You have decided to learn to play and are now looking for the best beginner guitar but it seems there are thousands of choices and where do you start? As you probably know by now guitars come in all colours, shapes and sizes so we will begin by separating them into categories of body styles and design and differentiate between the cosmetic and the essentials. We are going to suggest that the best beginner guitar is going to be an acoustic steel string and within that category there are myriad considerations and choices.
An acoustic steel string guitar is not only the most common starter instrument but is also the best choice if you are planning to play anything other than classical music. When we say “acoustic” it means a guitar that has been designed to be played without amplification. When we refer to steel strings this is as opposed to the nylon strings of a classical guitar. There are acoustic electrics, meaning acoustic guitars with built in electronics but our focus in this article will be on the purely acoustic guitars in this category.
Classical Guitar and Steel String Guitar
The classical guitar is the precursor to the modern steel string guitar, the construction and design of a classical guitar differ from the acoustic steel string in a few key areas. The classical guitar uses nylon strings, these strings are meant for classical playing and exert less tension on the bridge and top so as a result the construction of the classical guitar is fundamentally different. The classical has only 12 frets to the body instead of the common 14 on a steel string and also has a wider neck to allow the right hand more room for fingerstyle type playing. All in all despite it being an acoustic guitar it is very specific to the classical style of playing made popular by Andres Segovia.
The acoustic steel string on the other hand is designed to be played with a pick or fingers and is braced to accommodate the higher tension of steel type strings and it comes in a variety of body shapes and sizes. The steel string is the guitar immediately associated with singer/songwriters and virtually all pop music genres. The classical is not designed for steel strings and vice versa. The higher tension steel strings will damage the classical instrument and the nylon strings on the acoustic steel just won’t project and the tension will not be suitable.
Finding an instrument that is comfortable for you has a lot to do with the size and shape of both your body and the guitar’s body. As people have different body sizes so do guitars and it is important to choose a guitar body size that suits you and that sits nicely in your frame. The size of the instrument should not cause you to have to extend your left arm too far and it shouldn’t raise your right arm excessively. You should comfortably be able to rest your right arm on the body and your right hand should sit close to the soundhole. A guitar should feel embraced and be a part of your body and it shouldn’t feel like you are being pushed away, a guitar needs to be hugged. This looks like a comfortable position and an appropriately sized guitar.
Guitar Sizes and Types
The best beginner guitar for you well be one that not only fits your body but fits your taste as well.
The jumbo and slope – shoulder dread and grand auditorium are all similar in size but have distinctive design features. Note for instance the slope of the shoulder in the guitar of the same name or the pronounced curvature of the waist in the grand auditorium.
The smaller body sizes of the OM and the OO are often preferred by even larger people because of their musical qualities.
The parlor is the smallest of all and can also produce a crisp and strong tone despite its size, it is an ideal instrument for smaller people and children.
To find the best beginner guitar for you, start by looking for a guitar that is physically comfortable and then move from physically comfortable to being able to depress the string easily and get a clean note. Comfort and playability are going to be the predominant determining factors in your choice so spend the time to establish that the instrument in your lap “feels” right.
The best way to compare between instruments is to simply sit with a few of these different body shapes. Does it feel to big? Do you find yourself over extending your left arm or reaching for the first fret? Is your right hand comfortably close to the soundhole? Can you easily see the left hand on the fretboard without altering the position of the guitar? Does the guitar feel like a part of your body or does it feel like a big foreign object? Is it hugging you back?
All of these guitar body types are also referred to as flat top guitars, obviously because the top or soundboard is flat. The name flat top was popularized early on to differentiate it from the archtop guitar which used to be more common and is still popular albeit now mostly as a jazz guitar.
What About the Sound?
As far as sound goes larger body guitars tend to have a bigger bass response while the smaller guitars are powerful in the treble region and often achieve a nice balance between bass and treble response. The smaller sized acoustics such as the OO or OM (orchestra model) still produce a robust and big resonant sound despite their slighter size. A small guitar can sound surprisingly big so don’t be fooled by body size alone. There are many factors that contribute to the sound of a guitar so it is not only about the body size.
When choosing your personal best beginner guitar start with comfort first. When you are happy with that then ask someone to play the guitars you are interested in, take along a player or ask the salesperson to play it for you, does it “sound” good to your ears? The sound of a guitar will to a degree also be a matter of taste so listen, listen, listen. Keep your ears in the game at all times.
A Bit of History
The most well known acoustic guitar is the dreadnought and was developed by the Martin company in 1916. The dread’s large body and thus large soundboard is now a favourite of guitarists in all styles who are looking for a big warm sound in the bottom end. The slope shoulder (2nd from right) is a classic body style that was introduced by Gibson in 1942 to compete with the dreadnought style originally introduced by Martin, this slope model removed some of the squareness from the dread thereby making it a bit easier to hold, this SS is still a favourite with many players. The jumbo body was also introduced by the Gibson guitar company in 1936 and provided an even bigger body and bigger bottom end and its size is noticeable when you get one in your lap but so is the depth of tone.
During the great depression of 1929 Martin’s guitar sales plummeted. This caused the Martin company to come up with new designs to help their sinking sales. Most guitars of that period were still borrowing from the classical guitar model and were thus 12 frets to the body. Martin decided to take its O model and extend the neck length to 14 frets, this eventually became the new standard and was named the Orchestra model so named because it became popular as a guitar played in swing type orchestras instead of the banjo. Martin used the OM designation for all 14-fret instruments in its catalogs by the mid- to late-1930s. You can still purchase the less common 12 fret to the body acoustic guitars that were common in the early 20th century and there are many fingerstyle players that prefer the 12 fret model.
The parlor sized guitar was popular from the late 19th century until the 1950s. It was very closely related to the classical guitar shapes from which it was originally derived. Earlier guitar designs were often quite small before standardizing into the modern body styles. Blues and folk traditionalists often favour these smaller parlour sizes for their authenticity and sounds. In the late 20th century these parlour sized instruments started to experience a new resurgence and many manufacturers began to introduce these into their lines.
There are hundreds of different finishes on guitars but keep in mind that colour finishes are often used to detract from the quality of the woods used and can hide blemishes and imperfections. Guitars that have clean honest wood finishes that expose the woods used are the best choice. Most guitars have finishes which are shellac, lacquer or catalyzed polymer. Finishes may be a high gloss, completely dull and flat or somewhere between, such as a satin finish. Some finishes are more durable than others, a very light satin type finish can sometimes scratch easily, it may look great in the shop and be the right price point but may not stand up to regular wear and tear very well. I think the durability of a finish can be recognized by just taking a close look at this stage, does it look to you like the finish is durable and will it last and continue to look good in the years to come. We could discuss finishes for a long time but suffice to say that if the guitar woods are exposed and the finish looks clean and durable that is an excellent start.
Best Beginner Guitar Brands
There are a number of guitar brands that almost everyone recognizes such as Martin, Gibson, Taylor and Fender but the fact is that there are scores of other guitar brands that make excellent instruments and many are reasonably priced. Over the last several decades more and more manufacturing has gone to Asia and this includes many of the major North American brands. These Asian factories in many cases have been manufacturing guitars for decades and build excellent instruments. Some of these Asian brands are Crafter, Washburn, Walden, Blueridge and Sigma to name a few. The Godin company in Quebec builds some excellent starter instruments under the names Norman, Simon and Patrick and Seagull.
We would suggest keeping an open mind when it comes to brands especially in the lower price ranges. Buying by brand has become a confusing venture in that some major brand names manufacture in several different countries sometimes using the same factories as the lesser known brands. Ultimately shop with an open mind, by doing so you could save yourself a lot of money while getting an instrument of excellent quality. It is worth mentioning that many of the tonewoods used in Asian guitar manufacture are of North American origin.
The Truss Rod and Action and Setup
A truss rod is a metal rod that runs on the inside of the entire length of the neck and it is used to adjust the tension of the neck in order to counterbalance the tension of the strings. Truss rods help keep the necks straight under the strings tension while also allowing for the ability to adjust the angle of the neck for playability. Virtually every steel string acoustic guitar will have a truss rod but it is something you should be aware of. If the guitar of your dreams doesn’t feel right under your fingers it may just need a quick adjustment and setup. This is something that can be done easily by a reputable dealer or store owner or player and is something you can request and suggest. The shop owner should be happy to do this. The guitars that hang on music store walls are often not setup and are more often simply taken out of their shipping boxes and quickly tuned and hung up for display. Ask if the guitar has already been set up.
Sometimes guitars have buzzing sounds because the strings don’t meet the neck at quite the correct angle in certain places. Be aware of these buzzes, they are not musical sounds and could be pointing to nagging ongoing problems that may not be an easy fix with a setup. Sometimes with lower priced and quickly produced instruments woods are not properly dried and they can then warp and a warped neck is not something you want to deal with, these are sometimes difficult to detect by a new player so make sure that there are no unpleasant buzzes. Go up the entire neck to check for this, just one note at a time, one fret at a time, nothing fancy. If there are dead of buzzing spots beware, don’t get drawn into a bad instrument because it looks nice.
This might be a good place to suggest that you exercise caution with warranties and return policies as well. Wood is a living commodity and it does respond to atmospheric conditions and in some cases these changes aren’t easy to recognize, exercise caution especially in the very low priced range.
How Much Should I Spend?
To be clear the best way to look at your guitar budget is to spend as much as you can afford and make sure that you invest in the comfort, the sound and the playability of the instrument before a flashy appearance. Here are some key design and construction items that you should be aware of before you go out and spend your hard earned money.
Solid Top and Laminate
This is question number 1, “is this a laminate or solid top?”. The top of the guitar is also referred to as the soundboard so as such it is essential to the quality and resonance of the instrument in that the top vibrates sympathetically with the strings, that is its purpose. There is nothing that will affect the sound of the guitar more than the top and a single piece of solid wood simply vibrates better than a laminate. Yes there are some exceptions but as a general rule, the best beginner guitar choice for you will be one with a solid top. Yes, it will cost a little bit more, but it will likely sound better and it should retain it’s value better than a laminate top.
There was a time not long ago when solid top guitars were considerably more costly than a laminate top guitar but that has changed over the last couple of decades due to manufacturing methods and the entrance in the North American market of Asian built instruments. Laminates are most often found at the bottom end of the price range in order to compete on price alone and as a rule can’t compete sonically with a solid top guitar. A solid top guitar is made out of one piece of wood whereas the laminate or ply top is made up of layers of woods, a single piece of wood will vibrate better and age better as well. So in choosing your best beginner guitar we would strongly suggest looking for a solid top guitar, in today’s market these can now be found as low as the 2 to 3 hundred dollar range.
Guitars are made of a number of different woods or tonewoods. The most common wood types are spruce, cedar, mahogany, maple, rosewood, ebony as well as more uncommon and exotic woods such as ovangkol, koa, cocobolo, bubinga, granadillo and more. The choice of woods differ for each part of the instrument. The neck for instance requires a very hardwood so rosewood and ebony are common choices albeit ebony is found on more expensive instruments. As for guitar backs the same holds true, normally a denser wood is used in order to keep the back and sides immovable to allow for all the vibration to be centred at the soundboard location. The neck itself is also constructed of a harder wood which is also supported by a truss rod. As for the soundboard or top the most common choices are several types of Spruce than Cedar and less commonly Mahogany and Koa.
There are hundreds of different finishes on guitars but keep in mind that colour finishes are often used to detract from the quality of the woods used and these fancy color finishes can mask blemishes and imperfections. Guitars that have clean honest wood finishes that expose the woods used are the best choice. Most guitars have finishes which are shellac, lacquer or catalyzed polymer. Finishes may be a high gloss, completely dull and flat or somewhere between, such as a satin finish. Some finishes are more durable than others, a very light satin type finish can sometimes scratch easily, it may look great in the shop and be the right price point but may not stand up to regular wear and tear very well. I think the durability of a finish can be recognized by just taking a close look at this stage. We could discuss finishes for a long time but suffice to say that if the guitar woods are exposed and the finish looks clean and durable that is an excellent start.
The scale length of a guitar is the length of the string from the nut to the saddle. When shopping for your first guitar this variable will not likely be one that will effect your choice of instrument. For example the difference between an OOO (24.9″) and an OM (25.4″) will not likely influence your choice of instrument as much as the other features already mentioned. Don’t be baffled by stuff that will not matter at this stage of your journey.
Guitars can be dressed up in a number of ways that can substantially add to the cost but not necessarily to the sound and performance of the instrument. Some of these “options” are as follows.
Some of the best beginner guitars have very little in the way of fancy dressings, as they are only for show and will not affect the playability or sound of the instrument.
Binding, Purfling and Inlay
Binding is inserted around the outer edges of the guitar body, neck and head and it looks nice and protects the edges from impact and possible moisture damage. Purfling is a decorative strip just inside or outside of the binding. Both binding & purfling come in a variety of materials such as ebony, abalone, pearl and many others. In this shot the binding is on the edge and the purfling is the decorative material on the top. Guitars with extensive use of these elements can be considerably more expensive and you have to weigh how much these mostly decorative items are worth to you when making your purchase. Remember, they don’t effect the sound you are going to get out of the instrument, only the appearance.
Inlays are most often found set into the fretboard, headstock and on the perimeter of the soundhole. The most practical of these being the inlay of fret markers. Fret markers can come in a wide variety of options and complexity. Mother or pearl, different woods and plastic are the materials most often used as inlay.
The purpose of a cutaway is to make it easier to play in the top region of the fretboard. For a beginner this is realistically not going to be a requirement. It is a consideration for a seasoned player who for musical reasons works that region of the fretboard. The best beginner guitar choice for you is likely one with no cutaway, at least until you know the musical direction you will take. Many career players use no cutaway so it is really a matter of preference at a much later date. A cutaway will also compromise the guitars ability to sound good acoustically for long complicated reasons having to do with waveforms. Save a cutaway for your 3rd or 4th guitar and for now be satisfied with finding a nice full bodied acoustic.
Acoustic electrics and cutaways often go hand in hand. Again we would advise rather than invest in electronics, invest in a solid full bodied acoustic without any peripherals you will not likely use in the short term. Stick to the sound of the instrument acoustically. Remember that an electrified instrument will also require amplification and that is an entirely new consideration that you just don’t want to visit at this stage.
The enjoyment you will get out of spending time with a guitar that really fits who you are is something that is special. It is really worth spending the time you really need to make the right choice as well as spending the necessary money to get something that you really want to play and keep. Think of it like getting a puppy, you want to hug it and spend time with it and feed it and love it and when you do it will reward you with the same and more.