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Buying Your First (or second) Guitar

Buying your first guitar is tricky business. First off, you can’t play anything yet! so you can’t really “try it out.” Second, you’re not really sure what a good guitar is supposed to feel like. As a teacher, I’ve seen some terrible instruments. This is not good. A guitar should help, not hinder your growth as a guitarist. It’s extremely frustrating for anyone to not have a good instrument, but for a beginner this may make or break their will to play. A bad instrument may be difficult to play, and that does not encourage playing/practicing. Here’s somethings to consider when buying a beginning guitar.

Steel or Nylon Strings? Electric or Acoustic Guitars?

Playability, or easy of playing, is the primary concern for beginners. A appropriately sized guitar of any flavor will work just fine. I look at it this way: whatever keeps the student interested is the guitar they should buy. My first guitar was a Washburn electric.

How Much Should I Spend on a Starter Guitar?

Depends! There are some great, cheap guitars out there. My best suggestion is to take someone more knowledgeable about guitars with you to the shop. If you’re an adult beginner with a bigger budget, it’s worth your time to look used. When buying a used guitar, you often get more instrument for your money. Read reviews, ask friends and don’t be afraid to get in touch with your local guitar teacher.

Children Need Smaller Guitars

This is very dependent on the player. Young students or smaller adults should consider a 1/2 or 3/4 size guitar. There are more and more of these instruments out there, so look around. A good test would be to have a the perspective student sit down with the guitar. Can they easily reach the first fret without having their arm as a strange angle? If yes, the guitar will probably be okay. Many music stores will have people on staff who do teach guitar or are extremely good players with a lot of experience, don’t be afraid to ask for advice.

A note to Southpaws: If you’re left handed, consider carefully playing right handed. There will be more instruments available to you as a righty. The downside is that some lefties feel as a disadvantage because their “strong” hand is not picking. In classical guitar the right, picking hand does a lot of the work. I’m not sure if playing righty would be a major detriment or not. I do know a few guitarists who are left handed and play right handed, all are very good.

Shopping for a Second Guitar

So you’ve been at it a while and are looking to buy your second guitar, huh? That’s good. Whenever we get a new instrument it forces us to grow as a player. After starting on a few hundred dollar cheapo classical, I moved up to a “student” model from a luthier that I still play today (though I’m looking for a concert instrument). Moving to a better guitar is an exciting thing, but the rules are not the same as buying your first model. For the serious classical guitar student, sound and tone quality should be the primary concern when purchasing a new instrument. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to hear this from behind a guitar. So take a friend! Preferably a friend who’s got some more “mad skillz” than you, and can really play the crap out of the guitar. Listen to it, what does it sound like? Do you like it? Is it a spruce top or cedar?

The important this is try a lot of guitars out. Remember that you can really get used to playing anything, so a good sound should take precedent. Cost is a deceiving factor in many guitar sales. My “student” guitar rang up at around $1,500. However, it sounds extremely good for a student guitar. Even guitars that are the same model and price from the same luthier may have completely different sounds! This is why it’s important to try before buying. Sometimes a cheaper guitar will have a better sound. It’s really hard to say. Even ordering a custom instrument from a well-known luthier can be a risk. I have a few friends with very nice concert guitars (A Thames and Beyers). When I asked them, they both felt nervous about the guitars and whether they would be good when they received them. But when you’re dealing with such great luthiers, the risk is minimized.

Got a instrument buying story? Leave it in the comments!

WARNING! purchasing instruments, guitar related gear, sheet music or other equipment may lead to serious cases of Gear Acquisition Syndrome (G.A.S.).

17 Responses leave one →
  1. 2009 February 17

    Hey again. I´m in Argentina for a few months… I´m going to Buenos Aires this weekend and am planning to buy another classical guitar. I´ve played on a cedar for most of my life (it´s a student model and was around $1500 too) and there is no way I’m going to sell it- I’m attached. I was thinking of getting a spruce top. Have you heard of Antigua Casa Nunez? I’ve done some research (or at least tried) and I think they are supposed to be really great quality guitars. The shop has been around since the 1850’s; I’ve heard that Segovia played on two of their guitars during a South American tour- not sure if this is true or not. What are most guitar frets made out of? There is a metal alloy down here they use called Alpaca and I´m having a hard time finding out exactly what it is.

    I don’t have anyone down here with me that knows anything about guitars and can give me advice; I’m planning to take a bunch of music with me and just play and play until I find the right guitar. Any other tips about buying a classical guitar would be helpful.

    malaina’s last blog post..San Valentín in Alta Gracia (cuidado, it’s a long one)

    • 2009 February 17

      Malaina, I’m not sure what guitar frets are made of, but I think you’re on the right track. You just need to play a bunch of guitars. hand built instruments are tricky beasts, they aren’t all the same. So don’t be afraid to try them all out! If it sounds good, it doesn’t really matter what the brand name is, I’d say. Follow your ears on the spruce vs. cedar thing.

      Simon, true story. When I purchased my second classical guitar I had a friend I trusted pick one out for me on a buying trip. The result is that I got a “showroom” guitar that sounded great for a discount. It’s good to have a teacher or someone else knowledgeable.

      Andy, my guitar is a Kenny Hill New World guitar. The Madrid model. I like it and it sounds pretty good for a student guitar. Served me all the way through undergrad work, but it’s time to upgrade now. Kenny Hill’s are worth a look!

  2. 2009 February 17
    Simon B permalink

    This is one area where having an accomplished instructor is a real bonus. When I started learning at the conservatory, I knew something about steel string acoustic and electric guitars but I hadn’t the foggiest about what made a good nylon string guitar. And as you say, I couldn’t play to test it out. So my instructor had a few used guitars that he felt were good enough to not inhibit and rented one to me. Starting with a properly set up guitar that your instructor is willing to stand behind eliminates a lot of doubt. After a short while I realized some of what made the guitar good and I was comfortable with it, so I bought it from him for $500 and I still have it and practice on it.

    Beware G.A.S.! I find that the thrill of the “chase” is heart-pounding, but then once the guitar is acquired, you have to face the fact that the new guitar won’t automatically make you better. But it might inspire you to practice more often.

  3. 2009 February 17

    Some good points there, not least the caution of G.A.S.

    I’m actually looking to upgrade my old ‘few hundred bucks’ classical that I’ve used for years. A yamaha learner model. Surprisingly, it lasted me through my music degree, and had a terrific deep mellow sound. Still, I’m on the look out now for a nice new one to develop my playing on.

    I’ll certainly take a look around some stores, I’ve been telling myself the same thing when thinking about choosing a new guitar. The sound is all important, as is the feel of the instrument. You can’t mail-order that.

    Just out of interest, who is the luthier you mentioned?

    Cheers- Andy

  4. 2009 February 17

    Wow, you had me in your camp, until you urged lefties to learn to play “rightie…”

    As a left-handed musician, I’ve been playing for over 4 decades. I grew up in the L.A. music scene, and I’ve played with just about everybody, at one time or another.

    And one of the things that can actually set you apart, is being “left-handed.” It looks good on stage, it allows for some “cool” stage moves, and sets you apart from the rest of the band. After all, your neck is pointing “the wrong way.” Photographers love that!

    I couldn’t disagree with you more. Although it is harder to find a good left-handed guitar, the fact that you have to look harder, and even practice harder (after all, you’re doing everything “backwards”) can sometimes teach you more. A trip to Guitar Center, or any good guitar shop will insure that you find what you’re looking for. And, you’ll cherish that “axe” more, as well. If you really want to play, a few more bucks for the “right leftie” guitar isn’t going to dampen your enthusiasm.

    ‘nough said…

    And thanks, you’ve helped me decide to start another blog, for lefties… after all, we’re “in short supply…”

    • 2009 February 17

      Lexinator, i think you took far too much offense to my statement.

      I don’t think it really matters which way you play. Do whatever works the best. I honestly don’t give a crap which way you play, I do care if you can play.

      I added your blog to my reader. I look forward to it!

      -CD

  5. 2009 February 18

    I am left handed, playing right handed. I think it’s down to the individual. Though my last tutor said he would have advised me to play “left handed” because of the natural co-ordination.

    I believe playing with the “wrong hand” hampers me in faster scale playing or arpeggios, for this reason. Tremolo playing though, is possibly my strongest technique. The right hand is in a set position though, and that makes the difference.

    Mark Antony’s last blog post..Guitarists and Sight Reading

  6. 2009 February 18

    Hi Chris,

    You didn’t “offend” me, my skin is just way too thick for that. I don’t think you could survive the music business without “scales” instead of skin… I just wanted to voice the other side of that coin, as a “leftie.”

    It took me years to get on “play lists.” But until that time, some of the most enjoyable times I had were in the hunt for that next “girlfriend…” The 6 and 12 stringed kind! And I learned a lot, along the way… 😉

    Sorry I came off “Too strong.” It wasn’t intentional. In fact, it was YOU who inspired me to begin a new blog, for “lefties.” I appreciate what you’re doing, and I hope that I can measure up to the mark you’re making.

    And… “glad to meet you!”

    Lexx

  7. 2009 February 26
    Aaron permalink

    As a leftie who plays guitar right-handed I’m not really sure whether it would have been easier to have purchased a left-handed guitar as I’ve never played one before.

    However, I merely wanted to point out that I’ve been playing piano since I was seven years old, and the classical piano repertoire is definitely biased towards having the right hand do more intricate work. Guitarists are lucky to have the choice! =)

    I’ve never felt at a disadvantage playing a right-handed guitar, but I picked it up after 11 years of playing piano so perhaps my right hand had been strengthened so much by then that I never thought about it.

  8. 2011 May 13
    George Feener permalink

    Chris,
    Was your student guitar a Pavan from Tom Prisloe?
    I’m considering to buy one.
    Thanks
    George

    • 2011 May 13

      No, it was Kenny Hill “new world” guitar.

    • 2011 June 5
      Blueno permalink

      George, I bought a Pavan (tp-20) spruce, 640 scale sight unseen last year. My teacher was incredibly impressed, even moreso when I told him it was only around $1100 with exchange. It is actually more consistent and crisp than my (cedar) Ramirez 3e. This pavan has wonderful volume, sustain, all solids, perfect finish, great for my student needs. But I have to agree, better to try out an assortment. The caveat, I’m a relative beginner (Bridges books 3 and 4) and have used only Yamaha, Ramirez and the Pavan (and do have a Blackbird nylon on order for travel).

      Blueno

  9. 2011 May 14
    laetion wind permalink

    BUYING A CHEAP GUITAR?
    Your first guitar should *not* be the cheapest in the store!

    TONE…
    This is vital, since with a very cheap guitar no good tone production is possible and you as player will not experience a maturing, or even that you are able to produce a sound that you want.
    A guitar is an instrument where the tone is of vital importance, and the interesting thing is that the guitarist produces the tone himself; and is able to vary the tone. (Reason: the fingers and nails are in direct contact with the strings).

    So using a cheap instrument will not even allow you to be a real “guitarist”: i.e. someone who experiments with tone;
    since cheap guitars are utterly limited.

    HOW MUCH SHOULD IT COST?
    If you want to buy a first guitar, it really should cost at least $250 (unless there’s someone experienced with you who’s thrilled by a cheaper guitar).

    WHAT GUITAR?
    Good and have a look what’s available. Yamaha is often a good call.
    In case you’re in Europe… I know that EGTA Germany have a Guitar-building/manufacturing competition in which they rate student guitars, showing the best value for your money; while keeping a tight budget.

  10. 2011 May 17
    Matt permalink

    Chris, Just curious where you would recommend buying a concert level classical guitar in the DFW area? I can’t seem to find anyone who knows a good answer to this. Thanks!

  11. 2014 January 14
    David permalink

    The order in which I purchased my (two) classical guitars was the opposite of what most players experience. My first guitar was a $1,000 Cordoba – I figured if I was going to play, I wanted to play on a quality instrument. (Although, I started at age 47)

    After about 8 months, though, I realized that sometimes I just wanted a guitar that I could pick up and play for 10-15 minutes, without worrying about wiping it down afterward, or scratching the guitar, etc. So, I bought a $350 La Patrie Etude, which works well for my “workhorse” guitar.

    If I an still playing in a couple years, I plan on buying a Ramirez student guitar, or a Rodriguez, which sell for about $3,000.

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