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Starter Guitar Buyers' Guide
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Written by Paul D. Race for , , and

"Starter Guitar" Buyers' Guide, from Riverboat Music(tm)

Some "starter guitars" are called that because they're made small, ostensibly for youngsters. Others are called just because they're made as cheaply as possible to sell into homes that either don't know the difference or that, frankly, expect any "investment" into the guitar to be a waste of money anyway.

The common reasoning among some parents is, "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." Maybe they're right - if the kid really, really wanted to learn, he'd get past the pain - I know I did. But most kids don't, even kids who show promise and interest.

Manufacturers have fed This is the same model as my first guitar, a Kay with a tailpiece and the pick guard painted on.this industry of "throwaway" guitars for over eighty years. In fact my first guitar was one. It was a 3/4-sized 1950s Kay that my cousin got with Green Stamp books and later gave away in frustration. And no surprise - the action was like a cheese slicer and it was ugly by any standard. I couldn't afford a real guitar, so I figured out what was wrong with it, rebuilt and refinished the thing, and played it for several years, even taking it to college with me. In fact, based on that experience, 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.

Ironically, most of the "throwaway" US-built guitars of the 1930s-1960s were actually more solid than the average "starter guitar" being shipped across the Pacific today. No, they weren't built for anything more ambitious than looking good under the Christmas tree. But they were built solid, most of them could be made playable, and a surprising number are still around.

Back to the Future

Today, "starter guitars" run the gamut from toddler-sized guitars with Disney characters silkscreened on the face to instruments that look like full-sized guitars and have brand names that meant something once. Unfortunately, even the nice-looking ones have no quality control to speak of. Yes, I can and have made them playable for my own kids, but I don't recommend them to the average non-guitar-player.

The "Short Version"

The really "short version" of this article is that if you really want your kid or yourself to learn a musical instrument, you should only shop for "starter guitars" after you've checked out the alternatives.

  • If the student is big enough to hold a parlor guitar, go to the Parlor Guitar buyers' guide and start your search there. That way, the student can "grow into " the guitar without "outgrowing it." If you want to, you can even put nylon strings on parlor guitars to ease the pain of starting out, and change to light steel strings later, when the student has some of the basics down. Even if you wind up shopping for a used parlor guitar, you'll have some idea what you're looking at.

  • If the student is big enough to hold a dreadnought (the big ones that most people consider the "standard" size today), consider going right to the Dreadnought page and starting there. Again, even if you consider buying used, that page will give you some idea of what to look for.

If you're still coming up against a financial barrier, consider shopping used, but get a friend who knows guitars to go along with you. That's where the CreekDontrise.com article Evaluating and Buying Used Guitars should come in handy.

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, or can't be made 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. By "name brand" I mean made by a company, or at least labeled for a company that also makes real, professional music instruments. (This pretty much rules out "First Act" and a lot of other department-store and bottom-line instruments.) Examples include:

    • "Entry-level" Affiliates of Name Brands: Epiphone, Sigma, Jasmine, Squire, and Celebrity are the "starter" or discount brands for Gibson, Martin, Takamine, Fender, and Ovation respectively. Usually their lower-line guitars are not quite playable out of the box but most of them 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, supermarkets, etc. This even goes for some 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, don't assume that the next box off the pallet will have a playable music instrument. If nothing else, insist on opening it and inspecting it while you're in the store. Who knows, the sales drone might actually know enough about guitars to help you check it out.

    Whatever you do, don't blindly take an off-brand "guitar-in-a-box" unless you have a friend or family member who can verifiy that it can easily be made playable and the guitar can be returned if it fails inspection. (This can make Christmas shopping on Black Friday at stores that only have a 2-week return policy problematic, I know. But at least you're forewarned.)

  • Even if they are playable, "3/4-sized" guitars and many full-sized inexpensive guitars lack the "cool factor" important to many young beginners.

Vintage US-built or Imported New?

The reason I phrase the question that way is that virtually no starter guitars are being made in the US today. However, quite a few old Harmony and Kay starter guitars are still kicking around. And most of them would make better starter guitars than many Asian-built starter guitars today. If you go shopping used, take someone you trust to kick the tires (figuratively). Our article on Evaluating Used Guitars will give you many additional pointers.

As with all imported instruments, if you wind up buying online, you must have someone who knows what they are doing check it out and set it up while it is still in the return period.

Acoustic-Electric Options

Starter guitars very seldom come with an electronic option. After all, what are the chances of you visiting open mics before you've upgraded? That said, if you wind up with a starter guitar that you'd like to have amplified later for some reason, it is possible to retrofit them. You can even buy a piezo-only setup like the one here and use an outboard preamp, which significantly reduces the amount of carving you have to do on your guitar.

Top Options

Starter guitar manufacturers like to claim they have "spruce," "mahogany," or "cedar" top. What that means is that they have a razor-thin slice of spruce, mahogany, or cedar covering up the plywood that is the real top. Some manufacturers don't even cover up the plywood - they stain it so it looks cool. But neither of these approaches is "bad" at this price level, unless the manufacture is deliberately trying to give the impression that it's a solid top guitar when it isn't. What else might they be lying about?

Examples

If, after all your research, you're still considering an actual "starter guitar" for yourself or your student, here are some that may be worth checking out. If you follow any of these links, you'll see dozens more I didn't profile, but hopefully I've given you enough information to make an informed decision.

Guitar ModelIllustration (If available)
Where Made
Online Availability
Hohner HW03
(3/4-sized)
Click a button in the right column for details
China

Click to see this instrument's listing at Elderly Music.

Click to see this guitar's details on Musician's Friend.

Yamaha FG JR1
(3/4-sized)
Click a button in the right column for details
China

Click to see this instrument's listing at Elderly Music.

Click to see this guitar's details on Musician's Friend.

Fender MA-1
(3/4-sized)
Click a button in the right column for details
China

(When you get to Amazon, do a search for Fender MA-1; other options will appear.)

Click to see this guitar's details on Musician's Friend.

Click to see this instrument's listing at Elderly Music.

Epiphone PR4E
Electric-Acoustic
starter kit
(Parlor/Concert-sized)
Click a button in the right column for details
China

Click to see this guitar's details on Musician's Friend.

Fender FA-100

(Dreadnought-sized)
Click a button in the right column for details
China

Click to see this guitar's details on Musician's Friend.

Yamaha FG-700S
(Dreadnought-sized, solid top)
Click a button in the right column for details
China

Click to see this instrument's listing at Elderly Music.

Conclusion

Whatever instrument you choose and however you get it into your household, we wish you the best and hope it brings countless hours of enjoyment.

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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