One of the most confusing and enraging experiences a new guitarist can have is choosing a first guitar. You are forced to think about whether you want to play an acoustic or electric guitar, what style of instrument to get, how much to spend and even more mystical decisions such as choosing the materials the guitar itself is made of. In this article we are going to be talking about how much to spend on a first guitar, as this decision must be made before evaluating an individual instrument.
This is a point which receives much contention. Some believe that the cheapest possible guitar should be purchased, especially for a child, to prevent the unnecessary expenditure of money in the event the guitar ends up collecting dust in an attic. There is of course a wisdom to this logic, at least on the surface…. once you delve a bit deeper the flaws with this method of thinking become evidently clear.
To put things simply, a cheap piece of junk will play like a cheap piece of chunk. While purchasing an $80 guitar at Wal-Mart may sound harmoniously delightful to the wallet, the person playing the guitar is not likely to find it so amusing. There are a host of problems that come along with purchasing a cheap guitar that can make the instrument a chore instead of a joy to play, which unfortunately can make some players give up the instrument for good.
Why Cheap Guitars are Lame
First and foremost, the instrument is likely to have poor playability. The action of the guitar, or the distance between the strings and fretboard, can often be far too high on less expensive guitars. This can occur because the instrument simply has cheap components and materials, the guitar was never properly set up at the factory or even the specifications and design of the guitar are so inadequate a good setup is not even possible. . Poor playability will mean certain chords will be difficult if not possible to play for a beginner, such as barre chords that require 6 strings be held down at the same time. It will also contribute to pain in the fingers, wrist and forearms. When a new player is just starting out it is important that the instrument be a fun and exciting experience for them, not something that is a trial on a consistent basis. Take a moment and imagine all of the would be guitarists who have given up on the world of music because their first experience with a guitar was a painful or frustrating one.
Cheap guitars also suffer from cheap electronics, if they have them at all. Regardless of whether you are playing an electric guitar or an acoustic that can be plugged in, this will translate into poor sound from an amplifier or PA system. This means that should you progress far enough that you wish to play in a band, at your school, church or any other public venue, you will have an instrument that is of no use. If the guitar contains no electronics, which usually occurs in cheaper acoustic guitars, your only option will be putting a microphone up to your instrument, which will require further complication and expenditure on your end.
It is also most likely that an extremely cheap guitar is being sold by an outlet that will not support you. Guitars purchased from Wal-Mart, Target, Bestbuy or other “big box” stores are likely not able to offer you any advice on the purchase of your instrument, or give you any further after purchase support should you require it. When purchasing a nicer instrument at a local music shop you can have the comfort that should a problem with your instrument occur, they will likely support you and generally have a guitar tech on staff to fix any problems that may arise.
There are not nearly as many guitars that fall in the sub $100 range, limiting your choice of colors, style and size. Obviously playability and sound are paramount when choosing a guitar, but let’s be realistic, looking cool is important too!
With all of these disadvantages, it then stands to reason that if the instrument does not make you quit altogether, you will end up buying another one shortly anyway to make up for the shortcomings. It makes far more sense to buy a good instrument now and avoid having to purchase a better instrument in a few months.
So, What Should I Buy Then?
Fortunately this part is quite simple! Buy either what you like the most, or what you can comfortably afford. While I think it is short sighted to buy an excessively cheap guitar, it is not a good idea to go into debt or be forced to eat ramen noodles for a month simply to have an instrument. For some people this number might be $300 and for others it might be $1,000. But as a general rule instruments in the $300-$500 range will be of a decent quality and last for years.
I would highly recommend you visit a local music store and play around with as many guitars as you can. Strum a few chords and find an instrument that sounds right to you. Take some time and make sure your hand fits comfortably on the fretboard. Make sure you like the appearance and the personality of the guitar. Even if you are not yet skilled on the instrument, simply getting a feel for how it sits in your hands and on your body can be a huge boon. Most shops carry guitars that are suitable in size for both children and the largest man alike. If you experience any confusion regarding this process you can ask a knowledgeable salesman, something you are likely not going to find buying a budget guitar from a big box retailer.
To be realistic, buying a cheap guitar offers the following disadvantages:
- Cheap materials which will make it difficult to play and reduce sound quality.
- The playability is likely going to be bad which will discourage new players.
- The support options will likely be limited in the event of problems.
- Lack of electronics and features will likely mean buying another instrument in the future.
- It’s much harder to resell a poor quality guitar.
If you buy a good guitar right off the bat you will receive the following advantages:
- A guitar that will look and play good directly from the factory. You will likely not need to pay for a setup right away.
- The instrument will sound much better due to higher quality woods and materials.
- The fretboard will likely be more comfortable and easier to play, translating into less pain and misery.
- Both the guitar shop and manufacturer are likely to give you more support.
- Better features such as built in electronics, tuners, equalization, etc.
- A nicer guitar will be easier to sell should you decide to upgrade.
If you have the money, it makes sense to buy a good instrument. This doesn’t have to mean spending thousands (though it can if you are affluent enough), but it does mean setting a minimum budget of around $300-$500 dollars. This will get you (or your loved one) a better instrument that they are far more likely to play and fall in love with. If a super cheap instrument is the only option with your budget, please look at pawn shops, craiglist, eBay or other sources of used instruments before settling on a brand new guitar that costs $100 or less. You will likely find a better instrument that will last a longer. If you should find yourself cursed with an abysmal instrument and no way of getting another, look into getting it properly set up by a professional, this should at least alleviate some of the issues and allow you to bide your time until a better instrument can be purchased.
If after this read you are still hankering for more information on the subject, Jim Deeming has a dedicated video on the subject for all JamPlay members entitled “Buying a Guitar.“