he wants a guitar, too. (If the starter guitar isn't playable, you will never upgrade because you won't stick with it.)
  • Jasmine by Takamine JS341 Nylon-String 3/4 Size Acoustic Guitar 3/4 SizeName-brand starter guitars can usually be made playable, and sometimes are playable out of the box.
    • "Entry-level" Affiliates of Name Brands: Epiphone, Sigma, Jasmine, Squire, and Celebrity are the starter brands for Gibson, Martin, Takamine, Fender, and Ovation respectively. Usually their lower-line guitars are not quite playable out of the box but can be made playable with a little adjustment and a new set of light strings. (Gibson also has the starter brand "Maestro," which seems restricted to seasonal offerings at Walmart and similar stores. While it would be nice to "diss" it as a step below Epiphone, it's still better than several other seasonal "starter guitar" brands.)
    • Squier MA-1 3/4-Size Steel-String Acoustic Guitar"Starter-level" Name Brand Guitars: Brands like Alvarez and Yamaha don't have a sub-brand to stick on their starter guitars. And they don't want their entry-level guitars to give their good guitars a bad name. So these tend to have better quality out of the box than off-brand or sub-brand guitars. They are even sometimes playable out of the box. If you buy one from a music store, it may already be "set up" to play.
  • Dean Playmate JT 3/4 Size Acoustic Guitar BlueburstOr if you have a friend or family member who can restring it and adjust the neck, you'll probably be fine.

Cons:

  • Off-brand starter guitars are almost never playable when they come out of the box. That goes for guitars you buy at discount stores, department stores, etc. It even goes for music stores, if, when you go in, there's a pile of trapezoid-shaped boxes on a wooden pallet in the middle of the floor. In other words, never buy an off-brand starter guitar unless you have a friend or family member who can verifiy that it can easily be made playable and has generous return privileges.
  • Even if they are playable, "3/4-sized" guitars lack the "cool factor" important to many young beginners. If the student can handle a parlor or dreadnought guitar, consider laying out the extra few dollars.
Click to go to the Parlor Guitar Buyers' Guide

Something to think about

The more I look at the options available, the more I think that parlor guitars are the best "starter guitars" for students old enough to physically handle them. They can grow with the guitar without technically outgrowing it. And guitars that are meant to be "parlor guitars" and not just "starter guitars" are more likely to be built for the long haul.

To learn more about the features and options you can choose on starter guitars, click the little banner to the right.

Archtop Guitars

As jazz developed in the early 20th century, many jazz bands had guitars. The problem was that the old traditional flattops (what we call "parlor guitars" today) had too much sustain. The percussive "chunk" of the strum was good. But if the player left an open string ring for very long, it muddied the sound. Somehow someone figured out that archtop guitars (with f-holes like a violin) had a loud-enough "chunk" and strong bass, but relatively little sustain. So archtops became the standard for jazz bands, and stayed strong through WWII. They also achieved notoriety during the Depression as "Mountain Music" guitars, courtesy of the Carter family.

Later on, as these became electrified, the manufacturers took shortcuts that made them less useful as acoustic-only instruments. So when the Folk Revival happened, archtops took a "back seat" to Parlor and Dreadnought guitars. That said the good ones still have a great low and mid range, which makes them a nice complement to treble-rich instruments like dulcimer, banjo, and mandolin.

Archtop Guitars as Starter Guitars

Pros:

  • If the archtop has lasted this long and is still playable, chances are it will outlive you.
  • Nice for folks who don't want the same kind of guitar everyone else owns.
  • Perfect for folks who are into traditional forms of jazz, blues or "mountain music."

Cons:

  • Most older archtops don't have adjustable necks, so take a good look at the neck before you take it home - if the neck has started to bow, the guitar may be more decoration than instrument.
  • You may very occasionally come across a new "starter" archtype, with brands like "Rogue" that really only make starter instruments. Everything I said about starter guitars in general goes for these as well. Also the archtops with plywood ("laminated") tops do not sound as full as real "carved" top archtops.
  • Most people who run PAs have trouble "miking" archtops, so playing "out" can get interesting. (I would try pointing toward the upper loop of the upper f-hole if possible. If that doesn't seem to be working out, try pointing the mike to the place on the strings that you are going to be hitting with the flatpick.) Click to visit RiverBoatMusic.com's Archtop Guitar buyers' guide.

We do have a buyer's guide for these. It goes into more detail than this section, although the work involved in making a true solid-top archtop guitar is so extensive that most of the instruments you can find new for under $2000 are made in China, with all the accompanying quality control problems.

You may still fine a nice used one in a pawn shop or Craig's List ad.

To learn more about shopping for and selecting archtop guitars, click the little banner to the right.

Electric Guitars

As guitars entered the electronic age, it's no surprising that many of the earliest "electric guitars" were converted archtops or based on arch-top designs. Theoretically, the coiled magnetic pickups would allow jazz players to compete in volume with the rest of the band. In practice, though, an archtop with a pickup was really a whole "nudder" instrument. Not a starter instrument, added to show the sort of guitar I'm describing. This one is a Loar LH-650 Archtop Cutaway Acoustic-Electric Guitar Vintage SunburstFor one thing, the pickup restored the sustain that old-timey jazz players had considered a problem. By the 1950s, though, jazz guitar styles had evolved to the point where "open strings" were almost never heard, much less sustained. With a tube amp, jazz players could get the "chunk" of the strummed chord and turn the amp up for nice sustained leads. Blues players like B.B. King especially liked the capabilities of the new instruments.

Not a starter instrument, but a classic example of the Gibson ES-335Eventually, manufacturers like Gibson realized that an electrified archtop didn't need to be so deep, and began making shallower versions like the famous ES-335. These had very similar tone, were easier to handle, and were less prone to feedback.

A very expensive example, included to show how some of the earliest Les Pauls looked. This is a new Custom 1955 Les Paul Historic Prototype Electric Guitar Cognac BurstBut the guitar was not done evolving. Electric guitar pioneer Les Paul proved that you could get a good, even sound out of a solid piece of wood. Paul was mostly a lead player, so he didn't need the "chunk" sound of strummed archtops. Instead he focused on finding woods and construction techniques that would maximize the potential of emerging electronics technologies. Gibson's "Les Paul" guitars maximized sustain with a glued-on neck that picked up the vibrations from the guitar's body. Not a starter example, just an example of a better quality Stratocaster with the classic maple fretboardFender's Stratocaster added body extensions ("horns") that would serve a similar purpose. By now the electric guitar had come into its own.

Because you don't need to hit the strings on an electric very hard, you can use relatively light strings, and the strings can be closer to the neck without "fret buzzing" than the strings on an acoustic. Also, because electrics are designed for lead, it's more critical to have an accurate, playable fretboard all the way from the nut to the fourteenth fret (and beyond, on a cutaway). This combination of factors makes most electrics easier to fret and to play barre chords on than most acoustics. And this in turn has led to an "urban rumor" that it's easier to learn guitar if you start on an electric. But an electric guitar is a different instrument, and in my experience, most kids who start on electric never really make the transition to acoustic. For one thing, most acoustic guitar players use the ringing sound of open strings as much as possible (only deadening them when they change chords), but most electric guitar parts avoid open strings - because on an electric, they muddy the sound. In other words, an electric guitar play can pick up an acoustic guitar with decent action and get notes out of it, but he will never learn to get the most out of the an acoustic unless he approaches it as an entirely different instrument. Going the other way, I've known lots of acoustic players who made the adjustment to electric guitar smoothly - once they realized that barre chords sound better on the electric.

Another "urban legend" is that an f-hole electric (sometimes called a "hollow-body" or "semi-hollow-body" electric provides a sound that is "halfway between" an electric and and acoustic. So some players who find it inconvenient to drag two guitars around settle on an ES-335 or some such. Such guitars are capable of putting out great sounds. In fact, there was a time when Gretch f-hole electrics almost defined Country and Western music. But the electronic output of f-hole electrics is limited by the magnetic coiled pickups, which filter out the high overtones that characterize acoustic guitar sounds. The pickups also overemphasize the sustain of open strings, which WILL affect how you play the instrument. If you like the sound of an f-hole electric, go for it. Just don't fall for the trap of thinking that it's some sort of compromize between an electric and an acoustic.

Electric Guitars as Starter Guitars

Pros:

  • An example Epiphone starter guitar: the Epiphone Les Paul Special II Cherry SunburstvElectric Guitar and All Access Amp Pack Heritage Easy to fret, so uncommitted students don't wimp out as fast. Maximum "cool" factor for kids sensitive to peer pressure.
  • Due to demanding fretboard requirements, most starter electrics are somewhat playable.
  • Fender's starter Probably first choice for someone whose only goal is learning barre-chord-centric music such as jazz or heavy metal.

Cons:

  • Played "right," electrics require different techniques and chord voicings than acoustics. So a student who tries to lean acoustic-style guitar on an electric will be disappointed with the results.
  • There are many music genres in which electric guitar just does not sound right, so an electric player whose interests expand may wish he had started on acoustic.

12-String Guitars

Very few people start out on 12-stringed guitars, but I'll put in a note about them in case you come across one you really like.

Most acoustic 12-stringed guitars you'll see are flattops, usually dreadnoughts with some parlors. Strings are tuned in pairs. The highest four strings are actually two identical E strings and two identical B strings. Strings from G to low E are tuned in octaves. On American 12-strings your pick hits the highest note of each pair before it hits the lower note. Each pair is close together so your left hand frets each pair as if it was one string (except you may need a bit more pressure). The extra high notes give a well-made twelve-string a bright, full sound. Acoustic ensembles with two guitar players may have one six-string and one 12-string to give more variety to their sound. You can hear the power of a strummed American-style acoustic 12-string on the Moody Blues' "Question of Balance."

That said, to start on a 12-string, it must have supurb action, or you must have fanatic dedication.

Most electric 12-strings are f-hole guitars. American electric 12-strings have the same tuning as acoustics. But the neck is narrower, and it's harder for some people to play certain chords near the nut.

Rickenbacker 12-strings have an added difference: the lower four pairs of notes are strung "backwards," that is, your pick hits the low note first, then the octave. The difference in sound isn't mind-blowing, but it's there. You can hear Rick 12-strings picked and strummed on the Byrds' "Turn, Turn, Turn" and similar songs.

Twelve-Strings as Starter Guitars

If you have a 12 string you want to start on, you might try putting just six strings on it for a while, then putting 12 back on after you've played a year or so. This isn't a perfect solution, since the neck will be "extra-wide" and the tuning pegs might rattle without tension on them. But it's a way of starting out on a 12 if that's your only choice.

The following note assumes you're leaving twelve strings on your guitar.

Pros:

  • Fantastic sound once you get the hang of it.
  • Medium "cool factor"

Cons:

  • Very hard to start on due to the extra strength and accuracy required to fret chords on a 12-string.
  • Less suitable than 6-string for certain kinds of music.

Summary

Now that I've told you what I perceive to be the pluses and minuses of starting out on each of the major guitar types, you're probably still wondering what I recommend. Every student has different goals, tastes, maturity levels, budget, and size. But here are some general guidelines that I hope will help.

  • Size - Consider getting the student the largest guitar body style that he or she can comfortably play.
    • The student's right hand should be able to reach the soundhole comfortably with the guitar facing straight forward, and
    • The student's left elbow should still be bent when the student touches farthest tuning peg.

    If this rules out a dreadnought, consider a parlor guitar. If it also rules out a parlor guitar, you will be stuck with a 3/4-sized or smaller guitar. The only caveat is that the vast majority of 1/2-sized or 3/4-sized guitars made since 1950 sound like bricks and play like cheese slicers, so don't let the kid bring home the first guitar he or she picks up.

  • Playability - Unless you are buying the guitar from a music store that personally inspects and "sets up" every guitar, be sure to have a guitar player of your acquaintance try the guitar out before you purchase it. Your friend should know the difference between minor problems that a little adjustment can fix and major problems that take the guitar out of the running. BTW, the guitar pros I know can play virtually any guitar they come across, so "playability" is relative. The question is, will a beginner with only moderate determination be able to play basic chords within a week or so?
  • Sound - Although nobody expects a starter guitar to sound like a $1000 instrument, it should put out enough sound for the student to hear what he or she is playing. Being able to hear it well supplies some of the instant gratification that students need early on while it's still hard to form chords consistently.
  • "Cool Factor" - The guitar should not be embarrasing for the kid to play. (When my youngest said she wanted to learn guitar, I came across a Hanna Montana 1/2-sized guitar for $30 that I thought would be a good joke. But I actually got her a nice-looking and somewhat playable dreadnought because I knew that having a guitar that "looked like a guitar" was important.)
  • Affordability - Before you make your purchasing decision, see what good-condition name brand starter guitars are going for used in your area. If, say, they're averaging $150, and your music store is selling similar instruments that they have set up and will guarantee for $200, then don't waste your time calling all over town. On the other hand, if lightly-used brand-name starter guitars are averaging $100, and your music store won't sell you anything but a toy for under $250, it's time to call in your best guitar-playing friend and make some phone calls. (Obviously, such figures will adjust over time and will vary between regions.) I believe firmly in supporting my local suppliers, but not in being taken for a sucker. Either way, your final price should include a case of some kind and a guitar strap.

For more details on buying a used guitar, please see our article on Evaluating Used Guitars.

Also, don't assume that you have to buy the guitar at the music store to get lessons there. Most guitar teachers have a few open slots most of the time, and some of them don't mind teaching out of their house if "studio space" at the music store is expensive.

Please check back for updates, and contact us with any questions, corrections, additions, or reader responses.


Note about Suppliers: While we try to help you get the instruments and other products you want by recommending suppliers with a good record of customer service, all transactions between you and the supplier you chose are governed by the published policies on the supplier's web site. So please print off any order confirmation screens and save copies of invoices, etc., so you can contact the appropriate supplier or invoke the product warranty should any problems occur.*

Note about Ordering Musical Instruments Online: Buy only from folks with a reasonable return policy and be sure to have any musical instrument you ordered online checked over by a professional as soon as you receive it. Every musical instrument has the potential for being damaged in shipment, even if the box looks fine when you get it. In addition, musical instruments shipped across the Pacific have a very high percentage of manufacturing defects. If you look at online reviews, a surprising percentage of the one-star reviews say something like "By the time I realized it was damaged (or had a critical manufacturing defect), the period for returns had run out, so now I'm stuck with a useless piece of . . . . " Yes, the manufacturer should have better quality control, and the store should pack things better. But in the end, you are responsible for making certain that an instrument or product will serve your needs while you still have time to return it.

Note about Buying Musical Instruments New: Before you spend $2000 on an instrument that will be worth $800 once you get it home, check out the used market for that sort of instrument in your area. Depending on where you live, or what kind of instrument you're looking for, it may not be an option. But if you can get a used professional instrument for the same price as a new student instrument, it is often worth taking the risk. Especially if you have a knowledgeable friend who can go along and check it out for you. In fact, many of our pages include links to articles on how to shop for used instruments of various types. However, we recognize that many folks have limited access to good used instruments, and everyone needs to see what is available in the various price ranges. So we do list, when possible, live links to real vendors with a good return policy, in case they're your best choice for getting what you want. Again, once you buy something, your satisfaction is between you and the vendor.

Note about Availability and Pricing: Although I try to keep an eye on things and to recommend products that are reasonably available, the model train market does fluctuate, and any product on this page may change price or become unavailable without prior notice. If you "click through" to see details on a product, and nothing happens at all, or you are routed to a supplier's home page, please let me know and I will remove the product from the online catalog until I can find a replacement or another supplier. For more detailed information about why products seem to come and go and why I have stopped listing prices for most products, please see my article "About Pricing and Availability."

*Here's an irony: every year, I receive about a dozen complaints from folks who have never been to my sites before, angry that a deal between that person and a vendor or manufacturer I recommend went south (in their opinion). They "googled" the product, saw my recommendation or review, then e-mailed me to tell me they were going to sue me or report me to the Better Business Bureau for personally ripping them off by recommending a product they had bought from someone else. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the problem is really because the customer didn't read the whole ad, or ordered the wrong thing, or threw away his paperwork and doesn't know where he bought it from, etc. I'm always polite, and sometimes I can even help them get things straightened out with the vendor, but it's not, technically, my problem.

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