In this guide, you can expect to see advice to help you with a new (or additional) guitar purchase. The post is positioned towards people who may not have the experience to make an informed decision on what to look for when purchasing a guitar, such as absolute beginner guitarists – and the parents of absolute beginner guitarists – who are looking to buy a new guitar or upgrade their current guitar, but have no idea of what to look for.
As ever, this post contains a culmination of years of personal experience of both playing guitar, and also of observing beginner guitarists with instruments that they both do and don’t struggle to play. My goal? I want to give you the absolute best chance of getting a fantastic return on your investment in an instrument, and therefore yours or your child’s lessons.
The first thing; try some guitars out!
Visiting a guitar shop has to be one of the single most inspiring and exciting things a beginner guitarist can do. I remember the first time I went to a music shop, it was simply amazing! Seeing all the instruments, amplification, effects and accessories was breathtaking. The experience gave way to many inspirational thoughts, ambitions and daydreams. Further to the impression simply being in a music shop gives you, should you decide to make a purchase, you’ll be supporting your local business and building a relationship with experienced staff members within the shop, who will end up being the source of a lot of advice and support (and sometimes even loyalty discounts!) over the years of your playing.
The main reason for visiting a guitar shop, however, is so that you can actually see the different guitars and get a feel of them in terms of playability and build quality. Most stores will allow you to try their guitars out, which will enable you to can get a real understanding of why guitars are priced the way they are. Take it from me, you will – 99% of the time – get what you pay for, and unfortunately buying cheap almost always equates to buying twice.
A note on ‘catalogue’ guitars/buying online.
It is known that shops and online retailers like Argos sell many guitars, and some of them are really cheap. At first glance this can seem is very appealing, especially to an inexperienced individual. The problem with buying online and from the likes of Argos is that you don’t get to experience the guitar first hand before you purchase. By the time you have purchased the guitar and received it, you will have to fulfil a potentially expensive (and non refundable) return should the guitar fall beneath your expectations when you begin to play it. Oftentimes, people just accept these instruments, which is the wrong thing to do as they will often lead to frustration and a deficit in inspiration. As a general rule, you should avoid buying guitars without playing them unless they are manufactured by a reputable brand (I’ll recommend some brands later on). Even then, there is a risk to be taken.
For young beginners, cheap guitars may seem like the best option for parents, especially if you are unsure whether they will stick to guitar playing. However, as a result of my experience I can absolutely guarantee that if the instrument is of a poor quality, and unplayable, it will put you or your young learner off playing that guitar. The greater danger is that there will be an impression then created that makes learning the guitar seem impossible and inaccessible, ultimately damaging an individuals self esteem when they tell others (and themselves!) about ‘their’ failure to learn. The real failure in this scenario would have been the choice of the instrument and having an ignorance or lack of awareness as to what to look for. So, what do you need to look for? Read on…
The absolute essential, you need acceptable action…
To be absolutely clear here, ‘action’ means string height; simply how high the strings are off the fretboard of a guitar. Too high, and the strings will be difficult (sometimes impossible!) to push – and hold – down. Too low, and the strings will ‘buzz’ and could ‘choke’, meaning notes won’t sound anywhere near as clear, pure and inspiring as they should. The ‘Goldilocks’ action to look out for would be somewhere in between the two, if not airing on the low side of the spectrum. Beneath, please find measurements that I deem acceptable for a beginner acoustic and electric guitar.
To take the measurements you’ll need to know some basic guitar anatomy. You’ll need to know how to find the nut, first fret and 12th fret. To help you with this, please see the beneath images; the nut is circled in blue on the Fig. 1. The first fret is the fret immediately after the nut on Fig. two, and the 12th fret is identified with the two white dots on the side of the neck as on Fig. 3.
These measurements should be checked with an accurate ruler, ideally a stainless steel ruler akin to the kind used for DIY purposes. For this method of measuring action, the ruler should be placed on the wood of the neck of the guitar then held against the strings, as pictured beneath.
Beneath are my maximum measurements for string heights that shouldn’t hinder you or your young learner. Ideally for a beginner, the lower the action, the better! (as long as sound quality is not compromised)
Acoustic string heights
At the nut – 2mm (maximum)
At the 12th fret – 3mm (maximum)
At the nut – 2.5mm (maximum)
At the 12th fret – 4mm (maximum)
How much should you look to spend?
In my experience, a majority of guitars beneath £100 should not be considered for purchase. Usually with guitars in this price band, corners are cut in terms of the quality of materials used and the specification to which the instruments are built. Further to this, quality control and final finishing/set up of the instrument tends to be either extremely poor or simply non existent. It is guitars that fall in this bracket that are most likely to have problems with string height/action. There are, however, some exceptions to this, such as this Deluxe Single Cutaway Classical Acoustic Guitar Pack by Gear4music.
Which reputable manufacturers could be considered?
Please find beneath a list of manufacturers and instrument packs that I have had direct experience of during my career. These brands and instruments represent a safe investment in a majority of cases. Feel free to explore the other products of these brands, too!
Gear4music.com are an online retailer and offer a huge array of instruments from beginner to pro level under their own branding. Their beginner packages such as this LA Select Electric Guitar HSS + Amp Pack offer amazing value for money. A number of my students have gear4music beginner guitar outfits, and whilst fit and finish isn’t always amazing, the playability of each instrument I have tried has been extremely good. As I said earlier, ordering online carries a risk factor, however gear4music’s customer support are awesome should you experience an unlikely issue. They also have a generous selection of 3/4 size guitars, too!
Yamaha are one of my favourite guitar, amp and speaker manufacturers. They make an acoustic guitar model known as the Yamaha F310, and is actually on sale on the Gear4music website as part of a brilliant guitar package. Priced at £129 (at the time of writing this post), it represents unbelievable value for an acoustic guitar, that in my opinion ticks all the boxes and cannot be beaten on overall value. Each one of these guitars I have played have been brilliant. Yamaha Pacifica Guitar Packs are brilliant, too!
Squire by Fender
My first guitar package was a Squire by Fender package, almost identical to this Squire Stratocaster Pack. Some of their packages may seem a little expensive at first, but build quality, quality control and the use of reasonably good hardware and electronics within the guitar justify the price.
Ibanez offer instruments ranging from beginner, to pro level, hand crafted collectors instruments. I own two Ibanez guitars and they are very good quality. A few of my students have Ibanez instruments, and again each one features great playability, a good standard of materials used to manufacture the guitar and also very good quality control. Whilst not the cheapest starter package, if you are looking for a full size guitar with great features and accessories, the Ibanez IJRG200E package has to be considered.
Epiphone have been around for over a century, and are now owned by the mighty guitar manufacturer, Gibson. Epiphone were actually once upon a time one of Gibson’s main rivals, until being acquired in 1957 by Gibson. Epiphone now manufacture budget friendly instruments, still with brilliant build quality. Their Epiphone Les Paul Player Pack is worth looking at, especially if you have a sub £200 budget!
Farida is a brand that is sold exclusively at Dawson’s music stores. Their electric and acoustic guitars are generally very good, and play extremely well. Again, a number of my students have these guitars, and each model I have played is as good as the last. The Farida D-8K is a very good guitar, however it doesn’t come with any accessories, so you’ll have to spend some extra money for any other accessories you need.