Purchasing a first guitar for yourself or the new guitarist in your family can be a lot like purchasing a car or a pair of shoes: they come in many different styles to serve different functions, and some different sizes are available, but beyond that, most of the differences are a matter of taste.
There are simply too many options to create a definitive list of which instruments you should buy, especially as the availability of brands and prices will depend on where and when you are shopping. Sometimes you can hit a really good deal and get twice the guitar for the same price. The goal here is to present you with the questions you need to ask yourself to make an informed decision.
What is the Difference Between a Bass and a Guitar?
Let's first be clear about which instrument we are referring to. The difference between a bass (pronounced "base") guitar and a guitar can sometimes be missed. A bass typically has four strings, whereas a guitar generally has six. These are two distinct instruments that have separate functions in a band with very different ranges. The bass is larger, with longer strings that vibrate at lower, bass, frequencies. Many guitarists or bass players are capable of playing either instrument as the techniques required to play either are related, but let's not mistake them as types of the same instrument. They are merely in the same family of instruments.
A typical bass has four strings, although they can also have five, or more, which serve to extend the range of the instrument. A beginning student should almost always start with a standard four stringed instrument.
Some electric basses are fretless, meaning they have no frets that set the pitches across the fingerboard. This is because a bass guitar is also related to the double bass, the lowest member of the orchestral string family, which do not have frets. A fretless bass requires much more accurate finger placement and is not suitable for the beginner, unless of course they are already experienced in playing a double bass, also known as the upright bass.
What is the Difference Between an Acoustic and an Electric Guitar?
The first distinction that most people new to guitars are able to make is between an acoustic and an electric guitar. An acoustic guitar does not need to be plugged in to be heard, as it has a resonance chamber. An electric guitar can be played without being plugged in, but will not be heard above a whisper as it relies on external amplification sent from the magnetic pickups.
Both types of instruments have their advantages and disadvantages. Acoustic guitars are very portable, and generally less loud for the parent concerned about practice volumes at home. Acoustic guitars can also be most appropriate for beginners because they do not require any additional equipment to be purchased in order to play them. Electric guitars necessitate at least an amplifier and a 1/4" cable in addition to the instrument.
But if you or your beginner are not intimidated by electronics, an entry level electric guitar is generally physically easier to play than an entry level acoustic guitar. This is because the acoustic guitar uses thicker strings to produce enough volume. These thicker strings can be more difficult for small or not yet strengthened fingers to hold against the frets. An electric guitar uses lighter gauged (thinner) strings which are more malleable. But, as you get into higher quality instruments both acoustics and electrics get easier to play.
Some guitars do not fit neatly into the acoustic or electric category though. Guitars existed before the electronics to amplify them did. The body style of guitar that was popular when the first magnetic pickups were invented are now referred to as hollowbody guitars. They can be played with or without amplification, since they are built to do both. Notice the F Holes borrowed from the orchestral string family. Soon after the invention of pickups, solid bodied (modern style electric) guitars were invented to reduce feedback.
Similarly, acoustic-electric guitars are acoustic guitars with a pickup built into them so that they can be amplified. These guitars use a different type of pickup, called a piezo, which is generally placed under the saddle of the bridge (where the strings connect to the body of the instrument). These pickups are a more recent technology than the magnetic pickups. They do not function by transmitting changes in magnetic fields generated by the metal strings, but instead transmit the mechanical vibrations. This creates a very different sound that better replicates the natural sound of an acoustic guitar.
Classical Guitars Have Nylon Strings.
Nylon strings were invented as a replacement for gut strings and first mass produced in 1948. Nylon strings are notably easier on the fingers, which makes them suitable for beginners. They are used on classical guitars, whose body style developed from lutes and predates all others mentioned. Classical guitars are different from acoustic guitars in a number of ways. The strings are spaced further apart to make playing individual notes and strings easier. This results in a wider fretboard and neck. Also, notice the strings are tied around the bridge, and the tuners have a different orientation.
How Can I Determine the Quality of a Guitar?
The number one way to determine the quality is how well the instrument plays. But of course, if you don't know how to play it yet, that doesn't really help! So, here are some suggestions for other ways to determine quality-
General Construction - does it appear to be well made and in good condition? Are the joints even? Is the neck straight? Is the bridge or neck coming apart from the body at all? If it is an electric, is the input jack tightly fastened? Do the frets cut your fingers if you slide your hand along their edges down the neck?
Material of Construction - with the exception of Ovation and Big Baby Taylor guitars, if it's made out of plastic, it's no good. Some guitars use laminate, which is okay, but generally means a lower quality instrument.
Cosmetics - look closely at the paint job, details, and markings, if they look sloppily applied, the instrument is probably sloppily constructed too.
Condition of the instrument - does it have any cracks? Missing strings are not a big deal for a used instrument, but a cracked neck or top certainly can be. Does it look like it has been dropped or treated roughly? Is it obviously missing a tuner, knobs, or the nut (piece that guides the strings into position over the fretboard from the tuners)?
Playability - Even if you don't exactly know how to play it yet, you can check it for theoretical playability - how difficult is it to depress a string into the fret? Does it feel like the string has too far to go? We call this the action of the guitar. The action of any decent guitar is adjustable, but a poorly built guitar will never have good action. When you strum the strings, do they buzz against the frets?
Brand Recognition - While there are plenty of great guitars that are made by smaller brands, sometimes it's just easier to buy one you know will be fine. Fender, G and L, Gibson, Martin, Taylor, Ibanez, Yamaha, Washburn, Gretsch, and Danelectro are all proven brands.
Beyond the Basics.
As the student progresses, the type of guitar they are playing will become more important to consider. An adult beginner should purchase their first guitar with an idea of what style they are most interested in playing in mind. If you or your student is most interested in the classical guitar repertoire, then they should definitely have a classical guitar. If you want to learn to play like Jimi Hendrix, you will eventually need an electric guitar. But the younger student may not even have a preferred type of music yet.
A student can lean the basics of forming chords, producing good sounding notes, scale patterns, note reading, hand coordination, and finger strength, on any type of guitar. But once they have mastered the basics, the type of guitar they are playing will determine which advancing techniques they learn. String bends are an important technique for electric guitar. An acoustic guitar has a more percussive quality than an electric. Classical guitar students will spend a lot of their time developing their right hand technique. Having an idea of what you want to learn will help you choose the appropriate instrument.
Should my child be playing a small scale guitar?
If you have to ask, then probably. If the child cannot reach the first fret with the instrument sitting comfortably in their lap, then the instrument is certainly too large for them. If the instrument looks cumbersome, or they cannot comfortably hold it in place in their lap, it is too big. If they cannot extend their right arm past the strings to strum, then the instrument is too big. Sometimes a smaller body style is sufficient, but guitars are also made in 3/4 scales and less commonly in 1/2 sizes.
How Much Money Should We Spend?
Expect to spend at least $100 on a decent beginner guitar. Anything less and you are probably getting a toy, not an instrument. I have seen some exceptions and sometimes you can get a good deal on a used instrument, but as a rule of thumb, $100 minimum. If your student is old enough to trust to not destroy an instrument, I recommend spending as much as you can comfortably put towards it. A $250-500 guitar will hold its value better, be more durable, and not become a limitation to learning. But spending more than $600 on a first guitar is usually a bad idea. By the time a student gets to the place where they can tell the difference between a $600 guitar and a $1200 guitar they will probably have very different tastes from when they first began playing.
What About Used Guitars?
Used guitars are a wonderful way to get more for your money, as long as it is a good quality instrument. Expect to restring a used guitar upon purchase if the seller doesn't do so for you. Having it checked over by a knowledgable friend, local guitar technician, or your instructor will ensure it will be at its most playable.